Tabletop Game Review – Dropfleet Commander

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As much as Battlefleet Gothic was an often entertaining game, it suffered from a number of issues that I feel show its age, and show how wargame design has developed; while its factions have numerous flavourful rules and are very distinct, most of these rules do not work particularly well to create a fun game. There is absolutely a place for a game which focuses on flavour and narrative over strict statistical balance, but BFG never, I felt, committed enough to doing this and what was left was a game with two well-thought-out factions balanced against each other and a number of strange, often very thematic but not fun to play or face factions. There were numerous other mechanical idiosyncrasies that got in the way of it being a good game; small ships were unviably weaker than large ones and the special order system added far too much unnecessary variation to games by requiring a leadership test on often randomly-generated leadership.

Hawk Wargames’ Dropfleet Commander is the work of Andy Chambers, who worked on BFG; the similarities are evident in many places. Yet the end product is, I feel from having watched and played a few games, a much more technically adept wargame that keeps a level of narrative and thematic appeal but which nevertheless ensures the game as a whole functions better and is more enjoyable for all players. This review will not systemically stack the two games against each other in a point-by-point comparison, because ultimately they are very different, but instead focus on what DFC does well as a game. Currently the game is very much in its infancy; the Kickstarter pledges, at the time of this review, are still being sent out and the model range is at present incomplete – with little idea either of how it will be expanded. Thus it is far too early to talk about intrinsic failures of balance or design; there are some issues that appear to potentially pose a problem, but they could easily be remedied with model launches to expand the range and fulfil unmet mechanical niches. As a Hawk Wargames staff member I spoke to said, it took several years of organised and casual play for balance issues in Dropzone Commander to come to anyone’s attention – and it is likely DFC will go through the same process of stress-testing. After I have played several games of DFC, and experienced all the possible faction matches, I may have a better idea of what units are good and what are bad, or which rules work and which do not. At the moment, however, any sweeping statements would be pure supposition.

Two things, I think, set DFC apart from rivals within the fleet-scale space game genre and which will be discussed here; firstly its setting in high orbit above a planet’s surface and secondly its handling of weapon ranges. Most space games have an uneasy relationship with depicting planets; it is a typical abstraction that a starship model is represented by a single point on the base, but even at this scale the sizes of planets are rarely accurate and too many games (such as Firestorm Armada) try to encompass the whole scope of a sci-fi film’s battle – planets with gravity wells and slingshot orbit maneuvers, asteroid fields, gas clouds or nebulae. It makes for an impressive table, but at the same time creates a strange sense of scale that makes playing thematic or narratively logical missions very difficult. Either the ships are truly immense, or the scenery appears very small.

What DFC does is set its battlefield over an area about the size of a country; ships are still represented by a single point but suddenly the sizes feel reasonable and there is a much more interesting aesthetic; warships fighting to land ground forces on a planet and negotiating space debris, small moons and planetary rings. Space is undeniably vast and so taking a very focused setting for the game allows incredible variety of terrain but consistent scale. It also adds a y-axis element, something a lot of games abstract in order to avoid dealing with 3D space combat; ships can be in high or low orbit or high atmosphere (represented by a dial on the base), giving a clearly delineated way to simulate being above or below opponents without needing significant bookkeeping.This design space is already being used, with a ship in one faction having upward-facing guns intended to be used from beneath enemies. There is also, I feel, a narrative strength to playing a game in this setting; currently the scenarios mostly focus on beachhead missions or the capture of orbital facilities, but the fact that battles are focused directly on population centres and are framed as part of a larger war effort adds, indirectly a personal element (and I could see a scenario playing out in reverse with landing-craft becoming evacuation ships). There are now clear things to attach a narrative to; it is not simply a battle in a space zone which contains a planet, it is efforts to liberate or conquer cities.

The second interesting aspect is one which I feel provides a happy medium between intense granularity of ship design and extreme standardisation (the former epitomised by Battlefleet Gothic and the latter by Firestorm Armada). Weapons in DFC do not specifically have ranges, which makes sense for lasers and projectiles fired in zero-gravity conditions. Instead ships have a range within which their fire-control systems can detect targets passively, and a “signature”, which is how easy they are to detect from further away. For example, a ship may have Scanning Range 8” and Signature 6”, meaning enemy weapons effectively add 6” to their scanning range when targeting that vessel (so two equivalent ships could detect each other from 14” apart). Signature, however, is variable; the more maneuvers a ship does in a turn, and the more weapons it fires, the more of an exhaust signature it gives off and so its signature increases by up to 12”. On top of this, some weapons cause the target to become more easily detected by superheating it, and can add signature spikes.

This mechanic sounds unintuitive when explained in this way but works exceptionally well – and, indeed, flavourfully – in practice. A ship could theoretically shoot infinite distances but finding a target in space is nigh-impossible unless the gunner knows where to look. And so range is limited by how difficult it is to find the target. In flavour terms this makes perfect sense while still being soft sci-fi enough to be accessibly fun rather than a chore. In mechanical terms, it adds a very different dynamic to combat; rather than rushing to simply “enter range” and having ships with short-range batteries and long-range ones, the emphasis is on trying to get close, make cagey attacks and try to force the opponent to light themselves up for easy detection while running as quietly as possible. It is vaguely analogous to submarine warfare (although plays out a lot more like surface vessels in terms of weaponry). Of course in simple terms it is still calculating a maximum radius of attack, but the division of the range stat between the attacker’s weapon quality and the defender’s innate stealthiness – which can be manipulated by taking special actions or firing too much – adds the feeling of a cat-and-mouse duel in the darkness of space. And it is, I think, getting the right feel that defines a wargame’s quality. Mechanically many games play similarly; the interesting aspect is in how those mechanics are used to fit theme and setting.

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