Case Study – The Demise of Alien Dungeon (and All Quiet on the Martian Front)

All Quiet
Three Legged Stompy Fun

Back in May of 2013 Alien Dungeon launched a Kickstarter to fund a new miniatures game, All Quiet on the Martian Front – aka AQotMF.  This was a miniatures game of the Martian invasion of the world, ala H. G. Wells, with a hint of steampunk.  Taking place prior to WWI in the mundane world, the Kickstarter was a big success, receiving over $300,000.00 of the $50k target goal. The rules for the game were written by Rick Priestley, a seasoned game writer.  There was a lot of promise here.  Prototypes of the miniatures appeared in the Kickstarter leading us to all believe that the company had laid out all of the groundwork to be successful.

My Martians

They delivered product too, albeit many months late.  Some of the products, like some the big land battleships were not delivered, and other product was cancelled outright – with offers of gift certificates for replacement products.  These were issued two months prior to the company’s ultimate demise.

And now, Alien Dungeon is off-line, apparently out of business.

So what happened?

In reality, I don’t know.  I can surmise what happened though, based on my decades of experience in the gaming industry.  The company has become a case study in how business models can fail.  First and foremost the game itself was relatively good.  There was strong evidence that it had not been fully thought through however.  Some of the game mechanics didn’t work well.  New units were introduced but not included in the initial game rules, indicating that they had not considered the future growth of the product.  There were a lot of pages of addendum on the company’s now defunct web site just to try and prop up the product line.

There was a lack of organized play.  I know a few companies out there that survive without organized play, but it helps sustain a product.  At GenCon there were a few games of AQotMF, but darned few.  I couldn’t find any games at local hobby shops.  This was usually a sign that the game was not being supported well in the hobby shops – which was the case.  Even their presence at GenCon was sketchy at best.

The company struggled with the production of the miniatures, which led to months of delay in getting the product out.  Even when we did get them, they had flaws that should have been caught in the production process.  Assembling the minis often required finding a PDF of the vague instructions online and even then they didn’t got together well.

There were hints early on of problems as well.  We were promised a PDF of the rules, along with the hardcover rules sets.  Getting these out is useful because it allows gaming groups to pull in new players.  Ernie told me, “You have no idea how hard it is to create a PDF.”  Seriously.  It’s actually pretty simple. I started to get the impression that this was a one-man operation.  Two and a half years later and we still don’t have the PDF of the rules – and likely never will.

There was no advertising for the game that I ever saw either.  Advertising gets your product out there for new gamers.  Word of mouth alone rarely works.  Alien Dungeon didn’t seem interested in promoting its game line strongly.

I spoke with the owner of the company, Ernie, at GenCon.  His frustrations, as expressed to me, were with the ungrateful gamers.  When I pointed out how late the product was, and some of the flaws, he reacted with, “I communicate more than most companies do.”  So we, as the gamers, were the problem?  I came away thinking, “It’s just a matter of time.”  Ernie seemed downright agitated when I spoke with him. Shouldn’t he be interested in what someone with decades in the business has to say?  I’ve been involved with eight different gaming systems, from GDW to FASA etc.  I know a little bit about the industry.  I tried to explain to him some of the work that needed to be done to the rules, tweaks really, and got, “The rules stand as is.”  The face of the company was an angry man, never a good sign.

Ernie assured me that he had experience in the toy business, which was what he was concentrating on, i.e. the miniature kits.  At the time that didn’t resonate with me, but now it does.  The toy business isn’t the game industry.

When some of the big miniatures were released, Alien Dungeon admitted they had dramatically underestimated the cost of them.  This is Business 101 stuff, and they failed at it.  Combined with the delays on the other miniatures and you got the sense that this was a small operation with little experience in gaming.

When Alien Dungeon started handing out gift certificates for late products, it was a sign that the products were never coming.  The company kicked off another new Kickstarter for a fantasy game which failed horribly.  A few weeks later, they closed their doors.

I’ve come to see Kickstarters as great ways to get gamers into a new game system, but they can’t be your sole means of funding a game system or building your player-base.  You have to be prepared to produce the game with your own funding.  The Kickstarter should be the means of getting your game into player’s hands to generate some good buzz.  The age of relying on Kickstarter alone to fund your company start-up for gaming is fading and fading fast.

Kickstarters are great for getting a core group of people into your game but you have to view it as a starting point.  It’s not enough to run demo games at conventions to spur interest.  You need a mix of game related fiction, sourcebooks, miniatures, and support it with in-store gaming.  In other words, you have to have a pipeline of products.  Alien Dungeon got caught in a vicious cycle of trying to get their products out that were promised in the Kickstarter.  They had an erratic growth pattern.

