Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Weapons and Firing Arcs 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 fifth 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 weapons and firing arcs.

Mounting weapons on ships is the “shake the present” part of designing a ship. It has got to be the most difficult for the game designers to balance. It’s where game designers get to present the most of their creativity…and where game designs probably get broken by players most often. Giving players maximal freedom results in Eurisko-solutions¹, where the best ship in the game is the one that combines maximum firepower with the cheapest cost.

There are two weapon design philosophies that I’ve seen: Pre-built weapons (think Battletech) and design-a-thing. Full Thrust and Colonial Battlefleet give pre-built weapons, while Starmada Admiralty Edition, Starmada Nova and Squadron Strike are in the “design-a-thing” camp. Design-a-thing weapons are a barrier to entry; it adds One More Thing you have to do before you put your ships on the map, and probably adds the most time to ship design.

Pre-Built Weapons

Full Thrust Cross Dimensions provides eight distinctly different weapons in the rules, and also provides info on how to adapt another eight from Fleet Book 2. Seven of those weapons (e.g. beams, K-weapons etc) come in different grades of power and/or range increments. When all factors are accounted for, I count at least thirty-six different weapons in the toolkit. Full Thrust is deliberately vague about the descriptions of the weapons, so you can rename them to fit whatever genre you’re simulating. The way the weapons are handled, and how they interact with Full Thrust’s defenses, give a lot of variety in how they play.

Colonial Battlefleet has 23 different weapon systems, and to preserve balance and prevent the “best of everything” cherrypicking, not all weapons are available to every faction. If you’ve made a custom faction, you’ll be giving up at least one or two interesting weapons. Each weapons has distinct attack/penetration dice and shield/hull damage. Some weapons come in different sizes along the same weapon family, like the Turbo Laser and Heavy Turbo Laser. The designer has done a really nice job of keeping the number of weapon systems (and special rules to remember) manageable while covering most of the bases I’d want to see covered, though there’s clearly a path for adding to the list.

When it comes to premade weapons, a case can be made that “the designer knows best” or that the designer thinks of the system as a whole. Or you can make the argument that they provide a ready market for supplements with new weapons, and newer weapons will almost always be “better” than the original weapons. This is clearly the case with Full Thrust Cross Dimensions, and a skim of the playtest material for Full Thrust on the web.

Design-A-Thing Weapons

Design-a-thing games let you input parameters and then calculate an effectiveness rating for the weapon. For example, Starmada Admiralty Edition has five different weapon parameters (Range, Rate of Fire, Accuracy, Impact and Damage), and thirty-eight special abilities called weapon traits, and you can put no more than three weapon traits on a weapon. A previous edition of the game created combination weapon traits, but this was removed with Admiralty Edition in the name of simplicity. By and large, Starmada Admiralty Edition allows a very broad scope in weapon design; making a weapon that was good at the three primary “hurt the other guy” parameters (Accuracy, Impact and Damage) resulted in a nice variety of interactions with defenses, and if you wanted more, there were always weapon traits. There was a handling time issue of “roll to hit, cull dice, multiply culled dice by impact number, roll for impact, multiply culled dice for damage numbers, roll for damage…” followed by armor saves and what-not. This was comparatively minor.

Starmada Nova simplified Starmada Admiralty Edition down to two weapon parameters (Range and number of dice) and eighteen weapon traits. Now, mathematically, a lot of the Starmada Admiralty Edition traits were just moving a multiplication term to a different part of the iterative die rolling procedure, and Nova has moved that over into its table-shift mechanic. To me, this is a net loss – I liked being able to get weapons that “felt” different. Some of the more interesting Starmada Admiralty Edition traits kind of fell through the cracks, but not all of them.

That said, we had to have gentleman’s agreements with Starmada Admiralty Edition traits and weapons, because some combos resulted in Rock-Paper-Scissors dynamics where you could see who’d win without playing the game. Starmada Nova makes Starmada a lot less exploitable than Admiralty Edition. It’s also easier to teach, and you can play a larger fleet in less time.

And then there’s Squadron Strike, which may be a bridge too far in weapon designs. Where Starmada Nova looked at Starmada Admiralty Edition and said “Let’s streamline this,” Squadron Strike looked at Starmada Admiralty Edition, and said “That was a cute idea you had; let’s see what happens when you really push it.”

