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Thursday, 15 December 2016

Dropfleet Commander & Firestorm Armada side-by-side - Part 2: Game Mechanics

In the second of my side-by-side looks at DFC vs FA, I'm going to look at how the actual games stack up against each other. This post is really a comparison of the mechanics nuts and bolts, and not how the games actually play, which I'll do for the next in this series. So let's plunge straight in....

Basic Stats

Firestorm Armada

Designation - What type of ship this is - e.g. Battleship or Frigate
Size Class - Small, medium or Large - also designates whether the ship is a Capital ship or not
Squadron Size - the number of ships present to make up a legal squadron (e.g. 2-4)
DR - damage Rating - the value that must be reached to damage the ship
CR - Critical rating - the value that must be reached to critically damage a ship
Mv - Movement - How far in inches the ship can move each activation
HP - Hull Points - the amount of damage the ship can take before it is destroyed
CP - Crew Points - the value of the non-combatant crew running the ship
AP - Assault Points - the value of the marine contingent aboard the ship for boarding
PD - Point Defence - the value of systems used to defend against torpedoes, SRS and boarding
MN - Mine value - the strength of mines laid by the ship
Points Cost - self explanatory
Shield rating - the value of any shield systems the ship has (including Cloaking fields)
Wings - the value of SRS (Short-range spacecraft) the ship can accommodate
Turn Limit - how far the ship must move before it turns 45degrees

Dropfleet Commander

Scan - the range of the ships active search systems in inches
Sig - Signature - how "visible" a ship is, in inches added to an enemy's scan range
Thrust - How far in inches the ship can move each activation
Hull - the amount of damage the ship can take before it is destroyed
A - Armour - effectively a "saving throw" per damage point, expressed as a dice value (eg 4+)
PD - Point Defence - the value of systems used to defend against Close Action and Launch Assets
G - Group - The normal operating range for the ship, similar to Squadron Size in FA
T - Tonnage - What size class the vessel is for fleet building
Special - Lists any special rules such as Launch and Atmospheric
Points - self explanatory

Force Size and Building

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm Armada has three main levels of play - Patrol Fleet (up to 800 points), Battle Fleet (801-1500) and Grand Fleet (>1501). It has to be said that the vast majority of games are played at the first two levels, since people find the Grand fleet level takes too long.

Within the various game sizes you have three Tiers of ships - Tier 3s, which are generally small Frigates and Corvettes, Tier 2s, which are Cruisers, Gunships and the like and Tier 1s, which are everything from a carrier up to dreadnoughts. Depending on what points level you play will determine the minimum and maximum number of the different squadrons you have in your various Tiers. There are various other restrictions and possibilities layered on this, plus it is possible to customise individual squadrons of ships, so you can build an extremely diverse set of fleets for any race at any points level.

Cost of ships range from 15points for an escort or corvette, around 20-30 points for frigates, 40-90 points for medium ships such as cruisers and the like, around 170-220 points for Battleships and around 280-350 for dreadnoughts (the largest ships currently in the game)

Dropfleet Commander

Dropfleet also has three levels of play - Skirmish (up to 1000 points), Clash (1000-1999) and Battle (2000-3000). As the game is new I can't really comment as to practicality at the higher levels compared to FA.

Fleet organisation is a bit different to FA, as you assemble your forces from "Battlegroups", each Battlegroup being made up of various ships (not restricted to the same type). There are four types of Battlegroup (Pathfinder, Line, Vanguard and Flag), and four categories of ship that can go into a battlegroup (Light, Medium, Heavy and Super-Heavy). Battleships are Super-Heavy, and only come into Clashes and Battles - this is an interesting setup, and as each Battlegroup has variable composition, you get a wide range of options...If I got it right at Skirmish level you can have 0-2 Heavy, 1-8 Mediums and 0-10 Light Ships present.

