Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Review of Firestorm: Armada

Thursday, January 12, 2012

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About time I reviewed a miniature game here on Fire Broadside, and even more about time that I reviewed something involving giant starships hurling plasma at each other! In short... time for a review of Firestorm: Armada from Spartan Games.

This blog was born when I wanted to document my first forays into starship gaming back in 2009 and my game of choice was Full Thrust. It's been out of print for more than a decade but the books are available to download for free from GZG and it's still one of the most widely played starship combat games, so I thought it was a good place to start. Also I really like the models, and the price. Anyway, I managed to get my friends Anders and Martin interested as well (even though we lived at the opposite ends of the words at this time) and they each bought a couple of fleets each.

However while I was painting my ships in Tokyo my friends started looking more and more towards the upcoming Firestorm: Armada from Spartan Games. They liked the look of the models, but mostly I think it was the fact that the rulebook was actually in print and it had reasonably high production values that did it. I know they're both suckers for flash! Especially Martin. Haha!

So instead of sticking to my guns (or spaceships in this case) I decided to give it a go myself. I had followed its development over at Starship Combat News so I knew what it looked like at least. That was a bit of a problem though as the only fleet that appealed to me was the Sorylians that Anders had already bought. The Dindrenzi looked decent as well but that was Martin's fleet of choice. That left the Terrans and the Aquans and they both left me cold. And I do mean cold... as in I think they're plain ugly (and yet...)

Although I pondered getting one of those fleets anyway in the end I simply couldn't do it. Instead I started my little Firestorm: Yamato project; making a fleet based on the classic Japanese cartoon Space Battleship Yamato, aka Starblazers. In the end that project kind of stalled and I got the Relthoza when they were released instead. I quite like the design of both the Relthoza and the Directorate but in the end the vertical design of the Relthoza won me over. So with a starter fleet almost fully painted (missing some cruisers) I got to play Firestorm: Armada.

The Company

First off a few words about Spartan Games. I will be a little harsh in this review so I would like to preface that with saying that I simply love this company! They're small with fairly niche-games so far, but have managed an amazing output of miniatures ever since they started. Not once have they faltered, there has always been new minis hitting the streets as well as updates to the rules. The design haven't been perfectly to my liking every time, but the execution of the models are spectacular. Incredible detail with usually very little cleanup needed.

They also listen to the fans and mr bigwig himself, Neil Fawcett, actively participate on the forums. I think many other miniature games companies could learn a lot from Spartan Games.

The Miniatures

In my mind Firestorm: Armada started out so-so but steadily the miniature designs have become better and better. Let's start with the bad stuff. Looking at the original four fleets I think the Terrans and the Aquans should have gone back to the drawing board. The Terrans are much too blocky and featureless for my tastes. I can see they went for a BSG-vibe but all those flat panels make them look like cheap toys and doesn't give a feel for the scale. Making the Aquan ships more organic looking and with a marine theme was a cool idea, but in the end the starter minis just looks strange, in all the wrong ways. Now, I've seen people rescue these models with great paint jobs - making them look really good - but I think they should have looked better from the start.

The good news is that the Sorylian ships look great! They're certainly not breaking any new ground, but look really cool in a traditional sci-fi way. The Dindrenzi have a more interesting design principle with their long "necks" and I quite like those as well. The fleets that were released later (Relthoza and Directorate) also look good with their own distinctive features.

With the addition of new ships to the different factions I wonder if the designers at Spartan Games felt similar to me as the new Aquan vessels look a lot different (better!) than their original outing. The same goes for the Terrans, with more panelling and detailing being put on their floating shoeboxes (kidding!) - the Aegis class shield vessel in particular is excellent! I'm harbouring a hope that they will actually go back and resculpt the original Aquans and Terrans. It would certainly make me happy!

The recently added alliance vessels add more variety to the fleets and I like what we've seen of these so far!

The System

The game has been out for a while now so I won't really go over the rules in detail. It's your basic age of sails in space with buckets of dice! You each ativate one ship or squadron at a time and then the turn goes to your opponent. During combat you roll a number of dice equal to the ship's firepower value (you can link fire with other ships in the squadron) and every 4+ is a hit, 6 counts double and "explodes" adding another die to the pool. If you manage to score more hits than your opponents Damage Rating he looses a Hull Point, and if you also go over his Critical Rating there's some bonus damage inflicted. All in all it's a good solid mechanic that is used throughout the game.

