Sunday, 6 February 2022

Dropfleet Commander Rules Review

No, it's not the 'next level' space game I'm always looking for. It's basically an upgraded, tweaked Battlefleet Gothic, which focuses on objectives while orbiting a planet. But I'm going to play it anyway.

The Shiny

The rulebook is pretty. It's good quality. Nice art.  Glossy. Not a huge fan of the landscape layout - I find it harder to use.  It has an index. There are profiles for all the ships at release, so no 'codexes' needed - which is good. About 30 pages of fluff and background that you might enjoy but I was totally uninterested in. Given you can get the rules for free, with plenty of quick reference pdfs, token printouts and record sheets you can't really complain. It seems like GW is the only one not giving out free rules nowadays (stares meaningfully at $98AUD LOTR rules - without codexes).

Dropfleet Commander shares a lot of similarities with its ancestor.

Overhead/Accessibility

The rules are ~50 pages and the basic mechanics are pretty straightforward. Ship stats are very similar in layout to BFG. Ships have Hull (hitpoints), Armour (saving roll), Signature, Scan (both to do with detection range), Thrust (speed), PD (AA against missiles and fighters), and special rules like launch and atmospheric. Also size/tonnage (L, M, H etc) matters to initiative and tactics, and group size (i.e. how many in a typical squadron). Weapons have a lock (to hit) roll, and usually are usually grouped in batteries. Most weapons do a single hit damage, but there are quite a few variations and simple but flavorful special rules.

Annoyingly, DFC uses special decks - a command card deck and special bases, as well as a battlegroup deck (although for the latter I am making my own with normal playing cards). The ships come on special bases but you could get by without them. The craze for tokens, templates and stuff is pretty restrained compared to X-Wing or Armada*. (*My son loves Star Wars, and although I like the idea of X-Wing - and enjoyed its ancestor, Wings of War - I can't justify paying $30 for a single plastic spaceship, knowing I'm really mostly paying for the cards, not the mini which you can get 5 for $20 in a Micromachines box...).

Activation & Initiative

You put your ships together in battlegroups, writing them down on a battlegroup card. The total tonnage on the card determines activation order - i.e. a battlegroup with a cruiser (5) and 2 escorts (2) = 7 would be more agile than one with a single heavy cruiser (10). Basically you arrange your "hand" of battlegroup cards however you want, and then you and your opponent reveal and compare the top card of your decks, the player with the lowest rating (most nimble) battlegroup choosing whose battlegroup acts first.  It's an interesting idea and allows for a little 'management' minigame of sequencing your 'hand' of battlegroups to best effect. Ships tend to move in coherency aka grouped together. 

Orders

If it's BFG roots weren't already obvious from the stats and layout (Andy Chalmers is a designer) this cinched it. The orders are pretty similar in effect - weapons free (fire all weapons); station keeping (move slowly/pivot); course change (extra turn), max thrust (double speed) as well as silent running and active scans - something that ties in with the new detection rules.

Detection

This is a very cool idea in theory. Basically, Ship A has a Scan (autodetect) range of say 8"; and a Ship B has a 6" Signature radius (say 6" but will vary on ship size). So Ship A will detect Ship B at 8+6 = 14" away. In addition, firing lots of weapons or boosting thrusters makes the ship light up like a Christmas tree (+6" Minor Spike, +12" Major Spike) - and ships can reduce this by Running Silent.

The bigger you are, and the more stuff you do - the farther away people can shoot you from. So a small sneaky ship might only be able to be engaged by enemies 6" away while a battleship can be fired on by everyone within 24"+. Finally a way to give small ships a chance?

Sounds cool, and I've been using a similar-ish idea in my own rules, but I suspect people will sneak for the first turn or two, then everyone goes nuts shooting and zooming; and thus render it all moot.

Movement

It's the typical 'travel half your move then turn' to give the feel of momentum; but turns are 45d and many special orders you can't turn at all. It's pretty ponderous, and even small stuff isn't that agile. Maybe I remember it wrong - but even BFG ships weren't this clumsy?

I'm anxiously awaiting my official Hawk minis. Until then I will proxy with Cold Navy.

Combat

Typical 'roll a handful of d6s' scoring to hit, then rolling saving throws in an attempt to cancel them out. Similar to BFG but slicker as you don't need a stupid chart. Scores of 2 more than the target number do a critical i.e. if it's 4+ to hit, a 6 is a crit. Basically Full Thrust. Critical hits can't be 'saved.' Once a ship loses 50% hitpoints it rolls on Critical Hit sub-tables. This defeats the purpose of the special dial for hitpoints on the base of the ship - you're going to be recording critical effects over time anyway. A ship losing all HP dies with various spectacular effects. 

Launch assets (aka fighters, bombers, dropships, torpedoes etc) use abstract BFG-esque rules and are placed alongside their target or the ship they are defending - they don't swan around independently.  They can be engaged by PD as expected and ships can even do sharp turns to evade their attack runs.

Atmosphere

Another 'cool new thing' - DFC presumes no one fights in deep space (after all, what are they fighting over) - but rather over planets at 3 orbital altitudes - high, low, and atmosphere. Ships can change up and down one level per move (-4" move to climb up) and crippled ships may 'fall' through layers. Shooting between layers is a -1 penalty to hit. Only small craft and drop ships tend to be designed to work in the atmosphere layer. There are debris fields, space stations and small moons in orbit. 

Ground Combat

Now this is pretty much how you win the game - capturing ground objectives. There are clusters made up of several sectors (the actual sites you capture or bombard). The sectors have their own HP and troops occuping them must make saves when they are getting bombarded. There is a whole ground mini-game aka paper-scissors-rock-with-dice-chugging which I frankly thought was pretty crappy.

The whole atmosphere and ground combat will be a deal breaker for some. The game is kinda focussed on it. Just eyeballing the rules, I'm pretty confident I could cheese wins in this area. While I appreciate the attempt to move away from the typical 'move the ships into the middle and chug dice' to focus on objectives, it won't be everyone's cup of tea.

Extra Rules

There's about 30-40 special rules from cloaking devices, special sensors, regenerative hulls to burnthrough lasers that use the dubious exploding dice technique. 

There's pretty BFG-esque fleet organisation charts explaining what ships can go with what, and how many. I.e. both allowances and layout of specific battlegroups and the amount of specific battlegroups within fleets. 

There are 8 scenarios but I suspect the website has more (I haven't downloaded and looked through everything yet). There are simple campaigns and ideas for integrating with DFC's sister game, not-Epic Dropzone Commander, but no rules for upgrading ships and crew etc like BFG. 

The UCM can certainly can evoke the 'cathederals in space' and I also am buying the porpoises-with-lasers PHR ships.

TL:DR

It's evolutionary not revolutionary - an updated BFG with lovely models. The focus on orbital combat and objectives rather than a typical deep space kill-them-all may put some off, but it's far more of a traditional wargame than FFG's CCG-with-minis-SW:Armada and far more interesting than the blandness of Firestorm Armada.

It's not quick - I reckon 2hrs+ for a basic battle and while an attempt was made to reduce recording it wasn't that successful. I'm also not a fan of 'special' card desks although you could probably play without them (and I probably will - I don't enjoy the 'gotcha' factor).

The game has been out for a while (I've had the rulebook since 2016) so there are probably more exhaustive reviews and plenty of AARs - and the rules are free! This is just for the blog regulars for whom this game may have flown under the radar.

Recommended: Yes. Battlefleet Gothic was a surprisingly good, fun game and Dropfleet Commander builds on that legacy with more improvements than mis-steps.

10 comments:

  1. Interesting, especially the detection rules. Adding in some false contacts could add a lot to the mix

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    1. The detection rules sound good - in theory - and remind me of the PT-boat ones by David Manley? - but I'm dubious how much they impact the game. From my mucking about, it seems at most you'd get a turn or two of avoiding fire then it'd be like normal. I'm sure you can get AARs that are more detailed though.

