Saturday, 18 June 2016

"Dreadnought" and the Emptiness of Space: Making Space Games Interesting

Regular readers will be familiar with my dissatisfaction with current space games; most are variations on "WW2-in-space" and play with similar tactics to the historical naval games they ape.

Most ignore vector movement, and fighters travel faster than capital ships (ignoring the fact both are in the same medium - spacecraft are not a direct analogues of water-based ships and aerial fighters).  I'm not interested in realism - I mean, sci fi is an invitation to be inventive and use handwavium. 
So why not be creative? Why do we get 101 variations of the same game?

Another is the relative boredom of space terrain (or lack thereof). Most tables are rather bare and featureless - with perhaps the odd sty foam planet to add interest.  I've got two issues with this - one, it seems rather silly that two ships would fight over empty space.  Presuming some sort of FTL as the norm, why would they bother?  Most hyperspace systems in games and literature are not easily interdictable.  If ships must use jump gates (EVE Online, The Lost Fleet) then there is a chokepoint.  But really, why would not fights take place where they matter?  I.e. near planets, in mineral-rich asteroid belts, near starbases etc?   Secondly, more damningly, a bland open space table is boring from a gameplay perspective.  Without terrain to dodge in and around, the tactical possibilities tend to be "go closer" or "move further away."  It's not surprising many space games end up as a dice-chugging brawl in the middle.  Contrast the effect limited space terrain has compared to a crowded Infinity table.  There are far fewer decision points.

The upcoming Dropfleet Commander is primarily over planets. I'd like to see where it goes with its hi, medium and low orbit altitude bands. In addition, fights revolve around landing troops on the planet, adding more gameplay choices through victory conditions like orbital bombardment and ground combat.  Furthermore, the detection rules add a different dimension to combat.  Whilst I am hesitant to proclaim it as the messiah, it at least seems an interesting step away from the same-old-same-old. (If they don't dumb it down too much)

So where is this leading?  Well, this train of thought about spaceships was triggered by the PC game Dreadnought, also yet to be released. 

The idea of huge captial ships flying in atmosphere is definitely different and gives a sense of scale.

Basically, you have huge capital ships flying entirely through atmosphere.  It's rather like aeronef with a sci fi bent.  Whilst it does not exactly promote vector movement, and is indeed pretty much WW2-with-flying-sci fi battleships it does a few interesting things, and there is an impressive sense of scale often absent in the depths of space.

For some reason blogger doesn't let me link through Youtube to the best videos.  This link has better explanations of the classes, and this has commentated gameplay.

Distinct classes  - every ship has a role
Many space games tend to simply have ship classes that are smaller versions of the bigger ones. 
Battleship = the cool, meaningful "hero" class ship
Cruiser = merely a smaller battleship with less guns and hitpoints
Escort = a tiny battleship that acts as ablative armour for bigger ships and gets swatted down in the first turn.

In contrast, Dreadnought deliberately copies RPGs and MMOs to give ships flavour.
Dreadnaughts - have armour and broadside firepower.  A "tank" capable of dealing and taking hits.
Destroyers - can be customized with energy management aka "jack of all trades"
Corvette - has a cloak, hit-and-run, fast strikes "assassin" with tactical warps
Artillery cruiser - high power, long range, slow cannon "sniper"
Tactical cruiser - weaker weapons, but can repair others "healer"

I'm not saying other space games don't differentiate between ships and classes, but I am suggesting space games seldom sit down and put major effort into designing differentiating and mutually complimentary ship classes which are equally valuable to the team.  Rather than simply making small ships attractive by virtue of throw-away cheapness in a points system.

Tactical Warping - aka emphasizing a single sci fi feature
Although I have seen this before in tabletop games (Battleshift?) using short hyperspace jumps to teleport and leap directly forward short distances to engage/disengage adds an interesting flavour to combat and gives it more sci fi flavour.  Making smaller ships better at this would give them a distinct advantage.  Many sci fi games of all genres start with a basic premise (i.e. hard sci fi platoon games are usually Vietnam-in-space) and follow the basic tactics and feel of that genre. The "sci fi" is just a few cool toys and special rules tacked on that do not actually alter the fundamental gameplay that much.   However, picking a single sci fi technology and making gameplay revolve around it will change the core nature of the game significantly from historical games from which it will inenvitably be derived. 

To sum up...
I like space games that feel different than the usual "WW2-in-space" or have an interesting twist on the space theme, such as the atmospheric combat in Dreadnought and Dropfleet Commander.  Giving all ships a distinct and meaningful role, instead of making small ones simply weaker copies of larger ones, will lead to a more interesting game.  Picking and emphasizing a sci fi feature (such as tactical warping/teleporting) and making it a core game feature will further give a game a distinct flavour.  Finally, terrain is important, if for no other reason than the tactical interest and decision points it adds.