There are also rules for fighters and bombers as well as torpedoes and how you can use your ships' Point Defence systems to defend against them. Battleships are large and lumbering while frigates are quick and nimble, very nimble actually - making a 180° during their activation is usually no problem. Ships are also surprisingly durable and a cruiser can usually survive even a full broadside attack from a battleship.

Boarding plays a part in the game as well and there are surprisingly intricate rules of how it works with every ship having stats for both crew and marines. I'm not sure how large part it plays in the game (I haven't managed a boarding yet) but it's cool nonetheless!

Like the other games form Spartan Games there are also a deck of cards you can use while playing which gives you some special rule breaking abilities that can hopefully sway things in your favour. I like the idea, although I would be much happier if each faction had their own deck of cards to help diversify them more (which Neil has said will come in the future).

The "Feel"

So far I have only played line them up and fight battles, which are never as much fun as more specific scenarios, but I still think I have a decent grasp on how the game plays. The battles have all been pretty much the same with both sides maneuvering towards each other, trying to get your opponent into your broadside fire arc at range band two (all ships excell at this range) and while there might be some initial torpedo volleys they usually don't do any damage. And as even larger ships are relatively fast it's difficult to stay at arms reach. In one battle I tried to stay as far away for as long as possible, thinking I'd make use of the Relthozas' stealth technology and torpedoes. But it was still just a couple of turns and then we were in each others range band two again. It's also pretty easy to maximize your firepower each turn as you can usually maneuver enough to get something in your broadside arc.

This means that it kind of boils down to a battle of attrition and who rolls more 6's. Yes, I'm a bit harsh here and oversimplifying but that is what it feels like. It rarely feels like you have the opportunity to make some smart tactical maneuver to surprise your opponent or move in a way where he can't attack you, it just feels like a slugging match. A large part for me I think is the all pervasive resolution mechanic, the only thing that that makes torpedoes different from firepower is that you can defend against them with your PD fire. Besides that they're mechanically identical. And there are also only two types of weapon systems, firepower and torpedoes... and they work almost the same.

Fighters and bombers are similar as they also (after having gone through Point Defense fire) simply add up their Firepower value and try to roll over the target's Damage Rating. I can certainly understand the designers wanting to use the same resolution mechanic throughout the game as it does streamline the experience, but I wonder if it's not at the cost of variation.

My Thoughts

When I play Firestorm: Armada it reminds me of the old GW game Battlefleet Gothic. There are some passing rules similarities but mostly it's that the theme of both games have a lot in common - space opera with huge boats in outer space. But while F:A quickly starts feeling like a boxing match between two punch-drunk heavy weights just trading body blows BFG managed to retain a sense of tactics all the way through a battle. In it you have three quite different weapon systems (Firepower, Torpedoes and Lances) and how your ships are positioned relative to your opponent actually matters. And while it's harder to plink away at a cruiser in BFG, gradually wearing it down, it's perfectly possible through clever tactics to simply cripple it in one swift blow.

When I play miniature games I want the rules to capture the right feel of the miniatures and the setting. I want a machine gun to work differently from a shotgun and I want clever gameplay maneuvers to be more important than my list or the luck of the die. Now, I don't mean that you can't play tactically in F:A, and all those buckets of dice should even out statistically, but I don't think there's enough diversity in the game to keep me interested. Granted, I've started leaning more towards "realistic" space battles as the years have gone by so perhaps I'm not the target audience, but even so I remember having more fun with BFG.

I'm starting to repeat myself but in the end it comes down to lack of variety in how the weapons work and the fact that it's all too easy to get to use your strongest broadside fire arc every turn. When it's all about the almighty broadside I think actually achieving that elusive firing position should be somewhat difficult, and when you do make it the "I'm screwed!" look should be plain in your opponent's eyes! In this game though, you keep hammering at each other to see who breaks first. If I'm allowed to oversimplify for a little bit; it all contributes to a feeling of weapon choice and maneuvering not mattering all that much, or less than in other games at least.

Now, I do like the basic system - there is certainly nothing wrong with it - but I think it's over-used and makes the game feel "samey" as you go along. For some reason I am much less opposed to it in a true wet navy setting like Uncharted Seas or Dystopian Wars (although I have played neither yet). It might be my inherant preconceptions of space combat but for use with plain old cannon the system seems much more fitting. I've talked about Dystopian Wars a lot earlier and I'm looking forward to trying it out to see if how it "feels".


