Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Starmada Unity Review

 In this post I review the spacehip combat game Starmada Unity.

When I started to look for rules for my Star Trek games and was asking around the internet for rules the two names you hear most often are "Full Thrust" and "Starmada."  I've settled on Starmada as my go-to.



Starmada Unity Review


Starmada Unity is the latest version of the Starmada rules which apparently have been around for a long time with several different names (Starmada, Starmada Admiralty,. Starmada Nova... there are a lot.).  So I guess to be clear I'm talking about Starmada Unity Version 2 published in 2020.  


The jacket says this is supposed to be definitive version. 

Somethings to know up front:

Starmada is a 'universal' starship combat game in that it has no universe attached to it.  it's a TOOL KIT rule set so that you can build your own ships  and flush out any universe you want.  This fits my needs perfectly because there are no prepackaged Star Trek miniature starship games (or I would of gotten it) and I LOVE to tinker with stuff.  Tool kit rule sets are the best as it basically states 'use this framework to create what you want.'  

Ok I lied, there IS a Starmada Universe presented at the end of the book as an example of what can be done.  The ships examples are useful for seeing various sizes / power levels and the author seems to go out out his way to show different options / traits in use.  But I barely skimmed the universe background fluff as the whole point of me playing Star Trek is that I already know that universe and don't need to learn another.  I don't want to learn about the bleeping aliens from planet bleep that like to bleep in the bleep with the bleep.  

Starmada uses hexes.  it's basically 'a miniature board game (which is says so on the cover) and your awesome miniature ships are just gonna be pretty counters.  As it is with almost every game.  Now most of my miniature wargaming is grid-less / hex-less but I like hexes when it comes to games with starships, airplanes, sailing ships, submarines, battleships, warwagons, mechas. helicopters, and dragons.  You get the idea.
Basically I think hexes just work really well in the starship combat genre.

Starmada recommends using hexes from about 3cm to 5 cm (1.25" to 2") big and a minimum play area of 18 hexes wide and 32 hexes across.  I didn't pay super close attention to that initially which is why I am bringing it up now.  I got my space mat from Cigar Box battle mats; it's a '6x4 plus' (which is 5x6) with 2" hexes on it and it has just enough hexes on it to be 30 hexes wide by 39 hexes long.  Whew!


2" hexes with 1/7000 ships.
Mat from Cigar Box battle mats.



Starmada is really well written and easy to read.  Everything is easy to understand (except for the maths on designing ships but more on that later) and nothing is vague.  I've read a lot of rules books in my time and I get frustrated when things are not clear; so it's nice when a rulebook is clear and concise and deserves to be pointed out.  And big plus is that every concept is in BOLD and there are page number references throughout so you're never really flipping through the book looking for the odd rule.


The layout of Starmada works well: it first goes over the parts of the ship in the Starship Display sheet, then the basic rules for moment, combat, and then goes into TONS of optional rules about how those core rules can be tweaked to taste (to fit the universe you want), then terrain rules and scenarios, and then the Starmada Universe and sample ships. 


Game Play



Like every other starship game (and Age of Sail games for that matter) each starship will need a Starship display sheet, so you can track what happens to it through the game.  here is the basic form:

 
This is the display sheet for an Ambassador class starship for the Federation
You can design ships and generate the display sheets using the spreadsheet.
More on that later.


I'm not gonna go over everything on the sheet (because that's what the rules do and do it well).  But everything you'd expect to be a sheet is there; and once you know where to look and what is what this is all you need to steer you starship to glory!  By it being blown up.  Especially if the ship is called Enterprise because that thing is always being blown up.

There's a spot for how many Hull points the ships has (because when they're gone so is the ship), engine rating, shield rating...  It shows how many weapons the ship has, the weapon firing arcs and all the stats for the weapons.  Everything important that a captain needs to know.  Only thing missing is a map to nearest restroom.  A display sheet with the table to write orders for moves takes about half a sheet of paper.  

The idea is that as the ship takes damage and things break you tick off boxes and systems degrade till they stop working.  I often feel like I have about half my boxes ticked off; I'm halfway through to system failure.


Ambassador class starship; 1/7000


Turn Sequence



Now that we have our ships, it's time to play.  The game turn goes through 5 phases of Orders, Movement, Fighter, Combat, and End (the clean up phase).  In each phase all players are doing something. The Orders phase and the Combat phase are really the right and left ventricles of this game. That is to say the Heart of the game.

