In the early 1980s TSR released their “d%” sci-fi game called “Star Frontiers.” The base game, while innovative and fun, lacked any rules for building and fighting with spaceships. It had rules for travel time between star systems, purely from the point of view of passengers, but it had no real rules for dueling spaceships (see my review).
The main box expansion, “Knight Hawks,” covered spaceships in detail. It also included a simple board game that could be used either in conjunction with the RPG or as a stand-alone game. This game, which only went by the name of “Basic” and “Advanced Board Game Rules,” was actually a nifty little game all by itself, and one that deserves attention.
The “Star Frontiers” board game used half-inch square cardboard counters on a hex grid with a starry backdrop. While the setting had established races (the evil, worm-like Sathar and the allied “good guys”), the ships were delightfully generic in a way that gave the players freedom to design scenarios with few established assumptions getting in the way. Unlike “Starfleet: Captains” where the Romulans have cloaking devices or “Battleship Galaxies” where the Wretch ships have pirate-like abilities, the ships of “Star Frontiers” could be used (and designed if you delved into the RPG rules) with absolute freedom.
In the base game there were Fighters, Assault Scouts (like Corvettes that carried around 5 crew), Frigates, Destroyers, Heavy Cruisers and Battleships. There were also Assault Carriers that carried multiple fighters. The advanced game added Light Cruisers and Minelayers as well. The setting stated that Assault Scouts and Battleships were restricted to the UPF, who also favored Frigates as their main ships “of the line,” while the Sathar were more partial to Destroyers and Heavy Cruisers.
Weapons in the basic game included laser batteries and the heavier laser cannons, fast assault rockets, torpedoes and rocket batteries. A ship could have a reflective hull or a masking screen made of ice crystals that could scatter laser fire, and it could carry interceptor missiles (or ICMs) to stop torpedoes and rockets from coming in. In a bit of elegance, the ICMs did not require a separate roll by the defender; instead, they merely provided a negative modifier to the attacker’s chance to hit. Lasers suffered range diffusion, which meant that their chances of striking lessened with each hex.
Movement was handled by a Maneuver Rating (MR) which represented how often a ship could rotate a single hex side and by an Acceleration/Deceleration Factor (ADF) which controlled how quickly the ship could change speed. Damage was a simple matter of hull points taken.
Counters representing each of the different ships were give for both main factions, the United Planetary Federation (UPF) and the Sathar fleet. Eight planetary navies were also included as smaller factions. The largest of these had nine ships, while the smallest had only two. But they were each color coded to the different navies, allowing for multiple factions during scenario design. As a bonus, a pirate fleet was included, complete with a pirate base on an asteroid! Metal minis were available for the game, but were not necessary to play.
The advanced game added Light Cruisers and Minelayers, with counters for the mines. New weapons included proton and electron beams, disruptor cannons (which alternated protons and electrons) and self-guided seeker missiles. On defense, one might have a proton screen that deflected proton beams (and attracted electron beams), an electron screen that worked in the exact same but opposite way, and a stasis screen – a defense that is good for stopping both electron and proton beams, but that also sends out an electric pulse that attracts rockets and torpedoes.
The damage system was replaced with a table that determined whether the ship struck the hull, a weapon, or some other system like navigation or damage control. Weapons had modifiers to this table, so that proton and electron beams were likely to hit ship systems and light the ship ablaze, while explosive weapons like torpedoes and assault rockets were likelier to damage the hull itself. In order to simulate repairs, each ship had a Damage Control Rating (DCR) that could be used to fix damaged systems.
The advanced game also added rules for entering a planet’s gravity well. The game came with several counters representing planets. Space stations were included in both games, and they were considered immobile fortresses. Finally, a variety of civilian and generic “alien” ships, plus a space hulk or two, rounded out the counter list.
The rules were seamlessly integrated into the RPG, but worked just fine on their own as a ship-to-ship battle game. One negative that stood out was the fact that a Fighter could not fire more than three assault rockets before having to rearm. There were no small repeat fire weapons that would fit on the ship. This aesthetic wouldn’t let one recreate the feel of the Vipers from “Battlestar Galactica,” for example.
That said, if this game was updated today with larger scale plastic minis, it would make a great modern game. The scenarios were well thought out, being more than just kill ’em-alls. The game’s flavor came mostly from the implied setting in the RPG, and the scenario text captured that pretty well. Four and a half out of five stars – that poor struggling Fighter was the only hitch.