Boardgame Reviews

Halo: Fleet Battles Review – Master Ship

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Designed by: Neil Fawcett, Crian Shields, Derek Sinclair
Published by: Spartan Games
Players: 2

Review copy supplied free of charge by Spartan Games.

The Halo universe has expanded exponentially since the first game arrived on PC way back in 2001. Through the intervening time the series has had five main entries and five spinoffs, and swapped hands with a new developer taking the helm. Multiple books, comics and other things have been published, expanding upon the videogame lore and turning Halo into a surprisingly meaty fictional universe inhabited by powerful Spartans, the Flood, Reclaimers and the Covenant. Throughout this time we’ve caught glimpses of warships engaged in battle in the blackness of space, but mostly focused on ground troops and, of course, the Master Chief himself. Fleet Battles aims to recreate the epic space clashes by moving plastic miniatures around and throwing handfuls of dice rather than with impressive graphics or the Master Chief being on screen. If that sounds a bit stupid then kindly get lost. Harsh? Probably. And yet against all better judgement I’m sticking with it. Fleet Battles is all about getting your friends round and engaging in some tactical space combat, provided you’ve got a chunk of space to set it up.

Playing a demo game back at 4TG earlier this year and reading various comments from the developers reveals a very specific idea: Fleet Battles is intended for fans of the Halo franchise who have never really dabbled in the arcane world of tabletop gaming. But on this front I feel they’ve failed. Firstly compared to something like Star Wars: Armada the models come unpainted and unassembled which could potentially put off a lot of people, although Spartan have chosen two distinct colors for their models that make them look quite nice on the table without even a lick of paint. On top of that there’s a thick 128-page rulebook  that looks like it’s attempting to disguise itself as a graphic novel. It’s filled with lovely pictures and the way rules are written is straightforward enough once you wrap your head around some of the jargon, but there is quite a lot to work through in order to play the game and seeing it when you open up the box is a tad daunting. Rules are also somewhat spread around, with important nuggets of information hidden away in odd places so that you have to ready through entire chapters piece by piece to find what you’re looking for. I can’t count how many rules I had to look up even after having played numerous games. Having said that it’s not as complex as something like Warhammer where you need to have a near perfect memory. Still, between the chunky rulebook and the unassambled, unpainted ships I’m confused as to exactly who Fleet Battles is for. I’m not convinced I could hand this to a friend who has never touched a tabletop game without them feeling a bit bemused.

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Inside the basic Ensign Edition that I have in for review you don’t get too much plastic to play with, limited to the smaller ships within the Halo: Fleet Battles lineup. It’s a shame because that means the Ensign Edition doesn’t really do the game justice, especially in comparison to the more expensive but also much cooler Fall of Reach Edition that comes with much larger ships for both the Covenant and UNSC forces, and which also boasts a campaign book that currently can’t be bought separately. Indeed, the Ensign Edition just has a handful of basic mission types. It would have been nice to see a few story missions included as well.

With a handful of ships for the Covenant and UNSC there’s not a lot of options in the Ensign Edition for constructing a fleet, but nevertheless we’ll cover the rules anyway. Building your fleet involves adhering to a points system, so before doing battle you and your opponent agree to a limit and then begin picking out ships based on that choice. Then you must form your ships into battlegroups following the rules laid out in the substantial rulebook, but the general gist is that a battlegroup must be made up of at least one capital class ship and one none-capital class, and may not exceed a total build rating of 6. These rules do have an exception comes in the form of specialist battlegroups which don’t have to adhere to the rules. These special groups are listed in the big book ‘o rules, but you can only take one of them for every regular battlegroup you field. They are worth it, though, and thus are typically what I built my fleet around.

There are also different formations for ships that you can swap between by simply changing the cardboard square on the base and moving the models around a little. For example a larger ship can be escorted by a frigate, while a squad of frigates might have two formations to choose between that make their cannons better or their missiles stronger. Much like the ship total, however, there isn’t a lot of formation types available by default. If you want more you’ll need to pick up some new expansions, although it’s not very clear which sets contain new formations.

You’ll also need to load up some of your ships with bombers and interceptors, as represented by tiny piles of crappy thin cardboard tokens. Some of the larger ships have a carrier capacity denoting how much “flights” of craft they can hold, so it’s up to you what you want to load up on. Just like every other ship in the game moving these guys around the table is handled by measuring distance in inches, so grabbing a tape measure is recommended.

