Review: 5150 – Star Army

Two hour wargames has a slew of settings using their Chain Reaction rules (which are available free). Their sci-fi ruleset is 5150: Star Army which is designed for a variety of scales but works for best for 15-28 mm. Now Chain Reaction has been out a while now and this is not the first iteration of their sci-fi rules. Their latest version, which came out in 2011, shows that as it seems much more polished and refined as a dedicated ruleset of military style engagements.

The game is designed to handle small squad engagements up to a company in size. More rapid games usually run about a platoon size with some armor assets. It truly is a skirmish game however, with individual models taking actions and isn’t necessarily abstracted out to the squad level like some other games (ex. Bolt Action). Because of this, units have a lot of flexibility on the battlefield and can split and form up easily. This is especially nice as you could have a support team set up to cover the rest of the squad when it assaults, allowing for more interesting tactics.

The core aspect of Star Army (and all Chain Reaction games) is the reaction system using a couple of d6. When called upon to do something, the model rolls 2d6 and tries to score equal to, or under, a set value of its reputation or ‘rep’. It can either pass these tests with both dice, one, or none. Rep ranges from 2 (very poor, civilian type troops) to upwards of 6 (hero-like reputation) with most troops ranging from 3-4.

Initiative is randomly determined based on rep. Each player rolls a single d6 and all units/models that have a rep equal to or higher than the roll can activate for that turn. Leaders can utilize their leadership for units under their command, allowing a group of irregulars with a rep of 3 to likely activate with a well-trained leader’s rep of 5. Once a unit has activated and done their movement and firing it’s done for the turn.

This looks initially as a simple IGOUGO system, however it’s actually a very fluid action system where units can fire and react multiple times. Each time a unit sees an enemy pop into LOS, or is fired upon, they can attempt to react and return fire. So all units are consistently on overwatch and react to events around them. This is curbed by the requirement of passing checks to react.

The number of passed tests indicate what actions they can undertake. If they pass with 2 dice, then they’ll likely fire to full effect. If only one die passed, limited fire is an option, with no dice meaning the unit might actually scramble for cover instead. All of these tests are based on a chart broken up by the action the unit is reacting to. If it’s fired on it uses a specific row. If it suffers casualties, a different chart row is consulted. If it requires a cohesion test, another row is looked at to determine results, etc.

To explain the shooting steps further, each weapon has a number of dice rolled based on its target value (or effective firepower) with most rifles throwing 3 dice. The player rolls a d6 and adds their rep value trying to get over 7. This target number is increased upwards to 10, based on cover for the target or actions from the firing unit (like firing on the move, etc.). All rolls that hit are then rolled for damage, where a player needs to roll under the impact rating of the weapon. The impact rating will vary depending on the armor of the target. Soft armored troops have a higher impact rating for weapons compared to heavy, or exo-armored troops. Typically wounds are scored on a 1-2. It’s an easy system to resolve.

Close combat is a little more abstract. Units roll multiple d6 based on armor and weapons. Rolls of three or less are considered successes. The difference between the scores becomes the number of casualties for the losing side. This may also force a morale test where the losing side can break and run. Overall it’s a pretty simple, abstract system to run.

There are also rules for vehicles, however most revolve around armored fighting vehicles like tanks and APCs. Flyers are not really part of the rule system for on table models to use. Rather they are incorporated into scenario assets as air support, or for rapid insertions. As for these additional rules, there are a lot of options including snipers, artillery strikes, boobytraps and mines, even defensive ambushes from small teams.

There are a few simple scenarios presented as a patrol or a defensive/offensive actions, where the player can determine the objective for their units (ex. either to destroy as much of the enemy as possible, or get units off their opponent’s side of the board). And there is a rather interesting campaign mode detailing the attempt for invading a planet.

I’d be remiss to not mention that the rules also support solitaire play. As the game revolves around passing reaction checks, the authors were able to come up with some clever automated rules. Enemy units are represented by random tokens. When the player finally gets a token in sight, what it actually represents is randomly determined depending on the type of scenario played. Each unit has a scripted AI sequence and provides an engaging opponent. It works rather well as a solo game.

