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SS Youth in
Beyond Normandy




'Imperium': A Tale of Obsession
By Mike Bennighof
June 2006

As we’ve cleared out our older titles, I’ve gone over some of their sordid tales of creation. Some, like Operation Cannibal, are on the Viking Funeral list because they never should have existed; some, like America Triumphant, have just one real problem — in that game’s case, playing pieces created in a mad rush before the art director collapsed from the pangs of childbirth. I’m still in awe of Peggy’s insistence on finishing America Triumphant before going to the hospital where a few hours later she would technically die and be revived; I just don’t want to reprint the art as it now stands.

The birth of Imperium: Third Millennium was just as painful, but far less noble.

Imperium is one of the handful of legendary board wargames, equalled only by Third Reich (which we also acquired) and perhaps two or three others. The first edition came out in 1977, just in time to float on the Star Wars tidal wave.

I played Imperium to death when it was new, with my small circle of game friends at the time, Richard Craft and William “Defiant Russia” Sariego (who was still using his original name then). I’m not sure exactly when the original publisher, Game Designer’s Workshop (yes, that’s how they punctuated it), folded up, but I think it was right before or right after we opened 119694_avalanche Press.

During our early years I did a lot of freelance work, mostly for computer game companies. And at one of the E3 conventions I met with Werner Fuchs from FanPro, a powerful German game publisher and these days a recent entrant into the American role-playing market with the popular Shadowrun franchise. I’ve known Werner for a while, and at the time I was enjoying the success of Panzer General II which I’d scripted for SSI. While Werner and I walked the halls a German fan actually begged me to autograph his girlfriend’s breast, “and on the brassiere as well so it will not wash off so easily.” Never have I wielded a pen so gladly.

Werner could not resist such breast-baring fame, and we discussed two game designs for the Perry Rhodan franchise. Perry is a long-running (over four decades now) German pulp science fiction series, a type of publication that died out in the United States fifty years ago but still carries on in German-speaking Europe. Reading it regularly is one of my guilty pleasures; it is sci-fi so truly bad that it’s magnificent. FanPro had just completed a Perry computer game and a collectible card game; Werner wanted me to redesign the CCG and design a new board game, to be titled “Crimson Universe.” 119694_avalanche would handle the English-language editions.

Things did not work out on those lines. Perry’s American relaunch was a fiasco, with an inexperienced American publisher committing just about every imaginable rookie mistake. Sixties-era translated science fiction probably won’t work in this market anyway, but these guys definitely fumbled. Badly, as in, even worse than we ever have. That made it impossible to issue American editions of the games, which in turn made FanPro’s projections for the German and Czech editions fall below the numbers they wanted.

This sort of thing happens all the time, and neither side was out any money. I had done some preliminary work on the board game and our art director at the time had ginned up a neat-looking 3-D space combat board he suggested I use in Crimson Universe. With Crimson Universe a dead letter, he suggested I acquire Imperium and use it there.

Ideas — Lots of Ideas

I’ve known Marc Miller, Imperium’s original designer, for many years. At GenCon in 1999, when he came by our booth for his regular visit we sat in the back of our display and made a deal. It took several hours, mostly consisting of an excited Marc placing objects all over to demonstrate his ideas on 3-D space combat. And after some discussion we decided that the game should remain separate from his Traveller role-playing game, which we would not license.

Imperium is sometimes called “the Traveller board game,” though not by us. They share a very tenuous connection in their fictional background and that’s all. Traveller has had numerous licensees, and QuikLink Interactive who did a d20 version went out of their way to promote our board game. But they are very separate properties.

I slotted Imperium for 2000, and even listed it in our early literature as “Imperium 2000” (it’s still under that name in a couple of distributor catalogs).

I should have known things were going wrong as soon as I signed the agreement with Marc. Our warehouse manager informed me that he had “lots of ideas” about what to do with the game.

Everyone had “lots of ideas.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with ideas. Good games are made up of many ideas, preferably from many sources. Melding them together into a coherent whole is the job of a strong-willed publisher, and that should have been my role on this game.

