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Subject: Too long and complex for what it is (5 of 10) rss

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Christopher Rao
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STARFLEET BATTLE FORCE REVIEW


courtesy WasQ

One of the first gamer games I ever played was Starfleet Battles. It was the summer after seventh grade and I left New York City to visit my dad in Austin, Texas. There was a game club I found at the north end of “the drag,” – Guadalupe Street adjacent to the University of Texas, where my dad taught. I had never had any experience with gaming other Monopoly or Scrabble, but in this big open space I played the original Melee and Wizard, GEV, some fantasy strategy set in middle earth, I think, and Starfleet Battles. The game came in a smallish plastic bag and had a rule book of maybe 20 or 30 pages. I really enjoyed the space battles, and especially how the impulse rules worked.

Sadly, as the summer wore on, the owner of the game club, quite a nice guy, became more and more grumpy. It was soon clear, even to a 12-year old, that the place was losing money and wouldn’t last. I vividly recall the week he decided to call it quits. Though it must have been quite an ordeal for him, as soon as the decision was made he seemed terribly relieved, regained his good cheer, and seemed to enjoy just playing games again, for the few weeks he had left.

I went back to New York for 8th grade and promptly forgot about Starfleet Battles for about 17 years. A gaming buddy told me it was hi favorite game, but that I shouldn’t read the rulebook because it was something like 500 pages long. I said that it sounded like a game I bought and enjoyed back in junior high, but couldn’t be it because the rules to that game were about 20 or 30 pages. Well, my buddy told me, the game had changed quite a bit since 1979. I played a couple of times but never really got into it. Several years later I played Battle Force.

Star Fleet Battle Force is a card game version of the ultra-complex Starfleet Battles. It can be played with between 2 and 6 players, and, though it is supposed to take about an hour, can easily end up taking twice that. This is a frustrating game to play, not because it is so bad, but because it should have been good, but isn’t. Indeed, there are some fairly interesting ideas here, and a decent amount of strategy in managing your fleet and card supply. It gets lost, unfortunately, because of lots of needless complexity (yes, from the folks who brought you the original SFB!) and more needless luck than you would expect. This is too bad because I have such fond memories of SFB, back when I was a fledgling 13-year old gamer.

RULES
There is a basic game here, but as with most games, our group always just played the advance game, so I don’t go over the basic rules here.

Each player gets a set number of random ships (between 5 and 15, depending on number of players) and a starting hand of 5 action cards. The ships, representing different ships of different races in the Star Trek universe, each fire different sorts of weapons (lots of photons on Federation ships, lots of Disrupters on Klingon ships and so forth). Each ship also has a VP total between 5 and 16, and can sustain between about 5 and 15 points of damage before exploding into the deep endless night of outer space. Players divide their ships between their 3 squadrons: their “screen,” their “main body” and their “reserve squadron.” You may have up to two cards in your reserve, so other players won’t know what those ships are until they enter the fray.


courtesy loquitur

Turn order is random each turn. On each turn you:

1. Draw up to five cards in some combination between the draw deck and your “reserve” pile of up to three cards.
2. Repair one point of damage from each ship that is damaged.
3. Make Formation Change. Move one ship between squadrons or cloak/web one ship.
4. Engage in Combat. Attack one ship with one of your ships OR make another formation change OR discard as many cards as you like.
5. Discard up to one card.

When you damage a ship, that player must put damage tokens on specific parts of the ship – either simple damage boxes or weapons boxes. If a weapons box is damaged, that weapon cannot fire. When all boxes have tokens on them, the next point of damage kills the ship. The player who killed the ship gets the card and sets it aside, getting VPs at game end equal to the number on the ship. The game ends when only one player has ships left.

