How We Beat Plasma
** Disclaimer: These rules are as the current draft, and may change (again) before release **
A lot of you have been asking when we are going to start revealing our plans for A Call to Arms: Star Fleet. Let’s just say we have been busy getting all our ducks in a line, and October is going to be a busy month if you want to keep up on all the details!
However, for now, I want to talk about plasma torpedoes. Because these (and, to a lesser extent, drones) have taken up more Games Design Brain Capacity (known as GD/BC in Games Designer College) than pretty much anything else in the game.
Sure, we had some challenges effectively balancing photons against disruptors, and just how do you reflect a Klingon’s strong shields to the fore with only one Shield score in the game? But it was plasma torpedoes that we came back to, time and again, with a multitude of different systems, trying to get them right.
The problem was the fundamentally different approaches between A Call to Arms and Star Fleet Battles (or Federation Commander). SFB models as much as possible, as accurately as possible. It makes you feel like you know enough to command a real spaceship. A Call to Arms is supposed to concentrate on fleets as a whole and purposefully keep the rules as far away as possible, so they become almost invisible to the game (never quite managed that, but it is a goal…).
So, the first thing we did was make drones and plasmas torpedoes (collectively, Seeking Weapons) ‘direct fire’. You picked a target, rolled Attack Dice, and did damage, like any other weapon. Simple, sure, but absolutely not how they work in the SFU.
We knew we could not have torpedoes and drones wandering about the battlefield. SFB is designed to take care of details like this, but CTA will break down in a pile of smoking wreckage if you try to shoehorn something like that in. So, we didn’t even try.
Instead, we borrowed the torpedo system from Victory at Sea, specifically the way we handle the Japanese Long Lances. Basically, pick a target, and place a counter next to it. The torpedoes hit in an End Phase, either the current one if you are close or the one next turn, if you are far away.
We also had some rules about going very fast and keeping torpedoes away from your fore arc to avoid them completely. And we figured we could make some funky 3D plasma and drone ‘counters’ and give them away in the fleet box sets. One model drone for every Attack Dice the salvo represented. Oh, and if we did that, we could start taking away counters/Attack Dice every time a plasma torpedo travelled a long way or got shot by a phaser.
We also tied ourselves in knots with Defensive Fire, with players having to remember which ship shot what weapon, so they did not accidentally fire it again when their ship attacked another.
With the abstraction present in CTA, this modelled the SFU very well. And everyone hated it.
Games were taking an age to play, and I really disliked the ‘bitty’ nature of the rules. They just weren;t elegant, which is something games designers like (and that probably says more about them than their games, but I digress).
Game Design Epiphany
These epiphanies hit a lot during a game’s development. Normally when you discover just how far up your own rear end you have managed to climb by building successive rules on top of one another, and a fresh breeze of common sense eventually manifests itself.
It happened with CTA: SF. It suddenly hit me that, for all this time (and not just with the Seeking Weapon rules), I had been trying to model Star Fleet Battles, rather than the Star Fleet Universe. And what was the point of that? People already have Star Fleet Battles, they have had it for a good many years. They are not going to suddenly junk that in just because something similar has come out. More to the point, we never intended to challenge or compete with SFB anyway, as that really would be a backward step in our partnership with the guys at Amarillo.
What we were creating was A Call to Arms: Star Fleet – in other words, taking the Star Fleet Universe and looking at it through the lens of A Call to Arms.
The key was not to model everything in careful, redundant detail but instead to take the effects of what happens in Star Fleet Battles and look at how that can be represented in A Call to Arms.
What happened next did not just change seeking weapons but brought down a lot of existing rules that were too complicated, too confusing or just plain took too long to play out. We took a good, long look at every new rule we had put into the game and if it did not improve the play in some way, it was either deleted or replaced.
I got it into my head that, however complicated they might potentially be, Seeking Weapons should be able to be boiled down into a single trait. That is how a good CTA rule should work – simple, and easily understood in one paragraph. If it takes more than that, it needs work. So, to begin with, I came up with this;
Seeking: Seeking weapons must travel across space to their target but will doggedly pursue it until they impact and explode with deadly effect. A weapon with this trait will automatically hit its target, without rolling any Attack Dice. With the damage spread around the entire target ship, no rolls are made to see if the weapon penetrates Shields.
