<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - Summer 2001 - Who Dies With the Most Toys...Part 3 of 3
The Farm

Who Dies With the Most Toys...
Part 3 of 3

By Steve Spaulding

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fiction inspired by real people, places, and events. Fiction, and I say again, fiction fiction fiction. And please do not sue my ass. All things are copyright and trademark their owners, even if those owners happen to be made up. Winning and losing are relative.

Click here if you missed Part 2 of this story.

Serra Angel Let’s leave Bob and Mitch frozen in their little tableaux of desperation and sadism for a moment. Not to worry, everything will start up again just as soon as Phil Short yells, “Cocksucker!” I need to explain the curious phenomenon of collectible-card games, or CCGs. This, along with toys and comic books, will complete our survey class in geek culture.

In the beginning there were wargames, which have been around for as long as there’s been war. Some have been around so long that we see them today only as pastimes. Chess is the classic example. To a 14th-century Persian aristocrat, a game of chess was a very serious opportunity to train the mind for decisions that would later be made on an actual battlefield. The point of the game–-the beauty of the game, in fact–-is you don’t have all the trouble of moving real soldiers and horses across actual space. You have instead these little wooden or metal pieces and rules for how they move across a board. You are running a simulation, and within that framework a player can explore almost infinite possibilities.

By the 1960s wargames had become extremely complex. Rules for tanks, planes, infantry, boats. Rules for how they move, how they fight, how they need to be supplied, and all these rules derived from real-world information. Outside of the military colleges and academies, a few people played wargames as a hobby, and for most of them the appeal was historical. Sure, you can play Army A fights Army B over some generic patch of ground, but why do that when you can have the Emperor Napoleon re-fight the battle of Waterloo? Or what if Lee had called off Picket’s Charge at Gettysburg? Or what if Hannibal split his infantry against Scipio Africanus? I mean, it’s all just little cardboard or metal pieces on a map. If your set of rules is good enough, and if your history is accurate enough, there’s nothing to stop you.

Then things started to get weird at wargaming clubs out in California. Once you start saying, “What if…?”, it is, as the Emperor himself once said, a very short trip from the sublime to the ridiculous. What if the Confederate States had a fleet of submarines? What if the Nazis got the bomb? What if the Romans invented gunpowder? In 1968 a group of gamers came up with a set of rules for a war that had never actually happened: the Martian invasion of the earth from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Martian walkers, heat rays, poison gas, the whole bit. A lot of the old-school gamers grumbled and muttered and said this new “fantasy wargaming” was a worthless fad that was going to blow over any day.

Then in 1970 (the year I was born) a fella named Gary Gygax found himself with a little dilemma. Gary was an absolute nut for coming up with new rules, and he’d written a set for fantasy wargaming in the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Elven cavalry, Dwarven sappers, Orcish heavy infantry, that sort of thing. But being a rule nut, his game was generating a hell of a lot of paperwork. It used to be he could get all the information he needed to run an entire army on a single sheet of paper. Now, between keeping track of who was wearing leather armor and who had the +2 magic sword and who had memorized the Fireball spell–-and on and on–-he needed almost an entire sheet of paper just to describe a single person in that army.

Which was where Gary had his breakthrough. What if, instead of playing an army, you played just one guy? You could make up rules for how strong he was, how fast he was, even how smart he was. You could decide what armor, what weapons he carried. You could make up an entire back story for your guy, like an author creating a character. Where’s he from? Who are his parents? Is he a good person or a bad person? What does he want out of life? And then you would have him live that life, or rather, the player would live that life for him, like an actor taking on a role. Instead of just moving and fighting, your character could go drinking in the tavern, he could study a new language, he could meet a girl and fall in love, he could do anything that people (well, fictional people) do.

My god, I imagine Gary thinking, just think of all the rules I’ll need to write! And like any rule-fiend, he was off to the races. In about a year he had a set of rules he was publishing for a game he called Dungeons and Dragons, and a small contingent of fellow players happily working away on even MORE rules. A lot of the old-school fantasy wargamers grumbled and muttered and said this new “fantasy role-playing” was a worthless fad that was going to blow over any day.

