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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.