Reconstructing the Original Space Biff

This robot has aircraft carriers for arms. Do I know why? No. Do I need to know? No.

As the foremost authority on the matter, a “space biff” is when a robot, preferably a giant robot mech, punches one of its peers in the jaw. Why do these robots have fists? Why jaws? Nobody knows. I certainly don’t. But there they stand, with their fists and jaws. Sometimes accident or fate brings them into collision.

I never watched Robotech. It, uh, aired before I was born. On those grounds, I’m the absolute worst person to measure whether it’s a suitable adaptation. Instead, my expertise lurks around an unexpected corner: as an avid player of the COIN Series.

The four genders: ace pilot, hot K-Pop star, giant alien, capital spaceship.

Four conflicting interests.

Here’s the story so far. Be warned, I didn’t fact-check this.

One thousand years ago, aliens invaded Earth. These aliens were big. Bigger than humans. Because of their bigness, they destroyed every human city underfoot except for Portland and Detroit. Then humans got their poop in a group and made something even bigger — big robots. Eventually the humans out-trod the big aliens and won the war. Now humans and big aliens live side by side in relative harmony.

Until now. Cue orchestra.

Despite my absolute ignorance, Dr. Wictz — the nom de jeu of co-designers Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz — does an admirable job of establishing the setting. There are four factions to contend with, each mapping with relative ease to COIN Series archetypes. The post-war order is guided by two groups, the Robotech Defense Force (RDF) and the Robotech Expeditionary Force (REF). These focus on two separate but interlinked axes of power. The first is dominated by ace pilots who hope to integrate the aliens into human society. Unfortunately for these plucky heroes, swaying civilians in peacetime requires a different skillset from blasting alien robots in battle. Their principal tools are patrols and curfews, both of which are pricey and don’t exactly engender long-term stability. Their semi-allies, the Expeditionary Force, have a somewhat different idea about what constitutes a peaceful society. They couldn’t give a fig about what the resettled aliens think. To them, it’s all about security and raw control. Before long, the countryside and cities are filled with battlepods, the police robots that suppress uprisings.

Writing this story into the language of the COIN Series, Volko Ruhnke’s system of asymmetrical warfare that stands for COunter-INsurgency and has received ten volumes to date, is an unexpected stroke of genius. Reconstruction wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The relationship between the RDF and REF reflects the uncomfortable governmental alliances of A Distant Plain or Fire in the Lake. Both factions hope to craft a more stable world despite some truly dire circumstances, but have drastically different ideas about how to accomplish that goal. This internal division between peacekeepers soon jeopardizes the fragile status between humans and aliens.

Which brings us to the opposing factions. The first is the Anti-Unification League, a group that resembles the National Congress of Gandhi in its commitment to nonviolence. Their approach to victory requires long-term investment, a piecemeal resettlement of alien ships and careful control of key areas that can be readily upset by an insurgence of mechs. They’re as close to “good guys” as the game gets. Unfortunately, their activities tend to embolden and enable the Zentraedi Rebellion, the remnants of the alien high command who are now trying to topple the planet from inside the peace. These fellas, with their guerrilla units that shift between hidden and overt states, are the most recognizably COIN. They appear out of nowhere, sabotage everybody else’s efforts, and disappear back into hiding.

One of my favorite things about this game, and I am not kidding right now, is reading the flavor text and making these little four-panel stories about the insurgency — and not knowing what the hell any of it means. I dig it.

Each round features four event cards.

Put these factions in a blender and the result is one heck of a reaction. What immediately stands out about Robotech: Reconstruction is the depth of its inter-factional dynamics. The COIN System was designed to explain how a small force could match and even stymie a significantly larger foe. That objective is alive and well here. When the game opens, the Robotech factions are dominant, with plenty of troops and economic potential. Yet the opposition factions have their own means to mobilize, capitalizing on the weak points in their oppressors’ war machines. These are also staples from the COIN Series: periodic retreats to resupply the RDF’s forces, the tendency of the REF to stretch itself too thin, the superior mobility and local security of the ZR and the AUL. Also, copious acronyms.

If anything, Reconstruction’s primary deviation from the COIN Series is that someone is always a card or two away from winning. It feels like a COIN game on its last legs, when everybody has established their bases of support, some logistics, and only has to spring their final maneuver — and hold it before anybody can snatch them back from the brink of victory. The tempo is lively. Every action matters. If anything, every action matters to such a degree that some options go largely unused. There’s rarely time for attacking rival troops when you’re busy securing cities or adjusting your reputation among the refugees.

Aiding this paciness is Dr. Wictz’s own card system, one that suits their game’s rapid-fire objectives better than the gradual churn of cards in Ruhnke’s series. These cards are as barbed as those of the toughest CDG, triggering an event and an optional action for one of the factions at the table. Despite this, it’s nearly always better to play an opponent’s event. That’s because the quantity and quality of your actions depends on what you play. Drop one of your own events and you’re only permitted one action, and a basic action besides. Drop a beneficial card for somebody else, however, and you’re allowed to take any two actions of your choosing, including some juicy special actions that bring you closer to victory. The whole thing behaves like a dialogue, each card yielding advantages to a rival but allowing you to direct what comes after. Also nifty, so much goes into a single card that only sixteen will be played in the entire game. Somehow, Reconstruction makes that number feel tightly corded rather than constrained. It’s such a cool card system that I want to see it emulated and developed further, both by Dr. Wictz and others.

Because this villain man is a giant alien, this standee and the chits below are to scale.

I am a villain man! I will do villain man things!

