Over the weekend on the Gen Con vendor floor perhaps no other game turned as many heads as Halo: Fleet Battles. The 1:20000 scale space combat game's demo occupied a relatively tiny table, buried inside another retailer's display. But that table was surmounted by a massive, nearly three foot-long replica of the Long Night of Solace.
Yes, that Long Night of Solace: the Covenant supercarrier that led the assault on the planet Reach.
The display piece was there to serve as a backdrop for Spartan Games' newest product, Halo: Fleet Battles, The Fall of Reach, a two-player, expandable miniatures wargame firmly set in the Halo universe.
What do we mean by "firmly set"? Well, let Kenneth Peters, a Halo franchise writer for 343 Industries, explain.
Fire in the sky
"The original idea," Peters told Polygon at Gen Con, "was that the Halo franchise team would do reviews of Spartan Games' text. We gave them some basic copy from other material that we have — outlines of the Halo universe.
"They came back and had pretty good text, but ... I don’t mind writing this stuff. Some stuff we already had in the Halo universe and story bible. It had already been written. So I took that. Wrote it all myself."
Peters and his team at 343 opened the archives to Spartan Games, giving them access to the complete library of concept art and the original design documents for each and every Halo game. Meanwhile, they spent their time working on Fleet Battles' documentation, filling it with backstory that's never been told until now.
Simply put, the Covenant and UNSC fleets had never been fleshed out in this way before. Halo: Fleet Battles isn't just a miniatures game with a Halo skin applied. It's an integral part of Halo's canonical universe.
"Some of this material is newly revealed canon."
"Some of this material is new canon, or newly revealed canon," Peters said "The idea here is that this is an opportunity to reveal information that we already have. ... You're playing the Halo games and you understand the context of the invasion of Reach and all the stuff going on there. But this is what Rho 'Barutamee is doing amid the events of Halo: Reach."
Peters said that most of the material in the box tells the story of Reach from the Covenant perspective, something that no other Halo property has done in such detail before. Each of the base set's missions even features an in-canon fictional short story, giving some Covenant characters voices for the first time.
"A lot of the guys in the internal studio are big fans of gaming," Peters said. "Myself, some people in consumer products, we had played games like Spartan's Dystopian Wars before we ever joined the studio. I was well aware of the quality of the miniatures and how they did things. When the decision was made to have them do ships that were only described in canon and realize them as actual models, the franchise team got heavily involved to make sure it was all correct.
"We treated it like any other asset that would end up in the game. We probably had more review process than we would for an asset developed internally in some respects."
Boots on the ground
"We're still a relatively unknown company in some respects," Neil Fawcett, owner of Spartan Games, told Polygon. "We've sold a lot of models in our time. We started six and a half years ago. I commonly joke that Spartan was created to stop my wife from divorcing me.
"My wargaming hobby had kind of taken over my world a little bit. I like fantasy and sci-fi games. I was frustrated with the ones on the marketplace and I thought that I’d make my own. Originally I made them for myself. Then my wife said I had to get a job. In my attempt to avoid getting a job, I launched my own wargames company. That was in 2008."
A few years ago, Fawcett says that he built up the nerve to pull some strings and get a call with 343 to discuss the possibility of building a wargame in the Halo universe. He was just as surprised as anyone when they said yes. The next few years were a blur.
The base set, called The Fall of Reach, contains 32 UNSC models and 17 Covenant models. They range in size from less than an inch long to nearly 6 inches in length, and all come unpainted and unassembled in the box. There's 30 custom dice, as well as punch-out scenery, tokens and documentation — including the Fall of Reach campaign guide that 343 worked so hard to create.
But Fawcett isn't done yet. Right now, his team in Somerset, U.K. is creating the steel molds needed for Spartan Games' Halo-themed ground wars game. By the first half of 2016, he says, tabletop wargamers will be able to game the epic first-person battles that have made the Halo universe famous at the 1:100 scale.
The first prototypes, cast in dark gray resin, were on display in the spartan booth. Among them were UNSC tanks, Warthogs and the Master Chief himself, all painted up and ready for battle.
But, unlike other popular franchises, Fawcett's Spartan already has an in-canon miniatures line to compete against. In 2007, the advertising campaign for Halo 3 famously featured an intricate diorama, created by New Deal Studio, showing UNSC and Covenant forces involved in brutal, hand-to-hand combat.
Even with that diorama fixed in many Halo fan's minds, Fawcett says he's not intimidated.
"In my world," Fawcett boasted, "I can stick 30 Warthogs and 20 spaceships down. I can crash a frigate into a planet with all my ships around it. I can crash a spaceship on a planet and fight on top of the goddamn thing. So am I intimidated? No. There's no point being intimidated.
"When you have someone as cool as 343 holding your hand and standing in your corner helping you? We're being really well-looked-after."
Polygon has received a press copy of The Fall of Reach boxed set from Spartan Games, and over the next few weeks and months will have our impressions on gameplay.
For all the stories from this year's Gen Con convention in Indianapolis, see our StoryStream.
Update: We've updated this article with the proper scale for both the space-based and ground-based games.