An Epic Crash of Fleets

I can't help myself. I'm on a massive space binge lately. I changed Dawn Sector from faux-Napoleonic to sci-fi to broaden its appeal and give myself more flexibility on the design (plus I like sci-fi), but it wasn't my intent to return to this theme again.

But, that's precisely where I find myself. I took a step back recently and observed that when I start a new game, it's often a direct response to the one I just finished (be it published, killed, or just finished). Farmageddon was light, silly, sometimes imbalanced, and I wanted to make a deeper strategy game. Dawn Sector emerged. Part of a reaction to an earlier build of Dawn Sector (now fixed) was that the pacing was off, so I created Molly's Last Hope, which is lightning fast and simple. 

Now, after creating a euro-ish game in Dawn Sector, I have a hankering to make something less strategic, a bit more epic, and maybe a smidge trashy. Last week, a friend/peer/tester of Dawn Sector seemed...disappointed when after a battle (that he won) he wasn't able to "dominate" his opponent. In the rules and mechanics of the game, he actually did: he won the battle, eliminated all of his units, and claimed a prisoner worth points at the end of the game. But, he wanted a massive critical shot. He wanted to roll 3 6s and see his enemy explode in defeat. He wanted to experience the lamentation of his foe's women.

Dawn Sector won't do that for certain mindsets, but I think my new idea will.

 

My starting point was this: 2 players will each control a fleet and direct it to destroy their opponent's fleet. The intent is that it's fast, furious, and epic. One of my favorite things to do as a designer is take a big concept and distill it down to its core. I'm a big fan of abstraction and finding ways to give the players the general vibe for a bigger thing with a smaller component. For example, instead of having different types of units in Dawn Sector (i.e. cavalry, infantry), you merely have ways of using those units as if they were a unit type. I plan to do the same thing with this fleet game.

At a high level, currently, this game will do the following:

  • Have a rock/paper/scissors dice driven combat system where big ships fire differently than small ships and have different ways of taking damage.
  • Scenario driven.
  • Fast, with each battle taking a half hour or less.
  • Campaign driven. Players can return to a persistent campaign that will remember some previous choices. This isn't Risk Legacy regarding permanence. But, there will be a story through which you can play.
  • There will be an ambush type mechanic (super simple).
  • There will be different type of ships built upon a very simple system. You won't need to learn any different rules between ship types.
  • Players will share a set of Orders that give a set of ships priorities and bonuses to accomplish various tactical outcomes.
  • No map or measurements. Cards will specify the "nav points" at which ships can FIGHT.

First, let's discuss my inspiration. I've been reading a lot of space opera the past few months, including:

 

  • Leviathan Wakes: A dash of horror, a dash of detective noir, and a plausible near future. Great ships, characters, and they used our solar system.
  • The Honor Harrington Series (I linked the first book): This is a huge space opera spanning over a dozen books. The battles are highly detailed with lots of cleverness by many of the antagonists and protagonists (a big inspiration for my ambush mechanic). Plus, their technology and tactics evolve over the course of the war (an inspiration for capital ships versus fighters and so forth).
  • I just bought Dread Empire's Fall: haven't read yet but I'm excited!
  • And I'm always thinking about Old Man's War. So so good.

 

I've also been thinking about a few of my favorite games lately: Homeworld and Gratuitous Space Battles. Both of these fleet-based strategy games had a feature where you would order a squadron or set of units into a formation. For Homeworld it was a side feature that didn't really matter (but I LOVED it) and for Gratuitous Space Battles it was more or less the game. For example, in Homeworld you could put a squadron of fighter bombers into sphere formation, where they position themselves around a target and pummel it. The plus side is that they aren't moving, so they take it down quickly. The down side is that they aren't moving, so they are highly susceptible to enemy fire.

This formed the basis for my first mechanic: formations. I wanted to avoid the "this ship shoots at this ship with this weapon" vibe. In fact, I didn't really want you managing individual ships much at all, but, like an admiral, directing squadrons to execute maneuvers and do things.

Players will have an identical set of Orders, which will be cards, that will put a set of ships into a formation. This formation will give the ships a firing priority (i.e. target fighters first) and potentially a benefit (i.e. increased shields) or downside (i.e. can't move).

Working from this point, I tried to figure out a combat system that would somewhat embrace the notion of a set of ships going at it. My first thought was: "what if all ships in range of each other just fire using a pool of dice?" That's largely where I'm going! After players quickly issue orders, ships within range of the enemy will fire. They do this until they are destroyed, their enemies are destroyed, or they aren't in range. Ships will be represented by cards which will indicate what dice and how many dice are rolled.

"What do you mean by what dice?" I'll tell you! I wanted to avoid a few scenarios:

  1. Massive ships both fire a ton of dice and are super tanky. I didn't want a player just flying a dreadnought into a mass of ships knowing that, based on probability, he'll slowly but surely kill them all before they kill him.
  2. Tiny ships pulling off kill shots on Dreadnoughts. YES, the Deathstar was brought down by an X-Wing, but that was atrocious product design and typically, a fighter isn't bringing down a capital ship. One of the most maddening things in Civilization III is watching a spearman kill a battleship. I want to avoid that.

I needed a rock/paper/scissors mechanic to make ships useful and balanced for what they are. Therefore, there are three types of dice: green d6, yellow d6, and red d6. Fighters will roll green dice, which are good against other fighters and lighter ships like destroyers. Battlecruisers, which are hefty but somewhat flexible, may fire one die of each color. They can go after Dreadnoughts with the red die and still hold back fighters with the green. A Dreadnought will only have red dice, which means it can pound other big ships, but will have a really difficult time swatting those gnat fighters.

What a ship fires will be clearly communicated with colored cubes on the card. Just tally a handful of cards and ROLL. Ships will have two sides: shielded and shields disabled. The requirement for disabling the shields will be indicated on the card (a set of hits based on colors), with a hit always being a 3+ regardless of color. Disabling the shields will require the entire shield be disabled at once in a single round.

Damaging the ship once the shield is down will be an easier requirement and you'll simply mark the damage with a card every time the ships is damaged. Let's say a Dreadnought has 3 hits, so with 3 cards it's destroyed. Unlike shields, which are all or nothing, you can damage a ship one at a time every round (unless you blow it up in a single round).

In some cases (uncommon, I don't want information overload), a damage card may convey a system failure. Engines down, laser batteries knocked out. Perhaps it is simply a critical shot worth 2 damage. There can also be amusing scenarios, where it causes the ship to drift. Perhaps it drifts into the enemy destroyer -- not a zero sum gain. Or it drifts into your dreadnought -- disaster! I hope this creates a little variety in how the battle resolves instead of just your standard countdown to battle.

This is more or less what Academy Games does with Conflict of Heroes. When squads take hits, they can be suppressed, pinned, and have other battlefield emotional effects conveyed. It's really cool and really simple.

I think this dice system will let me do some cool things and simple variation. For example, a fighter bomber may share the same shields/damage as fighter, but it rolls yellow dice instead of green dice, which makes it more viable at taking down capital ships, but awful at taking down fighters.

 

What about persistence and the campaign? I think this will be a part of the game's "special sauce" that really makes it great. It'll also be something I tackle much later once the combat mechanics work. My first priority is to design and balance the orders, basic ship types, and individual battle mechanics. Working on the campaign before that would be premature.

But. There will be a campaign that tells the story of two powerful star nations at war with one another. At the start, one of a handful of beginning scenarios will be chosen. Then, like a choose your own adventure novel, the results of the battle indicate the next scenario OR present a choice between scenarios. The idea is you can play a few over lunch, bookmark your page in the rules, then return to it later.

To do this I'll need to create a simple universe with planets and existing military installations. Nothing crazy and overall simpler than a Memoir '44 scenario (my game has fewer moving parts). I'm also figuring out which decisions will carry over between scenarios. The key, in my opinion, is focus. For example, losing a fighter squadron doesn't matter. It shouldn't affect things. BUT, losing a dreadnought? That's important.

I was discussing the mechanic with a friend, and he suggested each player has a deck of ships. Scenarios will tell you what ships you can include (if you have them) and give you optional additions. As you lose key ships like dreadnoughts, you simply remove them from your deck and set them aside. Remember, this isn't Risk Legacy. They won't be ripped up! This gives a simple form of accounting instead of having to track things on a notepad. But, like in the Honor Harrington novels, as the war develops, so should your technology. If you can remove ships, theoretically you can also add them, yes? Perhaps you raid an enemy planet and steal their research secrets. This unlocks the fighter bomber, which you now add to your deck. Nothing crazy, but it's fun and cool.

Scenarios will vary in a few ways:

  • Ships involved
  • Optional Ships: Instead of the typical "add 20 points worth of ships," which can be inaccessible, I want to instead say "You can add this set, this set, or this set." So, give a choice, but define the choices.
  • System layout, i.e. asteroid belts, nebulae, and other things to vary it.

 

This post is growing a bit long, so I'll cut it off here. I'm currently working on first pass rules and first pass content. My short term goal is to create a single scenario and begin proving the combat mechanic. Did anything interest you in this? Did anything sound awful? Chime in below!

Comments

Memoir for me is just a beautiful distillation of complex concepts. Borg does a great job of simplifying things that so many war games make so complicated. Memoir was a big inspiration for me on Dawn Sector (as was Academy's 1812) and it'll be another one again here. There are a few things I'm trying to improve upon from Memoir:

1.) Memoir can have a really long, tedious setup process. I setup the battle of Stalingrad this weekend and it almost felt like it took longer than the battle! My setup will be much faster.

2.) Memoir has a handful of one-off rules with its different terrains and the movement can sometimes be complex. I'm more or less stripping away spatial relationships in any complicated way here.

I'm really excited to make this. I'm hoping to avoid some of the problems that I felt Battle Beyond Space had.

My dice are already loaded into the torpedo tubes ... locked ... and waiting on orders.

I may like this one even more than DS, if that's possible!

About to say... I see your love of M44 up and down this design. Good show.

I'm gonna crush it whence I play it.