Sunday, December 25, 2016

Rules Review - Dropfleet Commander

My kickstarter for Hawk Wargames' Dropfleet Commander has arrived and I have begun to make my way through the rules while I continue to try to get back on the hobby horse and finish clearing stale projects from my hobby desk.  So I thought I would share a few impressions of the rules.

Did I really buy this much?  Oh dear.
Oh no, why did you do this?
One quick thing before the review of the rules.  The rulebook itself has not made this review very easy (see pic above) or enjoyable.  I can appreciate the "artistic license" that printing in a landscape format can offer but the practicality is awful.  It is a rulebook, not a coffee table art book, therefore functionality is key.  I can only hope that Hawk Wargames will consider printing a small rulebook in a portrait orientation (killing two birds with one stone for me:  pocket rulebook and a functional rulebook).  And hey, that would put more money in their pocket too.  Win-win-win!

Dropfleet Commander is a capitol ship (ie, battleships, cruisers, frigates) space combat game set in the Hawk Wargames Sci-Fi universe, which is also home to the sister game Dropzone Commander.  Rather than the typical space combat game though, Dropfleet focuses on the orbital combat involved in planetary conquest (or defense).  This distinction leads to some very interesting characteristics to the game, described throughout this review, that help it stand out from other space combat games (in my opinion and to my knowledge).

Scale of Game:
Dropfleet Commander is intended to be played at a points value of 500-3000.  This range is broken into 3 categories:  Skirmish (500-999), Clash (1000-1999) and Battle (2000-3000).  Ignoring most of fleet organization rules/restrictions and using pure point costs:  I would guess Skirmish at 999 pts would be a combination of 13 frigates and cruisers; Clash ~25 combined ships; Battle ~36 combined ships.  I'm pulling those numbers out of my ass but a quick look on the forums confirms the skirmish is in the ballpark.  Tournament play is suggested at 1500 pts.

List Building:
To be honest, for me, list building is a royal mess and I can't wrap my head around it.  It just makes my head hurt.  And it is hard to write about something you don't understand.  Luckily, The Hot LZ blog can provide some insights to you.  Maybe.  Good luck!

Standard Rules:
For the most part Dropfleet Commander plays as I would expect a naval warfare game to play, which seems fairly common in this genre.  It also worth noting upfront, it does not make use of complex vector mechanics, mountains of book keeping or graduate level mathematics.  Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is matter of your perspective (for the record, it's a good thing in my eyes - why else would I have bought all that stuff up above).  Rather than rehashing every aspect of the game rules, this post will already be to long, I will instead focus on what I consider unique or interesting aspects of the rules (good or bad).  Also note, this what I pulled from my first pass through the rules and without having played, so I could have some things wrong.  Ok, probably have at least something wrong.

A unique aspect that Dropfleet Commander seems bring to the genre, at least in regards to a more "abstracted" space combat games and to my knowledge, is the concepts of energy signature, sensors and target locks.  Basically, it assumes that firing ranges are nearly infinite in exo-atmospheric flight and what drives your ability to hit another ship is achieving a proper firing solution.  As such, ships have a sensor stat which gets added to the targeted ship's energy signature to result in the max distance that a target lock can be achieved.  This seems to me to scale with ship size in what seems like a realistic and recursive manner:  Smaller ships may lack the room to carry sophisticated sensor arrays that larger ships do, thus limiting their weapon ranges;  Which also in turn represents the smaller weapons that they would be equipped with, since the ships are smaller.  The energy signature of the ship is driven by a few factors:  firing weapons increase it, certain maneuvers increase it (or decrease it in the case of silent running), using active scanning, being hit with active scanning, etc.  The energy signature of a ship is tracked via the flight stand base so hopefully this is fairly minimal bookkeeping and hopefully not fiddly.

While the game does abstract the infinite-ness of space, and that it is 3 dimensional space, by specifying that ships do not collide with each other (unless you are trying to ram, which can only be done if your ship is already badly damaged) and do not block LOS, it does offer 3 altitudes bands (high orbit, low orbit and atmospheric) and the ability to move/interact between them in reasonable ways.  While the altitude bands are nothing revolutionary to land/sea/air based combined arms games, how it's implemented and integrated into an orbital combat game seems new.  The concept of orbital combat for planetary conquests leads to the scenarios based on delivering ground assets to key locations and this all appears to work nicely together.