The sad part of this is that AQotMF is actually a pretty good game system at its core. It needs some work with the rules, but it has great potential.  Now, however, the remaining fan base has been left with no communication, no product info, no pipeline, and no hope.  Hopefully someone will pick this product line up and dust it off, but it may already be too late as fans are beginning to shed their inventory.  What is interesting is that a number of individuals have begun to reproduce knock-off products on Shapeways.com (a 3D printing website), allowing players to continue to expand their armies, albeit at a cost.

When players start a new game system, they are investing.  You have to treat them like investors.  You have to establish a solid product line, a pipeline of exciting stuff, and encourage them to play the game (and in turn, suck in new players in the process.)

Who knows, maybe Alien Dungeon will reopen its doors.  Anything is possible…but in reality, they have already done a lot of damage to the IP and to the fan base.

Review – Breakout: The Roswell Legacy

Roswell
The short version, a good solid read.

I tend to favor military sci-fi and alternate history, but I know Gary (loosely).  We both write for the Culpeper Times newspaper.  He didn’t ask me to do a review, so this is as unbiased as it can get.  This is a spoiler-free review.

Gary Close’s first book is a fairly captivating Sci-Fi book.  I liked it because all of the places are real, as are a lot of local names.  To me that adds a feeling of tangibility to a book…the sense that this could be real.  It helps lower you defenses.

This story has an ensemble cast, giving us a lot of different perspectives.  Chinese agents, DEA operatives, local police and prosecutors and a long-running NSA project tied to the Roswell alien incident.  This book has a LOT going on.  Close manages to execute his work flawlessly, giving the reader a lot to digest.

In many respects, I felt as if I was reading two books.  One, the longer of the two, laying the foundation of the story.  Once we get a feel for what is going on with the aliens (or so we think), it is almost a separate book with part of the cast of characters on Mars.  There’s some parts here that seem to lean on an element of The Martian, but I sense that this is unintentional.  The pacing at the beginning felt drawn out to me, where it wasn’t necessary.  That’s me looking at this as an author with a semi-critical eye.  The tradeoff for pacing is strong distinct characters, which the author gives us in spades.

What I really enjoyed was the opening of each chapter where Close gives you some of the historical context of the aliens and the NSA program to keep the entire affair secret.

Part spy book, part thriller, all sci-fi, Breakout: The Roswell Legacy is worth picking up.  I give it a strong four out of five stars.  Add it to your list and let’s hope that Gary is going to give us a follow-up book.

The 50th Anniversary of the Batman TV Series

batman
No matter how cool you are, you are never 1966 Batman cool…

As hard as it is to believe, this week (January 12) marks the 50th anniversary of the Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.   Five decades…that can’t be right?  Crap – I’m getting old.  Batman…this is a series that is worthy of a few minutes of nostalgia.

Batman was one of those series that you remembered distinctly after you saw it.  Yes, the acting was over-the-top.  It was campy beyond description…right down to Cesar Romero’s makeup-covered mustache.  The villains were always filmed at bizarre angles.  The show aired twice a week, with a cliffhanger that commanded that we all tune in, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel, to see the conclusion.  There were signs on every piece of equipment, as if the dynamic duo couldn’t remember what the Bat Computer was.  The show had stunning colors, a highly-repetitive theme song that we all knew the words to (Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na…Batman!)

Batman and Robin climbing up the side of buildings as guest stars popped out of windows…that was classic.  It was one part Laugh-In, one part awesome sauce.

And the fights…they were awesome.  It was like watching a comic book on TV…Bam!  Biff! Pow!  Battles were choreographed with all grace of a 3rd grade dance recital.  As a four year old kid, I have to tell you, I thrilled with every flying kick or “Socko!” punch.

Let’s not forget the Batmobile.  Few cars earn the title of “sexy” but the Batmobile was one of those.  “Atomic Batteries to Power – Turbines to Speed!”   It was as much of a character as Bruce Wayne or the Boy Wonder.  That car had lines, and gadgets.  Remember the red Batphone in the car.  We all saw that as a far flung future.  Now we all carry a computer/portable TV station in our pockets and think nothing of it.  In 1966, we looked at that one gizmo as pure science fiction.  Forget Marty’s Delorean, the Batmobile was much cooler and more futuristic.

Batmobile
I would have killed for the Corgi car of the Batmobile as a kid

The later seasons gave us something else – Batgirl.  Her theme song sucked, but let’s face it, she was hotter than hot.  Batgirl did something that was rare on TV.  She conveyed sexy without showing us any skin.

batgirl
This is the definition of hot

And as goofy as the series was, it had an all-star line up of guest villains every week.  Yes, they all had silly monikers and costumes, but to us, that didn’t matter.  A lot of big name stars wanted to be on the show so their children/grandchildren could see them.

For many of us, aside from the 12-cent comic books, this was our first real taste of Batman as a character.  I daresay that if it hadn’t been for this series we never would have had Batman as the film franchises we know today.  Adam and Burt set the bar.  Even the mighty George Clooney in his campy best could not hold the cowl to West’s Batman doing the Batusi dance.

