How many games have you bought into that died? The official support dried up, the community drifted away, the models went into shoeboxes until one day you either chucked them or realised the hassle of eBay might be well worth it. You could have still been playing, of course. The rules still worked, the models still physically existed, but something changed. The game died, and you stopped playing.
In part one of What Happened to Starship Troopers, we looked at the beginning – the innovative design of Starship Troopers, the background and aims of Mongoose’s ambitious play for a slice of a burgeoning miniatures market, and the massive splash of the release. Part two will cover the decline and eventual death of a promising game – and the enduring impact and independent afterlife of Starship Troopers.
While producing the “Rise” article was a matter of talking and writing and asking questions, the Fall has required some internet archaeology. There’s layer upon layer of ancient history here to dig through; rumour, speculation, information (and misinformation), and some grudges and petty hatreds that have cropped up in surprising places. In the end, Starship Troopers was a game – a good game, but still a game. The reasons it died are business, legal and professional. Occasionally, finding the relevant reasons in a tide of speculation and personal attacks has been difficult. If the explanation you’re looking for isn’t here, that might be why.
Would you like to know more?
Miniatures games seem to have a release pattern. Year one, buzz, year two, growth, year three either a self-sustaining community, new players cycling in and out of the game, or death. Starship Troopers ended up as the latter. When talking about Starship Troopers, there’s a lot of reasons that might answer why – after that fantastic launch – the game disappeared entirely in that critical third year. But the first and most important thing to establish is when. Fifteen years after release, after the loss of so much information – much of which wasn’t that clear to begin with – the steps that led to the end of the game aren’t as clear as we might like. The following dates are taken from the Mongoose forums, based on announcements made by Mongoose staff.
Early-Mid 2006 – Initial release waves begin to dry up
August 2006 – Mongoose announce a pause in Starship Troopers releases, with a proposed future schedule…
September 2006 – Starship Troopers Evolution demo day scheduled
April 2007 – Starship Troopers Evolution release scheduled
February 2008 – Official announcement on Mongoose Forums that Starship Troopers has ceased production
Early 2008 – remaining Mongoose stock is cleared from stores and website
At some point between 2006 and 2008, Starship Troopers died. What emerged in researching this article, talking to current and ex Mongoose staff, fans, members of the Mobile Infantry and random people on the internet with vague memories of the game, is that there’s conflicting stories around exactly what happened during this time. Lots of people have lots of theories – Mongoose staff included.
Of all the many answers to what killed Starship Troopers, the most prosaic answer of all is that maybe, just maybe, it didn’t have long to live anyway.
Once those thousands of starter sets had hit the tables and the hype had started to die down, it turned out the game wasn’t quite as perfect as first thought. It’s a great system, but it has its quirks – and while “easy to play, hard to master”, the gap between those first games and learning how to master the system is precipitous – as Andy said:
it’s kind of tough to learn and get going with it.Andy Chambers
It isn’t the easiest system to jump straight into, particularly for the biggest potential target audience, those coming straight from the 40k ecosystem. Starship Troopers is notably more complex than 3rd and 4th ed 40k (and all the better for it), but with that came a learning curve that some people weren’t ready to scale.
Other issues arose in balance – particularly once the aggressive rules release schedule kicked in. Many members of the community, even fans still playing the game nearly 20 years later, believe that the core book was underplaytested; arguably its biggest flaw is under-costing the phenomenal abilities of the Mobile Infantry. When played by an expert who really understood the opportunities offered by the rules and specifically by the preparation and reaction mechanics, the MI had high mobility, high toughness, and massive rates of fire. Yes, your exosuits and giant walkers should be strong, but costed as they were a fully optimised MI army played by an experienced general could be nigh on unstoppable.
The MI had more options, better options, cheaper options, and could throw more lead (and fists) wherever they liked on the battlefield. The Arachnids in the core book had eight total units – the MI had nearly as many Fleet assets (7). The Skinnies – the third race in Heinlein’s novel, always notably the third and lesser faction in every single adaptation of Starship Troopers – had just three units to pick from.
