Review: Firestorm Armada 2nd Edition

So the 2nd edition of Firestorm Armada (FA) has finally come my way and I’ve gotten a bit of time to go through the book. I enjoyed the previous edition and want to spend most of this post talking about what changes have come about. My impression of the first edition can be found elsewhere.

Overall it’s the same game with a few tweaks allowing for more tactical choices. A very big change is the introduction of MARs (Model Assigned Rules) to each race in addition to rules for specific ships. Also there are now some unique weapon systems that provide different game effects, again allowing for some variation in how the different races play. So let’s sort of go through some of the changes from the previous hardback edition.

Movement is relatively unchanged. However the drift maneuver is no longer an option. I’m somewhat miffed with this as ships are still required to move at least ½ their speed. This means smaller ships are still required to be moving 5″ or so every turn. While cutting engines is always an option, it’d be nice to have a tactical movement option allowing for some maneuverability but still keep it to 1-3″. I might have to house rule something. Hrmm…

[½ speed: A squadron can reduce their maximum speed to ½, allowing them to move at least ¼ their normal full movement rate (one half of their current maximum move rate). Doing so they gain a ½ move token. The player can remove this token at the beginning the squadron activation to resume normal speed. If a squadron had a ½ move token at the beginning of its activation, the highest speed the squadron can reach for this turn is its normal movement rate minus its turn rate in inches. This will also affect their ½ speed rating. In practice, players will find that smaller (or more agile) ships will not be hindered by reducing speed, while larger ships will take at least an additional turn to get up to full movement.]

Command distance is a big factor in the game now. While squadrons can break up, the entire squad becomes disorganized meaning they cannot combine or link fire. This also becomes a big factor for wings and fighters (more on that later) and can come into play regarding weapon systems too. So the gist is that keeping ships in command distance from each other is a bit more important than before. On one hand I like the idea of keeping ships as cohesive fighting units, on the other hand the tactical flexibility of peeling off a cruiser or two is no longer an option which is sort of meah.

The mechanics of shooting, LOS, damage, etc. for the most part is the same. There are a couple of big changes however. One is the concept of tactical strikes. On larger ships (those with hull points greater than 2), specific systems can be targeted. So players can try to take out the bridge, wipe out weapon systems, or potentially take security systems offline increasing the likelihood a boarding attempt will work. There is a penalty to hit rolls when attempting this but that option of cutting out key systems is interesting.

Another big change is that target ships have -1 damage and critical ratings from attacks landing in their rear arc. This certainly allows for smaller, more nimble ships to slip into the rear arc of larger capital ships and potentially do some damage. It translates into improved positioning of ships and being mindful that the direction of approach to a target is important (and trying to keep a defensive position so no one slips in behind you).

Lastly a huge change to the rules are the introduction of specific weapon systems. Firstly, the 8″ range bands are no longer uniform. Some weapon systems have range bands that increase to 10″ and 12″. Torpedoes now are based on 12″ range band increments also. This means you now have options for increasing tactical engagements at longer distances and disparity of range bands among systems and races can make for some deft maneuvering at further ranges. Additionally, certain weapon systems have bonus effects if they all fire as a single volley of similar weapon types (termed as coherency). This may mean rerolling any ‘1’ results as with beam weapons, or doing higher ranked critical hits with kinetic weapons.

Adding to this is a slew of MARs options that every race has. Further, capital ships have a number of hardpoints. Each hardpoint allows for buying certain systems or small tweaks to the ship profiles (like increasing its move or shield rating). Aside from hardpoints, almost every ship has the option of altering a few systems or incorporating MARs allowing for a lot of racial and fleet variation. To keep things manageable, every ship in a squadron must have similar technology and MARs so you don’t get this mishmash of different tech types in a single squadron.

Damage no longer takes assault teams into consideration, so crew hits only affect the crew rating. This eases some bookkeeping. Boarding actions are also cleaned up some. Every ship can launch at least one boarding action a game. What’s nice is that this no longer reduces your AP, so you can still defend from boarding actions as normal (you just can’t launch another attack). Most boarding assaults are set to destroy key systems in a ship, but can also be used to capture ships so that they fold space off the table. Lastly, instead of a round of point defense and then running the boarding action, the PD and AP of the target model are combined. The boarder makes their attack with the defender rolling this combined pool to ‘cancel’ hits. It’s a more streamlined than before.

Flights and fighters are lumped into a term called, Short Ranged Ships (SRS). Assault craft, bombers, interceptors, and fighters are still the varying wings that make up SRS. For the most part the composition and idea of them being a single unit is still retained from the hardback rules (using a d6 to represent the wings). SRS are now represented as either a small token or a large token but each represent a maximum of 6 wings. Up to two SRS tokens can be part of a single squadron. Overall the means of attacks and resolving them are unchanged, how they actually operate is very different though.

Rather than a unit individually zipping around, the SRS token must always remain in command distance of its parent carrier. If it starts its turn outside that distance they are immediately recalled back to their carrier. Alternately, you can give an order for the SRS to make an attack run where it will approach a ship and try to get within base contact of the flight stand. This makes fighter wings a bit more like an extension of a weapon system for the carrier. They support the carrier directly instead of running off as their own flight group. Further, once they make an attack run they are immediately placed back on the carrier (allowing for rearming and relaunching during later turns). I’ve yet to try them out but the simplicity of their use and the reduced management of not having to move fighters back to a carrier for rearming is nice. Additionally, flight stands that are run off return to the carrier, which can can later be relaunched giving some real teeth to fighters. As dogfighting is the best way to inflict damage on wings, interceptors certainly have an important role in countering enemy SRS.