Dropfleet Commander also makes use of battlegroups and groups.  Within a battlegroup, identical ships form a group and solo ships forms there own groups.  Groups must maintain a certain coherency based on it's hull value, representing that larger ships have better/more communication capability to share data and work together.  Additionally, all groups within a battlegroup have to also maintain a certain coherency to represent their ability to work together.  The exact composition of the battlegroup contribute to its overall value (I forget the term), which factors into the activation system.  Again, nothing necessarily new to this but I like how it integrates into the activation system (coming up next).

Activation is handled in an interesting manner that might force key tactical decisions to be made in fleet composition, battlegroup composition and during the planning step.  The planning step takes place at the beginning of each turn and has each player stack their set of battlegroup cards face down in an order of their choice.  During activation, each player flips over their top battlegroup card.  Now, remember how I said just above each battlegroup has a value?  The player who has flipped the lower valued battlegroup gets to choose to activate that battlegroup first or force the other player to activate the one he revealed.  I want to believe this helps represent that smaller battlegroups are more "nimble" than larger ones.  Want to activate your heavily damage battleship to fire off it's weapons before it blows up?  Better hope your opponent does not flip over that small battlegroup of frigates to finish you off.

I also really like how critical hits are handled.  If your attack roll exceeds your target number by 2 or more, it is a critical.  Unless a passive defense save is allowed, critical hits bypass the armor save to cause direct hull damage.  End up with a damaged enough hull, then you start taking crippling damage which has a lot of cinematic flavor to it (reactor melt down, etc).

Lastly, if you decide to play with this option, you (and your opponent) draw activation cards at the beginning (I think) of each turn, based on your Admiral value.  These cards have special triggers and effects that add bit of surprise to the flow.  I wonder how these will be embraced by the community.  I vaguely recall that Spartan Games Uncharted Seas (and maybe other of their games) might have had something like this but I want to say it was not particularly well received.

Things I think are fairly standard/not worth a paragraph but maybe should be pointed out:
  • You have your fairly typical set of special orders:  Weapons Free, Station Keeping, Course Change (additional turn), Max Thrust, Silent Running, Active Scan
  • Movement is primarily handled in a naval combat game fashion.  Must move at least half of your movement speed and can make one 45 degree turn at the beginning of the movement, unless you issue a special order.  
  • It is not a bucket of dice game like Spartan Game's core system or others.  That being said, you do roll multiple dice to help offset a uniform distribution effect.  Its just not a bucket of them.
  • No exploding dice.
  • While there are some tables, in my opinion they provide nice cinematic flavor to the game.
As I mentioned several times before, this game is about the orbital combat of/during planetary conquests.  Therefore, scenarios often require capturing and holding ground sectors by delivering ground troops to those locations and ground combat mechanics.  The given scenarios seem to provide a nice set of variety and mostly interestingly use a wide variety of deployment types.  Not just deployment zones but also things like turn staggered deployments.

Other Things:
The rules, in my eyes, are well written.  Even the fleet organization part appears to be very clearly stated, its just they are some complex restriction interactions that I can't process right now.  The artwork is great and not a focus of this review, but I suspect the fluff is rich.  I've already harped on the landscape layout but I can tell you it has been a couple of hours with the rules between righting that point above and then here; and I am even less happy about the layout now.  lol

The miniature quality seems top notch.  I have already started assembling the Scourge ships that I got in the kickstarter.  While I got UCM x2, PHR x1 and Scourge x1, the Scourge were at the bottom of my list of desire.  So I started with them in case I screwed something up (because I wanted to try magnetizing the options), I thought they would be easy to paint and because I loose motivation for anything after the first faction if I start with my primary choice.  I will post these up later with more thoughts but overall they seem to be great miniatures.

I am also hopeful that Hawk Wargames can ride the wave generated by their kickstarter.  There have been larger miniature wargame kickstarters (in terms of money raised) that have basically been DOA/stillborn.  I suspect that a big part of this is that the momentum from the campaign has died in the 2-3 years it took before people got their product.  Additionally, I believe backers start to have a lot of ill will because of delays/lack of communication and other kickstarter BS.  Hawk Wargames is a little different in this regard, because from the day of funding until delivery (at least for me) was right at 1 year.  Yes, it was late but that overall end-to-end time of one year is still far better than most wargaming kickstarters.