ORDERS PHASE:


Everything that a ship does that turn needs to be plotted out during this phase.  You actually write out what the ships movement is, including any special maneuvers you allow.  Usually this is expressed something like '3P2L2' which means 'move 3 hexes forward, turn to port, move 2 hexes forward, slide slip to the left, and go 2 hexes forward.'  The standard movement rules in the core rules are moderately complex; and can get more or less complex depending on what optional rules you use.  I like the Optional rules for Free Form Turns and Graded Turns that make ships act more like sailing ships / airplanes (because that's how they move in Star trek on TV).  

The main thing is a ships movement is confined by how strong it's engine is; ships will have a current engine rating (that will decrease when the ships takes hits to it's engine naturally) and any move can NOT exceed that rating.  Things that drive up the engine requirement are big changes in speed and multiple turns.  What this means is that ships can do big changes in speeds or multiple turns but have hard time doing both at once. 

This is also the most complex part of the game turn because the players have to do MATH.  It's basic math, not long division, but math none the less.  For example: in my games with the options I use the formula for the engine requirement goes: [Difference in speed from previous turn and current turn] + [modifier of number of turns (1 for 1 turn, 3 for 2 turns, 6 for 3 turns)] = Engine requirement.  
If I'm explaining it right then it should sound mildly/moderately complex depending on your IQ and how well the GM explains it.  people tend to 'get it' with a few examples and within a turn or two.

The orders phase is potentially the longest phase; because each ship needs it's orders / movements plotted out.  Depending on how many ships you are moving about this can take awhile.  All players are doing it at the same time so everyone is engaged.  Though if one side has a lot more ships to pilot or one side has a stronger sense of analysis paralysis someone could be left waiting around.    5-7 ships seems to be sweet spot (and again, this will depend on how many optional rules you use to make ship management more or less complex).

It's also a lot of fun as you try to guess how your opponent is gonna move and move your own ships into a better position.


MOVEMENT PHASE;

Now everyone reveals orders and moves the ships.  There are clear rules for what happens when ships end up in the same hex and etc.. It's a great drama as ships move around each other into better or worse positions as everyone anxiously / expectantly sees what all the ships are doing.  It is EXTREMELY satisfying when the enemy ships go where you thought they would and you have out maneuvered them.  Right after you slide your ship behind the enemy's ship and at close range; It is the time to look up, smile, and give the player the double finger guns. 

Galaxy to Negh'Var:
"pew pew pew pew"


FIGHTER PHASE:

I'll tell you that I read this section and thought "Everything here looks like it's in order. Very good.  spit spot. tut tut tut."   and then never read it again.  Star Trek doesn't use fighters (name one Star Trek episode where someone said "launch the fighters!") which is part of the appeal for me.   


COMBAT PHASE:

In this phase ships fire their weapons at each other, and the dice rolling begins.  In the core rules all firing is simultaneous and damage is not applied till the END phase; so it doesn't matter the order and if a ship is blown up it will still get it's chance to fire.  The captain will get the chance to say some cool last words while the ship breaks apart. "I never got to tell her, that I...(boom)"  
Basically each side takes a turn picking a ship and firing EVERYTHING that the ship has/can and then move on the next one.  

Shooting weapons is not complicated;  Each weapon has an arc of fire (the directions it can shoot from the hex the firing ship is in), a short range, medium range, and a max range, a rate of fire (how many dice to roll / how many shots), an Accuracy rating (number needed to hit), and Impact rating (how many dice to overcome the targets shields) and a Damage rating (how many dice/ damage it does).
There's also a bunch of traits that weapons can have as well.
There are a few modifiers that affect to-hit rolls but not a lot.  Mainly it's easier to hit at close range than long range.  

As damage happens to the ship you tick off boxes on the display sheet but don't actually apply it to the end of the turn (there is of course, an option of having it apply immediately).  I like to circle the box during combat and not cross it out till the end of the END phase;  because sometimes you'll need to see the number in the box for later on.

This phase can take awhile depending on how many ships you have and how many weapons they got. naturally to speed things up you can roll weapons that are firing at the same ship together.  It's also a lot of dice rolling as you roll to see if you hit, each hit then rolls to see if it overcomes the shields, and then roll for where the damage goes.  once you know the process it goes fast but the first couple of shots can drag.  

