Done the Impossible: All of the rules… in a booklet the size of a Captain’s Log.
On the whole, I am rather impressed with the Federation Commander rules. It actually took me years to get the hang of Star Fleet Battles. (I would read the rules and make notes on everything. I’d have pages and pages of notes, and when I did finally play, my cheat sheets were always several pages long.) The one overriding principle of Federation Commander’s design is to maintain the overall thrust of Star Fleet Battles while eliminating anything related to record keeping or plotting. I think they succeeded admirably.
They realized during development that they could not improve the game by reducing the number of impulses in a turn. Car Wars, for instance went from having 10 phase turns to 5 phases and on down to 3 phases in the last edition. Three phase movement sacrificed a great way too much granularity it’s clear that the designers could not accept that here. On the other hand, iterating through the byzantine impulse sequence 32 times in a turn is downright unworkable in game designed for today’s market. Their solution was to reduce the number of fire opportunities down to a quarter of that. Each “impulse” now has four sub-pulses that consist of just movement. The sub-pulses play out quickly; the overall tempo and feel of the combats are maintained while a lot of extraneous decision making is quietly let go. It works.
It’s the little things that clinch the deal, though. Like not having to strain my eyes finding the ship’s turn mode given a current speed. (With the ship limited to three different “gears”, it’s a lot easier to reference your turn mode on the fly.) Stupid stuff like the Kauffman Retrograde are not possible in this system due to backwards movement being changed to cost twice as much. Mid-turn speed changes (which were a huge headache in Star Fleet Battles and were essential to mastering tournament style play) are now so drop-dead simple to implement that you’ll be teaching the rule for it in your first game. (All you do is pay a point of energy on any impulse to temporarily speed up or slow down.) Anything I had to look up often in the old game is either eliminated or simplified– for instance, if a direct fire weapon cuts directly across a shield boundary, the defender chooses which one is hit.
Some aspects of the classic simulation are gone. You don’t energize phasers anymore. The various weapons status levels seem to be gone. The difference between warp and impulse power is gone. The plethora of refits available on each hull are gone. (Okay, I do miss those… but I will not miss explaining them to new players. The first games of Star Fleet Battles almost always have something go wrong because reviewing which shaded boxes are in play inevitably lead to confusion.) Even the old “impulse of decision” and “impulse of truth” bits are gone.
I admit, I still have this dream to someday play epic games of Star Fleet Battles with scads of fighters, seeking weapons, and PF’s on the board. I actually want to try it as the fleet game it is so obviously intended to be. (The ISC ship designs only really make sense in the context of fleet battles, after all.) Nevertheless, I am gobsmacked when I peruse the Federation Commander rules and see that stuff like Stingers, Cloaks, and ESG’s only take a page or two to explain. Star Fleet Battles still defines the setting for me, but this newer variant is far more likely to see actual play at the table top. It almost makes me sad….
A few notes on keeping track of stuff:
The “weapons used” section on the ship cards is a godsend. (You just wouldn’t want to imagine having to use some of the player aids for Star Fleet Battles from Module A+ and Module R1.) Given that there’s no restriction on firing a weapon immediately after a turn break, for most direct fire weapons, you mostly only care whether or not they’ve fired this turn or not. Photons are a little more complicated due to their two turn arming sequence, but they’ve made it fairly easy to keep up with that.
Drones require a little extra tracking, too. You mark whether or not they’ve fired along with the direct fire weapons, but you have to track your current ammunition along with the damage taken on any drones that are in flight. The boxes for the anti-drones are confusing at first glance, however. Why are there two sets of boxes? Well… one is for marking whether or not they’ve fired during each impulse and the other is for keeping track of ammo. At the end of each turn, you’ll wipe off the first set of boxes, but keep a running tally in the other.
One notable rules change on this point is that reloads have been folded into the repair rules. You spend four repair points to reload any drone or ADD rack in Federation Commander, which saves you from having to keep records of your ships stores. I love this rule! (Also good here is that Continuous Damage Control, Emergency Damage Control, the damage control track, and the campaign repairs have all been replaced by a simplified version of CDR that does not require you to reference an “Annex” of data during play. Genius!)
One thing that I have trouble with in Federation Commander is keeping track of where I am in the turn sequence. Without a movement chart (like in Car Wars) or “Impulse Cards” as in Star Fleet Battles Module A+, I have trouble getting lost. I don’t know if this confusion is the sort of thing that dissipates with repeated plays, but in playing the solitaire drone scenario I was marking where I was at the start of each impulse so that it was easy to see when the turn break was coming.
On Getting Started:
A starship duel is a zero sum game that stands a fair chance of dealing irreparable psychological damage to a new player if he doesn’t win. A big every-man-for-himself battle royale is so chaotic that no one is liable to improve their mastery of the game overly much in such an exercise. (Seriously, if you’re keen on that sort of a set up, go play Car Wars!) So that leaves the question of how to best to help a novice dive in to this classic science fiction universe. From many years explaining Star Fleet Battles, here are some of my favorites:
- The drone scenario — This was in “Introduction to Star Fleet Battles”, but here it’s called Training in the Klingon Border rule book. You put eight drones on the board and the player has to fly around and shoot them. I suggest using an F5 with this because you get to use phasers, disruptors, ADD’s, drones, and tractors… and you actually have to think about how you’re going to proceed. Try the scenario again with all the drone’s targeted on the player’s ship and you’ll have trained him on the finer points of seeking weapons. (In my opinion, seeking weapons are kind of the point of Star Fleet Battles and Federation Commander… and central to the inherent beauty of the games. You might as well start with them being front and center!)
- Surprise Reversed — Some people are daunted by complexity and deathly afraid of losing. Otherwise ordinary people can be this way and you won’t always know it until they flip the table over and quit gaming forever. This scenario is your best chance at awaking their natural blood lust as a preventative measure. One ship attacks a fleet… but the fleet has no shields up and they do not attack until they make certain rolls. The new player will get to ponder how to deal the maximum damage while eliminating as much of the fleet’s combat ability in as short a time as possible. Also, you’ll get a lot of practice with applying the damage allocation rules. This is a good part of your training regimen because people are unlikely to see a lot of ships explode in straight up duel scenarios.
- Piracy — Not everyone is cut from the cloth of the brilliant naval officer. Some people just want to kill things and take their stuff… The great thing about the basic piracy scenario is that it forces you to use your tractors, which is a huge factor that sets Star Fleet Battles and Federation Commander apart from the other move-and-shoot type games. All the player has to do blaze onto the board with engines doubled, grab something, and then get away. It’s short and decisive… and usually pretty easy when the escorts are light. A certain type of player will go nuts as they shop around for the perfect set of weapons for their raider– these people are liable to become life-long adherents to the game. World builder types will be hypnotized by the “realness” of the simulated convoy and the variety of ships that can be put into it. Everyone will get more comfortable with the rules and the sequence of play as that they will be able to better focus on tactics when they sit down to play a more competitive duel or fleet battle. Do not underestimate the value of this oft overlooked scenario!
Note: Special thanks to fellow space game nut Chris Mata, who sent me a thirty pound box full of Federation Commander stuff along with a few other games. I was happy enough with Star Fleet Battles that I was unlikely to drop coin on the newer game, so this review was made possible with his generosity. Thanks, guy!
Update: The kids love it!