Cost of ships range from around 22-50 points for Light, 79-140 points for Medium , around 155-210 points for Heavy and around 220-285 points for Super-Heavy (the largest ships currently in the game)

Game Size, Scenarios & Setup

Firestorm Armada

Games tend to use a 4'x6' table regardless of game size due to the long weapon ranges and design heritage. There are 6 core scenarios in the core rulebook, which was expanded to 10 with the System Wars booklet (you don't necessarily need the supplement ships to play these, though its recommended). Setup of the game can be done in several ways, and recommendations for placement of terrain (asteroid fields, gas clouds, planetoids, debris fields, gravity wells and comets) together with their effects are all provided. Setup is a pretty painless procedure, though agreement on what an "average" table looks like varies depending on local meta.

Dropfleet Commander

The recommended table size is 4'x4' - an obvious and immediate difference to Firestorm. There are 8 scenarios in the core book, and it has to be said these are a lot more objective-driven than Firestorm's, partially because of the nature of the game (orbital deployment and defence rather than deep-space combat). The DFC rulebook also goes on to talk about Ways to Play, Tournaments and integrating DZC, as well as running Campaigns and days - this shows Hawk's approach to its games, which is very much about building the community and building its games towards this - something it definitely wins out on here in DFC and generally as a company.

Gameplay - General

Firestorm Armada

FA is an alternate activation game, and was quite early on the scene in this regard. Players can use a tactical card (TAC) before rolling initiative each turn, bring in reserve forces (if applicable), then activate a squadron of their choice from those left to activate. In the Squadron's activation it can move, shoot and perform other actions like laying mines, launching fighters and bombers, and attempt boarding actions. Once an individual squadron has finished all of its actions, play passes over to the other player, who then chooses one of his squadrons to activate and so on.

Dropfleet Commander

DFC is also an alternate activation game, but this is done by Battlegroup rather than by ship squadron or group. The order of these groups activation is defined at the beginning of the turn by use of Battlegroup cards, the order of which is set by the player in the Planning Phase of the turn. This is the first major departure in gameplay which gives a slightly different feel to the game. During a Battlegroups activation, each group within the battlegroup can activate in any order the player wishes. this means you have a strategic choice to make at fleet building - more Battlegroups with lower numbers of Groups, or more Groups in less Battlegroups. There is also the option to use a Special Order before a ship activates, which is something similar to the TACs used in Firestorm, but applied at a more individual tactical level, since each ship in a Battlegroup can choose whether or not to use the Special Order. These "Ships Orders" are an important part of the flavour of the game, since they determine how the ship behaves and also affect its Signature value, making it more vulnerable to attack.

Gameplay - Movement

Firestorm Armada

Ships in FA move like wet navy ships, having a minimum move and a turn limit. Movement can be ponderous - 6" with 45 degree turns every 3" - or rapid - 14" with the ability to turn a 360 in 8" - depending on the individual ship (smalls generally being faster and easier to turn). 

Dropfleet Commander

Movement depends on the Orders given to a ship, rather than by the type of size of a vessel;

  • Standard Orders - Turn at the start of activation, and move from half to all of its Thrust value. 
  • Station Keeping - Uses 0-half of its thrust movement with a turn at the start or end of its move
  • Course Change - two turns at any point during its movement
  • Max Thrust - Turn at the start and use up to double movement
Any of these orders other than "standard", however, inflict a "Minor Spike, which adds 6" to its Signature value. there are some other Orders which affect movement too;
  • Weapons Free, Silent Running & Active Scan - All prevent ANY turning that activation

Gameplay - Weapons and Firing

Firestorm Armada

Ships in Firestorm have variable numbers of weapons systems, which are broken down into "Direct" and "Indirect" types - both of which have general rules around them, such as Indirect weapons not requiring LOS and not degrading from combat damage. The Direct weapons come in different flavours - Kinetic, Beam, Nuclear, Scatter and Primary - each of these having different properties associated with them. Indirect weapons also come in different types such as torpedoes, cyberwarfare and gravity. Weapon Systems all have 4 range "bands" (1-4), but the size of each of these depends on the weapon class - a Primary weapon has 8" bands, a kinetic weapon has 12" bands.

