“You’re using Star Wars and physics in the same sentence….”

I had an unusual exchange on Twitter the other day. Unusual because I (frankly) was a bit of a jerk to @beltalowda_ and unusual because I let popular sci-fi get under my skin.

First, the exchange:

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I cut off my response because I was a bit of a jerk and talked down to @beltalowda_ (hey, if you’re reading this, sorry!).

The main point I was trying to make (on Twitter? I must be crazy!) is that science fiction and science fact don’t mix well, especially in the realm of gaming. Star Wars is nominally science fiction (I would argue it is more science fantasy but that is another, fruitless, discussion) and the games related to the franchise reflect that origin. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game today is ranked as the #63 game overall on BoardGameGeek as well as the #7 Customizable Game (interestingly, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – The Force Awakens Core Set is ranked #4 in the Customizable Game category). These games use what gamers often refer to as “cinematic movement,” i.e. they fly about in space like airplanes. This is far different from what space combat will likely look like. Atomic Rockets, IMNSHO one of the best sites on the internet, devotes a whole section to Space War and what is closer to reality. For me, one of the hallmarks of a hard sci-fi game is the use of vector movement, ala (loosely) The Expanse.

Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:

My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:

Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.

The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.

Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.

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Gaming Grumbles – March 18, 2018

(A collection of random gaming thoughts – possibly negative. You have been warned)

I can’t figure out how to link to a Twitter video, but go look at the March 16 tweets by @koreaboardgames. Maybe if Toys R Us in the US did events like these kids game days they would still be around rather than dumping Di$ney $tar War$ crap Hasbro toys on the market.

Amarillo Design Bureau has released Captain’s Log #45 on places like Wargame Vault. When I was a huge Star Fleet Battles player, I literally raced to the game store to buy the latest Captain’s Log. I usually enjoyed the fiction, loved the “history,” and played the ‘eck out of the new ships and scenarios. But $19.95 for a digital download? For a product that was originally released in 2012 – and not updated? That works out to something like $.13/page – a bit rich for my wallet.

My Incredibly Negative Kickstarter Experience continues (no) thanks to Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games with Squadron Strike: Traveller. This campaign funded in March 2016 with 290 backers pledging $23,339 against a goal of $5000. At the time it looked promising as the campaign claimed:

At the time we launched this Kickstarter, the setting-and-scenario booklet was edited, the tutorial booklet was in final edits, and the SSD booklet had been laid out. The countershafts have been laid out, and the folio cover and box wrap are laid out and ready to send to the printer.

On the first business day after this project reaches its funding goal, I’ll send the print job to the printers to minimize delay in shipping games to backers.

I pledged for the boxed game; no minis. In late February 2018 some backers who purchased minis finally started receiving their ships but the game is still not ready. In an update on March 17 backers were told that the SSD book is in layout because it needed “re-designing,” tutorial scenarios are being written/rewritten, and…I really don’t give a damn about your excuses anymore! Where is my frakking game!

 

 

Dull Claws in Game of the Week – Talon 2nd Printing (@GMTGames, 2017).

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Courtesy GMT Games

The current Game of the Week is Talon 2nd Printing (GMT Games, 2017). This game is highly rated on BoardGameGeek scoring a solid 7.7 with nearly 400 ratings. It is also ranked as the 167th War game on the site. For myself, I find Talon mechanically strong but the lack of deep theme makes it less interesting for me to play. In other words, the lack of a strong theme in Talon fails to draw me deeper into the game.

All things considered, I can see that I have become pickier over the years when it comes to space battle games. I first started out with Star Fleet Battles. Beyond the fact it is closely related to the Star Trek IP, the real “theme” in SFB is taken from the ever-famous quote from the series, “Scotty, I need more power!” In SFB everything is about Energy Allocation. This theme carries over to the new generation game, Federation Commander.

Over the years, I tried other tactical starship combat games. I like Full Thrust (Jon Tuffley at Ground Zero Games) which is a generic set of rules. To be honest, I actually like two implementations of Full Thrust, those being the the version in The Earthforce Sourcebook for The Babylon Project RPG, and Power Projection: Fleet, a set of rules set in the Traveller RPG universe. Both of these I like because the game rules implement a version of the given setting that seems thematically appropriate. I also have played around with Starmada: The Admiralty Edition, another generic set of rules that one can use to make their own setting. I find the included setting boring, and have never found a another setting that grabbed my attention. The RockyMountainNavy Boys and I play the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game but I see it as an (expensive) manual video game.

