Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Star Fleet Battles

The Space Game to End All Space Games

Federation & Empire is the biggest, most epic, most insanely monstery space game in existence. Even better… it’s been honed and developed for decades. This feat is made possible by an utterly impossible license that was issued directly from Franz Joseph at a time when no one knew that Star Trek was going to matter culturally and commercially. Unlike all the other game licenses since this one it never expires. And for a hate-filled culture critic like myself there’s an added bonus: all of the subversions, retcons, and horrors that have accrued to the franchise since around 1980 or so…? This game presents an entirely self-consistent alternate Star Fleet style universe that is extrapolated out as if none of that was even conceivable.

It’s mind-blowing. It is– literally– the Franz Joseph Star Fleet Technical Manual brought to life. Even better… Larry Niven’s Kzin  (which made a brief appearance in an old episode of the seventies Trek cartoon) are given first class treatment.

But best of all, all of the ships and units from the Star Fleet Battles game are here in all their glory. The entire fleets of the Gorns, Tholians, Klingons, and Romulans are in play at once. All of their ships. Tugs, carriers, maulers, scouts, and more– they’re all here. And if you encountered the tactical game first and fell in love with it, you’re in luck: you now have a monster strategic game that serves as the official campaign rules for your monster tactical game.

Fans of the game routinely spend entire weeks at time playing out their monster space wars. For people that don’t have that kind of stamina there are plenty of smaller scenarios that can be played out in single session. But I don’t see the appeal for that, really. I mean… if you’re going to start playing a game this awesome, why would you ever want to stop?!

Nine Kzinti Ships Take on the Death Probe…!

I dunno why my son was so keen on this one. He’d had his Kzinti fleet picked out for weeks in advance: five frigates, one FFK, and three war destroyers. He was convinced that his waves of thirty-six drones per turn could easily annihilate me. What he didn’t count on was the fact that the Death Probe could move at speed 32. And more… it can make two high energy turns per turn. This means that not only can the Death Probe pick the range that fire will be exchanged practically every turn. It also means that drones are all but useless against it.

Now, we did have a chance to work some more kinks out of the game. We finally had a need to mark the white boxes on some of these counters with a distinguishing color. Looking up the finer points on damage allocation, we discovered that when targeting weapons or engines, “skipped” hits don’t do any damage at all! It finally dawned on me why it was that it didn’t make sense for drones to do side slips. My son realized that being in a long line was actually a horrible fleet formation. We agreed that the rules really didn’t indicate that ships or drones would lose a hex of movement when executing a high energy turn. And finally, we figured out how these frame hits are really supposed to work so we could finally blow up some starships by the book for once.

But I have to say… this Death Probe scenario is just stupid. Everything that was interesting about that session where I fought against the gigantic B10 with a ragtag fleet of smaller ships was missing here. All of the excitement of that big plasma duel we played the other day was gone. A speed-32 ship with a couple of phase-4’s might sound awesome on paper, but in real life… it’s just lame. This is a ship that makes maneuver completely irrelevant. (Was I playing something wrong…?)

On the other hand, we discovered that handling a fleet of nine ships all at once in Federation Commander isn’t that difficult. Compared to Star Fleet Battles, you need only a quarter of the usual amount of real estate to track a ship. The cards stack nicely and the energy track combined with the weapons fired boxes make it easy to stay on top of what’s going on. As a result of this, I’m about ready to try a big fleet battle. A dreadnought with cruisers, destroyers, and frigates… all at fleet scale. I don’t care what they are as long as something gets crippled or blown up every turn.

But that speed-32 Death Probe with two HET’s a turn…? Never again!

On the Table: Federation Commander Boosters #0 and #8

I don’t think I’ve ever played a real “Plasma Ballet” type scenario with Star Fleet Battles. Between having much simpler rules and also a twelve-year-old around that will ask to play all of the crazy stuff, times have changed for me. And given that the point values for the ISC Star Cruiser and the Romulan KR Command Cruiser were so close, this duel was practically inevitable.

See, we have just the one ISC ship from Booster #0, so my son naturally gravitated to it. Not only does it look cool, but it has six plasma-F launchers facing to the rear which he thought he could unload on me all at once. (They’re actually intended to be defensive weapons; you can only fire one from each bank each turn if you’re targeting an enemy ship. This was a major letdown when the ship finally hit the table.)

Anyway, one of the problems with this game is that novices are liable to simply pull up to range one or so and just hammer away at each other until one person dies. And if people are maneuvering around, it’s possible to have a battle pass where not much really happens. But having two factions fight which both depend primarily on plasma torpedoes solves this problem.