Klingon Birds of Prey 1/7000



One especially clever aspect of taking damage is the idea of the Loss Limit.  This only applies to the Weapon track of a ship, but it ensures that as a ships weapons take damage, that damage will be spread out all over the ship's available weapons and special equipment.  For a totally made up example: Say a ship has 10 piss shooter guns, 1 cannon of devastation to make your mom cry, and 1 cloaking device.  When the weapons systems take damage; obviously the piss shooters will be the first to go (it's the player of the ship taking damage that decides what are lost) but the piss shooters probably have a loss limit of 5.  Which means after 5 are crossed off the next losses have to be from somewhere else...so do you lose the cannon or the cloaking device?  Losing weapons can be full of fun choices.  



END PHASE: 

Lastly it's the end phase and it's basically the clean up phase. Players apply damage to their ships, check for victory per the scenario, etc..  Then the game turn starts over again in the orders phase


Optional Rules

When I say that Starmada is a tool kit rule set I mean it's a COMPLETE tool kit.  At least half of the book are optional rules that players can add to modify the game to their tastes.  It's all about the universe you are trying to portray.  It will be too long winded of me to go over many of them here, but let's look at options for starship shields as a quick example as it's common in Starship settings.
You could of course have no shields, and ships just take damage when they're hit.
You can have shields that protect the ship like a bubble around it.  Weapon fire can still overcome the shields (depending on the weapon's Impact rating and traits) but the shields are stable and always there (until the ship takes damage to it's shield track)
You can have shields that protect the ship like a bubble but stop everything thrown at them, but degrade over time until they are gone, like hit boxes.  (the game calls these Screens).
You could have a mix of the two.
Instead of the shields being a bubble around the ship in uniform strength, the shields can be Directional and have sperate rating for Forward, Port, Starboard, and Aft.  And you get idea.

Basically there are optional rules for EVERYTHING.  I think this is strength as you can craft the game to play how you want it, to fit the TV world that you know.  

Galaxy class 1/7000


Ship Construction:


There is about 5 pages on how the maths of the ship construction work.  SKIP IT.  SKIP IT unless you like maths and more maths.  You can't do this stuff unless you really know math and have one of those hefty calculators they make you buy in high school to do graphing.   I guess it can be nice to know how some traits load into others but the book could of do a better job of saying "Doing this math by hand is impossible, go get the spreadsheet."  
In the player resource section there is more about the spreadsheet, where to get it, and directions on how to use it. The spreadsheet is free and updated.  


Spreadsheet being used for Ship Construction.
An Excelsior class Starship.


I will admit that I was skeptical about all this because it started to sound like work and effort.  "why do I need a spreadsheet?  I just want wanna make whooshing noises while moving ships and saying  'Make it so, Number One!' A spreadsheet sounds too serious."  

But I was wrong, because actually the spreadsheet makes ship construction so. damn. easy.  All the math is just done for you and it lets you make ships that break the rules if you really want to.  Plus as I mentioned before, the display tab will print you out a nice looking Starship Display sheet to use for gaming.  

There is a small learning curve for using the spreadsheet.  But I guarantee that if an ape like me can learn to use it then you can to. It's really a simple tool and again directions are included in the book.

Ship design follows the well known principle that a ship's hull size will determine how much 'space' it has to hold weapons, engines, coffee machines, yogurt shops, special gear.. etc.   There's a nifty mechanism in the Tech Levels you can assign (the ship above has none).  But if you increase the tech level of say weapons then all weapons will cost less hull space and therefore free up more room for MORE weapons or what not.  That represents ships that are superior in tech and therefore could have more stuff in them than a similarly sized ship from a less advanced society.  Ships will be assigned a Combat Rating  which is the estimate of how effective a ship is in the game and works like a point value.  

The spreadsheet is also where you design the weapons under the weapons tab.  You really can design any weapon that you can think of, just by the stats and traits available.  Once a weapon is inputted into the spreadsheet under the weapons tab, it shows up in the drop down menu in the ship tabs. 

I can't stress enough how easy it is.  And you can make anything you like. 


Excelsior class Starships 1/7000


The only thing really missing from the rules is power allocation; which seems to be a staple on other games.  Starmada assumes the ship has full power all the time.  I actually like this because it's a feature that I do not want.  The game is more about maneuver than it is about good ship management.  The captain doesn't tell his crew to stop using the dishwashers so there's power for the air conditioning.


