05 May 2022
Words and pictures by John Treadaway
There are many examples in science fiction of a ‘Doomsday Machine’. I want to concentrate, however, on the sort often encountered as a space ship of the likes of, say the eponymous Doomsday Machine of the Star Trek series. This was a vast, spaceship-ripping vessel, designed as an ‘ultimate weapon’ from many aeons ago and encountered by Captain Kirk and Commodore Decker as it attempted to crush their ships while eating small planets for lunch. The original model of that ‘device’, I am reliably informed, was made from a wind sock dipped in concrete (enhanced greatly on the digital re-boot of twenty years ago) but it was vast. I figured that I probably didn’t want to go quite that big and I certainly didn’t want to go for something that tries to talk to humpbacked whales (for little apparent reason) but it did get me thinking.
While I love Trek and have carved away many hours of my life playing tabletop games of the genre’s ship combat, I also really like the old ICE game Silent Death. It’s an easy pick up for gamers; it’s expandable and easy to fiddle with; it has a background but not one you are tied to (and one that – frankly – is quite easy to ignore. As I have for over thirty years..). But I wanted something that – in the midst of this infernal lock down – I could play as a solo effort or, at a pinch, as a cooperative game.
Sure, lining up ships and duking it out amongst the asteroids is all good fun but I do like ganging up on a common enemy with my mates (when possible). So... In this ‘lockdown fun-time’ (that seems destined to continue in one form or another) what I wanted was a robot, A.I. system for Silent Death. Having said that, what I’ve come up with is fairly generic and could probably be applied to any game that uses ships big enough to have space ships of differing weapon types and sizes.
I’d used a card deck to generate A.I. driven opposition for two games our group had previously run. UFO (based on the Gerry Anderson TV series of the same name) has three earth/moon interceptors launched to stop a horde of alien UFOs getting through to earth orbit and this has been the feature of an article in this very magazine (more than one, actually!). Later on we – effectively – ‘reskinned’ the rule set for the game Stingray, also based on the Gerry Anderson TV series of the same name (you can probably detect a theme here..). For Stingray, the three interceptors were replaced by three Stingray Submarines and the nine UFOs coming to destroy earth and/or capture spare humans for body part surgery were swapped for nine Titan Terrorfish emerging from the undersea city of Titanica to destroy the Stingray base at Marineville.
Anderson nostalgia aside, the point was that – in both circumstances – there were multiple opposition forces moved over a hex grid using an A.I. system based on a random card deck: for each turn the nine (or however many remaining vessels there were) opponents flipped a card for each ship and it told the vessel to move in a certain direction – following a flight plan, as it were – and fire (or not) at the closest target, namely the players’ vehicles.
MOVE & FIRE
Now the UFOs only had one beam weapon and the cards options for each were limited. In open space they moved towards a fixed point from a table edge (ie towards earth orbit from the other end of the table) and fired, or not, (and occasionally fired twice) at the nearest, player controlled opponent with a strict priority order: nearest interceptor first then – failing that – any missiles that were on their way towards them.
In space there’s pretty much nothing to hit except the interceptors (a ram!) or – occasionally – each other (what with coming out of light speed and decelerating I expect the pilots were disorientated..). So – other than employing a rule for not slipping off of one of the sides of the playing area – their A.I. system was fairly unsophisticated.
Titan’s Terrorfish had a little more to contend with. Specifically, there was terrain – rocks and so forth – plus that much celebrated ability to jump right out of the water (hotly pursued by a Stingray: anything can happen in the next half hour!). The A.I. had to be adapted to allow for those kind of shenanigans but – essentially – it was still the same system: cards were dealt for each model and each had simple instructions and, effectively, one weapon system to fire at the nearest target.
What it also meant, for both UFO and even the more complicated Stingray, was that – with a fair degree of card-based book keeping – one player could run all three Interceptors or Stingrays and fight as many Terrorfish or UFO’s as they chose as a solo game.
I thought that sounded like a good starting point!
ADAPTING THE SYSTEM
What I wanted for a Silent Death game, I decided, was to use one of the biggest sized ships in the gunboat class: something with multiple gun turrets, normally run by five gunners and a pilot gunner and armed with beam weapons, missiles and torpedoes. The sort of thing a player would normally play on their own. I then wanted to run that as a robot system with an A.I. and allow a player (or players) to field several fighters against it.
I’d base the system loosely on the in-built points costs system of Silent Death (for what that’s worth – for what any points system is worth, come to that!) and so I chose my monster: I was going to robotise a Betafortress.
The Betafort (the Beta version: the awkwardly titled Betafortress Beta) is about the biggest pure gunboat in the system and fulfilled all of my needs: six gun systems pointing in all sorts of directions including some pretty heavy ones, plus three banks of missiles and fifteen ‘chase you across the table’ torpedoes in various sizes. It’s also quite slow and – therefore – fairly easy to predictably control.
The systems in Silent Death are all graduated using polyhedral dice: a poor gunner and a badly trained pilot start off at a D4. They can get better with D6 and D8 but the very best use a D10 to hit (and select movement options but, let’s just talk about shooting for the moment).
A Betafort is 220 points in it’s basic form. Equipped with enhanced, robot controlled guns and a pilot – all at D10 – that is raised to 290 points and so finding three smaller ships with average pilots and gunners to go against that – say a couple of Salamanders and a Seraph – would be fairly straight forward. One could even use a swarm of much smaller fighter like a dozen Pit Viper II’s – depending on the work load and what you had to hand. You are looking at 300 odd points of ships.
IT’S ALL IN THE CARDS
So what would the A.I. look like? I generated a pack of 30 cards (which are all downloadable from the Miniature Wargames website, complete with card rears to paste on) and the idea was to use them to generate random movement and firing. They were to be shuffled and dealt at the appropriate time to progress the game.
Take a standard Betafortress play sheet (or any other large gunboat I guess) and mark it up as all skill levels being ranked D10. I’ve produced one (with kind permission from the authors) which you can download. The skill levels are only relevant for the pilot skill when looking at movement initiative order so let’s deal with that first:
Initiative – which side moves first in standard Silent Death – is established by bowling a D10 and adding your pilot skill to the result. With a pilot skill of D10, the Doomsday Machine will usually move first.
Next, take the sheet and add the D10 dice to all weapons for gunner skill. For example, the Pilot’s gun – 4 Blatguns firing in the forward arc – use 2D6 and the attack dice bonus +3 (with High+6 as the damage if it hits). That means that the robot pilot’s gun (maximum range 13 hexes) rolls a 2D6+1D10+3 to hit. Fun!
Similarly, all of the other guns add a D10 and the missile banks require a lock-on to hit of a roll less than their Gunnery Skill on a D10. So: to lock on missiles, roll under 10 on a D10.
Put the Betafortress on one side of the table and set up a target for it to leave from – typically the far side of the table. To make it fun, scatter some asteroids or other scenery items across the table (if you want to build some, I made some from foam for cheap in Miniature Wargames issue 415: check it out!). Put some opponents on the table. Say three ships. However many you chose, either select where you want them or – for extra fun – randomise the corners they come in from (use a D4). I suggest bowling up abilities for the pilots and gunners: my usual random bowl is 2D4 for every skill, generating a 4 to10 score.
So far so ‘standard Silent Death’ but with a nasty ship! Where it changes is initiative, movement, target acquisition and damage repair.
PLAYING THE GAME
So let’s start. Effectively the standard turn will be split into three ‘mini turns’:
Shuffle the pack every turn and deal three cards from the pack face down.
BOWL SOME INITIATIVE
Bowl to see who moves first: any of the opposition bowls in the standard way. Let’s say – for argument – that the Robot wins initiative. The Doomsday Machine turns the first card and follows the instructions written on it in the following order:
- Launch torpedoes.
- Lock on missiles (if in range).
- Fire guns.
Then one of the opponents run a move and follow the same procedure: torpedoes, missiles, move and guns.
Next the robot turns the second card and repeats the procedure.
Then a second player ship has a turn: same deal.
Thirdly the Doomsday Machine turns it’s last card and follows it’s ‘mini turn’. Then any remaining ships on the table run what amounts to a standard turn: launch torpedoes, lock on missiles (if in range) move and then fire their guns.
If at any point a target ship moves – whether the Doomsday Machine or any of the player fighters – any torpedoes aimed at it chase after it and hit in the standard way: it’s just like a standard turn comprised of three mini turns.
Obviously, the player’s ships can fire whatever they want whenever they want within the turns but the Robot needs an A.I. for movement and firing. Details are printed on the cards and they work as follows:
- Some of the cards give the instruction: Fire ‘N’ biggest guns at nearest target. This means that the Robot will fire all guns that will bare at the nearest ship target that is within range.
- Fire Half of remaining torps means half of each type of torps on the model (on a Betafort that starts with 5 Mk 50s and 10 Mk10s so – rounding up – that would be 3 x 50’s and 5 x 10’s.
- Minus Move Damage means one off for each drive damage the Betafort has incurred. Each card dictates movement rather than the original movement allocation on the ship however any damage to the drive is still noted. So – for example – if the ship has taken two engine damage then the card that says Move 5 Hexes Minus Move Damage means one off for each drive damage so move three hexes.
- Guns Fire: when indicated, even if they have already fired this turn, the robot controlled guns will fire again on the turn of this card.
- Some of the cards indicate Biggest or Smallest guns. This means ones that can deliver either the most or the least amount of damage. If equal, then pick the longest or shortest range; or – failing that – the greatest or least chance of a hit (in that order)
- Some of the cards say Reorientate & Pick Card. This means turn ship to the original destination (as in the far side of the table), follow the movement instructions but then immediately pick another card from the deck and use that in addition.
- Some of the weapons may be repaired or reloaded. The robot ship is repairing itself! Where it says Random just Roll a suitable dice and work around the ship in a clockwise direction.
As scenery, if desired use the standard Silent Death asteroid movement rules. If any of the players bumps into an asteroid then they take the standard damage. If the Doomsday Machine tries to move into an asteroid it will just stop dead in the hex preceding it and wait for the asteroid to drift out of the way next turn. For any cards it turns over subsequently that don’t allow it to move around it, the robot ignores the movement component although it may still fire weapons mentioned on the card (if any). If – in the next turn – the asteroid drifts into the robot it takes the standard 5D12 damage.
EDGE OF THE TABLE
If the robot turns and leaves the side of the table by the way it came on, it has left the scene and goes off to plague some other planetary system. That’s a win for the player! If it inadvertently bangs into the side of the table that would entail it leaving the play area, it simply stops at the table edge and may use any fire actions on the card. The next card laid allows the Robot to turn one hex face in the direction of it’s destination (the far side of the table) but may use any fire included on the card. It will repeat this action – one hex face turn on the spot with only firing or repair actions from the cards – until it can actually move towards its destination as indicated on a card.
- If the Doomsday Machine is destroyed the player(s) win.
- If the Doomsday Machine gets off the far end of the table intact, the A.I. wins: all hail our new Robot Overlords!
- If all of the player’s ships are destroyed then... well, the players have certainly lost!
Obviously to play this system you’ll want to own a copy of Silent Death – I’d recommend everyone buys a copy as a download (or a physical copy of you can find one, probably on ebay). Go to their website and a mere nine dollars US gets you a digital copy of the rules as a download. All the supplements you could want are available (go for Hanger 51 if nothing else) plus you can buy lots of model ships! I thoroughly recommend these rules. Having said that, you could apply this idea to lots of other rule systems.
Captain on Deck!
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This scenario was one of many that appears in Miniature Wargames Magazine, our monthly publication for all kinds of wargames! You can check out our latest issue, or previous issues by clicking hereGet your magazine here
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