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Defenses and Defensive Systems in Five Squadron Level Space Combat Games

A Comparative Essay Regarding the Particulars of Five Popular Two Dimensional Squadron Level Space Combat Games and their Respective Ship Design Systems

Written by Tim White
Edited by Mike Atlin
Whip Cracking by Ken Burnside

Welcome to the fourth installment of Why Does That Thing Have So Many Lasers?, a multi-part investigation into how ships are designed and built in five popular space combat games: Full Thrust, Colonial Battlefleet, Starmada AE, Starmada Nova, and Squadron Strike. This week, I’ll be discussing defenses and defensive systems.

Defenses play a vital role in space combat games. This is also where games can go horribly wrong; while its acceptable to have one-hit kills on some units (fighters, for example), one hit kills on battleships tends to leave players unhappy. In games where defenses are too strong, battles turn into interminable slugfests. Even re-skinning history has its perils: Monitor versus Merrimack was the dawn of the ironclad in wet navy technology, but it’s a patently boring game. How defenses work is one of the ways that these games differentiate from each other. There are two main design decisions: Number of defensive facings, and how many unique types of defenses there are.

Defensive Facings:

The choices for defensive facings seem to boil down to “one” or “six” in these games. One defensive facing means that the direction of incoming fire never impacts what kind of defense is used, and is the default for Full Thrust and both versions of Starmada. The advantage of a single defensive facing is that it increases the number of units a player can handle, because taking incoming fire means less fiddling to see what direction it’s coming in from. Indeed, for Full Thrust, which is played without a hex grid, this is probably a necessary choice for the game engine. I think that if you wanted a single facing defense in Squadron Strike, you’d have to use one of their Unusual Defenses.

Colonial Battlefleet and Squadron Strike both have multiple facings for defenses. Colonial Battlefleet has six facings for shields, corresponding to the hex sides, and one facing for armor. Squadron Strike has six facings for shields, and six facings for armor; in 2D play, the Top and Bottom facings are omitted in Squadron Strike, and there are only four facings. Starmada Admiralty Edition has optional rules for “Faceted” shields which correspond to hex facings, and Starmada Nova has a ship trait called “Direction Defenses” that abstracts defenses being stronger in the front and weaker in the back, and just turns into a column shift on the combat table. Squadron Strike even has an option for Profile on ships, which we touched on back in Section 2, so that facing even effects to-hit modifiers.

My own biases are for multiple facings. I cut my teeth on SFB, and maneuvering for a down shield is part of the fun of the game. While Starmada Admiralty Edition could do faceted shields, they never really scratched that itch, because damage to shields damaged all shields equally, not the facing I just shot.

In Colonial Battlefleet, the shield strength is chosen for the front of the ship, and the other five facings are derived from it. Squadron Strike lets you set each facing individually, though you’re still just slathering shield units on in convenient numbers – multiples of 6 for ablative and multiples of 4 for deflector.

Types of Defenses:

This is where the freedom to design ships branches out, and is one of the places where Squadron Strike just shows off on the size of its toolbox. In a lot of space games, all the ships, even from different universes, tend to have one or two types of defenses. These defenses can be categorized as follows:

  • Die Roll Modifiers (ECM),
  • Saving Throw Shields (Roll a die, if you succeed, you turned a hit into a miss),
  • Bubble Wrap Defense (your shield represents hit points that may or may not regenerate, or leak some damage before they’re gone)
  • Damage Reduction (You subtract value X from every hit that strikes)

Full Thrust uses Saving Throw Shields, with a small nod towards the Bubble Wrap Defense.
Starmada AE uses Saving Throw Shields, and Die Roll Modifiers, with a small nod towards the Bubble Wrap Defense. Starmada Nova has abstracted defenses into column shifts on the table.
Colonial Battlefleet has Bubble Wrap Defenses over Damage Reduction.

Squadron Strike has Die Roll Modifiers, Bubble Wrap Defense, a mixture of Bubble Wrap Defense and Damage Reduction, and Damage Reduction on facings of the ship, as well as damage reduction applied to specific hit locations of the ship. With its Super Science defenses, you can add “Saving Throw Shields” against families of weapons if you wanted to. Die Roll Modifiers and the hit-location specific damage reduction are omnidirectional, and the other defenses are allocated to facings. You could easily make something like the Colonial Battlefleet defensive model in Squadron Strike with faced shields and hit location-based damage reduction.

