Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Designer Spotlight: Jim Krohn on his new Fleet Combat Space Game

Jim Krohn’s Space Empires: 4X is one of the top games to come out in 2011. It takes the “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate” scenario of many computerized space games and brings it to the table top in a playable manner. Jim’s design captures a maximum amount of depth and texture with a minimal amount of rules and bookkeeping. Now he’s looking to give the fleet scale space the combat genre the same sort of treatment, and GMT Games is backing him up with a new P500 to get it off the ground. The new game is called Talon, and Jim has graciously agreed to give us the inside scoop on this innovative new game.

Jeffro: Star Fleet Battles separated maneuverability from raw engine power. The Klingon ships, for example, were capable of roughly the same speeds as the Federation, but they had smaller turn modes. This allowed them to execute the famous “Klingon Hook” maneuver after a battle pass. The Federation ship could end up vulnerable for a few impulses because it would take longer for it to come back around. Some of the more recent squadron level space combat games have moved away from this sort of design feature. Full Thrust, Colonial Battlefleet, and Starmada all have maneuverability tied directly to engine power.

The P500 page for your new game mentions how you’ll pick a speed and then the Power Curve will tell you what your turn radius is and how much power you have left for other stuff. It’s not quite clear if your game will have nimble ships and battle tubs, though. Will maneuverability be a separate trait from raw engine power in Talon?

Jim Krohn: Oh, that brings back memories…yes, in Talon some ships are more maneuverable that others. Fighters will handle differently than Light Cruisers, which will handle different than Battleships, etc. There will be differences between the empires also as the Talons are more maneuverable than the Terrans.

Personally, I couldn’t see designing a game without that distinction. From a “realism” standpoint (defining realism here as our cultural concept of the science fiction genre) the game would be lacking without it. From a game play standpoint, it adds quite a bit to the distinction between the empires. My goal was to have each of the empires in the game play differently, with different strengths and weaknesses, and maneuverability is part of it.

There is a power tie in also. Power becomes available throughout the turn for the ships to spend – depending on the ship, its speed, and damage. One of the things that you can spend power on is making your turns tighter. Of course, there is never enough power to do all that you want to do which leads to some tough decisions during the turn. The best part is, though the decisions are tough, the game play isn’t.

Jeffro: Okay, it sounds like you’ll have something along the lines of a “turn mode” for the ships… but instead of the radical (and dangerous) High Energy Turns of SFB, you’ll instead be able to invest some of your all-too-precious power to shave down the time it takes to execute a turn. Cool!

You’ve mentioned how the various ship classes will “handle” differently. This implies that you’ve rejected the drab Newtonian style high-gee vector movement of games like GDW’s Mayday and instead opted for something more along the lines of “Motorboats in Space.” Was that a difficult decision to make…? Or was vector movement never really on the table for consideration?

Jim Krohn: The vacuum of space means that objects will tend to stay at their same speed even when thrust is removed (using conventional means). I assume that this is what you mean when you say vector movement. Plus, with vacuum, there is no air to turn against. To go in the opposite direction, all of that thrust needs to be applied in the opposite direction in order to begin to move it the other way. You can’t just turn. You might begin to apply thrust to the side, but you retain all of your speed in the original direction as well. Even games that go with vector movement, usually get this wrong.

For example, if you apply thrust for 5 turns in one direction, your speed will increase in that direction each one of those 5 turns. That ship will then have to apply thrust in the opposite direction for 5 turns just to stop its movement in that direction (slowing each turn) to say nothing of any thrust applied to the side to change direction. If you are in a plane going 500 mph you can turn that plane, keep most of your momentum, and go 500 mph in the other direction. You can’t do that in a space ship because there are no aerodynamic/frictional forces at play – there is nothing to turn it against.

Space also means that a ship could easily change its facing. It might still be hurtling forward at the same speed, but the ship can spin about on its axis and fire in any direction. No frictional or aerodynamic forces would interfere with it doing that (like it would with an atmospheric craft). Even game systems that model space flight at least somewhat accurately, tend to ignore this very important point, a point which I find pretty boring in a game.

Of course we are dealing with science fiction here and not science. For this game to take place we have to have Faster Than Light drives, so why not Near Faster Than Light drives? This allowed me to set up the premise for the science fiction universe as I desired. I find this very realistic. First of all, the way I model movement is realistic to my premise. :-) Secondly, and more importantly, the game is realistic to the genre. The ships in this game move and turn as the capital ships do in the major science fiction franchises. When I play science fiction, that is what I am shooting for.

Here is the irony – a space combat game that chooses vector movement in an effort to be realistic has chosen a scientific premise. Yet, if the game allows a ship to turn and keep its momentum or does not allow ships to spin on its access at will, it is missing the two most important points of its scientific premise. In an effort to be realistic, it has made itself far more unrealistic than a game like Talon. At least Talon is accurate to its premise.

So, there was no way I was going to go with vector movement. The only reason I would have done it would have been realism, but if I made it truly realistic I would have made a boring game. Every ship would always be able to turn the shield and weapon of its choice against the enemy while the ships zipped around the board in mostly straight lines firing as they passed each other.

Jeffro: The big innovations of your design include pay-as-you-go power allocation (mirroring Federation Commander’s streamlining of SFB) and large hexes with complete record sheets on the individual counters. But a space game’s staying power is at least as dependent on its implied setting as on its raw mechanics. Will your game’s future history be something that could potentially serve as the basis of a role playing game, or is it merely a scaffolding rigged to produce the sort of space combat that you want to do?

Jim Krohn: Great question. The plan is for it to be a rich and deep environment. We (the playtest team) are calling it the Talonverse. At the moment, there is back story on the technology that is used in the game and a narrative that tells the perspective of the war through the scenarios. That is a good start, but our goal is to continue to flesh this out, keep a history and a timeline and build it up with characters, critical events, etc.

I would love to see fictional stories set in the Talonverse written at some point – but the game comes first, obviously.

Jeffro: Kudos for already planning out a set of ten linked scenarios to help showcase the game. Without that sort of thing, I’m left with the task of figuring out what to do with it! Starfire, for instance had a great set of scenarios that gradually taught you the system– very similar to how computer games like Starcraft “educate” you on all the various units and scenario types.

Based on the P500 description, it sounds like the ships that come out-of-the-box are designer crafted each with your own point value. I suppose that with a fleet combat game, being able to custom design an individual unit is less important because (as in games like Ogre and G.E.V.) being about to determine the composition of a fleet is pretty well all you need to satisfy the sort of people that really want to min/max their way to an easy win. Has developing a full featured ship design system ever come up as something that you’d like to pursue with Talon…?

Jim Krohn: Yep, I actually built the point system for the ship point values from a hull design system – meaning I get my ship point values from constructing the ships like you would in design your own. However, there are a few problems with that:

  1. I’m not yet confident in my point system.
  2. I did not design ships on the extremes. I’m not sure if it will work there.
  3. The counters that we use have all the information right on them and are laminated. Designing ships at home is not as easy because you actually have to make the ships.

With those issues in mind, I see ship construction as more of a down the road thing.

Jeffro: Thanks, Jim… it’s been a pleasure having you back on Designer Spotlight…!

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