Fleets are now partitioned off into patrol (up to 800 points), battle (800-1200), and grand fleet groups (1200-2000). Each fleet is further split into three tier groups, where battleships, carriers and such are tier 1, down to frigates and escorts being tier 3 (with cruisers being tier 2). Each fleet must have a certain number of squadrons from each tier. Additionally, up to 25% of the fleet points can be used for alliance vessels that can fit into the tier requirements. For the most part this allows fleet construction to be an easier process. Rather than working off a set percentage of points for fleet composition, the player now has model limits based on these tiers. One gripe I have is that these actual limits and information on squadron sizes are no where in the book. Instead they are available as separate PDFs.

The star admiral is still part of the game. Instead of granting specific bonuses to a particular ship, they allow for the use of tactical cards and improve the chances of making any command checks (ex. checks if a squadron is disordered). Tactical cards are also another feature of the game. For the most part each fleet has the same cards and may have 1-2 additional racial specific cards. These can be played once during a turn to allow for some special maneuvers and one shot abilities. It’d be nice to talk about them more in detail, but I have no idea what the cards do as there are no details on them other than how they are used (another gripe of mine).

A new mechanism for the game is introduced to allow for more tactical options through a battle log. For the most part, players start with a battle log total of zero (but some scenarios increase this). Battle log totals range from positive and negative integers. As players inflict damage on the opponent fleet, destroying ships, their total increases. As they receive losses, their battle log total decreases. For the most part it works as a victory point tracker with the larger the differences between the totals, the more pronounced the victory.

What is particularly interesting is that battle log points can be spent on certain game mechanisms. They can be used to alter die rolls for reinforcements. They can also be used to return spent tactical cards to your hand. This is a very clever system allowing you to essentially give up victory points to gain a needed edge (or recover from a flubbed reserve roll). As players gain points by defeating enemy ships, it further encourages players to be aggressive and inflict damage onto their opponent’s fleets. This really adds a neat layer of strategy to the game (especially the cycling of tactical cards).

The game has 6 scenarios within the book. They range from simple engagements to trying to capture objectives, or control sectors on the board. As a nice touch the book suggests that battles aren’t necessarily in deep space, but rather within key systems. Hence, the preponderance of terrain and close distances of engagement. You are fighting over key areas of control, rather than large ranges of territory, with the scenarios supporting that concept.

The Good – Firestorm Armada has not changed too much and is still an enjoyable naval-fleet-action-in-space type of game. The presentation of the rules and layout is well done. The additional weapon and MARs systems have given the game much needed flavor between the races. And it all works well without requiring a tremendous amount of bookkeeping and cluttered, simulation-type rules.

The book is very nice and well bound, with a pleasant matte finish on the pages. There is a surprising amount of whitespace on the pages so the text is not cluttered. Sections of the book are divided up with margin tags of a specific rule topic on each page making it well organized and easy to reference a part of the rules if needed (not to mention a simple table of contents and index). The book has lots of great color photographs of models, along with simple color graphics for particular rule situations, and also lots of written examples.

The Bad – There is a decent chunk of information missing from the book. Not having a list of the tactical cards is a hefty ding. Not detailing the major fleets and their composition is especially damning. There are no token sheets like in previous editions, and the lack of a template for SRS tokens are especially maddening. The quick reference is a list of charts and no where close to the usefulness of the previous QRS released with the first edition softback book.

The Verdict – If you are a brand new player, Firestorm Armada is a great game to jump into. The big boxed sets are especially nice as they give the player everything needed to play. It might be well worthwhile waiting to pick up the fleet boxes of races you’d like. It is still an enjoyable game that while not quite embracing aspects of physics with movement, still makes for a fun afternoon of space combat. If maneuvering in cruisers to an optimal range to fire full broadsides of anti-matter cannons is your thing, you will certainly enjoy FA.

If you are a long time player of FA, you will likely find a lot here to like. The game finally has some sprinkles and a bit of a swirl in the vanilla of previous racial fleets. The way fighters work are tightened up and make carriers more offensive-type vessels. I think the tactical cards will add some fun wrinkles in the game. All the while the concept of a battle log and spending victory points to have additional tactical options is a great concept. There is a lot here you will enjoy.

The rulebook seems to be missing chunks however. There are no tactical cards, no tokens, no specific rules on actual fleet composition limits (the rules cover how you build a fleet, but don’t have actual tables for the different races). Not having any idea what an acceptable token to represent SRS is another missing feature.

I entirely expect they will be available as downloadable files or separate products (the fleet composition sheets are already available). However it seems that the focus is for players to go pick up the boxed sets that have all of these items. Separate files and products that can be purchased individually are sort of an afterthought it seems. This gives me a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, all my cool models can still be used to play FA, but despite me picking up this rulebook there are still parts of the game missing. It’s not enough. I need to buy more, and not having the tactical cards is the most aggravating thing (where in the past the STAR cards were very much an optional component).

This gives me some hesitation in recommending the rules. If and when these other parts of the game are separately available, I think you’ll find an enjoyable game here. But it isn’t all within this rulebook, and that makes me less inclined to recommend it to current players of FA. There is a lot here that is amazing and really strengthens the game. But if you are just planning on buying the rulebook, then wait. See what else pops up on the website and then make your decision on converting to second edition.

[EDIT: Months have passed and some of the things I chided Spartan Games about that were missing from FA are available as download files now. SRS tokens are available as a separate product (which I still would have liked as a simple cutout token). However the TAC cards and other tokens can be printed out as color PDF files.

Additionally the V 2.0 rules are absolutely free so you really have no excuse not to take a peek at Firestorm Armada now. Enjoy!]


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