Arcs in FA are Fore, S/P (as in the example above), Aft and Fixed Fore - the latter being a channel the width of the ship's base. There are also turrets which have a full 360 range and gunracks which are P/S weapons that can only fire into one of the side arcs at a time.

Each weapon has a profile like this;

This shows the weapon type (in this case a Beam, which has 10" range bands), an Arc (in this case Port/Starboard broadsides) and a number of dice to be rolled depending on where the target is located. So up to 10" we would be rolling 12 dice, between 10 and 20 we'd roll 16 etc.

We then roll these dice, with a 4+ being a hit (unless other rules come into play, like difficult target etc), and using the exploding 6 mechanic that is present in most SG systems (every 6 counts as 2 successes and allows another dice to be rolled). 

Small and Medium ships have lower AD values, but can link their attacks as a squadron. in this way smaller ships can "gang up" to damage larger ships.

Overall the feeling in Firestorm is rolling big handfuls of dice to overwhelm the defences of your opponent - you can be rolling up to the low 20s in terms of number of dice. Having said that, you are still at the mercy of dice, though the number rolled have a statistical evening effect.

Dropfleet Commander

Firing in DFC is a bit different from FA. Firstly, weapons don't have ranges, ships do - the range is the Scan range of the ship you're firing with, plus the Signature of the all those "Spike" values start to make can turn hard, but you're increasing the range that the enemy can shoot you at!

Now weapons in DFC also have a stat line, and heres an example;

  • Type - Descriptive text of the weapon
  • Lock - what the weapon scores hits on
  • Attack - the number of dice you roll
  • Damage - the hull points removed for each successful hit
  • Arc - as for Firestorm, you have similar arcs, though named S (L) and S (R) for Port/Starboard. also unlike firestorm, a weapon might be F,S(L) for example, meaning it can fire in either front or side arcs. this will be familiar to DZC or Planetfall players
Overall DFC feels a lot more like a developed GW mechanic, which is unsurprising given Andy Chambers involvement in the project (though this may also be very familiar to DZC players too!). Numbers of attack dice are much smaller - topping out at 6AD for some battleship systems (around a quarter of what FA tops out at!).

Damage and Attrition

Firestorm Armada

If the total equals or exceeds the DR, a HP is lost - if it exceeds the CR rating, it receives 2 HP and the attacker can roll on the Critical Hit table, which has effects from losing crew to detonating the ships reactor. Attacks which reach the CR threshold a number of times inflict 2HP for every multiple, with a corresponding table roll if the ship is still alive.

Shields may be rolled to remove hits, and these use exploding dice as well, though typically these are only 1 or 2 dice )3 or 4 being the high upsides). PD is used against Torpedo attacks in addition, and PD values can range from 1-9 depending on ship class and size.

Once damaged, ships begin to degrade in effectiveness - every HP of damage reduces the AD of the ships DIRECT attacks by 1, and also the PD. This makes Indirect weapons like Torpedoes - which don't degrade in this manner - much more effective, so the balance of weapon's effectiveness changes across the course of the game.

Dropfleet Commander

Critical hits are handled differently in DFC too - if your dice hit with 2 or more than you needed (so a 5+ in the example with a 3+ Lock above), they score a critical hit, which means you don't get to use your Armour value to attempt to prevent the damage.

After rolling attack dice and determining hits and final hull points of damage, the receiving player can roll dice for their Armour for any non-critical hits to attempt to reduce damage. Critical hits may not be defeated by Armour, but may be reduced with Passive Countermeasures if the ship has them active. Some weapons have the Close Action Special rule, which means you get to use PD against them, which can take out critical hits at a 2:1 rate.

If a ship takes more than half its hull in damage, it must roll for "Crippling Damage". this is a one-off check, unlike the Critical table in FA which is rolled on every time a critical hit is scored. Essentially this helps to kill damaged ships, shortening the life of vessels and helping to prevent "Zombie Ship" syndrome, which can occur in FA. Also when a ship loses all its Hull, you roll for Catastrophic damage, which determines the ships fate and effects - which again helps kill stuff around it.

SRS & Launch Assets

These are the fighters, bombers, interceptors and other small craft that both games have.

