Star Fleet Battles has a long and varied history, cutting across what most people would recognise as the Original Star Trek, and forming its own world – that of the Star fleet Universe.
Originally produced by Task Force Games, It’s been around since 1979, and has expansions coming out of its ears, of which I own around a half dozen or so. At its heart it’s a ship vs. ship, tactical combat simulator, but it is possible to play with entire fleets, though this is best done using the Federation Commander rules.
The game was designed with the idea of producing a definitive Star Trek combat game, and much was based on Star Trek: The Original Series, a number of fan publications, and the Star Fleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph. It was the later of these that was blessed by Gene Roddenberry, through whom the licence to produce a Star Trek themed game was granted.
The licence didn’t give full rights, though, and the game contains no reference to the characters or certain events that happened in the official releases. There is limited reference to ship names, such as The Enterprise, but on the whole these are kept to a minimum.
But don’t worry, all the races are here: The Federation, Romulan, Klingon, Gorn, Tholian, Kzinti, Hydran… and so on, and all have the ships one would associate them with – The Klingons have their D7’s and C8’s, whilst the Romulans just wouldn’t be Romulans without a Warbird or two.
The game underwent a few re-releases, with the Commander’s Edition bringing in a total re-write of the rules. Then, in 1990, the Captain’s Edition was released, which proved a greater success, as everything was rearranged into modules with an effort to offer better explanations of the rules.
Unfortunately, Task Force Games collapsed during the mid-nineties, and with it went SFB. But all was not lost. In 1999 Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc. was formed, and with it Star Fleet Battles was resurrected. Again, the rules were evaluated and many re-written; they included the legend ‘1999’ at the bottom of the cover to show the edition.
Star Fleet Battles has quite a cult following, especially on-line, and still remains in print. Amarillo also produces miniatures for the game, which are actually quite nice, and come in in a range of colours and finishes.
You may have noticed that, so far, I haven’t mentioned anything about the actual game or how it plays. Well, there’s a reason for that… I didn’t want to put you off just yet! Read on, and all will be revealed…
I knew nothing about Star Fleet Battles when I came across it in a small Hobby Games shop, tucked away on the outskirts of Norwich. The Star Trek theme immediately sparked my interest, and as it wasn’t particularly expensive (I can’t recall how much I actually paid, but I think around £30), I walked out of the shop with a smile on my face.
That didn’t last long, though, because then I opened the box!
Imagine the most complex game you’ve ever played. Now, multiply that complexity by 10. Okay, got and idea? Well, you ain’t even close!
Now, imagine my shock when I pulled out the rulebook to find it was 224 pages long, and it’s pretty much all writing.
This was the Captain’s Basic Rulebook from ADB Inc. and has that ‘1999’ legend at the bottom. Also in the box, I found a booklet containing something called SSD’s, which I later discovered stood for Ship’s System Display, a map full of numbered hexes, a movement chart combined with an energy allocation table, and lots of small punch out ship tokens.
So, for the next few days I settled into reading the rules. I say reading, understanding was another thing altogether!
The book suggests playing the ‘Cadet’s Game’ to help learn how to play, as this only uses around 10% of the rulebook (that’s still 24 pages!). So, that’s what I did. Of course, I learnt to play on my own, which was to become a common trend for this game.
I managed to get to grips with this introductory game, and then slowly incorporated the rest of the rules, and then played with different ships, but boy, was it hard going.
I mentioned earlier that the aim for this game was to be the definitive Star Trek game, and they’ve certainly tried to include everything. Just in the basic rulebook there are rules covering… well, here’s a list:
- Movement, including Energy cost, acceleration, reversing, sideslip, tactical manoeuvres, separation, sunlight evasion, high-energy turns, breakdown, and positron flywheel!
- Combat, including firing arcs, shields, damage allocation, self-destruction, fire control systems (sensors, scanners, electronic warfare, etc.), marines, critical hits and damage control.
- Weapons – Phasers, disruptors, photon torpedoes, drones, seeking weapons, ballistic targeting, Plasma torpedoes, and more.
- Ship systems, including control systems, hull, labs, security, tractor beams, transporters, cloaking devices, and so on.
- Power systems, such as warp drive, impulse, auxiliaries, batteries, capacitors, and reserve power.
- Mine Warfare.
- Terrain – planets, etc.
Along with all this the book also included information on the races and their ships, and a whole host of scenarios.
There are a lot of great concepts here.
At the start of a round (the game is played simultaneously) each player plots their energy allocation on the ship’s energy allocation form – they work out how much available power they have and then how they are going to distribute it around the ship systems; an amount for movement, weapons, shields and their reinforcement, etc.
Movement is carried out using a countdown table, from a maximum of 32. If you have allocated enough energy to move at the maximum speed, then your ship will move on every impulse. Whereas, if you have energy to move at a speed of 16, then in theory you can move every other impulse, though in practice the table allows a little play in this. This is called, proportional movement, and I though it was a great system for giving a thematic feel to movement.
Moving at high speeds, and thus covering a lot of distance, uses a lot of energy, meaning you may not be able to do anything once you’ve gotten where you’re going, or if something should arise mid turn. So, the whole thing comes down to balancing act, and is very strategic.
The SSD’s are another concept I really liked. These have all the information relevant to the ship you are using, as well as an outline of the ship filled with various little boxes. These boxes represent the ship’s systems, such as warp engines, batteries, phasers, etc. and when damage is done they get crossed off. For example, the left warp engine of a Romulan K7R Battlecruiser contains 15 boxes, meaning it provides 15 units of energy. If damage is sustained to this engine, then a number of boxes may be crossed off, thus reducing the amount of available energy.
Around the ships outline there are also boxes representing the ships shields. Again, as these take damage they become less effective, but can be reinforced and even repaired.
Weapon systems are varied, there are even several different types of Photon Torpedo in the game, each with their own range and warhead strength – all this information is reflected on the SSD – and is often dependent upon the fit of the ship. Yes, there’s a timeline, which sees ships receiving upgrades and refits!
Each ship has a Basic Point Value, so you can work out rough comparisons before you set up a game.
The complexity just keeps on building, and the biggest issue, at least for me, is remembering it all, even if you introduce a bit at time. It’s the kind of game you have to play regularly, and I mean every week at least, just to stay familiar with the game mechanisms. Every time I got it to the table, I’d be like, “What am I doing!” Of course, I only ever played the game solo, me against me, as try as I might I couldn’t find anyone remotely interested in a game that saw them spend a week just reading the rulebook.
When I did find the time to play several games on the bounce, then things started to come together, and I could see why the game has developed such a cult following. The tactical depth of the game is astounding, especially when you’re still learning the game. You have to learn to think ahead, to plan for the unexpected, and to keep something in reserve, preferably up your sleeve!
When facing down a Klingon D7, it helps to know that ships strengths and weaknesses, as well as your own. What range are its disruptors most powerful (These can be overloaded and quite powerful at certain ranges)? Can I get my Torpedoes off before I come into its range – ah, they take two turns to power up, forgot about that! What about turning speed? Can I out turn it and get in a shot on vulnerable side (each ship has a turn rate, which is dependant upon its current speed)?
When I read about this it all sounded fascinating and realistic; I love simulations and this really grabbed me. But when you actually come to play the game for the first few times, it’s a real drag. It slows down the game to a crawl, maybe even going into reverse on occasion, and the amount of bookkeeping makes it problematic when you’re playing on your own.
But still, reading the rules, even now, makes me want to play the game. I get all excited about the tactical nuances of energy allocation. I can imagine being the captain of a ship, making the decision to arm torpedoes and charge into the fray, and getting all distraught as systems start to shut down and damage control has become defunct. If only I had someone who could take care of all the niggly things, like remembering the rules, and then I could just concentrate on saying, ‘Make it so!’
Surprisingly, I went on to buy virtually everything released for this game up until around 2005ish, and now have around a thousand pages of rules and SSD’s filling up a box in my loft.
For starters, I love anything ‘Star Trek’ and I guess I found the rules fascinating, not just in the way they try to encompass everything within that universe, but the mechanisms used to bring a feeling of realism to the game.
I found that, by picking and choosing which rules I wanted to use, I could come up with a game that wasn’t so daunting and gave me some pleasure in playing. The rules are well written, there are just a lot of them and they are quite complex. The books are hole punched, and if kept in a file, each expansion’s rules can be slotted into the relevant section, which helps reduce the flipping around to a degree.
Looking back now, and having refreshed myself on some of the basic rules, I really want to play this game again, but then that’s how I’ve always though about Star Fleet Battles – I always want to play it – I just can never be bothered to put the effort, and it is a LOT of effort, into getting it to the table.
I’ll leave you with this little nugget of information I found.
Looking at the BGG entry for the Captain’s Basic Set (224 page rulebook), I found that on the complexity poll, out of a total of 74 people, 4 of these had given this a rating of 1, which is a light game, and 10 gave it a 3, which is a medium weight game. This made me wonder then, what other games do these people play in order to consider this a lightweight game?