      The "orbit altitude" and most vitally - the focus on ground objectives - is a faaar bigger part of the game.

      Furthermore, the focus on objectives makes stealth kinda moot as you need to race to capture then, and you don't have the leisure to stealthily stalk/kite enemies.

      So while I like the IDEA of stealth, the victory conditions kinda work against it.

      Expect cool stealth hide-and-seek space subs gameplay, and you will be disappointed.

      Expect a more polished BFG by the same author, focussed on a race for ground objectives,and you'll be pretty content.

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  2. Have you heard of Afterglow? It also uses signature rules, but the entire game is more or less based around them. It's not very much like the BFG style of spaceships. It was entirely written by one guy so it has some rough bits (especially graphically) and needs tokens and a timer but it's a very interesting and different take on space combat.

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  3. 2300AD Star Cruiser (Traveller Universe) and Starcruiser Lite (free)also have space subs/detection centric rules.

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  4. When I think about space combat games, I have the sense that people WANT WWII or Age of Sail in Space. That is what sells, and going too far away from that model could be problematic.

    I think there are ways to make it different, such as submarine combat in space, hyper-jumping focused combat, vectored movement, or something else entirely. For example, A Billion Suns had a very different game play experience and I am unsure who will the market accepted those concepts.

    On the flip side, as Indie game designers..... do we need to care about the market? :)

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    1. WW2 naval in space = Star Wars, BSG
      AoS = Star Trek?

      I wonder if this will change as we get different takes on sci fi space, like the Expanse.

      I have a Billion Suns and it was just too different for me. I applaud the idea but it seemed more like being an accountant than a admiral.

      Personally, my home rules tend to focus on different 'mechanics' - instead of slavishly copying Full Thrust or BFG (like 99% of rules) I take inspiration from skirmish games like Infinity.

      Admittedly if doesn't have a least a nod to real space (inertia, vacuum, drift, visibility) there's almost no point in making a new game - I can just use an existing WW2 set...

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    2. It would be interesting to have an infinity-esque reaction system for each weapon system on a ship, perhaps layered with an 8-impluse turn ala SFB cadet. I did a full intertial space combat game once that was playable at 1-3 ships per player, I might run it again with reactions.

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    3. "It would be interesting to have an infinity-esque reaction system for each weapon system on a ship, perhaps layered with an 8-impluse turn ala SFB cadet."

      ..but probably not playable with more than 1 ship, per player?

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  5. Figured I'd put this here since this is the most recent space-related thing on the blog, but you might want to look at Velocity Vanguard. It's not exactly a miniatures game, but it does have vector movement as a core mechanic. It is still on kickstarter though, so you may want to wait to see how that pans out.

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  6. Just my 2cents as someone who has played this game (and would LOVE to play more of I had friends that played this!).

    First off, game isn't perfect, especially if one wanted a competitive game system. However, the fun factor, making some thematic Sci fi scene in your head when something cool happens and banter with mates is where this shines for me :F

    Scenarios; placed all over the map so can't just duke it out in the middle - this also means you have to think about what ships you send to where! Both sensor/weapons but also drops hip capability since this is what wins games.

    - Explosions and ramming: When ships with fusion generator(s) die, they often explode, taking friends and foes with them :D If one of your ships is close to dying, a brave/foolish captain can decide to just ram the ship into the opponents battle lines, hitting one of the enemies and explode in their midst (again, scenematically I just love that idea).

    - Admirals and cards: the more experienced your admiral, the more cards you can have. I personally like this mechanic, since the cards have variation between the factions - the evil jellyfish have some amazingly brutal cards, the tricksy Shaltari(Eldar) have movement shenanigans and so forth.

    All in all I just love spaceships and this game has some BEAUTIFUL models so I have quite a few simply to paint and occasionally play with - always been fun and close games:)

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