When the second-edition rule books for D&D were published in 1974 they were the size of phone books. Okay, maybe not that big, but they were real chunky tomes all the same. And you needed at least three of them (the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual) to run a game. I owned all three by 1979. I know because I’ve written my name and date in a childish scrawl on the inside cover of each of them. I was nine, and I wouldn’t crack a math textbook to save my life, but I and the small group of friends I played with spent hours poring over those gigantic books. We couldn’t factor a polynomial, but if you’d asked any one of us what chance a 4th-level cleric had of turning a Mummy, we could all tell you it was a shit-out-of-luck 1 in 20.

In a way, it was a lot like playing cowboys and Indians, only instead of playing in the fresh air and sunshine, we mostly played in our parents’ dank, musty basements. And instead of running and jumping around all day, we spent hours sitting at an old card or coffee table, eating Pringles and drinking Mountain Dew until we got the bad caffeine jitters. And–-and this is key–-instead of having play break down into “I shot you! You’re dead!”/”No you didn’t! No I’m not!”-type arguments, we could just roll the dice, look at the rules, and KNOW what happened.

Role-playing games exert a strong influence on geeky people because they tap so directly into an imaginative, escapist faculty that is pretty much what makes a geek a geek in the first place. Instead of watching Captain Kirk and dreaming what it would be like on the bridge of the Enterprise, you go buy the Star Trek role-playing game (yes, they made one–-Paramount licensed out four of them over the years, in fact) and you can BE Captain Kirk. You don’t have to sit back and watch your heroes, you can join in (without actually having to get off your Pringles-fattened geek ass, of course).

But the rules are key. Geeks today, much like the Romantics before them, don’t just want to get away FROM this mundane “real” world–-they want to go TO this other, better, more exciting world. A world where they are powerful, knowledgeable, and brave. And they want that other world to be coherent, to make sense, to be as “real” as they can make it, and the rules are what make that possible. That’s why Einstein is such an icon and hero to geeks everywhere. It’s not just the doofy haircut and bad taste in clothing; it’s that he was able to imagine this whole other world, come up with the rules for it, and then turn around and prove that his world was actually this world all along. That’s the secret hope of every geek who ever lived.

Role-playing games had their heyday in the ‘80s. There was even some uproar about it turning kids into Satanist fiends who were going to ritually sacrifice their parents (am I the only one who remembers a bad made-for-TV movie with Tom Hanks called Mazes and Monsters?). Heedless and unsupervised, my friends and I played straight sword-and-sorcery games like D&D, then branched out into science-fiction games like Star Frontiers, superhero games like Champions and Villains and Vigilantes, and after a while we just went nuts and began making up our own games like Mega-City and Cormorant. I was still making up role-playing games long after I quit playing them. In college as an English major I tinkered endlessly with my Lost Generation game that was set in 1920s Paris (can Hemingway and Joyce possibly escape Gertrude Stein long enough to get blind, stinking drunk?) and a Shakespeare role-playing game that never really got off the ground.

But even the most complicated role-playing game can only supply so many rules, and the geek craving for–-well, not for structure, but for structures–-knows no bounds. Where there is demand, someone will find a way to supply.

Late in the ‘80s and early in the ‘90s when my friends and I would go to the big gaming conventions (oh, geeks will throw a convention for ANYTHING, not just comic books; hell, there’s even a Starsky and Hutch convention), we noticed that all the younger kids were playing these new collectible-card games. CCGs took the infinitely flexible space-time of role-playing games and folded them back into the old wargaming mindset in a very clever way.

Basically you, the player, were like a God or powerful magician, and the cards in your deck represented various spells, artifacts, creatures, and sources of power. Each player would shuffle his or her deck and draw from it to build a hand, then play different cards out of that hand in different ways to battle their opponents. My friends and I grumbled and muttered and decided CCGs were a worthless fad that was going to blow over any day.

