Space Battle! [Drops Fleet]

There have been a large number of comments in the DropFleet community asking after ‘space battle’ or ‘fleet battle’ only scenarios. To explain to those not familiar with the game or premise of Drop Fleet Commander, each player is in command of a fleet of space ships which have the objective of dropping ground assets onto strategically important areas of the board. It’s a sister game of Drop Zone Commander – which you can correctly assume is about commanding ground forces dropped into a strategically important area to wrest control of it from an enemy. In both these games, objective and board control are key elements to victory and strategy, and are what separate Drop Fleet Commander from a lot of other space-battle tabletop games. The idea is pretty much emphasised in every part of the name of the game, but there is a not-insignificant number of players who have asked, “when are Hawk [Game Designer] going to bring out a space battle scenario?”.

My play group were firmly in the camp that weren’t bothered. We like DFC because of the need for a strategic drop element within your fleet – the ships used to claim objectives are nearly always less efficient at space combat than their point-for-point peers of a similar ship class. This means that to win the game one must balance the need for ships that win the game against having more giant lasers and lots of reasons to roll dice while yelling “PEW PEW MOTHER TRUCKER!”. When to risk your strike carriers and troop ships is a big element of our games, how to use them efficiently while also ensuring the opponent’s were either blown to pieces by our cosmic firepower or quaking in their space-boots for fear of having said process done to them. Often key points on the board would become contested hot zones, crowded with ships as our combat ships tried to support our drop elements and frenzied manoeuvres would occur to make sure that you, not your opponent, came out on top of the fluster cuck.

So when I threw down the gauntlet to Steely Dan, our local Scourge player (alien parasites like a more invasive and domineering version of the Goa’uld from Star Gate) to the biggest game we could manage I was wholly surprised when he turned up and said, “Do you want to just have a big space battle?”

After a couple of realisations (Mostly that I didn’t have the ships to fill out a regular 4,000 point list, and then that I didn’t have the bases to fill out two 2,000 point lists) we set the points limit to three thousand points. We then set up some rules for our custom game mode – and hear I want to stress the point that we made the rules up. One, they are not perfect, and two we were doing what we’d told everyone who wanted Hawk to make a pure battle scenario to do – create one ourselves. It’s not part of Hawk’s vision for the game, and while it might be something elements of the community want Hawk don’t owe it to them in any shape or form. So made out own. I’m posting it hear so others can try it.

I’ve had a lot of experience across several different game types and systems making custom scenarios, and balancing encounters is important to me. So the start of our game was delayed somewhat by my slightly pedantic but arguably slightly necessary tweaks to Steely’s suggestions. I will also clarify that I play Shaltari, so we had a big balancing act between Steely’s want to get into Scald range and my want to never be there.

We came up with the below set of rules:

Scenario: Initial Engagement

Map (4″x4″ up to 1500pts, 6″x4″ over 1500pts):

Initial Engagement Map

Debris Fields:

Players alternate when picking and placing fields before deployment.

Fine: D3x2

Dense: D3x2

Variant 1: (D3x2)+1 of each type of field.

Variant 2: D3 of each type of field.

Approach Type:

Column

Clusters & Sectors:

Normal Scoring, Scanning Clusters. Central cluster is at the centre of the board, the outer clusters are 4″/6″ in from short edges, 12″ from each long edge.

Central Cluster: 2x Orbital Gun (Green), 2x Military Compound (Brown).

Outer Clusters: 1x Comms Station (Pink), 1x Military Compound (Brown).

Variant 1: Remove the central cluster.

Variant 2: Remove the outer clusters.

Variant 3: Remove all clusters.

Increased Kill Points & Nuking from Orbit:

Nuking from Orbit does not lose you points. Each enemy ship destroyed immediately grants VPs as below:

Ship Type VPs awarded
Corvette (Group) 0 (1)
Frigate/Strike Carrier 1
Light Cruiser 2
Cruiser 3
Heavy Cruiser 5
Battle Cruiser 6
Battleship 9

 

Let’s Talk Rules!