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Courtesy BGG.com

From a game mechanics standpoint, Talon corrects many issues I have with older games. It does not implement vector movement (though I happen to love vector-movement games) and instead goes for a more cinematic approach. It still has power considerations, but the use of the Power Curve makes it much easier to manage and avoids “accountants in space.” But as much as I love the game, I just cannot get into the setting. Ships move no more than a speed of 6 each turn, and combat is at ranges of 4 hexes or less. I just don’t get that grandiose feeling of giant starship battles in space. In part this may also be driven by the limited counter mix out of the box. The scenarios themselves also seem wrong, with major battles defending the Earth having only six units per side – a factor driven by the few counters included. When putting it all together I get a sense of cognitive dissonance; a game that works so well mechanically just seems wrong thematically.

GMT Games is offering Talon 1000on their P500 program. The draw for me is that it will include over 130 new ships. Given a greater fleet size, or at least a wider variety of ships, maybe the game will be more “thematically correct.” The danger, I fear, is that adding too many more ships will take the great mechanics of the game and overload it. This forces me to turn to the scenarios, and with 1000 new scenarios I would hope to find some interesting ones in there.

Talon, my Game of the Week, once again shows me how much I have changed as a gamer. I find it hard to enjoy a mechanically complex game like Star Fleet Battles, but need a good theme to keep my interest. Talon shows promise, but it has yet to meet its full potential.

Game of the Week for 12 March 2018 – Talon Reprint Edition (@GMTGames, 2017)

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Courtesy GMT Games

I have my own shelf of shame and one of the games that is sitting on it is Talon Reprint Edition (GMT Games, 2015/17). I wrote a First Impressions post last September but the game has languished, unloved, since. My past few Game of the Week have been older games; this week change that and try a newer game.

The Talon Play Book has a Tutorial scenario so that seems like a good place to start. If I can get a chance with the RockyMountainNavy boys, we might try Scenario 1 – War is Upon Us during the week. The scenario looks to be a good learning game with few ships on two evenly-matched sides duking it out. If all goes well, Scenario 3 – The First Fleet Engagement looks like a good Game Night event.

Like I wrote in my First Impressions, I see Talon as a sci-fi fleet combat game to replace Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau) in my collection. I tried Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau) but found it wanting. I think this is because the RMN Boys are simply not Trekkies. [I know, I have failed as a Geek Father – sue me] More directly to my point, they are not well acquainted with the thematic elements behind SFB and FC, and therefore the complexity of the games push them away. I also see Talon as an inexpensive alternative to Star Wars: Armada (Fantasy Flight Games). In the case  of Armada I dislike the theme (I am very anti-Di$ney Star Wars these days) and cringe at the cost of all those miniatures in a game that is another unappealing manual video game.

To be fair, I actually have another fleet combat game in my collection. Full Thrust (Ground Zero Games) and the very similar Power Projection: Fleet (BITS UK) are probably my favorite sci-fi fleet combat games. FT is a generic set of rules whereas PP:F is tailored for the Traveller RPG universe. The problem is that both are miniatures games and I never made that investment (although with modern desktop publishing software and home printers it is possible to make custom counters and tokens).

I am also very happy to get Talon to the table in part because another sci-fi combat game I bought in 2016 has yet to arrive. I made the mistake of backing Squadron Strike: Traveller by Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games on Kickstarter. Allegedly, the miniatures for the game started shipping late February, but for backers like me who didn’t buy minis and am waiting for my boxed set it appears that all I am going to get is a beta-version of the pdf. All of which makes me look forward to Talon that much more because its a lot easier to have fun with a game when its actually on your table and not vaporware!

#Wargame #GameNight with #TheFiresofMidway (Clash of Arms, 2010)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

This week’s Game Night saw the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself playing a 3-player scenarios of The Fires of Midway (Clash of Arms, 2010). The Fires of Midway (TFoM) is a card game of carrier battles in the Pacific during 1942. Although the featured game is the Battle of Midway, we played the Battle of Santa Cruz scenario.

 

Little RMN took the two American carriers, Enterprise and Hornet. The Japanese fleet command was divided with Middle RMN sailing carriers Shokaku and Zuikaku while I sailed light carriers Zuiho and Junyo.

TFoM starts with a both sides searching for the other. This is how the initial hand of Combat Cards is built and determines advantage – the first to find the third carrier gets the first VP. Advantage in turn drives the use of doctrine; the Confident side (leading VP) has to follow their Admiral’s Doctrine while the Desperate side (behind in VP) gets more Combat Cards and doesn’t have to follow doctrine.

At the end of the search phase the Japanese were Confident and the Americans Desperate. This means the US player could have 9 Combat Cards in his hand but the Japanese were limited to 7 – divided between the two players. This in turn meant Middle RMN had 4 cards while I only had three.