So, if you are old enough to remember when the show was on the air, take a moment and allow yourself to envision Gotham City as it was in 1966.  Picture Commissioner Gordon picking up that glass dome over the Batphone and placing that call to stately Wayne Manor.  Let your memories of the Shakespeare bust being tipped back to activate the hidden door revealing the Batpoles to the Batcave.   Remember that roar of the Batmobile you heard in your youth.  Allow yourself a chance to smile and embrace those memories – be they black and white or in color.  For a half-an-hour, twice a week, we all wanted to be superheroes.  We tied towels around our necks for capes, and we made the “Boffo!” fighting noises when we played with others.

If that wasn’t quality entertainment…nothing was.

 

 

Painting Some BattleTech Miniatures

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Shiny!
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I used a white pencil for the chipped paint on the sharp edges.  

 

It may shock some of you that I actually am an avid gamer.  While I write for BattleTech and other game universes, I also play them.  That doesn’t mean I let gameplay drive fiction – there’s a difference between what you can do in fiction and what you can do in the game.  Still, I like to have a strong feel for the game mechanics.  I was that way with BattleTech, Renegade Legion, Twilight 2000, Space 1889, and the other game universes that I have written for.

At GenCon this year I picked up an airbrush.  Badger did a great job of offering free training at the con if you purchased a brush.  I also picked up some great stencils for me to work with.  This is a pack (plus one) of miniatures for BattleTech Alpha Strike.  I was experimenting with the stencils and was quite pleased with how they turned out.

I don’t claim to be a wizard at miniatures painting and with an airbrush, I’m a bungling novice at best.  Still, I have to admit, I like how these turned out and I’m starting to get the feel for using the airbrush and the stencils.

I like the hex pattern because it gives a good blurring of lines and details at a distance, even with the white.  Great stuff in term of camouflage.

Now to start on the recently unearthed CityTech minis that I never even popped off their spurs.  Hmm…Mad Cats…

My Non-Spoiler Review of Star Wars The Force Awakens

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens
Sweet…it didn’t suck!

I refuse to ruin this movie for the eight people that won’t see it this weekend.  Having said that I took a small group to the film, including my daughter (who I had taken the original and prequel movies) and my grandson.  Yes, Star Wars has become generational.

I am a geek, by nature and birth.  I was interviewed by the Battle Creek Enquirer and News when I was one of the first dozen people standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back.  I kept the clipping because back in those days, standing in line for movies was not only novel, it was a requirement.  While I am a geek, I still didn’t rush out for the late night showing of The Force Awakens on Thursday – but waited until Friday.

The short version of my review:  It’s a good solid film…worthy of the name Star Wars.

To be blunt, nothing was going to replicate the release of the original Star Wars.  The reason for that is simple, it revolutionized special effects for science fiction films.  There had not been anything like it.  The experience, at the time, was one of awe.  It’s impossible to duplicate that immersion with a new film like we had in 1977.  It was revolutionary and we all knew that The Force Awakens wasn’t going to be that.

That leaves us with characters and story.

My expectation was that the new Star Wars film had to:

  • Be better than Phantom Menace (which really wasn’t going to take that much.)
  • Give us a story that was engaging.
  • Give us a glimpse of the classic characters again, as they should be. Han had to be a  bit of scoundrel.  Luke needed to no longer be the farm boy in search of who he was.  I wanted to see these characters in the right context.
  • Not give us characters like Jar Jar Binks, aimed at marketing crap to kids (I feared the dark side of the Disney Empire’s influence.)
  • Provide this in the Star Wars universe we all knew.  I didn’t want to see a recast like Star Trek where things looked different.  Star Wars has a feel to it and I think we needed to see that in the new film.
  • Lay out new characters that we could have some identification with.

The new film did this.  My expectations were met – which alone would have warranted a three-star rating.  I found some wonderful Easter eggs in there for the geeks in the crowd, which were not only expected but appreciated.  The writing was solid – great dialogue.

My only disappointments, albeit minor, was that the plot felt too familiar. I won’t ruin it for you, but we’ve been there before.  The other thing I wish we had gotten was more of the background of the character Po.  We got to know the other characters fairly well.  I’m pleased to say none of them attended the Hayden Christensen School of Dramatic Improvisation.

There are some scenes that make you cringe as a fan.  There are some that can make your eyes water.  The special effects were fantastic but didn’t dominate the film.  More importantly, we now have a path forward for more Star Wars films.

I give it five out of five stars because, for two-plus hours, I was a kid again. I was with old and familiar friends and thrilled once more at their adventures.  Moreover, my grandson sat in awe, his mouth hanging open as we met new characters are shared in the cultural adventure together.  There were times he was scared, there were times he tugged on my sleeve to make sure I saw what was on the screen.  We enjoyed this together, as it was meant to be.  I give it five stars alone for the hint of magical glow that he had and how my daughter said she cried at the right scene.  Star Wars remains the great equalizer, turning us all into wide-eyed children in search of adventure and that thought that we too might be the heroes of our imagination.

