Review : Cold Space

Cold war space adventure based on the Starcluster system.

By Clash Bowley et al, Flying Mice LLC, $10 PDF

Cold Space is a PDF download from Flying Mice / Better Mousetrap Games, and uses the Starcluster system (as used in Starcluster and Bloodgames). Essentially the setting posits a universe where, shortly after the 2nd world war, a method of advanced space-flight was created. Thus we get the cold war in space. Simple concept, how does it pan out?

The setting is given as a rough time-line of events that mirrors those in actual history, but with space battles and planetary proxy wars replacing the historic equivalents. This gives it the advantage of an easier hook than a lot of the space-opera games out there. No need to explain who the Soviets or Nato equivalents are to anybody who grew up with the cold war. As such it’s probably an easier sell than Starcluster.

The setting is split across four broad eras, initial (1954), early (1955-64), Middle (1965-74) and Late (1975-89). Each with a slightly different focus and politics, and for each of the eras recommended campaign settings are provided for different styles of character. It’s a slim package and weighs in at about 14 pages of basic setting material in all. It gives a feel for what’s going on in the various eras. My main criticism is that it’s light on the human angles, I’d like a better idea of how the average US or USSR citizen felt about the space-based cold war. What radical diversions from historic attitudes were there? The sporadic addition of fiction and setting-style songs does help to get a better feel, but doesn’t do quite enough more my tastes.

Towards the end of the book there are breakdowns of the various planets and their raw data like plant life and population and habitability. Again though, although we get maps, images, a brief gazetteer and stats, I’d have preferred a bit more information that was of use in-game. Who’re the major political players on the planets, what kind of attitudes do they have and who are they in conflict with. How can players be drawn into those? Hooks for the PCs is what’s needed, it would seem to fit the kind of game Coldspace is.

Art-wise Flying Mice have a particular brand of slightly abstract work, that gives the PDF a certain feel. It doesn’t have the hard-edge, clinical feel that a lot of sci-fi arts goes for. Layout is generally good, though two-column is harder to read on-screen and the lack of PDF bookmarks (and the PDF pages not matching the page numbers) doesn’t make navigation easy. It should be OK when printed though, since there’s an index and table of contents. The PDF does come with a star map prepared in AstroSynthesis, which might make a cool play aid if you’ve got a laptop that you use in play and like fiddling with starcharts.

The majority of the PDF is the rules and character creation. Much here is the same as you’d find in Starcluster 2.0, in fact there doesn’t feel much difference on a mechanical level between Coldspace and Starcluster. It’s a solid enough old-school game of the traveller ilk: careers-based generation, tactical-focused combat-oriented system, lots of rules for weapon effects, spaceships, travel times and so on. The careers system isn’t quite flavourful enough for my tastes. I’ve been spoiled by the Burning Wheel’s careers system, where my lifepath choices mould the characters personality as well as skills.

The large amount of space spent on system has another drawback, if you’ve already got one of the Flying Mice games, then you may feel that you’re paying for something you’ve already got. I wonder if for those people it might not be better as a setting add-on book.

Overall: If you like old-school traveller-style games of spaceships and missions, the Coldspace setting will give you an accessible place to run games in a no-weird-aliens environment. However setting material is pretty sparse, so if you’re a fan of deep backgrounds it’s not for you.