Here’s what I mean:

My KRC is getting pummeled with sixty points of damage there. My son’s CS has ninety points of damage threatening to smash his ship on the next impulse. This is the sort of situation where emergency deceleration would be the end of you. Closing to point blank range when plasma torpedoes are heading your way would take a supreme amount of self control. (Sometimes it really is a good idea, though.) Every hex of movement counts. Every point of power counts. Everything about the precise steps of the sequence of play is suddenly matters immensely.  And whatever happens, people are going to take internals. This is just stupidly fun.

I’ve always been more of a direct fire person with this family of games simply because it’s easier to learn and play those sorts of rules. But after this game, it’s pretty clear that I’ve been missing out on some great battles.

One thing with this matchup here is that you have to put your advantages up against your opponent’s weaknesses. For instance, the KRC can (if he centerlines his target) launch 110 points of plasma at one time. This is way more than the ISC can manage. The ISC has a second problem in that his plasma is coming in two waves which means that his opponent can see that it hits different shields. What to do?!

In the first pass of this game, I came out with nine more internals scored against my son than he got on me. In the second pass, I managed to come just short of destroying him. And granted, the ISC ship is designed to be a part of a fleet formation. Can it give the KRC a run for its money?

Well, the ISC cruiser not without its advantages. The PPD is a pretty good weapon even though it’s liable to get shot off fairly often. Combined with its grand total of eight phaser-1’s, I think it can dole out some serious damage even when it’s waiting on its plasma to be reloaded. The ISC really needs to hound the Romulan every single turn in order to make up for its less impressive torpedo array. (If it can put that firepower on a shield that’s about to take plasma damage, that’s even better. Better check the sequence of play to see if that’s even possible!)

Another thing the ISC can do is look at exchanging plasma at a longer range. The utility of the Romulan’s plasma-F’s are blunted at the longer ranges. Also, it ISC still has six plasma-F’s. Sure, it can only fire two at the Romulan each turn… but if it can figure out how to use them for something besides padding, so much the better. At the same time, the Romulan can fire its plasma-D’s every single turn as well… and if the ISC turns up the heat too much, it can even cloak!

So yeah, I’d play this match again. I’d even switch sides to what looks like the lesser ship just to see if I could turn things around. You know, I’d read about people thinking this way with tournament battles at Origins over the years. But with Federation Commander– and my son being old enough to get into this– I can finally experience what I only daydreamed about doing with Star Fleet Battles. I was always concerned about leaving behind the way that things “really” worked in this more simplified implementation of the game, but the fact is… we’ve been too busy playing it to run into the things that I thought were going to be a problem here…!

On the Table: Tholian Attack!

So Thanksgiving Day means games around here… and this year, Federation Commander established itself as game supreme, displacing Ogre: Designer Edition from this coveted position. I had actually planned to get the boys going with the G.E.V. Ceasefire Collapse scenario, but they overruled me by setting up their own game… and leaving me out!

Our host only had copies of Klingon Attack and Tholian Attack, so we had to make do with what ship cards and map panels he could scrounge up from his two supplements. Here’s a look at the resulting action:

Yes, that’s a base station and a Neo-Tholian cruiser there. (The wedding cake is not actually in play, by the way.) You can see how the webcaster successfully broke up the incoming Kzinti fleet. You can also see that the boys will play absolutely crazy scenarios. Stuff I never got around to playing in Star Fleet Battles because the rules were just a bit too complicated– even core stuff like web and cloaks, really– these guys even go beyond it and put it into play without even thinking. (Man, I’m jealous. At this rate they’ll be pitting Andromedans against Hydrans in no time.)

I did end up sitting in a little to look up rules questions and moderate things a little. I noticed our 14-year-old Neo-Tholian player just could not seem to grasp that each ship’s volley was resolved all at once before moving on to the next one. He also wanted to change his targeting based on the outcome of the hits as they were resolved. Getting him to declare everything up front and stick to it and also to record his shield reinforcement from each incoming volley was not easy.

(Not that I haven’t made my share of mistakes this past while. I was letting people phaser down plasma torpedoes on a one-for-one basis a few weeks ago. And my son showed me that I’ve been playing the leaky shields totally wrong for several games now!)

In spite of these nit picky questions of procedure, the game was more or less played within the spirit of the rules and the Neo-Tholians earned a very decisive victory here. The Kzinti just could not seem to score any kind of significant damage on the enemy cruiser. If the drones even posed a threat, the Neo-Tholian webcaster seemed to blunt it altogether. And finally, the phaser-4’s on the base were absolutely devastating:

We only had time to play a couple of turns, but it was plenty to settle this dispute.