Starship Troopers never worked quite as well as it could in pickup games. Mongoose Infantry Reps ran their games as scripted, pre-balanced scenarios – a fantastic way to play the system – but the barrier to entry this posed deterred others. The release of the Klendathu Invasion source book was the high point of the game rules; backed by a solid ruleset, introducing the light infantry platoons and providing scenarios with additional balancing effects, this was Starship Troopers as its most playable and enjoyable for pickup games. Klendathu released in 2005. Subsequent rule sets wouldn’t be able to capture its best qualities.
The balance of the core rules, given the options available and the points you paid for them, was precarious. Four MI army books, one Arachnid and one Skinnie book later, that precarious balance was out the window. The humans just kept getting more options – missiles, air support, light infantry that could play the horde better than the arachnids ever could, and even just flat out better options. The Pathfinders book upgraded an already strong faction while the Arachnid book merely added options. Games could become turkey-shoots, and who wants to play that? When the game is Humans shooting Bugs – when it has been designed around that core principle – balance is integral. It’s not as easy, or as fun, to play mirror matches in this system as it is in others. The game needs fast, ad-hoc bugs and mobile, organised MI. Out on the Mongoose Infantry programme, reps ran tightly balanced scripted games, but expanding to tournaments or pickup games or even to bring-your-own-models narrative events was getting more and more difficult.
It drastically threw the balance out of whack for competitive games, with a points decrease for the MI, which when it comes to the fact your game has basically two factions, really really hurt the sceneDoug, Mongoose Infantry
By mid 2006, with the release of four army books, the game was seen by many in the community as wildly unbalanced, with interest drifting back towards other games that could be more easily played with strangers, both competitively and casually. “Game balance” isn’t everything in wargaming, but you do generally need some and it was drastically out of whack here. That’s a problem when part of the attraction of your game – the thing that got people excited to try it just a few months ago – was the excitement and buzz around its rules. It’s hard to proselytise the cleverness and intricacy of your ruleset when anyone actually playing it is soon going to witness a Mobile Infantry player blasting Arachnids apart without breaking a sweat.
This approach to balance speaks to another, wider, issue that Mongoose would keep facing throughout the life of the line. On the one hand, your existing players with their existing collections generally want (or will claim to want – not always the same thing!) better balance; they’ve invested in your system and they don’t want that investment to be wasted because every time they take out their Arachnids to play they get pounded off the table. On the other, you as the producer of rules and manufacturer of models are incentivised primarily by selling more of those rules and models, ideally new ones that your existing players don’t already own. Going back over what already exists is important for building trust with your community, but unless you’re doing a full new edition – replete with new rulebook(s) – it’s generally a maintenance activity, one which has a certain abstract value, sure, but which has to be traded off against the much more concretely-realisable value of investing that time and effort into new stuff for players to buy. There’s a tension there that very few of the “big guys” have ever resolved, and Mongoose – who let’s not forget, founded their business on a kind of move-fast, break-things model of churning out sourcebooks at a rapid pace – never would.
(As a side note, this is also one of the pitfalls of a game based on a licensed property rather than an original IP – licenses have the useful power of attracting customers simply because they want to play “the Starship Troopers game,” but they also impose inherent limits on what you can make for that game. Even with a monolithic licence like Star Wars, games often run into the issue of there being 2.5 factions and a few dozen recognisable ships or characters before you’re stuck making a loving 28mm rendition of Yerka Mig, assuming you’re even allowed to. Starship Troopers, a much less developed property than Star Wars, is going to very quickly reach its limits – as we’ll see shortly).
Inside the Mongoose
What Mongoose could certainly do – what they knew how to do best – was publish books. They had expertise in writing and producing a high volume of sourcebooks for D20 systems, books that sold well, had lower overheads than miniature production, and required a much shorter lead time than the high quality plastics that formed a key part of the plans for further expansion for Starship Troopers. Rulebooks weren’t a thing that the game lacked; it lasted less than three years and within that time Mongoose published army book after army book.