What we didn’t understand was that for any one game there were hundreds, sometimes thousands of different kinds of cards, and each and every one of them was like its own little addendum to the rules of play. Some cards could change the entire flow of a game. Some cards would interact with other cards, either the player’s or his opponents’, to create strange effects and modifications.

To top it off, all of those cards were collectible, just like baseball cards or comic books, and their utility in play only fed the collecting craze. Naturally, the cards that could most forcefully swing a game in your favor were the hardest to find. Collectible-card games were simple (which is not to say that they were easy), fast-paced, competitive in a way role-playing games never were, and above all, ludicrously complicated. Coherent, but complicated. It was geek crack.

By 1994, TSR, the role-playing game publisher that Gary Gygax had founded (and later had been kicked out of–-it’s a long story), had gone bankrupt and had its stock bought up by Wizards of the Coast, the number one maker of collectible-card games. Any fly-by-night company who had a card press and some half-decent art was trying to create the next big hit CCG. One such company was Triton Games, who decided to steal a step from the role-playing games and create a card game based on comic-book superheroes.

Triton contracted a cadre of desperate, third-rate freelance game designers to slap it together. They named it Apexion: The Unleashed and barely play-tested it. Everybody at Triton knew they had a worthless-piece-of-crap game, and the only way they could make money off of it was to move as many cards as they possibly could before everyone else realized it was a worthless-piece-of-crap game. They hunted high and low for some media outlet–-preferably one already plugged into the comic-book market–-that wouldn’t give a shit about the quality of Apexion but would be willing to hype the hell out of it for a chunk of the profits.

They found Mitch Murphy and the assholes at Mage. Mitch got promised a juicy cut of the back end and an up-front promotional budget. Of that budget, he spent most of it poly-bagging individual cards into the April issue of Mage, and the rest setting up an Apexion tournament at the San Diego Comic Book Convention, which included banners, flyers, floor space, cheapo prizes, and the services of a booth babe for a few hours to register the players. But he held about a grand in reserve to buy an on-the-card Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Full Dress Uniform, ostensibly as the tournament grand prize, but in point of fact to put the screws to Bob Ivy, and by extension the Heroic team.

“Cocksucker!” yelled Phil Short.

We were back in Phil’s hotel room after a long day walking the floor at the Con. Between manning the booth, attending seminars, and doing interviews, each of us had managed to talk to different people in the know. Back in Phil’s room we had ordered a pizza and pieced together the connection between Triton Games and Mitch. Phil was incensed. Like any good leader, he saw attacks on his people as attacks on himself.

At the Mage booth, Bob had done his best to strike the cool pose, but every so often Mitch would move that little Picard from side to side and Bob’s eyes would follow it of their own volition. It was a sad thing, actually, like a dog being teased with a piece of jerky. Finally Jacob and I had to take Bob by either arm and lead him away. Now a very glum Bob was sitting cross-legged on Phil’s spare bed (as E-in-C, Phil rated a suite), drinking a mix of Kahlua and chocolate Yoo-hoo in between bites of ham and pineapple pizza. It was clearly some sort of low-level suicide attempt.

We sat fuming for a bit until Jacob said, “You realize of course that this means war.” Jacob gave it a note of grim determination that got all of us fired up.

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but my suggestion was that we head out–-right then–-and break into the convention center, steal the Picard and leave something in its place, like a monogrammed glove or a bag of sand or something.

Phil put the kibosh on that. The convention hall had plenty of retailers hawking their wares and, consequently, security was way too tight. We’d get caught, and if we didn’t get arrested we’d get banned from the Con–-perhaps never to return. The thought sent chills.

“The thing to do,” said Jacob, stroking his little Satan beard with the tip of his right index finger in a manner at once casual and weirdly unwholesome, “is to have one of us enter the tournament and win the whole show.”

“I’ll do it,” said Bob in the dull but determined monotone of a condemned man. He didn’t know the first thing about CCGs, he didn’t own a single Apexion card, but he wanted to offer himself up as sacrifice–-I think as much to show us he appreciated the support as for a vainglorious stab at the Picard.

