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Starmada: The Admiralty Edition» Forums » Reviews

Subject: A review of Starmada from an old SFB grognard rss

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Daniel Berger
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The Background

I've been playing Star Fleet Battles on and off for over 30 years now. While I have tried a few other space games over the years, none have ever come close to SFB in terms of being able to retain my interest. As time passed my interest waned somewhat, in part because of a never ending stream of errata and updates, and in part because the game was getting very large and overwrought. After a brief resurgance of SFB in my life a few years ago I decided to poke around BGG and see what alternatives were out there now. Eventually I settled on Starmada.

The Great

Getting started with Starmada is easy. The core rulebook is relatively light, and the core of movement and combat comes in under 10 pages. The rest is introduction, scenarios, ship construction, conversion from Starmada X, and so on.

I love the ship construction mechanism in Starmada. It feels very well thought out and balanced. Engines, shields, weapons and a plethora of options are all available to you. The number of different weapon systems combinations is huge, and they are in turn organized into a limited number of weapons banks. It all results in a calculable combat rating that can be used to determine its relative strength to other ships. It works very well, both in terms of ship construction and balancing battles.

The ability to provide such a plethora of weapons and options without creating any sort of rules bloat is a testament to the game's design here.

The Good

Combat resolution isn't quite as good, but it's still solid. Weapons have a range, always in multiples of three, which seamlessly establishes short, medium and long weapons ranges. Each weapon has a rate of fire, accuracy, an impact rating and a damage rating. You must roll to hit, then see if those hits actually make it through your opponent's shields using the impact rating. For those hits that do make it through, you must then roll damage using a very simple damage allocation mechanism.

The main complaint here is the amount of wristage involved, because that process will have to be repeated for every weapon bank, and for every ship firing, and always at the end of the turn. Experienced play, along with several sets of dice, can help alleviate the pain here somewhat.

The Not So Good

Movement is the weakest aspect of the game IMO. I know the sci-fi crowd has gotten it into its collective head that vector based movement, or some reasonable facsimile, is a requirement for "realistic" thrust based movement, but I'm not a fan.

On a philosophical level, I find the idea that giant starships, which are fighting battles in open space using fantastically powerful weapons and systems that are hundreds of years ahead of us technologically, are still using thrust based engines patently absurd. From a playability perspective it's a bit difficult to keep the rules in your head, and newbs may get confused. I should note that as I write this they're implementing a new set of vectorish rules that simplify matters, so that's good.

Mechanically, the default movement rules are simply not interesting. The ability to turn is tied to your engine rating and your current speed, i.e. the faster you're going, the more difficult it is to turn. Most ships have an engine rating between 4 and 7, and most people tend to hover at a speed one or two points less than their maximum engine rating in order improve their maneuverability, something even suggested in the rulebook.

The result is that actual movement on the map typically comes in at between 2 and 5 hexes per turn, at least once the ships close. For comparison, a French 80-gunner in Close Action, a game of 19th century naval combat, will probably move more hexes in a turn than a ship in Starmada.

Fortunately, they were kind enough to provide the "Brian Rule" which dispenses with the vector based movement system, and uses a simple point based system. It's easier to remember, and results in a bit more maneuvering both in terms of turns and hexes moved. We're still only talking about a 4 to 7 hexes of actual movement per turn, however.

But even with the Brian Rule, maneuver simply isn't exciting in the default rule set because shields are universal, i.e. there's one rating to compare against whether you're firing into the enemy's nose or flank. The only reason to turn is to bring your weapons into arc. When you combine this with the slow movement mentioned earlier, the result is that players tend to "sit and spin" once they get close and the game degenerates into a dicefest.

The good news is that the Rules Annex adds faceted shielding, i.e. separate shield ratings in each direction. This at least gives people a reason to maneuver for a flank shot.

On top of all that, Starmada uses plotted movement instead of the free movement system of SFB. I don't hate plotted movement, but I prefer impulsed movement systems. Plotted movement has the advantage of being faster, but at the expense of potential firing opportunities missed and weapons falling out of arc due to game mechanics.

Starmada vs SFB

As someone who has played SFB for many years, I find the tactical choices presented in SFB more interesting. This is the result of higher speeds, more manuevering, an impulse based movement and fire system, and the energy allocation system. For a game to be interesting it has to offer interesting choices. How fast should I go? How will that affect my turn mode? What weapons should I arm? Should I overload my heavy weapons? Should I prepare a Wild Weasel or a Suicide Shuttle? When should I launch my drones? Can I pin my opponent with a Gorn Anchor? When should I fire my torps? And so on. Starmada simply does not offer those kinds of tactical choices.

