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Jeff's Gameblog
Friday, 5 March 2004
SFBM Issues#5: Why do I like this game, again?
This entry does tackle much in the way of substantive problems with Star Fleet Battle Manual. Instead, the issue I want to the muse upon is why this game fascinates me. As I've gotten older the sparkle has worn off mini's intensive games. There's many reasons I do BattleTech with the old cardbaord stand-ups. Making paper counters for my Starmada games seems like fun. Priming and painting figures that I know are going to be subpar anyway has always felt like work. When it comes to wargaming I am normally a hexagon man, but SFBM uses tape-measures and protractors.

So what makes this game work for me? I like counters and hexes, it uses miniatures and is hexless. There are many, many s-f wargames out there that I have no interest in for these very reasons. I guess I can think of four or five items motivating me to tackle this project:

1) It's Star Trek. And not just any Star Trek, we're talking Original Series, baybee. We're talking Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual. I love the Fed warships first described in Franz Jospeh's fan opus, the Saladin class destroyer and the Federation class dreadnought. SFBM would also work well for FASA's apocryphal Four Years War, the subject of one of my Starmada projects.

2) SFBM in some ways functions as a sort of lite version of the similarly named Star Fleet Battles. I'm thinking primarily about energy allocation here. I've often thought that energy allocation was the shining gem in SFB design. Unfortunately its hidden under a pile of detritus that only the hardcore SFB'ers can successfully navigate.

3) This game tests different skills than many other wargames I've played. Simulataneous movement games still floor me. The alternate initiative rule rewards the quickwitted (weapons fire comes in order by which you completed your allocation, slow people can be destroyed before they return fire.) The call-your-shot-by-protractor method of aiming looks like it could ride that fine line between fascination and frustration. In this game you literally program (during energy allocation, no less) something like "fire phaser at 75 degrees starboard". You then strecth a line from the base of the figure (which has a protractor overlay) out at the appropriate angle. If the line falls on another figure's base THEN you are allowed to roll to-hit. The first few shots ought to be absolutely maddening. Oh, but the joy of getting a hit!

4) Then there's the joy of resurrecting a nearly dead game. Especially if you can get other people to play it, love it, and look forward to it at the next con. And I'm kinda a sucker for old, out-of-print games. My ideal Christmas would probably involve a delivery from the Island of Misfit Games.

5) Finally, I like the idea of the project itself, the task of making, acquiring, and assembling all the stuff to play the game. When I decided to run DinoWARS it became a big project. Before I even got to the con I found a LOT of satisfaction just out of assembling and preparing the playing pieces and hand-outs. In some ways, I greatly prefer this do-it-yourself approach to simply buying a big box full of game. That way is fine, don't get me wrong. But man, I feel a real sense of ownership toward my DinoWARS set, a real affinity that I would never get from a ready-to-play game.

Posted by jrients at 3:42 PM CST
Updated: Saturday, 6 March 2004 2:55 PM CST
SFBM Issues #4: Who wants to play this crap, anyway?
Let's face facts here: Star Fleet Battle Manual is an old game with an old premise. There are kids gaming out there who only know the Next Generation through syndication. Heck, original Trek was old and kitschy when I was a kid. Can a game that recreates the era of velour-and-styrofoam draw new players? SFB does okay, but in many ways SFB and Star Trek parted ways a long time ago. SFB's own track record largely powers its juggernaut nowadays.

I must admit that I would not take it well if I put together an SFBM game for Winter War and no one signed up. We're talking about a major project, with serious (for me at least) time and money to be invested. I'd like to avoid the disappointment that was my DinoWARS! game. Sure, I had 5 players, but four of them I personally knew. It's hard to count as a win the one kid who signed up on virtue of the game alone.

One obvious thing I can do to try to draw players is mkae sure I have a good write-up in the con program. For rgp's especially I have a tendency to send in filler text and write the adventure laters. That works for something like Call of Cthulhu because Call of Cthulhu sells itself. With SFBM I have to make sure to a) distinguish the game from SFB and b) convince people that SFBM is rad to the max. I can also help myself by doing up a snazzy webpage about the event and sending in a link to the Winter War website. I might be able to chat up the game at the C-U Gaming yahoo group, especially if I run an open call playtest.

Past these measures, I'm not sure what else I can do. How do I make Star Fleet Battle Manual relevant to players of other Trek games or sci-fi games in general? I guess I have an extra point of connection with SFB players and the one or two fans of Last Unicorn Games original series rpg. I'm not sure how to leverage that into actual players though.

