I HAVE BEEN A TRAVELLER RPG PLAYER SINCE 1979 when I got my Classic Traveller Little Black Books set. Over the years I also played many wargames based on the Traveller setting. Of those, I always had a soft spot for tactical starship combat. This week my #coronapocalypse wargame was Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018). What sets Squadron Strike: Traveller (SST) apart is its fully 3D model which uses Newtonian movement in space. Be warned – the back of the box rates the game as Moderate complexity and notes, “Players need to do addition and subtraction.” The last time I played SST was January 2019. At that time I was working my way through the tutorial booklet and was not past the 2D scenarios. Well, this weekend I worked my way through all four scenarios of the Tutorial and discovered SST is not for the faint of heart; there is a steep learning curve that will challenge (and burnout) your brain cells. You WILL need to do more than just addition and subtraction! However, if you persevere the payoff is a very good, playable-albeit-complex model of ship-to-ship combat in the Traveller RPG universe.
The Tutorial book in SST uses a programmed learning approach. If you are a player that just wants to read the rulebook and play you will fail. The 3D concepts used in SST almost defy writing – they really must be experienced in a structured manner to be understood. As designer Ken Burnside writes in the sidebar Don’t Just Read, Play:
The first tutorial is highly scripted – you pretty much follow along and mark boxes. Get in the habit of playing the tutorials; the verbiage is intended to be read while you’re doing things. If you just read the tutorial, there’s a non-zero chance you’ll find it tedious and overwhelming. If you play the tutorial as you read it, you’ll see how it all the pieces and parts fit together.
Tutorial 1 introduces the Sequence of Play and the 2D version of the Altitude Vector Information Display – AVID. The AVID is the heart of SST and to understand the game one has to master how to use the AVID. The tutorial walks the players though the 2D version of the Ship System Display, the SSD, as well as basic 2D movement and combat. At the end of Tutorial 1 the player is familiar with the basics of Plotting, Movement, and Combat.
Tutorial 2 is another 2D scenario, but this time new concepts like Sandcasters (defenses in the Traveller universe), ECM (used to show technological advantages), Profile Numbers (harder to hit when a narrow profile is presented), missile combat and defense, Crew Rate (just how good are your redshirts?), Damage Control (Where’s Scotty?), and different damage allocation. The concept of Action Points (a combination of power allocation and command and control) is also introduced. For real Traveller RPG fans, there is a sidebar note about integrating character RPG skills into a portion of the game here.
At the end of Tutorial 2, Squadron Strike: Traveller looks to be a moderately-more-complex version of Mayday (GDW, 1978) or Power Projection: Fleet (BITS: 2003). Tutorial 3 changes all that with the introduction of 3D movement.
The first concept that one has to wrap their head around is the 3D AVID. One has to take the 2D graphic shown on the Movement Card (shown above) and imagine it as a sphere.
The tutorial makes it clear that there are a few skills are needed; skills that wargamers may not have:
There are three skills you’ll need to master with the the AVID. Unless you’ve been an astronomer, pilot, or driven a submarine for a living, none of them match things you’ve done in gaming or in real life before. It will take some repetition before things “click” The first skill, which we’ll go into now, is orientation. We’ll cover the other two (shooting bearings and mapping them to firing arcs) in the Combat Phase.
If you cannot handle this you will make it no further in learning the game. To help
your imagination visualization, the game uses Tilt Blocks to show your ship’s altitude and orientation on the mapboard.
If you have not given up yet (and you shouldn’t because the Tutorial steps you through everything – although you may need more than one pass to grok it all) you now need to Shoot Bearings to see which weapons bear and can fire. This again requires some
imagination math because you have to figure out which window the enemy is in and then see what weapons bear and can fire. Fortunately, the tutorial steps you through the process and there are many helpful tables on the Reference Card.
As “complex” movement is, I really appreciate the “simplicity” of combat resolution. For each attack you ALWAYS roll 4x d10 (1x red, 2x black, and 1x blue). The red die is your Accuracy– roll Accuracy or greater to hit (very few die mods). The two black are “2d10-” which means you subtract the smaller from the larger for a difference which is additional Damage added to the Base Damage number. The blue die is the Hit Location. I really like this streamlined combat approach – roll one die pool and you immediately have hit, damage, and hit location!
The end result of all that math work is a VERY good game of Traveller. Ken Burnside writes of the differences between generic Squadron Strike and Squadron Strike: Traveller:
- The Traveller universe, set 3,500 years in the future, uses Mode 2 (Newtonian) movement and doesn’t use tactical fuel
- ECM is turned on, but ECCM is deliberately not used; only the Imperials have ECM in this product, and it shows a Traveller tech-level advantage
- The Traveller setting uses sand, hull armor, and component armor as the primary defenses of warships
- Sandcasters, which are “burst mode” shielding with a name change, throw sand in the path of incoming fire
- In a break from normal Squadron Strike usage, but consistent with Traveller, the “meson” weapon trait makes the weapon vulnerable to meson screens, but lets the weapon ignore sand and the surface armor of the ship
- Traveller uses two SuperScience Defenses: The meson screen works against weapons with the Meson trait….Nuclear dampers work against missiles.
After I got thru all four tutorials I had several ships and SSDs ready, so I just played around with the system. Once you learn the game it plays fast. The tutorial mentions The Hockey Puck Analogy which is very appropriate:
One of the best explanations of Squadron Strike tactics came from a player named Patrick Doyle. Momentum movement games are about where the hockey puck will be; not where it is now. Always keep an eye on both the target’s ship and how far out their EoT (End of Turn) tent is from their current location.
Squadron Strike: Traveller is a game that will require regular play to maintain proficiency. As tough as the game is to learn, once learned it plays pretty quickly. Fortunately, the game support small engagements as well as larger squadron-level battles. That said, Ship Book 1 has 15 different ships (although many have variants) and there are a few extra ships available online. Like most every Traveller RPG player, I like to design my own ships and I would like to put them into this game. There is supposedly a ship design spreadsheet available for registered users (so…where is that login?). I guess this is also a good place to mention that there is an AVID app available for web/Android/iOS devices. I looked at it but it was not immediately intuitive to me so I just kept plodding along (and learning) the manual way.
Given the abundance of extra time from the Coronapocalypse I think a few battles may be shortly in order!