Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Everything in motion: From Terrain to Ships

In Pax Stellarum, everything is in motion, not only ships. The first phase on each turn is the Terrain Movement Phase. Here all terrain features are going to move according to what was determined for them upon setting the table up.

Terrain's movement represent how everything in space is flowing in the cosmic stream. Nothing is stationary. From planets to black holes, asteroid strips to distortion fields, everything moves.

Yesterday, I played my first non-solo playtesting with a friend from our local gaming club. So far, I hadn't been playing with moving terrain, as I was focusing on getting the game mechanics right, first.

Inittially, I thought of playing that game with stationary terrain, but my friend enjoyed the possibility of having cover moving around the table and asked that we played that way. As playtesting is evolving already, I thought it might be a good idea to have that game played with full rules.

The result is this: Its infinitely cooler to play with moving terrain than I ever thought it would be! I guarantee you that once you play that way you won't consider playing space battles any other way.

The movement pattern of each terrain feature is determined individually. By pattern I mean speed and direction of movement.

This is done by performing a sort of scatter roll for each feature upon setting the table. The scatter roll involves rolling a D6 for speed, and therefore each terrain is going to move at least 1" and a maximum of 6" per turn.

As the direction of each terrain feature is likely to be unique, the table is in constant change, and players have to be able to see in advance what  is going to be the disposition of the table a few turns ahead, so that they don't end up performing a bad maneuver and suddely find themselves having an entire squadron being swallowed by an asteroid cluster, for instance.

Determining the movement pattern for each terrain feature doesn't take more than a couple minutes. Additionally, each Terrain Movement Phase doesn't take more than a couple minutes, either, so its all pretty simple and straightforward .

On the game we played yesterday, I led a Cardassian fleet, against the Klingons commanded by my gaming partner. On the pics below we can see how the table set up was changing on every turn:

On the inverted pic below, note the asteroid strip on the low border of the table. It is entering the table there after leaving it on the opposite end. This represents the strip being part of a much broader asteroid cluster than what we see on the table, and therefore as one strip moves away, another approaches...

Planets move just as asteroid strips would, along straight lanes that would represent their extremely broad orbit radius around a sun not present on the table. Moons and space stations, on the other hand, move around the planets they are orbiting, in addition to moving in the same pattern as the orb they are related to.

Such movement is fixed: 1" per Terrain Movement Phase. The scatter roll is going to determine only the direction: clockwise or anticlockwise. This I forget to do during game, and moons there where just following their mother planet, without moving around it.

As for ships, their movement is rather cinematic, but with enough inertial flavor so to make it considerabily tactical.

Basically, ships can move in one of 3 modes:

Low Thrust
High Thrust

Adrift ships move 2" forward every turn.

Ships in Low thrust mode move at least 2.5", and up to half their Spacedrive Rating (Spacedrive indicates their total engines power for sublight travel, in opposition to Hyperdrive).

Ships in High Thrust mode move at least 0.5" more than half Spacedrive Rating, and up to their full Spacedrive Rating.

Ships may switch from one mode to the adjacent one every turn, but they cannot transit through all 3 modes in the same turn.

It means that a ship that begins the turn adrift may change its mode to Low Thrust, or remain adrift. A ship in Low Thrust may stay so, switch to Adrift or switch to High Trhust. Ships in High Thrust may switch to Low Thrust.

A Special Order allows a ship to switch from adrift to High Thrust immediattely: Its called "Engines at Full Power". Another Special Order allows a ship to switch from High Thrust to Adrift in a single turn as well: the "Full Stop" Special Order.

To switch from Adrift to Low Thrust, you simply move your ship at least 2.5" and not more than half Spacedrive Rating.

To switch from Low Thrust to Adrift, you  move your ship exactly 2".

To switch from Low Thrust to High Thrust, you move your ship more than half Spacedrive Rating, up to its maximum.

To switch from High Thrust to Low Thrust, you move your ship exactly half Spacedrive Rating. On the subsequent turn, it will be able to move freely within Low Thrust limits.

Those inertial restricitions are easy to learn once you start practicing, but very challenging to master.

It was a pleasant surprise to see my gaming parter taking several minutes to decide which way to go with each of his squadrons. He was trying to predict how fast each of my squadrons would move, according to their current level of thrust, so to have a rough estimate of my final position.

That level of plotting wasn't present on playtesting so far, as I couldn't expect to be able to hide my intentions from my adversary in solo-gaming playtesting. I'm not that alienated. Yet.

Basically, players are likely to want to move at High Thrust, to approach the enemy, but once they begin to get close, that are challenged by the need of reducing thrust mode to avoid going past their target too quickly, while they would still want to preserve enough trhust available for maneuver, as close quarters can be very dangerous if you can't maneuver sufficiently.

