This game is not what you think it is.
You’re going to sit down to play this one and you’re just going to be shocked when it doesn’t play like Star Fleet Battles or Federation Commander or Car Wars. The sequence of play is just brutal. I mean you’d think this should be like Federation Commander where you can spend power however and whenever you want. But you can’t! Power points turn up on a schedule on the Impulse Display just like movement points do. And deciding what to do with it is not always obvious.
More importantly, movement just doesn’t work like you’d expect. Side-slips are not free like they are in most other space games. You actually have to pay power to do them. And you may not be paying the power on the same impulse that you execute one! Furthermore, you can pay power to “burn through” a turn. Taken together, these two rules mean that none of the tactics you’ve mastered in either Federation Commander or dog fighting games apply here. Ships just won’t be where you expect them to be when you expect them to! The wild shifts that are possible given that players can spend power to seize initiative only makes this even more baffling.
So your intuition is basically useless with this game. The rules are straightforward, small in number, and easy to learn. But the learning curve on how to read the board well enough to make good decisions is surprisingly steep.
Here’s an example of how this can come back to bite you. This is the opening pass of scenario 2 where a Terran light cruiser and destroyer go up against a Talon frigate and two destroyers.
The Terrans have sturdier ships, better shields, more power, and hard hitting weapons. The Talon have weak shields on the sides, missile weapons, better maneuverability, and afterburners that let the move outside of the usual impulse sequence.
You can see above where the Terran light cruiser has spread two missile salvoes between two reinforced shields. His heavy weapons have punched through a Talon destoyer’s side shield and knocked it down to a single remaining hull point. The Talon is down one point of power per turn and has a penalty to its turn mode to boot.
This looks like a pretty solid opening for the good guys here. Here’s where it gets complicated. The Terran destroyer does four points of damage if it hits. It has a 5-in-6 chance of hitting at range two. If he hits the crippled ship through the down shield, that’s three points of damage “wasted.” Should he finish off the wounded ship or should he put the other one at death’s door…?
Well that seemed like an easy choice for the Terrans. They blew through the enemy formation leaving two extremely hurt Talon ships behind them and intending to turn around to quickly finish them off.
That’s not how things turned out.
In the heat of battle, the Terran forces chose to split up. Very quickly the light cruiser had missiles running it down. It held on… but while that insignificant twerp of a destroyer reloaded, the Talon frigate demonstrated that it was not something to be sneered at! The Terran lumbered through space like a hulking star destroyer from the movies, slowly recharging… and the frigate got right on its tail and managed to get a shot off turn after turn.
The Terran flagship went down most ingloriously.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the board things looked better for the earthlings. The Terran destroyer actually managed to get into to position to make a decisive attack against his counterpart. Alas… this was the time when the dice would turn up a one at the worst possible moment. Miss! Faced with empty weapon ports and three very angry alien ships… the Terran vessel was soon dealt with.
No one at the table expected things to play out this way!
Now… there’s lots to like about this game. The games run a little bit longer than what I expect for a fleet game. But the very healthy selection of scenarios broken down in such a way as to make learning the ins and outs of the system a pinch means there really isn’t a lot of friction when it comes to getting this one out. (Federation Commander can bog down as players decide on their ships and factions, for instance– that’s not a problem here!)
Compared to something like Ogre and G.E.V., I find the record keeping to be a bit of an annoyance. Yes, it’s all right there on the counter so that everything about the game state is right there on the board. That’s awesome! But trying to figure out if I’ve erased the weapon markings at the right time is kind of a pain. (I use wet erase markers and wet paper towels to adjust the ship status on the turn breaks and after each exchange. There’s got to be a better way!)
The real test for this game is way down the road from here with the giant fleet battle in scenario twelve. If that can be played in under four hours, then this game will really own its niche. Given how good this game looks, how well it plays, and how easy it is to break it out… I expect it to last at least that long. Though there’s far more in the box than just these straight-ahead battle scenarios…!
And note that scenario three ran in just two hours with seven ships on the board. I expect that there’s a very good chance that the larger battles will play in a reasonable amount of time.