Thursday, 12 April 2012

Spaceship Game Design

Space games are boring.  Whilst land combat games (in particular skirmish games) have changed radically since the 90s, and come in a wide range of flavours. spaceship games remain variations on Full Thrust. Silent Death, another 90s carryover, is the only spacefighter game going.  Most games are very much wet-navy (usually WW2) in space, with buckets of dice, lots of hitboxes and criticals.  After I realised I spent more time printing off ship record cards, and filling them in during the game, than I did actually playing (i.e. making move choices, moving models around and making pew pew noises), I gave up playing space games as I awaited The One Ruleset that would make space fun again.  It hasn't come. 

Playing Infinity and Tomorrow's War lately has shown me that you CAN spend more time making decisions than chugging dice and performing laborious record-keeping, and it's pretty darn fun.

So what would my ideal spaceship game look like?

#1. Record keeping would be minimised. This includes no written orders. Piles of tokens are to be avoided as well as they look unsightly on the space battlefield. Critical hits would be restricted to a few generic areas, such as firepower, defence and mobility. Damage to be simplified into descriptive labels like "cosmetic damage, significant damage, crippled, destroyed" and shields to  "full, failing, down"

#2. Movement in vacuum would allow ships to drift and maintain inertia until thrust alters their direction. This is a must as anything else is just a glorified naval game. Moreover, movement should be hexless as hexes are easy to add into a game but not everyone has or wants a hex starmat. 

#3. Ships would not miraculously teleport past each other, but be able to react to and fire at each other throughout their movement, in a contested reaction style similar to Ambush Alley Games or Infinity.  You shouldn't be able to wander off for half an hour for coffee while your opponent makes all his moves. 

#4. No IGOUGO.  Ship initiative should really matter, as this is important part of 'tactics' - this should be a meta-game in itself; having initiative perhaps allowing players to force enemies to move particular ships, or try to maintain momentum with risky rolls. 

#5. Maneuver should be important. Whether by specific weapon or shield facings, or 'to hit' modifiers that vary according to angle and closing speed, a game should never be resolved by shoving all your models into the middle of the table and chugging dice. 

#6. All game rules must be streamlined, and offer as many choices, in as simple a way as possible.  The player should be constantly faced with agonising tactical decisions, but be able to execute them swiftly and easily.  Add in more decison-making layers, but only if they are simple and fast to execute.  Perhaps an order system like Battlefleet Gothic or simply allowing ships to have "attacking/defensive/speed" boosts like in the videogame Homeworld.  Any options offered should consider if the added tactical naunces are worth the tradeoff in game speed/playability.

#7 Ship design rules must be simple, robust and resist abuse. Most space gamers love creating new ships, and they also love winning - a dangerous combination.  There should be a modest range of generic weapon choices, kinetic and energy - just enough in variety to simulate a range of TV shows and movies.

#8. All rules should follow the motto: Maximum choices, minimum recording.  You should constantly be thinking about the next move or counter to your foe, not pawing through the rulebook or rolling to tick off 30 criticals.  

Plotting enemy courses weeks in advance, swarms of remote and AI drones with a wide variety of roles, sand warheads to scrub off electronics...

#9. Rules can simulate all TV series, but avoid WW2-in-space tendancies, leaning towards what I might hesitantly refer as 'slightly harder' sci fi.  Think Lost Fleet, Risen Empire and Dread Empire's Fall with ships on set vectors and swooping rapid engagements rather than Star Wars & Star Trek style with ships hovering in space exchanging broadsides)

#10. Ship crew skill can matter. Whilst not necessarily modifying firing rolls (as most space weapons would be computer controlled anyway, one presumes) this could impact areas such as initiative, maneuver and damage control.

#11. A campaign system should be included. This should be simple, focusing on making scenarios for fighting rather than resource gathering and research, and allow limited but not gamebreaking crew advancement/upgrades/traits so players can get attached to favourite ships, but not create the undefeatable USS Enterprise-with-uber-lazors-of-doom. 