Another different aspect is that most kickstarter games, after initial deliver, spend the next few years producing and delivering (if you are lucky) the expansions or wave 2/3/4 that were part of the campaign.  So lets say it took 2 years to get your base delivery and then another year (yeah right but bear with me) to get that first expansion.  So, theoretically it is now maybe 3 and a half years since you "bought" into the game, before you may see something "new."  Not so much for Dropfleet Commander.  Battleships, which were not part of the kickstarter, are hitting retail soon (if not already) and Corvettes are already being teased (maybe those will be within 6 months of the Battleships).  This is a much better business model/approach, in my opinion, than most other kickstarters.

Potential Concerns:
One concern I am left with though is the turn to turn satisfaction of playing the game.  Let me try to illustrate my point.  An opponent's UCM battleship could have a hull value of 18.  Without causing a major energy spike to my ships, I can only fire 1 weapon system at a turn.  That weapon system may only have 2-4 attack dice, has to get past the armor save and then they seem to typically only do 1 damage per hit.  Given this, it seems like it could take awhile and a lot of focused fire to take that battleship down.  Granted, this is how a battleship should be represented.  But accurate representation does not always equal compelling game play.  Only playing the game will really tell if the game feels like it gets bogged down.

Likely related to the previous concern, the rules indicate the typical tournament game (1500 pts) is expected to be 2.5-3 hours.  =(  I would much prefer if this was down into the 1.5-2 hour range.

I am put off a little bit by the combined group and battlegroup coherency rules.  Only playing will tell but coming from a mostly skirmish game background, these are things I am typically not accustomed to.  And on the occasions I have dealt with them, they have seemed to be a nuisance.  Likewise, I am a little put off by the list building complexity (at least right now).

Another concern, is simply will the game be successful?  Dropzone Commander (the sister game) does not really seem to have taken a strong hold in the hobby.  Spartan Games also offers comparable games to Dropzone and Dropfleet, and non of there offerings seem particularly relevant in the hobby space either (maybe due more to Spartan Games than to the games themselves, but I wont get into that).  Certainly in the case of Spartan Games and Dropzone Commander, there are strong pockets here and there, as certainly be the case with Dropzone Commander.  They can probably all co-exist and survive in those pockets, I just hope that Hawk Wargames can grow it bigger than that.

The cost of the game also does seem a little high.  The max skirmish list I took a guess at above would costs roughly $180 retail.  Maybe that is why the community is coverging to 1500 pt games.  The min size for a skirmish would be roughly half of that, so cost of basic entry would be about $120 ($90 for minis, $30 for rulebook and skipping the pack of activation cards).  Not sure how any of these numbers compare to similar offerings though.

Lastly, there are 4 factions and these are the factions that have been established for quiet some time via Dropzone Commander (although Dropzone actually has 5 factions now, but that 5th will never get a spacefleet).  I think this is good since I prescribed to the D6 generation's philosophy that 4 factions is the magic number for new games.  But I don't know how or if, Hawk will add another/more factions.  So the open questions is:  While 4 initial factions is almost mandatory for any new game, can the game sustain with ONLY 4 factions.  X-Wing is one exception to this, but then again X-Wing is an exception to almost everything.  Although some people do not even consider it a valid "miniatures" game.

Anyway, Dropzone Commander looks to be a good space orbital combat game, in the vein of the more abstracted space combat games that play like naval warfare games.  I love this particular genre, so I am pretty excited to try it out.  I think the distinction that it is focused on orbital combat, rather than space combat, helps breath some refreshing things into this "kind" of game.  And then the miniatures speak for themselves.  If you like them and like a simpler naval warfare type combat, then you should check it out.

And sorry, this was still very long winded.  Once I start, I have trouble stopping.  I guess.  There is also a lot to cover.


  1. Brutally honest. There are good things and bad things, and you recognize them both.

    It is a pity that Dropzone Commander hasn't caught on the way it might have. The plastic box sets are a good deal, but I think that people can get scared off by the need for lots of unique terrain and the high price of other expansion boxes.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Jeremy. I agree it is a pity it hasn't gained a lot of traction so far. After Adepticon though, I am still holding out hope. I stopped by their tournament on Saturday(?) and it looked to have about a dozen people. Yeah, that is far from being huge but it also doesn't seem bad for a game that had only been out for about 4 months at that point. Sadly, I still need to get a game in.