Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Retrospective: Starfleet Battles

I've talked many times about my love of Star Trek, which is one of my formative experiences with science fiction in any form. I used to watch reruns of the Original Series on Saturday afternoons with my aunt and that forever made me a fan of Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. When I entered the hobby in late 1979, there was not yet a Star Trek roleplaying game (or, rather, there was, but I had never seen it). However, there was a wargame set in what appeared to me to be the Star Trek universe called Starfleet Battles and it intrigued me greatly.

The earliest version of Starfleet Battles was released in 1979 and was designed by Stephen V. Cole. It was sold in a zip-lock bag by Task Force Games, making it a "microgame" similar to Ogre or Car Wars. A boxed "Designer's Edition" came out in 1980 and was a much more impressive -- and complex -- game than the original. I owned the Designer's Edition, but I never played it, whereas I actually did play the microgame version several times at local gamer gatherings at public libraries and similar locales, even though I never owned it myself. If anyone knows me, this fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the differences between the two versions of the game.

The 1979 version wasn't intimidating to my 10 year-old self; I picked up its rules quickly and had a lot of fun engaging in starship battles between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. That's not to say that the original Starfleet Battles was simple, but it was still simpler than the game it would become as early as the Designer's Edition published just a year later. Its movement system, for example, required some getting used to, since it was impulse-based. Likewise, keeping track of a starship's energy allocation could be tricky, even with the forms that came with the game. I suspect, though, that my abiding love for Star Trek is what enabled me to barrel through the game's nuances in order to be able to play it, a love I did not possess for, say, World War II. Without such affection, I doubt I'd be able to say, in truth, that I'd ever played Starfleet Battles.

The other thing that drew me to this wargame and held my attention was the fact that it appeared at a time when there was little else to sate the appetite of a Star Trek fan who wanted more. Hard though it is to imagine in 2011, Star Trek was not a juggernaut of global marketing in the late 70s. We had only the Original Series, the Animated Series, and a handful of books and fanzines to draw upon. One of those books was the Starfleet Technical Manual by Franz Joseph, who'd also produced a series of blueprints to many of the starships seen in the Original Series. I owned the Technical Manual and adored it, so the fact that Starfleet Battles drew heavily from it was, to me, proof that this wargame was a gift from heaven for a young fan like myself.

Others better versed in history can explain the full details, but, as I understand it, Task Force Games produced Starfleet Battles under a liberal and open-ended license that gave them full access to the Star Trek universe as it existed at the time of its 1979 publication. This means that the Original and Animated Series are both fair game, as are books like the Technical Manual, but nothing in the subsequent films or spin-off series is available. Consequently, Starfleet Battles is said to take place in "the Starfleet Universe," which is a kind of alternate Star Trek universe. Inevitably, this alternate universe, as the setting for a series of wargames, is rather militaristic in overall feel. As a kid, this never bothered me much and, even now, I can't say I find it particularly problematic, but some Trek fans intensely dislike it and see it as a "betrayal" of Roddenberry's vision of the future.

As I said, I owned the 1980 boxed set but never actually played it, in part because its rules were longer and more complex, but also because, in terms of presentation, they just felt a lot more intimidating. Though the microgame version of the game was every bit the wargame that its successor was, it somehow felt more inviting to me and so I was willing to learn how to play it. The 1980 edition instead just gathered dust on my shelf. Eventually, I raided its collection of counters for additional starship markers to use with FASA's RPG. In the years since, I haven't had any particular desire to go back and try to play Starfleet Battles, though the recent news that there may be a RPG version of Starfleet Battles using the Mongoose Traveller rules has made me think about pulling the game off the shelf and giving it another look. A pity I can't find a copy of the 1979 rules; I might actually try to play that version.


  1. There is Federation Commander which is a lot more straight forward than regular Star Fleet Battles.

    I also started out with the ziploc SFB as well. I moved to the boxed set and later to the Commander's edition. It is still one of my favorite wargames although I haven't played it for 20 years. I owned the megahex version of the counters and maps which is really impressive to play if you have the table space. Also it eliminates many of the annoying stacking problems when you have fighters and drones flying around.

