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Friday, 14 August 2015

System Wars Review Part 3 - Scenarios

The next part of the System Wars overview are the Scenarios - we get four, bringing the "official" set of scenarios for Firestorm Armada to 10. These are more prescriptive than the six core rulebook scenarios, essentially because they're both coming into a mature game with more options and more fleshed out than at release, and also because they're achieving very specific aims. The original development scenario for invasions was much more open, and it quickly became apparent that this was very open to abuse.

As a project, developing and introducing invasion fleets, model stats and scenarios all at once was the most challenging project I've worked on to date, primarily because there were no boundaries - where everything is fluid, it becomes very difficult to build on anything - how should the ships score? How can they work in the scenario? Should the scenario change because of the ships or vice-versa? How do the ships we haven't yet designed interact with existing ships in the scenario we also haven't designed using a scoring system that we also haven't defined? The simple problem is - too many variables!

Designing ships for Firestorm is actually relatively easy - you already have a lot of stakes in the ground for reference, it's just a matter of creating something appropriate and flavourful that doesn't invalidate existing designs...ok it's not THAT easy, but comparatively it's OK. What actually happened for System Wars was we started with ships, put together a basic scenario and then started shaping both together. The ships firmed up more quickly than the scenario, which evolved over the course of a year, changes then reflecting back on the ship designs.

Scenario 8

The initial Scenario designed was Scenario 8, Planetary Invasion, and I'll cover this one first since it is the original one and many of the design elements were forged here. now, as a scenario it had to fulfil various requirements;

1) Be fun to play
2) Give the "feel" of an invasion, so the roles of a Defender and an Attacker
3) Be balanced and scaleable
4) Fit into existing canon and work with all existing models

Now this is actually an SOB to achieve!

During development, it quickly became apparent that Terrain was very important, and actually needed controlling much more precisely than laid out in the Core rules - this was also partially because the original Terrain rules were never designed to handle tournament play, and Firestorms massive increase in popularity have made it much more of a tournament game now - so it's not really a System Wars phenomena, more of a state of the game one. 

Secondly, there were lots of ways to "game" an invasion scenario - shunt deployment and gravity weapons being two obvious ones, Battle Shunts, the Ambush MAR and the "FSD Calculators Networked" TAC being less obvious ones that cropped up. This is why it's very important to work with a group of playtesters who can try to break things as much as possible.

Third, there were creative design elements that needed to be included - like the ability for normal ships to assault the planet. This is a tough one, and we started with the planet having a large PD & AP value to represent its defences, with the margin of success affecting the Battle Log, but that made things VERY swingy, and favoured assault-heavy fleets (sorry Aquans!). Having the defence scaled (but capped) to the attack means assault is viable for any squadron, and represents smalls mounting stealthy entries that attract smaller defences, whereas dedicated assault squadrons have a greater chance of success. The +1 BL for a successful assault makes it a small reward, but these are boarding troops, not dedicated ground troops, so their value in the overall offensive is not high....still, success from a large number of squadrons can give you a few valuable BL which might just swing things your way...you pay's your money....

This is actually very indicative of the entire way the invasion scenarios work - they are balanced on tough choices - do you try to clear paths for invasion ships or just go for it and then take on the defending fleet while they draw fire? Do you assault the planet or try to take enemy ships? As the Defender do you focus on combat ships or invasion ships that can net Planetfall points? 

Ok, so back to the scenario - you have a very well defined description of terrain, and also how ships are deployed, all to catch the loopholes discovered in playtesting. You've also some special rules around Battle Stations and Defence Platforms - if you're defending a planet, there should be some reason and advantage to having these squadrons (because without the Orbit MAR, gravity weapons could just push them back into the planet). 

Next you have Scenario rules, which define what you can use to build your fleets, and what extras you get - this is scaled so Attackers get 100 points of Planetfall ships per 400 MFV, but can't take Defence Platforms or Battle Stations, whereas the Defender gets less extra points but has more freedom - with the exception that you MUST take as many Squadrons of defence platforms as possible.