Now, I must await the next films…

#TheForceAwakens

The Leadership Lessons of Star Trek

Trek Leadership
LEAD!!!!

I learned a lot about leadership from Star Trek.  Stop laughing, I’m serious.  We are all influenced by our cultural tastes and Star Trek was a big one for me.   I’m not embarrassed about liking Star Trek, but at the same time you won’t find me at Star Trek conventions wearing a homemade uniform either.  That doesn’t mean I don’t own a uniform…but that’s a different issue.

Setting aside the JJ Abrams rebooted movies and even The Next Generation; the best of the Star Trek movies is Star Trek II, the Wrath of Kahn.  You can debate me, but you’d be wrong.  One of the subtle themes in the movie is the concept of the no-win scenario.  It is a test for all starship captains (leaders) where there is no way to win.   A ship contacts you in distress.  If you go to rescue it, you have to violate  treaty.  If you ignore it, the crew dies.  If you do go after it, the Klingons attack and destroy your ship.  The movie opens with this test and the young trainee crew is all “killed” undergoing the test in a simulator.

Admiral Kirk explains that it is a test of character.  It is not a test that is meant to be beat, it is a measure of how a leader deals with a situation where there is no positive outcome.  “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”

The no-win scenario has strong ties to managing in an IT department. Often times we are forced to choose the lesser of two evils.  Sometimes the solutions we pick are not a winning scenario, but one that simply works.

The lesson of the no-win scenario is to think, be creative, and turn a bad situation into a good one.  When confronted with what he did on the no-win scenario, Dr. McCoy piped in.

“Lieutenant, you are looking at the only StarFleet cadet to beat the no-win scenario.”

“How?”

Kirk: “I reprogrammed the simulation so that it was possible to rescue the ship.”

“What?”

“He cheated.”

Kirk:  “I changed the conditions of the test.  I got an accommodation for original thinking.  I don’t like to lose.”

“Then you’ve never faced that situation, faced death.”

Kirk:  “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

Well, there you have it, from the words of a model in leadership.  James T. Kirk’s suggestion is simple, don’t believe in the no-win situation.  Find a way, even if you have to cheat, to make it a success.  Don’t accept that something is impossible.  You may have to bend a few rules along the way, but in the end what matters is the success.  No-win is not a situation that is acceptable.

There are a handful of other old-school Star Trek leadership lessons worth pondering, just in case you’re wondering…

The Prime Directive calls for non-interference.  From an IT Department perspective, it seems that the same should apply to end-user community.    We should all seek to be as much non-interfering as possible with our users.

Ultimately it is your friendships and relationships that resolve problems.    Everything is fixed if you know the right people.  You can have all of the processes and procedures in the universe, in the end it is people that get things done.

Always start out with your phaser set to stun.

Some missions are dangerous.  Make sure you don’t wear a red-shirt on those missions (don’t draw attention to yourself).  As a side note:  73% of the crew fatalities in the original Star Trek were extras that wore red shirts.   59% of these deaths were due to transporter (technology) failures…go figure.

When all logic fails, trust a hunch.

“Remember…”  Don’t forget your corporate culture or history.

Always have Scotty (a great tech) nearby if something is broken.

Engineers always lie about how long it will take to do something so they can appear to be “miracle workers.”

Remember the Klingon saying:  “Only a fool fights in a burning house.”  When you are in the middle of a “crisis” personal arguments will usually not solve the problem at hand.

A good friend will tell you when you’re behaving badly.   We all occasionally need someone to tell us we are not being good corporate citizens.  Kirk, Spock and McCoy were an excellent support team.  They shared frank comments with each other and kept each other in check.  We all need that kind of peer support.

Don’t put all of your ranking officers in one shuttlecraft.

Feeding the Tribbles doesn’t solve anything…it only makes more Tribbles.  (If you bring in bagels, you only get more people who want bagels)

Vulcans don’t lie – but they can exaggerate…so can co-workers!

Technology will fail when you need it the most — but almost always factors into being part of the solution.

“The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”  As I have deployed technology solutions over the years, this little gem has gotten me out of a lot of potentially bad situations. You can expend a lot of efforts responding to “the one,” and sometimes lose sight of “the many.”

Don’t compromise your ideals.  We see this constantly in Star Trek.  Don’t give up on the values you hold dear.

Humans are illogical.  Don’t try and change or fight that.  Embrace their illogic.

Sometimes diplomacy involves a good fight.  Constructive conflict is how organizations grow and succeed.

“Insufficient data does not compute!”  Sometimes you need more information in order to proceed.  Captain Kirk didn’t kick back and wait for perfect information, he got just what he needed and took action.