Occasionally people claim that SFB doesn’t have terrain, but wow… the Neo-tholians can create terrain and put it wherever they want to. It’s awesome. I had no idea they were this cool.

On the Table: Federation Commander’s Battleships Attack

If you have boys that are age 12 to 14 or so, then this supplement is serious trouble. They will not want to play anything but battleships if they find out this thing exists. That will leave you with two not-so-good options:

  1. Play games that take a lot longer to play out due to all the extra die rolls and damage allocation.
  2. Play games at fleet scale rather than the more “correct” squadron scale.

Being a purist, having a conservative temperament, and being practically hidebound when it comes to the “correct” way to play this game, neither one of these options look sensible to me.

That said, I have to tell you: the Klingon B10 is a monster of a ship in Federation Commander. I mean I just had no idea. When my son handed me a Federation DNG and and Old Light Cruiser to take up against it, I thought it’d be a fair fight. But I really could not wear it down. Granted, he went speed-8 for five consecutive turns and dropped twenty points of power into shield regeneration at the start of most every turn. (That’s about as close as this game gets to allowing for the dreaded “Star Castling” of Star Fleet Battles!) But those twelve batteries mean that he apply a massive amount of shield reinforcement to each of the two volleys my ships would be throwing at him on a battle pass. Its power seemed all but inexhaustible. And if I did manage to penetrate a shield and take out a weapon or two, he could have them back on line immediately thanks to the ship’s awesome repair rating.

The battleship is a surprisingly resilient beast. And yes, it took a twelve year old to school me on this. The plus side to this game taking longer and being less decisive in the early stages is that we could finally start to dig in to the heart of the game: maneuver.

Here I am swooping in at speed-24, paying extra energy to go even faster. My plan was to take my shot and then be as far away as possible while I was reloading. My son opted to hold his fire because he wanted to maximize his damage output. But then I did this:

My son was shocked, too. I’d noticed before that he would take a range five shot and then keep coming towards me anyway. That’s what let me end games on the first pass previously, because I would be dealing enough additional damage in the exchange that we would agree to stop playing. But now… suddenly every stinking hex counts. My son has to take a range 8 shot as well or else he will lose his chance to fire altogether!

Needless to say, the succeeding turns became engrossingly, incomprehensibly fun. Getting into position for my second pass was not trivial. That B10 was sending out massive stacks of drones at my dreadnought! Figuring out the best way to incorporate the Old Light Cruiser into mopping them up was not easy to figure out. (One more way in which a great big ship has an advantage over two small ones.) Losing two drone racks in that first exchange made it even harder than it would have been, though. And coming back in for my second pass, most of my phasers were tied down defending my ships!

After all the dust settled with those two battle passes, it looked to me that my son had the advantage, but then there was still a surprise in store for me:

Here I am trying to get set up for my third battle pass. And the thing is… not only did I inadvertently expose a down shield… but I also exposed it to a surprising amount of firepower. If you think the B10’s disruptors are more or less restricted to the standard FA arc that the cruisers have to deal with, you are in for a rude awakening. My son rolled poorly, but if he hadn’t– and if the damage allocation had been just a bit more wrong than it was– then this really could have been devastating. As it stood, taking nine internals just then that I didn’t have to take was utterly demoralizing. I mean… I just got done repairing that photon torpedo launcher…!

And speaking of repairs, they introduce a lot of challenging decisions into the gameplay. As you can see above the B10 is going to have to spend its repair points reloading the drone racks if he wants to continue tying my phasers up with drones. He can reload two per turn, but doing so means he’s not repairing boxes on his SSD! Meanwhile on my end, my Old Light Cruiser is reloading its drone rack every single turn for “free”. But my dreadnought has to forgo repairing phasers and torpedoes in order to keep its drone racks in play!

We spent hours playing this session, and I can’t tell you how much of a blast my son was having. I don’t know what all is going on in his brain, but he’s starting to think about what is actually going on as far as the tactical situation is concerned. And he’s not a pushover, either. When I asked him if I could retroactively pay for an extra movement point, he calmly suggested that it would make sense for me to adhere to the sequence of play. (Dude, that’s my line!) There’s lots of decisions like that in the game– like where you have to declare what shield repairs you’re going to make upfront at the start of the turn before you really know how the action is going to shape up. Choices have consequences, including being judged by one’s choices. And judgement in this case means watching your starship steadily be defanged by a guy that’s cutting you apart as if he were some kind of championship level fencer!

If you had asked me before this year, I would have told you that a twelve year old probably wouldn’t go for a game like this. But the reality is, the complexity and the playing times are not much of a deterrent at all. Indeed, the richness of the decision making environment and the brutality of the direct conflict are exactly what’s going to sell a young man on this game.