#12. Each player should be able to manage about a dozen units comfortably and a game should finish in a reasonable amount of time - say 45 minutes to 2 hours. 

Epic battles at fractions of lightspeed; using enemy velocity to predict where your opponent will be as the position you receive is always out of date; clouds of "grapeshot" ball bearings to defeat missiles and shields - this is the best sci fi reading out there

So enough whinging - time to get off my butt and do something.  Keep an eye on this blog as I try to fulfil these criteria...   the next post is "Movement" as I try to come up with a simple, no recordkeeping vector system....


  1. Looking good. I've also tried my own variations of rules, inspired by TW.

    A comment on crew skill for aiming weapons: I work in the geophysics industry, and although we use the same precision tools such as magnetometers, there is a lot of room for error. How we maintain and deploy the tools and then QC the data determines how good our results are.

    The same would be true of space-based weapons. Unless you are armed with the space battleship equivalent of the AK47 (which will be what drone ships carry, contrary to belief that they would be cutting edge), your weapons will need care and maintenance. So they may not aim the weapons, but they will service, calibrate and write targetting protocols for those weapons.

    One thing I have seen very rarely in other space games is the idea of suppression. Much like TW, if you have things being thrown at you and beams raking your hull, odds are your shooting is not going to be all that good. Long range weapons are also most likely to be very delicate, so a single good hit could cripple them (good argument for drones and fighters). So ships could choose to "button up" - another tactical option.

  2. Thanks for the feedback.

    I like your tool comment - you raise some good points. Computer software and targeting protocols are a VERY good point but you would presume once one ship in the fleet had them, the rest would to. I do have some computer-based "Traits" in mind like AEGIS which would give reaction bonuses to multiple threats.

    I agree 100% about maintenance - I made crew skill vital in repairing damage. I am probably adding in some rules for ammo/heat buildup that allow better crews to overload weapons or push them to higher performances; also to overload shields or maybe squeeze that extra 1" thrust out of the engines...

    I have avoided crew skill directly impacting weapon base stats. Making crew skill > weapon stats really well in games where weapons are similar; like the Ambush Alley modern game Force on Force (where everyone is using 5.56/7.62mm projectiles with similar performance) but less so when one player has a mega spinal mount laser against a 20mm rapid fire railgun; or a Harpoon missile vs a Phalanx CIWS.

    If this was a cinematic starfighter game; I would be focussing far more emphasis crew skill vs weapon stats. Most spacefighters use similar rapid-fire lasers or gatlings which are fired at relatively short ranges.

    With space combat I'm aiming for a submarine feel in that having a better crew helps you set up better firing % solutions but doesn't make your computer-guided torpedo or automatic tracking laser any more accurate.

    I'm aiming for a game where better crews can squeeze a bit more performance out of their ships and repair battle damage on the fly, and react more reliably to multiple threats; but their prime advantage will be being able to manipulate the initiative/move order to set up fights that advantage them; not simply float at range and devastate enemies with their 30% accuracy advantage.

    I still may swap to a 2d6 or d20 system as each can be used for reaction and initiative. The only reason I like multiple die is the variety of 'graduated' damage allowed by multiple dice. I'm kinda wanting to drop the 'buckets of dice' system; I made an interesting d20 damage system yesterday and I may swap it in; currently I like the movement, missile and initative systems but the damage/combat mechanics can be switched out.

  3. Oh, I also like the 'button up' idea which could prevent systems damage. This could be activated by passing a CQ roll.

    You 100% have to have some sort of suppression I agree (I call it "Shaken" and it prevents repairs and adversely modifies all dice rolls; hits through that arc are +1 to represent shield or hull breaches)

    Thanks again - you've given me much food for thought.

  4. As a 'veteran' of many space combat games in the past, from Fighter combat to Fleet actions, I can only whole heartedly agree with all your observations above and in subsequent posts. I loved my time with FT and such games but I think we have failed to move onwards and forwards.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing how you take this forward and am following your blog with eager anticipation!