The Endless Tinker

If there is one drawback to all this freedom, it's that a game of Starmada can take awhile to set up.  Depending on how fussy you are, one can spend a lot of time designing ships to get them right.  There's also a lot of options to shift though.  For me this was part of the fun, but it's also the fun of mild frustration as you take on a creative project like designing your own universe even within the well defined and extensive framework that the game provides.  Such as:
What should the stats for a phaser weapon be? 
How many hull points should ship class X be?
If  ship class X has suchandsuch hull points then how many should ship class Y have? 
If I want a ship to be able to do whateverthing, how many engines should it have?

There's a lot of opportunity for endless tinkering and a project could never feel finished.  But maybe that's not a bad thing?  


Endings

I hope that this review of Starmada Unity will be useful to someone.  I obviously think very highly of it, and I only purchased it on a lark.  "if I'm gonna do space ships might as well check out these rules...."  glad I did.  

If you're looking a for a rule set where you can create/copy your favorite IP then Starmada would warrant looking at closely. 

Thanks for Reading.
Till next time.



38 comments:

  1. Very well written review Stew. Thorough but not too wordy so I fall alseep half way through.

    The game system itself sounds like a lot of fun. So much so I almost looked up that ship creator excel sheet and checked out 1/7000 Romulan ships on thingiverse and etsy. Almost.

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    1. Thanks Dai. I think the better option would be to invite me over and I can present the game to you. πŸ˜€

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  2. Great review Stew and as always, an entertaining read which suits my Thursday morning mood. What a combination.

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  3. Thanks Stew that is a great review. I will buy it to have on hand for the day when I get around to using my star ships.

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    1. Thanks Ben. I (obviously) think it’s a good game. Hope you will too. πŸ˜€

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  4. Never heard of these rules before. Superb overview of game phases and mechanisms. Why do you suppose naval (including space fleets action) wargaming rules are more granular than other genres?

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    1. Thanks Jonathan. I suppose that naval games or any games where a unit is a single miniature (starship, sailing ship, tank, or whatever) feel more granular bc you track hits / damage on a single thing with multiple characteristics thereby needing a sheet of some sort.
      πŸ˜€

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  5. Good review Stew, the high playability seems a big plus for this, though the pre-plot moves, while being a strength, do seem to remove the solitaire possibilities of the game.

    The clean board universe is a great idea, as I think one could have a lot of fun creating and expanding an ‘ImagiNations’ style backstory to build up a planetary system.

    Also, there was a computer game in the early 80’s when home computers were just becoming a thing (you are too young!) called ELITE, made available for the 32k BBC computer. It was a space trading game. You start with a small and poorly equipped cargo vessel and you go from planet to planet, trading commodities. As you earn cash, you can upgrade the vessel with all sorts of things, importantly to protect yourself from pirates (or out run them!) that keep turning up.

    Then, when you have enough dosh, you can trade in and up to the next the basic vessel specs, but starting again as you can only afford the base model, but once equipped it will be great and then you want the next model etc - until you are cruising around in something fit for an admiral … or you are shot out of deep space and starting again with your crappy cargo shuttle!

    The ship generator system seems ideally suited to creating that kind of home made universe …. Though the restriction on solo play (if there is one) might e the problem here.

    The cloth looks bob on.

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    1. Thanks Norm. How young do you think I am??!! In the early 80s I was…around 6. So yeah. Too young. Now in my mid 40s it’s nice to be called young once in awhile. πŸ˜€
      For solo play Starmada I would use the options of Sequential Movement (each ship moves one at a time with no preplot) and maybe Sequential Combat (each ship fired one at a time and damage applies immediately) and I think there’s even an option for random activation. Book really has every option in it. If it’s up your alley. πŸ˜€

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  6. Thanks for a great review sir!
    Best regards

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  7. Not my sort of game at all, but it does sound very good and well thought out. One of the downsides I've found with 'SciFi' games over the years, and I include Xenos Rampant in this, is that the number of optional rules/stats/upgrades etc can be mind boggling to the point of being unable to decide how best to use them to create your ship/walker/space marine. Thankfully in Xenos Rampant the authors have given some useful examples and guidelines to help with decision making for the 'newbie'. I'm sure as one becomes familiar with the rules, a lot of these optional rules etc will become easier to choose from.

