First Look at Squadron Strike

In addition to being an avid RPG player, I'm also an inveterate fan of tabletop space combat games. I like and actually sorta miss playing Star Fleet Battles, for example, and have often sung the praises of games like Starmada for the flexibility of ship design.

It wasn't until I started following +Jeffro Johnson that I learned about the game Squadron Strike. At the time I first encountered it, it was being lauded as the most innovative take on the genre, and one of the first to really handle 3D in anything remotely like an elegant way. I was intrigued, but didn't have anyone to play the game with, so I just kept reading about it when it was discussed in the multi-part story on Jeff's blog about space gaming.

It wasn't until we'd moved across country that I happened to lament not knowing anyone with whom I could play this game, if I could even manage to lay hands on a copy. About a week later I get a ping on G+ from +Ken Burnside, the guy that created the game. Turns out, he lives in Milwaukee! Finally, after playing cross-country chase with another game developer (Dan Kast, of Starmada fame), I might have a chance to see a game in action, and to play with the guy who knew the system best of all.

Tools of the trade - AVID cards, one per ship; a movement card, a dry erase marker or grease pencil, tiles for measuring range out of the plane of the map, angle blocks for ships that aren't flying level and true, and ten-sided dice.
After some planning snafus, a time was arranged for, and I drove across town to fetch Ken and his gigantic suitcase of magic tricks back to our house where a wide-open kitchen table awaited. We broke out the gear - I had already printed the ship sheets for us, as well as a quick one-page cheat sheet of things to remember during play - and started setting up. Instead of taking out the usual complement of training ships, Ken entrusted me to fly some ships that needed further playtesting. I would take command of a triad of Karthian Domain Kastdan cruisers - really jumped-up light cruisers - with a focus on heavy barrages of missiles, while Ken ran a pair of Interstellar League Swiftsure cruisers. Intel told me that we were going up against higher-tech ships, but we outnumbered them and we were the natural warriors, so if we were daring and aggressive, we'd surely come out on top.
The master sets up
We put the ships out on the table and set to work. The system is - and I say this as the world's biggest fan of "too much detail is never enough" - daunting. A certain subset of people can naturally work in a forced 3D perspective, and I'm not sure I'm one of them even after a bit of play under my belt.
The magic tools for depicting ships at odd angles. These custom angle blocks provide thirty degrees of granularity, and when stacked (as they are under one of my ships here, before play began), they can give you both pitch and roll.
For me, at least, the course of a single turn will take several turns to start to really sink in. Each of the steps isn't all that terribly difficult. The math isn't worse than any other game - addition and subtraction for the most part; the cards and the like included in the game take care of any geometry or trigonometry involved - and it generally goes fairly quickly. If you're flying in formation, it's even easier, as you make decisions once and apply them equally to each ship. This rarely lasts long, however, and sooner or later you're going to wind up with every ship for himself. I suspect that a good deal of the complexity goes away with system mastery, however.
Battle is joined - my three cruisers in the foreground, Ken's two in the distance, and movement markers in the killing field between us.
We played using what is called Movement Mode 1 - only following one of three of Newton's Laws, and it maintains something of the feel of real movement in space without being too complex. I want to stress this point a million times - The game reads many times more complex than it works out in play. I'm not sure I'd have figured it out, even from the half-dozen examples in the rulebook, without an expert to pass along the information and to assist in translating my mistakes into teachable moments. The system in place for determining how you actually move, how much you can turn in a single round of movement planning, and just how your ship should be oriented after your move, all add up to a complex and detailed system, but each individual step isn't all that terribly difficult.
Your intrepid host attempts to Shoot a Bearing - that is, to figure out just which weapons will come to bear on his enemies given several variables - where everyone is now, where they'll move if they don't maneuver at all, and the unknown of what your opponent is thinking and has plotted.
If you have ever looked at a ship display - an SSD - from Star Fleet Battles and said "wow, that's too complex a game for me" then I would advise you never to look, unaided, at an SSD from Squadron Strike. One look at the spherical depiction of weapon arcs would be enough to make you swear it off, but in play it's not nearly as complex as all that. 
The SSD for the Kastdan cruisers that I was playing. First column is defenses, second is internal layout and damage chart, third is weapon arcs and fourth is weapon descriptions.
Yes, it requires some working with the ship control cards to figure out just which weapons will come into play, but I had a sneak preview of some new software, targeted at tablets, that not only will help with movement, but will shoot the bearings for you given an indicator of which hex side (or corner) your enemies are facing, their distance from you, and the difference in "altitude" over the plane of the table. It's still in beta, but once it's in place it'll speed things up even for novice players. Honestly, I was just as happy to not use it, so that I could learn "the hard way" and actually start to learn the system.
Oh, it's on now. My ships are about to get clobbered by eight antimatter torpedoes, depicted by the white stones on the platforms to the left. Unfortunately for the other guys, he's about to have to try to whittle down 36 incoming missiles with only 28 less-than-perfect point defense weapons.
Playing the game with pre-built ships probably steals about 60% of the fun of the system for me, as I love designing ships, and as we've seen in Jeffro's blog, the system presented in Squadron Strike is about as flexible as you can get. I only got to see, from both sides of this fight, maybe a tenth of what it is capable of doing, and it was remarkably detailed, with each option chosen providing a real flavor of the sort of underlying technology. That the process is detailed enough to not just benefit from, but demand, a spreadsheet might be off-putting for some. I'm used to using electronic aids for ship design processes and felt right at home watching the video of how the software works.
The view from the front: EOT markers indicate where your ships will wind up at the end of the turn, after all the movement changes have been taken into account, and are where you'd definitely wind up without additional maneuver - a useful bit of intel when planning attacks and your own movement.
The mechanics of actual fighting are remarkably simple to use. Four ten-sided dice are your constant companions, of three different colors - a red die for to-hit determination, impacted by the size of your target, the advanced options of your weapons, your target's ECM and your ECCM; two pink dice for determining the penetration of the weapon in a system that has you subtracting the lower die from the higher die and resulting in a curved 0-9 result, capped by the Penetration value of the weapon; and a fourth die of any color that indicates where on the ship you've hit. It's a lot of info packed into a single roll of the dice, and it moves things along quickly. But even there, if you're using really large barrages - like when I fired off 36 missiles at poor Ken and he only shot down half of them - there are charts to use to help speed along the process by handling things in batches.
You can't escape now, not even by climbing off the map! Tiles are used to denote altitude or depth outside the plane of the map. In this case, the whites are one unit, and pale blue four units. In the distance you can see that by climbing rapidly, Ken's ships will end this turn 22 units above the surface of the table (you add the chits). It won't save him.
The nice thing about a game like Squadron Strike is that, being young, it's still in active development, and changes are being made constantly (and released out to the owners of the game) to make it better. Tonight's game will add to the pool of information - the most recent fixes having to do with the precarious balance between point defense and missiles and torpedoes. 

