Boldly Going Where Many Have Gone Before, But Doing It Better
For almost 25 years I’ve been playing Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives, and while I’m still no expert, I know as much about them as anyone who has played them for any length of time. Ironically, it’s not that I’m that enamored with Star Trek or the Star Trek universe, but more that I’m fascinated by the level of detail that Amarillo Design Bureau (ADB) has put into the game, as well as the idea of big, cool-looking spaceships chewing through one another with energy weapons. Some of the mechanics that they developed back in 1979 are still far superior to those used today, such as their impulse-based movement and firing versus the benchmark “I go, you go” turn system that is a standard for so many con-sim games today. Of all the other games I’ve played, only Car Wars uses a similar impulse system to allow the simulation of simultaneous moving and firing.
In Star Fleet Battles, each ship moves 1/32nd of their movement per micro-turn, or impulse, and during each impulse they choose to do several things, most of which revolve around managing the ship’s power. What makes it an incredible game is that, to this day, it is the only system that I believe accurately represents the second-to-second decisions made aboard a vessel engaged in combat, in real time. The only problem with that system, though, is that a battle between two equally equipped ships can last a couple of hours and requires an immense amount of detailed bookkeeping. The focus is more on resource management than anything, which makes for a slow slog of a game. As much as I once loved the game, it is simply too much of a simulation and not enough of a game when all subsystems become involved.
The core game, though, with just power allocation, movement, and shooting, is actually not as complex as many would have you believe, but it still takes an awful long time for two cruisers to vaporize one another. And honestly, not using transporters, shuttles, and other subsystems makes the game really dumbed down so much that it’s no longer much fun. So, to get the full experience, you need to read a lot, play a lot (ideally with an experienced player), and invest a lot of time to simulate two star ships in combat, and if you want the full experience, you need to really learn about all of the subsystems’ roles in the game, which is incredibly daunting even now that I’m a more thoughtful, reasoned adult. Suffice it to say that while I still own Star Fleet Battles’, I will likely not play it for a long, long time.
In 1983, FASA came out with Star Trek III: Starship Combat Role Playing Game which evolved over the next 3 years into Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator (ST:STCS). This had most of the same concepts of Star Fleet Battles, but with easier bookkeeping, removal of the “impulse” system, and much more “game” than “simulation.” ST:STCS was, in essence, a modified version of BattleTech rules designed for space, and they worked surprisingly well. The real draw for ST:TSCS is that it amounts to a shorter, more streamlined version of Star Fleet Battles. I really liked this version, and FASA had some bad ass miniatures to go with it, which added quite a bit to the fun of the game. Even today, there’s a good following and a wide array of websites that have new ships, new rules, and lots of user-created content, as well as an online adaptation. There were also a series of PC games which are obviously descended from this ST:TSCS, the Starfleet Command series, which are both well loved and collector’s items.
The one major flaw with ST:STCS is that there is a tremendous balance problem between Federation ships and other races’ ships. A Fed frigate versus any other races’ frigate is almost guaranteed to win, assuming equal die rolls and equal between both players. Since the Federation has always been “the good guy” faction, it makes sense, but when you consider that the economy of the Romulan and Klingon Empires has always been geared toward warfare, one would think that their ships would be more powerful than the Feds. Paired with the fact that any two smaller ships will outmatch one larger one. Thus, it is difficult to build balanced scenarios in many cases, which can make it a bummer for anyone who isn’t playing the Feds. Additionally, playing more than one ship per side is a little daunting, although not as difficult as Star Fleet Battles.
Between Star Fleet Battles and its subsequent offshoot, Federation Commander, there were several rule sets that could be played using the Star Trek series, the most prominent being Full Thrust which, when played with the unofficial Star Trek variant, is called Full Trek:
This was really just a rule set with some interesting inertia rules more than anything, and while it’s fine as its own game, intertwining it with the Full Trek rules really was simply putting lipstick on a pig; it didn’t have the “Star Trek” feel to it, and it was simply a very capable rules set that would be better suited to Star Wars or a less “deep” franchise.
Now, back in the mid 80’s, ADB released a bunch of miniatures called the Starline 2200 Series, which were the first time that Star Fleet Battles could be played with its own miniatures. These were bad ass lead-pewter miniatures that were crisp and beautiful. In fact, the first hobby spaceship I ever owned was a Starline 2200 series, bought with my own money, in Philadelphia. A shame I still don’t have it, in fact. Playing these kinds of games with miniatures makes the game far more fun, at least for me, because there’s just something about actually seeing and moving a 3D representation of your ships that sparks the imagination. Anyhow, I only played Star Fleet Battles on and off over the span of many years, so when these came out, I was more interested in the ships than the game, since it wasn’t until 1988 or so that I played again.
