#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.

Gaming Grumbles – March 18, 2018

(A collection of random gaming thoughts – possibly negative. You have been warned)

I can’t figure out how to link to a Twitter video, but go look at the March 16 tweets by @koreaboardgames. Maybe if Toys R Us in the US did events like these kids game days they would still be around rather than dumping Di$ney $tar War$ crap Hasbro toys on the market.

Amarillo Design Bureau has released Captain’s Log #45 on places like Wargame Vault. When I was a huge Star Fleet Battles player, I literally raced to the game store to buy the latest Captain’s Log. I usually enjoyed the fiction, loved the “history,” and played the ‘eck out of the new ships and scenarios. But $19.95 for a digital download? For a product that was originally released in 2012 – and not updated? That works out to something like $.13/page – a bit rich for my wallet.

My Incredibly Negative Kickstarter Experience continues (no) thanks to Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games with Squadron Strike: Traveller. This campaign funded in March 2016 with 290 backers pledging $23,339 against a goal of $5000. At the time it looked promising as the campaign claimed:

At the time we launched this Kickstarter, the setting-and-scenario booklet was edited, the tutorial booklet was in final edits, and the SSD booklet had been laid out. The countershafts have been laid out, and the folio cover and box wrap are laid out and ready to send to the printer.

On the first business day after this project reaches its funding goal, I’ll send the print job to the printers to minimize delay in shipping games to backers.

I pledged for the boxed game; no minis. In late February 2018 some backers who purchased minis finally started receiving their ships but the game is still not ready. In an update on March 17 backers were told that the SSD book is in layout because it needed “re-designing,” tutorial scenarios are being written/rewritten, and…I really don’t give a damn about your excuses anymore! Where is my frakking game!

 

 

Game of the Week for 12 March 2018 – Talon Reprint Edition (@GMTGames, 2017)

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Courtesy GMT Games

I have my own shelf of shame and one of the games that is sitting on it is Talon Reprint Edition (GMT Games, 2015/17). I wrote a First Impressions post last September but the game has languished, unloved, since. My past few Game of the Week have been older games; this week change that and try a newer game.

The Talon Play Book has a Tutorial scenario so that seems like a good place to start. If I can get a chance with the RockyMountainNavy boys, we might try Scenario 1 – War is Upon Us during the week. The scenario looks to be a good learning game with few ships on two evenly-matched sides duking it out. If all goes well, Scenario 3 – The First Fleet Engagement looks like a good Game Night event.

Like I wrote in my First Impressions, I see Talon as a sci-fi fleet combat game to replace Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau) in my collection. I tried Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau) but found it wanting. I think this is because the RMN Boys are simply not Trekkies. [I know, I have failed as a Geek Father – sue me] More directly to my point, they are not well acquainted with the thematic elements behind SFB and FC, and therefore the complexity of the games push them away. I also see Talon as an inexpensive alternative to Star Wars: Armada (Fantasy Flight Games). In the case  of Armada I dislike the theme (I am very anti-Di$ney Star Wars these days) and cringe at the cost of all those miniatures in a game that is another unappealing manual video game.

To be fair, I actually have another fleet combat game in my collection. Full Thrust (Ground Zero Games) and the very similar Power Projection: Fleet (BITS UK) are probably my favorite sci-fi fleet combat games. FT is a generic set of rules whereas PP:F is tailored for the Traveller RPG universe. The problem is that both are miniatures games and I never made that investment (although with modern desktop publishing software and home printers it is possible to make custom counters and tokens).

I am also very happy to get Talon to the table in part because another sci-fi combat game I bought in 2016 has yet to arrive. I made the mistake of backing Squadron Strike: Traveller by Ken Burnside and Ad Astra Games on Kickstarter. Allegedly, the miniatures for the game started shipping late February, but for backers like me who didn’t buy minis and am waiting for my boxed set it appears that all I am going to get is a beta-version of the pdf. All of which makes me look forward to Talon that much more because its a lot easier to have fun with a game when its actually on your table and not vaporware!

#NegativePosting – Why I don’t like #Kickstarter courtesy @AdAstraGames #SquadronStrikeTraveller

Call me a sucker. Warning – I write this post in “simmering rant-mode.”

I am a long-time Traveller RPG fan. Part of why I like the universe is the various ship combat systems. From the small-ship Mayday (GDW, 1979) to fleet engagements using Power Projection: Fleet (BITS, 2003) I have tried out various systems – with just as many various  levels of satisfaction.

I was very happy in February 2016 when Ken Burnside kickstarted Squadron Strike: Traveller. Although I was a bit worried about game system complexity, I backed the project because I was hungry for Traveller space combat game. I also recognized Ken from Star Fleet Battles; another game I dearly loved.

It is now 21 October 2017…exactly 19 months after the project funded and I still do not have my game. Part of the delay is because Ken had to get the miniatures that are one of the stretch goals produced. Problem is I pledged for the boxed game only:

This is the Deluxe Edition of Squadron Strike Traveller, as a boxed game. It is the same as Squadron Strike 2nd Edition, only it replaces the Empire/Directorate War content with Squadron Strike Traveller. It also includes the PDFs of all the materials.

I didn’t buy the miniatures but an being held up because of them. FOUL!

Maybe I didn’t read the Risks and Challenges closely enough:

This is a project that uses techniques and components we use for the other Ad Astra boxed games. There is nothing in this that we have not successfully done before.

At the time we launched this Kickstarter, the setting-and-scenario booklet was edited, the tutorial booklet was in final edits, and the SSD booklet had been laid out. The countersheets have been laid out, and the folio cover and box wrap are laid out and ready to send to the printer.

On the first business day after this project reaches its funding goal, I’ll send the print job to the printers to minimize the delay in shipping games to backers.

The project funded Monday, 21 March 2016 making the “next business day” Tuesday, 22 March 2016. Yet today, October 2017, I don’t have my game.

In December 2016 things looked close. In a Backers-only update (#30) Ken provided insight into the print product:

  • Countersheets – “Done and in-house”
  • SSD Book – “needs some cleanup”
  • Tutorial Book – “needs a heavy edit” to get under 64-page count
  • Scenario and Setting Book – “something of a mess”
  • Master Weapons Charts – “done and ready to print”
  • Box Wrap – “Done and in-house.”
  • Maps – “Done and in-house”
  • Tilt Blocks/Stacking Tiles/AVID Cards/RALT Cards – All “Done and in-house”

Then in April 2017 (Update #33), Ken posted about the “RPG/Minis Integration Problem.” Yes Ken, it’s a problem that you knew about from the beginning and was even one of the FAQ Questions:

Will RPG-scale or Adventurer-scale ships be a stretch goal?

No. While we have those in development, they are nowhere near ready enough to be used as a stretch goal for this campaign. There will be a later Kickstarter covering RPG-scale ships.

If problems come up, creators are expected to post a project update explaining the situation. Sharing the story, speed bumps and all, is crucial. Most backers support projects because they want to see something happen and they’d like to be a part of it. Creators who are honest and transparent will usually find backers to be understanding.

It’s not uncommon for things to take longer than expected. Sometimes the execution of the project proves more difficult than the creator had anticipated. If a creator is making a good faith effort to complete their project and is transparent about it, backers should do their best to be patient and understanding while demanding continued accountability from the creator.

If the problems are severe enough that the creator can’t fulfill their project, creators need to find a resolution. Steps should include offering refunds, detailing exactly how funds were used, and other actions to satisfy backers. For more information, see Section 4 of our Terms of Use.

There are some very squishy words here like “good faith” and “transparent.” I am trying to be “patient and understanding” but after 19 months it is getting really hard!

What is Section 4 of the Terms of Service? Section 4 explains the CONTRACT between creators and backers. I am going to quote it in full because it is has remedies for situations:

Kickstarter provides a funding platform for creative projects. When a creator posts a project on Kickstarter, they’re inviting other people to form a contract with them. Anyone who backs a project is accepting the creator’s offer, and forming that contract.

Kickstarter is not a part of this contract — the contract is a direct legal agreement between creators and their backers. Here are the terms that govern that agreement:

When a project is successfully funded, the creator must complete the project and fulfill each reward. Once a creator has done so, they’ve satisfied their obligation to their backers.

Throughout the process, creators owe their backers a high standard of effort, honest communication, and a dedication to bringing the project to life. At the same time, backers must understand that when they back a project, they’re helping to create something new — not ordering something that already exists. There may be changes or delays, and there’s a chance something could happen that prevents the creator from being able to finish the project as promised.

If a creator is unable to complete their project and fulfill rewards, they’ve failed to live up to the basic obligations of this agreement. To right this, they must make every reasonable effort to find another way of bringing the project to the best possible conclusion for backers. A creator in this position has only remedied the situation and met their obligations to backers if:

  • they post an update that explains what work has been done, how funds were used, and what prevents them from finishing the project as planned;
  • they work diligently and in good faith to bring the project to the best possible conclusion in a timeframe that’s communicated to backers;
  • they’re able to demonstrate that they’ve used funds appropriately and made every reasonable effort to complete the project as promised;
  • they’ve been honest, and have made no material misrepresentations in their communication to backers; and
  • they offer to return any remaining funds to backers who have not received their reward (in proportion to the amounts pledged), or else explain how those funds will be used to complete the project in some alternate form.

The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.

This is all good information that I really didn’t want to know. A real reminder that Kickstarter is the ultimate “buyer beware.” I really like the boardgame hobby and it makes me sick to my stomach to think that I may be joining a lawsuit in the future.

Truth told, I actually am not very anxious for this game to arrive. Two years ago I thought that I needed games like Squadron Strike: Traveller to satisfy my gaming urges. You see, back then I was a “simulationist” gamer – the more “real” the game the more I wanted it. A system like Squadron Strike with its 3D, vector movement and realistic firing arcs seemed just the thing to make spaceship combat gaming worth it. I wanted to play it now (i.e. back then). But I have “grown up”, and out, of simulationist gaming since then. The very complexity that makesSquadron Strike: Traveller “realistic” means it has a very low chance of ever landing my gaming table.

I honestly want Squadron Strike: Traveller not for the game, but simply because I PAID FOR IT!