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Monday, 14 September 2015

System Wars Part 4 - Commanders

In this final instalment of the System Wars review, I will cover the subject of the new Commanders for Firestorm Armada, both their rules, reasoning and the individuals themselves.

To start with, why have commanders in FA at all? Well, the FA universe has been developing in several ways over the past year or so, and with the development of Halo, Commanders became the subject of discussion for Firestorm too...Obviously they have a role to play in Halo, but that is a game designed with them in mind - could they be added to Firestorm in a way that was compatible with the existing mechanics of the game without feeling simply "bolted on" or unbalancing?

Well, the answers to these questions are of course, yes they can, and having them introduces another layer of tactical options for players, in a similar way to Hardpoints and Upgrades on ships. Now, Halo uses Command Dice in order to unlock special abilities, but an additional random element within the Firestorm universe was not viewed as either necessary nor desirable. Firestorm Commanders were thus developed completely separately from Halo commanders, as was the rest of the Halo ruleset, so whilst Halo was an initiator for the discussion, that's where the input ended.

One thing that was strongly desired was that these should be an optional add-on, and they should NOT be dominating in the game...I think everyone has seen the likes of Typhus or Marneus Calgar in 40k, strutting up and down almost every small skirmish force on both sides because they're so good (or at least they were when I played!). For me, special characters should bring something both positive and negative, so they remain a choice, rather than an auto-take. They should be interesting, rather than amazing!

So let's look at the mechanics of the Commanders and see how they work.

Firstly, there are some rules about adding a commander to your force - they take up a TAC slot, and can only be fielded for a force of the same race (no Sorylian commanders in Aquan forces, for example). As they represent your Fleet Admiral's commanding structure (i.e. their boss - they're not on the board), they grant effects usually without the Fleet Admiral being present (although that's not always the case). The effects they have are given in four broad areas - Expertise, Alliances, Fleet Build and Upgrades - these latter being optional (the first three are all compulsory changes). So right off the bat these guys are costing you something in terms of in-game flexibility.

Ok, given these generalities, let's look into individual commanders to see the implementation;

Guardian Shoal Assembler Ssirrin Tsalas

So Ssirrin sets the scene for us on the Commanders, with a nice piece of artwork of a new Aquan species (which I really like) and some accompanying background. After this are his (its?) adjustments to the standard rules.

Expertise: So this chap is a Planetfall specialist, so you get the option to add more Planetfall ships to your fleet using your existing fleet point allocation. This is pretty much self-balancing, since you're degrading your combat capability to potentially net battle log from Planetfall MAR ships landing on the objective, so it's potentially risky.

Alliances: This one is easy, since he has no special effects here

Fleet Build: Here you can exchange one frigate in a maxed out squadron with a standard cruiser. It has to take the Difficult Target MAR, which means its a more expensive squadron by some points, but adds quite a bit in terms of offensive power (plus some torpedoes and a few mines of course). It does yield an extra Battle Log when destroyed, however, so again you get extra utility at extra cost and risk - is it worth it? Well, every commander can choose if it is or not!

Upgrades: Here this card sets a trick that several of the commanders do, and that is to allow some utility at the cost of extra TAC slots. In this case you are able to reduce the retrieval cost of the +2 initiative TAC to 0...BUT that costs you 2 TAC slots....and given that the commander himself takes one it means you have to buy the Intel gathered card with battle log, and you are limited to only one other TAC (which you will also have to buy). Now, its a powerful ability, but thats a lot of tactical flexibility you're giving up for the chance to win initiative every turn...

So this is the general pattern of all the commanders - they can give you some powerful buffs in certain situations, but there is always a downside or a tactical impact to consider. Overall Ssirrin is a solid commander- he allows Aquand's to get the edge in activation dominance with his Upgrade, though that then restricts the fleets general TAC breadth pretty dramatically. Increasing the power of Tier 3 frigate squadrons is nice, but it makes fleets more expensive, and the Aquans have a lot of really solid choices already, so again this will be very dependent on individual player's styles - which is exactly as it should be, of course!