Now I know stipulating what people can/can't take is somewhat controversial, but in this case I feel it's entirely justified, has little effect on the freedom of fleet building and is very thematic - if you're the defender of aggression, you seldom get to pick where to fight! One thing I am not keen on doing is dictating what models people HAVE to buy, so all Invasion ship boxes carry kiss-cut scenario terrain of a couple of planets and four generic Defence Platforms, so if you don't want to buy them, you don't have to - I don't think Spartan can be much fairer than that!

So, the scenario has a lot more rules and stipulations than the 6 in the core rulebook, and that is intentional - both to prevent ambiguity (several of the core rulebook scenarios have lengthy discussion threads on the community and probably need a bit of FAQ around them) and also to set tone and balance. Once you get into the actual gameplay, this all goes away, and you become very focussed on the game and your objective - I've personally found invading or defending a planet some of the best games I've had in Firestorm.

Scenario 7


So now let's go back to Scenario 7: Interception - which takes us to a pre-emptive strike by the planetary defenders to destroy the invading fleet in space shortly after fold-space arrival, before they reach the planet. This is a slightly less prescriptive scenario than Planetary invasion, and it seems deceptively simple - all the invading force have to do is get to the table edge...through the opposing force sent to attack them.

Now, 24-48" doesn't seem much on paper to get ships home and dry, but believe me when I say its far from as easy as that. I presided over a relatively large (1500 point) game using this scenario, and the invading ships were actually sent packing by a narrow margin in that instance.

Scenario 9


This is a very similar setup to Scenario 8, but without the Defence Platform requirements, so if you really hate them or refuse to play them, this is a good alternative that plays out very similarly, so I won't go through this in great detail. Instead, I'll talk a small amount about the links between the scenarios.

So each scenario is designed so you can play a game of Firestorm, then a game of Planetfall (with the exception of Scenario 10, which is the other way around). However, one consideration with this release was "What if someone doesn't want to play Planetfall?". Maybe they're a space-nit, don't like ground games, haven't got into Planetfall etc - whatever the reason, we wanted the scenarios to have a small cookie to them if played in series - much like the Battle for Valhalla or Return of the Overseers books.

So, the "Optional rules" on each of the three last scenarios allows you to link in with your last Firestorm game, in a similar way to the Planetfall rewards - providing small boosts that are nice, but by no means auto-win; for example you MUST place an additional squadron in reserve as the Defender in Scenario 8 if the Defender won Scenario 7 (the booklet actually has these reversed - always check the PDF for any updates or errata!).

Scenario 10


The final scenario in the System Wars supplement is Withdrawal, and it covers either the expulsion of defending forces from a planet or the repulsion of an attacking force, and it is a little like planetary invasion in reverse. There are some different rules which govern how ships are deployed and leave the planet, and targeting them whilst they are doing so. Ships this time have to reach a long table edge or perform a shunt escape after getting 18" away from the planet.

This is the only scenario where a prior Planetfall game has an effect on the Firestorm game - in this case, the percentage difference in the Zero hour trackers is taken into account, and an example of how this is worked out is given if you're unsure. It is not (as some assumed) the actual difference in Zero Hour tracker, as this would assume huge games! These are also cumulative, so if you won big in Planetfall you get several effects in the Firestorm game.

Conclusion

So overall the Invasion scenarios are very specific - they are designed for a certain purpose, and I believe they do that pretty well. Having had an extended play-test period on them, they have been probed for weaknesses and "gaming", and been adjusted accordingly. Personally I think they work very well, and I've enjoyed all the games I've played of both Firestorm using these scenarios, and the Subsequent Planetfall games we played leading from them. I've won Planetfall games after having my ass handed to me in the Invasion scenarios too, so winning one does not make for an auto-win in the other.

Will the scenarios be to everyone's taste? Possibly not, but I'd encourage people to try them, they are a lot of fun, and I feel they bring a very cinematic experience to the game - you really get the feel of urgency on both sides as you strive to land your ground forces, and the defender pushes to prevent that. We've had some epic moments where the game has hinged on the failure or success of a single ship, and with swings positive and negative around the zero point of the Battle Log - just as it should be!