Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: Firestorm Armada

Firestorm Armada is a space naval combat game from Spartan Games. There is a hardback rulebook that has been recently released. I haven't gone through it extensively, but for the most part, not much of the game mechanics have changed from the first softback edition.

A snapshot of the background for the game universe is that mankind has discovered FTL drives, explored the stars, established many colonies throughout the galaxy, and in the process have encountered a handful of alien races. On the periphery of human-controlled territory, a faction of mankind has sought for independence. These two political factions of humans have begun a civil war that has expanded into a larger interstellar conflict, with different alien races pledging allegiance to each of the respective factions.

In Firestorm Armada (FA) each player commands a fleet of ships based on a point total, with some hard limits on the % composition for certain ship types. Players roll for a turn initiative, and alternate turns activating one ship squadron at a time. Squadrons can be independent fighter wings, a group of frigates, up to a single battleship. Each activated squadron moves and then resolves their fire, with the opponent doing the same with their forces. I enjoy this as it adds some tactics to deciding which group to activate, much better than a typical I-go-you-go for your entire force seen in other games.

The focal point of ship firing and movement is the base stand. Nearly everything decided from firing arcs to turning is based on the square stand your model is propped on. Targets are deemed in certain arcs based on where the center of the base sits, not on where most of the target model is. I like this as adds some uniformity to the rules, especially when working out what firing arc a target is residing in. It’s a nice simple way to streamline play and quickly resolve any sticky issues.

Ships move at a relatively constant rate, and have a minimum move distance. Turns are hard-capped at 45 degree increments, interspaced with requirements for moving straight ahead. Generally, the smaller the ship, the tighter it can turn, with larger ships being required to lumber forward more before committing to turning. Ships are considered to be able to move through each other and use a concept of ‘vectoring’, where they can shift in small increments to avoid stacking bases on other models.

I’ll admit that it throws any concept of physics out the window for movement. Full Thrust had a much better system where ships could constantly accelerate, but had a more difficult time turning a higher speeds. In FA, doing a full stop requires a half turn of movement to do so. Yet, once they stop there are no directional changes that can be made. Ships can’t slowly rotate in their position, they have to couple turning with straight movement. Additionally, models must move at least half their speed. If they opt to do nothing (including not firing weapons), they are limited to drifting straight ahead 2". The movement is clean and simple, but doesn’t effectively use a z axis. This is especially true with certain terrain types, as planets are considered impassable terrain.

Firing at other ships is based on uniform range band increments and firing arcs. Some ships have additional firing systems like turrets that are more flexible, to specific arc channels that are more restrictive than the typical 90 degree firing arcs. Each range band has a number of attack dice that can be rolled to see if they inflict hits. As expected, longer ranges have very little dice pools, and the closer the target, the more dice can be rolled. As a nice twist though, there is a sweet spot with the range bands. Get too close and there is a drop off in the damage that can be done.

In addition to firing arcs, ships can link up fire with other ships within their squadron. They can also split fire with different weapon systems on their ship. So it is possible for a ship to open full port broadsides into one target, and throw its turret weapons to support another weapon volley with other ships in its squadron (or unleash another volley of fire from another arc into a different ship). The larger the ship, the more diverse the weapon systems meaning those huge battleships can lay down an impressive amount of fire to different targets.

All dice incorporate ‘exploding’ rolls. Most hits are successful on a 4+, with a 6 inflicting 2 hits. Further, all 6s are re-rolled and can lead to further rerolls. Inflict enough hits over the ship’s damage rating and a point of hull damage is taken. Score even higher and the possibility of additional hull damage, along with a critical ship system going offline, can result. As damage is inflicted, it also reduces the attack dice of the target. Crew hits can also reduce the number of attack dice (however this is not a cumalitve penalty). To counter damage inflicted, some races have shield or cloaking technology to reduce the number of hits.

An entirely different weapon system is torpedoes. These weapon systems are never reduced through inflicted damage, even better they always have a constant number of attack dice at all ranges. However they can be countered with point defense systems (in addition to shields and other defensive technology). More importantly, as torpedoes follow a set path to the target, ships in the same squadron can add to the point defense of the target. This makes for some interesting fleet tactics, throwing in smaller ships and fighter groups to provide defensive support to larger ships.

