Saturday, June 23, 2007

Latest Aquisition - Federation Commander: Romulan Border

I expanded my Federation Commander collection with Romulan Border. The second module in the Federation Commander series from Amarillo Design Bureau.

This module adds the Romulans and Gorns along with some new Federation ships that served on the Romulan border. In addition a new "monster", the space dragon, is also included along with the standard 6 map panels. The updated rulebook includes rules for plasma torpedoes and the infamous Romulan Cloaking Device(Wikipedia, Memory Alpha).

Federation Commander is a simplification of the old Star Fleet Battles system. What is interesting is that it includes two different scales, fleet and squadron, for each ship. Fleet scale is if you want to control a lot of ships, ie fleets, or run quick battles, and the squadron scale is the same as the scale of the original Star Fleet Battles. I've attached an overview/review of the system I wrote when I first purchased the first module, Klingon Border.

Federation Commander: Klingon Border Review
I played Starfleet Battles (SFB) way back when and enjoyed it immensely. Between it and the Squad Leader series it was the most played games in our game group in the 80's but as both systems started adding weight in the rules department it became more of a chore and less fun. The game system has been trimmed down to make the playing time much shorter which is a good thing in my book. The ~1.5 in thick game box is packed full. There is no extra space in this puppy with 16 double side ship displays, 6 double sided thick map panels, 2 counter sheets, two 6-sided dice, a grease pencil, 52 page rulebook, two player aid charts, two sheets of miniatures movement templates, and a plastic baggie with paper clips to use on the ship system displays.

The component quality is a mixed bag. First off on Amarillo Design Bureau's own site they say Federation Commander "uses the best concepts from the best-selling space combat game of all time with Euro-Game production values and ease of play". Euro-Game production values are high so some of the component decisions by ADB do not support this statement. "Ease of play" is greatly increased over the original Star Fleet Battles and Star Fleet Battles was/is probably "the best-selling space combat [board] game of all time" so 2 out of 3 is not all bad; or is it?

Two ~3/8 inch six sided dice are included; functional and nothing bad or good to say about them. I like a little more heft in my dice so would have liked them to be a little bigger. [Edit: the Romulan Border package contained larger dice; bump up my rating to 6.]
Euro-Gamer: 5, Wargamer: 5

The rulebook is your typical wargame black and white print with some nice illustrations and a good index. The downside is the paper feels a little thin for your typical rulebook. The Euro crowd would be disapointed expecting a full color rulebook. [Edit: The Romulan Border rulebook has a thicker cover. It is your standard SFB blue cover with black ink. The rulebook edges have been trimmed to be even, but it is still black and white.
Bump up Wargamer rating to 6.]

Euro-Gamer rating: 4, Wargamer rating: 5.5

There are two different sizes of ship counters included in the game, 1/2 inch and 1 inch. For the wargamer this would be a thumbs up to ADB for including both sizes of counters. The typical Euro-Gamer would be asking where are the plastic ship bits? In this day with game companies like Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight Games, and Eagle Games [Edit: now out of business] making games that come with 50, 100, or 200+ plastic miniatures the Euro crowd has high expectations The 1/2 inch counter graphics for the most part look better than the graphics from the original Star Fleet Battles(SFB) games, as they should, but the 1 inch counters while they look good do not look as nice as the 1 inch counters that came with the SFB Megahex module H1 I bought way back when. The graphics on my old H1 module counters appear more realistic and crisper.
Euro-Gamer: 3 (Where are my plastic miniatures?), Wargamer: 6 (thanks for including the two different scales of counters but the graphics are so-so)

The mapboards consists of six 8.5x11 inch double sided thick (~1/8 inch) map panels. One side consists of 1/2 inch hexes and the other side uses larger hexes to accommodate the 1 inch counters. The map background is no longer your basic black from the original SFB; it consists of a photo quality starfield interspersed with small galaxies - a nice touch. If you're going to make a game board for a Euro-Gamer it better be mounted and it better not have valleys in the folds so ADB satisfies here but the production quality could have been better. There are two problems with the map, (1) the mapboards were slightly warped (concave/convex depending what side you're looking at) and (2) there is a visible gray border on the larger hex sized side. This is due to the map panel graphics not lining up between the two sides. The rulebook specifically mentions problem (1) and how to remedy it and (2) is more of an aesthetic nit but since they took the time to print such a pretty galactic background on the mapboard it is a shame it is broken up by a thick gray line on some of the panels. [Edit: ADB has fixed the registration problem but my Romulan Border map panels now have another problem. All along the edges the graphic is flaking off on the large hex side. It looks like the die cutter may have been getting dull on this batch of boards.

Click on each image for a larger view. The first picture is of the six board panels I received in Romulan Border. As you can see the edges are quite ragged - at least to me. I sent ADB an email with pictures and include their reply below.