Thinking back on the one kid who signed up for my DinoWARS! game, maybe I can extract some useful info from the experience. He signed up a little bit into the start of the session, well after I had started setting up the toys. The toys are what brought him to the table. A good centrepiece (a large planet, an asteroid field, etc) would probably help me lure in a player or two.

One other idea I have is to advertise at the con. "Star Fleet Wants You" type posters on the con info wall would kick six kinds of ass. A Klingon counterpart "For the glory of the Empire!" would be even better. Hopefully the con chairman would have no problem with me posting those. (Heck, at this point I don't even have approval to run a big floor game, so why sweat this small detail?)

Past all these ideas, I'm certain the best way to get this puppy to fly is to take the long view. If I were to commit myself to running this game for, say, the next five Winter Wars, then I would have the opportunity to cultivate some regular players. Like a newly hired coach on a losing team*, I have to approach the first few years as "building years" and take my lumps. Planning to run the game many years in a row would have the added benefit of allowing me to develop a campaign approach to the scenarios. That would be cool.

*This may be the first time I have ever employed a sports metaphor.

Posted by jrients at 1:41 PM CST
Updated: Friday, 5 March 2004 2:41 PM CST
SFBM Issues #3: balancing scenarios
One of the places that where the Star Fleet Battle Manual comes up short is the lack of a points system for evaluating ships. Given the size of the document, I can't fairly expect a ship-build system, though such a thing would be very useful. Still, it would be nice if the game had something approaching SFB's "BPV" system. I assume that a Consitution class and a Klingon D-7 can square off in a fair fight. I hope that three D-7s can take on a Fed dreadnought, cruiser, and destroyer. But in the end, these are questions that can only be answered with extensive playtesting, something I just don't have time for. Can two Tholian web-ships take down the USS Enterprise? I don't really know. If I were designing the game I would shoot for the following:

one Federation CH = one Klingon D-7 = one Romulan Warbird = 2 Tholian cruisers


2 Klingon D-7s = one Federation DN + one Federation DD

But Zocchi's design goals may have been different. And even if he was thinking this way, how close did he come to achieving this goal? Not to mention the school of thought that believes a single D-7 should be outclassed by a Constitution.

I definitely need to take a closer look at some of the control sheets. Since my main goal involves Fed/Klingon conflicts, I can safely ignore the Tholians & Romulans for the moment.

Posted by jrients at 12:40 PM CST
SFBM Issues #2: Production Values
The publication of Star Fleet Battle Manual goes back to an antediluvian era wherein a shitty photocopy of a badly typed manuscripts was just fine, just as long as you got the game out the door. I'm not saying SFBM has the worst layout I've ever seen, but it lies somewhere in that terrible middle range where one can find original D&D or Superhero 2044. It ain't pretty to look at. That's not a mortal sin by any means. You can find lots of great games that aren't very fancy. To make it work, a plain jane game needs to be utilitarian. SFBM as presented is not easy to use. The font is old and cruddy, like a bad photocopy. The layout is hard to follow, organization is a bit wonky, the split between the basic and advanced rules would lead to endless page flipping, things that ought to be expressed in table format are merely listed in the rules, and so on.

Don't get me wrong. I like this game. In fact, I like it enough that I'm considering rewriting it just to fix these presentation problems (and maybe address the dice issue of my last blog entry). I at least need a ready reference sheet of some sort if I'm gonna run this as a con game, anyway. (A fella named W. Robert Portnell has done a similar project with his "Academy Edition", which you can find at his Other Game Stuff page. I'll download the file later when I get home. When I first checked it out a year or two ago it was incomplete.) The ship control sheets also need updating to look more spiffy. Doing a redesign would be a good first step towards making my own ship sheets for FASA and SFB designs.

Addendum: Found a new fanpage for SFBM today: Bart's Star Fleet Battle Manual Page. Nifty!

Posted by jrients at 10:37 AM CST
Updated: Friday, 5 March 2004 1:20 PM CST
Thursday, 4 March 2004
SFBM issue #1: dice
Star Fleet Battle Manual is so old it was written prior to the the development of the modern d20. Back in the day, d20's were labeled 0 through 9 twice. (I believe it was Lou Zocchi, author of SFBM, who eventually developed the "true" d20 we know and use today. Or maybe he came up with the true d10. Or possibly both.) The SFBM rules call for you to use a old-school d20 inked with one set of 0-9 black and one set green. (What, you didn't know dice used to come uninked and you had to fill in the numbers yourselves with crayons or pens? Sheesh. Kids these days have no sense of the history of their hobby.) Anyway, under the rules as written, "Green 6" and "Black 6" were two very different results. To my eyes ths green/black stuff looks like an attempt to get 20 results out of the old "double d10" that Zocchi had to work with.

The thing is, I can't figure out whether I consider using these odd old dice to be a feature of the game or a bug. On the one hand rewriting the rules to use straight d20 rolls would not be difficult. The rules need a bit of a rewrite anyway (but that's a different blog entry for another day). Eliminating the wonky dice cuts out one more thing the newbies have to get used to.

On the other hand you can still get old style d20's on the internet. I'm pretty sure the RPG.net shop has them in stock. Inking in green or black over pre-existing white ink should not be a problem. As a bit of an obsessive completist, I couldn't exactly pat myself on the back that I had a complete SFBM set unless I also had the wonky dice. And here's the big kicker: weird, customized, archaic dice are cool.

There I said it. Anybody who's been to a roleplaying game at a convention should immediately know what I'm talking about. Gamers have this really strange connection to their dice. That's why you can get gemstone and goldplate dice from crystal caste. That's why I have a special skull-and-crossbones dice bag. That's why many gamers own five or ten times as many dice as they need. (As an aside, this deep affinity for dice contributes much to the marginalization of diceless games, I think.)

So at this point I'm not sure which way I'm gonna go on this issue. I may end up getting/making the funky dice and then not using them. I dunno.

Posted by jrients at 3:37 PM CST
Updated: Thursday, 4 March 2004 4:05 PM CST
Star Fleet Battle Manual
Star Fleet Battle Manual (SFBM) is a Star Trek miniatures game that is contemporary to or even slightly earlier than the similarly names Star Fleet Battles (SFB). SFBM was authored by Lou Zocchi, one of the lynchpin figues in the history of the modern gaming hobby. SFB survived and achieved a cult status in the world of sci-fi wargaming, while Zocchi's game faded into obscurity. Many who have played both may argue that SFB is the superior game. That does not concern me. I am interested in resurrecting this out-of-print relic simply because I suspect it is a fun game.

The two Star Fleet games have some points of commonality beyond their names and subject matter. Both rely on an energy allocation scheme. Both are designed for relatively small scale engagements. IMHO SFB shines in the arena of the tournament duel. My spidey-sense tells me that SFBM lacks the intricacy needed to achieve frantic action feeling of one-on-one engagements, but that it should work well as a team game, say three or four on a team each operating an individual vessel. ("Lance-on-lance" as the BattleTech folks would say.)

SFBM is one of those games that really requires miniatures. Sure, I play BattleTech and Starmada with paper. I've even used paper for Ral Partha's Chaos Wars rules. But even I acknowledge that a few games demand the use of figures. I don't think I've ever even heard of someone playing Warhammer without figs. I remember not being able to get a 40K group started in the 80s over this very issue. No one wanted to play with paper and no one could afford enough figures to field an army. That was back when it was the "Rogue Trader" skirmish game, no less!

Still, I can't quite bring myself to put together even a few paper pieces to try out the SFBM rules. The game screams for little spaceship toys. The nice thing is that you don't need many figures. Heck, there are only a handful of ships stat'ed-out: four or five Federation vessels, the Klingon D-7, the Romulan Warbird, and the Tholian patrol cruiser. With a little math and a graphics program it wouldn't be impossible to adapt other ships to the game. I would really love to field a few old FASA vessels some day. Still, I can't imagine that you would need more than 20 or 30 ships for a more-than-complete set. Especially if you stick to my scenario-writing precept that unnecessary duplication of units should be avoided. Sure, a couple of Constitution class vessels are okay, or trio of D-7s, but who is really going to care that you're capital ships have an insufficient number of destroyer escorts? After all we're talking about a Star Trek scenario here.

SFBM strikes me as very suitable for a convention, because it is a floor game with nifty little toys. Ranges of weapons are 3 to 5 feet, so you would want at least 10 feet of space to play in. At Winter War, I kinda imagine running this game on a Friday night in the auction room, we would simply push the tables to the edges of the room.

The game does have it's problems, though, which I hope to explore in later blog entries: The writing and layout of the manual make looking things up a chore. The game requires special dice. The control sheets need to be overhauled so that they look decent. There's no point system to assist in writing scenarios. Finally, as a con game it has the problems of having a name too close to another game and, on it's own merits, it exists as an out-of-print game set in the universe of The Original Series.