Some Mongoose staff maintain to this day that it was possible to deliver, expand, and establish, building the game up and investing more and more capital from their successful RPG lines into more plastic sprues, more source books, more armies and releases. The ambition that propelled the first year was unrelenting. Models, books, promises, and pre-release information poured out of Mongoose, supported by a team of in-house writers and publishers and a succession of freelance and contracted sculptors.
We were constantly in motion, getting models into production, writing and testing rules, laying out and then printing books. We had a good number of staff who were involved in different aspects of this and it was all hands on deck all the time.Alex Fennell, Mongoose Cofounder
Mongoose was operating out of a relatively small office, with metal and plastic production outsourced to other producers. Plastic kits had been tooled up and produced in China, and distributed out of Swindon with a secondary distributor in the US. Certainly, those elements of critical infrastructure were there, and the business model was sound, relying on investing capital gained from sales into further expansion. As long as the game kept selling, it would keep going. The problem with this plan is that it creates a kind of ouroborous, and the nature of the products sold, and the release cycle, didn’t help. New army books weren’t going to bring in new people (who would think “finally! I can play a slightly different form of Mobile Infantry! I’ve been waiting for this!”), but they did promise new units. New units needed models, which needed more capital, and a good way to raise that was with new books. You’re trapped in a release cycle and the pressure can only mount. The team met their objective of frequent releases in the early stages, but they eventually faltered; could they have been expected to keep up the pace for much longer?
On the administrative side of things one of the key objectives was to continue to sell the product which would allow for constant expansions and editions.Alex Fennell, Mongoose Cofounder
Both ex-staff and fans doubt that Mongoose had the infrastructure and logistic expertise needed to support a world-famous, award winning, and exponentially expanding mass battle mini game – or that they would ever be able to gain it in time to keep Starship Troopers viable. The freelance sculptor to outsourced casting to 3rd party distribution pipeline, particularly for the high-prestige, high investment plastic kits Alex travelled to China to set up, was vulnerable to stoppages and leaks, and releases after the initial wave began to dry up. 8 months after release, the kits were still coming, but not to the same extent. After the launch window, only two plastic kits came out of Mongoose – Skinnies and the flying Rippler bugs.
As time went on, the expansion business model became more and more demanding, but simultaneously more and more vulnerable to interruptions. In this kind of model, you have to be developing, announcing, and releasing at the same time. A new kit would come out, with another pictured for release, another being turned from a pile of pieces into an SKU, a fourth being sculpted, and a fifth, sixth, seventh being announced on the Mongoose forums or The Miniatures Page. There couldn’t be any downtime because costs had to be recouped, and attention always had to be held. There always had to be a new thing – without one the momentum Mongoose counted on to keep Starship Troopers viable would stutter and fall. By late 2006, there were shadows on the horizon stealing the attention that the system sorely needed. Warmachine was finally making big waves on the British side of the Atlantic and in Lenton the 5,000lb Gorilla in the Workshop was gearing up to write and release a new starter set. The next big release had to come, even when the last big release hadn’t happened on time.
So Mongoose needed to carry on building hype, keeping attention on a game still struggling to secure enough interest to become self sustaining. While normal delays and the standard issues every miniatures company faces led to minor delays on some key kits like the Tanker Bug and variants, release dates for the most anticipated kits – the Viking Dropship, the movie-inspired plastic Mobile Infantry, the Skyhook ship and the TAC Fighter – at first slipped slightly, then drastically, and then, when the game died, vanished altogether. For those on the sharp end of customer relations – both on the Mongoose forums and in shops and game stores around the country, these were difficult times, defending a release schedule that increasingly bore little relation to reality.
I would dutifully report the news , show previews, and get the hype going for a release, and then have to report that it got delayed (or was gone forever) when it didn’t materialize.Doug, Mongoose Infantry
Mongoose was aware of these issues, and in at least one case – those Movie Light Infantry – released in metal what they couldn’t in plastic. Notably – and graciously – they sold them at the lower advertised cost of the plastics. In other cases though, it seems like some releases were chosen to fill a gap with something, anything; metal versions of the starter set plastics, monopose and at a higher cost, seem like an odd move in retrospect.
