When I was very small - before school-age, probably - I can vividly remember being bored one day and sitting down to do a drawing with some felt-tip pens. I remember it because I was very proud of what I drew and went to show my Mum, even though neither of us entirely knew what it was that I’d sketched out. It was a human figure with a black helmet, visor pulled down over the eyes, with distinct knee, shoulder and elbow pads and a big triangular golden badge on one side of its chest. It was Judge Dredd, although I couldn’t have named it as such back then, having never seen a copy of 2000 a.d., the comic where his strips were printed. So how did I know what to draw? I have no idea: but this little anecdote illustrates how incredibly pervasive that comic was in the youth culture of 80’s Britain.
I can’t, hand on heart, tell you all that I’m a big 2000 a.d fan. I’ve owned precisely zero issues in my life and I’d have trouble naming many of the strips that have run throughout the years, except for my two favourite. But for those two I’ve gone out of my way to read them in collected comic-book format and could probably go toe-to-toe in trivia with relatively die-hard fans. Those two are, of course, Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. The appeal of Dredd is relatively straightforward: the terrifying plausibility of the model of the future it presents, combined with the complex morality of the hero, anti-hero, noble vigilante and vile executioner Dredd himself. It’s also worth noting that some of the illustrators that have worked on the strip over the years have produced some absolutely top-notch artwork. The attraction of Rogue is harder to quantify: I think it’s partly the terrible injustice of his situation that captured my imagination.
By the time I encountered games as a hobby, Games Workshop already had the licence for the comics and there was a Judge Dredd board game in circulation. In fact it was probably one of the very first non-RPG hobby games that I ever played. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a session but I recall it as a very simple, daft game in which each player represents a judge moving across a stylised map of Mega-City one trying to reach face-up “crime” cards that were paired with face-down “perp” cards that you flipped over and tried to beat in combat to make an arrest, scoring points for the severity of the crime and toughness of the criminal. There were also cards for each judge to use to boost their own chances or hinder those of other players. It probably tells you a lot about the quality of this game that the highlights were almost always the times when you caught Judge Death littering, or got to collar someone for entirely legal act of smoking in the smokatorium. But for all that it was a pointless dice-fest it was at least simple, short and exciting, and it was packed with quality comic art and managed to effectively capture the flavour of its source material. I’m not sure I would play it now, but hey, gamers didn’t really know any better back then.
Five years later, the lone entry was joined by a Rogue Trooper game. By this stage I was a dedicated obsessive and lucky enough to snag a copy of this one for my birthday. I kept hold of it up until relatively recently so my memories of this are rather fresher although it has to be said that I hung on to it for reasons of nostalgia rather than quality. Rogue Trooper was an exploration game across a hex board, with each player trying to complete a series of missions (effectively just reaching certain spaces on the board) to get a draw of clue cards in an attempt to obtain four different clues and piece together the identity of the traitor, whereupon the players would all join in an exciting attempt to be the first to hunt down and kill the treacherous officer, with the original identifying player getting a head start. Each space on the board lead to a number of random encounters to fight, all drawn from the comic. So far, so uninspiring, and indeed it had many of the same high and low points as the Dredd game: chaotic and lacking in strategy but with good production values, comic art and atmosphere. It was more complicated and took rather longer to complete though, even if the end game was a bit more thrilling, so on balance is probably weaker than its predecessor.
However Rogue Trooper deserves to be remembered for its early, and exceptionally novel and thematic attempt at getting round player elimination. If you’re familiar with the comic strip you’ll remember that the extensive training the genetic infantrymen received was deemed so valuable that their personalities were “recorded” onto microchips that could be retrieved in the event of their death and implanted into a new body. So in the game, if a player died, other players could go and collect their chip and plug it into their own equipment, gaining a considerable power boost and forming a team that would then make decisions and win collectively. It’s a clever idea, totally in keeping with the source material and it worked really well: the extra abilities a player gained from having an extra chip were easily enough to entice players to try and collect one and have to put up with a joint win instead of solo glory. So it’s a bit of a shame the rest of the game sucked fairly badly. I’ve often hoped that there might be another game that took this rather cool approach to circumnavigating the player elimination issue but I’m not aware of one that does: perhaps it’s just too well tied-in to the concepts in the comic to be easily recycled elsewhere.
It was five years between Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper but the third and final board game, Block Mania was hot on the heels of the latter. I didn’t pick up a copy at the time but only got to play it a few years ago after being lucky enough to snag a copy for £5 on Ebay. Rather than an exploration game like its predecessors, Block Mania was a light wargame built around a command point, unit activation model. Another differentiation between it and the other two games was that rather than being direct lift from the comic strip, Block Mania was inspired by the wider Dredd universe, representing the conflict between two city blocks that have taken up arms and gone to war. And by far the best thing about it is the extraordinary way in which it brings its world to life with a colourful cast of units, from the psychotic Futsies to trigger happy citizens militia, each with their own special rules and each of which can be armed with a variety of weapons and equipment. It takes some time to digest these but the result in terms of theme at least, is entirely worth it. The second best thing about it is the structural damage mechanic whereby as buildings accumulate hits they become more likely to trigger collapses in nearby squares, which can in turn lead to further catastrophe to the point where it’s possible for one square of damage to lead, through an unlikely series of bad dice rolls, to the demolition of the entire block. This is tremendously entertaining to watch but, sadly, is also symptomatic of the worst thing about the game which is, again, excessive randomness combined with a fairly long play time. It’s also a shame that massive collapses mean the cool end game mechanic, which sees the discard pile being flipped over and determining how quickly Justice Department units turn up to take out the warring Blockers, rarely comes into play since one Block or the other will collapse first. However Block Mania is certainly my favourite of the trilogy, especially when combined with the Mega Mania expansion adding two more players and a ton of theme.
In between the release of these board games though, Games Workshop also used the licence to put out a Judge Dredd role-playing game. Mechanically it was a pedestrian affair, based on the d100 skill-check that was found in most of Chaosium’s games at the time and, ooh, pretty much everywhere else, although was the first place I can remember where I saw wounds come directly off strength, making your character weaker as he or she took damage. However what made the game was a combination of making the most of the setting in which characters came with a ready-made motivation and standard equipment set with some absolutely first-rate scenarios and background material. I don’t play RPG’s any more so I hate to have to admit it, but I think the role-playing game was my favourite and the most successful of all the 2000ad licenced products that GW put out.
There are other 2000ad based games around, of course, some of them currently in-print, but sadly it seems to be one of those all-too common licences for which designers have generally failed to meet the bar of expectation set by the source material. But I’d rate the Games Workshop games as about the most successful attempts so far, and seeing as the popularity of the comic is somewhat on the wane, they may well be the best we ever see. Here’s hoping otherwise. So, until next time, Splundig Vur Thrigg.
This article was written in response to a request from F:AT regular Jeff White. Hope you found it worthwhile, Jeff. If any of you would like to suggest topics for Matt to cover, please send him a PM.