Map size, debris fields and clusters placement:

This is mutable depending on player preferences, the guidelines I’ve noted are what our play group has found good for allowing strategic placement and movement of ships around the table. the 4″x4″ board means that everything happens very quickly, and that’s bad at high points in turn based games – one side will quickly get the upper hand and it’ll pretty much snow ball from there. While this game mode was about shooting the other person into little pieces, it’s nice to know that you can still pull off tactics and manoeuvres that leave your opponent in a tough spot.

I personally prefer having more debris on the board as it makes for more interesting games – otherwise I get to pull various special order shenanigans that mean I function quite like a gun line for two or three turns while the enemy can’t shoot back with any meaningful firepower unless they max thrust and give up a turn of shooting. However, having the random amount of fields adds a little bit of the unexpected.

 

Approach Type:

We very briefly considered Distant Approach but decided against it. Frankly Column allows people to get things on the board in at least a semi-strategic order and counter acts the damage someone can do by getting the first shots off. If everything starts on the board of coming on turn one, there’s a big chance one player will loose a sizeable chunk of firepower before getting to use it. Column Approach mitigates this first strike damage somewhat and makes it harder to get ahead early on off the back of a few good rolls.

 

Cluster Scoring:

“You said this was a space battle game mode!”. Yeah, I here you critics. But we wanted it to be relevant to a) the game lore and b) the game premise. So we put together the idea that this scenario happens before a regular game of DFC. These fleets are the ones sent in first to try and blow the enemy out of the skies, and allow the secondary fleet (a normal DFC list) to come in unopposed. Therefore the battle still takes place above a planet, so orbital layers are relevant, and the clusters that have been identified as important are ones with immediate value to the fleet admirals. These are basically anti-orbital and military ground bases that might be of use in the engagements – other clusters could well be present, but remain unmarked as they have little to no relevance to the engagement.

“Why did you include them?” Because the blasted game is called DropFleet Commander! And you don’t have to. It just adds an extra layer of strategy, and we made sure that every single sector had a combat benefit so people don’t feel they’re ‘wasting their time’ by putting boots on the ground. It was also another reason to stop me hanging back as long as possible.

 

Ship Destruction VPs:

This is the most untested element of the game re: balancing. Initially we had 1pt for Corvettes, Frigates & Strike Carriers, 3pts for Light Cruisers & Cruisers, 6pts for Heavy and Battle Cruisers and 9 points for Battleships. However, since Light Cruisers are made of paper, Battle Cruisers are noticeably tougher that Heavies and no one would really give a damn about Corvettes in a full on space battle, we made a couple of alterations. There is an argument that Corvette groups are far more dangerous and hard to kill than a single Frigate, but I’ll expand on this further when I talk about my list contestations issues.

Please note we’ve only played one game thus far. We have more testing to do. I will listen to feedback on the rules as is, but I think they balance the desire for combat focused rewards while keeping the spirit of the game. You can kill four frigates to get the same points as controlling that central cluster, but controlling that cluster will make killing things much easier. Pew pew points!

We also used all of the experimental rules except the ones about ignoring ground combat. Hell if our ground forces were going to sit there sipping tea and let pure number of attendees be the deciding factor! This also would be that Troopships/Bulk Landers would be less useful and therefore less favourable when picking lists. And since they would be less favourable when picking lists, Shaltari wouldn’t suffer for low drop numbers in comparison to six per turn.

This is part of the silent-but-really-important tweak to those no-ground-combat experimental rules: Troopships become a lot more powerful. In one drop, they flood a cluster. Not relevant here, but relevant in the regular game modes because Troopships suffer from being too useful to let live, and so don’t usually get to. If there’s no combat, making one drop can really tip the balance and a single troopship can convincingly hold a peripheral cluster alone by just dumping six infantry a turn there.

