Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Category Archives: Star Fleet Battles

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.

On the Table: Federation Commander’s Distant Kingdoms

This game has taken over at my house. It’s hard to imagine any game successfully taking Ogre: Designer’s Edition out as the top space game out of my entire collection, but Federation Commander has pulled it off. It’s not just the pretty ship cards that my son can spend countless hours poring over. No, the thing that did the trick was that time he successfully blew up his friend’s Gorn BC with a Klingon D7. Yes, people play Settlers of Catan with their friends and have a good time. But it’s outmaneuvering an superior opponent and then destroying him that really captures the budding space gamer’s imagination. There’s no other game on the shelf that provides quite that kind of rush.

I’ve wanted to play the Hydrans and Lyrans for long, long time. And somehow I never got around to playing with fighters in Star Fleet Battles like I wanted to, so I have to give Federation Commander credit for making my gaming dreams come true. The laminated ship cards means there’s less work involved in set up, the top notch map board pieces and counters means the game looks sharp in actual play, and the streamlined rules means that the action does not stop unless we’re allocating damage.

This was a learning game, so a single pass was sufficient to introduce the main tactical interactions between ships armed with hellbores, ESGs, fusion beams, and gatling phasers. My son made the mistake of getting his Lyrans just a hair too close to my Hydrans. I’d toyed with maybe tractoring one of his ships so that my Stinger fighters could get even closer, but when it came down to it I didn’t end up needing to play dirty in order to have an edge.

Turn 1 Impulse 6: All hellbores targeted on the Lyran CA. Its ESGs blocked most of the Dragoon’s hellbores. The Knight missed with one of hits hellbores. Internal damage was light. The Dragoon was slightly worse off, losing one hellbore in the exchange.

Turn 1 Impulse 7: The Hydrans held back their phaser-G’s for this followup impulse but couldn’t concentrate them all on the same ship. They nearly took down the Lyran CW’s #2 shield and thanks to their ability to target weapons, they pretty well defanged the CA. The Stinger flight had the not-so-great range 3 shot, but their 13 points of damage was all through a down shield. It was enough to make this opening pass decisive for them, though…! (Again, they could target weapons because there were no overloads or hellbores in the volley.)

The gatling phaser damage on the CW’s #2 makes for a nice target for the upcoming hellbore hits scheduled for turn 3. The CA is down to one phaser, one disruptor, and hardly any shields.

The Hydran Knight has taken no damage at all. (Woo!) The Dragoon has a down shield, a hellbore that’s currently out of commission, and a whopping twelve power hits. (Ouch!) Letting the Hydrans get to range-2 with the ship-based phaser-G’s was not good for the Lyrans. The Stingers getting to range three was just enough additional damage to completely demoralize the poor cats. So we called the game right there rather than play out the turn 2 hellbore reloading and the turn 3 CW smackdown. (I think it would have been ugly.)

The reason that the Lyran CA is almost completely stripped from weapons is due to the fact that it had to eat three different phaser volleys in impulse 7. The hellbores had been enough to drop the relevant shields and open the victim up to the deathblow. With two ships and a small stack of Stingers all pounding the same weakened ship, they got the benefit of the Federation Commander equivalent to the old Mizia effect, gaining three separate phaser volleys that each could target weapons. A big part of the tactics of the game thus revolve around how to allocate your volleys and when to target engines versus when to target weapons.

(There was some rules confusion in the game due to all the new systems being suddenly in play. I ruled that a stack of three Stingers would combine their firepower into a single volley. I also ruled that hellbore damage in a volley would be totaled altogether first before subtracting out the effects of an ESG shield. That seems about right, but I’m not 100% sure.)

Anyway, my twelve year old son loves loves LOVES this game. His fourteen year old friend a few blocks away bought Klingon Attack a few weeks ago and they played as good of a game as they could put together with it thanks to the spare Klingon Border rule book that I’d passed on to him previously. I expect this game to get played quite a bit in the months ahead. If something else doesn’t catch our eyes before next weekend, my son wants to take a stab at playing the Hydrans now that he’s seen what they can do. He’s talking about taking a Paladin Dreadnought and a Knight Destroyer against my two Klingon D7’s and an F5. We’ll see how that goes…!

Federation Commander: Kids Will Play It

Okay, so Federation Commander keeps getting requested at my house. This is the third or fourth time, now. The two boys (aged 11 and 12) insisted that we use squadron scale this time. The twelve-year-old wanted everyone to play their own ship– including me. (Me, I want them to learn more of the rules, more of the tactics, and play shorted duels so that it is clear what’s going on. They want to make epic scenarios.) With the excitement reaching a fever pitch at the kitchen table, this becomes a major social event. As such, my daughter (age 8) ends up wanting to join in.