Every turn begins with the rolling of the command dice which dictate what orders you’ll be able to dish out this round.  The Ensign Edition comes with one commander for each team, and it’s on their respective cards that you’ll lay out the dice, ready to spent. Every commander has some basic universal orders that they use, typically just costing one die, and some special commands that are unique to them which tend to take several dice to activate. Any dice you don’t spend can be kept for the next turn, and thus it’s possible to aim for a specific strategy, be it bumping up your boarding capability or just unloading more firepower into the enemy.

With the order dice rolled it’s time to get into the action proper, or at least it would be if there wasn’t some faffing about to be done first. Before you get to begin moving the large ships around there’s the wings phase to get through, which is where the smaller bombers and interceptors get to move and attack. These will get deployed at the start of a match, so sadly there isn’t any Battlestar Galactica moments where you get in close and then launch a swarm of fighters. The first thing you need to understand is that interceptors can “lock” other squadrons into a dogfight, forcing them to stop whatever they were doing and engage in a fight to the death. Naturally this is what interceptors want to do to enemy bombers in order to stop them engaging in bombing runs against weakened capital-class ships. However, ships can also be unlocked by simply bringing in one of your interceptors wings and engaging the enemy’s interceptor’s, thus if an enemy has your flight of bombers locked in combat you can bring in your own flight of interceptors and attack the enemy, then move the bombers out of danger. Speaking of bombers they can perform bombing runs on larger ships, at which point the attacked vessel can use their point defence system in a bid to shoot down the bombers before they attack. Finally interceptor’s can also be set to guard ships, automatically moving to tackle any incoming bombers.

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It’s interesting, because even though bombers and interceptors are the first things to be activated during a round they aren’t as important as that position might indicate. Bombers aren’t there to dent the large capital vessels because they would rarely pierce their powerful defenses, rather their job is to take on the smaller frigates and mop up the larger ships that have already been heavily damaged in combat, opening up the possibility for a bombing run to destroy them. This does mean the wing phase is the dullest portion of the game, because quite often it can feel like after moving the stacks of tokens around and rolling some dice very little of consequence has actually happened, and due to this some people have even cut the wing phase out entirely. Whether its worth keeping it in the game purely for those cool moments when a group of bombers make it through the point defence system and actually do bring down a big ship is up for debate. I read somewhere in an interview that the wing phase was designed deliberately like this, with the idea being to make the flights feel like ants or something pestering the bigger vessels. If that’s the case, they’ve succeeded. They’ll always be around too, because at the end of a round certain ships can relaunch destroyed wings. How? I have no idea. It’s never really explained.

Then you move on to activating the bigger and frankly more interesting ships, with players taking turns to activate one battlegroup at a time which will move, attack and then launch boarding craft, something that we’ll come back to later on in this review. Movement of the bigger ships in your fleet is handled a few ways based on their size, but for distance it’s executed exactly the same as the squads of interceptors and bombers by checking out the ship’s stats and then grabbing a tape measure or a ruler or whatever you want to use. When it comes to turning smaller models like the frigates are allowed to turn up to 45-degrees at the beginning and end of their movement, making them nice and agile. This angle of turn isn’t controlled by any special tool such as the one seen in Star Wars: Armada, rather it’s left to the players to roughly judge the turn. Medium models can turn up 45-degrees either at the start of their movement or at the end, while bigger ships may only turn at once they’ve finished gliding through space. And speaking of gliding through the dark void of space every ship has too move at least half of its speed value, recreating the concept of momentum. Don’t panic too much, though, because while there is some terrain to crash into you can’t bump into other ships. Which is odd. Huh.

There is one important thing to remember when you’re excitedly planning daring flanking moves with your little toy ships; they can’t venture very far from each other. Ships within a battlegroup must maintain a distance of no more than 6″ to one other ship from that battlegroup. This is known as coherency. Should a battlegroup get broken up then it gets a bunch of penalties and must attempt to reenter coherency range each turn. Of course inevitably a battlegroup will be reduced to the point where it no longer meets the requirements for a battlegroup as per the rules, so that’s where the standard order to form an ad-hoc battlegroup comes into play. With that said, you can also opt to split up perfectly health battlegroups to form new ones mid-game provided they meet all the rules.

With your battlegroup moved into position it’s time to unleash some of those weapons on the enemy, and to do that you have to nominate your firing solutions, which is the rulebooks slightly overwrought way of saying you need to choose which ships are going to fire at which targets. Since each ship can fire with both its secondary and primary weapons a single battlegroup can have quite a few different targets. The vital detail to keep in mind here is that once you’ve announced firing solutions they cannot be changed, so if an enemy ship happens to get blown up before you launch missiles at it then that’s a lot of wasted armaments going to be hurtling through space. Plus you’ll feel like a bit of an idiot.