There are, as you can imagine, lots of cards that double damage, jam weapons, increase your shields, disengage a ship from battle and so forth.


courtesy WasQ

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT THE GAME
Although there isn’t enough tactical difference between the screen and the main body squadron, there are some differences in what weapons can only fire from the screen. More interesting are the strategic choices about when to bring out your big ships, and what mix of different ships and various weaponry to set out, when to cloak and uncloak, web and un-web. Cloaking and webbing each take a formation action, and each reduce all damage by one half. Webbing, however, requires another formation action each turn to keep up, whereas cloaking stays up automatically until you decide to uncloak (a free action). On the other hand, cloaked ships can’t fire while cloaked, whereas webbed ships may at least fire phasers. These distinctions offer interesting tensions.

The reserve pile of up to three cards also offers some interesting choices. You may always choose to draw a card from this reserve instead of the deck, or, if there’s room, choose to discard a card to the reserve deck from your hands at the end of your turn. This means that if you have a card that doubles photon damage, for example, but no photon cards, you can leave the doubling card in reserve until you draw a photon card – then you can draw the photon doubler card from the reserve pile.

Also, if you are ever completely out of cards, you may immediately draw a card from the reserve pile. So you can coyly keep just one card in hand, a shield, but keep other defensive cards in your reserve pile. Then when someone attacks you, you can spend your shield, then keep drawing cards from your reserve pile and play them immediately. I’m not sure that this is the most elegant system, but it does present some interesting strategies in card management and reserve pile management beyond the simple tension of whether to stock your hand with more offense or defense cards.


courtesy Loquitur

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

Unfortunately, there are a few critical problems with the game that make it tough to get out on the table:

1. Certain Special Action cards – There are many special cards, which all do various things. The Disengage card, which lets you leave a combat immediately without getting hit, is overpowered, because a player may spend several turns accumulating cards just to attack your ship with lots of firepower, only to have you play one card and take no damage at all.

The Klingon Mutiny card is not necessarily overpowered, just overly random. On a die roll of 1-4, the target Klingon ship does up to three points of damage. On a 5 or 6, however, the Klingon ship actually changes sides. This is potentially a game-deciding roll. Given the length of the game and tactical choices of the game, it’s a shame to win or lose based on a single die roll.

Most problematic, however, is the Reinforcements card, which simply lets you draw another ship. This is simply ridiculous. In the 3 games I’ve played, at least 2 of the games were won by the player who drew the most reinforcement cards. In our game yesterday, the winner drew it 4 times, the other two players once each. If you play, I suggest just taking these cards out of the deck.

2. Game Length – The Car Wars card game works, even though there isn’t a huge amount of strategy, because each round plays in a fast and furious 20 to 30 minutes. Longer games such as Car Wars and Circus Maximus work because they offer lots of strategic and tactical options that justify a playing time of 2-3 hours. Battle Force simply plays too long for what it is. Taking out the reinforcement cards would help, however.

3. Rules Complexity - In an effort to give the feel of the original SFB game, there are lots of little subtle differences that add little to the game. Cloaked ships, for example, take half damage rounded down. Webbed ships take half damage rounded up. And one of the special cards takes half damage, but the rules don’t specify whether it rounds up or down.

GAME REVIEW CHECKLIST


1. DEPTH/COMPLEXITY
"How many and how compelling are the decisions you make per minute?"

- Analysis Paralysis/Downtime?

2. MECHANICS
"How intuitive, elegant and flowing are the moves that bring your tactics to life?"


3. INTERACTION
"To what degree does it facilitate a rich social experience?"


4. ORIGINALITY
"How fresh and unique are the strategy, mechanics and theme?"


- What's the freshest part of the game?
Webbing and cloaking ships; mix of weapon types on different ships.

5. AMBIENCE
"How much do the theme, aesthetics and bits add the overall experience?"
My friend the SFB fan, who owns Battle Force, was disappointed that each player had a mix of various races of ships - Federation, Klingon, Kzinti, etc. He's big into theme and probably bothered him more than all the annoying mechanics. He suggested that each player get their own deck and race. Not a bad idea.