How those defenses get allocated is another place where things vary. In Colonial Battlefleet, you pick a shield rating for the front, the rest is allocated as proportions of the front. Armor is a factor of ship sizes, and you can increase it (within limits) but not decrease it. You can’t make a large, unarmored ship in Colonial Battlefleet, and every ship in Colonial Battlefleet has armor (you can go without shields if you wish.) In Starmada, the saving throw shields of Admiralty Edition used a percentage of the ship, and in Nova, it’s a trait you buy with the hull. Squadron Strike simply lets you buy things for ships set by constraints in the campaign system. It allows maximum flexibility, but it can result in some really odd edge cases. I foresee having to set limits in a campaign game just to prevent some of my more…spreadsheet enthused friends from trying to find the weirdest corner case they can, just because they can.

One of the things Squadron Strike does is allow you to buy shield regenerators, which allows certain concepts, like the Mon Calamari from Star Wars, to make more sense. I briefly traced formulas for how shield regenerators change the cost of shielding on a given facing, and decided that there were some Things I was Not Meant To Know. It is kind of neat that you can make ships with different shield strengths and regeneration rates, which is a level of detail and control I wasn’t expecting…even if I am worried about someone deciding to build the “shields pop back up at full strength every turn” ship.

ECM as a Defense:

Electronic Countermeasures get treated differently by some of these games – enough so that it’s worth discussing on its own. Colonial Battlefleet uses ECM as a modifier for point defense gunnery for shooting down missiles and fighters. Full Thrust also eschews die roll modifiers, though one way to look at their “screen” defense is that it’s an active ECM system, rather than a saving-throw shield. An ECM system in Full Thrust is used in the “scenario setup and enemy detection” optional rules.

In Starmada Nova, there are two kinds of ECM systems – one can be destroyed on the ship, the other, called Stealth, is a property of the hull. In Starmada Nova, ECM becomes a column shift on the weapon tables. In both Starmada Nova and Squadron Strike, it’s possible to get enough ECM that it could be your ship’s primary defense, while Starmada Admiralty Edition pretty much limits ECM to being a one shift on a d6. Stealth in Starmada Admiralty is a system that increases the effective range to the target. In Squadron Strike, a cloaking device acts as an ECM multiplier, and then gives a die roll to reduce the damage of anything that hits.

Both versions of Starmada allow ships to announce they are taking evasive action. This gives the ships a defensive bonus for the turn (harder to hit), but also impairs their offensive capabilities. As an aside this sounded like a nice addition to the game, but our group quickly learned to exploit this with ships that didn’t shoot weapons, but launched fighters, so the drawback could be avoided. Eventually, we had to ban it.

Point Defense Weapons:

Point defense weapons blur the lines between defenses and weapons, and all of these rules either provide a point defense system as a system you can install, or allow you to custom build one. This encourages the creation of dedicated escort ships for taking down missiles, fighters and other potentially dangerous map-clutter. Squadron Strike has a whole host of additional defense types, which come in handy when trying to model some specific sci-fi genres.

Full Thrust:

  • Defensive Facings: 1
  • Shields: Variable damage reduction
  • Armor: Ablative (Standard and Shell)
  • ECM: Optional rule only, affects detection
  • Point Defense: Dedicated system plus secondary of some weapons
  • Escort Ships: Area Point Defense
  • Cloaking field: No

Colonial Battlefleet:

  • Defensive Facings: 6
  • Shields: Ablative
  • Armor: Static (omni directional)
  • ECM: Active defense against missiles only
  • Point Defense: Two types of dedicated systems
  • Escort Ships: Screening Ships
  • Cloaking field: Yes

Starmada Admiralty Edition:

  • Defensive Facings: 1
  • Shields: Save based (can optionally have up to 6 facings)
  • Armor: Modifies damage chart
  • ECM: Reduces chance to be hit (one level only)
  • Point Defense: Two optional systems and purpose based weapons
  • Escort Ships: By weapon design
  • Cloaking field: Yes
  • Other: Evasive Action; Stealth

Starmada Nova:

  • Defensive Facings: 1
  • Shields: Save based
  • Armor: Ablative
  • ECM: Reduces chance to be hit (variable levels)
  • Point Defense: Purpose based weapons
  • Escort Ships: By weapon design and Ship Trait
  • Cloaking field: Yes
  • Other: Evasive Action; Stealth

Squadron Strike:

  • Defensive Facings: 4 (6 in 3D)
  • Shields: Ablative or ablative with damage reduction
  • Armor: Degradable damage reduction (with optional unreliability); Component armor on hit locations.
  • ECM: Reduces chance to be hit (variable levels)
  • Point Defense: Purpose based weapons
  • Escort Ships: By weapon design
  • Cloaking field: By weapon design
  • Other: Variable shield regen; Ebon Globes; Prismatic Spheres; Bubbles; Super science Defenses

8 responses to “Defenses and Defensive Systems in Five Squadron Level Space Combat Games

  1. Pingback: New Guest Series: Why Does That Thing Have So Many Lasers? | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  2. dgarsys September 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

    I love this overview of games that are out now. Not sure I’d pick any of these up (something like Saganamin/Attack Vector is more my interest now) but I fondly remember Renegade Legion: Interceptor, and Centurion. IMO the fleet/battlewagon game was a mess.

  3. Ken Burnside September 3, 2013 at 11:06 am

    In terms of movement, Saganami Island Tactical Simulator, 2nd Edition is nearly identical to Squadron Strike’s Mode 2 movement. Its damage allocation (and combat resolution) systems are very very different to match the setting it’s in.

  4. Tim W. September 3, 2013 at 11:09 am

    I haven’t played Saganami Island Tactical Simulator, but I’ve talked to Ken about it and he says that Squadron Strike really is an evolution of that ruleset. Its 3d like SITS but you can design your own ships. Just so happens you can play it in 2d as well as 3d.

    As an aside, the particular category – defenses – is really where I feel Squadron Strike pulls ahead of the competition. Star Fleet Battles was really my first wargame. The concept of directional/degrading defenses – for me is pretty much core to space gaming. Without them there is really far less need to maneuver. I also think that SS’s 4 defensive directions is actually an improvement on the 6 facings in SFB – and of course it works marvelously well with the 12pt bearing system.

    • jeffro September 3, 2013 at 11:12 am

      All I can say is that it’s about time that the state of the art in space combat board games caught up with Car Wars.

      • dgarsys September 4, 2013 at 11:18 am

        To clarify – I haven’t picked up SITS yet – or AV that it was based on. What I liked, looking through the rulesets and using the simplified trial rules were how they reflected the cinematic “and you just lost half your missile tubes” feel of damage you get in the HH books, or star wars, etc..

        For that matter, what I loved about CW, SFB, and Battletech was that you could limp along with a very specific idea of what you could and could not do based on the systems left running. The level of abstraction in something like Panzerblitz and other traditional “AH” style wargames that operate at larger scopes – while fun, and necessary when fielding dozens of units – never quite scratched my itch so much. Interestingly – Ogre straddles this line. Smaller units are very abstracted (because if you hit them at all they’re pretty much dead..), and only the largest units do you worry about what systems are left…

        This is one reason I loved the damage systems in both RL: Interceptor and Centurion. In the first – internal damage followed a flowchart to tell you what systems were knocked out. Fun, but very fiddly. In Centurion, they abstracted this – an improvement – where each weapon type had a damage “template”, with damage allocated to a grid with layers of armor, followed by zones for types of major subsystems. Allocating damage based on weapon type was a cinch, and knowing what got knocked out was very simple. The miniature game “Warmachine” uses a similar-ish but very simplified system for its warjacks, but is more ablative (strictly damage points, not damage templates, only one “facing”)

        And I’ve lost count of the hours I’ve spent designing and drawing out diagrams for Car Wars vehicles.

  5. Ken Burnside September 4, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Attack Vector and Squadron Strike are two very different damage allocation systems. (SITS 2e uses an earlier version of what eventually became the SS damage allocation system, and might be the middle point between them.

    Attack Vector has a soak roll to see how much damage that box took to kill. Component armor adds to the soak roll. When you do a certain mount of damage based on the cross sectional depth of the aspect of the ship you’re firing on, damage moves to a different part of the ship..and it’s possible for a couple of very high soak rolls to mean that something passes through your ship without hurting it that much. It’s also possible to have low soak rolls that cause horrible damage cascades, and exploding heat sinks and batteries.

    There’s lot of variability, and a very solid narrative flow. It doesn’t scale well past two people.

    Squadron Strike’s damage is meant to go as fast as possible, because one of the assumptions on the game are that people will be running multiple ships, and that a big game will have more than two players. Speeding up damage allocation isn’t for the people doing the allocating – it’s for the people waiting for them to get done so the game can resume.

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