If you’re going to go; boldly go…where no one has gone before…

Enemies are often invisible.    Often the things that cause technology problems are under the radar.

“I  canna change the laws of physics Captain!”  Best read with a Scottish accent.  No matter what, you can’t ask for the impossible.

There are times the Captain needs to beam down, and there are times he/she needs to let his/her people go down without him/her.

“You’re pushing Jim.  Your people know their jobs.”  There’s a good leadership lesson right there about micro-management.  Let your people do what they do best.

Anything can be fixed if you can travel through time.

The Vulcans have it right – “live long and prosper.”

Sometimes a Captain has to put himself/herself at risk for the sake of the crew.

Scotty’s great line from Star Trek III applies to any project:  “The more you over-think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.”  Simple counts!

“Come, come, Mr. Scott. Young minds, fresh ideas. Be tolerant.”

Always explain complicated technological issues with a plain-English analogy so that people can understand what you’re talking about.

My BattleTech Stuff

Okay, here we go.  My wife thought it would be good to put the books and articles I’ve written on display, a shrine to my ego of sorts, so here it is.  When I saw that Hairbrained was looking for BattleTech collections to help hype their awesome Kickstarter, I thought I’d offer up mine. The really good stuff is at the bottom of this post.

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The BattleTech works I wrote/contributed to include:

Novels:

Highlander Gambit, Penguin Books, ROC, 1995 (ISBN 0451-45489-8)

Contributed to Star Lord, Penguin Books, ROC 1995 (ISBN 0-451-45386-7)

Impetus of War, Penguin Books, ROC 1996 (ISBN 0-451-4529-0)

Exodus Road, Penguin Books, ROC 1997 (ISBN 0-451-45634-3)

Roar of Honor, Penguin Books, ROC, 1999 (ISBN 0-451-45761-7)

Co-authored By Blood Betrayed, Penguin Books, ROC, 1999 (ISBN 0-451-45769-2)

Measure of a Hero, Penguin Books, ROC, 2000 (ISBN 0-451-45798-6)

The Call of Duty, Penguin Books, ROC 2001 (ISBN 0-451-45856-7)

Operation Audacity, Penguin Books, ROC, 2002 (ISBN 0-451-45885-0)

Target of Opportunity, Penguin Books, ROC, 2005

Surrender Your Dreams (MechWarrior) December 2006

Fire at Will (MechWarrior) September 2007

Sourcebooks:

The BattleTech Technical Readout 3025., FASA Corporation 1986.

Cranston Snord’s Irregulars., FASA Corporation 1986

Sorenson’s Sabers., FASA Corporation 1987.

Wolf Clan Sourcebook, FASA Corporation, 1991

Solaris – The Reaches, FASA Corporation, 1991

Clantroops, FASA Corporation, 1991

Mercenary’s Handbook 3055, FASA Corporation, 1993

Fourth Succession War Military Atlas Volume 2, FASA Corporation, 1989

Bloodright, FASA Corporation 1992

MechWarrior RPG, Version 2, FASA Corporation, 1991

Rhonda’s Irregulars, FASA Corporation, 1991

BattleTech Compendium, FASA Corporation, 1991

Unbound, FASA Corporation, 1991

Fourth Succession War Scenario Pack, FASA Corporation, 1989

BattleTech Technical Readout 3055, FASA Corporation, 1992

BattleTech Technical Readout 2750, FASA Corporation, 1989

BattleTech Technical Readout 3058, FASA Corporation, 1995

ComStar Sourcebook, FASA Corporation 1992

BattleTech Rules of Warfare, FASA Corporation, 1994

Living Legends, FASA Corporation, 1996

MechWarrior Companion, FASA Corporation 1996

Computer Books:
BattleTech The Official Strategy Guide, Brady Games, 1994 (ISBN 1-56686-208-6)
MechWarrior 2 CD ROM Strategy Guide, Brady Books, 1995 (ISBN 1-56686-191-8)
On-Line Publications:

The Longest Road (BattleCorps) December 2004Great Gaffa’s Ghost (BattleCorps) September 2005

Betrayal of Ideals (on-line novel) (BattleCorps) Parts 1-4 October 2006-January 2007

The Heart of Dixie (BattleCorps) 2005

Old Pus Eye (BattleCorps) August 2008

Desertion (BattleCorps) 2008

Abandonment (BattleCorps) 2008

Son of Blake (BattleCorps) 2009

The Loyal Son (BattleCorps) 2010

Desperate Measures (BattleCorps) 2011

Defiant Stand (BattleCrops) 2012

Articles:

Infantry Against BattleMechs, ”Stardate, Vol. 3 No. 4, Sept. 1987.  Pages 256 and 259

New Avalon Institute of Science, Training Manual Part 1.,Stardate Vol. 3 No. 4, Sept. 1987.  Pages 277-282.

Protomatter.  ”Stardate Vol. 3 No. 4, Sept. 1987.  Pages 284-285.