6. AUDIENCE halfstar:
"Who would love this game?"

Only die-hard fans of SFB.

- Does it hit a sweet spot? Which one?
Unfortunately no. The world needs a good game in this category!

- Luck (& Chaos) : Player Control
Far too much luck given the game length and rules complexity.

SUMMARY

This isn’t a terrible game. And it’s probably fixable. This is frustrating because there isn’t a good short multi-player combat game that I know of shorter than Nexus Ops.

I'll still have great memories of that summer after 7th grade, when I first discovered serious gaming. Unfortunately, this game isn't worth much more than a stroll down memory lane-lite. SFB, on the other hand, is not a bad game. But that's a review for another day....

cheers,
topherr
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David Bohnenberger
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Quote:
Most problematic, however, is the Reinforcements card


This card is common to all the "Naval War" type games. Its power really depends on the ship you draw. Some Naval War players who call this card "additional target".

I agree that SFBF adds many rules to the base Naval War system without really much payout.

The "damage" system ends up being basically meaningless most of the time. Your ship takes a few hits, and you cover up a few meaningless boxes, then the next blast blows the ship up. Rarely have I ever played the game and felt constrained by having a damaged ship in my fleet.
 
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Guy Riessen
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topherr wrote:
STARFLEET BATTLE FORCE REVIEW
there isn’t a good short multi-player combat game that I know of shorter than Nexus Ops.


Many of the CCGs are good, short, multiplayer combat games--MTG (just play with pre-built decks of a chosen expansion to avoid the money-pit), or pick up cheap OOP games like Star Trek CCG, or Call of Cthulhu CCG.

There's also the Down in Flames series, Zero!, from GMT, which offers both a tactical levels (which plays well multiplayer) and a longer campaign level (which is 2 player) of play.
 
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Todd Warnken
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Our group also has an issue with game length. We found that every game ended with everyone having cloaked ships and nothing else. One house rule we adopted is to play until one person has been eliminated then play five more rounds. Another possiblity is to play to a fixed point value and the winner is the first one to reach that goal.
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Tom Grant
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The key section of your review is...

Quote:
"Who would love this game?"
Only die-hard fans of SFB.


While I like Federation Commander, it still could be a simpler game. Same here. I know that it's hard to take a complex game and trim it back (from Starfleet Battles to Federation Commander), and I commend the effort. Unfortunately, in the case of Star Fleet Battle Force, it wasn't the same game.

The one time I played it, I kept thinking, "Why not go for the feel of a Star Trek episode, instead of Starfleet Battles?" You could have all the same ships and races, but you'd abstract a lot. For example, instead of having the complexity of the different ranks of ships, why not just have cards like, "Protect the flagship!"
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Superficially this game seems to resemble Mag-Blast (although I haven't played that yet), which has pretty good reviews all around.

Can anyone explain how Mag-Blast got it right while SFBF got it wrong?
 
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Leo Zappa
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Well, I'm going to be a dissenting voice here. I and my regular game group LOVE SFBF, and in fact, I am going to buy a second copy in order to increase the number of ships of each race available, so that we can have larger, one-race fleets. The game can't be simpler, and I greatly prefer two items in this game to the similar "Naval Battles" game:

1. It is NOT language independent, which means I don't have to decipher a collection of arcane symbols to know what the ships' capabilities are, and...
2. I think the use of the red, plastic "photon torpedo" markers for damager indication is far superior to the other "naval war" type card games. The ability to reflect gradual damage and loss of vital systems as damage builds is a quantum leap in the design of such games.

We played this twice a couple of months ago after finishing a complete game of "History of the World" and as I said, it could not be simpler and yet it captured the feel of the "Star Fleet Battles" universe. If you like SBF, and you like "naval war" style card games, I will go as far as to say this is a MUST BUY.
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Tom Grant
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Quote:
If you like SBF, and you like "naval war" style card games, I will go as far as to say this is a MUST BUY.


