Firestorm Armada 2nd Edition – A Review

First an apology for being so quiet for so long. I was on holiday for a week which should have warranted an explosion of writing on my part. But there was no wifi. Heck there was very little phone signal. And chasing a toddler around acres of woodland, it turns out, was rather knackering so even writing offline proved too much as I was too wiped out after the little cherub went to bed. The review itself has taken a while to pen because I wanted to make sure I did the game justice. There was a couple of false starts where I began to write with no real direction which warranted the Ctrl-A, Delete bomb. So this review signals my return and I hope it was worth the wait.

firestorm-select copyIt’s been a wee while since I’ve reviewed anything from the Firestorm Armada universe so what better way than to look at the second edition rules and the new starter set? I’ll cover the rules in this article then look at the starter set and its bevy of toys later.

I’m a real fan of Firestorm Armada and the awesome models that accompany it. It was Firestorm Armada and its sister game, Dystopian Wars that I popped my non-GW-gaming cherry with. And it was a pretty easy decision to make as both games had gorgeous, reasonably priced, models and generally positive feedback from wargamers on Twitter.

FARB04-2 copy

For me, other than the sexy models, what makes Firestorm Armada, for me, such a brilliant fun game is the utterly embarrassing amount of dice you get to roll. When Firestorm Invasion (sort of) came out a while back it used a revised mechanic and I half expected Spartan to go that way with the second editions of Firestorm and Dystopian Wars. And I’m delighted to report that it isn’t the case. Because honest to God, starting an attack with 12 dice and ending it with 36 is immensely satisfying thanks to the exploding dice mechanic.

For the uninitiated the exploding dice mechanic works thus – any natural roll of a 6 counts as 2 hits and then you roll another dice. If that extra dice is a 6 it counts as 2 hits and you roll another dice. Repeat. It is, of course, a two-edged sword. What you can inflict on your enemy than can inflict on you but the trick is to get in first. And thanks to the retention of the alternating activation that’s still possible. It does mean that turns still take a while and big games will take half a day rather than an evening but that’s not the first game to be guilty of that.

So what’s new? Well quite a bit actually.

The main thing is upgrades for ships. There are options to swankify your weapon systems as well as hardpoints for system upgrades that give you largers ships extra armour, extra movement etc. It’s a big and important change for Spartan who did everything they could to keep the ships ‘factory standard’ to keep the game simple. But when you consider the variations across classification by fleet and by model was tiny and even non-existent something had to give beyond piling on more MARs special rules. Which I’ve always been irritated by and rarely used in any of the gamers I’ve played.

It’s great to see these options being opened up because it allows for real fleet building as well as applying some tactics to the process. Up to now every fleet list I’ve ever built has been entirely geared around the volume of dice I got to use. Because nothing else mattered. Whilst the upgrades won’t change the outcome of a game they’ll certainly make things more interesting. It’s also good that not all upgrades are available to everyone and allows you to tailor units into a specific combat role ala Battlefleet Gothic.

Another new addition is the battle log which is a poorly named means of tracking the game’s progress. If I’m honest it just doesn’t work. It’s based on morale which is a very iffy premise and fails to take into account how massively varied morale can be not just species to species but navy to navy, fleet to fleet and ship to ship. It’s a staggering over simplification that’s immediately made more complicated by the scoring system which forces you to take large squadrons of everything or face losing very quickly as it’s based around units being wiped out. Personally I think it’s just easier to total up the points the ships are worth. Fucking about with tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 ships and how many were wiped out which determines how many points is…well…fucking about.

There’s also some proper background in this book. It is, sadly, still quite poor. It lacks subtlety and presence. It just feels very safe whilst failing to really deliver any kind of impact. Yes it’s a big improvement. Yes I have a better idea of what’s going on. But does it shove its hand down my pants and have a good rummage? No it doesn’t. And that’s very frustrating for me because I’m a fluff gamer and I’ve always liked the idea of Firestorm. And with so many games out there with detailed background, there’s really no excuse for 15(ish) pages of background that felt like they were as much of a chore to write as they are to read. However it is an improvement, it is more detailed and it is more interesting than before. And the section on the planets is a nice touch too.

Overall though it is a huge improvement on the previous versions. The book is better presented for one thing – although there’s a few too many glossy photos – with examples that actually relate to the text around them. They’ve also finally done away with the profoundly irritating arbitrary use of bold that plagued all the other Spartan Games rule books up to now.

It all feels very tight. Rule explanations are clearer to the point that I didn’t have to read and re-read them to understand just what the hell the developers were on about. I still have that concern that there are too many steps to each stage so game play still won’t be as slick as it should be. But thanks to the standard of rule writing increasing at least there’ll be significantly less time wasted arguing over rule interpretation or spending an age flicking through an appallingly laid out book. Second edition is pretty bang on in that respect. It’s a much more natural, logical read. Thank the Lord.

