Spaceships are pretty great. Benny from The Lego Movie certainly enjoys them, as does any sci-fi fan like myself. Serenity, Moya, Star Destroyers, the USS Enterprise – all of them enjoy a certain place in my weird little heart. Yes – today we talk about spaceship games – or rather one particular type of spaceship games. I am talking about capital ship combat.
It all comes from the recent beta release of Battlefleet Gothic: Armada by Focus Home Interactive. For those of you who are unaware, this is a video game version of Games Workshops (them again) capital ship combat game from 1999. The game saw gigantic starships raking one another with broadsides from gun batteries and torpedo launches. But it is not the first – Star Fleet Battles, Full Thrust, Firestorm Armada, Star Wars: Armada are all games that have dealt with this same concept. However, I would like to discuss my personal favourite – a game which I believe has been unfairly overlooked. I am talking about Babylon 5: A Call to Arms by Mongoose Publishing.
I was not an ardent Babylon 5 fan when the show first came out and I would not describe myself as such now. There were parts of the show that were enjoyable (Marcus) and some were really ground breaking, but it never grabbed my attention in the way that Star Trek: The Next Generation did. However, friends of mine were big fans and it was that first found ACTA and started playing regularly.
It was released in 2004 and it is clear that Mongoose Publishing were unprepared for how popular the game would become. The initial book came with all the rules to play, as well as cardboard counters for ships from 9 different factions. Alongside this came miniatures for many of the ships in the book. The following year they released A Sky Full of Stars, which had expanded fleet lists and campaign rules. Additional factions were released, more ships and finally a second edition in 2007. And then in 2008, they sudden stopped producing miniatures …
Mongoose stated that it was due to the increased cost of the miniatures, but it is clear that after this ACTA died a slow death. The books vanished from sale and the system was reincorporated into their WW2 naval game, Victory At Sea. Rumours abounded that Mongoose were struggling to keep the Babylon 5 license and their business decisions at this point did nothing to suggest otherwise.
The games itself had a series of conflict levels, that allowed you to reflect the size of the game you intended to play. The sizes were Patrol; Skirmish; Raid; Battle; War and Armageddon and having selected this, you could then choose the number of Fleet Allocation Points (FAP) and the scenario you would play. Each ship was given a conflict level and you could use FAPs to buy them. So in a Raid game 1 FAP would buy you 1 Raid ship, or 2 Skirmish ships. You even spend multiple points to buy one ship from a higher level. It ensured that the fleet selection was quick and simple.
Play was based on an alternative unit activation system, where players activated a ship at a time and performed actions with it before passing the play over. Unlike some other games of this nature, a player will be unlikely to lose large chunks of their fleet before they get a chance to act with it. Furthermore canny players can use their early moves, or more expendable ships to trick their opponent into traps. Movement had two values – speed and turns; indicating how fast it could go and the number of times and angles of any turns it could make.
Attacks were a fairly simple system – weapons systems would get a number of six sided dice and would have to roll equal to our higher than a ship’s armour to do damage. However, beyond this weapons had special rules and there were defence systems that could improve or even deflect the damage done. Ships would also suffer damage to both the fabric of the craft, but also the crew – meaning that a ship could be reduced to drifting hulk with insufficient crew to pilot the vessel.
So far the game does not seem very different from many other capital ship games that were on the market, but what really sold it to me was the way a very simple system was built upon to give it both tactical and thematic depth. Firstly, every faction felt distinct and had their own unique technologies and tactics that applied almost solely to them – or to other factions associated to them. That’s impressive when you consider that by its conclusion there were 20 factions in the game.
The game also had an excellent scenario and campaign system attached to it which ensured that not every game was a straight up fight. It also meant that maintaining your fleet was often more important than winning a single game. One of my fondest memories of the game was causing a Shadow battleship (the big bad of the Babylon 5 universe) to flee the table, as my battered Whitestar fleet had delayed it just enough to bring a Victory Destroyer’s mega weapon to bear. Realising the damage a single shot from that thing could do, he elected to jump to hyperspace rather than risk the long and painful process of trying to repair or replace the thing.
The game wasn’t flawless. The miniatures themselves were sometimes of a less than stellar quality. Which the very blocky Earth and Narn ships were fine, the bio-mechanical Vorlon and Shadow vessels looked fairly uninspiring for what were very iconic features of the TV series. There were also certain frustrating elements of the game when factions came into conflict. Certain races had a problem dealing with Mimbari stealth technology, which might have been accurate in terms of their portrayal on the TV show, but doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable game of when your guns are repeatedly shooting into nothingness. Other factions had the ability to just ignore it instead, which personally is a rather crude way of balancing the game. This was not the only examples of this sort of design within the game, but was the most obvious.
However, despite these imperfections, this was at its heart a really solid capital ship game, with some very sound basic mechanics. The fact that Mongoose Publishing could turn the system to a naval combat game and later capital ship games in the Fading Suns And Star Fleet Battles universes showed that they had something very good they could work with. It’s a shame that this was never a huge success. As it stands, it remains a wonderfully enjoyable game that enjoyed far less time in the light than it deserved.