Now comes the slightly trickier, which is figuring out the firepower rating of your attacks, The firepower rating helps determine how effective your dice roll will be and is altered by a few different things. Take distance, as an example;  UNSC MAC cannons are completely unaffected at any range, working with the default firepower rating of 4, while missiles get +1 to their firepower at long-range. The Covenent’s plasma weapons, meanwhile, always get -1 at range but +1 up close, making them the clear kings of close-up brawling while the UNSC typically want to stay as far away as humanly possible. As for other ships getting in the way they have no effect whatsoever. They don’t even block line of sight, meaning you can’t shield your huge Epoch with a wall of frigates or something. By default firepower ratings start at four, max out at five and can go as low as one, at which point the attack is cancelled. It’d be the equivalent of you pulling the trigger on an AK47 and firing nothing but a prawn at high velocity. Potentially entertaining, yes, but not super-effective.

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Once you’ve created a firing solution it’s time to get down to the action, which in this case means grabbing a lot of dice (20+ isn’t uncommon) and hurling them across the table, hopefully with a satisfying sound and some good results. Based upon your firepower rating you’ll calculate the amount of successes. at which point the other player gets a chance to defend themselves based upon the loadout of their ship. If the incoming attack is missiles they’ll be able to use their point defense systems, for example, while the Covenant can also add dice from their powerful defense arrays. The UNSC get the less useful titanium armor, which can get rendered useless if the enemy manages to pierce the first layer. Yup, I did say layer. Each ship has a damage track composed of three numbers, each one representing how much of a pounding it can take. Your goal is to punch through each number in the damage track and to do that you need to roll enough successes. A single attack can go through more than just one layer, and since the numbers tend to get smaller as you move through a damage track it’s not uncommon to see a large battlegroup wipe out a ship in one or two attacks. When a layer is destroyed the ship receives a damage token.

This is where the battlegroups come into play since they allow a player to combine multiple weapons of the same name into a single firing solution, adding all the dice together form a much larger pool that stands a better chance of punching through the tougher outer layers of  hulking capital ships. For example if you’ve got two UNSC Marathon cruisers with MAC cannons then provided both are in range they can combine their firepower, creating an attack pool of 20-dice rather than just 10 for a single Marathon. Since you’re also allowed to fire both primary and secondary weapons those two Marathons may also be able to unleash a barrage of Archer missiles as well for good measure, but those missiles would be counted as a different firing solution and therefore wouldn’t add their dice to the total.

There’s another reason the UNSC want to combine their MAC cannons, too, since they get what is referred to as the MAC effect. Basically each type of MAC cannon, be it light, medium, super or whatever, has a number next to it. When combining MAC cannons into a single attack you add these numbers together and then, provided your attack is strong enough to do damage, you roll a dice. If you nail the roll then the enemy ship has to take a vulnerable token. What’s that? Simple enough; vulnerable tokens incur a penalty of -1 success to defensive rolls, and also reduce each number in the damage track by 1, so as you can imagine a couple of these can severely hamper a ship. Aside from MAC cannons ships must roll for a vulnerable token whenever they take a damage token, or in other words when an attack successfully gets through a layer on the damage track.

But let’s get back to the details of the attack. When you roll the dice there are a few different results; one success, two successes (exploding), a skull (fail) and a small circle with a line through it (miss). At anything other than a firepower rating of two or lower rolling a two counts as two successes. Simple. Misses and fails obviously mean your crew just flatout suck at aiming, but with a firepower rating of four of five they become useful. At firepower 4 you can re-roll one miss for every exploding result you got, and that can chain together, thus if you reroll two misses and one ends up being an exploding roll you can then reroll another miss, should there be one left. At firepower five you can reroll misses and fails. With a bit of luck this mechanic means that a seemingly bad roll made with a higher firepower rating can suddenly turn into a devestating barrage of pain. Nothing feels worse than watching an opponent roll badly, and then suddenly get a chain reaction of twos that leave your battlegroup crippled. But then again, being the one doing the crippling does feel pretty awesome.

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There’s a few more rules to attack surrounding multiple firing solutions and dealing with ships in a firing solution having lower or higher, but we’ll bypass those for the moment and instead move into the boarding phase which occurs once a battlegroup has finished firing its weapons. Each ship in the game has a boarding craft capacity, and those craft have a maximum distance they can be fired straight into an enemy ship. Speaking of which the enemy ship will be given a chance to shoot down a single boarding craft using its point defence systems. If boarding craft manage to make it through then some boarding craft tokens are added to the bottom of the ship.

