Wargame Review: Firestorm Armada

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August 22, 2012 by Ish

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”
— Johannes Kepler

Firestorm Armada, produced by Spartan Games, was released in November 2009 and has been building buzz on the internet ever since. Firestorm Armada is a space-based game or starship combat, which uses a rule set not unlike that of the old Full Thrust game. However there are differences between the older Full Thrust system and Firestorm Armada (“FSA”), which makes it very much its own animal. The rulebook itself is an easy-on-the-wallet $40. The original edition was perfect bound, full color, with semi glossy pages, and with good density of text, very little whitespace or filler. Charts, diagrams, and examples are all easy to read and to understand. There are a few typos here and there, but nothing too serious… although, the dreaded “Page XX” makes an appearance here and there. Mind you, I have a first printing of the rulebook, I have been told most of these errors — which are few to begin with — have been corrected in later print runs. In an especially nice touch, the rulebook contains with three photocopy-and-cut-out fleets that allow you to get right into the game without purchasing ANY models, and Spartan Games makes these same pages available as a free download from their website. This is a really nice touch as it means far less investment in a system which you do not necessarily know you want to get too heavily involved with. For gamers that do get into the game, I see this as a nice tool for playing proxies of different fleets you don’t collect, or just turning a modest collection of minis into a giant fleet for those big Armageddon battles. The setting information and background for this game is kind of light and not exactly the most unique sci-fi universe every developed either… The rulebook is 96 pages total and maybe 10-12 of those are “fluff,” detailing the six races/factions, setting up the reason for the conflict, and giving everyone just enough motivation to get into fights with everyone else. In a nutshell, humanity has expanded to the stars, met some aliens, and two of the more powerful human stellar nations have gone to war, bringing in alien allies in on each side. I’m a bit of a “fluff junkie” when it comes to my games, but there is something to be said for this minimalist approach as well, freeing up the players to develop their own fleets, stories, and campaigns.

The Firestorm Armada Hardback Edition Master Rulebook will soon be fully operational.

The Firestorm Armada Hardback Edition Master Rulebook is due out sometime soon. As with the original rulebook it will have complete list of stats, but add expanded background stories, new artwork… latest errata and streamlined rules for Game Set-up, Terrain, and a few other subsystems. Players that already have the original rulebook and have kept up to date with the various expanded rules made available by Spartan via their website won’t really need this book (but it will be much more conveinent) and new players won’t have to try to learn the game and a bunch of supplemental downloads. It’ll still be an easy on the wallet $40.The Fleets and the Miniatures

I think that the ships for FSA are the best dang miniature spaceships on the market, and possibly some of best wargame miniatures regardless of genre. Admittedly, you will see some familiar shapes when you look through the fleets (There is no one who will not be reminded of Galactica and/or Star Wars when looking at the Terran Alliance fleet. No one.) However while clearly influenced by other sci-fi settings, they are still unique to the Firestorm universe, and there is a remarkable level of attention to detail and making all the ships of each fleet look like it shares a history, technology, and strategic doctrine with all the rest in their fleet. Ships of different classes and size look and feel like different sizes and classes, not just the same old thing shrunk down or zoomed up – a problem I had with many Starfleet Battles designs or Battlefleet Gothic kits. The level of detail is good, suggesting scale and power, without getting overly wacky and cluttered (Battlefleet Gothic, I’m looking at you!).

Four ships from my personal fleet: a Sorylian Collective Swordbreaker-class battleship and three Skyhammer-class Cruisers. I like broadsides, and I cannot lie.

