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Cold Space
Reviewed by James L. Cambias, © 2006

Format: Game
By:   Albert Bailey & Clash Bowley
Genre:   Alternate-History Science Fiction
Review Date:   December 31, 2006
RevSF Rating:   4/10 (What Is This?)

Cold Space is an original roleplaying game set in an alternate 20th Century published by Flying Mice Games. In the Cold Space world, Albert Einstein and a team of Swiss researchers developed practical antigravity and faster-than-light travel in the years just after World War II. The Cold War exploded into interstellar space as the Americans, Russians, British Commonwealth, the UN, and all their various third-world proxies and clients scrambled to establish off-world colonies. (This is the central "wave of the magic wand" which establishes the game environment.)

The game mechanics are a blast from the past. Character generation is a Traveller-esque process of chronicling the course of an individual's life history, with skills randomly determined at each stage. It's extremely detailed -- possibly too much so. There are three whole pages of tables devoted to what kind of high school the character attended. The skill system is reminiscent of games like TSR's Gangbusters or the old FASA Star Trek RPG, with percentage-based skills based on attributes. There's lots of calculating required to generate abilities and skill rolls from basic attributes and skill levels. When using skills you can trade risk for payoff -- a penalty on the chance of success gives a more impressive result. Choosing to go with a complex and original game system instead of adapting the setting to an open license was certainly a gutsy decision on the part of the designers.

The section on adventure creation shows a great deal of promise which is horribly underdeveloped. There's a nice focus on non-player characters, including a very good table to determine their motivations. Unfortunately, Cold Space fails at the basic task of any roleplaying game: it doesn't make it clear what the characters are supposed to do. In Dungeons & Dragons, you fight monsters in ten-by-ten rooms; in Vampire: The Masquerade you intrigue against other vampires and whine about what a pain it is to be immortal and superhuman. In Cold Space you . . . do stuff. Cold War stuff. Shoot at Commies, maybe.In space!

Cold Space has an extensive list of equipment for characters to use. Most of it is real-world gear, but there are stats for a variety of spaceships. Ironically, for a book which is based on the 1950s, there's a startling lack of "chrome" in the equipment section. We get lots of bare-bones stats for spacecraft, but only two rate descriptive write-ups. There's also an extensive set of rules for space combat, although in a Cold War environment it's not clear who the characters are going to be shooting at.

About an eighth of the book is dedicated to planet descriptions. Unfortunately, they aren't very substantive. We get some basic physical parameters and a nice computer-generated map, but actual descriptions are limited to a couple of paragraphs from a travel guide -- most of which are on the order of "It sure is cold on this glacier-covered planet!" The planets also suffer from too much mapping of Earth onto other worlds: the East and West Germans "just happen" to have adjacent colonies on Mars; the planet Sigma Draconis IV "just happens" to have Israeli and Arab colonies cheek by jowl.

Long ago, just after the end of the real Cold War, I was briefly involved in a project to develop an alternate history roleplaying game. It never amounted to anything, but I did come away with one useful insight. In a roleplaying game (or a story, for that matter),

an alternate history must allow the characters to have adventures which would be impossible in a purely historical setting. In other words, there's no point in building a whole universe where the Spanish Armada conquered England just so your player-characters can be pirates in the Caribbean.

Cold Space suffers from that problem. As presented, the game doesn't really describe much the characters can do in a star-spanning Cold War that they couldn't do historically. If you're toting an M-16 through the jungle shooting at Soviet-backed insurgents, does it really make much difference that the jungle is on PLANET instead of in Vietnam?

Ironically, this may be caused by the otherwise laudable attempts by the creators to keep their game realistic. With no magic technology other than that required to send people to the stars in 1957, all the interstellar colonies wind up on Earthlike worlds. So there's precious little "local color" to show off to the players.

Particularly glaring is the absence of alien civilizations. Other than one planet populated by pre-sentient ape-men, humans are apparently alone in the universe. So no scrambling to get the Alien MacGuffin of Cosmic Power away from the Commies, no shadowy political maneuvering as the CIA and KGB choose up sides in an alien civilization's internal conflicts. There aren't even any green-skinned space babes in go-go boots. This is a shame, because part of the inherent appeal of Cold Space's premise is the opportunity to contrast the idealistic, optimistic tone of the era's Science Fiction with its gritty realities.

And though the game is hindered by excessive realism, it also fails to deliver the goods as a sourcebook on the Cold War era, either on Earth or in space. There's hardly any information about American society in the Fifties and Sixties, nor is there much on Communist nations. Given that anyone under 21 is unlikely to actually remember anything about the Cold War personally, this is a serious lack. Sure, you can look that stuff up, but if you have to fill in all the details, why buy the game at all? Much of the "flavor text" takes the form of newspaper articles (which don't read like period newspaper writing) and alternate historical pop song lyrics.

The game has its good points. The presentation is very good. The text is clean, the illustrations are a mix of good-quality original artwork and some Photoshopped stock photos, and there are nice-looking computer-generated maps of all the colony worlds. The production values are high. Most importantly, the central idea of Cold Space is a very interesting and powerful one. But somehow it winds up being less than the sum of its parts.


James L. Cambias rather enjoyed the Cold War: the threat of nuclear annihilation was a sure-fire excuse for not doing homework, there was a steady stream of bulked-up action-movie heroes killing Commies on the big screen, and Olympic hockey games took on geopolitical importance. Now he lives in western Massachusetts and eats pies. Occasionally he writes science fiction stories and roleplaying games.

 
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