Well... there's been a lot of I, my, me in this article as well as talking about touchy feely stuff. But the bottom line is that Firestorm: Armada is probably not the spaceship battle game I'm looking for. It's not that it's completely unenjoyable or the rules are bad, I just think there are better alternatives out there for this sort of game. I want a bit more detail and more tactical... granularity. If you're anything like me you will likely have a similar reaction to the game.

However if you are looking for a simpler more streamlined game than a lot of the other stuff out there you should definitely check it out. Something else that Firestorm: Armada brings to the table is availability and broader appeal. I would say it's the best produced and supported spaceship battle game available today. Granted that doesn't say an awful lot in this little niche of the miniature gaming market, but it's still something. Sure, Full Thrust have been around for ages, but you can't go to your FLGS and pick up the rulebook and a starter box for it.

I will likely play Firestorm: Armada again and I'll more than likely pick up a few more models (have you seen the dreadnoughts?! They're insane!!) but it is not the game I hoped it would be. Yesterday I ordered a few Deisho ships from Chris at Ravenstar Studios and I think I might have to cook up some neat Full Thrust scenario where they could be used. And I've got the urge to play BFG again, just to see if it's my rose-tinted glasses or not...

If you desperately crave some kind of arbitrary number to quantify the merits of this game I give you... three out of five.

15 kommentarer :

  1. Heya Martin, I think I have similar opinions to those that you hold about FS:A. I actually think half of the problem might be the size of the miniatures. They're too big so there actually isn't the scope for manoeuvre. I think the shooting mechanic is a bit of a problem too. Games do boil down to who rolls the highest and clever positioning and tactics do pretty much count for naught... those 6's become all important. The game can be fun, but it's not subtle and for me it'll never be a game that I will go too time and time again. I do however think you have your rose tinted specs on when talking about BFG. It's not that the game was awful but there were significant balance issues, go figure it was a GW game.

  2. Yes, they are too big. Sure, it's kind of cool but also immensely impractical!

    There was certainly balancing issues in BFG, but I was thinking more about the core gameplay; three different weapon systems and the closing/abeam/moving away mechanic which rewarded maneuvering to a greater extent. And I didn't even mention the special order dice that brought another dimension into it! I'm certainly not claiming BFG is the best spaceship game out there (it isn't) but there is a lot more detail in it, which I like.

    As I mentioned me and Anders have talked about pulling it out again soon to see what we think of it now.

  3. Great review.
    I haz questions-

    1) Is there no way to disable a ship?
    Torpedo them at range and close for a boarding action seems a very 'spaceshippy' thing to do.
    I've never played a Naval type of game...I appreciate the whole 'maneuver and shoot' thing, but a assault ship loaded with Marines pulling up to a hamstrung Battleship sounds really, really fun.

    2) Aww....Torpedoes don't come in different types?
    Does each race have standardized weapons, or are they different for each?
    Streamlining and simplifying can be good things...sometimes not...

    3)I really like Spartan games...they're one of those companies I've admired from afar for quite some time now.
    Dystopian Wars seems to be gaining some steam, so I'm wondering how this game stacks up against that, or Uncharted Seas.
    Hope to see you review Dystopian Wars...that game has piqued my interest a bit...

    4) This Frontline Gamer guy is a menace and needs to be stopped.
    Oh, wait...that wasn't a question...
    Well, whatevs...he's still a menace...

  4. I played some BFG about 2 years ago now and what shocked me the most was just how long it took. And how utterly, utterly broken my Eldar were compared to my opponents Imperial fleet. lol. Even I know I'm not that good a gamer. :P

  5. This review is insanely thorough and informative. Thanks for putting this out!

  6. @SinSynn

    1) Well, as the ships take damage their stats degrade which can lead to practical disablement. And that is usually the only way to win a boarding action. Trying to board an undamaged ship with its full compliment of marines is very difficult.
    Like I said the boarding rules are pretty cool and detailed (they can stretch over several turns), they have just rarely come up in our games.

    2) In the basic rules everything is standarized and no different torpedo types. It's all very vanilla. Last year Spartan Games introduced Model Assigned Rules for their F:A ships which added a little bit of individuality to them. This was definitely welcome, but I would like something more.

    3) I do to! I really like the company and the way they do business, so I felt a little bad ragging on their game. :(
    Although I haven't tried it yet it I think the system as a whole fits naval games better so I still have high hopes that I will enjoy Dystopian Wars. It's really been a jackpot for Spartan Games and it's great to hear all the positive opinions about it around the web. I'm getting myself some Frenchies!

