The late 1970’s really hold some great memories for me in regards to toys and hobbies and just generally having a hell of a good time as a child. That was a time of “Star Wars”, dirt bikes, Dungeons and Dragons, the Terran Trade Authority handbooks, skateboards that were half the size of the boards today and … Heritage USA’s “Paint ‘n’ Play” sets.
I remember going to my local hobby shop one cool Saturday morning (probably the fall of 1980) and I found a whole lot of D&D type games that weren’t D&D nor did TSR produce them. These were different … they were boxed and shrink wrapped, they had what looked like dioramas on the front of the boxes and small painted miniature figures in a variety of poses. Picking up one of the boxes and looking at it closer, I discovered my first tabletop war game … it was Heritage USA’s war gaming set for “The Lord of the Rings” and the miniatures came in an attractively packaged tan box with some fantastic artwork on the front, a picture of a game in progress, and on the back there were the included characters / miniatures and their in-game stats and abilities.
I looked at the shelf in front of me and suddenly I realized that there were a whole lot more of these games … Heritage USA had really been cooking these games out and not only fantasy but there were World War II miniatures games as well with tanks, MG teams, and infantry. I had just discovered a new hobby and another source of endless fun.
Before this, the only “miniatures” that I had played with were my green army men and Kenner’s “Star Wars” action figures. These miniatures were much smaller and detailed than anything that I’d played with before and my imagination was hooked. That’s when I bought my first tabletop war gaming set, if you want to call it that … it was Heritage USA’s “Crypt of the Sorcerer” and it was part of their D&D inspired “Dungeon Dwellers” series.
The set was simple enough, it came with eight figures, four “good” and four “bad” characters. Included in the game was an evil sorcerer (casting a fireball), a skeleton warrior, a big troll with an ax, an orc in armor with a bow and arrow, a good sorcerer (with staff and hat and looking a lot like Gandalf), a warrior (in chain and plate armor, with ax and shield), a dwarf (with ax) and a Halfling (which was really just a Hobbit with a bow).
From top left, going clockwise we have the Orc, Troll, Wizard, Evil Sorcerer, Fighter, Skeleton Warrior, Dwarf and Halfling. The game was played on a simple, gray scale map, 8.5” x 11”, and divided into squares for game play and movement determination.
Each piece had certain stats … movement, attack, defense, etc,, not more than a handful of information to keep up with and something that today could have been put on a sticky note and kept track of. The back of the Crypt of the Sorcerer box held not only the statistics on what each figure could do but the painting guide as well …
The Fighter, painting guide and game statistics / abilities
In a game play that was somewhat similar to Monopoly, players picked one of the “good” characters, wrote down their stats and abilities, and moved the character a certain number of squares on the map each turn. If the square held a trap or a treasure, a die was rolled to determine the outcome of the encounter. Sometimes wandering monsters would appear and have to be dealt with and eventually, if the player’s character survived, they would arrive at the long dead sorcerer’s crypt, fight a final battle against the evil sorcerer and revel in their reward of treasure if they were successful.
The Evil Sorcerer, painting guide and game statistics / abilities
Of course, characters could “advance” by acquiring gold and treasure and magical weapons but there was really no deeper role playing than that involved in these “Paint ‘N’ Play” type games where a few rules served as the starting point for your imagination to take over.
The Heritage USA Dungeon Dwellers series came in two versions, the starter / entry level “Crypt of the Sorcerer” (with 8 figures) and the larger, deluxe “Caverns of Doom” (which had over twice that many figures including a dragon … a freaking dragon!). Each of these games could serve as a standalone game in and of itself but they could also link together to form a much larger game … in fact, if you look at the map for “Crypt of the Sorcerer” you’ll see that in the middle is a room that leads down into … the “Caverns of Doom” so once you defeated the Evil Sorcerer, you could just head on down into his basement and have even more fun … or die and have to start all over again.
The “Caverns of Doom” map was much, much larger than the “Crypt of the Sorcerer.” If you had both games, you could enter the caverns from the crypt through the entrance at the top left of the COD map.
