Storm Zone: Battle for Valhalla – A Review

firestorm-select copyPart 2 of my Firestorm Armada second edition review is finally here. Apologies for yet another long delay. There’s a lot going on in my world at the moment and it’s pulling me away from the site far more than I’d like.

But anyway…

Storm Zone: Battle for Valhalla is the starter set released by Spartan Games at the same time as their second edition Firestorm Armada rule set. I was really pleased to see Spartan go down this route for their games because starter sets are such excellent point of entry into a hobby. Games Workshop has produced some stonkers over the years – with the exception of one or two – and I’ve bought and loved just about all of them. And there’s no shame in copying something that works.

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In the Battle for Valhalla box you get two fairly modest fleets – Terran Alliance (yay me) and Dindrenzi (yay Lee) – and a space station to scrap over. I wasn’t wild about the models. There just aren’t enough of them and yes you basically get the station (that’s a bit poor), the flyer bases and the rules for free but it’s an £80 boxset and if I’m honest it doesn’t feel great value. Unless you’re going halves with someone but as you’ll inevitably end up buying a second rulebook there’s not really much in it. That said at least you get the full hardback rules in the box rather than a slimmed down version. Big tick for Spartan on that one.

The rulebook I’ve covered already so I’ll focus just on the models and other odds and sods.

So why is the space station a bit poor? Well my main issue is that it is the least exciting thing in the box. For a centrepiece it should be as pant tightening as something out of Star Trek. Plus the armatures for the dock are clear acrylic. No detail, no nuthin. And because Spartan wanted to keep them in one piece whilst in the box, none of the arms were fully lasered through the frame which means an agonising and slow cut through each join. 10 armatures, 2 cuts per arm. That’s a lot of time wasted especially when it could crack or shatter. And to add insult to injury, as far as I can tell, there’s no stand for it. So you have to sit it on the board each time you use it. Not awesome.

However, where Spartan redeem themselves is in the area that drew me to their games in the first place – the spaceships. The thing I like about Spartan Games is that they release new models but allow you to use the old ones – even writing rules for them to give a sense of time and technology progressing. It’s cool that my Terran fleet has two classes of Battleship and Cruiser in it. However I was a bit surprised that the starter set featured yet more new models when the mkII’s hadn’t been out all that long and are gorgeous. Plus it would mean painfully subtle rule differences in a game that already had a lot of painfully subtle rule differences. However they are all utterly awesome. Especially the Dindrenzi battleship. It’s a superb example of design and casting. It’s a glorious, beautiful thing that almost makes me want to start a Dindrenzi fleet. Lee is a very lucky chap to be getting his hands on that model.

Although the Terran models aren’t exactly ugly. Whilst I’m not 100% about all of the design tweaks moving it on from the Apollo Class battleship, there’s no denying that the Tyrant class battleship is a big, beautiful, ball buster of a ship. Albeit inappropriately named considering the Terran’s are supposed to be the nicer bunch of the two factions. My only real gripes about the models is the two halves of the Terran cruisers don’t sit flush, which is a shame as the gap is noticeable, the parts of the model that the flying stand goes into are separate on some models which makes me doubt long-term stability, and the thrusters on the Dindrenzi Praetorian Class battleship aren’t a brilliant fit.

But all that said, there’s no denying the quality of the detail and the superb casting quality. And in-game terms – as one would expect – they’re pretty evenly matched. Terran have less armour but shields. The Dindrenzi chuck out more shots but still have to put up with gun racks. The Terrans also get slightly more stuff which presumably is geared around the campaign book that’s also included in the box.

From a gaming point of view the Battle for Valhalla box is a bit of a deal as there are scenarios in the main book and then the campaign book on top. So from the point of view of smashing out a campaign – or just playing multiple games with some variety – it’s pretty good. The booklet itself is good. Some nice fluff at the start followed by some lovely scenarios (which make sense) and then the ship details at the back so you can get down to some face kicking without having to go online to download the data cards or buying the fleet book.

The other welcome addition is the counter sheets. This may seem a slightly inane thing to bring up but for me it’s very important for two reasons. 1. They’re pre-cut so none of that painstaking cutting out of counters that were printed on photo paper from Boots. The other is they’re all pleasingly designed. They’re all labelled which is a huge help but the design of each one is so simple that I just love looking at them. Especially as Spartan have been extremely clever with their use of colour palettes. They’re excellent and, for me, nicer to look at than the campaign book. But I’m a design nerd.

Overall the Battle for Valhalla is a good starter set. It’s not the cheapest starter set going but it’s not the most expensive either. The models are all gorgeous – the disappointment with the station not withstanding. The fact that you get the full rules and a campaign book is very good. I do have some reservations about the way some of the models go together but until they get regular use I can’t really say it’s a deal breaker. I would advise extra care though, especially as the battleships are heavy.

If you and a friend are looking to get into the Firestorm Armada hobby or you and friend want the new rules and some cool new ships for your existing fleets, this really is a path worth considering. Especially if you can survive on just one copy of the rules.

Firestorm Armada – Storm Zone: Battle for Valhalla is available from Firestorm Games priced £72.00.

How to Breach Hulls and Influence People

The other week Spartan Games released new free PDF downloads of the Six core Fleet Manuals for version 2.0 of Firestorm Armada. Having had a look through the new files, I’m quite impressed, and there are clearly a lot of new ideas in the new version of the game.

So far, we only have Fleet Manuals for the six core factions (Aquans, Terrans, Sorylians, Directorate, Dindrenzi and Relthoza), but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the Alliance of Kurak and the Zenian League (not to mention other factions like the Syndicate) get their own treatment. These free downloads contain the key rules for choosing a fleet and the ship stats and options. For background material or shiny artwork however you will have to wait (and pay for) the shiny printed versions to be released in early 2014. It will be interesting to see how this pairing of premium book and free bare-bones download works out for both Spartan and the players. Certainly it means not having to lug a heavy book around when you can just look up stats on a phone/tablet; or carry around a printout and not get your nice book all scuffed.

The fact that the downloads are intended to be ‘living documents’ which will be updated as rules errata come up or new ships are released. This is undoubtedly a good thing, though I can imagine a few people being narked about having to download an updated PDF every so often.  I have to wonder how people with the hard copy versions will be updated. Whether Spartan will take the GW route of releasing updated manuals every so often or the Privateer Press route of releasing periodic anthologies with new toys for all factions. [Or downloadable paragraphs that you can glue over the redundant paragraphs. -Ed.]

Looking at the Manuals themselves, it’s clear that the fleet selection rules have been expanded and refined. Ships are now chosen from one of three Tiers, with minimum and maximum selections for each. Tiers group ships roughly according to size and the what falls within a particular Tier changes based on the size of the game, so large ships are heavily restricted in small games but are more widely available in larger games. The minimum and maximum choice restrictions for each size Tier both also scale with the size of game so fleets should have a reasonable balance of small, medium and large ships at all game sizes. That said, the gap between the minimum and maximum choices at each tier is quite narrow and I would not be entirely surprised if some players ran out of slots before they ran out of points.

Most importantly to some players, it is no longer possible to build a fleet with a token single squadron each of small or medium ships and spend the rest of your points on dreadnoughts.

The rules covering Alliance Fleets in the Fleet Manuals are clear and straightforward. While Alliance fleets do face some penalties in terms of Tactical ratings and access to cards, this is presumably to balance out the fact that including allies can be used to offset the perceived weaknesses of a particular fleet. Interestingly, each core fleet now has a ‘Natural Ally’, a minor faction whose ships can be taken in greater proportion and with slightly reduced penalties, for example Terrans with Hawker or Dindrenzi with RSN. This is a nice touch as it is evocative of the background and helps encourage players to vary their collection without having to take too great a wallop  from the nerf bat.

Interestingly, in very large games, you now assemble your force out of multiple separate battlegroups which are considered independent for a lot of rules purposes. Again this has a nice evocative feel of distinct formations coming together in common cause, but it also appears to be another way of including allies without the same penalties you incur when you are simply lumping allied ships in with a single detachment.

Looking at the ship rules themselves, the most obvious change is that virtually everything bigger than an escort now has at least a few options. I’m sure this will please anyone who has ever felt that playing Firestorm Armada felt a bit samey after a while and longed for the chance to make their personal armada just that little bit more theirs. The options seem to be thematically consistent throughout each fleet list and combined with the fact that ship weapons are now broken down by type (scatter weapons, beam weapons etc) means that each fleet has a lot more personality now. The only question is how to represent these options on the model as most FSA ships lack any kind of options in the kit. Players may find themselves having to concentrate very hard to keep track of which squadron of cruisers has the overcharged engines and which has the juiced up guns.

Coupled to this is the fact that in most, but not all cases ships of the same type (for example the Terran Razorthorn and Apollo battleships, but not the Tyrant battleship) have been rolled together and are  covered by a single profile and options list. This is slightly disappointing as it seems like they have missed of on a way of introducing more opportunities to vary and/or theme your force. Most of the ships affected by this are the MK1 and Mk2 cruisers, carriers and battleships so perhaps there is some reason for similar capabilities, but to potentially have them running with entirely identical stats – and even identical upgrades – seems a bit of a shame. I can appreciate that you can in principle use, for example, Sentinel and Hermes class cruisers to represent cruisers upgraded to different capabilities, but I can imagine unscrupulous players keeping their opponents guess about what they are facing, maybe luring the enemy into a trap with a ‘humble’ mk 1 cruiser.

Overall these are pretty impressive documents. All the more so given that they are being offered free to download. I’ve not had a chance to read the version 2.0 rules yet but what we see hints of in these PDFs suggests big changes and a lot more investment in making the game more diverse and characterful. I think FSA players have a lot to look forward to.

Firestorm Armada Second Edition

After a very long wait and no shortage of pissing and moaning I’m pleased to announce that the start of Spartan Games’ second edition rules are starting to come out.

First up is Firestorm Armada. Although the game that needs it the least, it suits me as it’ll serve as a motivator to paint my Terran Fleet. All the information is lifted from the Spartan Games website, including the images. It all sounds rather interesting and providing they sort out their truly woeful layout issues and their obsession with making words bold for no obvious reason we may well be on to a winner…

RANGED COMBAT

As you would expect, Ranged Combat still forms the meat of the Firestorm Armada game, and its core principles remain very similar to the existing system.

However, we have added various layers to Ranged Combat with two central aims in mind: to further differentiate between the warring Races of the Firestorm Galaxy and to increase the tactical options available to players during the heat of battle.

These ‘layers’ include:

Different Weapons Systems

We have expanded out the current Primary weapons class to encompass different Weapons Systems, including Kinetic Weapons such as the high energy Dindrenzi Rail Guns, Beam Weapons like Aquan laser systems and Nuclear Weapons such as the infamous ‘Decimator Warheads’ used by the Terran Alliance.

These Weapons Systems can be used in conjunction to gain bonuses, for example focused Beam Weapon attacks are better at bypassing enemy shields. This gives a greater range of tactical flexibility; players will need to use the right weapons at the right time to overwhelm their opponent’s defences. Furthermore, as each race has a predisposition for particular Weapon Systems, it instantly gives every race its own distinct feel on the tabletop.

Targeted Strikes

We have also given players the option to make ‘Targeted Strikes’. Declared when a Squadron makes an attack, this allows you to target particular areas of an enemy ship, in the hope of taking a specific system offline.

Again, this adds tactical nuance to the game, as you use Targeted Strikes to set up favourable situations. A Strike against an enemy Battleship’s defences could take out its Point Defence, leaving it vulnerable for a crippling Torpedo volley. An attack directed at a fleeing vessel’s engines could leave it drifting whilst your ships close in for the kill.

BOARDING ASSAULTS

Given the vast distances involved (and the hard vacuum of space!) characterising Boarding Assaults without losing the hard sci-fi vision prevalent in Firestorm Armada is quite a challenge. However, the image of elite marines or deadly boarding robots stalking enemy ships and sowing havoc amongst their crew is far too evocative to abandon.

As such, we have kept the Boarding Assault system streamlined so as not to bog down a game which is primarily focussed on big ships with big guns. We have also made Boarding difficult, but potentially very rewarding. This is to encourage players to use their varied tactical options, such as ‘Targeted Strikes’, to set up a successful boarding action that can cause heavy damage.

The principle with the new system is that your boarding teams will be heading for a particular area of the huge enemy vessel, aiming to knock out certain systems whilst they disrupt the enemy crew as much as possible.

TACTICAL MANOEUVRES

Squadrons now have the option to perform special ‘Tactical Manoeuvres’ when they activate. The idea being that ships can divert power from certain areas in order to boost up a particular system. For example, a vessel might be able to deactivate its Weapons Systems in order to gain a sudden burst of speed, or it might drain its engines to reinforce its Shields against an incoming attack.

FLIGHTS or SHORT RANGED SPACECRAFT

Flights, now referred to as Short Ranged Spacecraft (‘SRS’ for short) have also undergone some changes.

The primary aim here was to keep these craft a fun and effective tool, whilst boosting the role of the Carriers that bring them to battle. With this in mind, SRS are now kept orbiting their carriers until they are able to dart out in an ‘Attack Run’ against an exposed enemy vessel. This emphasises the need to get your Carriers in to the fight, so that their attendant SRS are in place to attack when the opportunity arises.

TACTICAL ABILITY CARDS

Replacing the existing Game Cards are a set of ‘Tactical Ability Cards’. These are special ‘orders’ that your Fleet Admiral and their bridge crew can give, to provide your fleet with certain bonuses.

Rather than drawing from a random deck each turn, you will be able to select a number of Tactical Ability Cards before a battle commences, which you can then employ at crucial moments throughout the game. This gives an extra level of pre-planning, and allows you to tailor your special abilities to the sort of fleet you like to play.

TERRAIN

The role of Terrain within Firestorm Armada has also been expanded, to include more varied effects and increase the impact that the battlefield has on the game being played.

Whilst the majority of space is an empty void, there is relatively little to be gained by fighting over a vacuum! As such, we see most space battles taking place ‘in system’, around space stations and asteroid fields and near objectives that are worth committing vast resources to capture.

In turn this will make your games of Firestorm Armada more varied and engaging. You will need to plan your tactics to take advantage of asteroid cover, gain slingshot speed boosts from planetoids and avoid particle clouds that can disrupt your communications networks.

FLEET BUILDING

The way that Fleets are constructed has been altered to make the process quicker and easier, without invalidating your existing Fleet builds.

On top of this, we have also put more flexibility into the models’ Statistics Profiles, in the form of ‘Upgrades’ and ‘Hardpoints’.

Many models will have access to particular Upgrades; additional special rules that a Squadron can purchase which will increase their points cost but make them better suited to a particular battlefield role.

The larger models in your Fleet will also have a number of Hardpoints that they can fill. These will allow you to tailor these models to suit your play style – allowing you to create a tougher Battleship to soak up enemy fire, an assault oriented Dreadnought with increased boarding potential or a faster Carrier that can quickly deliver your Short Range Spacecraft to the fight.

VICTORY CONDITIONS

The existing ‘Orders’ system is being replaced with a rounded set of Scenarios. This should help to make your games even more varied and exciting, and continually present you with new challenges to overcome.

To coincide with this we have introduced the idea of a ‘Battle Log’. This is an easy way to track the progress of a battle, and various effects will kick in as the Battle starts to swing one way and the enemy’s morale begins to crumble.

SUMMARY

As you can see, we’ve made a number of exciting enhancements to Version 2.0 of Firestorm Armada. We have aimed to maintain the simple and easy to pick up nature of the current game, whilst adding even more sci-fi flavour and tactical flexibility. The core elements of the game (i.e. moving your spaceships and firing their weapons) should remain very familiar to current Firestorm Armada players, but the additional layers we have added will keep your games fresh and exciting.