#Coronapocalypse #TravellerRPG #Wargame – Math lessons with Squadron Strike: Traveller (@AdAstraGames, 2018)

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.

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AVID. This ship starts facing hexsides B/C and is rolled 30 degrees right. The plot calls for pivoting 60 degrees to the right and pitching the nose up 30 degrees. Easy to read, yes? (Courtesy Ad Astra Games)

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.

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3D AVID imagined (Courtesy Ad Astra Games)

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.

Box+Mini+Roll+and+Pitch
Left – Ship facing A, no pitch or roll, altitude 0. Right – Ship facing A, pitched up 60 degrees, rolled right 30 degrees, altitude +2
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Target is visible in red box so Mounts S & U bear but Mount T does not (Courtesy Ad Astra Games)

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!

#WargameWednesday – #FirstImpression of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, 2018)

pic514176The Little Black Book version of the Traveller roleplaying game was my first RPG I ever played way back in 1979. Traveller has always had a starship combat element in it and has spawned many games over the years. From the abstract High Guard (1980) to GDW’s simple Mayday (1983) to the more complex Brilliant Lances (1993) to the Full Thrust-derivative Power Projection: Fleet (BITS, 2003), all have tried to model vector-movement starship combat in the Traveller Universe. In 2016, designer Ken Burnside (SpaceGamer on BoardGameGeek) launched a Kickstarter for Squadron Strike: Traveller, based on his Squadron Strike-series of games. Late in 2018, Squadron Strike: Traveller finally delivered over two years late.

What sets Squadron Strike apart from other starship combat games is that it attempts to be a “fast-playing tactical engine that includes full 3D maneuver and firing arcs.” Indeed, Squadron Strike: Traveller was billed as the, “Maneuver-centric ship-to-ship minis game of space combat in the Traveller RPG setting.” It the Kickstarter campaign claims, “Squadron Strike: Traveller uses fully Newtonian movement, including displacement for constant thrust, something that has never appeared in a Traveller game.”

Presentation

Squadron Strike: Traveller is a big game. First off, the box is big at 13.25 x 9.75 x 2.50 inches. There is alot of stuff, well, stuffed into the box. So much so that Mr. Burnside made a “boxing” video to show the fans:

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Ship “Box”

My thoughts on components:

  • Maps – Full color and huge (two 34 x 22 in map sheets); I need a larger game table to set this game up.
  • Reference Cards – Laminated cards with most everything needed, especially the Vector Consolidation rules (another brain-hurting concept).
  • AVID Cards – See comments below.
  • Counter Sheets – Thin; I didn’t spring for the extra box stiffeners – maybe I should of. Once the ship boxes are put together I don’t want to disassemble them…meaning I am going t need another box like I would for a miniatures game.
  • Weapon Reference Tables – Tailored to the setting. Everything else was laminated but not these. The ink almost feel like its going to rub off. Going to put these in page protectors!
  • Introduction to the Third Imperium – 56 page booklet with the obligatory Traveller setting background. Focuses on the era of the Fifth Frontier War and the Third Imperium, Zhodani, and Aslan Empires. The scenarios (11) are also here and form a loose story although there is no campaign rules to expressly link them together. There is also no real ‘do-it-yourself’ scenario guidance.
  • SSD Book – 64 page booklet with both 2D and 3D versions of ships. The back page shows that there are 16 different classes of ships, almost all with multiple variants. Note that most of the 2D versions of the variants are not included in the SSD Book but available for download.
  • Tutorial – This is actually the most important of the text material; there is virtually no chance of really learning the game without this book. The first two tutorials are 2D, the last two 3D. According to the sidebar on p. 3, all that is needed is in the tutorial. I strongly recommend you use the tutorial as-is; no referencing the series Rule Book helps avoid added “confusion.”
  • Squadron Strike Rule BookSquadron Strike 2nd Edition series rules. My copy is copyright 2015 but with changes and additions through 03 Oct 2018.
  • Tilt Blocks & Stacking Tiles – Plastic bits.
  • 4D10 (Red, 2x Black, Blue) – Important for combat resolution.

The scenarios are loosely tied together with some fiction. The writing is acceptable, but nothing to…(wait for it), write home about.

Playability

Squadron Strike: Traveller has a very steep learning curve. I have played through the Tutorial book once and I need to play it again because I am still not sure of myself. There is an Actual Play & Explanations video online but it clocks in at nearly 3 HOURS!

Suffice it to say that, despite the name, Squadron Strike is more suitable for low ship-count battles. I don’t think I am really going to get beyond single ship duels for a while. In the Kickstarter campaign blurb, the time to play was stated this way:

Once you’re fluid with the game, turns take six to ten minutes each, and complete games can be done in ten to fifteen turns. In playtest, we have had the “classic meson gun shot” happen more than once: sometimes, meson guns one-shot kill intact ships.

Mechanics

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AVID (Courtesy Ad Astra)

The heart of Squadron Strike: Traveller is the AVID, or the Attitude Vector Information Display. The entire game revolves around the AVID, and wrapping your head around how it works is the hardest part of learning the game. As the Rule Book states, “The key concept of the AVID is that it’s a top-down view of a sphere, divided into windows that are color-coded rings (amber, blue, green and purple), showing how far away from the equator you are.” (Series Rule Book, p. 5).

Several years back, Ad Astra ran a Kickstarter campaign for the AVID Assistant, a computerized version of the AVID. Ken recommends you use it. I have it and have tried but this old grognard dog needs to figure out the old-fashioned analog version first before I mess around with the new tech.

The game can be played in 2D or 3D mode and both use vector movement for ships. The Tutorial properly starts you playing in 2D mode to learn the very basics.

Outside of the AVID and vector movement (and altitude if playing 3D), Squadron Strike: Traveller is a pretty pedestrian starship combat wargame. The Sequence of Play is PlottingMovementCombatCrew Actions. The color-coded dice come in handy because you can determine Accuracy (Hit), Penetration, and Hit Location all in one throw.

Historical Flavor

Being a game of combat in the Far Future, there is no “historical” flavor in the game. However, after 40 years of development, Marc Miller and his legions of fans have certain expectations of Traveller ship combat.

In a July 2017 update to backers, Mr. Burnside discussed some of the more challenging design issues the Traveller legacy was presenting him. After all, he was trying to take an existing game engine (Squadron Strike) and adopt it for the Traveller universe. Suffice it to say that Ken eventually had go all-in with the “design for effect” school of game design. Some Traveller purist may not be happy (it doesn’t work that way!) but in the end the play of the game won out over “historical accuracy.”

Support

Each Ad Astra game comes with a unique serial number that can be used to register on the company website to access supporting material. Honestly, there is not alot there and most finds it way to BoardGameGeek eventually. I don’t see Mr. Burnside very active in many forums but, now that the Kickstarter campaign has mostly fulfilled, he responds to email better than before.

Bottom Line

I am sure that someday Squadron Strike: Traveller will be a fun game to play. I just have to learn it.

And play it.

Regularly.

Or risk forgetting what I have learned.

Using the AVID is a skill that needs to be exercised regularly to maintain proficiency. I have enough interest in the theme and if the play satisfies then I may make the effort to keep that proficiency.

But I’ve got to learn the game first.