These were “dungeon crawl” games, some of the first, and still a cherished memory. Each game was sold as a “Paint ‘N’ Play” affair and came with an egg crate type Styrofoam container (or two) holding the unpainted lead (yes, good old dangerous toxic lead) miniatures, the play map, a simple set of paints in basic colors, a cheap brush, a single die and a set of rules which were generally printed on a two page (front and back) fold. The learning curve was more like a speed bump and the entertainment value was off the scale … half of the fun was painting the miniatures … and repainting the miniatures … and repainting the miniatures. I cut my teeth on miniature painting with the Heritage USA “Paint and Play” sets. Part of the fun was in making up new maps, or actually building dungeons out of cardboard and balsa … and making up new rules, and new treasures and new magic weapons.
Sometime in the spring of 1979, I went to my local hobby shop and there in the “new” item section was a game that I’d never seen before … it looked familiar but different at the same time. I picked it up to look at it closer and was instantly hooked … it was another Heritage USA “Paint ‘N’ Play” game set but this time it was based on a science fiction theme. The game was from a new Heritage USA line called “Galacta” and the play set was called “Star Commandos.”
It was such an obvious “Star Wars” rip-off that it was actually good!
You had eight figures with this entry level / starter play set … the four “good guys” included an armored Rebel Leader / Swordsman (kind of a mixture of the Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo characters), the giant Sauroid (obviously a stand-in for Chewbacca as a sidekick), the Female Assault Leader (a strong, Leia type character) and the Rebel Adventurer (which looked a little chubby in his full armor but was the youthful Luke Skywalker type character). These four intrepid rebels would do battle against the Imperial Knight Swordsman (later referred to as a “sorcerer knight” an obvious nod to Darth Vader), the Stormtrooper Officer / Leader (an Imperial Stormtrooper who gave up his lazer rifle for a lazer pistol and an “energy sword” (ala lightsaber), and two Imperial Stormtroopers (who, unlike the Star Wars kind, were remarkably accurate with their lazer rifles as the game would prove time and time again).
And yes, they spelled “laser” with a “z.”
Heritage had done it again … embedded itself in my childhood with a hold that could not be released.
One of the main differences between the “Dungeon Dwellers” and the “Galacta” series was the format. The “Dungeon Dwellers” relied on squares to determine movement and distance and random encounters / rewards for a pseudo-role-playing experience. “Galacta”, on the other hand, was more true to the miniature war gaming that it resembled in that while characters still had stats … there were no random encounters or rewards … there wasn’t even a map! The “Star Commandos” boxed set came with a two page set of rules (front and back), eight figures, a 12 sided die, and a set of paints with a brush. The rest of the game … you had to provide yourself. All maps were made out of any materials you could find … plastic Easter eggs, bendy straws, walls made of Legos … whatever. My best friend took some wood and made a four level command post with gravity shafts and consoles and video screens.
It was awesome.
Later we would start to kit-bash spaceships and vehicles together from our vast collection of wrecked plastic models, taking our inspiration from the artists and FX wizards at Industrial Light and Magic. With no map to follow, we made up our own scenarios and used anything that we could find as terrain, including the ground in our own backyards (where grass and weeds were giant plants and fungal growths on alien worlds).
The following year, in the summer of 1981, I went with my father on a business trip out west … to Houston, Texas. I remember that it was 1981 because dad and I went to see “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” in a theater in the big mall there. Afterwards, he and I walked around the mall looking for a toy store (and I remember seeing the Kenner “Raiders of the Lost Ark” figures as well as the “Clash of the Titans” toys for sale at that time). After a quick look through the toy store and not finding anything that I really wanted, we kept on exploring the mall and found a hobby / game store that sold all manner of RPG games and traditional board games. This was new to me because all the hobby shops that I’d known were never in malls so it struck me as both an odd thing and something that was highly convenient as well.
My dad, tired but patient, waited outside while I explored the hobby shop and there, in the back room, was their miniatures section and that’s when I came face to face with the bigger “Galacta” set … “Galactic Rebellion.” I didn’t know that Heritage USA had made a larger “Galacta” set but now that I saw it, now that I held it in my hands I had to have it.
It was the summer of 1981 and holding that game in my eleven year old hands caused three reactions … my balls dropped, hair grew on my chest as well as under my arms and I popped my first woody. Puberty had just come and gone in the blink of an eye.
