01 April 2019
Plenty of momentum
Battlestar Galactica: Starship Battles feels like the perfect space combat game for physics nerds.
Based on the TV series – the starter set includes four ships from the noughties reboot/remake, but vessels from the original ‘70s show are also planned – Starship Battles does an admirable job of implementing the kind of scientific quirks to dogfighting in space that other miniature games like X-Wing casually sweep under the bantha-skin rug.
You’ll have to take into account the G-force of your manoeuvres, for instance, as you plan one or two of a deck of movement cards to wiggle your ship around asteroids and rival fighters. Also playing a part is acceleration, which stops you suddenly throwing your craft into reverse to dodge incoming fire and Newton from spinning in his grave. With the optional rules for 3D space, vertical position becomes another consideration. In a nice nod to the unpredictability of faster-than-light travel in the show, some ships can jump into FTL during tight situations – but with little idea of which direction they’ll go or how far they’ll travel, with potentially devastating results.
Most impressive of all is the way that the surprisingly smooth simulation of inertia opens up exciting new strategies and opportunities, with ships able to rotate as they move to line up shots (a necessity, given the tight firing arcs), and then take advantage of their momentum to keep on drifting or suddenly course-correct and open up their engines to stay on the tail of their prey.
While it all sounds a lot to take in at first – something the patchy rulebook doesn’t help with – in motion it comes together to create outstanding moments. Drifting sideways loosing blasts at approaching vessels using the quick two-dice combat system before precisely weaving out of harm’s way with the vast range of movement options makes Starship Battles’ unique skirmishes among the most intense and satisfying out there – X-Wing included. The hugely fun sense of movement and momentum is added to by the random allocation of damage tokens, which can land critical hits and even damage vital systems, which then restrict ships’ manoeuvrability. It’s as electric and cinematic as you’d hope.
Unfortunately, the gameplay’s strength on the table is weakened by a mixed box of bits. The plastic control panels used to neatly program the speed, kinetic energy, altitude adjustment and rotation of each ship’s upcoming move are a nifty way of cramming a lot of potentially complicated or clunky elements into a single place, but the overly stiff or irritatingly loose sliders and dials make it arduous and inaccurate to actually use them each turn. The pre-painted Viper and Raider models are finely detailed, and their rotating bases make calculating inertia relatively easy, but the bases' dodecahedron shape and the thin hexagonal manoeuvre cards make movement overly fiddly. The game’s movement system is a fresh take on the historical aerial combat of Wings of Glory, which was never designed to be millimetre-perfect, but feels even more imprecise compared to Wings' rectangular bases and movement cards – an issue when the firing arcs are also less forgiving.
There’s also the question of price. The box feels fully-featured, laden with optional rules and the opportunity to recreate battles from the TV show in scenarios that can be played alone or as a campaign, with pilots progressing from ‘nuggets’ to aces and having individual talents and flaws that can add interesting dimensions to the straightforward combat. But it’s also nearly £60, and inconsistent quality of the components – fantastic minis, so-so everything else – makes that a harder sell, especially when you’ll ideally want to pick up more ships for bigger battles in the future.
Overall Starship Battles is an often fantastic game experience saddled by some lacklustre surrounding elements. Its exhilarating physics-based movement and combat is an outstanding achievement and brings something new to the crowded realm of sci-fi dogfighting – but it’s not always as fun to play as should be, making it easier to appreciate than adore.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
The flexible movement and ‘realistic’ physics makes Starship Battles one of the strongest pure space combat games out there. It’s just a shame that it comes with the caveat of iffy components and a big buy-in.
Designer: Andrea Angiolino, Andrea Mainini
Artist: Fabio Maiorana
Time: 30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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