01 February 2016
Halo… is it me you’re looking for?
Spartan Games | Space combat | £80 | 2+ players | 90 minutes | www.spartangames.co.uk
The Covenant Elites burst down the corridor of the UNSC Epoch Heavy Carrier, heading towards the engine room. UNSC soldiers desperately attempt to take down the invaders but the Elites are too strong and just keep coming or dodge into alcoves to avoid fire. Outside the Epoch Heavy Carrier, the space battle still rages on with the Covenant ORS Heavy Cruiser using its Plasma Beam to scythe through the weakened hulls of the Paris Frigates. The glow of the terrifying weapon momentarily lights up the hallways of the Heavy Carrier, as the Elites reach the engine room, a trail of destruction in their wake.
As a desperate last gasp the Frigates speed past the Heavy Cruiser to avoid the devastating lance of the Plasma Beam. However, it’s futile as the Elites plant high explosives on the ship’s core and hammer it back down the corridors to their waiting boarding craft. Behind them a series of detonations triggers a critical breach that rips the Epoch Heavy Carrier apart, just as the Elite’s boarding craft speeds off to a safe distance. The force of the explosion envelopes the neighbouring ships as the Heavy Carrier rips into pieces – the Covenant Heavy Cruiser’s thick armour withstands the blast but the Paris Frigates are obliterated in an instant, wiping out the remaining UNSC forces. Rho ‘Barumtamee, the Covenant Supreme Commander grunts in satisfaction at the devastation and plots a new course… ready to wipe out more beleaguered UNSC defences.
If you’re a regular player of the Halo video games, it may sound like we’ve just described one of the many cutscenes that pepper the various games released by Microsoft since 2001. However, that dramatic scene was actually the dying moments of a game of Halo: Fleet Battles – the Fall of Reach from Spartan Games. And, rather than being portrayed through expensive CGI cutscenes, it was all done with dice rolls and a little bit of imagination. Ah, the beauty of tabletop gaming.
When it was announced that a Halo wargame was incoming there was a collective ‘huh?’ from the wargaming community. Not necessarily because a Halo game was unexpected, after all the franchise certainly seems to translate well into a tabletop experience, but because Spartan Games and Microsoft had decided not to release the seemingly obvious 28mm skirmish game with Master Chief leading other Spartans against the Covenant. Instead Spartan wanted to use the wealth of experience it had gained from creating Firestorm Armada, to make a spaceship battle game inspired by the Halo franchise.
The result is Halo: Fleet Battles – The Fall of Reach, a two player starter set that takes players through one of the most important battles in the Halo franchise. Included in the set is everything you need to kick off your Halo collection, including 32 UNSC ships, 17 Covenant models, 25 custom Halo dice and a Campaign Guide, among other bits and bobs. Although Fleet Battles is inspired by a video game, anyone expecting to pick the game up off the shelf and start blasting each other straight away (like they would in a typical first-person shooter) should beware. All of those spaceships need to be cut from their sprue and some have to be glued together – although thankfully there are clear instructions and it’s generally not too fiddly. Then you’ve got a 130-page rulebook to go through to ensure you’re familiar with the rules. Yes, there is a reference sheet included but that assumes you’re accustomed with the basics. For experienced wargamers none of this should be a problem but it could prove a shock to the system for adrenaline-packed videogamers looking for their next Halo fix.
In fact, this balance between making a game accessible enough for videogame players who have not have played a wargame before and experienced wargamers who are looking for tactical depth can be seen throughout Fleet Battles… and for the most part Spartan nails this tricky balance. Let’s start with the ships themselves, which are highly detailed replicas of famous craft from the franchise and Spartan has created some stunning models, with a phenomenal level of detail. Considering this is Spartan’s first game to use hard plastic, rather than resin, it has set the benchmark for future releases extremely high.
Alongside the models, you’ve got the flight stands, which are clear plastic bases with 25 slots to place potential models. When playing, you place cardboard base overlays over the flight stands that explain key facts about the ship(s), including name, formation, movement, firing arcs, etc. In a similar vein to Fantasy Flight’s
X-Wing Miniatures Game, Spartan has packed a lot of useful information onto the base in a really clear way that’s all very nicely colour coded too. There are plenty of different options on the base overlays too, allowing you to tailor your fleet, e.g. an option for a standard Covenant CCS Battlecruiser or a Supported CCS Battlecrusier that has space for an SDV Heavy Corvette. The flight stands and accompanying base overlays are a neat element from Spartan that provides a quick reference while playing and future proofs the company against potential upcoming releases.
However, despite the fact that some information is included on the base, you’ll still need to regularly consult a more detailed reference sheet explaining other aspects, like weapon firepower, defence capabilities and special abilities. Although it’s a shame all this info couldn’t have been included on the base overlay, it probably would have made the base twice as big, which would have been a little unwieldy, so it’s an understandable compromise.