    4) Not a question, but quite true! :)

    @Frontline - Haha! Yes, we pretty much stopped playing anything besides imperial/chaos as they still felt fairly balanced. Eldar killed everything if played correctly, and the orks were the other way around. Oh well, we'll give it a whirl one of these days and see how it turns out.

  7. @Mik - Thanks! Glad you like it. I know you've recently got into Firestorm: Armada and I hope this is not discouraging you. It's a decent enough game, simply a bit too streamlined for my tastes.

  8. Great review Martin!

    I already knew the ruleset, but enjoyed reading this post anyway. Aside from the models (which are stunning!!) it simply does not appeal to me. I'll stick with Full Thrust, although it's been ages since I played it, and Bab5.

  9. Andy! How are things?

    Yes, I've tried to get into it but it simply doesn't click with me. Writing this has made me want to play Full Thrust again though (as well as BFG). I think those incoming Deisho ships might spur me into action.

    And I still haven't played Babylon 5! Would love to try it out (and get my hands on some models). :)

  10. A little calm hobbywise, but busy in real life ;-)

    I think I'll try to arrange a little game of Full Thrust here soon, the itch to play won't go away!

    Remember when you were fondling stuff here in my cool city Antwerp? If we would have gotten together you'd had been surprised at the welcome gift ... you know what? I'll send you an email, check it out!

  11. Well, I hope it's the good kind of busy. :)

    Full Thrust would be fun! And recently I've been looking at Starmada as well. You need a hex mat to play it but I have seen it recommended so many times that I feel it's about time to actually try it.

    Welcome gift?! Some nice Belgian chocolates in the shape of a spaceship? The Notre Dame with rocket engines? I'm intrigued...

  12. Great review!

    To me, BFG's biggest two strengths are maneuver and the leadership mechanic. When you're watching the great space science fiction, when are number of guns ever important in any meaningful way? It's always the quality of the crew and the brilliance of the captain. FT and its ilk are often won or lost in the ship design phase (though I love its vector movement system). In BSG, it's all about leadership and how you use it.

    Some of that is reflected in maneuver rules, and I don't have much to add to what you said (except that you're dead-on right).

    The rest is in the leadership and command system. That's missing from Full Thrust and other games, but it's essential to BFG and one of its most unsung virtues. A scrappy crew with a brilliant captain (aka high Leadership) can take on a more powerful ship with a low Leadership score and hold its own.

    The Squadron rules are critical, too. In very big games, you really have to squadron up your capital ships (at least your cruisers) if you expect to use Special Orders, because one failure and the fleet can't use any more that turn. That reduces your number of decisions per model. Also, the way shields work, two cruisers or battleships can slug it out in a duel for hours and only minorly damage one another, but because firepower is concentrated in a big battle, the capital ships die right on schedule. It stretches small games out and shortens the big games. Most of the people who I see whose games are dragging on aren't using the special orders mechanic to their advantage.

    Finally, Blast Markers are nice, because they provide you with some reason not to concentrate your fire mindlessly every turn. It's still good to focus your fire, but it's not ALWAYS best.

    The later released fleets (and the Eldar) are a totally different story on the balance front. They break so many of the core mechanics that (no surprise) much of the elegance of BFG is lost. But the core rules are rock-solid and still a pleasure to play ten years later.

  13. @Anon - Great comment!

    It's really good to be reminded of older games like this! As I said, I have a lot of good memories of BFG I simply wasn't sure if it was because of nostalgia or actual good gameplay. Your comment makes me think it's the latter.

    I had kind of forgotten about the leadership aspects. Thanks for reminding me! Earlier this year I tested 5150 Star Navy where your crew quality is of supreme importance and it certainly makes for a different game than simply having the biggest ship (as in FT and F:A).

    I really need to go back and re-read the rules and set up a game or two with my friend Anders. I still have decently sized imperial and chaos fleets so it really would be simple to do.

    As for Firestorm: Armada, Spartan Games recently announced the second edition of the game and it seems like they are trying to fix some of the issues I've mentioned in my review. I wonder if it will be enough to make me interested though. I don't see any mentions of changes to movement and that is such a big part of the system. Hmm... will have a look at it down the line though.

  14. The 2nd rule set fleshes out the weapons and gives them differ range bands changing play a bit as well as tax

    1. It seems like your comment got cut off a little early. But the new edition certainly seem to address some of the issues I have with the game and I'd gladly give it another shot. :)


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