New Avalon Institute of Science, Training Manual Part 2.,” Stardate Vol. 3 No. 5, Oct. 1987. Pages 320-325

New Avalon Institute of Science, Training Manual Part 3.,” Stardate Vol. 3 No. 6, Nov/Dec. 1987. Pages 439-444

Mech, Lone Shark Saga Part III, Volume II, Issue V, Pages 4-8

Mech, Lone Shark Saga Part II, Volume I Issue IV, 1991, Pages 2-3

Mech, Long Shark Saga Part I, Volume I, Issue III, 1991, Pages 2-4

Mech, Lone Shark Saga Part IV, Volume II, Issue VI 1992 Pages 2-9

Mech, Lone Shark Saga Conclusion, Volume II, Issue VII 1992 Pages 4-7

Not to mention credit in a number of other sourcebooks and material.

One of my favorite items – my original sourcebook material from the write-ups of the early BattleTech universe:

I keep this in a binder.  Just to whet your appetites – here’s some sample shots.  Photocopies of the original artwork from the 3025 Tech Readout with THE ORIGINAL DESIGN SPECS done in hand at FASA (and few by yours truly).

IMG_0828Check out the red ink hand drawn borders of the Inner Sphere.  It doesn’t get any more old school than that!
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Look at the back of the map!

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Original Catapult Designs.  Oops!  65.1 tons!?

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The Maps of the Inner Sphere.  Photocopied on the back of Traveller Deck Plans by Jordan – showing the original hand map of the Inner Sphere.  Things were on a shoestring back in those days.  No – I have not gone through this to see if I can find The Hidden Worlds – but they may very well be on there!

Printouts of original material (dot matrix) for Tech readouts and Snord’s Irregulars.  Also in included a shot of the original regimental lists!  This book is a treasure trove of original BattleTech documents and designs.  It’s always a treat to go through it.


IMG_0844I have a lot more – but I thought this would be a good start and a bit of history.

#myBTstuff  #BATTLETECH

Working on a BattleTech Novel Concept

Fidelis = Smoke Jaguars.  It really is that simple
Fidelis = Smoke Jaguars. It really is that simple

There is a lot I wish I could tell you fans about, but I am bound by legal agreement to not discuss the details.  Suffice it to say that I have wanted to write BattleTech novels for a long time but there have been some legal issues that had to get resolved.

To be clear, my problem was NOT with Catalyst Game Labs.  In fact I consider Randal and Loren to be friends and colleagues.  The issues related to me writing new books were beyond them.  They were complicated problems and required a lot of finesse to eventually resolve.

These long-standing issues made Gen Con visits in the past awkward.  I wanted to be a big BattleTech supporter, but these “issues” were dampening my ability to enjoy the universe I had a minor role in creating.  I am simply glad I got to play a role in fixing those issues.

What matters now is the road is paved for new novels and I got to pitch not one, but three at Gen Con.

Back in the 1990’s, I used to go to Gen Con to pitch novel ideas in a session I used to call, “Grovel for a Novel.”  I would come to Sam Lewis with ideas, he would shoot them down.  One year (1994 or ’95) I came with three ideas.  One I really wanted to do, and two more that were little more than a few sentences of a fragment of an idea.  The goal was to guide him to the long, well-thought out idea by having two crappy ones.

Sam chose one of the little throwaway ideas – and that became my first novel, Highlander Gambit.

So much for my masterful manipulation skills.  Still, I was a winner because I got to write a novel for my beloved BattleTech.  Not only that – I got to write about the Northwind Highlanders.

When the Dark Ages novels started, I called WizKids and spoke with the editor at the time.  “Look, we don’t want to tap the legacy authors.  We’re going to bring in “professionals” – big names in sci fi and take this in a new direction.”  Ouch.  I watched from the outside as the novels seemed to fizzle, one after another.  With some changes at WizKids I finally got tapped for three novels in the Dark Ages, but by that time the fan base was already giving the Dark Ages a sinister glare every time it was mentioned.  Like ComStar, there was a schism between the click-tech and the old school Classic BattleTech, with the WizKids team taking on the role of The Word of Blake – always one of the favorite fan factions.  Heavy sarcasm here…

The novels evaporated.  Most never even made it to digital form.  Some new books came out, well written and received…but most of the mainstay authors were sidelined with the problems I mentioned previously.  For a long time, the fate of fiction, which always drove the BattleTech universe, was in a bizarre limbo.

Fast forward to the weeks prior to Gen Con.  I immersed myself in some source material for the first time in years.  The joke was a lot like that scene with the Avengers when Maria Hill asked, “When did you become an expert on thermonuclear astrophysics?” and Stark replied, “last night.”  Replace “thermonuclear astrophysics” with “the last eight years of BattleTech products,” and you get the idea.