Arguably the most important element on this reference sheet are the primary and secondary weapons. Some ships, like the Covenant Supported ORS Heavy Crusier actually have four potential weapons to choose from, while most just have primary and secondary options – both of which can be fired in a turn. Again, Spartan has done a good job of making sure the information is clear, explaining the name, range, arcs and the number of dice you have to roll for each weapon.
Ah yes, those dice, this is one of Spartan’s biggest innovations to ensure the game appeals to newcomers. Rather than having fistfuls of standard D6, you’ll be armed with the special six-sided Halo dice that have symbols to indicate one fail, two misses, two one hit icons and one exploding hit. This is a superb solution to easily indicate successful attacks, rather than having to consult stat cards to see if you need a 3+ or a 4+. Even when rolling 15 dice for the UNSC Supported Epoch Heavy Carrier’s missile batteries you can still quickly see what’s happening. Top marks to Spartan.
The other element that comes into play when attacking is the Firepower Rating Table. Although you’ll always roll the same amount of dice listed on your stat card, the effectiveness of those attacks can go up or down on the Firepower Rating Table, which has five possible options. As standard everyone starts at Firepower Rating Four, which means that for every exploding two you roll, you can also re-roll a miss, e.g. you roll a fail, a miss, two ones and two exploding twos so on Rating Four you can re-roll that miss but can’t re-roll the fail. However, although you start at Rating Four, that can go down if you’re aiming at a small target, have to shoot through debris or, in the case of some weapons, are shooting at long range, all of which decrease your rating by one. On Rating Three it means you’ve got no re-rolls, while Rating Two is half strength and Rating One is impossible.
Initially it can seem a little confusing when you’re going up and down the table, however after a few tries you realise the beautiful simplicity of this method. Instead of mucking about reducing or increasing your dice pool, it’s just a case of consulting the rating table.
Another one of Spartan’s simple solutions to mirror the world of Halo is something called the Wing Phase. You see, as well as the lumbering giant ships, Halo cutscenes often feature the fast-paced dogfights of smaller craft like the Covenant Seraph Interceptor Flight and UNSC Broadsword. In Fleet Battles these are represented by small cardboard tiles that can be launched from larger spaceships. Although the small fighters can’t do any damage to the big boys, the bombers can take on craft like the Paris Frigates or SDV Heavy Corvettes with some success. As a result the Wing Phase breaks down into small dogfights as players try to break through with their bombers but are attacked by the fighters. It’s a quick and simple element to Fleet Battles that really helps to add to the wider picture of space combat in the Halo universe.
Meanwhile boarding is handled in a similar vein to wing combat and larger ships have the ability to send out boarding craft, like the UNSC Pelican. Once again, these are represented by small card tokens, however they can provide some of the game’s most cinematic moments (with a little imagination). Once a player has announced where the boarding craft is heading, the opponent can try to shoot them down using a ship’s Point Defence Rating, however any that dodge this barrage of bullets then get to board the ship. Once inside, the ship’s security detail takes over and there’s a combat roll-off to see who wins. If the boarding party is victorious then it’s time to check the Boarding Result Table, which could see actions like the defender destroying the boarding craft, a stalemate or even a bomb being planted inside the ship. The latter is particularly dramatic as countdown tokens are placed upon the ship and once the ship reaches six tokens it goes boom! A particularly nice touch here is that a player must try to safely detonate the bombs during the repair phase using the Halo dice. A roll of a one or two removes a countdown token but a skull adds two countdown tokens instead. This makes for some particularly tense ingame moments and really adds to the cinematic feel of the game.
Another nice element that compliments the cinematic action is the addition of a Campaign Book, detailing eight different missions. Not only do these help set the scene by introducing key characters and events but they also provide a great starting point for newcomers to space warfare because each mission progressively adds more gameplay elements. So, you start by learning how to move and shoot but by Scenario Four you’ll be handling boarding actions, the wings phase, order dice and attacking.
Ultimately though, the question remains whether Spartan has created a game that’s accessible to first timers, while also being fun for experienced gamers… and the answer is definitely yes! Elements such as the clear combat dice, accessible reference cards, Campaign Book and base overlays ensure that information is always straight forward and concise. What’s more, the rulebook is written clearly and is structured well and in conjunction with the Campaign Book, newcomers will soon be battling in the depths of space. Admittedly, you’ve got some work to do at first (building the ships, reading the rules and popping out tokens), which some may find a little tedious but set aside a couple of hours and you’ll be sorted relatively quickly. Meanwhile, for experienced players the rules for optional loadouts, Order Dice, different scenarios and customisable battle groups ensures there’s lots of depth to get your teeth stuck into.
Halo is a superb introduction into the world of wargaming for those brought up on a steady diet of bombastic videogame action, thanks to concise rules, easy to understand visual elements and dramatic cinematic moments. Gameplay is fluid, with plenty of tactical options to keep games feeling fresh and varied.
This article originally appeared in issue 2 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.
Sometimes we may include links to online retailers, from which we might receive a commission if you make a purchase. Affiliate links do not influence editorial coverage and will only be used when covering relevant products