Friday, April 22, 2011

Star Fleet Battles

I've said it a few times, but seriously, this whole alphabet thing is stupid. I realize the intent is to get people motivated to write but, just like diets, those who are already going to succeed don't need crap like this and the failures will drop out before they get halfway through. Next month, I'm going back to writing whatever I want every day, as opposed to coming up with random letter-related topics. Like today...there are a bunch of things that start with S I could write about, but not one of them interest me. But this is a gaming blog, so I shall take the literal sense of that term and extemporize about my favorite game of all time: Star Fleet Battles.

The first wargame I ever played was Gladiator, an Avalon Hill bookcase game. I was around 6 or 7, which meant it was the coolest thing in my world of existence. My parents bought Wizard's Quest around the same time, but I never really got to play it much, something I want to rectify. I found a Windows version of WQ on the internet, but apparently some "pay for download" site had confiscated the file and was charging people for access; is it really that high in demand? Oocities to the rescue. Seriously, fuck those people. I don't understand how you can charge for shit that's not yours and was free distributable not more than a couple years ago. Lawsuit? Come at me, bro.

Sorry about the rant...moving on. I played Titan (which has been digitized as Colossus), Magic Realm (Realmspeak), Car Wars, Supremacy (online version), Squad Leader (VASL), Platoon, Dune (The Dune Emulator), Third Reich (Warplanner), Wizards (Wizards Java App), Civilization, and a ton of other shit I forgot. If it was an Avalon Hill game, chances are I played it at some point. When I was around 14, I had only been playing rpgs for 2 years, but wargames my entire life (I definitely consider myself a "wargamer" as opposed to a "roleplayer"), yet had never encountered Star Fleet Battles (yep, online version). That changed one fateful night at a hangout called The Gamer's Edge. The place was a rented out karate studio, converted into a gaming space where people would congregate at night and on the weekends to play whatever game they wanted. There were weekly Rolemaster games, Civilization tournaments, and plenty of pickup games of all sorts. I usually showed up to play Axis & Allies or some D&D variant. For whatever reason, no one was up for A&A and I was bored, but saw some guys pushing around Star Trek miniatures on a giant hex board. When I say giant, I literally mean 12'x12' at least. It was huge. The minis were awesome, and I certainly did like Star Trek at the time; that was an appealing aspect. The game seemed incredibly complex, which coincided with my wargaming sensibilities, so I asked how one could play. Some of the older guys grew pissed and told me to fuck off, but one of them named Darrell told me if I was interested to watch a few more games and then come back the following weekend. So I did. I absorbed an insane amount of information that night by simply watching two or three games of SFB. If you know anything about the game whatsoever, these were 300-400 BPV games and they took forever to play out. The next weekend, I showed up and Darrell taught SFB 101. He played an Orion CR, I took my first Klingon D7 on its maiden voyage. Darrell was an excellent player, but a CR is no match for a D7 in any possible way, even when played by a complete idiot. I won that first game, and was hooked. In retrospect, I imagine Darrell purposefully played a much weaker ship to provide me with a reasonable advantage due to my lack of skill and understanding, but also because the SFB players were always looking for new blood due to attrition. Had I lost, perhaps he figured I'd never play again. That certainly would not have been the case, but he seemed to be a bit Machiavellian in his approach to things, so I really have no idea what his intent was. I remember clearly a comment he made after the game: "Well, you didn't do anything stupid like fire your weapons too early." The reason being because I didn't understand the firing order, so I was unsure when I could actually fire weapons. What might have looked like skill was blind luck on my part.

Over the course of almost two years, I played SFB nearly every weekend. While I certainly wasn't the best player, I became a rather respected opponent amongst a group of guys who had been playing 10x longer than me. I never kept a running tally, but I'd say I won at least 50% of the time, which isn't too bad. Fleet action was my favorite, one-on-one was a trifle boring, and I despised cutthroat games due to a horrible experience of being gangbanged by three dudes out to prove a point. I suppose the point was "kids can't play this shit", but when three ships are blasting at a single ship of the same BPV, it doesn't matter if you're Stephen Cole or a disheveled hobo off the streets, so I have no idea if their point was proved or not.

In one of my proudest moments, I sold a box of Judge's Guild modules to buy the Doomsday Edition of SFB. I have regretted that decision sometimes because I could have made a lot more money off those modules, but I never regretted getting my own copy of the rules. I must have read through them five or six times over the course of a month, putting off studying calculus and biology. It was literally like reading a textbook, but so much more fulfilling.