ADB released Federation Commander (FC) in 2005, with the Klingon Border box set being the initial release and followed by numerous expansions. FC is much like like Star Fleet Battles in terms of play, but the impulses were broken into 8 impulses with 4 sub-phases, and the bookkeeping is more on a more bird’s eye level. The real difference is in the scale at which the game is usually played, though; where Star Fleet Battles is more playable in a one-on-one or two-on-two scale, the scale of Federation Commander is more squadron to fleet level, and it scales very well between those two. It’s much less a hassle to play, although it largely has all of the same options and subsystem capabilities of it’s kin. Along with Federation Commander came an update of the Starline Series miniatures to 2400, which are much nicer metal miniatures with fine details.
Now for what you’ve been waiting for: A Call To Arms: Star Fleet. Fast forward to 2012, when a joint venture was formed between ADB and Mongoose Publishing of Judge Dredd: Gangs of Mega City One fame (amongst others). Together, they created “A Call To Arms: Star Fleet” (ACTA:SF) which is the third entry into the 2005 series that started with “A Call To Arms: Babylon 5” and continued with the “Noble Armada” entry. The ACTA system is a hex-less, tabletop miniatures skirmish system that seeks to strike a balance between playability as a skirmish game while retaining the “feel” of the Star Trek Universe. If I were to use a familial analogy, Star Fleet Battles is the great grandaddy, Federation Commander the father, ST:STCS the bastard stepchild, and A Call To Arms: Star Fleet, the rugged and handsome Navy SEAL son.
ACTA:SF, as a product, is nothing more than a wonderful looking rulebook, but the game itself is much more when you look at the latest iteration of Starline miniatures, the 2500 series. These were originally meant to be cast resin but ended up reverting back to a lead-free pewter alloy due to production problems with the plastics, or at least so I’ve read. I acquired a couple of “Squadron Boxes” which represent 5 miniatures a piece and enough bases for them and to make some asteroids. I also got a couple of singles that looked pretty bad ass. All of my miniatures have spectacular detail, far greater than I had expected, but they were incredibly trying to assemble. After Frank Branham and others gave me some advice, I managed to pin them and that made the assembly much easier. It’s shocking how much difference a pin vise and some paper clip sections can make! But seriously, if you’ve never worked with metal minis of this kind, you will need a file and some cheap tools.
Mongoose sells a huge variety of ships encompassing all of the major powers in the Alpha Quadrant such as the Federation, Romulans, Klingons, Knitzi, Gorn, Orions, and Tholians. All of the ships look amazing, and I mean truly amazing, and they sell faction-specific transfer decals so you don’t have to attempt to hand-paint on registry numbers and ship names. Further, they are coming out with these bad ass little reference cards which allow easy book-keeping via dry-erase. As it rests, I simply made an Excel spreadsheet which is printable onto card stock and sleeved in a sheet protector which allowed us the same basic principle. There’s a link at the bottom for anyone who wants to print one out.
Anyhow, ACTA:SF does an admirable job of simplifying Star Fleet Battles down to the Squadron Commander level from the individual Captain level, so to speak. Instead of worrying about power allocation, this is a game about white-hot particle beams searing through hulls and vaporizing crewmen. The game is broken down into phases where each player takes turns moving a single ship at a time until all ships are moved, then they do the same thing regarding shooting. While the impulse system that I love so dearly is gone, this does an admirable job of simulating sub-light space battles. Each ship must move a certain distance forward before making a 45 degree turn, and since all weapons have firing arcs, positioning yourself to put your weapons on target is crucial, as I learned quite early when my D7 was literally cut to ribbons by my daughter’s Fed dreadnought, the little turd.
There are no shield facings in ACTA:SF, but the weapon arcs are enough to make position really matter as noted. Instead of the normal six facings in every previous game in the Star Fleet Universe, this game boils it down to four 90 degree sections. Shields have a single value, so unlike the other ADB games, your shields are assumed to continually be fully powered when struck until they fail completely. There is a critical hit mechanic that allows your shields to be bypassed in some cases, either in part or in whole, and there’s a further critical damage chart which causes internal damage which cripples your ships in meaningful ways, including destroying propulsion, killing the crew, and potentially, breaching the warp core resulting in an exploding vessel. A really neat mechanic is the “escalation” mechanic which causes critical damage to potentially get worse each turn, based on a die roll. In short, it mimics a fire on board or crewmen being trapped in an irradiated area and made ineffective.
Each weapon on your ships have an attack dice rating, which amounts to how many dice you get to roll for them. Each roll of 4+ on a D6 is a hit, but every six rolled penetrates the shields, allowing you to roll on the damage table. If you roll a 2-5, you simply do a single point of damage to the ship’s structure, but on a six, you roll for critical damage. This doesn’t even take into account that weapons have traits, and as such may also do other things, like do extra damage, cripple systems, or allow bonuses to hit at certain ranges. All in all, ACTA:SF most certainly captures the feel of having unique weapons systems. It also feels a lot like the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, from the perspective that there’s a lot of shooting going on during each engagement, unlike the old Star Trek TV series. Very, very cool, in short.One of the most important things in ACTA:SF is the advent of defensive fire.
