Way back in the 80s when I was a wee lad and just getting into tabletop RPGs, I used to see Space 1889 on the shelf at a local game store and I thought it looked pretty cool. Somewhere around there, my father picked up a copy, and I used to thumb through it a bunch. There was something in the setting that really hit a lot of my buttons. I was an Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne fan, so that was probably enough. But the setting had something that drew me in. Over the years, I finally acquired my own copy, as well as many of the supplements, and I’ve watched the game switch companies and editions, get reprinted, and generally hang around the fringes of the hobby. Yet, in all that time, I’ve never managed to run or play any version of the game. I’ve proposed it multiple times, but other games have always been picked instead.
The setting is the star of this. Ripped from the pages of Victorian adventure fiction, it sees Humanity reaching out through the ether to colonize Mars and Venus. Mars with its fading civilization of canal builders, warring remnants of a once great people. Venus with its sweltering jungle swamps, crawling with dinosaurs and lizard people. There are worlds of adventure, conquest, exploitation, and redemption awaiting the bold. The horrors of Colonialism are on display, as well.
The book is packed with world-building and plenty of great fodder for stories. Reading through, I had all sorts of campaign and adventure concepts, plenty of ideas for characters and groups of characters, what they might do, who they might face, etc. This is a setting that would allow you to explore changing cultures, relationships between Colonial powers and the people they conquer, budding social movements that will change the roles of women and people of color, etc. It also had plenty of room for acts of daring do, frontier adventure, hunting for ancient secrets, etc. It’s the kind of setting I love, where you could revisit it a dozen times with a dozen different groups of players and have a vastly different game each time.
All that said, this book has some problems. It is a product of its time, to be sure, but there are other issues. Apparently Space 1889 started as a war game variant, and those roots are clearly on display every time it veers into rules explanations. In that sense, it’s a lot like Dungeons & Dragons, which evolved out of a miniatures game. The combat is “crunchy,” with lots of thought put into movement, range, positioning, damage, etc. There’s a definite focus on equipment, vehicles, and the details that go along with them. I’m sure there are those who appreciate this sort of thing, but I’m not among them.
Additionally, the book is organized in a very frustrating way. To get the full sense of the world, you really have to read the whole thing from cover to cover, because there’s important setting information in the first few pages, in the middle, mixed into the combat rules, dropped into the mechanics of ship design, and then in a rather large part of the end of the book. The rules are similar in that they feel like they’re just dropped in. It’s all a big jumble. I can imagine being very frustrated running the game, flipping back and forth throughout the book trying to find this little chart or that bit of setting info. If I were to produce an updated version, I’d definitely put a timeline and all the setting info in the beginning, move into character generation, and then finish with the nitty gritty of combat and equipment. And I’d put the sample adventure at the end of the book, not two thirds of the way in, right after the space travel rules.
If I’m being 100% honest, I don’t think there’s any way I’d run this game straight. The rule mechanics are far too mechanical for my tastes and I don’t think they really fit the setting. Maybe if I were going to focus on combat and war actions, getting miniatures into the mix, it would be more appealing. That’s just not the sort of game I run (or play, generally). I know there’s been a version produced for Savage Worlds, which seems like a better fit as far as rules go. I’d likely use Basic Role-Playing or WaRP, due to my familiarity and to each set of rules’ flexibility and ease of use.
Ideally, I’d like to run the game in a ‘sandbox’ style, where the players drive the action and their characters can explore and build as they see fit. Perhaps they travel to Venus to carve out a place to live on one of the plateaus, making alliances with local lizard people and fighting off dinosaurs. Maybe the characters want to set themselves up as Red Captains, Human airship captains who have gained the respect and friendship of the Martian people (and perhaps the ire of the Crown). There are a near infinite number of options and ways to explore the world set up in Space 1889. One of these days, I’m going to finally pick one and go for it.
If you want to see one of the proto-Steampunk games, from before Steampunk was a subgenre of Goth full of random gears, corsets, tophats, and goggles, when it was still rooted in Victorian adventure fiction, check this game out.