Thus defining a very small audience. (If you like SFB, not Star Trek, and you like naval war card games...)
 
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Leo Zappa
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Kingdaddy wrote:
Quote:
If you like SBF, and you like "naval war" style card games, I will go as far as to say this is a MUST BUY.


Thus defining a very small audience. (If you like SFB, not Star Trek, and you like naval war card games...)


Yes, but luckily for me, I game with four or five other members of that audience! Western Pennsylvania must be a "hot spot" for SFB-Naval Card Game enthusists!
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Raymond Cameron
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Love the game. Try to play it as often as we can get together but it does tend to be one sided. When we had 4 of us we did try the one race option and I have to say that was best but frustrating not drawing cards you can use. I was toying with the idea of using a heavy weapon card that was not yours to do half damage with? Example... I'm a Klingon and drew a photon torp, I can use half of the damage to fire my disruptor's. May not work because photons tend to do more damage. What do you thing? Also anyone have some custom cards??? Post? I saw the ones here. Are there more? Rules?
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Trent Garner
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I like the optional rule that allows players to build a fleet of their own choosing within a set number of victory points, 60VP or something like that. The removes the random starting fleet as a problem.

As for the Reinforcements card, you could always remove them from the deck in multiplayer games, giving each player one Reinforcements card to be used as and when they please, but they only get the one card, period.

When playing with race-specific fleets, you could always divy the action cards up into separate decks for each fleet, with a generic deck for the cards usable by all races. When you draw cards, you decide to draw from your fleet deck or the generic deck with any given card draw. This would alleviate the problem of drawing useless cards (for the most part), while keeping the actions drawn as random as possible. They would likely all be good cards for your race, but not necessarily the exact cards you need at the time, just like it is in normal play.

Being a fan of several other games with similar design/mechanics, such as Down in Flames and Modern Naval Battles, I have some great ideas to make SFBF much more fun and dynamic, albeit with house rules. But hey, that's the fun of owning board games, you can play them any way you like, it's your house and your rules!
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Xander Fulton
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Cantatta wrote:
As for the Reinforcements card, you could always remove them from the deck in multiplayer games, giving each player one Reinforcements card to be used as and when they please, but they only get the one card, period.


Perhaps it's more due to our group dynamic, but I've just not seen the 'reinforcements' card as a problem.

MOSTLY because when it's played, it's one of two situations that promptly are resolved:

The person playing it has been holding it in reserve, and has just lost a ship or two so is now a few ships down from the group average, and in real risk of being knocked out of the game. We basically nod and think 'fair enough', it's not unbalancing because it just lets them keep playing meaningfully with the rest of us.

The person playing it already has equal ships to everyone, and now has more. IMMEDIATELY the game turns into 'pick on the leader'...which (since we keep scoring hidden until the end) is the person with the most ships. Actually, the game is pretty much ALWAYS 'pick on the leader'. I dunno, it's just the group dynamic, I guess. Anyway, after one turn around the table with every person firing on one person's fleet, the issue is usually pretty quickly resolved (and this may lead to the higher percentage of time in our group of people just holding this card in reserve - see point #1!)
 
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Scott Smith
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whitewind wrote:
Love the game. Try to play it as often as we can get together but it does tend to be one sided. When we had 4 of us we did try the one race option and I have to say that was best but frustrating not drawing cards you can use. I was toying with the idea of using a heavy weapon card that was not yours to do half damage with? Example... I'm a Klingon and drew a photon torp, I can use half of the damage to fire my disruptors. May not work because photons tend to do more damage. What do you thing? Also anyone have some custom cards??? Post? I saw the ones here. Are there more? Rules?


I tried the single-race variant last night for the first time. My solution was that at the end of a player's turn -during the discard phase- a player could freely discard all cards that his faction couldn't use (Klingons: photons and plasmas, Feds: plasmas and disruptors, etc.) This is in addition to the one "regular" discard that a player is allowed within the normal rules.

