Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Spectrum Cosmos - An Explanation

A while back, I decided that I wanted to develop a ruleset for a miniatures skirmish game. As it turns out, I didn't have to.

During my layover in London, I found an old stash of MIRACLES OF TOMORROW MAGAZINE for sale in a street market. I picked it up on a whim, and, well, you can see from my last few posts what I discovered.  I'd been reading them (carefully!) off and on for the past week when I stumbled across this note from publisher Max Osterhagen. I dug through my collection to find the previous issue he referenced, which included this introduction by author James Nathaniel Lawson, who apparently invented a miniatures wargame back in 1933. Such a find prompted me to do some research.

MIRACLES OF TOMORROW was a pulp science fiction magazine of little distinction published quarterly from 1927 to 1934 and monthly from November 1934 to August 1936. MIRACLES OF TOMORROW is only really noteworthy for its editorials by bombastic publisher Max Osterhagen interspersed with its stories. Osterhagen was quite the showman, and at least publicly he claimed that the stories in his magazine were accurate foretellings of a future just around the corner. Otherwise, the book was a fairly unremarkable sci-fi pulp. Aside from Lawson, its contributors included Edward Bauer, Leslie Bell, D.L. Jones, and a rotating cast of freelancers. Most stories were third-rate, derivative space adventures, with plots, images, and characters often freely plagiarized from more popular science fiction stories. Cover art was painted by Max Osterhagen's nephew Carl, who likewise drew more than just inspiration from other, more successful pulps.

In the July 1933 issue, Osterhagen published Lawson's suggested rules for a tabletop simulation of the climactic battle of Lawson's Strangle-Men of the Black Beyond. (A slight aside: I believe Osterhagen only included the game to fill space in the back pages of his magazine. I suspect his long-winded editorial columns became commonplace for the same reason. Osterhagen didn't pay his writers well, even by industry standards of the time.) It is impossible to determine if Osterhagen was telling the truth when he described "dozens of our readers from across the country" writing to show their support of the game, but he must have received some assurance, given how wholeheartedly he leaped into printing more and more scenarios for play. The October 1933 issue included five more scenarios featuring the magazine's most popular characters. By mid-1934, about half of each issue of MIRACLES OF TOMORROW was dedicated to content for the nascent miniatures game Spectrum Cosmos. (The name refers to a common idea running throughout Lawson's stories, where the light given off by the different planets in the night sky would have different fantastic qualities.)

MIRACLES folded in 1936 as readership remained low and Max Osterhagen made increasingly rash financial decisions, culminating in the purchase of several disused machine shops. From some blatantly self-promoting articles in his later issues, it is clear that Osterhagen was hoping to manufacture a line of toy soldiers intended for use with Spectrum Cosmos. The middle of the Great Depression was probably not the best time to sink one's entire finances into such an endeavour. Riddled by debt, Osterhagen sold his modest publishing company to Street & Smith, who promptly cancelled MIRACLES and cut loose its writers. James Lawson wrote a few more freelance stories for other pulp magazines, the last of which I've found was dated 1939. I haven't been able to determine what happened to him after that. Spectrum Cosmos never developed the fanbase that Osterhagen imagined, and seems not to have survived the collapse of MIRACLES. I intend to edit and digitize the old Spectrum Cosmos articles from my MIRACLES collection. My run is not complete, so if anyone has a lead on any other back issues with Spectrum Cosmos content, please let me know in the comments.

By modern standards, Spectrum Cosmos is a remarkably unfinished game. The rules are written in straight prose, which means it is difficult to get a sense of a piece's abilities at a glance. Unit writeups and rules of play seem fairly arbitrary, often with glaringly-important omissions or clear examples of abilities designed without a full grasp of the foundational mechanics. I plan to edit the game for coherence, balance, and playability, bringing Spectrum Cosmos up to the highest standards of modern minis games. I will post all my work on this very blog in the weeks ahead. This is a monumental job for just one person. I encourage those of you that are interested to playtest my interpretation of Spectrum Cosmos and send me your thoughts.

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