Steve Jackson is showing me a prototype for the newest iteration of Car Wars, a tabletop game — Dungeons & Dragons is a popular example of the type — the designer first developed in 1980 and published in 1981. Somewhere, my inner seventh-grader is mumbling “woah.”
In the game, now as then, a player builds a car, puts weapons on it and competes against other cars similarly armed. The Car Wars I played with friends as a 12-year-old was a labor-intensive activity. You read complex war-gaming rules, you built vehicles using paper counters and you moved them across a grid using a complicated, turn-based system.
Those were, as they say, different times. There was no household internet, no smartphones, no realistic video games, not a lot of cable TV — entertainment was altogether slower.
This is no longer the case. Jackson holds a 3D-printed plastic car with a plastic base. It’s a little smaller than a Matchbox car. Everything is bigger and a bit simpler.
“We're giving them bigger cars and faster rules,” Jackson says. “That's what people want.”
Another thing the people apparently want: a convention. Austin-based Steve Jackson Games hosts FnordCon, the first-ever gaming convention dedicated to playing Steve Jackson Games, on April 6 and 7 at the TCEA Conference Center. ("Fnord" refers to a greeting from one of the company's games, Illuminati.)
Yes, the first. For a company that’s 39 years old. And it's sold out.
Figuring out both what people want now and what they might be into next is a core goal of most entertainment companies. It’s part of the reason Steve Jackson Games has quietly survived the boom and bust of the 1980s role-playing game (or RPG) book, the rise and continued rise of video games, an FBI raid, a company-saving card game and folks like me wanting to introduce their nerdy kids to the Steve Jackson games of our youth. I've already tried out Illuminati (a card game of world domination) and Ogre (a military-battle game set in the future) with my very patient children.
And the company has stayed independent and privately owned. ("That helps a lot," Jackson says.) Even TSR, the legendary company started by “Dungeons and Dragons” creator Gary Gygax, was purchased by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. (Gygax left the company in the 1985 and died in 2008.)
“The straight answer is that we never got around to doing (a convention) before,” Jackson says of FnordCon. “It's been a goal for years and years to have our own little convention, and we were just always too busy. This year, we're weren’t too busy.”
Jackson decided to hold their first convention in a fairly small space, so tickets went quickly.
“I hope that everybody has a good time, and if everybody has a good time and we don't lose significant amounts of money on it, then maybe we'll do a bigger one next year,” Jackson says.
Biting off exactly how much one can chew has been a Steve Jackson staple. His game company's office is located in a small, nondescript building in southeast Austin. Other than a recognizable symbol from one of their games, there is nothing to indicate that the building is the headquarters of one of the smartest tabletop gaming companies of its era.
In the 1980s, Steve Jackson Games were a big deal in a small community, as emblematic of Austin subculture/nerd cool to some as Bruce Sterling, the Butthole Surfers or the Church of the SubGenius. It never grew too fast nor did it blink out of existence. It just kept going, thanks to very dedicated fans and a few strokes of luck.
For example, Car Wars spawned its own little cult in the 1980s, complete with a zine called Autoduel Quarterly. The company's Generic Universal Role Playing System (commonly known as GURPS) created a set of game rules that players could plug into a variety of worlds, from fantasy to sci-fi to martial arts. Dozens upon dozens of world-building supplements followed. (“We once surveyed GURPS users,” Jackson says. “Turns out about 30 percent of folks just enjoyed reading books and never played the game.”)
Indeed, in 1990, the manuscript of a soon-to-be-published GURPS manual was one of the documents seized in a raid on the Steve Jackson Games headquarters. Long story extremely short, the FBI saw that one of phone company Bell South’s proprietary documents was posted to an online bulletin board operated by a Steve Jackson Games employee. Investigators searched the company's headquarters and seized computers, disks, documents and a server containing private emails. Everything was eventually returned. Steve Jackson Games sued the FBI for damages and won. The raid itself helped prompt the creation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital privacy rights group.
In an era when it’s entirely possible for Russia to interfere in a U.S. presidential election, all this seems rather quaint.
“It isn’t as it’s happening,” Jackson says, dry as a bone.
Other than a few licenses, Steve Jackson Games never pivoted to video games. Jackson says he isn’t much of a fan, himself, and the risk is too great. “They make billionaires when they happen to work (in the market),” Jackson says, “but it's a big gamble, and I’m not a coder.'"
Even though Illuminati morphed into a collectable card game called Illuminati: New World Order in 1994 and became a top-seller, things were looking a little rough until around 2001, when the company introduced Munchkin, a chaotic, card-based game that started as a parody of bad Dungeons and Dragons, campaigns Jackson says.
Munchkin exploded. It didn’t hurt that “The Lord of the Rings” franchise was a cinematic sensation at the time. Everyone suddenly knew what an elf, a dwarf and an orc were, Jackson says.
“Now it’s more about pop culture silliness in general,” he says, gesturing to expansion packs for games centered on everything from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to zombies to "Rick and Morty."
“We license (Munchkin) a lot,” Jackson says, “‘Yes, please give us money’ is a frequent response.”
These days, Jackson spends two days in the office and the rest of the week at home writing for the games. The big thing in RPGs these days is “nostalgic roleplaying” — hence the revivals of Orge and Car Wars.
After FnordCon, Jackson heads off to the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin in August, as that convention's first-ever gaming guest of honor.
“Should have been Gygax, but he went and died,” Jackson says.