“That’s just what Mitch is hoping you’ll do,” grumbled Phil. “And I won’t have it. He’s planning to humiliate you, you know. He wants to get your picture published somewhere in Mage. I can almost read the caption now: ‘Heroic Monthly editor Bob Ivy, eliminated in the first round of the Mage-sponsored Apexion tournament.’ ”

“He won’t publish that photo if Bob wins, though,” I said.

“C’mon,” said Phil. “I mean,realistically, what are the chances of that?”

“They’re zero,” said Jacob.

“That’s right Bob, for all intents and purposes you don’t have a chance,” said Phil.

Bob took a big long swig of his Yoo-hoo. He looked like he was going to throw up.

“No,” said Jacob. “I mean actually zero. There’s no way Mitch would leave a thing like this to chance.”

Light dawned. “You think the tournament is rigged?” I asked.

Jacob shrugged. “It’s what I would do,” he said, reminding us all why we liked having him around. Having the evil gene lends one such clarity and insight.

We spent the next several hours plotting and planning. It was Thursday night, and the tournament was Saturday, which gave us a little more than 36 hours to work with. Luckily, working at Heroic had gotten us all used to near-impossible deadlines. We even made it out to the hotel bar for a few drinks and somewhere along the way got sidetracked by an extended H.R. Puffinstuff argument. The next day was spent working the convention, but each of us found the time to complete our individual assignments.

Bob and I hit a local hobby shop and bought four decks and two supplement packs of Apexion cards. Right there in the rulebook was the credit line: “Chief Game Designer: Guy Lothario.” Bob and I got back to the hall, gave some of the cards to Jacob, and told Phil about this Guy guy. Working together, Bob and I managed to get the rules down fairly well by the end of the business day.

Meanwhile Phil had called up Walt Hapsell back at the office in beautiful downtown Lombard, Illinois. Why sure, Walt had heard of Guy Lothario; it was the nome de plume for a struggling science-fiction novelist named Carl DiMaris. And yes, Walt had Carl’s number right there in his rolodex. Phil called Carl. They chatted for a bit.

Jacob had taken a few of the cards we’d given him out on his lunch break and managed to find a Kinko’s with an optical scanner. While waiting on his job, Jacob put in a phone card call to Al Bender at the office. Why sure, Al knew a few people in San Diego who were really into the cards thing, and maybe he could dig up a few names.

Back at the booth Jacob gave Phil one of those old SyQuest disks with his scans on them. They talked about this and that, asked Bob and me a few questions about how our games were going. We offered a suggestion or two. Then Jacob went off to Artists’ Row to commission a small work of art, and Phil got on the phone to our printer–-just a little rush job on a demo piece, and they had a satellite office out here in San Diego, didn’t they? Why, he’d bring over the job himself in about 45 minutes.

Jacob came back with the artwork. Bob and Phil came up with a terse, three-line caption, and away Phil went with disk, text, and art. He was back by the time we were closing up shop. We all went out for ribs and then hit a party being hosted by a couple of English comic-book writers to celebrate our good work. Later that night, back at the hotel, Bob and I stayed up until three in the morning playing Apexion, perhaps one of the most worthless games ever created but, I must admit, kind of fun if you’re really drunk.

And the next day was the tournament. That morning we all made sure we got a good breakfast. Phil (the only one of us who rated a rental) drove out to the printer to pick up our package. Bob and I built up his fighting deck out of the best and brightest cards, making sure he had stocked up on his defense and had several copies of two particular cards named “Hotwire” and “Overload.”

Everything was bustling during setup on the convention floor. Saturday was invariably the biggest day of the Con, and everyone running a booth felt the immense psychic pressure of the legions of comic-book geeks waiting in long lines to get in–-seething, writhing, yearning for their 4-color fix of cheap newsprint dreams. The curvy young booth babe for Mage was just stacking her tournament registration forms when she was approached by a thin, youngish man with a little Satan beard. He was carrying a long box.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m from Triton Games. I’ve got a delivery for you guys and that list of names Mitch wanted.”

“What’s the delivery?” asked Bambi (no, really).

“Giveaways,” said the young man. “I think they’re cards.”