The downside, however, is that all those tactical choices offered by SFB have come at the expense of a monstrous and oft-revised rulebook. Every weapon and ship system has its own dedicated rule section, and they've added more and more "firing modes" to different weapons over the years. There is a LOT to remember. I pity the noob that tries to learn SFB straight from the rulebook these days. Most people are taught second hand. Starmada's rule set is very compact and can easily be self taught. As an interesting historical note, the original rulebook for SFB was smaller than the Starmada rulebook.

Starmada surpasses SFB in other ways, though. Starmada's ship construction mechanism is excellent, and opens the way to near limitless ship designs. This is where the most interesting choices in Starmada happen I think. SFB is limited to a single, albeit very popular universe, with a limited number of weapon systems that are often shared between races. New ships are dolled out to you in supplements, and they're often absurd and unlikely to ever be used.

The upshot of Starmada's ship construction mechanism is that the combat ratings in Starmada are sound, while the BPV system of SFB has always been sketchy at best, and preposterous at worst, and usually falls on its face when you start comparing ships from different eras. SFB simply wasn't designed for players to build custom ships, and the ones I've seen in practice were usually the worst sort of Monty Haul garbage you can imagine.

Starmada is a generic system, and creating the setting is entirely up to the players. There are a number of expansions, plus many fan universes posted on the MJ12 forums, for players to choose from and adapt as "their" universe. There are even expansions that integrate the SFB universe! I realize this flexibility doesn't appeal to all people. Many people prefer pre-built settings, while others probably don't care about a grand setting at all. They just want to design their ship of the week and play demolition derby in space.

Lastly, SFB shines in small battles, but tends to fall down hard once you get into fleet engagements. There's just too much going on, and controlling more than two ships in SFB is problematic. I can control a small fleet of ships in Starmada with little difficulty.

A Final Hope

So, in conclusion, I guess I like Starmada but I don't love it, mainly because of the movement rules. The good news is that, thanks to the flexibility of Starmada, I can implement my own movement system without fundamentally altering the rest of the game.

It's in the works.
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Todd Warnken
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Good review. It mirrors my feelings about the game. My friend and I made a modification to give the game more tactical options. A turn consists of three phases. During each phase ships get their full movement but each weapon can fire in just one of the phases. This effectively triples the speed of each ship and now you have to decide when to fire instead of just firing every opportunity.
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K. David Ladage
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Welcome to Starmada!

Daniel Kast (the author) has written an alternative to the movement rules that keeps the vector system while eliminating all of the tedium that comes with it. It is in the first post of this thread:

http://www.mj12games.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=3583#p254...

To summarize...

A ship may perform any one of three basic maneuvers: Strait Ahead, Come About, Reverse Course. Compare the ship's current speed to its thrust rating. If the ship's speed exceeds its thrust, it may only perform a Straight Ahead maneuver; otherwise it can perform any of the three.

1) STRAIGHT AHEAD: The ship may move any at any speed from its current speed minus thrust to its current speed plus thrust. It cannot turn.

2) COME ABOUT: The ship may move any speed from 0 to its thrust rating. The ship must turn once during its move.

3) REVERSE COURSE: The ship may move at any speed from 0 to its thurst rating minus its current speed. The ship must turn two or three times during its move.

Current Speed for the next turn is equal to the number of hexes moved.
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Daniel Kast
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Thanks for the review. FWIW, use of the Tech Levels option (B.12) would allow you to build ships with higher engine ratings, if that is more your style -- and because of the combat rating calculation, such designs would still "balance" with those designed under the default systems.
 
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Karl Hiesterman
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So, have you tried Klingon Armada, the SFB variant of Starmada? It might have just the right mix for you of Starmada's ease of play but set in the SFB Universe...
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Daniel Berger
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karlhiesterman wrote:
So, have you tried Klingon Armada, the SFB variant of Starmada? It might have just the right mix for you of Starmada's ease of play but set in the SFB Universe...

Yes, I have. I think they did a good job converting the SFB stuff. But, like I said, my main issue is with the movement rules, and those don't change in the SFB expansions.
 
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Jeremy Fridy
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I firmly state that I love Starmada, but that it is a fleet battle game, where SFB, and Federation Commander (I prefer FC for being a little lighter and faster,) is a better game about starship DUELING.

Each has a focus, and wisely keep that focus.

The fact that you could easily use both in a campaign based on if it's a small or large battle is a beautiful thing.
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Daniel Berger
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Mundane wrote:
Good review. It mirrors my feelings about the game. My friend and I made a modification to give the game more tactical options. A turn consists of three phases. During each phase ships get their full movement but each weapon can fire in just one of the phases. This effectively triples the speed of each ship and now you have to decide when to fire instead of just firing every opportunity.

Sounds interesting. I can see how this would add some decision making to the game. I think I'll try this next time I play, thanks.
 
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