Alternatively known as “microgames,” “pocket games” or “minigames,” a number of companies created a fad in games in small packages in the late 1970s through early 1980s. These compact games came in a variety of historic, sci-fi and fantasy themes. Rulebooks, maps, cardboard chips and dice were usually packaged in hardshell cases or even simple zip-lock plastic bags. A very few of these games, like the post-apocalyptic Road Warrior-esque Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games, would see a long life fueled by supplements and expansions. More commonly, these minigames were stand-alones of vastly varying quality which faded into obscurity in a few short years.
TSR, the makers of Dungeons & Dragons, entered the minigame market late with a total of eight games released in the first couple years of the 1980s. This was a big growth period for TSR as they continued to diversify beyond their core D&D products into other boardgames, role-playing games, toys, computer and video games, and even an animated TV show. Already investing a ton of our time and money in TSR products, my brother and I snapped four of their minigames:
- Attack Force was a simple Star Wars rip-off with one player’s force of small star fighters attempting to find the weakness in the other player’s monstrous space station to destroy it. As a fan of Luke’s attack on the Deathstar, I gave TSR a pass on the lack of originality for the chance to do some space battling myself.
- They’ve Invaded Pleasantville was also a two-player game, this time set in a rural village where the townspeople try to fend off alien invaders infiltrating the local populace. Each player used identical chips representing such local folk like the minister, sheriff, plumber, checkout girl and others. The trick of the game was the alien invader bluffing their way toward taking over the bodies of the locals while the town player sought to uncover who was really an alien.
- Revolt on Antares was a much better sci-fi-themed game and offered play for 2 to 4 players. The game presented a Risk-like map of a fictional world where six ruling “houses” with names like Andros, Dougal and Serpentine fought to rule the planet through three different scenarios. Each house had its own personality and strengths, adding a lot of variety and replay value. The ability to recruit new troops, move across varied terrain and use seven special alien weapons or devices made this little gem seem a lot more like a real wargame.
- Vampyre was two games in one set in the realm of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The first campaign-map-style game took 2 to 6 players in the roles of Stoker’s hero characters questing to find and destroy the coffin safe-havens of Count Dracula hidden throughout Transylvania. Turning the map over, a detailed floorplan of Castle Dracula allowed another game to be played as the characters sought to track down the Count himself and destroy him.
As a kid, I loved these games as a break from the longer hours spent bent over the table with my D&D campaigns. Each minigame offered its own varied mechanic, but rules were simple and limited to just a few pages for each game. The booklets, game maps and cardboard playing chips contained some wonderfully intricate small-scale artwork, much of it by popular fantasy artists of the day. While I don’t recall the exact cost of each game, I remember them being under $10 apiece and quite a deal for the hours of play we wrung out of each.
These four TSR games still sit in a closet packed full of my childhood puzzles and boardgames in the house where I grew up. At the time, there was an outsized amount of fun in each little mingame package. Today, there’s still a lot of memory in each, too.
Collector’s Note: Many of the TSR minigames can be found frequently on eBay selling in the $10-30 range. Steve Jackson Games makes much of their Car Wars and other microgames back catalog available for digital purchase online.