The only downside to the ships is that the level of modeling skill required to put them together can vary greatly; most ships come in two or three pieces and require nothing more than removing a bit of flash or clipping and filing some sprue. The Directorate starter fleet consists almost entirely of single piece models, you just need open the box and stick `em on a flight stand. The Dindrenzi Federation starter fleet, on the other hand, has a pretty complex set of ships and the official message boards are filled with threads seeking advice and help… and the entire Dindrenzi range was resculpted by Spartan a few months into the game’s life, to make the ships easier to assemble! That said, it shouldn’t take anybody with even modest modeling skills more than an hour or two to assemble an entire starter fleet. Spartan Games provides very clear instructions in the starter boxes and has great guides on their website too. The models are made of resin, rather than plastic, and some have pewter pieces for very detailed or fiddly bits (engines, turrets, etc.) I had never worked with resin models before but by following the simple instructions provided had my fleet cleaned, assembled, and based in about 30 minutes. Some of the models not found in the starter sets can be very elaborate, but shouldn’t be more than an evening’s work to assemble.

The Aquan Prime starter fleet. Elegant, swift, and deadly.

Each fleet has a Starter Set box which contains ten ships — six small Frigates, three mid-sized Cruisers, and a big honkin’ Battleship — costs just under $60. In a very nice touch compared to other war games, these fleets are fully playable in “real” games, unlike the starter sets from Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, or Warmachine. Spartan Games has also released Carriers, Heavy Cruisers, Escorts, and a number of other ship classes for all six races, plus another dozen or so minor speices that can join up with the others as allies or mercenaries. Each of these other ships come in individual blister packs costing $10 – $20 each. (Bigger ships cost more, and the smaller ships come three, four, or six to a pack).

The starter boxes come with a card sheet full of tokens to use in the game, a separate card with all the ships stats for game play, and very nice flight bases…

Oh, and the “big honkin’ Battleship” I mentioned? HUGE. My fleet has one of the shorter in length Battleships… and it measures about 7″ from nose to tail and about 1 1/4″ in height. On its flight stand, surrounded by the rest of its fleet, the thing just looks mean. Like it could stuff the USS Enterprise into its gym locker and steal the Galactica‘s lunch money. Then there are the Dreadnought classification vessels… which dwarf the Battleships.

But what about the Game itself? Glad you asked…

The Turn

At the beginning of each turn, each player rolls to determine who holds the initiative. Once this has been determined the winning player then gets to activate a Squadron (basically a unit of smaller ships, or a single capital ship). Then they complete all the actions with that Squadron, i.e Move, Shoot, Boarding Assaults, etcetera… then when they are done their opponent gets to activate one of their Squadrons.

Each player’s fleet has a tactical rating which is used to modify this dice roll, this means that some races are less likely to get to go first, but as you roll each turn to decide who goes first it can work to your advantage (i.e. you go last in the previous turn and move a Squadron, then win Initiative in the next turn and get to move another Squadron again without the enemy being able to react). This can also spill over into certain metagaming tactical decisions – the classic “fast guy” versus “slow guy” game of paper-rock-scissor that all good games need.

My fleet, again. These aren’t the proper flight stands.

Activation

So when you activate a squadron you get to do the following actions (in this order).

Movement

Each Ship has to move a minimum distance each turn, this is equal to half their movement value.

Also depending on the class of the ship depends on how far it has to move before it can make a turn. For example a Battleship has to move 2″ forward before it can make a turn, then another 2″ forward before it can turn again. Cruisers have to move 1″ and Frigates can just turn as often as they like. Each turn is limited to being no greater than 45°, so ships make arcing curves and skilled maneuvering and ship handling is an important part of game play.

The game designers are not shy about their decision to treat 3D space combat in a kind of abstract matter. Its a 3D environment, but the “Z-axis” is abstracted, as detailed tracking of vectors, angles, and so on and so forth would only serve to turn a hobby game into a boring math exam. Its got just enough special movement and other rules that satisfies me with its nods to the 3D environment of space, but it doesn’t beat the players over the head with it either.

They’re not retreating. They’re advancing on a retrograde vector.

Shooting

This phase is the most important phase, and runs very well. Each ship has a selection of weapons, generally the larger the class of ship the more weapons it has. Each weapon also has a specific arc in which it can fire.

Weapons get more or less powerful at various ranges, simply and easily divided into four Range Bands of 8″ increments. So my Frigates primary weapon might throw 6 dice at you in Range Band 2 (16″) but only 3 or 4 at Range Band 3 (24″). In an interesting nod to high-tech sci-fi warfare, in Firestorm it is assumed that when you are in Range Band 1, the enemy ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) is able to neutralize some of your firepower. This means that for most fleets you want to keep your enemy in Range Band 2, as this is where your weapons are most effective.