“Huh,” said Bambi. “And what is this about a list?”

“Oh that’s right here,” he said, and pulled a short list of names out of his pocket. “These guys are all supposed to play each other the first round.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, they’re all supposed to be really good at the game. It’ll give some of the kids a better chance of getting to the second round.”

“Oh, that’s sweet,” said Bambi. “Did Mitch ask for this?”

Jacob Catcher drooped his eyelids just slightly to fight back the smirk. “Why yes,” Jacob said, “Yes, Mitch surely did.”

And with a few more kind words to the pretty girl, he was on his way back to the Heroic booth, mission accomplished. He felt kind of bad, he told Bob, that he wouldn’t be able to attend the tournament since Bambi might point him out. Then he clapped him on the shoulder and told him to go get registered and give ‘em hell. And off Bob went–-and then came back of course, because we all had a lot of work to do.

The doors were opened, the hordes were unleashed, and for the next several hours we were too busy to worry about how the tournament might go. At one point as I was handing out free issues to a pack of kids, I noticed one of them had an Apexion card in his shirtfront pocket. I asked if I could take a look. On the front was a picture of your standard-issue cosmic superhero, rocketing through space at warp speed. A strange and powerful green glow was coming from his chest–-the obvious source of his mighty powers. The text of the card read, “Starheart Powercore: +30 Omni-point battery, plasma type. May be Hotwired.”

“Wow,” I said as I handed it back. “Awesome card.”

“Yeah,” said the kid, “it would be if, like, EVERYONE didn’t have one.” And away he went.

1:30 rolled around and Bob left the booth, deck in hand to go play. “Go with him,” said Phil.

“Are you sure that’s smart?” I asked.

“It would look funny if no one was there,” Phil said. “Jacob can’t go, and if I showed up Mitch might tweak to the plan. We’ll hold the fort. Oh hey, I was just talking with this guy–-“

“–-and he’s got one of the cards, right?” I finished for him. We stood there for a second grinning at each other like loons. Saturation had been achieved.

It took me a while to get my stuff together and get out of the booth. When I showed up at the tournament area Mitch was just finishing his pitch. About 30 guys (not a single girl) were seated around six tables. Every single one had their game face on. I caught Bob’s eye and gave him the thumbs-up.

Then Mitch pointed to the two tournament referees and for a second it was like the entire world came crashing down–-then I looked again and saw that both of them were Mage editors, probably just trying to get away from booth duties for a while. Neither one had probably played a single game of Apexion. We were still a go.

Mitch wound it up by thanking everyone for coming and hoping it would be a fun tournament. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and I’d like to thank Bob Ivy from our rival publication Heroic Monthly for being a real sport and coming out to play. Good luck, Bob!” And right on cue a lurking photographer snapped Bob’s picture. I really don’t think it got Bob’s best side.

Then one of the referees blew a whistle (which I really didn’t think was necessary) and the first-round bloodbath commenced.

Oh yes, absolute bloodbath. Everyone was just whomping and wailing on one another, right from the outset. Everyone, it seemed, had a Starheart Powercore (some had two or three) and was using it to boost their Power Beams, Gravimetric Pulses, Inferno Blasts, and Seismic Shockwaves to unheard-of levels. People were being eliminated within the first five minutes–-most of them walking away with this utterly shell-shocked expression on their faces.

Nowhere was the carnage more brutal than at the expert table. Most everyone on Al Bender’s list had made it to the tournament, and most all of them were clustered at the table near the center of the tournament area. You could see it was them right off. They were fatter and older, carried much thicker decks, and took the whole thing terribly seriously. Low curses could be heard from the group as delicate schemes and finely crafted stratagems began falling apart in the midst of a game that was now hideously overbalanced. A player would need an almost completely defensive deck to have even a prayer of lasting under those kinds of conditions.

Which was just what Bob had. He put on his Armor of the Gods, beefed up his Regeneration, played three successive Hyper Density cards, and just waited for everyone to kill one another. When it got down to Bob’s one remaining opponent, the poor guy had been battered so bad that Bob’s hero just threw a block in his direction and crushed his entire power structure. End of game.