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    1. Thanks Steve. Yes there can be a bewildering amount of options especially when it comes to fictional weapons that break reality rules.
      Though I found that some jumped off the page as “I’m the one you’ve been looking for “. πŸ˜€

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  8. Thanks for such an in depth review Stew. Pre planned moves makes it problematic for solo play unfortunately, and being billy no mates in voluntary exile, that’s me. I’ll just have to keep tinkering with my own set for now.

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    1. Thanks Mr Man. See my reply to Notm about what I think are good options for solo play. Bc I can’t be bothered to type it out again.
      Ok bc it’s you I’ll do it again. πŸ˜€
      If I were doing solo play I would use the option for Sequential Movement (each ship moves one at a time with no preplot) and sequential combat (where each ship fired one at a time and damage applied immediately). There’s also an option for random activation.
      Though I’d like to see what you’re tinkering with as well. πŸ˜€

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  9. Stew, Wonderful review of a system that has obviously been moving along for years. Looks like you're going to get where you wanted with the star systems. Looking forward to AAR and backgrounds articles.

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    1. Thanks Pam. I do like the rules. πŸ˜€

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  10. Nice review will check these out when I get to the spaceships in the lead pile

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  11. Great review Stewart, it sounds very customisable which would lend itself to multiple different settings, may have to check it out.

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    1. Thanks Dave. If it’s anything Starmada is very customizable and could be used to build any universe you’d like. πŸ˜€

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  12. Interesting review Stew although it does sound a bit ‘fussy’ for my liking ?

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    1. Thanks Matt. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. πŸ˜€

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  13. Very interesting review. I like the idea of a "toolkit", which you also find in many of the Osprey "Blue Book" games. Sounds a little too complex for my own taste, but I look forward to seeing what you make of it.

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    1. Thanks Jennifer. I do like tool kit rules. Most of the complexity in Starmada is in the universe building which can be taken at any pace. The actual gameplay isn’t overly complex I think. πŸ˜€

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  14. Thanks for the detailed review Stew! As you know, I like the rules, although I do think it lacks a bit in terms of C&C/Morale... which I believe is a common omission in all naval games.

    With cloaks/warp drive and warlords (Klingons), you have to figure that someone is going to decide that discretion is the better part of valor at some point...

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    1. Thanks David. Thanks for showing me the way into Star Trek. πŸ˜€
      You’re right there’s not really any C&C rules. Ships will do what you tell them and are only limited by their engines
      I do think there is a morale system but it’s kinda hidden. All the scenarios have a target CV which is beneath the fleet level which I think represents when the fleet gives up.
      Also if you use the option of Partial Victory points then a ship is only worth half if it runs/warps away which gives the player an option to cut losses. πŸ˜€

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  15. I was surprised to read that there isn't a pre-packaged set of rules for Star Trek, but the way you have described Starmada makes them seem like a great set of rules anyway. I quite like the ship building spreadsheet. Just the sort of thing you can sit and have hours of fun tinkering away with.

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    1. Thanks Lawrence. And I have spent some hours tinkering away. πŸ˜€

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  16. Full Thrust? I'm pretty sure I've seen that movie before... ;)

    In all seriousness, these rules are impressive and I enjoyed reading your review. Space and ship combat has never drawn me in but seeing how much fun you're having with it, I'd certainly consider it! Not having to make tons of terrain is pretty appealing too if I'm being honest!

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    1. thanks Jeff. Now get your mind out of the gutter and into space where it belongs. πŸ˜€

      Glad you liked the review. If we lived closer I’d run it for ya. πŸ˜€

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  17. That's a very comprehensive review there Stew, almost as brief as the ones Norm provides! As with a couple of other commenters, ships and planes ( and by extension, spaceships) don't really do it for me in terms of table top gaming but it looks like this is a pretty good system, so look forward to seeing some AAR's from you soon.

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    1. Thanks Kieth. Almost right??! πŸ˜€
      I appreciate you taking the time to give the post a read Even though it’s not really your thing.

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  18. Nice review, not my cup of tea really, I think the mention of spreadsheets caused a shudder but you make a good case for the ruleset, early 1980s would have been the last space ship battle for me!
    Best Iain

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    1. Thanks Iain. Appreciate you taking the time to look it over and write a comment anyway, even if not your preferred genre. πŸ˜€

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  19. I think the plethora of starmada versions/releases made me a bit hesitant to dig into the rules. I'll definitely take another look now when I get around to my space ships again.

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    1. Thanks Dave. This is supposed to be the last release to bring the best parts from previous versions all together.
      Not that I’ve read any of the previous versions. πŸ˜€

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