 Fleet Marshall, Gamma - Savar G. Bilitas

Expertise: This can add 2" to a ships move if they don't turn, which is useful for getting Planetfall ships down early or gaining some range from an enemy towards the end of the game. Not that useful in general for the Dindrenzi who typically want to maintain distance as long as possible, but it may have situational application

Alliances: Savar doesn't like the RSN (they are restricted and cost more in his fleet builds), which means his fleets get to take lots of other allies if they want, making him open up a host of fleet-building possibilities. The downside to this is that you lose access to the most powerful TAC available to the Dindrenzi, the Eye of Rense - not a problem anyway if you were going down the Alliance route, but it does hurt you in pure builds. Overall this means Alliances are the favoured choice here, meaning you can mitigate some of the Dindrenzis typical weak points with other races fleet ships, which is pretty nice - especially if you want a change from typical Dindrenzi/RSN builds

Fleet Build: Savar allows you to take the Legion at 800 points, and as we've already covered, the Legion is a brutal ship. You can also field multiple Assault Carriers at higher points, which with his Alliance abilities makes for some very interesting possibilities...Legion and Ootheca anyone? Unfortunately you get reduced access to Battleships, which are some of the Dindrenzi's strongest vessels, and this feels like a fair trade.

Upgrades: Savar's only upgrade is a pretty nice one - you get to use TACs when your Fleet Admiral is off the board. This has use both at lower point builds where you're putting your Admiral on a carrier or battlecruisers, for instance (useful as you can't take a Battleship) - meaning you can shunt them in and not worry about being able to play TACs when you need them. Another use is late game when your Admiral's ship has taken damage and you want to shunt them out - you still get access to your TACs afterwards. The Yang to this Ying is that you have to pay Battle Log points to play them when your admiral isn't on the board, and you don't get to retrieve them unless he's present - again, a pretty evenly balanced ability.

I really like "The Silent Savage", he looks like a thug but he's a quiet and clever tactician who plays it straight...very Dindrenzi! He's some nice tricks, which although apprently straightforward give him a great deal of flexibility...the devil, as they say, is in the detail.

Acquisition Director Olga Anasenko

With one of my favourite pieces of artwork for the commanders, next up is the cyber-granny from the Directorate!

Expertise: Directorate fleets already get a lot of tricks, and Olga's expertise is very situational, but basically makes it harder for Ambush fleets to surprise her fleets. Revealing Hidden set-up markers within 12"is a 50% boost to normal range, and means if a squadron is revealed involutarily, it is then going to get hammered by RB2 weapons - Directorate ships having turrets makes this almost certain. This means that players who know you are going to be using Olga are going to be more reluctant to use Ambush - meaning you're having an influence on fleet building even before the game starts, and making her very useful against Sorylian/Veydreth fleet builds.

Alliances: This is where I feel most people will see the utility in taking Olga for a spin - the ability to take the arch-rivals OSO & Works Raptor together in a fleet. They cost more if you want them to work together, but you can do it. Together these two have some really nasty combos.

Fleet Build: More Assault Cruisers! What's not to like? Well, loss of R&D ships, which some will not care about and others will hate. The Directorate is (as I mentioned before) a real "jack of all trades" fleet, with lots of tools available...restricting these will be unpopular with those who see utility in those tools. Facing Terrans, for instance, it's nice to have Turmoils which ignore their multiple layered shields...unfortunately Olga doesn't allow that option.

Upgrades: Here we have the first of the commanders with multiple Upgrades. First, she can reduce the effectiveness of deployed mines - useful against Aquan mine-heavy fleets and in Invasion mission 9 - Reinforcement. It costs Battle log to do this, but again its psychological effect on pre-game fleet building is valuable in itself. Secondly, Integration assault carriers can be configured as cyberwarfare vessels - giving you access to cyberware capacity that you no longer have in your R&D Cruisers. Not for everyone, but that's why it's an optional upgrade.

Amirah Vvivirrin Ith’ik’iss K’ssirr

The Relthoza are the next race to feature, with Vvivirrin K'ssirr.