Squadron Strike has three families of weapons, as we mentioned earlier: Beams, Missiles and Torpedoes. There are weapon parameters reminiscent of Starmada Admiralty Edition (Range, Accuracy, Penetration, Damage, Rate of Fire), and then there’s…more. Complete freedom for setting range bands, including “myopic zones” where a weapon can’t fire. Cooldown cycles (both for the weapon as a whole, and for specific range bands), Action Point costs by range band. Eight weapon traits. Toggles to link traits together, toggles to make traits mutually exclusive. Action Point costs for traits. There are three additional parameters for missiles, and six additional parameters for Torpedoes.

Basically, Squadron Strike allows you to replicate most of the weapons from Star Fleet Battles or Babylon 5 Wars. And by “replicate” I mean “get a feel for their mechanics in their native game system.” Actually, you can make weapons you’d never contemplate in either Star Fleet Battles or Babylon 5 Wars.

Where Starmada Admiralty Edition had 38 traits, limited to three per weapon, Squadron Strike has about 45 that are common to all weapon families (some with multiple “strength” levels, which I’m not counting as separate traits here), and then there are traits that are specific to one or two weapon families. Each weapon can have eight traits. If you just count unique entries, there are about 180 traits all told, though that’s counting some of them multiple times. Some of these traits stem directly from the defenses allowed in Squadron Strike; this includes obvious traits like “better at penetrating armor” and less than obvious ones like “Multi-Hit” which damages a target on multiple facings of the ship, a’la the Hellbore in Star Fleet Battles. Others work to give you variable damage based on Accuracy, reduce the variability of the Penetration roll, allow you to increase the damage of a weapon by spending APs, a’la SFB overloads, or have a weapon continue firing if you got a high enough Accuracy roll, or alter how damage allocation works.

Firing Arcs and Weapon Mount Limits

All of these games have rising costs for wider firing arcs, and all of these games allow some firing arc customization. For Full Thrust and both versions of Starmada, there’s no additional mounting limitation beyond paying for the wider firing arc. Squadron Strike and Colonial Battlefleet have a number of weapon mounts you can place on the ship. (Starmada Admiralty Edition did limit you to three battery types.)

Colonial Battlefleet has six main turreted weapon locations, and each are tied to primary arcs of fire. You don’t really choose a weapon and set the arc of fire so much as you choose a weapon and place it into a pre-existing turret. This, I think, is one of the keys to how Colonial Battlefleet keeps things balanced.

Colonial Battlefleet also made the interesting choice of only allowing really wide arcs on the biggest weapons; this is a not-so-obvious parallelism to World War I and World War II battleships (and Colonial Battlefleet is a close cousin to their surface naval warfare game).

Squadron Strike has up to eight weapon mounts, each of which can hold two different types of weapons sharing the same firing arc, and a weapon mount’s maximum capacity is set by the size of the ship and the span of the firing arc, in 3-D. If you need to cram a bigger weapon into a ship, Squadron Strike allows you to add cooldown turns to specific rows of the weapon mount, or an additional AP cost. This is great for certain anime themed settings where the Big Experimental Weapon is crammed into a too-small-battleship. Squadron Strike also lets you choose fixed mount weapons or keel mounted/spinal mounted weapons with inflexible and narrow arcs of fire.

For weapons that take ammunition, ammunition is specified at the weapon-mount level, not the weapon design level, which is a nice touch. You can standardize on a missile launcher, but have deeper magazines on bigger ships.

Fire Control Limits

Full Thrust and Colonial Battlefleet both have Fire Control limits, which is not found in the other games. The fire control rating of the ship limits the number of targets the ship can shoot at in a single turn. In Colonial Battlefleet, the Fire Control is also used as a bonus to hit ships when firing.

A ship-based trait called “Fire Control” is used in both editions of Starmada, but it’s actually ECCM, and it reduces any firing penalties you have by 1 level, which could be due to enemy ECM or range modifiers, etc. Starmada Nova also has a “Scout” ship trait that if taken allows that ship to either ignore another ship with “Escort” or mitigate the effects of enemy ECM.

Squadron Strike has ECCM as a ship’s system, running from one to six dice. It is used only to directly counter a target’s ECM and requires a crew check to determine its effectiveness. Ranged ECCM systems can be used to provide ECCM bonuses to allied ships, and there’s a trait for point defense weapons called “High Resolution Targeting” which helps overcome Profile penalties of small targets within the primary effective range of the weapon.