I lie here a little – Seeking weapons originally had half their hits automatically penetrate the Shields but that made them nasty! This way, the rule is much cleaner and the game better balanced.
Anyway, here we had managed to define Seeking weapons in just a couple of lines. Perfect! However, now came the tricky part. How do we model all the special things that can happen with Seeking weapons in SFB, but keep this rule clean and simple?
We had modelled how Seeking weapons hit their target (automatically). In fact, how these weapons cause damage was never the issue (by and large, they do a lot of damage!). The complications came with how enemies reacted to them.
The next stage was to (re-) introduce Defensive Fire. However, I did not want to fall into the old trap of ships having to choose which weapons were going to attack and which were going to defend, with players remembering which was which, for every vessel, throughout a turn (yes, one version of the rules actually did this…). In CTA if you get fired at and react, you roll some dice, figure the result, and move on. It has to be that quick. Or it isn’t CTA.
However, as it stood, it wasn’t SFU either. So, under the Advanced Rules (you won’t need to bother with this when you first start playing – unless you are already a CTA veteran!), I write this;
A ship need not rely purely on its shields to defend against every attack. Drones and plasma torpedoes can be directly targeted by phasers, and neutralised before they strike a ship.
Defensive fire takes place as soon as a ship is targeted by a drone or plasma torpedo and is about to be hit. A phaser may only fire once per turn using defensive fire, and the owning player must decide which phasers will defend against which attacks if multiple seeking weapons are coming in. Traits such as Accurate apply as normal, but Kill Zone will not as drones are engaged beyond this range.
Any phaser-3 with a fire arc covering the attacking ship may be used to defensively fire against drones it launches. Roll the phaser-3’s Attack Dice as normal. Every successful hit will remove one Attack Dice of drones.
Against Plasma Torpedoes
Any phaser-3 may be used against an attacking plasma torpedo in the same way as it can be used against drones. However, every successful hit from a phaser-3 will reduce the Attack Dice of a plasma torpedo by 1. If enough phasers successfully strike it, the plasma torpedo may be nullified altogether.
Phaser-3s are not the most awesome weapons in the game and we can afford to have them used defensively and maybe fire again to attack something (for all the good they will do). This meant all a player needs to figure out is how many of his phaser-3s he is going to use against an incoming attack, knowing that once used in this way, he cannot use them again. If you only have one enemy in a particular fire arc, blast away with all weapons. If you are surrounded, though, a clever enemy may get you to throw your defences at one attack, while saving something really nasty once all your phaser-3s have been expended.
Easy and it encourages tactics. Sorted.
It also made Anti-Drone racks easy to model;
Anti-Drone X: Protected by dedicated anti-drone missiles, this ship is all but immune to drone fire. Roll a dice for every Attack Dice of drones attacking a ship with the Anti-Drone trait. Each roll of a 2 or more will destroy one Attack Dice of drones. If any dice roll a 1, an Attack Dice of drones will be destroyed as normal, but the system will then run out of ammunition, reducing the Anti-Drone score by 1. Ships reduced to an Anti-Drone score of 0 will no longer benefit from this trait.
Loved this rule too because, as well as being simple, it had that old B5 ‘interceptor’ feel to it, with the knowledge that even the best defence could, eventually, be overwhelmed.
However, there were a couple more tweaks needed to make all of this tie in properly to the SFU. First of all, you should also be able to use Phaser-1s (and 2s) in Defensive Fire, if you are desperate. However, there was no way I was going to let a player fire those willy-nilly whenever he liked. So, time for a Special Action;
Intensify Defensive Fire!
Crew Quality Check: Automatic
Power Drain: No
Effect: The captain orders phaser and drone crews to concentrate on incoming threats. For the rest of the turn, the ship may not use its phasers or drones to attack enemy ships. However, it may use all of its phasers to destroy drones and plasma torpedoes (see the rules for Defensive fire on pXX).