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm refers to these craft as SRS (Short Range Spacecraft), and they come in several flavours - Fighters, Interceptors, Bombers, Assault Shuttles and Support Shuttles. They are handled in the movement phase of their parent carrier, and may be launched and perform an attack run on a target within range in the same turn, or they may stay within range of their carrier to perform an attack run in future. SRS may also combine their PD values to prevent torpedo attacks in the vicinity. 

Dropfleet Commander

Launch Assets (as DFC calls them) can be launched against a target within twice the thrust range of the type of LA, except Dropships and Bulk Landers, which can only launch against targets within Thrust range. These are all launched in the Roundup Phase, which occurs after the activation phase of a turn. Dropfleet also classes Torpedoes as Launch Assets, whereas FA has Torpedoes much more like missiles in DFC. Once again, PD systems may be used to help ward off the attacks on a ship from Launch Assets - except for torpedoes. A ship may attempt to outmanoeuvre Launch Assets as well (including torpedoes) by using Course Change or Max Thrust orders. 

Special Rules

Firestorm Armada

Firestorm handles special rules with MARs - Model Assigned Rules, of which there are over 60 of at the moment. These provide all kinds of effects, and individual ships can have anything from zero to half a dozen, often with the option of gaining more.

Dropfleet Commander

DFC has around half of the special rules FA does, and these are separated into Ship special rules and weapon system special rules, with a ratio of about 1:2. They have some important key concepts however, like the Burnthrough rule on some weapon systems, which uses a type of capped exploding system.

Unique Elements

Firestorm and Dropfleet are both games designed for slightly different purposes, so a very direct comparison is somewhat difficult. This section talks about some of the things that are largely unique about each system.

Firestorm Armada


Ships in Firestorm may attempt to capture each other during play, and although quite a variable tactic in terms of success, used well it can be decisive. As far as I can see DFC has no similar mechanism within the game. Rules for boarding are pretty simple and it's possible to build a boarding-heavy fleet, though in general it's a risky strategy.


Mines are a minor mechanic in Firestorm, but one that can have pivotal effects in games. Again, from what I've see so far there are no similar mechanics within DFC. This is understandable, since mining your own planet's atmosphere is probably unwise!

Dropfleet Commander

Orbital Combat

The main thing that is obviously different about DFC is that it occurs around a planet, including it's outer atmosphere. This is represented in game and has various affects on gameplay. The rationale behind Dropfleet is often to deposit assets to capture ground targets, which requires ships to enter the atmosphere. You have mechanics to traverse the orbital layers, and also one for "Orbital decay" (yes, it sounds bad, and it is bad - well, if you like keeping your ships intact and not as a firework display for your ground troops, anyway!)

Ground Combat

Although a space game, as you are landing assets on a planet, the ground combat element of this is also rendered in game as part of each turns Roundup Phase. You also have the extreme option of "nuking a site from orbit" - I can't wait!!!

Roundup & Conclusions

Well, it's difficult to make any conclusions from a simple comparison of mechanics, especially as I've not yet properly played DFC yet. However, just on initial impressions there are clear differences in the approach and rendering of game elements. Ironically perhaps, I can see tweaking both games to fit with each other, representing deep space and orbital combat respectively, which would be pretty cool.

Interestingly, there are some elements of both games that seem somewhat old-fashioned when compared to each other. The main differences do go back, however, to what each game is trying to achieve, and the approach of the two companies - Firestorm is much more about a straight-up fight with no real eye to tournament play, whereas DFC is all about objectives and the planet, with a definite nod to narrative campaigns and tournaments.

In some ways I'm not sure a direct comparison is possible or desirable here, I can see playing both games without too much difficulty or overlap, to be honest - I think they're scratching different itches. I can see someone who enjoys DFC enjoying FA and vice-versa, and certainly the models are compatible in terms of size, scale and number.

So I'm afraid, perhaps somewhat unsatisfactorily, I'm going to defer any proper judgement on the games until I've played them side-by-side with Oscar, and get our distilled wisdom down on the virtual page. Until then, enjoy the space ships!