Once that’s done it’s time for the opponent to activate one of their battlegroups. The game carries on with each person activating their battlegroups one by one until every ship has moved, fired and then launched its boarding craft.

We then move into the phase dedicated to resolving boarding actions, which the rulebook describes as being one of the most cinematic moments in the entire game. Basically you select a ship that has boarding craft attached to it, and then resolve the boarding action by rolling the total amount of dice indicated by your boarding craft stats, while the enemy gets a chance to fend you off based on their ship’s security rating. You roll off against each and then calculate up the totals, which we’ll refer to as the boarding result dice. This is where things get a bit more complicated; two standard D6 dice are rolled and the two numbers are added together. Now we refer back to the boarding result dice and determine who got more successes. If the attacker’s result was higher than add two to the 2D6 result, and it was double the amount of successes that the defender got then add four. Likewise if the defender got more successes subtract two from the 2D6 result, and if they got double then subtract four. You then take the final number from the D26 dice and consult a chart which tells you what happens. You might lose some boarding craft, or force the enemy to take a vulnerable token. Or you might detonate their reactor causing a devastating explosion which can wipe out nearby ships in a cataclysmic display of raw power.

The final step in a round involves launching new interceptors and bombers from any ships capable of doing so, and attempting to get rid of vulnerable tokens.

Okay, wow, that’s a lot of text I’ve managed to stick on the screen explaining various aspects of the game, and frankly there’s a good bit I’ve missed out for the sake of time. Again then, I come back to the idea that despite Spartan Game’s intentions Fleet Battles might still be daunting for anyone coming straight out of the videogame. With that said if you’re willing to sit down and parse the rulebook there’s a lot of fun to be had here. I still don’t think I’ve gotten a great grasp of the tactics the game can offer due to the Engisn Edition having very small fleets and therefore almost no room for fleet composition decisions, but every match I played was very, very enjoyable. There’s something so pleasurable about the sheer amount of dice that Fleet Battles typically has you handling at any one time, and I was engrossed in figuring out the best firing solutions for my battlegroups before inevitably being forced to watch as my puny plans were ruined by a devastating barrage of fire from a Covenant group I’d foolishly let get too close.

Truth be told, while the Ensign Edition might be the cheapest way to get into the game the Fall of Reach edition is probably the better choice. There just isn’t enough in the box to show off the tactical possibilities. However, it’s a very good teaser for what Fleet Battles can be. In this sense the Ensign Edition does what it needs to do; intrigue the player and encourage them to go out and buy some more ships so they can see what the game is like in ful swing. I confess it worked on me, as I was tempted to pick up some of the larger ships for this review so you could see a match in progress with them, and I could see what else the game offers. Getting a friend to split the cost of the Fall of Reach versions seems like the best thing you could probably do.

I do have some slight support concerns. Considering the game has been out for a good while now there’s not all that many extra ships currently available, especially given how Spartan Games have been allowed to create new vessels for the Halo lore, with the help of Microsoft and 343, of course. However, Spartan have already acknowledged this and promise that Fleet Battles will be getting the love it needs going forward.

Finally,l build quality is a bit mixed. The ships themselves are lovely to look at and fairly easy to construct with a bit of glue. However, the cardboard tokens for damage, interceptors, bombers and more are frankly terrible. They’re made of thin, horrible card. You can upgrade to an acrylic set, but that means spending more cash, and you can also pick up some model interceptors and bombers, but they are quite pricey. The clear pegs holding the ships to the bases don’t always fit correctly either, sometimes being too tight or way too loose.

So, do I recommend Fleet Battles? Yup. Sure, I don’t think it nails the idea of being super-friendly to fans of the videogames who have never been near tabletop gaming in their lives, but if they can stick with it past the initial hurdle then there’s a lot of fun to be found. As for wargaming veterans, I’m a noob in the genre but I believe they’ll rather enjoy it, too. There’s not huge amounts of depth, but it’s enough to keep you engrossed. Having to refer back to tables in the rulebook or reference sheet can ruin the flow a little, but you’ll got those memorised quite quickly. Most importantly, it does a good job of finally bringing huge spaceship battles alive in the Halo universe, at least until we get a videogame that does the same. Watching UNSC and Covenant collide is quite the sight, and rolling so many dice satisfies some weird internal fetish of mine.

UNSC for life.

Recommended

 

 

 

 

 

 

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