    I also own a set of Damage Allocation Cards which uses card draws instead of rolling on a chart. This greatly sped up play. I even wrote in Quickbasic a program that allowed to keep track of the various sequences that make up a SFB turn.

    The main problem with complexity in SFB is that the game expanded rapidly and then suffered a long bout with trying to plug in all the loop hole created by the expansions. What happens when drones are fired at Plasma Torpedoes. Or somebody tractor beams a plasma torpedoes.

    The game spend a lot of years and edition trying to get that all to work together. And when they did they expanded again but this time in a series of self-contained modules that are not meant to interact with the core SFB races and their ships.

    But SFB is now a pretty complex beast and unappealing to novices. So Cole designs Federation Commander which is a game that works like SFB but stripped of the complexity both by simplifying the rules, and the ships.

  2. Consider this: the rulebook that comes with the original game is 28 pages in length. This covers 13 different types of ships representing five empires:

    Federation Dreadnought
    Federation Command Cruiser
    Federation Heavy Cruiser
    Federation Light Cruiser

    Klingon D7 Battlecruiser
    Klingon D6 Battlecruiser

    Romulan Klingon/Romulan Cruiser
    Romulan War Eagle
    Romulan Warbird

    Gorn Heavy Cruiser
    Gorn Light Cruiser

    Kzinti Strike Cruiser
    Kzinti Light Cruiser

    In other words, all your favorite designs from Star Trek, and then some, providing good variety and balance. In addition, it covers Base Stations, Planet Crushers, Space Amoebas, and Shuttlecraft. You can pit one ship against another ship. You can pit a fleet against another fleet. You can play one of the “monster” scenarios. You can defend your empire against full-scale invasion. You can attack with phasers, photon torpedos, disruptors, plasma torpedos, drones, nuclear space mines, and boarding parties. My point is, OSFB is a very thorough and complex game as it is, capable of providing plenty of variety and enjoyment. 28 pages is still more rules than any other board game I have ever played. That’s fine—it is a tactical wargame.

    However, the most recent edition of SFB is 238 pages for the “Basic Rulebook” and over 400 pages for the “Master Rulebook”! Or I could buy Federation Commander, but then you’re talking $60 for just the starter set, plus another $70 at least to cover the ships I want. I would rather not spend all that money on basically just paper, especially since we’re already at 90 pages for just the introductory version of the rules, so that’s not desirable anyway. Why would I spend money on something I don’t want? I would rather spend my money on miniatures and other physical components which actually enhance the enjoyment of the game!

  3. your writeup of that 1978 game makes it sound hugely appealing. I am definitely ganking opposed skill rolls for combat in d&d: that could restructure the whole game, deal with backstabbing without the need for separate systems, help with the monk's tricky AC... I can't think why it never occurred to me.

    Also, 40 pp is my new ceiling for a rulebook. If you can't fit it in 40, you haven't thought hard enough about what people will actually do at the table.

  4. "...this alternate universe, as the setting for a series of wargames, is rather militaristic in overall feel... some Trek fans intensely dislike it and see it as a "betrayal" of Roddenberry's vision of the future."

    Roddenberry himself felt that later original cast movies were getting far too militaristic, according to William Shatner's memoirs - but as others pointed out in response, the original series was the one that introduced a naval command structure, photon torpedoes, phaser rifles, courts martial, Klingon aggressors and so forth. I seem to recall Shatner tactfully (for once!) suggesting that Roddenberry was confusing his own "statesmanlike personal growth" with that of the universe he'd created.

  5. Yeah, it was a wasteland for Star Trek fans in the late 70s, and Star Trek the Motion Picture didn't help. I think it wasn't until Wrath of Khan came out in 1982 when there suddenly was a Trek explosion in novels and such. And then came FASA's Star Trek Rpg in 1983, which for me, sated my Trek fan need for the rest of the decade. I went crazy buying all the supplements and such and playing it.

  6. As for RPGs, there was a GURPS worldbook set in the Starfleet Universe produced by ADB, as well as a set of D20 rules with Klingon and Federation supplements. Mainly based on the rather good fiction that appeared in their Nexus magazine, as well as their philosophies of each race.