One of my big buy bears about Firestorm (and Dystopian Wars) was the woefully vague rules for tiny flyers. Par of the problem was that explanations were dotted throughout the rule book and with no index it was all but impossible to find what you were looking for. All the rules are in one place now (huzzah) but they’ve also been hugely improved on to the point that one full understands how to use them. They’re still far too complicated for what should be a minor aspect of the game but it’s a big improvement. Improvement enough for me to buy more carriers? No, but at least I’ll make use of the one I have.

There’s also some scenarios. At last. It was badly needed in the core rules and far better than adding them into supplement books like Spartan did with Dystopian Wars. It was a frustrating move motivated by money rather than putting right a mistake. But the important thing one can feel like a campaign is no possible. Eventually anyway. The fleet lists have been taken from the book and put into two separate books costing £20 each. Comparatively cheaper than a Codex but that £20 covers all the good, or all the bad, species. So pence per page the value isn’t awesome if you only collect one fleet from the entire. book. But more on that another time.

The second edition rules for Firestorm Armada is a huge improvement on versions 1.0 and 1.5. The writing is stronger, the rules are clearer and have been – for the most part – logically improved upon. Not all the ideas work and it’s now a slightly more expensive game to get into but don’t let that put you off because it’s well worth it.

Firestorm Armada, second edition, and the Battle for Valhalla starter box are both available from Firestorm Games priced £18 and £72 respectively.

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.

My Other Ship is a Dreadnought

Hot off the presses over at Spartan Games are these grabs of the Dindrenzi, Relthoza and Directorate dreadnoughts for Firestorm Armada, and like the three we’ve already seen, they’re absolutely massive!

My guess is that some new products will be appearing on the Spartan Games shop any day now that’ll make many gamers, myself included, extremely happy. And fear not loyal readers, I shall bravely review a couple of them for you. I know, I know, I’m a hero…

Spartan Spectacular

Anyone who visits this blog, Paint and Biscuits or the Spartan Games website will know that the fine chaps at Spartan have been very busy lately, with a bevy of sneak peaks hitting the blog pages.

Amongst the plethora of toys was the Firestorm Armada Dreadnoughts. Slowly leaked over a number of weeks, players of this fine space combat romp have been scouring the interwebs to find out when they’ll be coming out. Well I can tell you it’ll be next month. Just in time for Christmas so reserve a portion of your present budget from the wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend – delete as appropriate – for you dreadnought of choice. Prices start at £17 and go up to £23 in the case of the Aquan ship, but if you’ve seen size compared to the battleships, that’s still excellent value.

And before anyone asks, yes I’ll be getting a couple for review. And in case anyone’s interested, the destroyers will be out the same time in packs of 2 for between £9 and £10.50.

In other Spartan news Phase 3 of Uncharted Seas is rolling out with yet more choice models some of which can be seen below…

 

The Destroyer of Worlds

Today it’s Firestorm Armada’s turn to get some shiny new ships in the form of destroyers. I’m a massive fan of this game mainly because the ships are gorgeous and these are no exception. As you’ll see they’re all as sexy as the other ships in the range. Although I have to say that the Aquan ships is, once again, a bit of a departure from the rest of the Aquan range.

It’s not a complaint, just an observation. But I can see Aquan players getting irritated by this lack of direction. Personally I love this and the Aquan dreadnought, I think they’re both very bold designs but had I just spent £30+ on a fleet I think I’d feel a little bit confused as to how current that fleet is.

The rest of the ships, as you’ll see, stay true to their roots and I may have to add them to the dreadnoughts to review when they’re released…

 Terran Artemis Class Destroyer

Sorylian Kestros Class Destroyer

Dindrenzi Trident Class Destroyer

Relthoza Venom Class Destroyer

Directorate Nemesis Class Destroyer

Aqua Stingray Class Destroyer

A Feeling of Dread’

Fresh from the pages of Spartan Games’ website we have another sneak peek at a Dreadn0ught. This time it’s the Relthoza’s turn. The Apex Class Dreadnought is, in a word, epic.
The thing I’ve enjoyed most about the images that Spartan are teasing us with over the release of the Dreadnoughts is that they’ve managed to retain the ‘fleet identity’ whilst still presenting an awesome looking model that sets itself apart from the rest of the fleet not in size but in attention to detail. I think you’ll agree that the Apex Class Dreadnought fires the imagination and will get gamers psyched just as much as its rivals. If not more so.

The Apex Class Dreadnought alongside the Brood Class Battleship

The Apex Class Dreadnought & Brood Class Battleship front on for size comparison.