Expertise: K'ssirr's expertise provides a cut-price corrosive element to Relthozan fleets, which will be welcomed by many...but of course this also limits choice, so it's something of a double edged sword.

Alliances: Like the Aquan commander, K'ssirr provides no special abilities here.

Fleet Build: Once more, as we see highlighted with several of the commanders, Planetfall ships are favoured in fleet building. Although the ability to field extra Planetfall ships might seem to make her an auto-take for invasion fleets, as these come at expense of your tier slots AND they lose Systems Network. So you might hesitate and have to think long and hard about exactly how you build your fleet before taking the plunge.

Upgrades: Once again we see two upgrades here - firstly Drone or Widow class frigates can choose Biohazard ammo, which most players will be very pleased with...even more so since as she forces Corrosive choices on other ships, they will be one of the main sources of getting Biohazard into your list.

Her second upgrade lowers the buyback cost of Repair Drones, which is very useful as the Relthoza have more wings available than any other fleet bar the Aquans, who they are on about equal footing on. This is tempered by both the reduction of available TACs, and also the fleet builds she favours, which tend to be lighter on wings than others.

Under-Tertiary Ganash Kragg

Ganash is probably my favourite piece of artwork from the commanders, just edging ahead of Olga.

Expertise: Ganash's attention to detail and planning make for a very interesting expertise, which shouldn't be underestimated - battles can swing on ships appearing exactly when you need them, and paying a single battlelog to ensure that squadron's arrival when you need it is pure gold.

Alliances: This is where Kragg shows some similarities to the Directorate....he doesn't like fish! Kragg is generally a friendly chap who can boost non-natural allies to 30% of your MFV, so long as they're not Aquan....he just doesn't DO Aquan (we hear you there, Kragg old buddy!)

Fleet Build: Now this is where things get really interesting - Kragg can enable you to take a full squadron of Battlecruisers at Patrol fleet level, or an extra squadron at other levels. Now, you lose a Battleship allocation, but as most Sorylian players consider the Falx a relatively weak battleship, that's not too much pain to bear. now, before you get too excited, at least one of those squadrons has to have had access to the Planetfall MAR - or in other words, currently they have to be Amentums. I don't think that's going to upset too many people, however, as that actually works in the Sorylians favour in invasion missions, and the Amentum is not at all a bad ship outside of them

Upgrades: The final cookie the Sorylians have in their already quite full basket is the ability to recycle the Thermal Controls TAC for severely restricts other TAC access, but if your considering an assault build, this makes it better
Rear Admiral Tobias Armstrong

The Terrans round out the commanders in the System Wars supplement with Tobias Armstrong.

Expertise: This slot actually gives a big boost to Terran invasion fleets, since it allows them to fulfil a Tier slot requirement...something they can't normally do. That means in all probability that the Tier 2 requirement will have some assault cruisers in, allowing you to bulk up the Tier 1s and 3s....

Alliances: So Armstrong is a lizard lover - he allows his fleet commanders to field half of their MFV in Sorylian models, though they do lose access to the Terran TACs. You pay for this with access to Hawker, which is treated like any other ally with a 25% allocation, though you still get Terran TACs as normal.

Fleet Build: Did I mention you'd be taking Assault Cruisers? Why not Destroyers? Here's why...Tobias' fleets can take one less Destroyer squadron and one extra Assault cruiser squadron. As they're hard as nails, I don't think we'll hear too many complaints.

Upgrades: A slightly different TAC modification here, allowing you to extend the use of Cyclic Shielding to another squadron just like Drives to Maximum. It's slightly expensive in TAC restriction and its situational, but negating coherence effects can be crippling against some opponents.

For his second upgrade, did I talk about Assault Cruisers before? Well, now they can get Special Forces for an extra 15 points per squadron. Being an upgrade makes it optional if you don't have the points or want to spend them elsewhere, but it's a great option.

Altogether, you can build a fleet under Tobias which is very true to his fluff, aggressive and brutal, which I think is great.

Overall the Commanders open up another set of decisions to be made by the player, and a level of unpredictability in your opponent. They have simple mechanics and its great to see the background expanding with their introduction too.