I corresponded with the editor and came up with a really cool angle/perspective.  What I liked about it is that it had historical precedent.  Since I write bestselling military history books, it played to a sweet spot for me as a writer.  Still, I hadn’t pitched an idea in a long time.  I wanted to tackle one of the most complex and difficult characters in the universe.  For all I knew, this could explode in my face.  I had two more ideas tucked away too, just in case.  Just like old times…

It went well.  No, it went better than well.  It was four-quarts of awesome sauce!  It was like the old days.  We bounced around some ideas to add to this, refine the concept, and they hit the mark.  There were some moments when we blew each other’s minds with some things to incorporate into the proposal.  In those minutes there, I was back at home, back to BattleTech again.  And I was going to get a shot or two at giving the fans something that, well, they needed and wanted.

Another thrill for me is that the 65,000 word limit per novel is gone.  You have no idea how restrictive that was for us as authors.  We talked about doing a book twice that large.  Whew! It is nice to have some elbow-room.  I think the readers/fans suffered under the old word limit.  God knows I pushed past that line several times.

I know that you are wondering what the subject is.  Is he going to do another Northwind Highlanders book?  Is it Archer Christifori?  What period is he going to write about?  What I can tell you is it is something new and different, and awesome in scope (assuming of course I can get it approved).  We haven’t inked a contract yet.  We’re still in that fun phase of bouncing ideas around.  This was part of the fun I just plain missed, the chances to shape and reshape the universe.

I provided the editor with the intro to the first chapter which set the tone for my idea.  Now I have to go off and write an outline for the project.  I’m currently in the middle of finishing a book in a new sci-fi military trilogy that was really a blast to work on – and I have a true crime book due in February.  So for a while, silence on this matter while I think, ponder, make notes etc.

That’s all for now…    Oh, and Peace of Blake be With You…(grin).

A Review of Hitler’s Time Machine

Hitler Time Mach

Okay – with a title like that, you have to pick up the book

I am an alternate history junkie so the title of this book caught my attention.  I myself write fiction and non-fiction and the author, Robert Dorr, has made the hop into fiction with this book.

The concept is relatively simple.  The Nazi’s and Americans build time machines and wage a war across time and across the face of WWII against each other.

Dorr’s storyline places some relatively strange limits (and almost logically unexplained) on the time travelers. They can’t go into the future (until they do) and when they travel, they can’t be in sunlight without melting to a pile of goo.  Also the rule of “you can’t kill anyone,” just doesn’t feel right to me.  In general, I enjoyed the storyline but felt some of the parameters were a bit forced and lacked any real explanations in terms of pseudo-science.  Example is that the rule that people cannot travel to the future seems to just suddenly happen in the book rather than having anything that leads up to it that makes it plausible to the reader.  It felt like a plot ploy to me, deus ex machina – ish.  I had no problem with the turn of events, but as a reader I wanted to be led there rather than suddenly having the capability to travel to the future thrust upon me.  When you introduce scientists as characters, they need to explain the technology in ways that make sense for the readers.  Here they don’t quite.  It doesn’t distract from the story, but it can leave you wondering “why?” other than to force the storyline.

In terms or characters, I felt that there was an almost Agent Carter-ish creation  with the American female character which didn’t work for me.  Her role, and the places she goes and things she does just don’t match 1940’s thinking about female roles.  It felt a bit contrived to me as a reader.  Most of the characters were solid, if not a bit flat.  Usually with a good AH story you are drawn into the book by the concept (in this case – double-check!) but what keeps you there are the characters.  In this book, what drives you is not the characters as much as the results of what they do.  It’s probably just me, but I didn’t develop a fondness for the characters that I was hoping to do.

Dorr’s got some wonderfully brilliant stuff in here.  How Churchill rises to power as a result of Nazi time incursion is wonderful.  Dorr knows his history and is solid with the technical details.  Some of those details, especially around the SS, really don’t add to the story or the characters.  And much like Harry Turtledove, Dorr brings up some things many times over and over to make a point with the reader.  As an author – I understand that completely.  As a reader, there are times I just wanted to move on.

From a reader’s perspective, I found some of the chapters far too short for my liking.  I just started reading about a character and boom, onto the next scene.  It makes for a fast paced book but lacks the depth you want.

Overall I give this book 4 stars (out of 5) because I did love the broad concept.  This is a book that had a lot more potential than it delivered, but is still a good investment of time (pun intended).

Never Wars is Finally Available

Never Wars - FontHill Media 2014
Never Wars – FontHill Media 2014

A few years ago I decided to tackle the research that became the new book, Never Wars.  I had read articles about the United State’s colored War Plans over the years and they intrigued me.  These were the plans that the US drew up between 1904 and 1942 which planned for waging war around the globe against various governments.  Having written about the unpublished plans for invading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis (The Fires of October, Fonthill Media), I was excited about exploring battle plans for going to war with a range of other countries.  This was one of those areas of military history that only rarely is explored.  I also knew that this book was going to be a great cross-over book – between military history and alternate history.  It would have something for both groups of readers.