"What is happening is that the boards are so thick that the cutting blade doesn't get all the way through before the thickness of the blade forces the panels apart. Not much to be done about it; the only cutter that had a special narrow blade belonged to a company that went out of business and sold the cutter to Argentina.

I have seen this produce a slightly rougher than normal edge but haven't seen any exposed cardboard.

I can send you more maps but they'll be the same as what you have."

The second picture is a comparison of a Klingon Border map panel on the right, showing the gray printing on the edges due to the registration error and the Romulan Border map panel on the left. Note: that on the KB map panel this side is where the cutter first touched the panel unlike on the RB map panel which is where the cutter exited but I have looked at all of my KB panels and the two panels I got with Klingon Attack and the the cutter exit side looks no where near as bad as the Romulan Border map panel edges do.

I would have bumped up my rating for fixing the board warp and the registration problem but the flaking graphics killed that. Lower my rating to 4.]

[Edit 07/09/07: After an exchange of emails with Steve Cole of ADB to clarify what I was un-happy about, Steve sent me some map panels (twelve, woo-hoo!) which I received on my return from out July 4th holiday. These are first edition boards with the grey borders but the smoothly cut edges. I'm now a happy camper. To be fair to ADB about their map panels Steve informed me that they have tried out different vendors and are still looking for the one who can produce them to ADB's satisfaction. I wish them good luck in their continued search. Thanks Steve and ADB for the great customer service! Customer Service Rating: 10]
Euro-Gamer: 4.5, Wargamer: 5.5

The double sided ship system displays are where the game has made the most improvement over SFB. The displays are color coded and laminated. Each ship included in the game is represented by two different versions, the "squadron" and "fleet" displays. The squadron display side would be equivalent to the normal old SFB ship system display (SSD) while the fleet side represents the ship with half the values from the squadron side. The rulebook says you can use either side to play, player preference. The fleet side can be used for players who want a quicker game, those just learning the game, or those playing larger fleet battles.
Euro-Gamer: 7, Wargamer: 8

There are two identical player aids included with the game. Most games these days will usually include player aids for all players so this is expected by both the Euro and Wargamer crowd. What makes these nice in terms of the wargamer is that they are both in color (expected by Euro-Gamer) and laminated. The play aids are double sided and include the sequence of play, the weapons tables for the starship weapons included in the game, and the damage allocation chart. [Edit: Romulan Border includes a plasma torpedo playaid. One side contains info for Plasma torps and the other side has a summary of the Impulse Procedure, the Phaser-4 table, and a log for keeping track of drones.]
Euro-Gamer: 7, Wargamer: 8

The package includes a single Grease Pencil [Edit: Newer editions substitute a white board marker for the grease pencil.] used to mark on the ship system displays during play. Boxes are crossed off to indicate damaged systems, fired weapons, and damaged drones and shuttles among other things. It is nice that they included the grease pencil but if you are going to include it you might as well go all the way and at least include two of them since your going to play this game with at least one other person.
Euro-Gamer: 4 (Where is the other pencil?), Wargamer: 6 (Wow! they even included a grease pencil) .

To round out the package ADB included a baggie with standard paper clips and two card stock sheets of movement templates. The paper clips are an alternative means to recording energy expenditure of your ship during the turn. Each ship system display includes a numbered track(s) on the right side of the ship card where you can use the paper clip, grease pencil, or tokens to indicate how much energy your ship has remaining. The movement templates are for ship miniatures use for those who like to play the game on the table top sans hex map. The templates are scaled to 1 inch per movement point and the rules state you can download other scales from the ADB website.
Euro-Gamer: 4 (Where are my plastic ships), Wargamer: 5.5

GAME PLAY vs Star Fleet Battles
ADB says this game is not meant to be a replacement for Star Fleet Battles as they are still supporting and making new products for SFB but the comparisons are inevitable for a game that is based on SFB and still shares many mechanics and game history with it. What did they do to make it play faster than Star Fleet Battles? Short answer, a lot! If you want the whole list you can go to ADB's website here, . If you've never played SFB before you don't need to bother going to the above link as some of the acronyms and rules references will probable confuse you. In fact if you've never played Star Fleet Battles before you can just skip this paragraph and be glad ADB did make these changes in Federation Commander. The biggest short cut ADB did was to make the energy allocation process a whole lot easier from Star Fleet Battles. Basically the Energy Allocation Phase in Federation Commander consists of deciding what your base ship speed for the turn is going to be and, if you have them, how much energy you are going to put into charging photon torpedoes [and plasma torpedoes]. That's it; all other energy allocation expenditures are decided on the fly during the Impulse Segments of the turn. Deciding how fast you are going has been made simpler further still by limiting you to four base speed choices, 0, 8, 16, and 24 hexes per turn. The second major change to speed up the game is a new Damage Allocation Chart (DAC) and procedure on how to use it. Long gone is the method of rolling two dice for each hit obtained on the DAC; it has been replaced with 1 die roll for each group of 10 hits that get past the shields. This definitely cuts down on the wristage on those 50 to 100+ internal hit salvos! These two changes greatly reduce the time to play and as stated above if you want to shorten the time even further use the fleet ship system display. The sequence of play has been changed to quicken the game also. Although there are still basically 32-movement impulses they have been grouped into 8 Impulse segments with 4 sub-pulses of possible movement in each. Firing of weapons and use of other systems happens after the four sub-pulses for movement have been completed cutting down your firing, tractor beam, and transport use decisions to 8 times per turn vice the 32 times in SFB.
Euro-Gamer: ? (Who cares! I probably would not play SFB anyway) Wargamer: 8