  1. I have to agree that most space battle systems are merely
    WWII (or even WWI) naval battles played in two dimension.
    It's very hard for the human mind to grasp the lack of an up and down, never mind the mechanics in game play required to get that even close. Attempts at vectored movement reminds me way too much of the old asteroids video game (lost way too many quarters on lol) so sort of turned me off. In games I adhere to the Keep It Simple principle where I can and generate interest in the story line narrative. For example all of our Full Thrust games are in or near System, defender Vs invader with linked ground assaults and battles using Dirt Side and Stargrunt. This has made for some real interesting campaigns. I do like the idea of the in atmosphere fighting with big ships, could get pretty nasty! I will look into it, thanks for the heads up!

    1. I'm going to play devil's advocate here:

      Although true 3D space is the holy grail for many, I personally think it is less relevant than many believe. Most fights (in my experience in PC games) tend to more or less end up on the same plane, as up/down has no particular relevance anyway.

      The lack of gravity/lift makes it less relevant than in a aerial wargame; there, conservation of energy, bleeding energy in turns etc makes altitude relative to each other vital.

      Surprisingly perhaps, I am an advocate for 2D, given I like to use at least a handful of ships per side and have no interest in 1v1 Star Trek style duels. I think there is more than enough scope for original tactics if we can un-wed ourselves from the idea that it's wet naval combat, and actually make it sci fi, rather than "WW1/WW2 with a few special rules."

      In my opinion, 2D vs 3D is a minor issue in the quest to make space combat fresh.

    2. Do you have an article where you elaborate on what you think is game-able about conflicts in space?

    3. ".... what you think is game-able about conflicts in space?"

      Are you referring to

      "Complexity vs Simplicity"
      i.e. What do you detail, what do you abstract?
      Which would depend on what you are trying to achieve - Star Trek 1v1 or fleets of dozens of ship - and the tactics you want to encourage.


      "What should be included in a space game"
      In my own dabblings (see Delta Vector rules) I felt compelled to allow room to use the rules for all the space universes (BSG, Star Wars, B5 etc) and as a result the rules became increasingly generic and bland (and complex).

      I think sci fi rules which stick to a particular setting (or emphasize a certain aspect of technology - see post above) will deliver a more interesting gaming experience.

      A narrower focus is best. Which is a bit counter intuitive given most indie rules designers are trying to enable gamers to use any and all their toys.

      I care less about "realism" and "hard sci fi" and what could/should not be possible than about the fact space games are boring generic naval warfare clones with a few special rules tacked on, with a prediliction for hitboxes, rivet counting, and bland gameplay.

      Using modified WW2 naval rules for all space games is no more engaging than using modified 40K to play every era of ground combat. Or (looking at you, 15mm sci fi) various Vietnam-in-space Dirtside spin-offs for 15mm platoon sci fi.

    4. I'm referring to the nature of a conflict in space, and how that nature can be used to situate and resolve a game. For example, Dropfleet Commander has a clear objective in that it uses the notion of a planetary assault to give players clear objectives, resources, and strategies in a space-based game.

    5. The beauty of sci fi is it can be what you want.

      Inspired by the oldPC games Battlezone and Descent, I've been fiddling with a set of rules for fighters modified from my Delta Vector large ship rules.

      My "premise" is small craft will only be used in cover (asteroid fields, planets, even underground cave systems) as larger ships would annihilate them in open space. ...Since the fighters have warp jumping abilities, there is no need to ever be in open space....

      I'm aiming for a PT-boat warfare feel similar to my SuperCav submarine rules....

    6. Okay, I don't think you're getting what I'm pointing at. Imagine you strip away all the decoration that puts your game ostensibly in space with space-ships. What is your game about when it's fully abstract that might make you want to set it in space?

    7. So you're saying, the underpinning mechanics/tactics promoted...

      "if not "WW2 naval in space, then what?"

      Well, vector movement mechanics that make you predict where they are going is the #1. It makes you think ahead a few moves and makes the game sort of a geometric exercise of intersecting vector paths.

      If it doesn't act even vaguely like space (no gravity/vacuum) then it may as well not be set in space.

      Otherwise, since it's sci fi it can be what you want. Which is why I always wonder why we reuse the same basic tactics and mechanics.

      Things I (personally) like, ...besides the vector movement:
      -Venting heat (a la Mechwarrior heat management)
      -Directional shields/facing is meaningful
      -AoE weapons (or vector based missiles which act as such due to their predictable attack zones) that act as extra terrain
      -Tactical warps (teleport across battlefield)
      -Weird space terrain (black holes, gravity distorting weapons/pulling ships, nebulae that effect certain sensors, drifting satellites)

      All these things are not common to WW2 naval combat and thus make a core experience that is different.

      Different being the operative word.

      Sci fi gaming should not always mean "a period of history rebadged with shiny tech which functions the same"

      That said, most games are derived from TV and movies which portrays spaceships as just that.

    8. I think it's important to have a context in which those things are important, a fictional universe that allows those decisions to be implemented in a way that enhances the play experience. So I'm curious about missions and scoring, and other game parameters that would presumably inform the pace and development of play when determining the kinds of processes and procedures that should take players through a game. Is it a deep space ambush at a trans-FTL jump-point, or a planetary assault, or what?

