I fell in love with this game without ever having seen it. My mom gave me the "Tales From The Ether" adventure anthology for my birthday, and looking through it I was immediately enraptured with the setting. Years and several supplements later, I finally contacted someone who had the actual basic game book, and thirty dollars later I had it in my hands. Though not perfect, SPACE:1889 is worth remembering if only for the sheer greatness of the setting.
The year is 1889 (as one might imagine.) Thomas Edison, the great inventor, found out a way of guiding spaceships through the "ether" in our solar system. We've found life on Mars, Venus, and the Moon, and even set up a little colony on the "temperate belt" of the never-rotating Mercury (yes, yes, I know. Well, it seemed possible THEN.) And no nation has benefited more from this expansion than Britain! Hip hip hooray! Nice nice! Yah boo....
Sorry. Anyhow, the British Empire (and a lot of other empires) have expanded onto these new worlds. Your characters are all Victorian gentlemen or ladies (although there are listings for criminal careers if you're so inclined.) There are three ways of generating your standard attributes (plus Social Level- from Working Class to Aristocracy), ranging from point attribution to random generation. Attribute scores range from 1 to 6, and it represents the number of dice you roll for task resolution, like the D6 system in STAR WARS (there was only a one-year difference between the two games so I'll let that slide.) Career selection helps determine what skills you have, while your Social class determines how much money you have to buy equipment. It's fairly basic.
The system isn't that bad. There are a lot of supplementary systems, like one for scientific research (of COURSE your party's gonna have a character who builds his own Ether Flyer), one for mountain climbing, and of course a combat system that, to some degree, anticipates the Storyteller method of task resolution. The various systems are mostly functional, if unspectacular. Exploration is the focus of the game, and there are numerous encounter tables and rules for land, aerial and space travel.
What really makes this game a wonder is the setting. Starting off with a cool adventure where your party is the first to discover a race of insectoid creatures under the surface of the Moon (no points for spotting the reference), you're thrown into a world of Martian sky galleons, lizard men and dinosaurs on Venus, and everywhere anarchists plotting to overthrow the crown. There are maps, creatures, details on Mars' canal system and other interesting tidbits. The level of detail is brilliant, and any GM worth his salt should find easy inspiration.
For further assistance, consult the numerous modules that were published before the line went defunct, like "Tales from the Ether" (adventures on all the planets), "Beastmen of Mars" (a huge, epic adventure for advanced characters), and "Sky Captains of Mars" (numerous cool characters and the city of Karkoom, the Casablanca of Mars). There's a lot of Mars stuff, and apparently the line ended before they shifted focus, which is a shame. In fact, I'm not sure why this game wasn't a hit, because it was then and even now is a unique setting and quite fun to play. Everything H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, or Arthur Conan Doyle could have written can now be a reality, provided of course you can find this darn thing. Someone put out a second edition!
Style: 5 (Excellent!)