Because all weapons, including seekers like torpedoes and drones, have been abstracted to direct-fire weapons, you can assign almost all of your offensive weapons to defensive fire. But since your weapons can only fire once per round, generally, you really have to decide whether to use your phasers to shoot incoming torpedoes and drones or to let the shields soak up the damage and reserve your weapons for offensive volleys. We found that one of the hardest things to really master is the judgement of when to attack and when to withhold for defensive fire. In the end, you have a 50/50 shot of getting hit by any given attack die, plus or minus depending on bonuses, but some weapons can really devastate you so you need to be sure to stay out of range as best you can.
I have to admit, I do miss the impulse-based movement, which I think would’ve worked well if you were to simply combine the movement and firing phases to maybe 4 impulses, with a speed limit of 12, allowing 4 differing speeds of ships. As it rests, the “Roll for initiative, then move, then shoot” phase structure puts the person who wins initiative at a marked disadvantage as they get to move first but shoot last, meaning they are shot first and thus damaged first. When shields are up and ranges are distant, it’s not as important, but when you’re closer, and the shots are far deadlier, it becomes critical.
In short, ACTA:SF does what a lot of space games do but in a distinct, unique way, and this is the only simple, approachable one that truly gives you the Star Trek feel. The basic rules are very simple to grasp, and when you add in the advanced rules such as damage control, special actions, and the like, the game is simply superb. It makes the recent Wizkids Star Trek Heroclix (read: abomination) look like Rosie O’Donnell wrapped in pink Saran Wrap…just sad and pathetic in every conceivable way.
ACTA:SF is what I would characterize as “medium-light weight”, from a complexity and options standpoint, and has several examples of skirmish rules as well as a nice set of campaign rules, complete with crew advancement, rules for planets, asteroids, nebulae and such. The campaign system even allows for tactical retreats of individual craft in case some of your ships are damaged and you’d like them to live to fight another day. So far, I’ve played 4 missions of a campaign and have found it quite enjoyable. We’ve had scenarios with planets, asteroid fields, and even a mission requiring shuttlecraft to retrieve survivors of a crash while under attack by Klingon battlecruisers. As I said, I miss the impulse turn system because it really did allow for real-time shooting and movement to coalesce, but barring that one niggle, this game is truly remarkable in how well it captures the Star Trek universe, how comprehensive the rule set is, and how much fun it is to play.
If you’re a Star Trek fan or even simply a fan of ship-to-ship space combat in a squadron or fleet engagement size, this game really does the trick. I would even go so far to call this game the best-in-class based upon those criteria because it really covers all the bases and allows you so many tactical options and fleet configurations. The miniatures are solid and great looking, and the ongoing support at conventions such as GenCon and smaller local cons really indicates to me that this game has legs and will be around a long, long time.
Why This Game’s Phasers Are Set To Fun:
– A great pairing of approachable design with tactical depth
– The miniatures are outstanding, although a bit of a pain to assemble
– The relatively low entry price makes this easy to get into, especially since it’s not sold as a CMG
– Campaign rules really seals the deal
What Commander Spock Finds…Illogical:
– If you can’t paint or don’t like assembling metal minis, stick to other models
– The lack of the “impulse system” takes away from what made Star Fleet Battles epic
– There’s some errors in the rulebook, corrected by errata after the fact
For me, this is the culmination of a long love affair with ADB and FASA regarding space battles. Star Fleet Battles was simply too unwieldy and put too much emphasis on power management. FASA’s version had more emphasis on action, but was still too much a simulation. Federation Commander fixed a lot of my beefs with both the aforementioned titles, but was still putting too much emphasis on power management and filling in little boxes. In short, it was still too much detail, and it was adhering too much to being a power management game.
A Call To Arms: Star Fleet gets rid of the boring parts of all of its ideological predecessors while retaining almost all of the good stuff. I think, had they kept the moving and shooting impulse system, that this game would be the ultimate Star Trek space battle game. As it rests, it does what many other space battle games have done in the past, using the “initiative-move-shoot” turn structure, which is the only thing that I see as a negative in the entire affair. The short version is that it’s a very capable, remarkably comprehensive take on a space battle game with a Star Fleet Universe theme, and I enjoy it quite a bit, as do my cohorts. My hat is off to Mongoose, to be sure.
You can see all there is to see about A Call To Arms: Star Fleet at the Mongoose Publishing site here, where you can also place an order:
My homegrown spreadsheet (in Excel and in PDF) for lamination and/or sleeving and dry-erasing are in this folder, along with printable hex-maps and all kinds of other crap: