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Subject: Not bad... but monotonous rss

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Martin
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This is a repost from my blog, Fire Broadside! Peruse it here in plain text or over at my blog with some added pictures and links.


About time I reviewed a miniature game, and even more about time that I reviewed something involving giant starships hurling plasma at each other! In short... time for a review of Firestorm: Armada from Spartan Games.

My blog was born when I wanted to document my first forays (besides BFG) into starship gaming back in 2009 and my game of choice was Full Thrust. It's been out of print for more than a decade but the books are available to download for free from GZG and it's still one of the most widely played starship combat games, so I thought it was a good place to start. Also I really like the models, and the price. Anyway, I managed to get my friends Anders and Martin interested as well (even though we lived at the opposite ends of the words at this time) and they each bought a couple of fleets each.

However while I was painting my ships in Tokyo my friends started looking more and more towards the upcoming Firestorm: Armada from Spartan Games. They liked the look of the models, but mostly I think it was the fact that the rulebook was actually in print and it had reasonably high production values that did it. I know they're both suckers for flash! Especially Martin. Haha!

So instead of sticking to my guns (or spaceships in this case) I decided to give it a go myself. I had followed its development over at Starship Combat News so I knew what it looked like at least. That was a bit of a problem though as the only fleet that appealed to me was the Sorylians that Anders had already bought. The Dindrenzi looked decent as well but that was Martin's fleet of choice. That left the Terrans and the Aquans and they both left me cold. And I do mean cold... as in I think they're plain ugly (and yet...)

Although I pondered getting one of those fleets anyway in the end I simply couldn't do it. Instead I started my little Firestorm: Yamato project; making a fleet based on the classic Japanese cartoon Space Battleship Yamato, aka Starblazers. In the end that project kind of stalled and I got the Relthoza when they were released instead. I quite like the design of both the Relthoza and the Directorate but in the end the vertical design of the Relthoza won me over. So with a starter fleet almost fully painted (missing some cruisers) I got to play Firestorm: Armada.

The Company

First off a few words about Spartan Games. I will be a little harsh in this review so I would like to preface that with saying that I simply love this company! They're small with fairly niche-games so far, but have managed an amazing output of miniatures ever since they started. Not once have they faltered, there has always been new minis hitting the streets as well as updates to the rules. The design haven't been perfectly to my liking every time, but the execution of the models are spectacular. Incredible detail with usually very little cleanup needed.

They also listen to the fans and mr bigwig himself, Neil Fawcett, actively participate on the forums. I think many other miniature games companies could learn a lot from Spartan Games.


The Miniatures

In my mind Firestorm: Armada started out so-so but steadily the miniature designs have become better and better. Let's start with the bad stuff. Looking at the original four fleets I think the Terrans and the Aquans should have gone back to the drawing board. The Terrans are much too blocky and featureless for my tastes. I can see they went for a BSG-vibe but all those flat panels make them look like cheap toys and doesn't give a feel for the scale. Making the Aquan ships more organic looking and with a marine theme was a cool idea, but in the end the starter minis just looks strange, in all the wrong ways. Now, I've seen people rescue these models with great paint jobs - making them look really good - but I think they should have looked better from the start.

The good news is that the Sorylian ships look great! They're certainly not breaking any new ground, but look really cool in a traditional sci-fi way. The Dindrenzi has a more interesting design principle with their long "necks" and I quite like those as well. The fleets that were released later (Relthoza and Directorate) also look good with their own distinctive features.

With the addition of new ships to the different factions I wonder if the designers at Spartan Games felt similar to me as the new Aquan vessels look a lot different (better!) than their original outing. The same goes for the Terrans, with more panelling and detailing being put on their floating shoeboxes (kidding!) - the Aegis class shield vessel in particular is excellent! I'm harbouring a hope that they will actually go back and resculpt the original Aquans and Terrans. It would certainly make me happy!

The recently added alliance vessels add more variety to the fleets and I like what we've seen of these so far!


The System

The game has been out for a while now so I won't really go over the rules in detail. It's your basic age of sails in space with buckets of dice! You each ativate one ship or squadron at a time and then the turn goes to your opponent. During combat you roll a number of dice equal to the ship's firepower value (you can link fire with other ships in the squadron) and every 4+ is a hit, 6 counts double and "explodes" adding another die to the pool. If you manage to score more hits than your opponents Damage Rating he looses a Hull Point, and if you also go over his Critical Rating there's some bonus damage inflicted. All in all it's a good solid mechanic that is used throughout the game.

There are also rules for fighters and bombers as well as torpedoes and how you can use your ships' Point Defence systems to defend against them. Battleships are large and lumbering while frigates are quick and nimble, very nimble actually - making a 180° during their activation is usually no problem. Ships are also surprisingly durable and a cruiser can usually survive even a full broadside attack from a battleship.

Boarding plays a part in the game as well and there are surprisingly intricate rules of how it works with every ship having stats for both crew and marines. I'm not sure how large part it plays in the game (I haven't managed a boarding yet) but it's cool nonetheless!

Like the other games form Spartan Games there are also a deck of cards you can use while playing which gives you some special rule breaking abilities that can hopefully sway things in your favour. I like the idea, although I would be much happier if each faction had their own deck of cards to help diversify them more (which Neil has said will come in the future).


The "Feel"

So far I have only played line them up and fight battles, which are never as much fun as more specific scenarios, but I still think I have a decent grasp on how the game plays. The battles have all been pretty much the same with both sides maneuvering towards each other, trying to get your opponent into your broadside fire arc at range band two (all ships excell at this range) and while there might be some initial torpedo volleys they usually don't do any damage. And as even larger ships are relatively fast it's difficult to stay at arms reach. In one battle I tried to stay as far away for as long as possible, thinking I'd make use of the Relthozas' stealth technology and torpedoes. But it was still just a couple of turns and then we were in each others range band two again. It's also pretty easy to maximize your firepower each turn as you can usually maneuver enough to get something in your broadside arc.

This means that it kind of boils down to a battle of attrition and who rolls more 6's. Yes, I'm a bit harsh here and oversimplifying but that is what it feels like. It rarely feels like you have the opportunity to make some smart tactical maneuver to surprise your opponent or move in a way where he can't attack you, it just feels like a slugging match. A large part for me I think is the all pervasive resolution mechanic, the only thing that that makes torpedoes different from firepower is that you can defend against them with your PD fire. Besides that they're mechanically identical. And there are also only two types of weapon systems, firepower and torpedoes... and they work almost the same.

Fighters and bombers are similar as they also (after having gone through Point Defense fire) simply add up their Firepower value and try to roll over the target's Damage Rating. I can certainly understand the designers wanting to use the same resolution mechanic throughout the game as it does streamline the experience, but I wonder if it's not at the cost of variation.


My Thoughts

When I play Firestorm: Armada it reminds me of the old GW game Battlefleet Gothic. There are some passing rules similarities but mostly it's that the theme of both games have a lot in common - space opera with huge boats in outer space. But while F:A quickly starts feeling like a boxing match between two punch-drunk heavy weights just trading body blows BFG managed to retain a sense of tactics all the way through a battle. In it you have three quite different weapon systems (Firepower, Torpedoes and Lances) and how your ships are positioned relative to your opponent actually matters. And while it's harder to plink away at a cruiser in BFG, gradually wearing it down, it's perfectly possible through clever tactics to simply cripple it in one swift blow.

When I play miniature games I want the rules to capture the right feel of the miniatures and the setting. I want a machine gun to work differently from a shotgun and I want clever gameplay maneuvers to be more important than my list or the luck of the die. Now, I don't mean that you can't play tactically in F:A, and all those buckets of dice should even out statistically, but I don't think there's enough diversity in the game to keep me interested. Granted, I've started leaning more towards "realistic" space battles as the years have gone by so perhaps I'm not the target audience, but even so I remember having more fun with BFG.