In the next section I will describe the turn sequence of Federation Commander.

Federation Commander Turn Sequence
The turn starts off with Energy Allocation; all players determining how much power each ship will have for the turn and then decide what the "base" speed of their ship(s) will be moving at this turn. Note that during the Impulse Procedure portion of the turn the player can increase or decrease the speed of the ship from this base value. After announcing your base speed players can begin "preloading" multi-turn arming weapons; for Klingon Border this only applies to Photon Torpedoes. Players then decide if they wish to spend energy to regenerate damaged shields and then finally decide if they wish to power tractor beams that were powered last turn. That completes energy allocation; all other energy point expenditures occur during the Impulse Procedure segment of the turn.

The Impulse Procedure segment of the turn is where all the good stuff happens. It is divided into 8 Impulses. At the start of each impulse players will have to decide if they are going to accelerate or decelerate from the base speed they chose during energy allocation. This happens at the beginning of every impulse so a ship can theoretically increase or decrease its ship speed by +/- 8 hexes per turn from its base speed. This flexibility in speed does not come without a price; each increase/decrease in speed costs the energy equal to move one hex. After deciding whether or not to change speed there are 4 sub-pulses of possible movement. Ships moving at a speed > 24 hexes/turn will move every sub-pulse while those only moving 8 hexes/turn will move only in the 4th sub-pulse. So, although there are only four base speeds a ship could move anywhere from 0 to 32 hexes per turn. After all four movement sub-pulses have occurred ships that have been intercepted by seeking weapons may defend themselves during the Defensive Fire Phase.

During the Defensive Fire Phase ships may use Anti-Drone Defense (providing this system ia on the ship), fire phasers at the drone(s), and finally use a tractor beam on the drone. These steps are taken in the order listed. If a drone does survive the defenses it hits the ship and does damage to the shields and possibly causing internal damage to ship systems. Finally, ships that will use evasive maneuvering are announced and paid for during this phase. Offensive fire then takes place.

In the Offensive Fire Phase all ships can fire on other enemy ships, shuttles, and seeking weapons that are within range and firing arc. All fire must be predesignated, simultaneous, and paid for when used.

After the Offensive Fire Phase is the Other Functions Phase where ships can drop/raise shields, use Labs, Tractor Beams, and Transporters. The last phase of the Impulse Procedure segment is where ships can launch seeking weapons and launch/recover shuttle craft. After the Impulse Procedure is repeated eight times the End of Turn segment is performed.

During the End of Turn Segment players can carryover unused energy equal to the number of undestroyed batteries to the next turn. All other excess unused energy is lost. The players can then conduct repairs to damaged systems using the ships damage control rating. Depending on the rating and the repair cost of a system it may take more than one turn to complete a repair.

That is a complete turn. It sounds like a lot going on but it goes by relatively quickly as some phases can be skipped because nothing is happening then.

Amarillo Design Bureau emphasizes these Key Points:
A typical duel takes one hour, not four hours.
The largest fleet battles take four hours, not four days.
Energy is spent "on the fly" via a marker on a sliding scale.
Damage allocation involves 95% fewer die rolls.
Each turn has 75% fewer decision steps.
Ship diagrams are laminated (multiple use, no photocopies!).
The rulebook is 5% as big; they can learn it in 30 minutes.
Expansions include more fun, not complex new rules.

Overall I like the new Federation Commander.
Euro rating: 6. Wargamer rating: 7.5

One other thing I forgot to mention is that the artwork for the box cover is really first rate. All of the covers I've seen so far are really nice.


Colin Hunter said...

Cool review thanks, I've been wondering about this game.

Rodrigo said...

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Mark Humphries said...

Truly excellent review, Kudos! I especially appreciate the way you provide both a wargamer's perspective and a Eurogamer's perspective.

John said...

Thanks Mark. I visited your blog for your gaming group in the Philippines. It looks like you've got a good group there.

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