Cards on the table. Robotech: Reconstruction isn’t a perfect game. Like the series it draws inspiration from, it’s complicated enough to get lost in, especially once the action ramps up and you’re tracking tens of units and which side wields control over each region. Expect to make lots of finicky adjustments to the score table. Making matters worse, unlike the COIN Series, its legibility is a nightmare. It uses chits for units, but they’re small and dim, with uniform black borders that really should have been bold colors. The RDF has two classes of mecha that are crucial to tell apart but look almost identical. Anti-Unification League cities are the same size and shape as the rest of the units on the board, and there’s very little distinction between the Zentraedi Rebellion’s covert and overt units — not to mention the descriptors “covert” and “overt” are a minefield for verbal misunderstanding.

That said, I adore this game. It’s bold and experimental and willing to draw inspiration from some hefty source material, and the result is more than the sum of its parts. It goes even further by shaping that inspiration to its own ends. There’s nothing in COIN like the REF dropship, bellowing around the map and plopping down battlepods with terrifying abandon. Nor, really, is there this degree of focus on charismatic figures: Rick Hunter and his Veritech Fighters showing up to overawe alien refugees, Khyron personally inspiring those same refugees to take up arms, Minmei calming everyone down through the power of song. It’s silly, but it’s bombastically silly, not to mention deeply invested in issues of good intentions run amok, how allegiances can splinter over time, competing modes of power, the co-opting of peaceful resistance by violent agitators, and the ambiguities inherent in both governance and resistance. It’s deceptively smart, both as a multifaceted battle of wills and as a portrait of a flawed peace. I’m even tempted to watch the anime series.

Ha. Hahaha. Man, I really crack myself up.

A more serious temptation: to replace these chits with COIN pieces. Mmm.

An impressive mess.

Okay, so I’m not about to become a Robotech devotee. This is enough for me. But I like what I see. Robotech: Reconstruction gives the COIN Series a shave, packing the last few rounds into a flammable packet and dousing it with gasoline, and debuting a wicked smart card system that uses fewer plays to much greater effect. Yet it retains the core ethos of Ruhnke’s system. This is one of those games that’s dense with what-ifs. What if I’d swept into New Detroit City? What if we’d established our refugee cities in the wastelands? What if we’d focused a little more on logistics? Because Reconstruction features only a handful of major moves, it’s easy to see where things might have gone differently. It’s entirely like the what-ifs that dominate wargames. What if this battle had gone the other way? What if so-and-so hadn’t marched on Paris?

In the process, Reconstruction carves out a unique niche for itself. I have no idea who this thing is for — except that it’s for me.

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 25, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Michael Kruckvich

    As someone who grew up with Robotech, wrapping my head around this post-show take on the setting hurts my head a little. lol

  2. Thanks for the review done with your typical analytical focus.

    I’ll pass on this one because Robotech is not the first franchise I would port into a COIN system even though the characters evoke my nostalgia, and because Robotech itself is a hodgepodge of 3 different series that was imported in bulk due to the vagaries of media distributors and the minimum episode count required for TV syndication.

    This game seems to cover some of the events in the Macross series (technically, Super Dimension Fortress Macross which was followed by Super-Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and finally Genesis Climber Mospeada) in a similar way that Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Part 1 covers all of Herbert’s written works and those of his novelist progeny- it’s a selective microcosm that cannot adequately express the richness of a much deeper narrative however well it tells its more focused story.

    I really don’t expect it to, either, and I would be fine with it if they just used the characters and events from Macross- but they chose that Robotech moniker instead and that is a no-go for me. You see, the three series-within-a-series have absolutely nothing to do with one another (other than the requisite inclusion of dashing heroes, cool mecha ripe for the toy shelf and lots of aliens). “Robotech” was an incredibly superficial and inconsistent storyline that some executive created to loosely connect these disparate elements into one longer story because none of the series had sufficient episodes to make broadcasting them profitable. The aliens in each “arc” aren’t even the same, and the iconic flying transforming fortress Macross is only ever seen in the first series before it conveniently flies off with Admiral Rick Hunter’s expeditionary group where it is firmly relegated to the distant galactic sector of vague verbal references in later episodes.

    I perused the rulebook, and the second designer faux-pas became apparent. Protoculture is used to fuel a player’s action much as it was used to make all those marvelous mechas in the series go vroom. Except there was no miracle fuel- it was a used a narrative short-cut to give the various factions something to fight over. The First Culture (“proto”-culture) has great significance as an alien origin story and a key reason why the humans and aliens eventually come together. Lynn Minmay performs an ancient love song that unites the Zentraedi and Humans, and in the excellent OVA “Macross: Do You Remember Love?” the animation and editing allow a potentially corny plot device to transcend into something quite dramatic for an animated feature.

    Oh, yeah- Minmay doesn’t belong with the AUL. I just told you she sang the song that brought everyone together. Strike three. (Did the designers even watch the show?).

    I know this all sounds quite dismissive coming from someone who hasn’t even played the game, and so please take my missive with several grains of salt. I very much want to play a Macross-themed game that is both engaging and thematic while also respectful of the source material.

    It appears I will need to wait longer…

    • Michael Kruckvich

      Clearly they’re specifically using the Macross portion of Robotech, including the story as presented there. Presumably, their license is for “Robotech,” not the original SDF Macross. (And good luck ever seeing a game for SDF Macross rather than Robotech in English!) For Robotech, protoculture as a fuel is correct, and hardly a mistake. You may have preferred the other license, but that’s not what this is.

  3. Christian van Someren

    This game sounds very interesting. Do you think the game can be played solo?

    • I guess that depends on what “solo” means to you. According to some of my wargaming acquaintances, anything can be played solo.

      Officially, though, no. It’s 3-4p. And best at 4. At 3p the REF will be controlled by a bot.

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