Mother of God!
Look at all of that lead joy!
All of the characters from the smaller “Star Commandos” play set were back with the exception of the really cool Sauroid and Imperial Sorcerer Knight which were missing from the lineup of the larger set. In their place we now had three Planetary Strikers (two Strikers and a Strike Team Officer in cool pressure suits), two Security Bots, a big Warbot, and four new aliens … the Octopoid Trooper (with repeater laser), the Octopoid Alien Grenadier (with grenades and blast cannon) and Octopoid Section Leader! Oh, and we had something called a “Squog” which stood for “Squirrel Dog” and was instantly the most unused character in either playset since it was obviously some attempt to put Dwarves or Halflings in space and we were having none of that in our games.
I had to have this game, there was no denying that, but a quick check of my available funds brought bitter disappointment and the onset of deep despair.
I had an allowance for that trip, a generous allowance by any eleven year old’s reckoning, but I’d already spent half of it (and most of that in the mall arcade) which left me with about half of what I needed to get the larger “Galacta” play set. Some quick politicking and not a little deal making convinced my dad to float me the rest of the money that I needed and I left the hobby store with the larger “Galacta” play set. I’m sure my dad came out on the better end of that deal, what with all the chores and yardwork that I had promised him that I would do to pay him back but at that point in time I had in my shopping bag the Heritage USA “Galacta – Galactic Rebellion” Paint ‘N’ Play Play set and for that boxed set I would have (and almost did) sold myself into indentured servitude.
I spent most of the rest of the trip painting the figures, coming up with new rules and equipment written down in a single subject spiral bound notebook and playing out a few solo games. When I got back home, my friends were envious of the larger set and we rapidly incorporated the new figures and some of the rules that I had come up with into our games.
The “Galacta” sets were great … my first introduction to table top war gaming. We used the figures not only for “Galacta” based games but later in TSR’s “Star Frontiers” games and even some GDW’s “Traveler” scenarios where we wanted to add some miniatures to our role playing games. At one point that summer we added a simple role playing element, similar to that found in Steve Jackson’s “Car Wars” pocket game, to our “Galacta” games.
Play sets from “Star Wars” like the Death Star play set, the two Hoth play sets, the Droid Factory and some Lego space / moon pieces along with others were all assembled on a folding card table to wage our galactic rebellion upon. Notes were written down in spiral bound notebooks, dice were rolled, beloved characters lived or died on imaginary alien planets far, far away and childhood ruled.
One of the last games of “Galacta” that I ever played was probably the weirdest and most memorable. It was the summer of 1982, I was thirteen years old, spending the night with my friend, and he had taken some of his parent’s vodka from their liquor cabinet. After his parents went to sleep, we stayed up late making Orange Screwdrivers and getting progressively more and more wasted. There wasn’t much vodka to start with but when you’re thirteen you have zero tolerance for liquor so a little goes a long way.
Somewhere after we were both well on our way to supporting a good buzz, we decided to break out the “Star Commandos” figures and have a quick game before bed … then we got the idea to mix “Star Commandos” with “Dungeon Dwellers” … it took our vodka fueled imaginations only a few minutes to come up with some rules for integrating lazers and energy swords into a fantasy setting and we were playing away, the four adventurers of the “Star Commandos” set entering the “Crypt of the Sorcerer” which we reasoned was the lost crypt of an Evil Sorcerer, a crypt which needed to be explored and secured before the Imperial Sorcerer Knight found it and used it to his benefit to become more powerful by learning the darker ways of his ancient religion.
I remember being in the first hallway and rolling an encounter of an Orc who immediately started shooting arrows at our rebels and by that time the interesting premise of the crossover had completely broke down and we were just playing for the hell of it. The Rebel Leader Swordsman parried the Orc’s first arrow with his energy sword (vaporizing the arrow in the process, we agreed). A snap return shot with the Rebel Leader’s lazer pistol missed. The Orc fired another arrow which bounced off the armor of the Rebel Adventurer (who made a save at a greatly easier rate since we figured that space / future armor was a lot better at stopping arrows and metal blades of a medieval nature than it was stopping laser bolts). The Female Assault Leader and the Sauroid both rounded the corner to join the fight and ultimately it was the Female Assault Leader who burned the Orc in its place using her lazer assault rifle.
