Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Category Archives: Star Fleet Battles

Federation Commander: Kids Will Play It

Okay, so Federation Commander keeps getting requested at my house. This is the third or fourth time, now. The two boys (aged 11 and 12) insisted that we use squadron scale this time. The twelve-year-old wanted everyone to play their own ship– including me. (Me, I want them to learn more of the rules, more of the tactics, and play shorted duels so that it is clear what’s going on. They want to make epic scenarios.) With the excitement reaching a fever pitch at the kitchen table, this becomes a major social event. As such, my daughter (age 8) ends up wanting to join in.

Now, the thing about gaming with kids…. One kid makes a passable gamer. Two kids make half a gamer. Three kids? No gamer at all! As you add more and more kids to the game, the chaos rises exponentially. I’m amazed that I can keep some semblance of a game going in between the fart jokes and the poking. But you know, it actually sort of worked a good chunk of the time. If you keep in mind that your main objective at this point is to normalize gaming as a viable activity that can just spontaneously happen at any time, then the session will make more sense.

The twelve-year-old laid out as many map sheets as would fit on the table. Everyone picked out their ships and it ended up being my son and daughter teaming up in D7’s while I and the twelve-year-old flew a Federation Heavy Cruiser. We came on the board and my son decided he wanted to shoot his sister in the back at range 8. She turned and could not get her disruptors in arc, so she answered back with several phasers at range 3 or so. We slogged through the next several impulses which I decided to mark with the projector pens on the reference sheet. At impulse eight, the Federation unloaded on my son’s D7, but through two different shields. (The twelve-year-old was at range 5 and I was at range 8.) We did a good chunk of damage and then followed through with phaser fire on impulse one of the next turn. This gutted the D7 and I called the game.

It was bed time for my two at this point and let me tell you, it is ten times as hard to get them ready for bed with a big mess of Federation Commander stuff spread out everywhere! The twelve-year-old begged me to keep playing with him, but it was impossible to focus on anything in the chaos of my kids bedtime routines. I tried to help him use the time he had before his dad showed up to learn a few more rules, look at some of the other ships in the game, and plan our next scenario. I got out the battleships ship cards and the kids’ minds were completely blown. The twelve year old asked me if you could a Klingon B10 verses a Federation frigate would be like the battle in the opening to the 2009 Star Trek movie. (I told him yes.) My son said he wanted to design a ship card of his own: a frigate that had shields like a battleship! So much stuff here to get into…!

This game is a very big deal for the kids. The twelve-year-old wants to know what can be done with every box on the card. He is blown away by the way that the game presents an accessible working model of Trek that he can play with. At one point he’d climbed up on a chair and had taken down my Romulan ships and started making “pew pew pew” sounds. He has no concept yet of what good play or good tactics would look like, but he wants to play a frigate duel as badly as he wants to play a battleship duel. It’s interesting to me as well that he hasn’t discovered the other races, yet– the Kzinti ships I showed him just left him cold. Starbases, though…? He wants to play a game with that unit as soon as possible! He could totally play this game for hours no matter how insane a scenario he comes up with– the more stuff, the more guns, the better as far as he’s concerned. I talked him into letting me pick the scenario every other session, so we’ll see how that goes….

Federation Commander: The Kids Love It!

The D7 had 20 internals at the end, but the CA took its last frame hit before we were finished marking the disruptor hits…!

So I’d put my son through a drone scenario the weekend before. His space gamer pal had started asking for Star Fleet Battles the week before. Then last  night he came back for a second helping, so I put Federation Commander on the table. I used the fleet scale ships for the classic CA/D7 duel. I scrambled to keep the game moving, explain everything, and keep things relatively fair and they were done with their duel in a little more than an hour.

This is not his first choice for game night. (He rather play Settlers.) Nevertheless, when those shields started going down, it started to get tense. These guys made some odd choices every now and then, but they totally get that you want to maneuver such that you can target your heavy weapons through the vulnerable hex sides. And thought I never really taught them the precise rule for which shield takes the damage when a boundary is split, they ended up screaming the expected ruling at each other when it got to where it counted.