Fighter groups, or wings, are also ships that can be deployed. There are far maneuverable and can throw out a fair amount of damage. However they can be countered effectively with point defense systems. Wings come in different flavors, from bomber groups that can roll more attack dice, to well-rounded fighters, to heavy point defense interceptors, even assault craft for boarding actions.

FA takes the route of having abstract weapon systems and resolves many game mechanics in a similar way. Boarding actions are fairly easy to resolve and done through simple resolution of hits by rounds, scoring wins by simple attrition. With this simplicity and abstract mechanics however, you can get some blandness in with the game.

Since weapon systems are based on either attack dice, or torpedoes, most differences with races are based on the varying fire arcs of ships. Some ships have more flexible weapon batteries using turrets, while others are based on specific weapon arcs (like mostly fore arc weapons, or no aft weapons).

However, with these limitations there are some plusses. Record keeping for hull and crew damage is easy to keep track of (as is the reduction of attack dice). The game uses unified mechanics for attacking and defensive systems. And while movement is maybe not as ‘realistic’ as other games, it captures that idea that smaller ships are more maneuverable than huge capital ships very well. Best of all, a player has to plot out their expected movement for themselves as well as their target. Coupled with ideal firing rates being within a specified range, and not simply parking next to a target and unloading, makes for an enjoyable game. A more freeform movement system with rapid acceleration and deceleration (along with quick facing changes) would hamper this aspect of gameplay.

The hardback edition has incorporated Model Assigned Rules (MARs) in with the current fleets. Now each race and certain ship types have specific rules that alter them slightly from others. I think this adds a layer of complexity to the game and gives even more flavor for certain fleets. Best of all it is entirely optional, so you can still play with the vanilla rules if wanted. However, I like the tweaks that have been made with the different ships. MARs really helped differentiate the races and ship types to make for a more robust game.

The Good - There is a nice fleet combat system within these rules. It has room for exploring different tactics that go beyond ‘move the biggest ship in as close as possible and unload.’ Maneuvering and trying to bring as many guns to bear, at the most ideal range, is a challenge and enjoyable. There are some differences in the race fleets, especially with the new MARs system. It’s not overly complex and has just the right amount of detail and weight for making a fun afternoon of wargaming.

The Bad - It’s not a hyper-realistic, super detailed treatment of spaceship combat. I’d go as far to say it really plays like a conventional sea naval wargame, with some trappings of science fiction. Some of the more abstract systems make for simplistic resolutions of actions, that might be too glossed over for some tastes. This is not a ramped up version of Star Fleet Battles. Also, luck can rear its head in some games. The exploding dice can make for some very ‘swingy’ turns.

The Verdict - I really enjoy this game. It has just enough detail and mechanics to make for an interesting wargame. I like the randomness of the dice that can lead to some spectacular outcomes, giving the game a few peaks and valleys with your morale during play that you might not get with other systems. FA has enough meat in the rules to make for a great space game, while not being too heavy and too clunky with having more simulationist rules.

There is enough variety of the races and fleets to make for different games, branching out with using varying tactics and experimenting with altering fleet compositions. There are a fair amount of scenarios and additional rules for civilian ships, space stations, and terrain, allowing you to create and play different situations other than your typical fleet battle engagement.

The models are reasonably priced and gorgeous. Also it seems the line is expanding with different ships and races, giving even more variety. However, the information of these new ships are not locked away and only available if you purchase the models. You can freely download the ship stats. Even if you have only the first edition rules, the MARs and fleet cards for the new ships are accessible.

I am however a bit torn about the different books. Some things I like about the hardback edition (cover pictured in this post) is that it cleans up a lot of things from the first softbound edition. Flights are no longer individual wing groups, but are consolidated into a single counter. Boarding actions now end with the target ship being destroyed, and not requiring to be fold-space traveled off table by the assaulting player.

What I do miss from the softback rules were tons of illustrated examples. They are there in the hardback edition, but more as simplified graphics rather than having figure legend explaining what is going on in more detail. I also think the layout of the rules were more organized in the 1st edition (not to mention a nice size font of the rules). It's almost as if this book was written assuming players had the 1st softback edition already, rather than being for a completely new player. Fortunately, the game is not bogged down with tons of situational or convoluted rules, and are pretty easy to grasp.

If you’ve got a hankering to paint and deploy a fleet of starships. If you find the idea pleasing of deftly maneuvering cruisers to unload a broadside volley of mass driver cannons into an enemy capital ship. Then pick up these hardback rules. Firestorm Armada is well worth the investment.