Some stories from staff then working at Mongoose show the difficulties of running a major miniatures manufacturing and distribution effort from offices not really built for the purpose. Stories of pallets upon pallets of material delivered to an office without a loading dock – and the confusion this sparked – speak to a company whose reach had exceeded its grasp. Was this scale of release ever possible for a small publishing company? Perhaps, but it’s telling that when asked what they’d do again differently, most people working for Mongoose, then and now, talked about bringing on – or outsourcing – those elements to companies with the logistical, financial and production expertise to manufacture and deliver on time.
For the miniatures game, we would likely pull in an established miniatures company to handle design, production and distribution of the miniatures, while we concentrated on the rules systemMatt Sprange, Mongoose Cofounder
Per their own release model, and with the inherent pressures of establishing a new game in the sci-fi space, Mongoose needed to keep the game building, keep expanding, and keep creating if they wanted to keep it alive. Two avenues presented themselves: a fourth faction, and a new edition.
I will be very annoyed if Forth is gonna be their actual name rather than just a codename while they work on itRoughneck 2.0, Mongoose Forums
As alluded to earlier, adding another faction was always going to be tricky in the potentially expansive, but really quite limited world of Starship Troopers. The book features the Mobile Infantry, equipped with one of the first and best depictions of powered armour in SF history. It’s also got the Skinnies as a fairly nebulous threat for some reason (threatening, really, because they’re not-us), used in the first half of the book as a foil for the amazing power of the MI, and then, of course, it has the Arachnids. The movie does away with the Skinnies altogether, giving us WW2 style infantry vs hordes of bugs. Mechanically, you have high-tech guns versus skittering hordes. There’s no indication in any of the sources of a fourth race – so where could Mongoose go?
The fourth faction of the game was duly announced as “The Forth”.
Yeah, we’ll leave that there. Announcing a new faction entirely new to the franchise world was risky anyway – calling it “the Forth” and having the trademark mechanic be larger guns is an enormous risk. The idea was met with a kind of bemused joy – and, fairly in retrospect, some wary cynicism – on the Mongoose forums. Given how things went, it’s unsurprising that the game’s remaining fanbase looks back at it with incredulousness; was this really the best they could do?
The Forth never materialised, but some pictures were shown at Kublacon 2006, and their core theme – tiny guys in big mechs – was established to at least some extent. No models were ever put into production. That the faction was planned shows that Mongoose still had long-term hopes and plans for the game, but also perhaps a lack of momentum and that the design space wasn’t quite as big, as sustainable, as hoped. With the announcement came questions whether the game was being curated and developed for the long term, or if systemic planning and organisational problems were rearing their heads for the developers. Announcing a fourth faction when your key units – those long-promised fleet assets and plastic Movie Infantry in particular – were slipping below the horizon led many to think Mongoose was flitting between projects, a form of “Game Developer Distraction” where big release announcements were taking the place of sustainable growth.
The Forth were perhaps not as inspired as they could have been. But the idea of a faction with big guns and small guys – perhaps like some kind of high tech space…. dwarf? – isn’t a bad one. There wasn’t a high-tech, small-guy range of SF miniatures at the time, a conceptual, market and miniature design space that had yawned open once back in the 80s and then seemed to definitively snap shut a year before the game launched. As covered in Thundercloud’s Squats – the Story of Thicness, 2004 was the year Jervis Johnson finally (well, until just now) killed the Squats for good. Dead, gone, eaten by the definitely-partially-inspired-by-Heinlein Tyranids. It’s telling that when coming up with an original, non-canonical faction for their game, Mongoose reached into the space that GW had just categorically and deliberately abandoned. It’s likely that this wasn’t a conscious decision, but if Mongoose wanted Starship Troopers to be the property to take on 40k – a flame of ambition which seems to have animated much of the project – then you’re looking for a gap in the armour. Perhaps a short, rotund, mechanised and altogether decidedly squat gap; what better angle of attack than seizing the ground your rival has just vacated?
