SFB – Starfleet Battles

SFB – Starfleet Battles

SFB (Starfleet Battles) is a hex based ship combat game by ADB (Amarillo Design Bureau). It was conceived by Steve Cole back in 1979 after playing Jutland, the naval warfare board game. I was first introduced to this game in the mid-90s by a friend who had just acquired a battered copy of the basic rules, with missing pages, along with some of the SSDs (Ship’s System Displays). At first we had very little idea what we were doing, but I found I was hooked. I went to my local role-playing book shop and picked up the full basic set. This soon turned into regular trips until I had all the expansions!

The SSD for the Federation’s Heavy Cruiser, the original USS Enterprise is this class of ship

The SSD for the Federation’s Heavy Cruiser, the original USS Enterprise is this class of ship.

The basic premise of the game is that you are the captain of a star ship within the Star Trek universe around the Kirk era during a massive war known as The General War. This is not set in the same universe as the popular TV shows so there are discrepancies in the timelines and major TV characters and events don’t exist within its universe. As the game is played on a hex board each ship has six shields, one for each facing along with weapons that have specific arcs they can fire into. The ships also produce power from their engines and internal reactors which you need to allocate to run the various systems from tractor beams to weapons and propulsion. No ship has enough power to run all of its systems whilst moving at any sensible speed. The turn is broken down into impulses in which you can move, fire and activate systems. After 32 of these impulses a new turn starts.

The standard Klingon warship, the D7

The standard Klingon warship, the D7.

The basic ships are the Klingon D7 and the Federation Heavy Cruiser. These ships each produce 34 points of power per turn and require a single point of power to move 1 hex, with the speed limit of the game being set at 31 hexes per turn for ships. As the ship also has to power its life support (1), fire control (1) and shields (2) this leaves it with 30 points of power to play with. Now you can dump all of this into its movements and move for 30 out of the 32 impulses but you would be left with no power for any weapons, unless your phasers were charged on a prior but your heavy weapons which require power every turn would be off line. These are the photon torpedo for the Federation and the disruptor for the Klingons. The disruptor can fire every turn for two points of power whilst the photon has to be charged for at least two points of power over two turns, with the ability to be fired on the second turn. You would also not be able to put any of that power into reinforcing your shields to mitigate incoming damage or any other systems such as your transporters. Never mind the other systems on your ship or the all important electronic warfare game that you have to win.

This is where the game can be won or lost as you have to plan all your energy allocation at the start of each turn. Any damage your ships power-producing systems take during a turn reduce the amount of power you have available next turn. With the basic ships, depicted above, you are limited in where you can spend your power but once you start to play with the more advanced/specialist ships or ones belonging to one of the other races you start to appreciate how power can win and lose you a game.

Romulan KRC Command Cruiser - my personal favourite

Romulan KRC Command Cruiser – my personal favourite.

An example of this is the ship to the right, the  Romulan KRC Command Cruiser, due to the four plasma torpedoes it carries which require three turns to charge up or two if you want to burn your power.

All ships tend to carry at least on administrative shuttle which comes with a single 360 phaser 3 (the weakest phaser) whilst others can carry multiple wings of dedicated fighter shuttles which operate like mini ships including the addition of carrying heavy weapons along with the ability to rearm and repair these small attack craft.

All direct weapon attacks are performed simultaneously during each impulse of the turn with damage taking immediate effect. This can often result in “me-too” firing situations as the closer you are to your target the more damage you can inflict. When one player announces they are going to fire that hex earlier than optimal, with the hope of taking out some of the enemies weapons, the other player tends to announce they are also firing. The game copes with this as you write down what you are doing on paper once you announce you are taking an action, and any other eligible player can also write down what they want to do. Both players reveal their actions, which they are then committed to. This has lead to interesting announcements in the games I have played as I was tired of people mimicking my actions. So I started to declare actions prior to the impulse I wanted to fire, and I would then write down a banal action, whilst my opponent would write down that they were alpha striking me. Of course this led to a lot of psychological warfare during the games and kept us all honest.

Most games tend to end when one ship takes sufficient damage to reduce its combat potential well below the other, so the damaged ship tends to dump all power to engines and disengages. Newer players tend to run straight at each other and maul the enemy ship to pieces whilst their ship suffers the same fate.  More experienced players will dance around the board at high speeds looking for a positional mistake by the other player before diving into an attack that can force the other ship off the board.

Speed is life – Israeli Air Force saying used a lot in SFB

My map with the corner of my counter box in sight

My map with the corner of my counter box in sight

I’m a lover of chess and Starfleet Battles brings the positional and material aspects of chess well into play, along with the randomness (if limited) of dice rolls. ADB is very active and still sells the game along with all the expansions, and there has been a recent uplift in the number of people playing Starfleet Battles. There is an electronic client you can use to play, called Starfleet Battles Online, but you do need to know the rules as the client records all actions and handles the simultaneous decision making aspects of the game.

Expanded rules allow you to play battles between the later ships from the shows such as Star Trek: The Next Generation, including the Borg. Additionally several versions of SFB were made as real time games; those were Starfleet Command,  SFCII Empires at War (and its expansion Orion Pirates) and  Starfleet Command III. The first game was rather basic whilst the second, Empires at War, was a much more complete representation of the board game. The third version is best not talked about as they threw the game’s rules away and made a dumbed-down arcade-like game.

Paul Thompson has been an avid computer gamer since his father brought home an ZX81. He was also indoctrinated into PnP role playing with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness RPG by Erick Wujcik. Paul is thankful that you read his article and would like to invite you to follow him on twitter @BosieWylde as well as the NerdGoblin facebook and twitter @thenerdgoblin .


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