Thursday, January 24, 2008

Star Fleet Battles

What geek doesn't have a soft spot in their heart for James Tiberius Kirk? Well over 15 years ago--around the same time that I bought the hefty Advanced Squad Leader rulebook--I purchased the Star Fleet Battles Basic Set. It was partly nostalgia, partly the huge rulebook, and partly because I always wanted to fire photon torpedoes.

At the time, I had only played out a game solo to work through the rules, and maybe, just maybe, played a single real game with my brother. I specifically remember that my chances of playing again with him died on the vine that day. He disliked the Energy Allocation system. I'll get to that later.

The Game

SFB is set in the universe of the original Star Trek series. Each game session is basically some battle between 2 or more ships and/or space monsters/menaces. Unlike most hex and counter wargames, SFB is set in the relative void of space, so terrain and all its repercussions (line of sight, hindrances) are minimal at best. You have the basic Federation, Klingon, and Romulan races along with the lesser-known Kzintis, Tholians, Lyrans, etc. Each race has its own technologies and ship types, making for very different tactics and strategies.

Each ship on the map is a 1/2" cardboard chit, and its controller has 2 sheets with which to manage it: Energy Allocation, and an SSD (ship system display). The Energy Allocation sheet is a table of all the sources of and uses for power. The SSD is a simplified picture of the ship with all the internal systems laid out in their places, along with all the necessary charts for that ship's weapons, movement, and other internal record-keeping. Pictured is an SSD that I colorized to show the different systems (green = defense, blue = power, red = weapons, gold = misc).

One of the aspects of the design that makes the game so tactical is shield facing. Each ship has separate shields on each of its six hex sides. The forward shield is #1, and the rest are numbered clockwise, ending with #6 on the left front. If a given shield is weak or completely down, attacks from that direction could cause serious internal damage. You are constantly evaluating your position and orientation with respect to enemy vessels. In addition, weapons also have firing arcs which usually correspond to one or more shield facing directions. In other words, your rear-firing torpedoes cannot fire at a ship in front of you.

Each turn of the game begins with Energy Allocation. Energy is generated by your warp engines, impulse engines, and reactors. It can be used to reinforce shields, move, and power weapons. Each turn, you must decide where all of your available energy is going...before knowing how the turn is going to play out. You do this secretly. Are you going to put a lot of energy into your engines so you can move quickly? Are you going to pre-load all your torpedoes? Are you going to reinforce all your right-side shields intending for a close pass? What if the enemy goes left?

Once the turn is underway, all speeds are known. Speeds range from 0 to 32, and the turn is likewise broken into 32 impulses. On a given impulse, you either move 0 or 1 hex. After 32 impulses, each ship has moved its movement rate. This is all shown on a chart that has the movement impulses set for each possible speed.

On any impulse, one or more ships may fire weapons if in range, if that weapon is allowed to fire, and if an enemy ship is in the firing arc of that weapon. Most weapons always hit, but damage is based on range (and a die roll). Others require a die roll to hit, then do a fixed or variable damage if successful. Some weapons only do decent damage up close. Some need two or more turns to power up. Some ships have a few big weapons. Some have many smaller ones.

The Session

In our first game, we played 2 newbies against the "expert". I had Klingon Heavy Battlecruiser. My ally, Whit, had a Federation Heavy Battlecruiser. Our enemy, Brian, had a Lyran Heavy Battlecruiser and a Lyran Light Cruiser. The Lyrans have a special technology called the Expanding Sphere Generator. This creates a force field around the ship which can be used to "ram" enemy ships for massive damage.

We decided to stick together and gang up on the bigger ship. The Federation ship would use its massive array of Phaser-1's to punch a hole in the shields into which I would launch all my Disruptors. We set approach speeds, but the Lyrans would have none of it. They turned away on their approach. We couldn't get close enough to do any serious damage.

On the second turn, since we were much closer now, I decided to lower my speed to 8 and put everything I had into weapons and my #1 shield. The Lyrans still set a speed of 24. This allowed them to outmaneuver us and fire on un-reinforced shield facings, and to contact us with the dreaded ESG. Ouch. But as he passed by, we got a pretty serious volley off on his #2 shield and scored so many internal hits I think it took 10 minutes to work it all out.

The game was a learning game, so we didn't play it out to the bitter end. It really was as enjoyable as I had hoped. There's a lot of record-keeping, but it's mostly to do with decisions you are making, or results you are applying so it's all part of the fun. I'm not at the point where I want to add all the complexity of the full rules yet (mid-turn speed changes, seeking weapons, tractor beams, boarding parties, etc.). I'd just like to explore the various tactics of the basic ships and get more comfortable with the system first.


At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Basic Blackjack said...

Infinite topic


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