Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Science Fiction Month! Federation Commander

Starfleet Battles was one of my first important games. I purchased it in my teens and played the heck out of it for the next ten years or so. In hindsight I might put it high on the list of the top 5 games of my past (alongside Dungeons and Dragons, Melee, and Squad Leader perhaps). Federation Commander is an updated version of Starfleet Battles. The publishers were kind enough to send me a review copy and I was pretty excited to see how it compared to that special game from my past.

In Federation Commander (FC) you pilot a starship from the Star Trek universe into combat. Battles can involve two or more ships, space creatures, or other large menaces. Interestingly the license to publish a Star Trek game didn't allow including material from the later series' and movies, but does allow the publishers to include new aliens or ones glimpsed briefly in the animated show (the kzinti for example, otherwise known only to Larry Niven fans). The result is a highly detailed but separate Star Trek universe with dozens of ships types, various aliens and factions, and lots of opportunity for battles and engagements.

The rule system of the game is fairly simple. Each ship has engines that generate an amount of energy. For example the Enterprise might generate 30 points of energy. In a given turn you decide how to "spend" that energy. Moving, firing a weapon, and powering defensive shields all have energy costs. If you choose to move a great distance then you may not have enough energy left to do some other task. The key to the game is to spend your limited points of energy wisely.

The second basic principle of the game is that each ship has a number of components. Just like a home may have a kitchen, a water heater, and air conditioning, a starship might have engines, phasers, and science labs. If a ship is damaged by weapons it begins to lose some or all use of these components. For example a ship might have three phaser banks. If it is damaged by an attack it could lose the use of one of these and have fewer weapons to fire in future turns. Or it might take damage to an engine and have fewer energy points in future turns.

In the course of a game the players place counters representing their ships down on a map marked out into spaces. In each turn the players allocate their available energy and move their ships around the map. When you near an enemy ship you may choose to fire a weapon. Your opponent may fire back or "divert power to the shields!" If a ship's energy shields are damaged the player may turn in order to protect that shield until it can be repaired. Throughout all this the players keep track of their finite supply of energy and make sure that they have enough to do all the things they want to do.

In short, FC is a game of maneuver and a game of energy management. Good players conserve their resources until they are needed. They may circle and shift their ship to prevent accumulating damage on one side's shield. When the time is right they zip in at full speed and unleash photon torpedoes, disrupters, and various other Star Trek weapons.

My gaming group gave FC a test drive and I was happy to see that the game was even better than the original Starfleet Battles. Many of the rules and systems have been streamlined to speed gameplay and improve realism, not an easy thing to accomplish. For the old Starfleet players, I was struck by improvements in plotting movement, shield management, and damage resolution. Charts and information are presented in attractive and easy to read formats. The publishers have really responded positively to fan input and the result is a series of elegant tweaks to an already fun game.

My game group's response to the game does illustrate its strengths and weaknesses. The players who were motivated to learn, either through an interest in Star Trek or through an interest in battling starships, ended the session excited and wanting to play more. The players who were looking for a lazy way to spend an hour got frustrated by the rules and ended up playing Mario Kart on the Wii. I think that sums up FC. This is an awesome game for players who are excited and motivated to have Star Trek starship battles. Players need to be old enough to follow a decent number of rules and stick to them pretty closely. This is not a light or filler game, it's a fully developed wargame and needs a bit of attention to learn how to play. For players who are interested, however, it's perhaps the best space combat game available.

As an aside, the game is also playable with miniature lead and plastic starships. I can barely restrain myself from ordering dozens and starting to paint them as soon as possible. The miniature ships are certainly not for everyone but for the folks who like minis, they look pretty great.

Federation Commander is available through the company's website. I'm sure it can be ordered as well through stores like Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: One of the best space battle games available, if not the best. Star Trek ships!

Cons: Not a simple game, teens and up

Beyond the Basics: Buy miniatures, supplements, clear off twenty feet of table space and stage massive fleet battles, the sky's the limit!

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