Then, almost out of the blue, came the announcement that Starship Troopers was getting a full revamp with new models, tightened up rules, a rethink of the Skinnies as a faction. Matt announced it in August 2006 on the Mongoose forums, with accompanying articles in industry journals. This wasn’t just a second edition though, but a change in direction. At the same time, Mongoose revealed plans for Battlefield Evolution, a near-future skirmish/mass battle game based on the same core rule set, one still on sale today and still, surprisingly, with mention of its compatibility with Starship Troopers. Industry articles in ICv2 paint the picture of a game nearing release – SKUs costed up, with the first eight boxes in a launch wave and subsequent expansions to come. But again, the game never arrived.
It fed in to the increasing sense in the fanbase that the game was suffering from a wandering eye, the spectre of Game Developer Distraction raising its head again as Mongoose bypassed consistent expansion to chase the next big hype release. The game semed to be so close – promised to the extent that there was even a scheduled trial day at Mongoose in September 2006, where fans could bring their models to try out the new edition, but that seems to be as far as the project got. On top of missing releases, a shock announcement and the radio silence when the project didn’t materialise, Starship Troopers Evolution became a game over promised and under delivered. Interestingly, the game has a phantom presence on online vendors – Amazon, Waterstones, even Boardgames.com – the ghost of a version that never was.
The new edition came with the announcement of a new approach to miniatures – prepainted, toy-like packaging, and designed from the ground up to let you hit the table quickly to accompany the new, tightened, rules. Arranged via the plastics manufacturers in China, prepainted miniatures marked a massive shift in thinking around the game, moving from those tricky, cascading unit releases of sporadic metal specialist units and occasional plastics to a tight, defined range with set release dates. Eight kits were slated for initial release – two for each faction, including the Forth. On the face of it, the new range announcement seemed to correct for a lot of the issues Mongoose had been facing. Here was a solution to imbalanced rules, disparity in range options, even waning interest with a new flashy release. But not a single model for the range was released.
To look at why, we have to think more widely about the state of prepainted miniatures in the mid to late 00s. Prepainted miniatures had – or so the legend has it – been the deathknell of Rackham’s Confrontation game, a once highly popular fantasy rule set with accompanying miniatures. The final edition, Confrontation: Age of Ragnarok, had shifted to prepainted miniatures in 2007, and then sunk without a trace shortly after. Wizkids had been trying with their original line of Heroclix miniatures, stuttering and staggering but still going up until cancellation in 2008. In both cases, massive quality control issues, poor painting standard and a shift to softer, bendy plastic and resin had met with widespread criticism from fans and derision in the industry. They were just, honestly, bad. Lumpy figures, caked on paint, static poses and toy-quality plastic dried up the market, and sales plummeted. People just didn’t buy prepaints at the same volume as they did miniatures they could make and paint themselves. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but building and painting are still a key part of our hobby, and woe betide a company that steps into prepainted miniatures without being damn sure they’re able to deliver what’s now known as “tabletop quality” at minimum.
Mongoose promised tabletop quality, and the taster models sent over from China seemed to offer it. With an enthusiasm for a potential saviour to the range, the first orders were made. Tabletop quality didn’t arrive on the truck.
They were not what we had asked for. I was all set to send them back and tell the factory to have another go.Matt Sprange
The boxes were riddled with production errors and the prepaints varied from ‘eennnnnnh I guess’ to ‘what the Christ?’ It was a mess.Ex-Mongoose Employee
There was nothing that could be done, save to send the models back – but all that time, investment and the release announcements had led to nothing at a critical moment for Starship Troopers.
Prepainted miniatures would mostly go back into the ideas bag, and it was another five years until a game would break into the mainstream of the tabletop world, with X-Wing in 2012.