Now, the thing about gaming with kids…. One kid makes a passable gamer. Two kids make half a gamer. Three kids? No gamer at all! As you add more and more kids to the game, the chaos rises exponentially. I’m amazed that I can keep some semblance of a game going in between the fart jokes and the poking. But you know, it actually sort of worked a good chunk of the time. If you keep in mind that your main objective at this point is to normalize gaming as a viable activity that can just spontaneously happen at any time, then the session will make more sense.

The twelve-year-old laid out as many map sheets as would fit on the table. Everyone picked out their ships and it ended up being my son and daughter teaming up in D7’s while I and the twelve-year-old flew a Federation Heavy Cruiser. We came on the board and my son decided he wanted to shoot his sister in the back at range 8. She turned and could not get her disruptors in arc, so she answered back with several phasers at range 3 or so. We slogged through the next several impulses which I decided to mark with the projector pens on the reference sheet. At impulse eight, the Federation unloaded on my son’s D7, but through two different shields. (The twelve-year-old was at range 5 and I was at range 8.) We did a good chunk of damage and then followed through with phaser fire on impulse one of the next turn. This gutted the D7 and I called the game.

It was bed time for my two at this point and let me tell you, it is ten times as hard to get them ready for bed with a big mess of Federation Commander stuff spread out everywhere! The twelve-year-old begged me to keep playing with him, but it was impossible to focus on anything in the chaos of my kids bedtime routines. I tried to help him use the time he had before his dad showed up to learn a few more rules, look at some of the other ships in the game, and plan our next scenario. I got out the battleships ship cards and the kids’ minds were completely blown. The twelve year old asked me if you could a Klingon B10 verses a Federation frigate would be like the battle in the opening to the 2009 Star Trek movie. (I told him yes.) My son said he wanted to design a ship card of his own: a frigate that had shields like a battleship! So much stuff here to get into…!

This game is a very big deal for the kids. The twelve-year-old wants to know what can be done with every box on the card. He is blown away by the way that the game presents an accessible working model of Trek that he can play with. At one point he’d climbed up on a chair and had taken down my Romulan ships and started making “pew pew pew” sounds. He has no concept yet of what good play or good tactics would look like, but he wants to play a frigate duel as badly as he wants to play a battleship duel. It’s interesting to me as well that he hasn’t discovered the other races, yet– the Kzinti ships I showed him just left him cold. Starbases, though…? He wants to play a game with that unit as soon as possible! He could totally play this game for hours no matter how insane a scenario he comes up with– the more stuff, the more guns, the better as far as he’s concerned. I talked him into letting me pick the scenario every other session, so we’ll see how that goes….

Federation Commander: The Kids Love It!

The D7 had 20 internals at the end, but the CA took its last frame hit before we were finished marking the disruptor hits…!

So I’d put my son through a drone scenario the weekend before. His space gamer pal had started asking for Star Fleet Battles the week before. Then last  night he came back for a second helping, so I put Federation Commander on the table. I used the fleet scale ships for the classic CA/D7 duel. I scrambled to keep the game moving, explain everything, and keep things relatively fair and they were done with their duel in a little more than an hour.

This is not his first choice for game night. (He rather play Settlers.) Nevertheless, when those shields started going down, it started to get tense. These guys made some odd choices every now and then, but they totally get that you want to maneuver such that you can target your heavy weapons through the vulnerable hex sides. And thought I never really taught them the precise rule for which shield takes the damage when a boundary is split, they ended up screaming the expected ruling at each other when it got to where it counted.

It’s eight “impulses” before they got their power back and their weapons cycled. In that time there is some frantic maneuver to achieve some kind of superior position. In the final turn of the game, my son had overshot the Federation ship and worked within the limits of the turn modes and side slip modes to gradually bring his disruptors into arc. It was exciting. This tense dance of destruction is the heart of this game and the thing that sets it apart from other “move and shoot” games. Even 11 and 12 year olds grasp the essence of it in short order, though, and I can’t help but start quoting Star Trek II under my breath.

The kids got introduced to drones in combat this time, though the fact that each ship has one at fleet scale means that they tend to cancel out. My son’s ADD was highly effective in this game, while the Federation ship had to resort to using its tractor to grab one drone that was threatening to go through a down shield. Things got interesting when that tractor beam was destroyed by disruptor fire later on!

The Federation ship exploded half way through turn three while the Klingon was merely bloodied. (He was surprised when he couldn’t eject his warp core to get out of the fix he was in. Sorry man, you’re dead.) My son’s friend was peeved that I refused to explain the shuttle rules in this first duel. He still wants more ships on the board– and at squadron scale to boot. They grasp the basic movement rules, the idea of spending power impulse to impulse to either speed up or slow down slightly, and they definitely get overloads and shield reinforcement. The fact that this is relatively cumbersome and complex compared to the typical euro game is no deterrent to them in any way. They don’t really “see” the rules and the sequence of play so much– they just smell the blood in the water! I think a rematch has a strong chance of coming to pass….

A First Look at Federation Commander

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!


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