Full Thrust:

  • Design your own Weapons: No
  • # of Weapon Systems: 16 (30+ when different grades considered)
  • # of Weapon Parameters: N/A
  • # of Weapon Traits: N/A
  • Arcs of Fire “windows”: 6
  • Mounting Limitations: No
  • Fire Control Limits: Yes
  • ECCM: No
  • Other Weapon Design Options:

Colonial Battlefleet:

  • Design your own Weapons: No
  • # of Weapon Systems: 23
  • # of Weapon Parameters: N/A
  • # of Weapon Traits: N/A
  • Arcs of Fire “windows”: 4
  • Mounting Limitations: Yes
  • Fire Control Limits: Yes
  • ECCM: No
  • Other Weapon Design Options:

Starmada Admiralty Edition:

  • Design your own Weapons: Yes
  • # of Weapon Systems: N/A
  • # of Weapon Parameters: 5
  • # of Weapon Traits: 38
  • Arcs of Fire “windows”: 12
  • Mounting Limitations: No
  • Fire Control Limits: No
  • ECCM: Fire Control is ECCM
  • Other Weapon Design Options: Dual Mode Weapons

Starmada Nova:

  • Design your own Weapons: Yes
  • # of Weapon Systems: N/A
  • # of Weapon Parameters: 2
  • # of Weapon Traits: 18
  • Arcs of Fire “windows”: 12
  • Mounting Limitations: No
  • Fire Control Limits: No
  • ECCM: Fire Control is ECCM
  • Other Weapon Design Options: Dual Mode Weapons; Scout

Squadron Strike:

  • Design your own Weapons: Yes
  • # of Weapon Systems: N/A
  • # of Weapon Parameters: 16
  • # of Weapon Traits: 180+
  • Arcs of Fire “windows”: `12 (50 in 3D)
  • Mounting Limitations: Yes
  • Fire Control Limits: No
  • ECCM: Ship’s System
  • Other Weapon Design Options: Cooldown and AP; On/Off Traits; Linked & Mutually Exclusive traits; Munitions; Mount Options; Ranged ECCM

¹ Eurisko is the Lisp program that was written by Doug Lenat and used to “break” the Trillion Credit Squadron tournament of the early eighties. You can find more about that here in section six of Malcolm Gladwell’s “How David Beats Goliath.”

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7 responses to “Weapons and Firing Arcs 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. Jason Packer September 10, 2013 at 10:14 am

    My word but Squadron Strike sounds right up my alley. Complexity for the sake of complexity is my most obvious Achilles Heel, and that weapon system sounds right up my alley. I’ll have to go back to the prior entries and see if the rest of the system is as irresistably fiddly and precise.

    Do they make it availble in PDF format for those of us averse to dropping $65 on a game we might never play?

    • jeffro September 10, 2013 at 10:23 am

      It sounds like a good mix of Car Wars, Star Fleet Battles, and Starmada– ie, right up my alley. I’ll leave it to Ken to answer about any possible alternatives to the big box game.

  3. Ken Burnside September 10, 2013 at 10:41 am

    When a few things get put together, we’ll be putting SS up on DriveThruRPG.com.

    Be aware that if you buy the PDF, you’ll need to buy the boxed game to put this on the table. The boxed game has injection-molded components and laminated cards and die cut box minis that are worth what we charge for ’em in player convenience.

    The ship design system is not in the rulebook. The toolchain is Excel spreadsheet + Adobe Air (think “local Flash”) postprocessor combination to make those pretty SSDs. There’s a second spreadsheet used to migrate older versions of the sheet to the newest version, so you don’t have to re-key everything. I release quarterly updates to the toolchain, and we’re gearing up for a release on the 16th.

    Those are in a download library that’s limited to people who’ve registered a boxed game…though I’ve been known to send them out to people by email.

    If you’ve got further questions, click on my name in the link and we can discuss by email.

    • Jason Packer September 13, 2013 at 10:26 am

      I think I’d be okay, having to buy the boxed set to play, if I didn’t have to pay an arm and a leg to have access to all of the rules. Of course for me the ship design rules are desperately important, but even getting to read the rules of how the game plays with a default set of sample ships would be a huge help in selling the game, I imagine. Kind of a “Pocket Squadron Strike” to borrow the notion from SJG…

  4. Tim W. September 10, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    IMHO the box set of SS is a good deal. The trick is to find a LGS that can stock it to avoid shipping charges – although I’m speaking from North of the Border, shipping within the continental US may not be so bad.

    Jason, just wait until the last article in the series – probably #11 or so – that’s where we show off the SS design engine in practice.

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