With the fleets located the battle switched into launching airstrikes. TFoM uses Action Cards to help determine the order with each carrier being dealt an Action Card. One turned face-up, the Confident player can “steal” one of the opponents cards and switch them. Each Action Card allows for one of three actions – launch full airstrike, launch a partial airstrike and make repairs, or repairs only. Cards earlier in the action order go first but don’t have as many actin points as later cards. This means earlier cards allow for the “first strike” but later cards might create “the heavy blow.” As luck would have it, my carriers drew Action slots 1 & 2, the Americans got 4 & 5, and Middle RMN with the heavy Japanese carriers drew 5 & 6.

Zuiho and Junyo both launches strikes. The American carriers tried to hide in an area of Low Clouds which adds range to strike movement. Even with the challenge, both strikes arrived over the American carriers in a Fueled status. In the resulting battles, the American CAP and Anti-Aircraft fire proved mostly effective and only a lone hit on Hornet resulted. The American airstrikes focused on the light carriers and damaged Junyo. The later Japanese strikes from the heavy carriers succeeded in hitting Hornet once more.

In the second turn, the carriers generally held range, but this time the Japanese heavies and the Americans had the top 4 slots of the Action Order. By the time the round was over, Junyo and Hornet were sunk. With that, the Americans withdrew and the Japanese side was the winner. Close to the historical result, but a bit of a let-down to play.

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A Kate torpedo plane seen dropping a torpedo (Courtesy maritimequest.com)

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

TFoM is a very formulaic game. Each carrier in the Action Order follows a strict turn sequence. In a two-player game this works just fine but in a three-player (or maybe four-player?) scenario there is lots of downtime for the third player. On the plus side, combat is very easy; first compare a pool of combat dice (highest SINGLE die wins) then roll for damage against a damage track found on different cards.

Our gameplay experience was a bit blah. I generally knew the rules but had not played in a while making the first round a bit slow as it was necessary to reference the rulebook several times. Play was faster on the second round, but the formulaic sequence of play made the game feel more like a checklist then a narrative experience. We finished the game but the RMN Boys are not anxious for a replay.

When I first started wargaming nearly 40 years ago I was in it for the simulation. I was unabashedly a simulationist – the more “real” the game was the more I liked it! Looking back, I now realize that the best games I ever played (i.e. the ones of remember) featured great narrative moments (like the one time in Star Fleet Battles I spectacularly lost the battle when I failed my High Energy Turn and tumbled my ship). These days, I seek a more narrative experience in the battle. I have really discovered this with the start of our family game nights; the RMN Boys and I connect better when a game builds a narrative and is not simply a simulation. This may be why games like Conflict of Heroes or Scythe or 1775 – Rebellion are landing on the game night table repeatedly; the gameplay itself builds an enjoyable narrative experience.

The Fires of Midway is not a bad game. Given the level of abstraction represented by the cards and simple map it can hardly be called simulatonist. But the formulaic gameplay makes finding the narrative experience difficult. Maybe if we play it with only two-players and are fully familiar with the rules we might find that narrative experience. Until then there are other games to play.

Fangs Out!* #FirstImpressions of #Talon (@gmtgames)

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Courtesy BGG

Way back in the day I was a Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1979+) player. My first game was the pocket edition in the half-size plastic baggie. In junior high and high school my friends and I obsessed with SFB. One of my friends designed the original TK5 destroyer. I even got into the strategic game, Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) that eventually evolved into Federation & Empire (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1986+). When I pack all my SFB stuff together it overflows a medium-cube moving box (that’s 3 cubic feet of stuff).

But time changes things. Whereas in my younger years I absolutely loved the excessive energy management required in SFB, and the long scenario play times, I gradually moved away from the game. I tried other games, like the FASA Star Trek: Starship Tactical Simulator (1983) or Agent of Gaming’s Babylon 5 Wars (1997). In the mid 2000’s, I tried to get into Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005), the SFB successor, but it just didn’t click. Indeed, my game of choice for starship battles became Ground Zero Games’ Full Thrust (1992) or a derivative.

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Courtesy BGG

In 2017, GMT Games offered a reprint edition of Talon, originally published in 2015. My interest was peaked by a series of post in the Castiliahouse blog where they were playing Talon. So I pulled the trigger on the P500. The second edition game delivered not long ago.

Upon unboxing, the first thing that struck me was the large, coated counters and the wet-erase markers. You mean I am going to write on my counters? Then I started digging into the rulebook.

And I am in love.

The basic rulebook is a slim 16 pages. The game mechanics are very straight-forward and explained in just 9-pages of Basic Rules. What I love is that energy management still is important, but instead of allocating everything (aka SFB) or several things (FC), in Talon one chooses “power curves” which are in effect “presets” for Power/Speed/Turn Radius. As a general rule, as a ship’s speed increases, the Turn Radius likewise increases while Power decreases.

Simple…Fast…and Fun!

Moving away from the SFB Power Allocation sheet, or the FC Ship Status Display, to info on the counter also helps with the fun. This makes the game easy to teach, an important consideration these days as I my main gaming partners are the RockyMountainNavy Boys.

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Courtesy BGG

My plan is to get Talon to the table, probably in the next few weeks, using the Advanced Rules (just gotta have rule 15 THE BIG GUNS). I think the RMN Boys will like Talon; they like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and I know this will be a step up in complexity, but not nearly as much as Federation Commander or (shudder) Star Fleet Battles. Maybe someday I will play those games with them, but I am not so sure it will ever really happen. My taste in gaming has changed in nearly 40 years (go figure). In my early days my craving for simulationism was fulfilled by games like Star Fleet Battles. These days a more player-friendly game, like Talon, is welcome on the gaming table.

*Fangs Out:  Aviator-speak for when a pilot is really hot for a dogfight.

#WargameWednesday – Need More Power, Scotty! (Federation Commander, Amarillo Design Bureau)

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Courtesy BoardGameGeek

Although I don’t talk about it here that much, the biggest wargame of my younger years was Star Fleet Battles (SFB). I started out with the original Task Force Games baggie and kept going through the Captain’s Edition. For the longest time, the Star Fleet Universe (SFU) was my version of Star Trek.

SFB is all about starship duels in the SFU. The core mechanic of gameplay is Energy Allocation; ships produce a finite amount of power and to do anything – from firing to movement to shields – takes power. Some people accuse SFB of being “accountants in space” because it all comes down to how much power a ship has and how it gets used. SFB also suffered from tremendous rules and errata bloat making critics call it “Advanced Squad Leader in Space.” None of this stopped my friends and I from getting EVERY SFB product produced. One of my friends had his ship design published. We even bought into the Starline 2400-line of miniatures and played giant battles on an old ping-pong table in my basement. SFB was THE wargame of our youth. We fully embraced the complex rules because they modeled so well the interaction between different ships with different capabilities and limitations. Though SFB we learned how to really analyze a system and make it work in our favor.

As the years passed we all went our separate ways. I faithfully carried my SFB collection in a giant tub container through college and 20 years of military moves. As the RockyMountainNavy Boys grew, I wanted to pull out SFB but was always hesitant because I know how complicated it is and how much dedication it takes to learn to play, much less become anything near proficient.

In the mid-2000’s Amarillo Design Bureau rolled out a companion version of SFB called Federation Commander (FC). As their own website says:

The game system is based on energy. You count how much energy your starship generates at the start of each turn, and pay for a “baseline speed”. The rest of your energy is spent during the turn to fire weapons, operate systems (tractor beams, transporters), to speed up, to slow down, or to reinforce your shields. During each of the eight impulses of each turn, ships move (up to four times at the highest speed) and you have the opportunity to fire weapons or operate systems.

Ships are presented in two scales; Fleet Scale is “half the size” of Squadron Scale and can be used to resolve larger battles in less time.

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Courtesy BGG

FC is a simplified, faster playing version of SFB. The core mechanic – energy allocation – remains but that energy allocation takes place throughout the turn vice a pre-plot for SFB. Each turn in FC is divided into 8 impulses vice 32 in SFB. These changes speed up the game considerably.

Speaking at breakfast last week, Little RMN was asking about different games and we got into discussing what I call “manual video games.” He asked about different starship combat games and I reminisced about SFB. He was interested, and asked to play. Instead of SFB we pulled out FC.

It was interesting.

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Courtesy BGG

We played a 2v2 ship battle of roughly equal point value. I still find the energy allocation mechanic to be very thematic. The RMN Boys are not big Trekkies so they don’t have the same appreciation of that aspect of the game. They found the interplay of movement-weapons-defenses interesting but lamented the SLOOOOOW pace of the game. The Impulse Movement steps are intended to avoid the IGOUGO problem of a ship dancing around an opponent without fear of harm. I embrace this design solution; the boys find it ponderous.

FC is a highly thematic and detailed approach to depicting starship combat in the Star Fleet Universe. I know it is not as detailed as SFB, but my boys will probably never learn that. We will play FC again when the mood strikes us; but that mood has to be a desire to deeply explore the interaction of different capabilities and design doctrines.