    As for the wargame, well it became more complex as time went on, and, not surprisingly given the makeup of ADB, eventually added Carriers and the like in the supplements. Their original designs were quite faithful to the literature available at the time; their later stuff was upgunned crazily. And wargamers being wargamers, eventually they had to start adding rules like "mines may not be carried in the back seat of a two seat fighter shuttle," which resulted in monstrous tomes of rules that attempted to cover every possibility. And the mainstreaming of certain optional rules (such as holding photon torpedoes), completely changed the game, which, all in all, is why I still think the boxed Designer's addition, with chary use of the zip-loc supplements is the best version to play. [Although having all ship data on a single SSD was a good idea of later editions.]

    [Although demanding that the Romulans didn't invent warp drive because of Scotty saying the ship was flying under impulse was always a bit ridiculous. Especially since it means that there was a 50 year journey just to cross the Neutral Zone for them, if nothing else. And those things on the side of the warbird are definitely warp nacelles. <sigh> Sorry. Pet gripe.]

    Their licence derives entirely from the one given to Franz Joseph Designs when Star Trek was thought to be a dead property, which is why it is the Star Fleet (as in Star Fleet Technical Manual) and not Star Trek universe. Paramount has wanted to challenge it a number of times when they wanted to revamp the franchise, but unfortunately for them it is ironclad.

    Task Force Games also licensed a set of starship combat computer games, which were why many Star Trek fans were surprised to discover the sudden appearance of Hydrans and Lyrans in the Star Trek universe.

  7. A huge Star Trek fan (as you well know), I didn't discover Starfleet Battles until sometime after FASA's Star Trek RPG or if I had seen it I hadn't noticed or realized it.

    Unfortunately, I am neither a wargamer or a fan of what I saw in my youth as a 'rip-off' of the 'real' Star Trek universe. My initial reaction to SFB was one of Trekkie fueled anger and disgust (I was probably 15 or 16).

    That said, I have since played it on one or two occaisions and come to the conclusion that it's OK but I'll pass. Not much has changed. I still want to role-play in the Star Trek universe, not fight in a copy of it.

  8. It's an enjoyable enough game I suppose -but then I started playing it in the late eighties, when the rulebook was large (and still growing for the reasons previously mentioned). I havent played it in years though and dread the thought of introducing it to new players.
    FASA later released a boxed set for Star Trek ship combat that was much better. Wish I could remember the name.

  9. Another option available these days, in addition to straight SFB and Federation Commander, is the Starmada edition. Klingon Armada is 80 pages and Romulan Armada is 90 pages and each are $17. I haven't tied them but the Starmada demo rules are available from the Majestic XII web site.

  10. Dangerous Brian, I would guess you are thinking of Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator

    I didn't play it as much as SFB but I thought it fit the rpg genre better.

    I did like FASA's 1983 follow on Starship Duel I & II. More like Ace of Aces but nice little combat games.

    And people might be interested in Battlestations, who's background might as well be called the Federation.

    From BGG

    "Simultaneous Ship to Ship Combat and Boarding Action simulator with light role-playing.

    "You and your friends each play the role of a crew member on a starship that faces whatever grief the referee throws at you. You'll blast enemies, pull outrageous maneuvers, unlock the secrets of alien cultures, and crank the last bit of juice out of an overtaxed engine while trying not to get yourself, your crew, or your starship blown to bits in the process." "

  11. I agree with Barking Alien and Dangerous Brian in that playing the original Trek is unsurpassable, and Fasa did it better.

    The again, I'm one of those unsufferable Trek fans who dislike the militaristic tone of SFB. ;)

    In my humble opinion, the problem is not so much in the militaristic aspects of Star Trek that are easily seen very specially in The Original Series, as in the approach of Cole, who imprints his personal philosophy to his creation (which is of course his prerrogative), and gets it way far of the original Trek spirit, because Cole is in turn an unsufferable militaristic.

  12. I got into Star Fleet Battles about the same time I start playing Battletech. It was a fun game, I never tried the Star Trek RPG oddly enough. I was too busy with Dragonquest, Star Frontiers and Gamma World.