A typical game of Apexion is supposed to last about 40 minutes to an hour, with 90-minute, even two-hour games not too uncommon. After 20 minutes, the only table still playing was the expert table, and it was down to just two guys. I headed over to get a better look.

The fat one drew and flipped three of his cards. The fatter one was forced to discard two of his power structure. The fatter one then drew, held the card aloft for dramatic effect, then threw it down. Starheart Powercore. He flipped three more cards in his structure and sat back in his chair with an immense shit-eating grin on his face.

The fat one’s face turned the most amazing shade of purple. He put his palms on his thighs, stood up out of his chair, and wound up and clocked the fatter one right on the side of his head. There was a shocked moment where no one moved, then the fatter one overturned the table and sort of launched himself at the fat one’s throat. Cards went flying in all directions. People at the edges of the tournament area began cheering. The refs looked at each other in horror, neither one of them willing to get between two such immense, pissed-off people.

Luckily, years of sitting in their parents’ basements eating Pringles and drinking Mountain Dew had left them far too weak to do serious damage, while their many layers of fat acted as padded armor to prevent injury. In short, their fight was a strange reverse-parody of the game they had been playing. By the time security arrived to cart them away, they were two of the sweatiest men I had ever seen, but neither one was really hurt–-which is a good thing because I would have felt partly responsible.

A very worried Mitch stepped in to try and restore order. Since there were only five players left, and he was now looking to wrap things up quickly, he decided to eliminate the second round and go right to the finals. He gave Bob a long, hard look. I could practically see the wheels turning inside his head.

So began an extremely tense final round. Everybody had won by playing cautiously and showing tenacious defense. The first person to throw down a Starheart would be at once the biggest gun AND the biggest target. I had a great seat for the show. It was a fantastic fight, but talking about it in this “threw three cards, drew two cards” style I’ve been using is just clumsy and confusing if you’ve never played the game. To put it in natural language terms, Bob’s play went something like this:

After his parents were murdered by a criminal conspiracy when he was young, Bob rapidly mutated, growing a thick shell and a set of wings. He was abducted by aliens who bestowed upon him several artifacts of power. He had a brief scuffle with the player to his left, who managed to steal several of those artifacts away with a magnetic beam. Bob shrugged it off, drank some regenerative serum, took several classes in the black arts, and raised a force field. Just in time, as the player second from his right punched him with his bionic arm and tried to freeze him with a cryonics ray. Bob had his shell destroyed, but with his regeneration he managed to grow it back.

And then the player to his left opened up his Starheart, plugged it into his Nova-claw and let Bob have it. It would have probably been enough damage to destroy him, but Bob was able to use his black arts to summon his time machine (yeah, I know, little glitch in the game there) and go back and alter history so that the Nova-claw had never been acquired by that player in the first place. Really made me jump.

Play in Apexion usually proceeds clockwise (there are special cards that can change that, but none had been thrown at this point), and the player to Bob’s left had just brought out the Starheart. So, naturally enough, the player to his left brought out his Starheart, plugged it into his biggest weapon, a Cybergolem with a Singularity Cannon, and blasted the Nova-claw guy. Didn’t kill him though.

The next player in turn threw down his Starheart to power-up a sonic scream. He didn’t kill the previous player, but did destroy his Cybergolem. And the final player sitting to Bob’s immediate right pulled out not one, but two Starhearts, plugged them both into his Stonesword and hacked at the player to Bob’s left–-the one who had started the entire escalation–-killing him to death. The first kill gathered up his cards and left the table.

And it was Bob’s play. He drew a card, pondered for a moment, selected one carefully from his hand and threw it down. “Hotwired. All you guys,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” said the Stonesword player to his right. “You can’t Hotwire a powerco….” His voice trailed off as he read his card a little bit more closely. The rest of the table got very quiet.

Bob drew another card and threw it down. “Overload. Since whatever I throw on one of you affects you all, I’ll just say it’s on all of you. Since the Starheart is plasma-type, that’s double damage, right?”

Everybody stayed quiet.

