Saturday, January 16, 2010

Federation Commander

In the beginning, was Star Fleet Battles. Back in the 1970s, a group of guys in Amarillo Texas got together, obtained a license to use material from the Star Fleet Technical Manual (which contained technical details about ships from the Star Trek series), and created what many people consider to be the greatest starship combat game of all time. Back when I was in high school and in my undergraduate years at university, I played quite a bit of Star Fleet Battles (SFB). However, the game does have a downside, in that it is quite complex. Those of you who have never played it simply can't understand how complex it can get. If you played a scenario with all of the rules, those rules would number well over 1,000 pages. Craziness, though being able to handle that much game certainly puts one in the annals of greatest gamers of all time. Because the game was so good, it was successful despite its complexity, and stayed a regular seller over the years.

Fast forward to 2005, and the company that still publishes SFB put out a brand new game line, set in the same general universe, called Federation Commander. The basic concept of the new game was "let's take everything cool about SFB, and make it less complex." I am happy to say that the new design is very successful, and has everything I like about SFB in a package that I can actually play. Most elements of SFB are streamlined in Federation Commander, but all the cool stuff is still there. You still allocate power at the beginning of each turn, but it is no longer a strait jacket on you. You still have lots of impulses, but they are bunched up now, so it is easier to deal with. You still maneuver and fire weapons in the same way, but there are set weapons firing points. It is all there, but doesn't take as much time as SFB does.

The publishers did do something a bit odd, though, with the game. Sticking with the SFB model, every few months they are putting out a new module for the game. Each module adds new ships, or even new races. However, rather than there being one base set, there are two separate starter sets: Klingon Border, and Romulan Border. Both sets come with six map boards and the full rulebook, but they each have different ships and races. Both come with Federation ships, but Klingon Border has the Klingons (duh), Kzinti, and Tholians, while Romulan Border comes with Romulans (duh) and Gorn. I do not have the Romulan Border set, but I do have the Klingon Border set, because Klingons are rad to the max, even if I don't play them very well.

The basic gameplay consists of using your available energy (produced by engines) to power your engines for speed, your weapons for firepower, and your shields for protection. Damage goes first against your shields, but if it eliminates a shield then further damage goes straight to your ship. There is a damage track that you roll a die on if you take damage, and then you mark off the relevant damage to your ship on your handy data card. In a net, yet money-grubbing, approach, Federation Commander ship cards are all laminated and full color, rather than the black and white pages you photocopied out of a book for SFB. I really like using the dry erase markers to keep track of stuff on the new cards, but they don't give you quite enough for large battles. Too handle this, they will happily sell you "booster packs" containing additional cards. And, to make it necessary to buy these, each one of them comes with at least one brand new ship card not appearing anywhere else. So, if you want all the ships, you have to buy all the booster packs. Sneaky one, guys.

For a game about giant spaceships slugging it out, maneuver plays a surprisingly important role in things. Just charging straight in, guns blazing, only works well if you have a much more powerful ship than your opponent. Instead, the game is one of maneuver, where you use missiles and perhaps other ships (if your side has more than one) to try to put your target into a position where you consistently hit the same shield with multiple weapons. While doing this, you are trying to make sure that your opponent has to spread his shots across multiple shields on your ship(s). One of these days I am going to get good at the maneuver part of the game, but currently I tend to find myself pincered by the people I play against, and then I end up with a ship resembling Swiss cheese. Ah, well.

So, yeah, Federation Commander is great. If you like games of starship combat, you will be hard-pressed to find anything better.

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