  2. Like I said I prefer to keep the rules as streamlined as possible because I prefer also to use a good sized fleet Vs fleet system. Also like to keep the bookkeeping down to something less than the small library I used to have to keep for 3 ships playing Starfleet Battles! IMHO 2D cinematic movement is fine with a few sci-fi elements thrown in for color, all the better.

  3. I think Battlefleet Gothic: Armada has tactical warp-jumps, which is kind of absurd given the setting, but apparently does some neat things to game-play.

  4. You do realize that even in "Mineral Rich Asteroid Belts" the nearest any two asteroids are likely to be (on average) is several million miles?

    Space is a vast emptiness, even in "crowded" areas.

    And, from knowing actual Rocket Scientists (My brother was a NASA Engineer, who worked on both Shuttle and ISS design and Astronaut Training - and several of my friends are the heads of NASA's current Deep Space Programs), the "thrill" of Space Combat is likely to not be as exciting as we tend to think of it, precisely because of WWII naval combats to which we compare it.

    To begin with.... Beam Weapons are probably NEVER going to be useful as weapons in space. They are too easily defeated by a few inches of aerogel (Silicon or Carbon Aerogels that can withstand the corona of a star are not going to flinch at a Giga-Joule Laser).

    And the ranges at which space combats take place will either be in the millions of miles, or at ranges of approximately what Naval Surface Battles would take place at (miles to tens of miles). This is due to having to use impactors as the weapons.

    The Writers and Technical Bible for the Battlestar Galactica series dealt with most of these issues, as well as the fact that the ships in that series had Armor that was in the dozens of meters thick range that would need to be penetrated (Thus how the ship could survive a 50kt nuclear weapon that it basically shrugged off).

    Lasers and Particle Weapons might be good for dealing with smaller ships at short ranges, where their speed can keep a "fighter" (which is likely to be the size of a Mac Truck) from dodging it. But the bigger ships are going to be throwing large projectiles, probably guided (even if launched from a rail-gun), at each other.

    BSG represented what is the current state of thinking among the "smarty-pants" types who think about such things for a living.

    And we saw FTL used tactically in that series twice.

    But even it broke the rules a few times, as when it showed "Scar" hiding in an asteroid belt that was far too dense (only a Planetary Ring System would have bodies that densely packed).

    But if you are just proposing anything is possible with "handwavium," then why worry about what the rules look like, since they are no longer really a simulation of anything, and instead are a metaphysical hodgepodge?

    1. "But if you are just proposing anything is possible with "handwavium," then why worry about what the rules look like, since they are no longer really a simulation of anything, and instead are a metaphysical hodgepodge?"

      My main point is that we mimic historical periods in sci fi/fantasy wargames, when we have freedom to make more interesting tactical possibilities, and unique types of game.

      "Realism" vs "unrealistic" doesn't concern me so much as "original and different" vs "boring rehash of WW2 naval rules."

      I'm interested in the "realism" of rules in genuine historical games, but sci fi and fantasy, not so much.

      I find it a little odd that when rule writers get carte blanche to create "fantasy" that they pretty much just rebadge a historical period.

      In the case of space games, many are LESS interesting and tactical than their historical (wet navy) counterparts.

  5. But I do agree that 3D is a vital issue in space battles, and that things DO NOT "tend" to work out into a plane.

    Especially if both sides deploy multiple formations of ships in a 3D arrangement, where each formation of ships is arranges in 3 dimensions.

    This presents options for forcing ships into attitudes that demand protecting of weapons, or sensors (since windows are not likely going to be an option for most), while still maintaining an attitude where maneuver and firing on the enemy are possible.

    When the ships are arranged outside of a plane, there ARE configurations where this becomes impossible for an enemy to do (Graph Theory and Topology both show means of accomplishing this), and thus 3D maneuver becomes vitally important.

    But representing this in a space-combat game is terrifically difficult, unless you are using "Real-Scale" miniatures (where the miniatures and ranges are both at the same scale). As I previously mentioned, this is possible in BSG, because the ships themselves are 1 - 5 miles in length, and their ranges are only about 10 to 30 ship-lengths for most of their weapons (for maximum ranges). Longer than this and it becomes too easy to intercept an incoming round, and either break it up, or push it out of the way, so it misses.

    But this makes it relatively easy with miniatures that are roughly 6" long to portray on a tabletop, and in 3D without needing elevators and lifts to get into 3 dimensions.

    We briefly tried to do this with the old FASA Game "Leviathan" in the 1980s (or a variant of it, since the actual game itself did not work well). But the technologies of the time did not lend themselves to the game. There are currently better tools for gaming than there were then.

    But 3D matters... It matters a great deal.

    1. I'm not saying 3D does not matter. I do think there are other (easier) ways to divorce space games from "WW2-in-space". Simply using vector movement is a more relevant change - without it, wargames with 3D elements often tend towards WW2-dogfights-without-gravity/lift-considerations - adding complication without differentiating it from a historical period.

      3D matters. But I'd suggest it's not the most vital factor for diffentiating space from WW2 - and definitely not worth the effort and complexity in a wargame.