“Is there anybody who has a counter to this card?” asked Bob, and it sounded like he was almost hoping somebody did. “Because it doesn’t look like anyone here is showing 60 points worth.” And none of them were, and none of them could do a damn thing about it. Game fuckin’ over, man.

The crowd–-which had gotten pretty huge thanks to the fatty fight–-burst into applause. They were about as enthusiastic as a general audience can get over a lame-ass card game that no one’s ever heard of. Which, from where I was standing, was pretty impressive all the same.

Bob walked right up to Mitch, who was standing there holding a Starheart of his own. “Interesting little card here,” Mitch said. “I’m thinking it looks like a fake.”

Never taking his eyes off Mitch, Bob called back over his shoulder, “Hey, Cybergolem dude,” to one of his opponents who was walking up to collect a finalist piece-of-crap prize. “Where did you get that nifty Starheart card, I’ve been meaning to ask. You see, I don’t have a single one in my entire deck.”

“Got ‘em right here at the Mage booth,” he said. “We all did.”

By this point all the players–-except the fat guys–-were standing behind Bob, looking at Mitch and trying to figure out what was going on and why they weren’t being given their free crap and a last ogle at Bambi. Bob held out his hand. Mitch reached up to the shelf behind him, took down the Picard, and handed it to Bob.

Then he spat right on the floor just in front of him.

“Sorry,” said Mitch. “I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth.” Then he turned and walked away. Away from the booth, out of the hall, off to who knew where. It was the last I ever saw of him in person.

Bob left the tournament area holding the Picard high for all to see. I shook his free hand and congratulated him. I wished very much that we had a few more guys there to carry him off on our shoulders… but really, that was probably too big a deal to make out of a silly card game and an overpriced action figure.

The next day the convention held the annual Eisner Awards for excellence in the comics medium. Heroic Monthly won for best comic-book journalism, beating out Comics Cavalcade, the American Comics Journal, and, oh yes, Mage. Phil went up to accept the award and in the little speech he got to give he said the key to success was working with the very best people.

Come Monday, we all went home. Phil chalked up some of the strange purchases on his expense report to “promotional items.” Eight months later, Heroic’s sales dropped to the point where it stopped being a print magazine. We took it on-line, but it was really a terminal case. Two months after that it closed for good, and I was out of a job. Again.

Bob Ivy and I went on to work together for an outfit called Clarion Comics. We both quit when we realized we were having the same dream about strangling our new boss. Bob rented a 20-ft. truck for all of his toys and moved back to Madison, Wisconsin. I haven’t talked to him in ages.

In the meantime the bottom dropped out of the comic-book market. Sales plummeted and comic-book specialty stores went out of business all across the country. As I write this today in 2001, comics still seem to be foundering. But the medium has always been boom or bust, and it looks like good things are on the horizon.

Mage is still in print, with Mitch Murphy still in charge. He never ran a single line about the Mage-sponsored Apexion tournament, and the folks at Triton Games tried to sue his ass for breach of contract, breach of fiduciary responsibility, and lord alone knows what-all.

Triton actually had modest success with Apexion: The Unleashed, then pissed it all away with their colossal flop, Apexion II: The Ravaged, which, in addition to being a crappy game, had a very disturbing sexual subtext. Incidentally, the Starheart Powercore card we came up with became an instant collectible, selling for as much as $15 at some specialty shops. Go figure.

And for all of that, we never did figure out how Mitch planned to rig his own tournament. I would have almost thought that he was running a fair game, except for the way he stormed off once it was all over. The consensus around the Heroic office (back when we had an office) was that he had a ringer somewhere in the field.

But the only person to win in the first round but not play in the second was the fatter of those two brawling fat guys. Since he was playing at the expert table, we figured he was probably on Al Bender’s list. After a few phone calls we discovered he was a fellow named Cecil Meyerhofer, who according to his roommate (the less fat of the two fat guys), had moved down to Mexico to join a UFO cult, and if he had had some sort of deal with Mitch, Cecil never shared the information.

Strange world.

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Copyright©2001 by Steve Spaulding.

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