A Tale of Obsession
By Mike Bennighof
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
here to rescue a copy of The Precious!