I frankly thought it was going be easy.  Go to National Archives (Archives II in College Park MD) pull the plans, put them in a relatively consistent format.  It should have been easy.  Silly me.

Like most projects, things rarely go as planned.  First off, there was on one record group where the plans were stored.  They were in four different groups.  Often times the plans were mislabeled, misfiled, and those I did find were often incomplete.  I found orders in 1942 to destroy entire sets of the War Plans.  I presume because we had plans on file which called for wars with countries that were suddenly our allies – thus dodging potential embarrassment.  The plans were filed sometimes under the Army, sometimes under the Navy, sometimes neither or both.  No problem, that just meant more digging, more research, more detective work.

Other complications came up.  There was no single “War Plan.”  Different years brought about different versions of the plans.  There was no standard plan format for the War Plans, which led to some interesting formatting and writing challenges.  In some cases, that meant deciding which year to go with for the book.  Some of the plans were in fragments, each stored in different files.  A few of the plans  – like the poorly named War Plan Yellow (against China) I found around 65% of the plan.  Others, like War Plan Red (war against Britain) I found two full sets of the plans, both for different years.

War Plan Red was a problem because I found some copies online – but I distrust the Internet so I was determined to find the originals.  It took a while – but I ended up with them (whew!).

So What is In The Book?

  • Information on US Military Planning. How did the plans come into being?
  • The 1905 Plan for War with Britain and Canada: War Plan Red/Crimson
The 1904 US Invasion of Canada
The 1904 US Invasion of Canada
  • The 1928/1929 Plans For War with Mexico: War Plan Green Variants #1, #2, and #3
  • The 1932 Plan for Intervention in Cuba: War Plan Tan
  • The 1940–1943 Plan for the Invasion of the Azores: War Plan Gray
  • The 1929 Plan For the American Incursion/Invasion of China: War Plan Yellow Variations A and B
  • The 1914 Plan For War With Germany: War Plan Black
  • An Alternate WWII—The 1935 Plan For the American War with The United Kingdom War Plan Red

What Was the Coolest Stuff I Discovered?

I’ll be honest – the plans were pretty awesome.  It is fascinating with War Plan Green how the issues we face today with Mexico are the same as they dealt with in the 20’s.

The War Plan Gray – the US planned invasion of the Azores at the start of WWII, was neat.  Stumbling across President Roosevelt’s signature on the plans was very cool.  Basically this plan called for the US to seize the Azores if Gibraltar fell to the Nazi’s.  These plans were on the table before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It makes you wonder how the Battle of the Atlantic would have gone.

War Plan Red – the 1935 plan to go to war with Britain was creepy.  First, it showed how off-base we were in 1935 that we were planning for a future war with Britain at a time when Hitler was emerging as a threat.  The most disturbing thing I found in War Plan Red was that we were going to use chemical weapons against Canada at the onset of the war, in violation of treaty.  It is hard to imagine the US planning on using such weapons against our neighbor that way in the opening shots of a war.

My absolute favorite was War Plan Black 1914.  The Navy and Army simulated/postulated a full war with a victorious Germany in late 1914 – early 1915.    I write a lot of Great War books but this was as treat.  The US simply assumed that Germany would be triumphant in Europe.  When they came to seize the French colonies – it would be interpreted as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and would trigger a war with the US.  In this war the Germans would crush our Navy in the Atlantic and would seize Guantanamo Bay, then move against the East Coast.  It was eerie to read our planners estimates of US target cities.  Even stranger was finding the planned trench lines around the US Capital for the siege of Washington DC; which was the anticipated result of the German invasion.  The thought of Germany seizing parts of the US East Coast was entrancing and makes you wonder, “What if?”

The Siege of Washington DC by Germany -1915
The Siege of Washington DC by Germany -1915

Was There Anything You Didn’t Include?

I did discover a stash of plans regarding Ireland in WWII.  While out of bounds for this book, they were neat.  The plans were the British plans for invading Ireland if she declared support for Germany in WWII or was invaded by the Germans.  US intelligence got their hands on the plans and they were fascinating to read.  It makes you wonder what it would have been like, a skewed perspective on Operation Sea Lion.  I intend to go back and copy these materials someday for a magazine article.

I briefly covered the Rainbow War Plans and mentioned War Plan Orange (Japan).  The Rainbow plans were the final evolution of planning for war with Germany.  I was tempted to dive into these in greater detail but realized they could be a book all on their own.  War Plan Orange has already been covered by a great book – so I stayed away from that.  I couldn’t do it justice as a chapter in a book, given the extensive research that author Edward Miller already did on the subject.

I hope readers enjoy reading the book as much as I did researching it. If you want a glimpse into military planning and political thinking from the early 20th century, this book offers you both.  I think we are all thankful that we didn’t have to use any of these plans. #NeverWars