Review: The Last Starfighter Combat Game (1984)
November 27, 2012
Posted by on
I have struggled mightily over the past few years to find an appropriate entry-level space combat game that would work well for my nine-year-old son. After dusting this one off and playing it again for nearly a dozen times, I realized that I already had the game I was looking for. The Last Starfighter Combat Game is about the same complexity level as a microgame… but unlike most microgames, the rules are explained extremely well with tons of illustrated examples. There are no head-scratching type moments when it comes to interpreting the rules, either. This game was produced in the mid-eighties when box games patterned after Basic D&D were the norm. Sure, there’s plenty of air inside the overly large box, but the game components are lavish compared to many earlier games.
But how does it play…? Well… I have to say, this turns out to be a surprisingly well crafted gem:
- Ships are limited to a maximum of five hexes of movement per turn. This allows for play on a relatively small map sheet. (Compare to the other space games that require an unwieldy play area.)
- Movement is secret and simultaneous… and everything you might need to specify has a spot on the ship record sheet. The clarity of the plotted movement form is a key factor in what makes this game easy to teach and play.
- The firing arcs are extremely narrow and you have to choose which direction to point your two laser turrets. It is very easy to get into a position where none of your weapons can target anything. I think this is the key to making secret and simultaneous movement work for a space game like this: with several turns likely with no weapons fire, maneuver and positioning obtain a prime place in the tactics– the game really feels like a dogfight in space! Do you put all of your lasers into the forward arc and gamble? Or do point them to the port and starboard arcs in the hopes of getting him with a stray shot?
- Things degrade nicely as they take damage under this system. Ship functions are organized into wedges on the display sheet. Do enough damage on one wedge and everything in the clockwise direction of that particular arc becomes disabled. (And getting to place the explosion counters for destroyed ships is always a treat– the counters just look gorgeous.)
- Sprinkled around in the damage tables are various results that restrict your movement options for a single turn. You might have to maintain your speed, you may be unable to turn in a particular direction, and sometimes your movement ends up being completely random. These might appear to be mere annoyances… but anything that limits your move options makes you more predictable– which makes it more likely for your opponent to nail you with all of his weapons in a single turn!
- One last constraint on tactics is that ships only have enough power for twenty game turns of combat. You can jockey for position, sure… but you can’t play cat and mouse forever. A consequence of the damage chart is that one sixth of all results impact power reserves without damaging the ship. Eight points of power loss at the wrong moment can really add tension to the end game. (To recharge five points of power, you most neither move nor fire for a complete turn.)
- Also, a big problem of space games in general is that there’s often no reason not to just stack up all your ships into a single hex. Realistic, maybe… but not fun. In The Last Starfighter you have “Swarm Ships” that can be destroyed by any amount of damage… and a limited number of missiles that damage a seven hex area when they hit. This makes for a variety of tactically interesting formations.
“I have you now!” — The Deck Fighter has achieved a position where he can fire everything, but his opponent can fire nothing.
This is sort of a quick game for a tongue-in-cheek a movie, but it is tightly designed. The “vector change” system of moving forward and then turning gives it sort of a motorboats-in-space feel…. But the odd movement-affecting results on the damage chart layers in sort of a pinball type effect that is oddly reminiscent of the film. Add to this having to specify the extremely tight firing arcs in terms of where you’re betting your opponent will end up and you get a game in which every design decision works together. Probably the biggest criticism this game could muster is that it has limited replay value– and yes, there isn’t quite as much here in comparison to the predecessor of this game— but the Ogre-like “swarm” scenario can be played with and without asteroid terrain… and the duel scenario can be embellished with either more ships or more asteroids.
The only bone I have to pick is that the Swarm ship interpretation here does not seem to fit with what I remember of the movie. (Weren’t those ships just random Rylans and not actually Kodann?) Also… the Gunstar in the Movie could blow up scads of Deck Fighters while the game depicts them as more-or-less equals. It’s clear that the baseline scenario for the game was the duel scenario and that everything was tuned to make that as fun as possible. The game would have been radically different if it had been engineered around a “kill the Command Ship” premise.
Time for the Death Blossom: The Gunstar is down to one last engine circle… and the Swarm Ships know there’s only two hexes he can even go to– they’ll easily concentrate their fire there.