Posted by jrients at 2:47 PM CST

I finished up the ship stats for the Star Frontiers to Starmada conversion I've been working on. Now I need to write up the scenario details and scan some images to make counters.

I got an invite today for a new game being tentatively set up by Dave Hoover, a local GM of some repute. It's to run every other Wednesday, which should be just fine for me. He hasn't mentioned any details yet and my great fear is that he will want to run one of the many games I just sold off last month at the Winter War auction.

On the BattleTech front, I think I'm going to hold off writing any more scenarios until my first one gets played. Right now I'm investigating statting up the early variants and prototypes mentioned in various entries of the Technical Read Out 3025.

Posted by jrients at 1:18 PM CST
Tuesday, 2 March 2004
My Illuminati Tournament, first draft
This two-round tournament is designed for a prelim round of 24 to 36 players playing at six tables. The prelim round will probably be split over two con slots, Friday afternoon and evening. I imagine running 2 tables Friday afternoon and 4 Friday evening, but if more than 12 people sign up Friday afternoon I definitely run a third table and cut back Friday evening. The final consists of a table of the six highest scoring players who show up to play Friday twilight. If more than nine players show up, a second table would be run as 'consolation prize'. Everyone would be briefed about the consolation prize to help insure at least 4 'finalists' show up.

In my mind at least, scoring is the critical issue. Scores are reported in a three part method, the first two parts being a percentage, the last part the number of players at the table. The percentages indicates how close the player was in reaching their victory conditions when the game ended. Say Discordia won on a general victory and had 2 (out of a needed 5)Weird groups in a game involving 4 players. That would be reported as a score of 100-40-4, for 100% of general victory, 40% of special victory, and 4 players in the round. The second and third part function essentially as tie-breakers for advancement to the final. It should be noted that the two percentages should always be reported with the higher of the two numbers first.

Slots of scheduled time at Winter War generally last 4 hours. In my experience Illuminati can play in less than that time. Anyone wanting to play a second hand is welcome to do so, but must stop at the predesignated time (say 10 minutes til the slot ends, to allow for scoring).

Anyone who played in one or more games Friday afternoon is welcome to play again Friday night. Unless it turns out to be impossible in the final round, you never get to play the same Illuminati twice.

I have a concern, in that it would be theoretically possible for people to play 4 games, resulting in up to 24 finalists to a two round tournament. Should I get more than 8 winners (100-X-Y) showing up the final round, I guess I could end up running a three round torunament on an ad hoc basis.

I would love to have something to give away in the form of trophies, plaques, etc. I'll have to investigate that angle further. Maybe CafePress.com can help.

Posted by jrients at 3:07 PM CST
Updated: Wednesday, 3 March 2004 4:26 PM CST

Well, scheduling the get-together with Goph and Dave seems to be a problem right now, so I think I will stop working on the D&D adventure until I think I'll actually need it.

I'm hoping to put together a Starmada scenario soon. It will be an adaptation of a Star Frontiers Knight Hawks scenario. Entitled the Dramune War, it serves as the climax of module SFKH1 The Dramune Run. One of the things that draws me to this encounter is the fact that it should work for 4 players, one team consisting of the United Planetary Federation Spacefleet vessels and the Inner Reach Militia vessels and the other team being the Outer Reach Militia and the Malthar Pirates.

Posted by jrients at 12:39 PM CST
Monday, 1 March 2004

more manifesto
9) Don't overdo special rules. (Again, I fall down on the side of playing a game instead of creating a simulation. I find such a position easily defesible when you consider I restrist my wargaming to fantasy and sci-fi subjects.)

I think I've got my ideas solidified for a set of Illuminati tournament rules. After talking it over with Don (chairman of the Winter War convention where I plan to run the tournament), it looks like I will run the entire tourney on the Friday of the con. Prelims with be Friday afternoon and evening, with the final round during the dreaded Friday twilight slot. I say dreaded because I have a feeling my wife won't appreciate me being out so late. Anyway, I hope to type up a first draft of the tourney rules in the next week or so.

I've started work on a D&D Expert adventure for my friends Goph & Dave. It looks like the scenario will revolve around following a treasure map. I'm shooting for half wilderness, half dungeon.

I posted a link to my BattleTech scenario over at www.rpg.net. So far the feedback has been very positive.

Posted by jrients at 8:46 PM CST

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