I haven't played SFB in almost 10 years, and it sucks. But, honestly, who the hell would want to play besides hardcore SFB fans? The learning curve is steep as it gets (ASL might be as hard...and yes, I love ASL), game play takes forever and there are easier games out there that are arguably just as fun. But as I already stated, I'm a wargamer, which means playing overtly complicated shit is in my blood. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to heavy rpg systems like HERO and GURPS, yet have no desire to actually play them because they fail in their intent. The intent of SFB is to simulate a battle, the intent of HERO is to simulate heroic fantasy or pulp action or whatever. It sucks at its intent compared to D&D, but would make a pretty decent wargame. I like creating HERO characters, pitting them in mock fights against one another, but playing the game as an rpg? Can't see that happening. SFB and all the other wargames I've ever played shaped my views on gaming in general, and for that I'm thankful. I honestly believe that many approaches to rpg design are due to the inability to differentiate between these styles of play. Rpgs require just enough complexity to be interesting, but much less complexity than a game like SFB due to the nature of play. Magic Realm is a fantastic fantasy game that has some roleplaying elements, but can you ever imagine a weekly campaign based on that rules-set? And that's really what it boils down to: a wargame is a finite entity, meant to be played from start to finish, but rpgs are open-ended and can last a long time with no end in sight. Less rules make the open-ended approach easier to achieve. I had an idea for a grandiose Federation & Empire campaign, where all the battles were played out with SFB. Every player picked a race. I'd probably take the Klingons, maybe the LDR. I figured that each turn would probably take a month, with simultaneous battles, upwards of 10-12 hours a week. Fuck that. While it'd be fun for a while, the game would go nowhere fast. Would anyone even last more than a month? The rules are too heavy to sustain any momentum, but a game like D&D can last literally years.

I don't know how to end this, so I'll leave you with an SSD of my favorite SFB ship...


  1. Suprisingly for a sci-fi nerd like myself, I only played SFB a couple of times when I was a teen, and didn't really do any space comabt gaming on a regular basis until I got back into wargaming a about two-and-a-half years ago.

    Brad, once you get back, I'm definitely up for some Starfleet Battles.

  2. SFB is a great game... I still enjoy reading through scenarios and SSD's, and still check up on those Starline miniatures for sale...

    It's definitely a steep learning curve, and an face off between two smart players can go on and on...

    The D5C is a nice ship. I always hated the Federation ships' Photons.

  3. I much prefer Starfire to SFB, but SFB was still a lot of fun to play.

  4. The Wyn were my favorite for SFB. Drones and phasers baby, drones and phasers.

    I played in a couple of tournaments and was baffled during when when only a couple turns into the game the veteran player across the table from me confirmed my speed and admitted defeat before a single drone slapped his shielding. That gentleman knew way too much about every ship in the game.

  5. Back in the early 1990s, that game was always derided by the gamers I knew (shoulda been called "Rules Arguments", har har...which probably says more about the local SFB players than the game itself...) so I never really gave it a shot. I would guess that having a computer crunch the numbers and whatnot would speed things up a lot! But I'm not much of a Star Trek fan.

  6. @Monaco: The same happened to my group BITD - I was lucky enough to have a friend who enjoyed SFB.

    The only derision us dorks got was from those Traveller snobs - those bastards with the nice, black, 'grown up' looking books.

    I better go find my Traveller fan voodoo doll now.

  7. Ouch my neck suddenly hurts.

    Never played SFB, but I did play a good deal of ASL. Computers play those super crunchy games quicker and smoother, but you miss something by not knowing the what and why of all those variable.

  8. I'm surprised at all the SFB love; that warms my heart.

    I still owe you a game or two of HOTT, Desert Scribe...maybe we can throw some SFB in there.

    @Paladin: Played Starfire a few times, won every single game! The serious advantage of Starfire over SFB is the ship statline; you can easily have 1000 ships in 50 pages of text. For a fast, smooth game, it's pretty good. I was actually considering Starfire for resolution of combat in my aforementioned F&E campaign that'll never happen.

    @scottsz: I fucking hate the Feds. They are such a lazy man's ship, tactically uninteresting. I played a Fed CA exactly once (with a legendary captain, no less) and didn't like it much. Klingon all the way, baby. Runner up for my favorite ship is probably the LDR CW. Phaser-Gs and ESGs make the Hydrans and Kzinti cry like bitches.

  9. @Brad: Totally cool... photons never helped me in a scenario - not even once.

    I think my favorite ships of any race would be the smaller craft... frigates and such. The lighter Klingon ships are really nice.

    Scatterpack + ECM + Tractor beam!

    Any favorite scenarios?

  10. Favorite scenarios...well, I we never really played many, but one that stands out is the space dragon encounter. My buddy and I ran that about 10 times, with a variety of ships, and that stupid dragon won every single time. Anything dealing with killing Andromedans is cool, too. I hate their technology, and pre-Doomsday, they're virtually invincible if played by anyone with a brain. I did beat an Andro once...with a D6 no less.