It’s eight “impulses” before they got their power back and their weapons cycled. In that time there is some frantic maneuver to achieve some kind of superior position. In the final turn of the game, my son had overshot the Federation ship and worked within the limits of the turn modes and side slip modes to gradually bring his disruptors into arc. It was exciting. This tense dance of destruction is the heart of this game and the thing that sets it apart from other “move and shoot” games. Even 11 and 12 year olds grasp the essence of it in short order, though, and I can’t help but start quoting Star Trek II under my breath.

The kids got introduced to drones in combat this time, though the fact that each ship has one at fleet scale means that they tend to cancel out. My son’s ADD was highly effective in this game, while the Federation ship had to resort to using its tractor to grab one drone that was threatening to go through a down shield. Things got interesting when that tractor beam was destroyed by disruptor fire later on!

The Federation ship exploded half way through turn three while the Klingon was merely bloodied. (He was surprised when he couldn’t eject his warp core to get out of the fix he was in. Sorry man, you’re dead.) My son’s friend was peeved that I refused to explain the shuttle rules in this first duel. He still wants more ships on the board– and at squadron scale to boot. They grasp the basic movement rules, the idea of spending power impulse to impulse to either speed up or slow down slightly, and they definitely get overloads and shield reinforcement. The fact that this is relatively cumbersome and complex compared to the typical euro game is no deterrent to them in any way. They don’t really “see” the rules and the sequence of play so much– they just smell the blood in the water! I think a rematch has a strong chance of coming to pass….

A First Look at Federation Commander

Done the Impossible: All of the rules… in a booklet the size of a Captain’s Log.

On the whole, I am rather impressed with the Federation Commander rules. It actually took me years to get the hang of Star Fleet Battles. (I would read the rules and make notes on everything. I’d have pages and pages of notes, and when I did finally play, my cheat sheets were always several pages long.) The one overriding principle of Federation Commander’s design is to maintain the overall thrust of Star Fleet Battles while eliminating anything related to record keeping or plotting. I think they succeeded admirably.

They realized during development that they could not improve the game by reducing the number of impulses in a turn. Car Wars, for instance went from having 10 phase turns to 5 phases and on down to 3 phases in the last edition. Three phase movement sacrificed a great way too much granularity it’s clear that the designers could not accept that here. On the other hand, iterating through the byzantine impulse sequence 32 times in a turn is downright unworkable in game designed for today’s market. Their solution was to reduce the number of fire opportunities down to a quarter of that. Each “impulse” now has four sub-pulses that consist of just movement. The sub-pulses play out quickly; the overall tempo and feel of the combats are maintained while a lot of extraneous decision making is quietly let go. It works.

It’s the little things that clinch the deal, though. Like not having to strain my eyes finding the ship’s turn mode given a current speed. (With the ship limited to three different “gears”, it’s a lot easier to reference your turn mode on the fly.) Stupid stuff like the Kauffman Retrograde are not possible in this system due to backwards movement being changed to cost twice as much. Mid-turn speed changes (which were a huge headache in Star Fleet Battles and were essential to mastering tournament style play) are now so drop-dead simple to implement that you’ll be teaching the rule for it in your first game. (All you do is pay a point of energy on any impulse to temporarily speed up or slow down.) Anything I had to look up often in the old game is either eliminated or simplified– for instance, if a direct fire weapon cuts directly across a shield boundary, the defender chooses which one is hit.

Some aspects of the classic simulation are gone. You don’t energize phasers anymore. The various weapons status levels seem to be gone. The difference between warp and impulse power is gone. The plethora of refits available on each hull are gone. (Okay, I do miss those… but I will not miss explaining them to new players. The first games of Star Fleet Battles almost always have something go wrong because reviewing which shaded boxes are in play inevitably lead to confusion.) Even the old “impulse of decision” and “impulse of truth” bits are gone.

I admit, I still have this dream to someday play epic games of Star Fleet Battles with scads of fighters, seeking weapons, and PF’s on the board. I actually want to try it as the fleet game it is so obviously intended to be. (The ISC ship designs only really make sense in the context of fleet battles, after all.) Nevertheless, I am gobsmacked when I peruse the Federation Commander rules and see that stuff like Stingers, Cloaks, and ESG’s only take a page or two to explain. Star Fleet Battles still defines the setting for me, but this newer variant is far more likely to see actual play at the table top. It almost makes me sad….

A few notes on keeping track of stuff:

The “weapons used” section on the ship cards is a godsend. (You just wouldn’t want to imagine having to use some of the player aids for Star Fleet Battles from Module A+ and Module R1.) Given that there’s no restriction on firing a weapon immediately after a turn break, for most direct fire weapons, you mostly only care whether or not they’ve fired this turn or not. Photons are a little more complicated due to their two turn arming sequence, but they’ve made it fairly easy to keep up with that.

Drones require a little extra tracking, too. You mark whether or not they’ve fired along with the direct fire weapons, but you have to track your current ammunition along with the damage taken on any drones that are in flight. The boxes for the anti-drones are confusing at first glance, however. Why are there two sets of boxes? Well… one is for marking whether or not they’ve fired during each impulse and the other is for keeping track of ammo. At the end of each turn, you’ll wipe off the first set of boxes, but keep a running tally in the other.

One notable rules change on this point is that reloads have been folded into the repair rules. You spend four repair points to reload any drone or ADD rack in Federation Commander, which saves you from having to keep records of your ships stores. I love this rule! (Also good here is that Continuous Damage Control, Emergency Damage Control, the damage control track, and the campaign repairs have all been replaced by a simplified version of CDR that does not require you to reference an “Annex” of data during play. Genius!)

One thing that I have trouble with in Federation Commander is keeping track of where I am in the turn sequence. Without a movement chart (like in Car Wars) or “Impulse Cards” as in Star Fleet Battles Module A+, I have trouble getting lost. I don’t know if this confusion is the sort of thing that dissipates with repeated plays, but in playing the solitaire drone scenario I was marking where I was at the start of each impulse so that it was easy to see when the turn break was coming.

On Getting Started:

A starship duel is a zero sum game that stands a fair chance of dealing irreparable psychological damage to a new player if he doesn’t win. A big every-man-for-himself battle royale is so chaotic that no one is liable to improve their mastery of the game overly much in such an exercise. (Seriously, if you’re keen on that sort of a set up, go play Car Wars!) So that leaves the question of how to best to help a novice dive in to this classic science fiction universe. From many years explaining Star Fleet Battles, here are some of my favorites:

  • The drone scenario — This was in “Introduction to Star Fleet Battles”, but here it’s called Training in the Klingon Border rule book. You put eight drones on the board and the player has to fly around and shoot them. I suggest using an F5 with this because you get to use phasers, disruptors, ADD’s, drones, and tractors… and you actually have to think about how you’re going to proceed. Try the scenario again with all the drone’s targeted on the player’s ship and you’ll have trained him on the finer points of seeking weapons. (In my opinion, seeking weapons are kind of the point of Star Fleet Battles and Federation Commander… and central to the inherent beauty of the games. You might as well start with them being front and center!)
  • Surprise Reversed — Some people are daunted by complexity and deathly afraid of losing. Otherwise ordinary people can be this way and you won’t always know it until they flip the table over and quit gaming forever. This scenario is your best chance at awaking their natural blood lust as a preventative measure. One ship attacks a fleet… but the fleet has no shields up and they do not attack until they make certain rolls. The new player will get to ponder how to deal the maximum damage while eliminating as much of the fleet’s combat ability in as short a time as possible. Also, you’ll get a lot of practice with applying the damage allocation rules. This is a good part of your training regimen because people are unlikely to see a lot of ships explode in straight up duel scenarios.
  • Piracy — Not everyone is cut from the cloth of the brilliant naval officer. Some people just want to kill things and take their stuff… The great thing about the basic piracy scenario is that it forces you to use your tractors, which is a huge factor that sets Star Fleet Battles and Federation Commander apart from the other move-and-shoot type games. All the player has to do blaze onto the board with engines doubled, grab something, and then get away. It’s short and decisive… and usually pretty easy when the escorts are light. A certain type of player will go nuts as they shop around for the perfect set of weapons for their raider– these people are liable to become life-long adherents to the game. World builder types will be hypnotized by the “realness” of the simulated convoy and the variety of ships that can be put into it. Everyone will get more comfortable with the rules and the sequence of play as that they will be able to better focus on tactics when they sit down to play a more competitive duel or fleet battle. Do not underestimate the value of this oft overlooked scenario!

Note: Special thanks to fellow space game nut Chris Mata, who sent me a thirty pound box full of Federation Commander stuff along with a few other games. I was happy enough with Star Fleet Battles that I was unlikely to drop coin on the newer game, so this review was made possible with his generosity. Thanks, guy!

Update: The kids love it!

Star Fleet Battles… with a Twelve Year Old

The D7’s front shield is totally gone, of course, but I was too busy recording internal damage to remember to mark that…..

This friend of my son’s comes over to the house every now and then. First time he visited, he went nuts when he saw my game collection. I wasn’t home, but he took down every space game on the shelf to look at them. I’ve gotten him to play The Last Starfighter and Ogre a few times, but this past time when I asked him what he wanted to do, he said, “Star Fleet Battles.” There was just no question.

Now… I play Illuminati and Ogre and Commands & Colors: Ancients and even G.E.V. with my son all the time. But Star Fleet Battles really is one of the greatest of the great games of all time. It is a masterpiece. I admit, I was tempted to try to muddle through some Federation Commander instead. But I know the old game so well I could teach it blind folded. The kid got his wish, though… and we played the real thing.

I got out the SSD’s and set up the map. I looked up the starting positions from the duel scenario while he asked me about the shuttle and drone counters. I filled out my energy allocation and explained as I went. Then I explained what his options were and helped him fill out his. I was going speed 27 and he was at speed 24. He hadn’t opted to come in with overloads, so he could move at a fair clip.

I started flipping impulse cards– the ones from Module A+. (They’re so much easier than the speed chart!) At range 15 I fired disruptors and did a minimal amount of shield damage. The next impulse he fired most of his phasers and did very little damage. We started closing in on each other in the traditional new player head-on overrun. On impulse 32 I fired five phaser twos and scored very little damage. He fired his remaining off side phasers at me.

We went through the second round of energy allocation. I recharged my phasers and overloaded disruptors. I was surprised when he could move faster than me. I explained the command cards because the idea of whether or not to hold your fire until you can set up the perfect shot is critical to the game. Both of us chose “no fire” for several impulses… but then at range 3, he let loose with everything he had. I took 28 internals, losing all of my hull, one disruptor, and a couple of phasers. The next impulse, he threw three boarding parties at me and they all died… but I could have lost a couple more disruptors out of that!

He turned away and it dawned on me that not only would I not get to shoot at his damaged #1 shield, but I also would not be able to get that range one shot that I was angling for. Hmm…. You know, overloading that fourth disruptor and totally refilling my phaser capacitors was kind of a waste! I should have invested that energy in raw speed if I was serious about what I was trying to do! I turned to follow him and did some ineffectual damage on his #3 shield. He couldn’t stay long, so I conceded the game and congratulated his combat mettle.

That’s when I got down the Federation Commander ship cards, the deluxe map sections, and the handful of miniatures I have– to give him an idea of what all else there is. He said he liked this game about as much as Ogre… but he requested that the next game be played with several ships on each side. (Those deluxe sized counters were just too nice to only use a couple at a time.) Just based on how he interacted with the game, I’m guessing that Federation Commander played at the fleet scale is going to be closer to what he’d really want to do. It’d be about the same thing, but with no energy forms clogging up the table space. Damage allocation is a lot faster in Federation Commander, too. (We rolled 2d6 28 times in this demo.)

If you want to explode some starships, ADB should have at least one game that will suit your tastes….