  13. Coincidentally (or not?!), the Rural Gamer just posted an interview with Steve Cole of ADB about SFB, how he got into gaming, and the history of his involvement in the gaming industry. He also details the unique licensing agreement between ADB and Paramount.

  14. The only guy I ever knew who played this game was a freshman I met at BU in 1982 who was a dedicated Talmud scholar and Star Fleet battles nut. His room had stacks of the Hebrew books and the counters and miniatures for SFBs - and nothing else.

  15. I loved SFB - especially the bagged sets. I had the deluxe box but, if I remember right, my friends and I still played pretty much as we did with the microgame versions.

    As another lover of the Star Fleet Technical Manual, I didn't have a problem with SFB and actually find it's militaristic tone more plausible than the strange (to me) future 'utopia-to-be' that Roddenberry envisioned.

  16. Any body else have the Enterprise blueprints as well as the Technical Manual? My copies are pretty rough from having been taped and pinned to my walls over the years. I took way better care of my Battletech blueprints.

  17. I have both the blueprints and original technical manual and have loved SFB almost from the start. (I got the first boxed set. I didn't discover the Microgame until much later.)

    In many ways I prefer the Technical Manual version of the ships a lot better than the Movie version, and it never botherd me to have a militaristic SFB. What did bother me is when they went from the single boxed set to the 3-box superduper editions. The rules became just too complex for me to keep up with.

    Rollling back the clock to the ziplock game is really a great thing. Too bad it's not for sale new in that format.

  18. I started with the Designer's Edition, and loved it. I still do, so many editions later. I have no problem with those who prefer the original game, I can say the same thing about Squad Leader vs. ASL.

    FWIW, Task Force Games produced the game(s), but Amarillo Design Bureau wrote the stuff and had the license. During the mid- to late-90s, there was a falling-out of some sort between Amarillo Design Bureau (Steve Cole) and TFG. The result is that it's all ADB now.

    I, too, am eagerly awaiting the Mongoose Traveller edition of Prime Directive. I was thinking of homebrewing it myself one of these days.

    I did play the FASA RPG a little, but it didn't gain much traction in my group. The FASA ship-combat game was pretty neat, but my brother and I decided to stick to just one game, and SFB was so much more detailed.

    I agree that SFB does have a military bent, as you say, since it is a wargame.

    Those looking for faster & easier games can look to ADB's Federation Commander, Starmada and now that they've hooked up with Mongoose, A call to arms.

  19. I have the blueprints (somewhere) still in their vinyl carrying case/pouch. Bought them as a teenager and thought they were amazing - heck they even show the location of every toilet on the Enterprise!

    I seem to remember later buying blueprints for some other SF franchise that came in an almost identical pouch, but I don't remember what that one was (original Battlestar Galactica maybe???).

  20. @ Brewmiester: Thats the one! Thanks.

  21. I, too, was one of the players of the original bagged ,"folio" version of Starfleet Battles of 1979. I never played it enough to my satisfaction, but I have enjoyed tinkering with the game over these past decades. I must have spent a small fortune cutting, pasting, and copying all the variants possible of the ships back then. (No personal computers to speak of, y'know?) In fact I can only think of one game that I actually won: a battle between two Klingon E-4s. You can read about it on the Starfleet battles Facebook site. (My Best-est Battle Ever!) At this point my game is magnetized, so I can play it on a wall mounted dry-erase board. I have also started building SSDs on MS Excel. I may not find any opponents to play this "creaky, old" '70's style wargame these days, but at least fiddling the game doesn't cost me anything. One small thing: regarding the "militarism" of SFB. One must recall that to get to the "utopia" of Star Trek there must have been some combat. such battles are referred to now and then in the series. Another thing is about the growth of the rules. I have always been able to ignore what ever needless detail was being injected into the game. play it the way you want, as long as it's FUN!

  22. Timely post! For gamers near Toronto who'd enjoy some classic 1979 edition SFB, join the fun at OSRCon in August:

  23. One of my primary duties as a library aide at my high school was to facilitate the photocopying done by the Starfleet Battles players every morning. They could do a full battle before school, a full battle at lunch, and I suspect played also during study hall and between classes.

    The librarian fully supported their use of the pay photocopier, which must have funded quite a few books. :)