The final point I will make now comes to list construction. With the emphasis placed firmly on killing things, drop elements took a back seat except if we wanted extra guns for free, and some points on turns four and six. We also discovered that drop elements are really cheap – great for smaller games, but I especially found that my normal plan of getting twelve gates was not particularly viable. With three Emeralds and twelve Voidgates, this costs a measly 480pts. At competitive 1250 events, I take two Emeralds and ten to twelve Voidgates for 350-380pts, and it’s great. Using up 3 medium and 4 light slots in your Battle Groups for less that 500pts when you need 3000 is not so good. Steely had a similar, if less pronounced issue with his 32pt Gargoyles. He ended up with eight Gargoyles – his normal drop allowance – while I had a single Emerald and a pathetic three Voidgates. This is due to my collection being sizeable but full of lots of small things, so I had to max out on combat ships to hit points while staying within the Battle Group limits.

To get around this, my flatmate and fellow DFC player, Matt ‘the Stampede’ Doran (UCM admiral), suggested we use two 1500 point lists to allow more versatility. This is an option, but I would then definitely have got three Emeralds and twelve Voidgates simply to grab all the ground guns. This will be less of a problem for players with more higher tonnage ships in their collections though, and is likely to allow more ground based play which is not what we wanted from the scenario, so I suggest maintaining the single-list model unless you have to.

We had to finish our game after only three and a half turns, as set up and scenario design took a chunk out of our play time, but we had immense fun. My insights and lessons learned are below:

  • Early risks with Frigates are more tempting. If three can kill a Cruiser, they earn their points and then have to be removed, or they’ll do it again. These early gambits keep to the spirit of the game, representing picket and range finding ships roving ahead to test or bait the enemy. It did result in Steely getting first blood on a plucky Jade, but it’s partner survived the rest of the game to Active Scan the hell out of everything.
  • Battleships become big, lumbering liabilities and targets very quickly. Steely didn’t bring one, but I quickly realised that my Diamond was going to have to work very hard to earn its points back before dying. Steely – wisely – Active Scanned it turn one with a pair of Basilisks (yes, pair) that didn’t give a single solitary reproductive action to the spikes they were meant to get, and between them had sixteen shots doing two damage each.
  • Battleships are still good, if given the right support. The tips in the name, and the Diamond sent out a massive amount of communications from its crew to their loved ones on turn two before going Weapons Free and Raising Shields – with a stonking signature of 32″, could have been shot by ships on another table! And it managed to kill two Cruisers and leave a third on 1hp while on fire (which killed it). It even almost survived the turn thanks to it’s Opal escorts, which would have been amazing with two Emergency Repair Crew cards in my hand, but it was finally brought down by long range Djinn Occulus Rays. So I would still rate Battleships in the game mode, despite their juicy looking points for being destroyed.
  • Less things died than expected early on. This is good – we expected slaughter on a crippling scale each turn. However, it wasn’t until turn three that things really started coming to a head. This can be changed by having everyone appear turn 1, but would slow the game down while also potentially causing the issues outlined earlier in my post.
  • Strike Carriers/Troopships will still provide distractions. I killed three or four Gargoyles instead of shooting at combat targets because I didn’t want them to get away and take ground installations, which I’d have trouble contesting. Especially the Comms arrays on the far flanks, as this would increase Steely’s scald range and I would have to commit heavily to wrestling out of his control.
  • Group SR is generally high at the points we played. Do not carry any preconceptions about what a ‘good SR value’ is for a BattleGroup. I had two groups of SR30 that just didn’t care if they went second in an activation as their firepower was incredible, while my groups of nine and twelve didn’t have the firepower to meaningfully dent the enemy fleet without being wiped out in return. Bigger is better, which I think is the goal here.
  • Taking risks was worth it, each and every time we did it. This was not to say they always paid off, but more over that with the sheer number of ships involved we had a lot of redundancy while any damage caused could be capitalised on at a later date for points gain. Case in point, a lonely Sphinx that ended up 20″ into the board while Active Scanning and trying to get early damage on my Diamond. If this damage hadn’t got through, it may have survived for another turn.

 

So that’s that! Please feel free to try it out and let me know how it goes! I recommend slapping on the Supreme Commander title music during games before going all ahead full, and damn the torpedoes!

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