In one of those cool nods to 3D that I mentioned, you can do things like ordering your Ship to go ‘Belly Up’ basically making the ship turn “upside down”. This allows you to change which Broadside you are shooting at the enemy, so if you no longer have a Starboard Weapons, you can go ‘belly up’ to use your Port weapons.

Depending on the Range Band you are on you get a number of D6s to roll. All rolls of 4+ cause a hit against the enemy, with 6’s causing 2 hits, and allowing you to roll another dice (all rolls of 6 cause 2 hits and allow you to roll another, so if you keep rolling 6’s you keep rolling dice till you stop. Earth-shattering Ka-Boom!)

You then add up your total number of hits and compare it to the Damage Rating of the Target, and the target’s Critical Rating. Exceeding the Damage Rating causes 1 hull point of damage, exceeding the Critical rating causes a critical hit, which means rolling on a special critical hit table. This table has a variety of results. You roll 2D6 then consult it to see what happens. A Double 1 or Double 6 will outright destroy the enemy ship. Ouch.

Hull points of damage also reduce the effectiveness of the ship in combat, as for each hull point of damage you have it reduces the number of attack die you roll for each weapon by that number (to a minimum of 1). Losing Crew points also has this effect, but you don’t add the lost hull points and crew points together and then take it away, you simply check which is higher and take that away from the number of attack dice.

If a ship reaches 0 Hull Points then it is taken out of the game, if it reaches 0 Crew points then it becomes a drifting ship.

There are some modifiers to the Attack Dice being rolled, such as shooting at a smaller target only allows 5 & 6’s to count as hits (although the 6 still gives you 2 hits and a reroll).

Boarding & Fighters

Boarding is be done by moving close enough to the enemy to launch your Assault Troops against their ship, if you kill all of their Crew then you get to capture their ship and the boarding party “shunts” off the table and into hyperspace. You also get the option to include Fighters, Bombers, Assault Craft and defensive Interceptor fighters, adding all kinds of enjoyable mayhem to the game.

Other Stuff

There are several secondary systems that your ships can have. These range from Point Defence to shields.

Point Defense allow you to destroy Assaulting Troops, Torpedoes and enemy Fighters. Each ships is able to use its Point Defense up to 4″ away from the flight stand, and this means you can get overlapping fields of fire to protect your ships from all of the aforementioned attacks.

Shields allow you to roll a number of D6 equal to your Shield score, where any rolls of 4+ reduce the number of hits you took by 1. As usual a roll of a 6 reduces the hits by 2, and allows you to roll another dice.

Some ships can also have mines that they can drop at any point of their movement. Each mine has a rating (1-5) with the rating indicate how many attack dice it gets when an enemy ship triggers it. Mines are triggered by enemy ships moving within 4″ of it, and then EACH ship within 4″ takes a number of hits equal to the rating (as usual 4, 5 and 6, with 6’s counting as double). A useful tool to have, however something that can back fire, if a clever enemy detonates one with a sacrificial sheep your expensive capital ship is still too close.

The book includes rules for all sorts of “space terrain” to add visual interest and tactical depth to games. Several scenarios beyond “line up and kill `em all,” and even a starship design system allowing you to homebrew stats for your own conversions… or to play out that Babylon 5 versus Battlestar Galactica grudge match you’ve been day-dreaming about.

In Summary

Firestorm Armada offers just enough tactical depth and rulebook crunch to appeal to hobby gamers looking for something new, fun, and not overly complicated. Very enjoyable and full games can be had with just a single starter set for each player and a shared rulebook. Heck, with proxy tokens supported by — and included inside — the rulebook, you don’t even need models. But, oh man, the models…

The Sorylian Collective Broadsword Class Dreadnought is one of the smaller Dreadnoughts in the game… but damn doe sit got a lot of guns.

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