  5. Thanks Paul. It's nice know I am not the only one. I liked Full Thrust and Silent Death back in the day, but newer systems seem similar; 'refining' the system at the cost of yet more complexity.
    Colonial Battlefleet is a good example of this. Directional shields, a solid and inventive build system and a simple vector mechanic are good, but it hasn't strayed too far from its ancestry and has a lot of recording to do.

    Ironically, one of the more interesting one was GW's maligned Battlefleet Gothic, whose 'orders' systems and directional shield hits/suppression, campaign and advancement system were offset by very limited generic weapons, ww1-naval movement, and an inability to build your own ships or even use them plausibly outside the 40 world - the latter two reasons a death knell for any space game.

    Anyway if you have any wishes, let me know and I'll try them out. Cheers!

  6. I haven't come across Colonial Battlefleet, but also very much enjoyed BFG with my friends - and there were some great subtlies in the weapon configuration and uses (though I hated the guess component of the Imperial spinal weapon, the Nova Cannon!)

    My 'ideal' would be a system which has core mechancis which would support a 'Hard SF" style of gaming (eg Traveller 2300AD), a Space Opera (Star Wars), or anything in between, through the use of different or optional rules. FT did this in a fashion and whil it can be clunky, it works.

    Then the limitations of technology from the gaming background allow players to build their own ships with those constraints - easier said than done of course! But that would allow a tech tree application to the games (OMG - those have developed plasma guns!) ad players to use vector movement where wanted, or cinematic style to taylor for less experienced/younger players.

    I'm sure that if there is a silver bullet solution out there you'll dig hard to find it :-)

  7. Your manifesto seems to contradict itself in some ways, for example:
    "#9. Rules can simulate all TV series..." and
    "#2. Movement in vacuum would allow ships to drift and maintain inertia..."

    Fighters in babylon 5 use vector movement, Battlestar Galactica fighters do it when they feel like it and not much else in TV-land (or movie land for that matter) use vector movement at all.

    I do agree with all of your points in general but I do think a lot of them pull in different directions so your ideal space game may remain hypothetical.

    1. I think what you overlook is the "specificity" of the rules, which is the main issue, I think. For example, the rules may completely abstract fighters or make them into "squadrons" which move under a different system for speed of play's sake, if they are at fleet level - they may not even use the same vector movement as ships. If they are skirmish level, i.e. with individual fighters, it would be a different story.

      The main issue I feel, which you have sort of touched upon, is that a game that allows every space show and element tends to be generic and bland. Games that have a strong "theme" or particularly focussed gameplay element(i.e. the heat management in Battletech, the ARO system in Infinity) tend to be stronger and more interesting.

      For example, a system specifically based on the Lost Fleet novels (with the issues of light speed/time having major issues on combat) will be more interesting then a generic Full Thrust-play-any-show ruleset.

      Trying to do too much at once (which I guess is what you are saying) can "dilute" the game to "uninterestingness" and mean you have to skip interesting game mechanics...

  8. I like the list you have assembled here - it seems like you have a very similar design philosophy to mine. I like the movement rules that you outline as well: they give a unique feel while staying manageable in gameplay...

  9. I think a hardcore take on space battles would reward planning over resolution of combat. Presuming battle computers would exist and help plan combat strategies, how a battle resolves is all physics. So, things like starting positions and vectors, and force composition is greatest importance. Combat resolution is either diceless or low spread dice. Combat effects should be lethal. That's how I think game time can be reduced down to 30-45 minutes even with dozens of ships.

    1. The good thing about sci fi is everyone can have their own vision of how it should be. Another guy was explaining how it's "scientific" that heavy armour and aerogels will reduce ranges irl to ranges seen on Battlestar Galactica.

      My main concern is not playing a reskinned WW2 naval game which make up 90% of rules.