And then – gone. Dead. Game pulled. Starship Troopers was cancelled, and started, slowly at first but with increasing speed, to vanish from the Mongoose website.
By now you would have heard about cessation of miniatures production for the foreseeable future. This is a bitter pill for SST, as the causes of it have nothing to do with this game, and a lot of people have put a lot of work into its relaunch.Matt Sprange, Mongoose Forums 13/2/08
All the digging has turned up one core reason why the game died when it did. The peril of making a licensed game is, of course, the license. Eventually, for whatever reason, all licenses run out – the Starship Troopers license simply ran out abruptly and with little warning. Ancient posts on Dakka and TMP give details we can’t verify and therefore won’t repeat, adding only speculation to what must have been a difficult – and legally fraught – period.
We can speculate, certainly, that the master license – presumably held by Sony or Tristar (after all, they made the movies) might not have been as secure as thought. Virginia Heinlein – Robert’s wife and, at this point, widow – was rumoured to absolutely despise the movie and its treatment of the book. Robert Heinlein’s name doesn’t appear in the credits. Hell, the movie wasn’t even Starship Troopers until the writer of the film, Edward Neumeier, picked out the similarities between his SF piece “Bug Hunt at Outpost 9” and the movie. It was filmed, edited and produced in a period of management chaos at Sony. Was anyone paying attention when they licensed a Heinlein property and made a film lampooning his politics?
Without the license, the game was doomed. If the license issue was as fraught for Sony as it has been in other big property licensing cases (a bitterly fought case relating to Lord of the Rings was settled for $80 million in 2017), there could be no public statement from sub-licensees like Mongoose. It would doom any line of tie-in merchandise, especially one with a huge lead time and buy-in – tabletop miniatures.
In later years, details would begin to leak out from various sources – posts on Dakka, industry rumours, suggestions and inferences – that the license had been pulled in stages, first with a hiatus order in 2006, and then terminally in 2007. Could this underly the production issues, the slipping release schedules, the decision to switch to pre-painted miniatures? Licensing issues are tricky, hidden from view and often impossible to discuss publicly. Hypothetically, a hiatus order in 06 and a final death in 07/08 matches with the timeline of release orders, slipped deadlines and Starship Troopers version 2. Whatever the issues around suppliers, infrastructure, and plain public interest the game had, this order would finally have taken the project out of Mongoose’s hands altogether.
Whatever, and whenever, license issues arose, eventually the game had to end, and end quickly – not just to peter out, but to be pulled, executed like a wounded bug.
Talking to Matt Sprange and Alex Fennell about the end of the game is filtered through a British stoicism, a stiff upper lip attitude. Games die, sometimes. The loss was copable, could be dealt with, factored into plans and wasn’t the shattering experience that I would certainly have taken it as. How much of that is bravery in the face of unpleasant memories, I don’t know – and wouldn’t like to speculate – but I can’t help but think of other major setbacks in the industry, some that shattered relationships and ended companies. Rackham fell after Confrontation and AT43. Wizkids imploded, was shuttered and bought out after Heroclix. Even Games Workshop took a long time to get over the late 00s stock slump.
It doesn’t matter how good things look, sometimes something just comes along and scuppers things. And as disappointing as that is, you have to be able to bounce back and move on with different projects.Alex Fennell, Mongoose Co-Founder
Mongoose was certainly hit hard, losing a core line with years of potential expansion. But they weren’t idiots. Alex and Matt knew not to bet the farm on a single product, particularly one where the upper ceiling of potential was massive, but the lower ceiling was, well, what they ended up with. Within a year of the ill-fated Starship Troopers Evolution, Mongoose had secured Traveller, the Scifi RPG, and were back doing what they did – and do – best. They’re still making Traveller today, with a 2022 2nd edition update to the system and an enormous line of sourcebooks.