I guess the Vodka was doing the trick because during that time we also agreed that magic spells worked normally since the rebels were operating outside the realm of science and since the advanced body armor of the star commandos hadn’t taken magic into account when it had been designed to protect the wearer. I guess that’s the chance you take when you venture into the tomb of a fallen Imperial Sorcerer Knight.
After ten minutes, our vodka was about halfway gone and our four adventurers had defeated the Evil Sorcerer (which we had decided was the long dead corpse of an infamous old Imperial Sorcerer Knight reanimated by the evil power of the dark side of the religion / belief system used by the dark order that the Imperial Sorcerer Knights followed / worshipped). The four rebels now made their way, treasure laden, down into the “Caverns of Doom”. My Rebel Adventurer had a +1 magic sword by this time (given to him by default since the Rebel Leader Swordsman already had his energy sword) and the Female Assault Leader had a both a Fireball spell scroll and a Cure spell scroll. The rebels also had a nice pile of gold but where we were going to spend it was probably something that we would leave for post-game discussion … How much did power armor, a blast cannon, a laser repeater, an energy sword, a bandolier of Grenades or a RAAG (Rocket Assisted Anti-Gravity) Jump Belt really cost? How many Imperial credits did one gold piece equal?
About fifteen minutes into playing down in the “Caverns of Doom” we broke into the Throne Room and rolled to see what was there. The result was the Vampire on the Throne and two skeletons. My Rebel Adventurer went after the Vampire, firing his lazer assault rifle at the blood sucker. I remember getting into a heated, drunken, vodka fueled discussion with my friend about the effects of lasers (or lazers) on a vampire. My Rebel Adventurer had hit the Vampire with his lazer assault rifle and done a few points of damage but I figured that the Vampire should be ashes since they couldn’t stand sunlight and a laser was itself just concentrated light. My friend stated that it wasn’t the same and that we were going to play by the rules at which point I told him that we were making the frigging rules up as we went and that’s when he rolled for the Vampire’s attack and killed my Rebel Adventurer character in close combat.
The Rebel Adventurer was my favorite character. There was no way that I was going to lose my body armored, lazer weapon armed Rebel Adventurer and his +1 magic sword to a Vampire, not after he had survived the Crypt of the Sorcerer, and I told my friend this.
“Your Rebel Adventurer is dead. Take him off the board, bro.”
“But I hit the Vampire with my lazer rifle!” I said.
“Yes, you did. But you didn’t kill the Vampire, you only wounded him.”
“That’s bull! A hit from a laser rifle would have turned Count Chocula there to dust.”
My friend replied that the Vampire had taken out Porkins fair and square …
Oh, that was it!
… and with that the argument was on and that’s about the time when my friend’s father opened the bedroom door just a crack and told us both very firmly to go to bed. The door shut again and we sat there, chills running up and down our spine, all interest in arguing over lasers and Vampires evaporated like a Vampire hit by a laser (or what a Vampire should do when it is hit by a laser). My friend had forgotten to lock his bedroom door when he had last gone to the bathroom and there we were, underage, drinking his parent’s liquor in his parents’ house, orange juice and vodka both open on the card table, our glasses almost empty and we had almost had a visit from his father.
It was by divine luck that we had been spared.
God protects children and fools and apparently He also protects foolish children.
We quickly finished our mixed drinks, hid the almost empty bottle of vodka in a Avalon Hill “Squad Leader” game box on the top shelf of the closet, washed the glasses in the bathroom sink, brushed our teeth and got into bed. My friend had what could only be described as a hangover the next morning while I spent the rest of the day in a certain kind of fugue, like I was fatigued or something … everything seemed one step out of click. It wasn’t my first experience with alcohol and it wouldn’t be my last but it was perhaps one of my most memorable at such an early age.
We never did finish that drunken crossover game of “Star Commandos” vs. “Dungeon Dwellers” … but if it came down to it, in a fight between the Sauroid and the Dragon, my money was going on the Sauroid because if my Rebel Adventurer was out of the game then I was damn sure going to let the Sauroid pick up the fallen Rebel Adventurer’s +1 magic sword to carry on the struggle.