Seemed to work okay, but it was only one game.
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Michael Sweazey
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Scootergsp wrote:

I tried the single-race variant last night for the first time. My solution was that at the end of a player's turn -during the discard phase- a player could freely discard all cards that his faction couldn't use (Klingons: photons and plasmas, Feds: plasmas and disruptors, etc.) This is in addition to the one "regular" discard that a player is allowed within the normal rules.

Seemed to work okay, but it was only one game.


I believe the rules state that you can discard any number of cards at the end of your turn.
 
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Michael Sweazey
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I would also have to give a dissenting opinion to this review. I had SFBF sitting on my shelf for a while before I was able to break it out since, while my wife is both an avid gamer and a Star Trek fan, war-games that don't involve mages and elves just don't interest her. (She will play game after game of Battlelore, but she snubs Memoir '44 or Tide of Iron...go figure!)

However, a couple of weeks ago I brought SFBF to Atlanta Game Fest and got it to the table with a friend who is a veteran SFB player. I tend to be slow on the uptake when studying rules, but a quick read-through of the basic rules got us up and going in a matter of minutes. We immediately began enjoying the sandbox nature of the game.

Over the course of a few more plays, we added additional rules from the advanced ruleset. Some of these were things that we were going to house-rule due to "issues", but they were actually official rules that we had missed or hadn't incorporated yet.

During our play, a number of people walked up to observe the game and commented on how fun it looked. Since then, I personally know of three copies that have been purchased. In fact, I played with one of those purchasers yesterday at our local monthly game group. I took about 10-15 minutes of going over the rules with the caveat that it was a learning game, and things would be explained as the situation arose. There were surprisingly few of these times. In fact, the design of the cards made it very intuitive to know which weapons could defend against others, etc. My only negative comment on the defensive markers are that they could be color coded like the weapons they defend against to simplify the learning process. Our game did go longer than an hour because we were playing with two players and every ship in the deck. Also, we settled into a defensive stance for about a third of the game, partially because of "luck of the draw" and partially because of strategy.

There will be a number of occasions, as has already been mentioned, where your ship (mainly smaller ones) will go from healthy to space flotsam in one attack. In some of those instances, it was because the player chose to not defend as vigorously as he could have to save the cards for another ship. Sometimes it was because of simple overwhelming firepower, and in space a hull-breech generally makes for a bad day.

I like the fact that you have ship-based fighters available for those times when you just don't have the best weapon cards for your ships. These fighters can be quite effective. It also doesn't take long to move beyond the simple attack/defend strategy and start to realize that certain ships need to be targeted first or worn down because of your vulnerability to their weapons systems. (Oh, and by the way, I have become very fond of the little pirate ships with the two weapon hard points that can accommodate many weapons. Trust me when I say that my opponent was very happy when he finally took it out!)

Personally, I don't understand saying that the game is more complex than it needs to be. It is what it is. The vast majority of people who are only familiar with roll-and-move games would observe that ALL of our geek games are too complex! It goes along with the observation that a game outcome can be affected by randomness. Unless you are talking about chess or some other pure strategy game, I can always reply, "Of course it can be!" For that matter, how many real-life battles have been decided by random events - whether it be weather, a rabbit running across the field, or a copy of orders being lost and found wrapped around cigars. Whether it be a die or the draw of a card, all games are ruled by randomness. In our plays, we have not observed yet that any of the cards are overpowered, though I will say that I was royally screwed by one or two of the cards that were mentioned.

Overall, my own opinion is that this is a fun sandbox card game that can be taught very quickly to newbies with the advanced game being introduced easily once they grasp the concept, or the advanced game can be used by those used to more involved card games. I'm pretty sure there will be a few more purchases by those who observed the game yesterday. In fact, an online game retailer who attends the group and makes a number of sales to the group noticed the interest. Everybody's opinion is valid. However, I have to say that, so far at least, our experience with SFBF appears to have been significantly different than the reviewer. Different players, different outlooks.
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