Still, one thing that’s great about Star Fleet Battles… if you can imagine it, there’s rules for it. Stupid shuttle tricks. Tractor beams. Electronic warfare. He didn’t have to understand all of that to fight, but I could handle any ship-related question he had. It really is as close to captaining a starship as you can get– you feel like Captain Kirk whenever you outmaneuver somebody, too. I kind of like how I could explain any conceivable ship function that he could ask about.

The rules learning curve is not the thing that makes the game so challenging and daunting. It’s the tactics. Most people can’t handle getting whooped game after game. There’s so much there to master and it plays like all of the best battles from the Honor Harrington series. But you have to know what you’re doing or you’ll die. There is no mysterious “force” here that you can lean on or trust in!

But this kid does know something about maneuver already. I’ve seem him dance around my son’s conventional forces in Ogre, flanking them and picking off the intercepting tanks. I think he could get the hang of it if he could settle down and focus for several games. Of course, he just wants to see space ships explode right now, and that’s okay, too…! We’ve got time to work on this, though. There’s a few more years here while he’s a captive audience and doesn’t have the keys to his dad’s car….

Maps and the Adventure Gaming Hobby

Joesph Bloch over at Greyhawk Grognard has observed that there seems to be an almost inevitable form that emerges in the most successful role playing campaign maps. Of course, campaign-oriented fantasy role playing is not the only style of game out there… and there are many of genres of gaming that make quite different demands on the players. This post will explore how map designs adapt depending on the context in which they are applied.

B/X D&D

My first thought about those campaign maps is that they so rarely became relevant in the usual sort of D&D game I’d played in. It wasn’t until that grey Forgotten Realms box came out that I really even gave much thought to the whole idea… and that Greyhawk box set my friend had had for so long always seemed so odd to me. What’s it for, really? It would take years before I realized the benefits of having a coherent setting– and of course, most serious Dungeon Masters spend huge amounts of time developing such things. But it was always a bit beyond me.

When I think of the Moldvay Basic Rulebook, my first thought always goes to the legend containing all the map symbols you’d need to make dungeon maps. (The door symbol, secret passage marking, statue, and dais got the most work in my maps.) Due to the fact that the cutaway view is not of Skull Mountain, I never fully appreciated what it was communicating. Today I see it as a powerful cue to think of your dungeons in three dimensional terms and to also try to vary the tone as you change levels.

The palette of hex map symbols from the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook are equally as compelling. It offers up detailed large hex symbols for one-mile hexes and more abstract markings for 36 mile hexes on the main campaign map. Whither the six mile hex of gaming yore…? You’ll find those on area adventure maps like the one detailing the Isle of Dread. Most of the large scale maps seem to be in miles in a factor of six, so centrality of the six mile hex for hex-crawling is subtly implied.

Traveller

While not strictly a part of the original rules, Traveller’s icosahedral world map projections quickly became an essential part of the game’s ouevre. Though it can be argued that the archetypal Traveller referree was far more obsessive over interstellar census data than local geography– never mind the fact that the scout service had pretty well mapped all of known space– it was nevertheless pretty darn cool to be able to describe the look of an unknown world as the players arrived to it the first time.

Given that you’d never want to stay at a particular world for more than a few sessions (the game would cease to be Traveller anymore, after all), there just wasn’t much call to get too much more detailed than this. With the massive number of star systems of the setting and assuming total autonomy on the player’s part, having the luxury of a fully detailed world map should be a fairly rare thing given the all-too-limited prep time. And yet drawing up a world’s map remains largely a tedious exercise derived largely from the world’s hydrographics percentage and number of continents. Water worlds are pretty easy to whip up, though.

Car Wars

While Traveller cartography is largely dedicated to drawing up sector and subsector maps, autoduel-themed gaming is similarly focused on the arenas. These range from wide open areas for brawling free-for-alls, the great big donut-shape of Armadillo, the maze-like approaches seen in many custom layouts, grid-like cityscapes, and in the tail end of autoduelling’s heyday, epic multi-level arenas with way too many ramps.