In addition, it may use its drones to intercept attacking drones. Every Attack Dice of drones used in this manner will automatically destroy one Attack Dice of incoming drones.
Finally, the ship may contribute its phasers and drones to the defensive fire of any friendly ship within range and arc of the weapons. As always, each weapon may only be used once per turn.
Basically, you can make your ship very difficult to breach, but you will tie up a lot of your own resources to do it. Also allowed for the ‘escorting’ of friendly ships – again, more tactical possibilities.
Oh and no, I won’t be explaining Power Drain here. Let’s just say that rule ties up a lot of loose ends that were always in CTA’s Special Actions. Now they have all been formalised.
Next, we had to model the possibility of the enemy hitting the gas and trying to outrun/outrange a seeking weapon – happens all the time in SFB, had to be possible in CTA. However, we had already eliminated the moving of counters on the table (which was a Good Thing), and we didn’t want to go back to that. However, as a certain set of circumstances needed to be fulfilled to evade seeking weapons in this way, we could handle this with an advanced rule that could be invoked only when needed, rather than the whole bundle effecting every aspect of the game (as it had before).
Evading Seeking Weapons
Very fast moving ships may be able to evade seeking weapons long enough for all their energy to dissipate or until they run out of fuel.
If a ship has moved more than 12” in a turn (usually by using the All Power to Engines! Special Action) and is attacked by a seeking weapon in any fire arc except its fore, it may be able to evade the weapon long enough to escape any damage.
Under these conditions, the ship makes an opposed Crew Quality check with the ship attacking it with seeking weapons. If the ship manages to win the check, then the seeking weapon attack is ignored.
So, if you are moving fast enough and not flying straight towards a seeking weapon, you get a chance to avoid it based on the skill of your crew to evade and the skill of the enemy to launch at the right time – abstracting all of that from SFB into one opposed Crew Quality check.
There was just one last dollop of icing that was needed on this cake, concerning plasma torpedoes and the fact they weaken as they travel. Without counters and torpedoes moving over subsequent turns, we needed to be inventive. As it turned out, just one small trait was needed;
Energy Bleed: This weapon’s power greatly diminishes at long ranges. If fired at a target over half its Range, it will lose 1 Attack Dice. If fired at a target over three quarters of its Range, it will lose 3 Attack Dice.
This means that if you have a tiny plasma weapon, you need to be really close to do any damage. Bigger ones can be fired over greater distances.
Tentatively, I bundled all of this up and sent it to the playtesters.
Our playtest groups are divided into three. There are the die-hard CTA veterans who know this game system inside out. There are the SFB veteran, who know the SFU inside out. And there are the ‘others,’ either those who know both games or those who know neither.
It was the first two groups I was most nervous about. What would they say? How would they find their games going? Would I have to delete everything and start all over again?
The first reports we got back were from the SFBers and they were universally good. The main comments were that while the mechanics were very different, the effect was very similar between SFB and CTA. Which, as you may recall, was exactly what we were aiming for.
Next, the CTAers weighed in and, again, the comments were good. The new rules were much easier to understand and the final blockage on the time it was taking to play games was finally gone. If anything, games of Star Fleet were now taking less time than any other version of CTA.
Means we can have bigger fleets, I thought
Anyway, I just wanted to give you all a run down on this section of the new rules, partly to showcase some of the changes that have been made but also to illustrate part of the design process and how we approach things. Sometimes, far too rarely, a games designer might hit upon a rule that just works first time out (though Games Workshop’s Jervis Johnson would tell that games designer to murder his darling immediately!). Usually, you end up bouncing about from one bad rule to another before something finally clicks in your befuddled brain and the confusion clears into something a little more coherent.
So, there is every chance these rules may change again (I would be amazed if they did not get at least a little tweaking), but I think they illustrate these points well. Their introduction also marked the point where I started to get the warm fuzzy feeling that tells a games designer ‘this might just be a good ‘un!’