Mongoose was a small company before SST, when it exploded they literally didn’t know how to handle it, as far as I can tellDoug, Mongoose Infantry , Dakka 11/12
I do not think you’re wrong there
Matt Sprange replying to Doug, Dakka 11/12
The impact of Starship Troopers on the gaming scene is harder to quantify. Certain elements seem to crop up everywhere you look these days, and with the propensity of gamers – and games designers – to borrow mechanics, feel, and themes liberally between projects, there’s few modern miniatures games that don’t have a little bit of Troopers somewhere in them. As Andy Chambers said in part one, games designers are magpies. The dice pool, the activations, the damage allocation – you’ll know them from the games that came after, where the shiny mechanic was picked up and dropped wherever it’ll fit. My favourite though is reactions; nearly 20 years after Andy started working on Starship Troopers, they’ve finally been picked up by Games Workshop in the Horus Heresy 2nd edition. An idea far too radical for GW in 2003 is their big rules innovation in 2022. I can’t help but wonder what Andy thinks of that.
The moonshot, the big idea, the 40k killer concept hasn’t gone away either, and whether Mongoose explicitly wanted to dethrone the Emperor or not, they’ve inspired many a line that reached for that perhaps impossible goal. Noone has, thus far, succeeded, but Starship Troopers remains one of the best attempts at slugging it out in exactly the same design space as 40k. I don’t think it’s too big a leap to say that for a minute, Starship Troopers did challenge its Lenton-dwelling competitor. Battle for Macragge, the 4th edition starter set for 40k which was released in 2004, was a fine starter set but not noticably better than the contemporary Starship Troopers one. Assault on Black Reach, launched in support of 40k’s 5th edition in 2008, had one hell of a starter set, a clear improvement over its predecessor. Something made GW up its game – was it Mongoose?
Trying to take on 40k was, on reflection, hubris on our part – however, we could see that other people were buying into that idea too, so the concept of an alternative was not lost.
Matt Sprange, Dakka post 11/9/12
Perhaps the biggest impact though is in those plastic sprues and the starter set. As costs have come down more and more manufacturers are putting together multipart, posable plastics, and now nearly everyone bar the groggiest of historicals manufacturers and the cutting edge of 3D printers has at least one plastic kit out there. But Mongoose were still – and always will be – one of the first non-GW studios to get out there and roll the dice on their big gamble. Others had come before, absolutely, but it doesn’t diminish that high-quality, well presented starter set launching as if out of nowhere, into an almost sprueless world. Those bugs – they’re just that good.
Mongoose no longer produces, or promotes, Starship Troopers. You can’t buy miniatures or books from them, and all activity relating to the game now takes place completely independently of Mongoose. That doesn’t mean the game is wholly dead. Active communities of players still run the game, buying and trading miniatures unearthed in job lots, car boot sales or even – that holy grail – the sealed box. When researching these articles, I joined the Starship Troopers Facebook page, and I’ve stuck around – a positive community, still sharing images, still playing games and still discussing the best way forward. It’s still working out there, still being played, the MI are still jumping and the bugs are still swarming.
If you know where to look, there’s still some miniatures available, following our hobby’s long tradition of IP-skirting genericism. You can get those metal MI that replaced the promised plastic set, and, even without venturing into STL-land, you can get yourself all three released factions. Of course if you do go digital, you’ll struggle to find a Patreon without !not MI and !not Bugs – some of them producing models just because they look cool, but others fulfilling the wildest dreams of early 00s Mongoose, digitally sculpting their way to completing every army list Mongoose released.
Researching these articles brought back a lot of memories of playing Starship Troopers as a kid, of all those Demo games from people like Doug, of going to see Mongoose stands at conventions (maybe I even met Alex and Matt), of applying thick, shiny humbrol varnish in far too thick a layer to a friend’s bugs. I think I’d wanted a grand story – perhaps some kind of betrayal, a shock, something that killed Starship Troopers unjustly that I could complain about.
But the reality of the games business is just that – business. Starship Troopers died because it couldn’t continue. The license issues, in whatever form they took in the end, killed the game. Before they could, a company that reached beyond its capabilities was making a damn good show at the moon shot – the 40k killer. The initial stumbles were the hubris of man, trying to deliver constantly, expand constantly, get more and more product out there until systems creaked and cracked, but never quite collapsed.