It demands a lot of thinking ahead, and thorough observation of enemy movement, to try determining its pattern and most likely future moves.

Now, about the game we played, unfotunatelly we were unable to finish it, as we spent most of the time either discussing possible improvements (which was great!) or chatting with other folks there (again, great!), but it was fundamental to help me see some stuff that can be improved and that went unnoticed in solo-playtesting.

So, at the moment we have the following status as for Quality Control:

Terrain Movement rules: checked
Ships Movement Rules: checked
Fighter Rules: theoretically corrected, need playtesting
Weapons roll: need some addressing.

I'm rushing to get as much done on my system as I can on the near future, as I currently have more fleets coming and that are going to need painting (once again, great!) and I cannot manage to relax while having unpainted stuff on drydocks...

*End of Transmission*


  1. I forgot to mention that when a ship is adrift, it shoots more accurately, but can be hit more easily, too.

    Ships under Special Order "Engines at Full Power" move 50% more than their limit for Spacedrive, and are harder to hit, but shoot less accurately in exchange.

  2. Moving terrain will definitely add more tactical thinking.

  3. Given that the moon takes 28 days to orbit the earth, how long is your game scale?

  4. Hum, never quite thought of that. But in order to make moons move, and to keep them from moving too fast, I choosed to make them move 1" every turn.

    As its distance from the planet may vary according to the set up, the number of inches it has to move to complete a full circe may also vary, but as a rough estimate, it should take about 30"-40" of movement - that is, 30-40 game turns.

    That would gives an estimate of less than a day for each game turn.

    Not accurate, but seeing the moon moving slowly feels just right while playing. :)

  5. The Earth is 12,500 km in diameter. The moon is 400,000 km away from the Earth. 400,000/12,500 means it's 32 planetary radii out.

    Assuming a planetary radii of 1", that means the moon's orbit is about 100" in circumference, and covers 64" in diameter as a circle.

    (If I run the numbers for you for how close asteroids are to each other, you won't like the answers...)

    While I agree that "mobile terrain features" make a game much more tactical in play - there are better ways to do this for a space game. Missiles that can be outmaneuvered or outrun are probably better for verisimilitude.

    You may want to consider re-theming your game to undersea combat, or combat between aerostat ships...

  6. Not worried about verisimilitude.

    If I was, I'd play spaceship games on full, hard-physics 3D, and spend probably a couple months to play out a single battle as large as the one I played yesterday.

    To get the speeds to scale right, perhaps I'd have to move a moon a 1/10" inch? (I don't really know, won't take the time to do the math).

    Would that be fun?

    Gaming is about fun. Both I and my gaming partner felt it was really nice to have moving terrain on a space battle, so that's all we need to know. ;)

  7. I can say that playing in 3-D is fun; I sometimes play 2-D games to make people happy, and find them rather dull and predictable.

    In your battle, the yellow minis seem to break unto four distinct command groups. The green minis break into three.

    So in spite of the minis on the table, you're really flying a four-on-three battle with randomly moving terrain.

    That's fine - but at that point, each ship might as well be a row of damage boxes on a squadron record form, and losing a light cruiser is just a more cluttered way of losing 1/4 of your gun turrets to threshold checks.

  8. I have to agree with Matgc, gaming is about fun, not running the numbers or hard-physics 3D.

  9. Ken, that's ok to like elaborated 3D gaming, but I can see you having a hard time finding people who want to play along, don't you?

    Usually, engineers and physicists like to play harder-physics gaming. Don't know if this your case, though, but usually, the more a guy knows about how real physics operate, the harder it is for him to abstract from that to play cinematic games.

    I understand, totally. Fortunatelly, not my case. :)

    As for squadrons being just a pretty way of representing basically the same number of hull points of one big ship, its not exactly the case here, as well as one most spaceship rulesets.

    There are lots of particularities involving small ships that completely differenciate them from bigger vessels, even when grouped as a squadron.

    But even if they were basically the same as of a big ship, still, it would probably be more fun to play so. Again, its about fun, not verisimilitude.

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  11. ?? Am I missing something here, what has that post about Fleet maintenance software got to do with the rest of this topic ??

    Someone just spamming ???

  12. Herc Warrior, it was probably a spam. Properly deleted now.

  13. Mat, your response to the above criticism was the classiest, most well-put reply I could imagine. And from a guy for whom english is a second language. Bravo.

    For the record I am trained as an engineer (astronautics) and I when I game I choose 2D rules. Because ship to ship space combat is fantasy, not science fiction, whether it's 2D or 3D.

    After all, this about YOUR ruleset, so if it's fun for you, then it is right. Discussions about the raw physics of space combat may be arguable, but until an actual space combat veteran returns to earth, don't let anyone tell you "what it's really like".

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