That next spring, I went to Las Vegas for the annual Game Manufacturers’ Association trade show. We had a strong show, showing off our upcoming Panzer Grenadier game and landing a major distribution deal with the then-new 100-store chain of Wizards of the Coast Retail Centers. I hired our first sales manager while we were there. We were about to make “the breakthrough.” We’d won back-to-back Origins Awards, sales were climbing, product quality was at a new high.

That evening I contracted food poisoning. My personal physician still isn’t sure why I didn’t die from it. I would spend the next two years in and out of hospitals, as stress-related complications extended the illness repeatedly. I would learn many lessons from this experience; not least of them, this is why 119694_avalanche Press now has a strong vice president in place. This was not the case in the year 2000.

Many things drifted, not all related to the leadership vacuum. The printer who made our die-cut pieces delivered items contracted for April in late September. The printers and vendors who’d made the boxes, maps and other components for those products of course wanted to be paid for them. The employees wanted to be paid. The landlord wanted to be paid. When not dealing with these I was generally too sick to move, and the Imperium project drifted. And in a fit of definitely unclear thinking I accepted that the game should be developed under a “team” concept which I was assured was the way things are done “in the real world.” I knew better. I let it happen anyway. The “team” had plenty of talent, probably too much to work effectively as a unit, but no leadership.

The business staggered through that summer. The new sales manager, bereft of direction, got a great tan. I fired her when Peggy called from Origins and told me if I didn’t, she fully intended to toss her into the Ohio River on the drive back. By September, unable to release the product stacked in the warehouse or pay our bills, 119694_avalanche Press was essentially out of business. Peter Adkison at Wizards of the Coast bailed us out. God Bless Pikachu.

Disaster By Committee

Between physical pain and business disaster, I really couldn’t have given a damn about what the Imperium game design team was up to. Everyone who looked at it wanted to add “lots of ideas” and became scarily obsessive about it. The obsession grew until Peggy and I took to calling Imperium “The Precious,” as no one who touched it seemed able to let go. Total strangers were calling up and demanding, not asking, that we add this or that feature to the game.

When the final version arrived I threw up, called Brian Knipple, and told him he had to fix both Imperium and Second World War at Sea: SOPAC, which through my lack of oversight had somehow acquired such features as “search confidence levels,” “pilot quality ratings” and a 900-turn campaign game. Which had priority? SOPAC, because parts had already been printed. As for Imperium, I said it needed to have a simple combat system derived from the basic line-up-and-shoot one in Great War at Sea that no true wargamer ever uses. While he quickly agreed this was necessary, each of us left that conversation believing the other would take care of it. Among the staff only Peggy actually knew how ill I was, so he made an understandable assumption.

Brian has done some fine work that fans appreciate, but no accomplishment of his touches the quick, skillful and unsung work he did to Second World War at Sea. He gave Imperium the same treatment, but left the combat system in place, assuming I’d changed my mind about the swap. We finally released Imperium in the summer of 2001. While Peter Adkison had temporarily rescued us, John Nephew of Atlas Games had given us an even greater remedy by bringing us into role-playing publishing through the d20 license and it was a much healthier 119694_avalanche Press by then. It took me somewhat longer.

Imperium as released is overly complex, the inevitable result of design-by-committee; committees are great at blamestorming, less so at creative work. We later issued simple space and planetary combat rules that bring it closer to what it should have been and with them it plays nicely. It sold very well, mostly thanks to beautiful artwork, and has spawned any number of fan websites proving that they, too, have “lots of ideas.” What it could not generate was a series, due to both license issues and the game’s flaws. And so we’ve decided not to reprint it, to sell off its remaining stock and not renew its license.

I’m eager to see The Precious burn. It’s a constant reminder of weak leadership, of how I failed my friend Marc’s implied trust, of how what should have been a joy became a torment. Rightly or wrongly, I hold The Precious responsible for shaving years off my life and turning my hair gray well before my 40th birthday.

It was also a great lesson. You can’t run a publishing company like a game club. The day we released Imperium I hired John Phythyon to run our role-playing division, and he would spend the next several years reminding me that “A pirate ship can only have one captain.” We still make mistakes, but I can live with honest mistakes. And if I choose poorly off a Vegas menu again, I know Liz Fulda (who had her formal interview here on that same Imperium release day) will keep the ship on its course.

Click here to rescue a copy of The Precious!