Switch over to the freeways for some role playing adventure, though, and you get an entirely different sort of map. Note how Convoy’s player map has so many roads cutting between the two main routes. It’s as if Steve Jackson were doing everything he could to keep the adventure from becoming completely linear. (Hint: spend time checking out rumors before you arbitrarily decide to take the shortest path between two points!) Of course, in dungeon layouts that are insufficiently Jacquayed– and in games where the playing time for combats take 10 times as long as those in B/X D&D– you’re adventure structure will actually steer towards this sort of format. New school D&D recapitulates the adventure structure of old school Car Wars.

Text Adventures

In the days when B/X D&D, Classic Traveller, and Car Wars dominated the hobby shops, text adventures were pretty well state of the art when it came to adapting “adventure games” to the home computer. In the same way that ELIZA simulated a Rogerian Psychotherapist, these programs provided a completely impartial dungeon master that was always available when the game group couldn’t get together. While the Zork series perhaps provides a window into aspects of what late seventies D&D sessions at MIT might have been like, these programs tended to deal more with exploration and puzzle solving than killing things and taking their stuff.

What I’d like to draw your attention to is the maps that players tend to make when playing these sorts of games. Each room has a number of exits, usually along the cardinal directions: north, south, east, or west. A player map for these games ends up looking like an insane flow chart. This is very different from the maps made by “map makers” in the typical D&D session where they ask tons of questions in order to make everything fit precisely onto graph paper. (For people that complain about the movement rates being so slow in old school D&D… this is why it’s that way.) And interesting feature of these maps is that often times you cannot go back the way you came: south might take you to a new room, but north will not necessarily take you back where you were. While this is counterintuitive, it actually is realistic when it comes to modeling something like the Colossal Caves. The passages can twist so much that the entrances and exits really don’t line up anymore!

Star Fleet Battles

The most striking thing about the map in SFB is that… it’s empty. The connoisseur of fine gaming maps can really struggle with this. (A lot of people to accuse this franchise of not having any terrain.) Lay down the first couple of scenarios from Introduction and if quickly becomes clear where the map went….

Enemy drones can easily be shot down with your phasers. However, you can kill them with a single shot only if they’re pretty close: the damage potential of a phaser shot degrades quickly. But they’re moving– either directly at you or else at some other more vulnerable target. As you maneuver through this ballet of destruction, lining up targets, shepherding your energy, and sometimes influencing the drones’ movement, all of that jinking and positioning might as well be in response to terrain. And it is…! There’s no terrain marked on the map because the “terrain” is always moving around.

You could always lay down a black hole or an asteroid field, I guess. That doesn’t seem to happen too often, though. The real meat of the game is in how you maneuver against your foe. Are you going to toy with him a while with a battle pass? Or is it time to head for knife fighting range and overrun? Do you fire now and hope to take out a critical torpedo weapon on his ship? Or do you risk the same thing happening to you so that you can close to a range where you can potentially do far more damage? This game succeeds so well at simulating its subject matter that it has been the go-to game for making people feel like Captain Kirk for decades. And it does it… with practically no markings on the map at all.

BattleTech

This game has scads of maps for it. I even saw that they came out with some nifty hex overlays, too. But the thing about this game is… if I’m not playing on someone else’s massive miniatures terrain, I’m almost always using the original map that came with the basic boxed set. The lake in the middle is probably the most fought-over piece of terrain out of all the maps in my game collection.

But that lake isn’t there just for mechs to jump over or for hovercraft to skate across. It’s there because of the game’s anti-asset of heat. Most of the unit designs in the original game were overgunned such that they could not fire all of their weapons every turn. If they did, they would rapidly build up enough heat points to cause an ammo explosion or shutdown. A consequence of this rules dynamic is that enemies jockey for position waiting for the best moment to alpha strike. Then a turn or two is spent desperately trying to cool down. The utility of lakes when it comes to this cool-down process makes them something to fight over. Chess players try to take and hold the center. Jedi try to take the high ground. BattleTech players go for the lake. The fact that the water terrain is tied so closely to the core of the rule system gives it a significance that is seldom seen in other games– and it’s the reason why this particular map hits the table so often.

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