Mongoose arguably knew what they were doing by gunning hard for for rapid growth. The biggest challenge in the wargaming market is overcoming inertia. Some of your target market is new gamers, of course, people who wouldn’t play 40k or Confrontation or whatever else but would buy miniatures for an IP they’re more interested in, and some will be current gamers with the infamous wargamer magpie mentality who are attracted to the new thing just because it’s new.
The likely largest demographic though is already engaged gamers who are heavily invested in one or more existing systems, and for them you need to answer the question: “Why should I spend time on your new game, which has more promises than miniatures, when I could invest that same time in the game I’m already playing, as are all my friends?” As we’ve seen with other lines over the last few years, answering that with “Because it’s really great, and you just need to wait 3 years for us to release everything from the core rules so you can see how good it is!” is usually a death sentence, particularly in the “28mm sci fi skirmish/mass battle hybrid” space where you’re up against the 800-pound 40k gorilla. You need a lot of stuff ready to launch, and to kickstart those communities of players so that the game is actually being played and the initial excitement maintained.
In that context, running at it hard and burning through capital to get books in hands and models on tables makes sense. You don’t, really, have other options, at least for what Mongoose were attempting, but it’s hard to believe they were prepared for the scale of what they tried to deliver straight off the bat, and once caught up in the rollercoaster it was hard to get off, to back down, to promise what was deliverable right then and there. It’s happened before and it will inevitably happen again; small businesses in all markets fail not because people don’t want their product, but for lack of working capital to expand to meet that demand, and readers can likely think of several prominent examples of this happening in the traditional games space – how many wildly successful Kickstarters have there been which far outstripped the capacity of the business to deliver?
Mongoose were in a better position than most, though, since they had a pre-existing profitable product line that could bring in cash for them to re-invest. Then came the out of context problem, the one thing any license holder must dread when they’ve sunk time, money, blood sweat and tears into a product line. Could they have fought? We don’t know. It’s impossible now to hack through the layers of ambiguity and legal red tape around the license. But all signs point to the fight, if it were at all possible, simply not being worth it after years of disruption, issues with supply, the pre-paint debacle and ultimately, the waning interest. Unlike some other companies Mongoose survived their ordeal – again, they had other fundamentally sound business to backstop them, and whether by luck or judgment they escaped before the loss of SST might be crippling – and they moved on and found a new fame with a new product line.
Starship Troopers never found its place in the sun as a self-sustaining game. But like many “dead” games, it’s still out there. It’s still being played, still living, still developing, with new scenarios and new fans and people discovering, just like I did back in the day, that thrill of hitting the jump jets and blasting over a bug horde, and that horror of killing dozens only to find the rest skittering towards you. There are still brain bugs to capture, tankers to explode, armoured suits to pilot. One of the great strengths of tabletop games compared to their video game brethren, particularly in the modern age of the live service game, is that there’s no servers to turn off, no Anthem-style final withdrawal of support that means the game you paid for is dead and gone, perhaps only to be revived in a legally-grey private server form. As long as you have a copy of the rules, or know someone who does, Starship Troopers is as dead as you want it to be. So what are you waiting for? On the bounce, Soldier!
Sources and Thanks
This whole thing wouldn’t have been possible without the transparency, openness and honesty of Matt Sprange, Alex Fennell, MI Doug, Andy Chambers and the ex-Mongoose staff (who asked to remain anonymous) I talked to so huge thanks to all of them. Thanks also the members of the Starship Troopers Fan Page and Somethingawful Goons for chatting about it and sharing their memories, and Corrode for doing lots of reading and editing.
Particular and massive thanks to Doug and Matt, who let me pester them with questions for far, far longer than was polite.
There were too many websites, Mongoose Forum, Dakka, TMP and other forum threads to source all of them.
Key website sources were:
www.mongoosepublishing.com/ (via wayback machine)
Key Forum threads quoted in this article were: