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Friday, 6 December 2013

Firestorm v2.0 - A Review

It's Here!!!
 

Firestorm v2.0 is upon us, and it was my privilege to be part of the beta-test crew that went over the rules and stats for the ships to ensure we got the best ruleset we could. I think we achieved that, and it does give me a warm, fuzzy feeling to have been part of that experience. Hopefully others will see that when they go through the rules and play their first few games. So let's have a bit of a look inside v2.0;

Overview and Presentation: 9.5/10

OK, so let me get one thing off my chest...I must admit that I'm not super-excited about the front cover of the new book - I don't think it really portrays the excitement of the game in the way that the v1.0 cover did. I know this is a personal preference, but I'd have preferred some more "action" visible myself.

That aside, opening the book gives you the title page, acknowledgements and then the Contents page, which is colour-coded by section - a nice touch. You're then drawn into a bit of background, a brief description of the game, what you need to play and some nice starfield artwork and studio model shots. This rolls seamlessly into the major alliances and core race fluff, capped by some description of the six homeworlds and some more starship glam shots. This is a very enticing introduction - it's not too wordy, but has most of what you need to start fleshing out the races and framing the state of the FSA universe. The photos of the studio fleets are gorgeous, and the artwork is nice too.

After this, you're into Game Basics, coded yellow. Each page has a yellow bar at the side, duplicated in the other sections (with their appropriate colour) so you can flick through and identify sections quickly - again, a nice touch. Unfortunately this is where a pet peeve of mine from v1.5 rears his butt-ugly head again, Admiral Buzzcut - chipping in with his annoying comments...typical Terran (!). This is a small point, and may appeal to some, so I'll leave it for the moment.

This minor distraction aside, the text is well set out and the graphics used for illustrating the concepts are excellent, especially those showing ships. Examples and tips are called out in shaded boxes to differentiate them from the rest of the text. The text is also interspersed with further studio model shots which break up any possibility of monotony - though this is unlikely I feel.

Next up you have the Order of Play (coloured Red) and Combat Segment (coloured Green) and End Phase (coloured Blue) sections, which although the wrong way around in terms of colours for me (I'd have liked a red combat segment section!), follow exactly the same sort of pattern as the Games Basics section. We then move into the final section, which oddly enough is coloured a slate-grey/blue, which although fine, I felt was odd placed next to the blue section for rapid reference. Still, a very minor niggle.

This final section incorporates the MARs, 6 basic scenarios, basic stats for the core race starter fleets, quick reference tables, a complete page of marker tokens and (wait for it) for the first time, an index.

Overall this feels like a polished product that has had a lot of time and thought put into it. I would have given it a ten, but there are a few things that I don't feel do it justice - the cover, Admiral Buzzcut and some of the colour coding just make it fall short of perfect. Of course, I'm being picky, but this is about style rather than substance, and there's always going to be some personal preference in there.

In Detail - Photographs: 10/10

The shots of the studio fleets in the book are very pretty, and alos just about faultless. They don't intrude into the flow of the text, and their use adds to the coherence and feeling of the book, rather than detracting from it in any way. Overall I can't see anything that would detract from their full-marks score!

In Detail - Graphics: 9/10

As I mentioned previously in the overview, the book has a nice layout and graphics are part of that - the colour coded bars in each section make the book look polished and well thought out in addition to actually making it easier to find sections. Even prior to that, there are some nice graphical touches that add function as well as style - the page numbers are called out in hex boxes at the bottom of the page in the edge-most corner, making them stand out so you can find them quickly and easily - it's a tiny thing but makes life so much easier.

However, as I mentioned earlier, there are a few things that I don't like on a personal level - one of the first actual graphic pictures we encounter in the rules is of my much-maligned Admiral Buzzcut, who I was really hoping didn't make it from v1.5! Still, his appearances are much reduced and not that intrusive, and some people may actually like them, so I'll say no more on him! Other than that we have some gorgeous starfield/gas cloud renditions as backgrounds in a couple of places, nice - if a little bland - graphics of the six core race homeworlds, images of dice, terrain and ships to illustrate gaming concepts (the latter especially well done) and shaded call-out notes through the text, highlighting important concepts or points about the rules. Tables (including ship stats) are nicely alternate-line shaded to make them easy to read. Scenarios have nice table layout graphics to show table setup too.

Towards the end of the book are the new tokens, which are now all graphical symbols which I personally find a bit confusing in the heat of battle. Some of the tokens like PD network disrupted and main drive failure are more easily represented by small pictures like in v1 and 1.5. As many of the new effects (hazard and corroded, for instance) are actually some of the better tokens, I think I'll continue to use my existing tokens for some of the others, like cloak etc. Again, this is a matter of personal choice - for instance I don't really like using dice on the gaming table for anything other than rolling, so I'll be using my own mine tokens rather than the mine symbol token as provided together with dice - especially as they can go up to at least AD10 now!

In Detail - The Rules 9.5/10

Why only 9.5/10 you ask, and not 10/10...weren't you a beta tester? Well yes, I was, but there are two things here - firstly, I'm British and find giving anything 10/10 very difficult due to latent cynicism, and secondly, there are a few things that didn't make it into v2.0 that I would have personally liked to see (yes, one of them IS ramming!).

Overall, however, I'm very happy with the ruleset that SG have produced now. It did some really simple things (like different increment range bands) which really start to influence the way things play out in more subtle ways than you'd imagine. The rules are nicely written, and where ambiguity could creep in, there are the previously-described graphics to take you through examples step-by-step. Of course there will be some things that crept past the changes and proof reads, but this is inevitable in any book, but they're certainly not like v1.5, which was a bit of a dog's dinner on release.

So What's Changed?

Well - lots! Let's have a look...

Fleet Construction

Before you even get to playing, the way that fleets are now constructed has changed, with MFV percentages gone in favour of a three-tier system that both tidies up a lot of the former rules and allows for a lot more racial character to be built in. Some may not like the apparent restriction of this, but in truth it's much better than the old way and allows a lot more potential builds than before.

Terrain & Missions

Next up is terrain and scenarios - the latter didn't really exist before, now there are 6 standard missions to choose from, and terrain has more types than before, better guidelines for setup and recommendations about how much should be present. Many of these are similar to the work that Ravager did back in v1. There is also an option for moving terrain, which puts (in some cases a literal) spin on things. Together these make playing a "standard" game of FSA a far richer experience than an out-of-the-book v1.5 game, and there's plenty in there for players old and new alike.

Deployment

Now, onto the actual gameplay. Firstly, deployment has a couple of new tricks, one of which is Hidden Setup, which allows models with certain MARs (Ambush is the main one) or in certain scenarios to set up using a number of markers rather than the actual model, these representing where the ships could be. As in v1.5, you may also reserve some of your force from deployment at the start of the game, but now you have the chance to either shunt-deploy (which has also been made less of a gamble and more of a viable tactic) or perform a flanking manoeuvre. Once again, this makes for a very different, more tactical gaming experience than before, and keeps the enemy guessing.

Gameplay

The turn order has been segmented and tidied up so it's clear when everything is happening. This sounds a small thing, but it's fundamental to any system. Now whilst this has always been the case to some degree, you now have (for instance) primary and secondary movement - this tidies up when FSD markers are placed for shunt-outs, for instance. This is just de-burring really, but that's the kind of thing that acts as a foundation for the rest of the rules and it's the little burrs that catch people out and become an annoyance and irritation later on. I'll now go through changed elements in the order they appear in an FSA turn;

TAC cards

Tactical Ability Cards replace the Star Admiral and STAR cards found in v1 and 1.5. You can choose a variable number of these depending on game size and some other faction-specific (ship MAR specific) factors. A single one can be used byb a player at the beginnning of the turn. Their actions tend to be relatively strong, and you can "recover" them from the discard pile by spending battle log points (more on that later). They do streamline and simplify the card use of prior versions, and prevent the cancellation of STAR cards that could be prevalent before too. Having a limited number of cards that you pre-choose also means you need to think about your strategy before the game, rather than adjust things to suit the cards you randomly get in the old version.

SRS

The use of Wings and Flights is one of the biggest changes in v2.0 - they are now collectively termed short-ranged spacecraft - SRS for short. They no longer have their own activation, but are activated with their parent carrier. They move at the same time (so make attack runs etc as the carrier moves), so they act before the standard primary/secondary weapon combat phase. Fighters have been strengthened to make them viable choices (instead of the bomber/interceptor choice we were really left with before), and there is also a new category of "Support Shuttle", which can help in removing critical effects and crew loss.

SRS tokens must stay within command distance of their carrier, only performing attack runs when in raneg of a target and then immediately returning to their parent craft. Whilst this might just sound like another form of primary attack, there are important differences - you can plan against their use, and they're highly situational. Nevertheless, get it right and SRS tokens can be extremely effective. This change makes carriers more effective and forces them to "get involved", rather than just acting as mobile launch platforms somewhere peripheral to the battle.

This is likely to be one of the more controversial parts of the changes in v2.0 from prior editions, but I really hope people give the mechanic a chance before raging against it. I didn't like the idea when I first saw it, but having tried it, it fits perfectly into the game. This is, in the end, what is really needed here, as this IS a game, and flights have not really worked well in FSA before. If you look at the problems wings had previously (from being way too weak in v1, to allowing activation spamming in v1.5), the prior issues are gone.

Movement

One area of the game that has only changed a little is movement, being split into primary and secondary phases. Primary is moving your model, including utilising certain terrain features that it's possible to get a "gravitational slingshot" effect from. This again encourages a bit more tactical thinking from players in how they (or their opponent) might use this feature on the field of battle. The Secondary Movement phase is where you can come to a full stop, perform belly up or start your FSD escape. Having it there just tidies things up once again, especially for things like the shunt-out, which was always a little confused previously.

Combat

Here's where there have been LOTS of changes - or rather, additions and tweaks. Again, everything has been clarified and spelled out a little more, making things simpler for "when do I do xxx?" moments. Weapons are split into Direct and Indirect, and things like Cloaks now create an Impeded LOS, the same as asteroids, which halves the number of AD in the offensive pool of Direct weapon attacks. Grouping and standardising in this way simplifies mechanics and tidies things up, leading to less confusion, and better speed of play - allowing more time playing rather than rule checking.

Linked firing has been changed subtly, with attack dice being added BEFORE being halved, rather than after - the general effect is to add an AD to those attacks being made from odd-number AD, which smoothes out the steps apparent in linked weapon profiles in prior editions - it also makes calculating linked AD from things like cruiser groups that have sustained differential damage easier - add AD, minus damage, half - as opposed to doing this for each cruiser and then adding them all up at the end. Once again, a small point but with a pretty substantial game and play effect.

Direct Weapons

Direct weapons now get "types", these being;
Primary: 8" rangebands - the basic, no-frills weapon with no added inherent effects, equivalent to the old FSA weapons everything had in other versions)
Kinetic: 12" rangebands - big in range and big on damage, kinetic weapons get a +1 on the critical hit table if they want....nasty
Beam: 10" rangebands - Aquans (and others) get a bit of a range boost, and also greater effectiveness close in, as beam weapons get to re-roll "1"s from their initial AD roll in RB1
Scatter: 8" rangebands - the shotguns of space, scatter weapons get to ignore negative modifiers to "to hit" rolls in RB1 & 2. In practice this makes them deadly against smalls or ships that rely on manoeuvrability to survive.
Nuclear: 8" rangebands - Back to their fusion-based terrorism, the Terrans get a nasty boost with these beasts. Nuclear weapons that get a critical hit get a 4" explosion that attacks everything with half its initial AD. Needless to say, this can be bad news for clustered ships.

Indirect Weapons

There are a number of indirect weapons too, and they all get a bit of a boost or change, as the ranged ones are now able to ignore intervening terrain to the target (obviously this doesn't apply to non-ranged indirect weapons - mines)
Torpedoes: With 12" rangebands, torpedoes now make it very difficult to hide on an FSA battlefield! They remain primarily a mid-late game weapon, but they do have more bite than before, and can also gain coherence effects (like nuclear).
Mines: Mines have always been weak in FSA, and it was easy to use a big ship to simply sweep them. I was an advocate of linked mines for a long time, and guess what? That's exactly what you can do now, making mines a much greater threat and something to be  mindful of on the tabletop.
Gravity Weapons: These have always been a Tarakian speciality, and now they get to work in either push / pull mode or damage mode. They're dangerous because they could push you into a planet, pull you into a sun etc, and being indirect, they aren't mitigated by terrain. They're also not subject to PD or Shield systems
Cyberwarfare: These weapons are basically broadcast hacking of ships AIs and/or computer and control systems, and are primarily a Directorate trick (though some of the alliance races will also have them). Again, they're nasty because they're indirect - so aren't reduced in effectiveness when a ship is cloaked, for instance. They can be defended against with a roll based on your FTB, thankfully, as other defences are all but useless against them. Yes, the Directorate did get more evil in v2.0!

Targeted Strikes

Another addition to combat is the ability to perform "targeted strikes" against a specific area of a target model - it's bridge, life support systems, weapons, defences or drives. Taking a -1 penalty "to hit", Direct weapons (not indirect) may choose to fire at these locations, hoping to have an additional effect on the target ship, like taking shields offline or PD down for a follow-up torpedo attack. This adds a further level of tactical ability - do you risk going for the big advantage a TS can give you but risk not getting enough hits, or just try for the damage?

Persistent Damage Effects and Markers

This brings us nicely onto damage and markers. In addition to the new table for targeted strikes, there are some new effects on both it and the other damage tables (Cyberwarfare, boarding and critical). , many of these belonging to the category of persistent damage - those that remain on the ship until repaired. The first of these is the Hazard marker, which represents all manner of possible effects - fire, decompression effects etc - that can incapacitate crew. If unrepaired in the end phase, the ship loses a CP, and the effect stays on. Similar to this is the Corroded marker, which does exactly the same as the Hazard marker, except for hull points - so it represents continued structural failure, nanites eating away at the hull, acidic goo dissolving metal etc. These are a nice way of dealing with a lot of effects that could otherwise cause a lot of complexity but have very similar effects.

Other persistent damage is similar to prior versions, like PD offline, shield overload etc. Instead of the somewhat controversial generic weapons damage of 1.5, weapon damage is now back once again to specific arcs, so re-introducing the utility of the belly-up maneouvre. The other effect that is noticeably different is the "security in disarray, which reduces the ship's AP to 0 whilst active (but can be repaired). "What's that all about?", you ask...well, that is a handy Segway into...

Boarding

Boarding in v1 could be a rather drawn-out affair, and whilst I quite liked the mechanic, it did slow down the game quite a bit. In v1.5 it was completely reworked into a shadow of its former self, which I personally really didn't like, including the "all or nothing" death/glory approach - in short, it was just too weak and swingy. A good boarding ship (like the Directorate ships) that failed a boarding assault immediately made itself vulnerable to being boarded itself.

v2.0 boarding assaults are now much more like targeted strikes, and the mechanics are much simpler. CP is completely removed from the initial equation, AP and PD of the target (plus linked members of it's squadron within CD) are rolled as the "defensive pool", against AP of the boarder. If boarding assault result is > defense result, then the ship loses 1 HP. If a capital model, it also gets a roll of the boarding assault damage table, unless the successes are more than the current CP, in which case it's a critical hit instead. Double the CP and you can choose to scuttle or capture (in which case you don't apply the damage). This means that damage makes it easier to board ships (through reduced PD), whilst decreased CP means they're easier to crit or capture. If you can get a "Security in Disarray" effect, then it makes a ship especially vulnerable to boarding.

After the boarding assault, the ship that launched the assault does NOT go to AP0 - the AP remains at the same level, but they cannot launch another assault (without a suitable MAR). Overall it's quite a neat solution to boarding, with plenty of scope for interesting tactics, whilst also being much faster to resolve. There's even a voluntary rule for self-decompression to aid in repelling boarders!

End Phase

This is the "tidy up" segment, and involves trying to repair damage, retrieving TAC cards (at a cost), moving terrain (if appropriate) and taking disorder tests. This latter (along with command tests) takes us to another new mechanic, the Battle Log.

Battle Log & Command/Disorder Tests

In general, I don't like "morale" tests in a game like FSA. The way it's been implemented here, however, is much gentler and can nicely represent a number of effects, so I surprised myself in quite liking it! Again, it's another tactical element the player must be mindful of in the game.

So basically the battle log is a slider from -20 to +20 (depending on game size) that starts at 0 (or another number if a particular scenario, TAC card or MAR dictates). In it's very basic form, ship losses make it go down, killing the enemy makes it go up. You can make it go down voluntarily to recover TAC cards (cost indicated on the card), or increase a reserve roll, and it can affect the way things happen on the board - if you're 10 points or more ahead of your opponent, command checks require one less success, for instance. I'd recommend not using it for your first few games of v2.0, and introduce it when you're familiar with the other concepts first.

Command checks and disorder checks relate to this, as when a squadron loses over half its starting number or under other conditions, you need to take a check - by rolling three dice and getting at least 2 successes (so a 6 would see you straight instantly). Other situations, MARs, cards etc may modify this roll too. It's not OP, and doesn't interfere with the game mechanics too much - you don't have squadrons running for fold-space after a couple of shots across the bow, for instance.

Miscellaneous

There are various other little gems tucked away in the rules that I've not covered here - fold-space escape, the nuances of SRS tokens - there's a hell of a lot in there!

Final Score & Verdict

Well, maybe I'm a bit biased from being with the rules over their evolution over the past few months, but to be fair Spartan did an excellent job with the core re-write. The beta-testers have polished that, removed oddities, improved things etc, but this is the cutting and polishing of a raw diamond - to quote an appropriate adage "you can't polish a turd"! v2.0 however, is no brown floater, it's 100% pure carbon, compressed and heated in the fury of the FSA galaxy to the point where it is, IMO, one of the best, most comprehensive and prettiest set of rules I've encountered for a tabletop wargame.

9.5/10
 
WELL DONE SPARTAN GAMES!!!