While I’m waiting for my Squadron Strike: Traveller Kickstarter to deliver, I went back to my first vector movement starship combat game. The game is Mayday from the Classic Traveller RPG-universe. I have the third edition GDW flat box, copyright 1983, with the Series 120 rulebook copyright 1978 and 1980. A Series 120 game was supposed to be playable in under two hours. The back of the box taught me what mayday means and why it may still matter in the future:
In the earliest days of radio, a standard distress call was established using the international language of the day. In French, the simple statement help me was expressed m’ai dez. English-speaking radio operators pronounced and spelled the word as mayday. Since then, the word has become as accepted as its Morse code predecessor S.O.S.
In the future, it is likely that monitoring stations will receive the same call from the depths of interplanetary space, faintly repeating a position and a single word, mayday.
Mayday is a science fiction game of small spacecraft in danger, distress, and ship-to-ship combat. The ships are out-fitted by each player with a variety of laser weapons, missiles, defensive systems, and computer packages. Using realistic vector movement, players maneuver their ships against each other on a hexagonal grid. Scenarios include The Grand Prix, The Attack, Piracy, Battle, and Smuggling.
Mayday is played “using realistic vector movement and intriguing combat systems….” Recently, I closely looked through the short (15 page), digest-size rulebook and was struck by both how simple the game was, and yet how much detail and universe-building was contained within.
A Small-Ship Universe
Mayday was also marketed as Traveller Game 1. Mayday took Traveller Book 2 Starships and brought it into a hex and counter setting. What struck me looking through the book is that Mayday is firmly in the “small ship Traveller universe.” Section 8. Ships provides the following starships:
- Scout (100 ton)
- Courier (100 ton)
- Escort (100 ton)
- Free Trader (200 ton)
- Yacht (200 ton)
- Transport (400 ton)
- Armed Merchant (400 ton)
- Destroyer (400 ton)
- Colonial Cruiser (800 ton)
- Corsair (400 ton)
Small craft are also fuel-limited in Mayday. The Fighter is rated “4G12” meaning it has a maximum acceleration of 4G in a turn, and cannot make more that a total of 12G of acceleration/deceleration before running out of fuel.
Mayday is the game the taught me what vector movement is. Each starship, small craft, or missile has three counters; the past position, the present position, and the future position. The use of these three counters allows one to readily see the vector movement of the combatants. This easy vector movement system is what I had always focused upon and I didn’t really pay attention to the combat.
Lasers and Missiles Oh My!
In the Mayday version of the Traveller universe there are basically two offensive weapons; Lasers and Missiles. Of the two, the Laser is the most common starship and small craft weapon. However, a close analysis of the Attack Table and Damage Table reveals it is actually not the best weapon. Without consideration of any modifiers, a Laser will hit a starship 58% of the time, whereas a Missile will hit 83% of the time. Against small craft, the chances are 42% for Lasers and 58% for Missiles.
Lasers are also very close-range weapons realistically effective out to no more than 5 hexes (or 5 light seconds). This is because Laser Fire has a -1 Die Modifier (DM) for each hex of range. [Interestingly, Mayday page 12 references Traveller Book 5: High Guard and its fleet combat rules. The Mayday rules state that ships with matched courses (same hex, course, speed) are at “boarding range.” Short range is within 5 hexes (5 light seconds). Long range is beyond 5 hexes, but less than 15. Ships beyond 15 hexes/15 light seconds range are “out of range” and cannot fire.]
The damage potential of a Laser versus a Missile is also dramatically different. If a “hit” is achieved a Laser gets one roll on the Damage Table whereas a Missile gets two rolls if it has a proximity fuse or three rolls (!) if it uses contact detonation. This dramatic difference in damage potential finally brought home to me, more than any number of damage dice, the difference in the power of these two weapons systems in Traveller. It also vividly showed me why Missiles are the weapon of choice for starship combat at the mid-tech levels of Traveller.
Many people criticize the assumptions Traveller made when it came to computers. Marc Miller and company missed with their prediction of the computer revolution. For myself I tend to ignore the inconsistencies with our reality and try to play the game. In the case of starship combat, I think the problems are not as dire as some make them out to be. Instead, I try to play the game using the rules as written to see what the designers were trying to communicate.
In Mayday, like Book 2, computers are actually a key part of ship-to-ship combat. This is because Traveller computers are limited. For example, a Model/1 computer has a “CPU” of 2 and “Storage” of 4. What does this mean? It means that the ship can “load” programs taking up space equal to “Storage” and can “run” programs in a given phase of the turn with sizes the “CPU” can support.
Take a typical Free Trader with a Model/1 computer. According to the ship description, the available computer programs (and size) are:
- Target 1, Launch 1, Gunner Interact 1, Auto/Evade 1, Return Fire 1, Anti-Missle 2, Maneuver 1, Jump-1 1, Navigation 1.
No more than 6 “spaces” of programs can be loaded. As you can hopefully see, not all the programs can be “loaded” at once. Thus, the crew must make a decision.
- Target is needed to shoot, unless one wants a -4 DM for “manual control”
- Maneuver is needed to change course/speed.
- Launch is needed to fire missiles…or a small craft
- Gunner Interact allows characters to use their Gunnery skill (one of the few connections between Mayday and the Traveller RPG)
- Auto/Evade makes you harder to hit, but cannot be run with the Maneuver program
- Return Fire must be used with Target and allows ships to fire at ships/craft that fired at them first
- Anti-Missile is used for point defense against impacting missiles
- Jump is needed to activate the FTL (hyperspace) drive…useful to escape
- Navigation is needed to compute the hyperspace jump
There are other programs available, such as Predict (positive DM to hit), Selective (ability to target specific systems), and Maneuver/Evade (harder to hit but less maneuver capability).
Making sure you have the right program available at the right time is crucial for combat in Mayday. For many years I ignored this section and just played with the Simplified Computer Rule:
Any activity may be performed, without regard to computer program requirements. The size of the ship’s computer is used as an attack DM for lasers (computer model 1 gives a DM of +1) and as a defense DM when attacked by lasers. DMs for range, sand effects, manual control, and anti-missile fire still apply, but no others do. This simplified rule allows concentration on movement and basic combat. 6. Computer Programming (p. 9)
Mayday is what I call a “simply complex” game. The rules are simple, from easy vector movement to a straight-forward combat system. Taking into account the computer rules really does make this game “intriguing” like the rulebook claims, and that makes it complex in that the choices one makes are relevant, interesting, and impactful. I also appreciate the insight this simple game gives me into the universe building that Marc Miller and friends started 40 years ago.
Mayday is currently rated 5.8 on BoardGameGeek. I personally rated it a 7 (Good – Usually willing to play) back in 2008 when I think I was updating my collection. Given my more recent appreciation for the game, I think it deserves a rating increase to 7.5.