The background of the universe is paper thin. There are not any set rules for creating alien races. However there are unique abilities and characteristics for different races provided. Further the reaction tables for each race are somewhat unique. They can be tailored to fit a variety of unit types. There are also additional rules for ‘bugs’ or alien races that are more feral and primarily employ close assault attacks (for those folks wanting to try an Aliens or Starship Troopers type of game). The game also incorporates different armor and weapon systems. Combined with rep values, you can model a variety of troops with the default charts and tables. This could allow a disparity with tech values among alien races, to pitting battle-hardened veterans against green irregulars.

Another key aspect of the rules are the leaders or what the game calls, Stars. Models are split into either grunts or stars. The stars are larger than life heroes. Many of their reaction rules are ignored, allowing greater autonomy over how a star reacts in battle. Additionally there are rules for making them more resilient to damage.

What you should be able to take from this is how utterly flexible the rule system is. It can surprisingly incorporate a lot of different play styles and genres. If someone wanted to run a Star Wars type game with jedi and sith duking it out as stormtroopers and rebels fire away with blasters, it can be done. The base system is rather simple, but incorporating company assets you could get a variety of off-board support for a patrol scenario. Additionally there are rules to allow a simple firefight to roll into a larger engagement, with additional reinforcements coming into the fray.

There might be one detraction with this system. It is very much an old school wargame ruleset. There are no points. There isn’t really any guidelines for making a balanced fight. Instead the players are asked to use their judgement and try to make the game as fun and challenging as possible. The rules assume that the game is run through a gentlemanly agreement rather than a competitive tournament style.

The Good – How the turn progresses is very fluid. The chaotic escalation of a firefight where units either hit the dirt or return fire is engaging. Everything comes down to leadership, with poorly trained troops being unlikely to react to events unfolding around them, but occasionally they might show initiative and react accordingly. It’s very organic despite the apparent free flow of play and is a nice skirmish set of rules.

The Bad – It can take a bit to wrap your head around the rules. Things are broken up well and it encourages the slow digestion of rules followed up by play. Nonetheless it requires a lot of charts and condensed quick reference sheets for each force. You are rolling off on tables and there are differing results depending on the condition of the target unit.

Lastly, the game does commit one great sin in my eyes. Not all die rolls are interpreted as high or low. For most of the game rolling low is good except when it comes to shooting, where you want to roll high. This small difference can break up teaching the game and impedes the processing of rules some. Lastly the game does depend on players with a similar mentality for balance and fun. There is nothing stopping a side from going all out in a battle, bringing in tons of tanks and platoon assets, with troops armed (and armored) to the teeth, other than being a jerk. I find it refreshing to have rules adopt a more free attitude towards force construction but some might like a more concrete set of rules for platoon composition.

The Verdict – I really enjoy 5150: Star Army. It’s got dynamic play with unit activation and reaction. It handles military small unit action very well. It’s a surprisingly flexible system that can incorporate a lot of different genres, and can handle quite a few units on the table. It could easily be tinkered some to run a modern insurgent-type squad engagements, up to more cinematic, over-the-top heroic action. The sheer amount of layers of rules is fantastic. From campaign rules to solitaire or team based games (being run against an AI opponent), there is a lot of muscle with the rules to run a variety of skirmish games.

One slight detraction could be just that. It is very much an individual model skirmish game. Actions and reactions are based at times on individual models. This can slow down a game some with a lot of units. Especially when you have multiple units reacting to the same acting unit. However, this also means the game can accommodate a lot of different playstyles, where players could throw heroic type individuals into the mix of different squads and still have a fun game. Not all game systems could handle this well.

Overall I would recommend 5150: Star Army. It’s a solid set of rules for military skirmish wargaming. Turn progression and resolution of actions are dynamic allowing for each player to roll a lot of dice and (hopefully) react to their opponent. The solo rules alone could be a reason to pick this up. If you are looking for a sci-fi ruleset for platoon infantry combat, you’ll find this book a good buy and fun to play.

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