I'm starting to repeat myself but in the end it comes down to lack of variety in how the weapons work and the fact that it's all too easy to get to use your strongest broadside fire arc every turn. When it's all about the almighty broadside I think actually achieving that elusive firing position should be somewhat difficult, and when you do make it the "I'm screwed!" look should be plain in your opponent's eyes! In this game though, you keep hammering at each other to see who breaks first. If I'm allowed to oversimplify for a little bit; it all contributes to a feeling of weapon choice and maneuvering not mattering all that much, or less than in other games at least.

Now, I do like the basic system - there is certainly nothing wrong with it - but I think it's over-used and makes the game feel "samey" as you go along. For some reason I am much less opposed to it in a true wet navy setting like Uncharted Seas or Dystopian Wars (although I have played neither yet). It might be my inherant preconceptions of space combat but for use with plain old cannon the system seems much more fitting. I've talked about Dystopian Wars a lot earlier and I'm looking forward to trying it out to see if how it "feels".


Conclusion

Well... there's been a lot of I, my, me in this article as well as talking about touchy feely stuff. But the bottom line is that Firestorm: Armada is probably not the spaceship battle game I'm looking for. It's not that it's completely unenjoyable or the rules are bad, I just think there are better alternatives out there for this sort of game. I want a bit more detail and more tactical... granularity. If you're anything like me you will likely have a similar reaction to the game.

However if you are looking for a simpler more streamlined game than a lot of the other stuff out there you should definitely check it out. Something else that Firestorm: Armada brings to the table is availability and broader appeal. I would say it's the best produced and supported spaceship battle game available today. Granted that doesn't say an awful lot in this little niche of the miniature gaming market, but it's still something. Sure, Full Thrust have been around for ages, but you can't go to your FLGS and pick up the rulebook and a starter box for it.

I will likely play Firestorm: Armada again and I'll more than likely pick up a few more models (have you seen the dreadnoughts?! They're insane!!) but it is not the game I hoped it would be. Yesterday I ordered a few Deisho ships from Chris at Ravenstar Studios and I think I might have to cook up some neat Full Thrust scenario where they could be used. And I've got the urge to play BFG again, just to see if it's my rose-tinted glasses or not...

If you desperately crave some kind of arbitrary number to quantify the merits of this game I give you... three out of five.
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Russell
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All the information I was looking for.
Indeed it looks like a great game but not quite what i am looking for.
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Martin
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Glad you found it informative!

I feel the same way and I'm currently trying out several spaceship gaming systems to see what fits me best. I wrote an article about the ones I find most interesting called Wanted: More Spaceship Gaming. You might find it useful!
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Nick Hawkins
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I rather like the FA rules but don't use them with Spartan's miniatures which I think are too big for what is, essentially, a (small) fleet combat system. I'd suggest that the Spartan minis deserve a more granular system but that FA is a good match for the smaller 'industry standard' models from the likes of Ground Zero Games and Brigade Miniatures.

I would add that FA does not support 'team play' (multiple players per side) very well as squadrons activate one at a time. This is not an issue in a two-player game but can result in a lot of down-time with more players.

The tactical richness in the system does not come from the difference between 'guns' and 'torpedoes' but from the interaction of them with the other weapon systems: mines, fighters and boarding. The end result was much better than I had expected and all weapons systems can be viable if you have a bit of terrain about to slow movement and block line of sight.

Sadly I don't get to play it much because my club are committed to Full Thrust which I don't enjoy playing (but that is another story).

I don't agree that FA is monotonous.
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Rocy7 POL
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The game passed a significant revolution from rules 1.5 to 2.0. One thing that does not change were mainly moving rules, fight however, went major changes and has become more tactical. Game is still focuses on the effective management of individual squads, but it also counts how they interact with each other.

Different weapons have different effectiveness depending on the range and acf of fire and the simple tactics of concentration of fire makes sense only for part of the race (Dindrenzi, Sorylianie) the rest of the fleet (especially Rethloza, Tarakians) need to combine and play more tactically trying to catch your opponent in as many ARC of fire , use link fire, boarding and targeted strike tripping key systems (eg. Point Defense). Cyberwarfare, Mines and Gravitational weapons, also have tactical influence on battle.

Example battle on 2.0 rules (we don't use all option which you can use in game, this was one of our begining battles).

http://community.spartangames.co.uk/index.php?/topic/11201-r...
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Martin
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Indeed the 2.0 rulebook is so far ahead of the original book that it's simply ridiculous! The new one looks professional and reads well while the old one had the feeling of a rough beta document. So great improvements there!

In fact there are many improvements all around and the new edition made me interested enough to re-invest and paint a Dindrenzi fleet. Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to play with it yet as my group has bad memories from the first edition and I have trouble convincing them of trying this one.

Now, I still don't think it is the game for me as much of the core is still the same. However the improvments are substantial and numerous and I would now gladly play the game (although perhaps not invest more in it).
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Michael Ptak
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I had my first game of Firestorm armada today.

Up until about... two days ago? My eyes were focused on Star Wars Armada which has been the focus of my gaming cravings for a while now. But I look to Firestorm as a competitor and perhaps something to tide me over until FFG can get those starters to us.

Regardless, the notion of combat being 'samey' is something I can agree with. At it's heart all attacks are just rolling numbers of dice and trying to make successes higher than the hull/critical values. Only differences between them are if there are special rules that kick at certain range bands, or if the attacks can somehow be negated either by shields or defensive fire.

Frankly though? I think that's fine. My "teacher" also tried getting me in on Flames of War and one of the things about traditional miniatures games is that I get turned off easily when tables are a thing. "Test for ballistic skill, but to do damage you need to compare the firepower value against the unit's toughness to come up with a target number to deal wounds, then saves" or somesuch. Too much complication for me.

But with Firestorm essentially basing every attack on essentially the same kind of roll it makes it easy to memorize and to get the gears of the game rolling quicker than in most others. I don't think it's going to beat FFG's SW:Armada (since that could end up as well-greased as X-Wing does), but gameplay was satisfactory enough. FA offers a bit more in depth than what I can see of SW:A, though ultimately we won't know until the game hits and everyone's given that system a run through.

But to those looking at this system, I'd say give it a chance. As far as fleet battlers go my hangup was on the particularities of fringe rules, but with practice I think they come easy. Those, and the faction-and-model specific rules are the only hangups I perceive. Otherwise it feels like a good game.

I can agree about the model part though. The only models that excite me are the ones from the Rense System Navy and the Dindrezi, but I'll likely be bowing into Terran because nobody local is taking that faction.
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Martin
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I agree it's mostly fine, and as I mentioned above the new rulebook is a great improvement, but it's still too bland for me.

These days it seems like most of the space combat games I find interesting are either indie creations or no longer actively being worked on (aka "dead"). I'm certainly keeping a close eye on Star Wars Armada though as it I think it might be the best combination of accessability and decent rules system in a long time.

I won't invest until I've seen what Hawk Wargames upcoming Dropfleet Commander looks like though (it'll probably be previewed at Salute). The Dropzone Commander setting is quite interesting and Andy Chambers, who did Battlefleet Gothic, is doing the rules. could be interesting.

Anyway, you could do a lot worse than Firestorm Armada, and I can see the attractiveness of the "everything works the same" mechanic.
 
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Rocy7 POL
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Comparision version 1 rules with 2.0 http://www.spartangames.co.uk/products/firestorm-galaxy/fire...

Rulebook of 2.0 http://www.spartangames.co.uk/wp/wp/wp-content/spartanimg/Fi...
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