All in all, I had a blast playing, and would play again in a heartbeat. It is not, however, the sort of game that you put on a table for a bunch of kids to figure out on their own. Like so many complex games, Squadron Strike benefits from a guru to pass along the sacred knowledge. If you can find it at a convention, play it. Fly ships by the seat of your pants, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. You'll learn the game that much faster, and pretty soon you'll be the master.
Ready for orders, Captain!



Comments

  1. One of my standard discussions is that games have three kinds of complexity.

    Conceptual Complexity ("Why doesn't this game play like Silent Warhammer Xwing Gothic?")
    Procedural Complexity ("And now you fill out the forms for tracking out the other forms...")
    Decision Complexity ("Wait, I have to choose between more than three options, and decisions will have ripples down the road? TOO COMPLEX, MAN!")

    All of these can serve as a barrier to entry. Some kinds of games just can't be made or appreciated without substantial investments in conceptual or decision-making complexity.

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  2. Hi Ken!

    I've found the game great fun, though more procedurally complex than I really like most of the time. I think that part of the problem is that, while I hate using computers on a game table, they'd make this sort of 3-D thing vastly easier (you could trivially generate a table of ranges/bearings/bearings from ship to ship).

    I love decision complexity but try to keep the procedural to a minimum.

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    Replies
    1. I suspect you'll like the benefits of the software that's forthcoming. It really wasn't any more obtrusive than the AVID display cards and other reference tools you use to manually figure things.

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