Speeding up the Spartan Engine, Part 2



Last week, I took a look at the idea that games based on the Spartan Engine, especially Dystopian Wars (DW) and Firestorm Armada (FSA), take too long to play. I’m not going to repeat myself too much in this post, so please take a look at last week’s post before reading this one if you haven’t yet. To summarize, I concluded that DW and FSA should probably be about 33% shorter; so, if an “average” game takes about 3 hours, it would be better for it to last more like 2 hours. I stopped short last week of getting into specific changes that could be made to the Spartan Engine to reduce play time, so that is going to be my focus this time around. The approach I’m going to be taking is more of a brainstorming list; I would not expect all (or perhaps even most) of the changes I’m proposing to appear in a single game. Indeed, if all of the suggestions I’m about to make were implemented at once, I think the result would probably be a game that is a little too simplified to satisfy fans of the existing game (like me!). In line with my post on the Spartan Engine, I’ll be talking about proposals for the Core Rules, followed by some ideas on changes to the various modules. Along the way, I want to share some of my thoughts on exactly what makes games of DW or FSA take so long. Continue reading

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Episode 28


For this month’s episode of the MBS Podcast, Greg and Andy take their first ever in-depth look at a video game, BSG Deadlock from Slitherine Games. Later, they discuss the ways that stealth mechanics work in various naval games.

BSG Deadlock Reveiw: 36 Min

Stealth in Naval Games: 1hr 13 Min

Links Discussed:

BSG Deadlock

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Speeding up the Spartan Engine, Pt. 1

Speeding up the Spartan Engine, Pt. 1

imageedit_6_9426372647For all of its many virtues, a commonly heard complaint is that games based on the Spartan Engine take too long to play, especially Firestorm Armada (FSA) and Dystopian Wars (DW). This is not a universally heard complaint, to be sure. There are plenty of gamers who are no doubt happy with the play length for DW and FSA as-is. However, there was apparently enough demand for a “fast play” version of these games that Spartan decided to release Firestorm Taskforce (TF) and Dystopian Wars Fleet Action (FA), which were designed to allow gamers to play a game in their respective universes in less time than their “parent” games. Now, as it turns out, both TF and FA have some issues of their own, which Greg and I discussed a while back on the MBS podcast, but that doesn’t change the fact that Spartan apparently got enough feedback that its games were taking too long to play that they felt compelled to develop a new product to try and address the issue.

How Long does it take to play FSA and DW?

This seems like a reasonable question to ask at the outset. The problem is that when evaluating game length there is very little to go on other than anecdotal evidence, which is heavily influenced by personal perception. That being said, here are a few things I’ve noticed over the years.

  • Familiarity with the rules drives gameplay length more for FSA and DW than with some other games. Obviously, with any game system the better the players know it the faster they will be able to play. However, the improvement seems to be more dramatic than usual for Spartan Engine games, perhaps due to the notorious layout issues of Spartan’s rulebooks.
  • Given “normal” scenarios, most games of FSA or DW are pretty much decided by the end of turn 3. Turn 4 and later are usually only an exercise in “mopping up,” and tend to go much quicker due to the fact there is less for both players to do since so many models tend to be destroyed by then.
  • In a tournament setting, a two hour round is generally sufficient for two players with a reasonable understanding of the rules to complete at least 3 turns (and hence reach a reasonable conclusion) assuming the points level is somewhere around 800-1000 points, but is generally not enough time to play a game to full completion.
  • The time it takes to play a game of FSA or DW is directly proportional not just to the points level of the game, but also to the number of activations in each player’s force. In my experience, it is actually possible to play a 1200 point game in about the same amount of time as an 800 point game, provided the 1200 point forces are large/massive model heavy (which means that the overall number of activations is largely the same).
  • It seems that DW typically takes longer to play than FSA at a given points level.

The net total of my experience is that given a basic scenario, a moderate points level, and players with a decent understanding of the rules, playing a game of FSA or DW through to conclusion (at least turn 5) will generally take around three hours. Of course, games can easily run longer if being played with larger forces, or if one or both of the players are less familiar with the rules, but in general I think that three hours is a reasonable working number for the length of an “average” game of FSA or DW. Certainly, that’s about the minimum amount of time I set aside when I’m planning a game session with someone. I have heard that some groups have been able to drop their play time to less than two hours with sufficient repetition, but I suspect that groups with that level of familiarity with the rules and unit stats are more the exception than the rule.

How Long is Too Long?

Now that I’ve established my rough metric for how long a game of FSA or DW will take to play, the next question to address is if that play length is excessive or not. And here, we’re taking a hard turn into the realm of the subjective! One gamer’s reasonable game length is another’s death slog. The challenge here is that one of the trends in the larger miniature gaming industry over the last 5 or so years has been towards smaller model counts and shorter game lengths. Fantasy Flight’s X-wing, for example, is both wildly popular and can be played in well under an hour. There have been a rise of skirmish games, such as Malifaux and Guild Ball that tend to feature similar play lengths. During the same time, there has also been an explosion in the popularity of board games, many of which have playtimes of two hours or less. At least superficially, then, there seems to be a big market in shorter-form games, which seems to have been the original target of FA and TF. That doesn’t mean that there is no market for longer-form miniatures games, though. Warhammer 40k, for example, seems to be as popular as ever (perhaps more than ever, since the changes Games Workshop has made in its business practices and the release of 8th Edition) despite having a play time of 2-3 hours for average sized games. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars Armada, their capital ship Star Wars game, has a dedicated following and takes around 2 hours to play from what I gather.

There is certainly room out there for a FSA or DW game that takes 3 hours to play. Dedicated DW or FSA players (of which I consider myself to be one) will probably have no problem budgeting that amount of time to their games. I do perceive a problem, though, when it comes to those gamers for who FSA and DW occupy the “Secondary Game” space. That is, from my experience folks that primarily play one of the more popular miniatures games, like 40k or Warmachine, will often have forces for other miniature games in their collections that they can pull out on occasion for a change of pace. In this context, longer play times might very well be a detriment, as those gamers might be less inclined to pick up DW or FSA if they are looking for something that is simpler or takes less time to play than their main games. For that reason, I think 3 hours might be a bit too long, and it is worth looking at ways to reduce the play time of FSA and DW.

So, three hours is too long, but how much of a reduction is desirable? On the extreme end, we could try and take the play time of FSA and DW all the way down to less than an hour, to compete in the skirmish game market. This is the approach Spartan took with FA and TF, and while there were some flaws in their execution the overall result of their efforts were games that largely achieved their play time objectives. I generally like the systems, but I don’t think they represent a good way forward for the “mainline” FSA and DW rule sets; FA and TF just deviate too far from the core Spartan Engine to have the same feel and appeal as their parent games for my taste. Another downside is that FA and TF are so different from DW and FSA, respectively, that they do not serve as a good gateway or introduction to them. My own assessment is that trying to take the play time of FSA and DW down too far will result in too many undesirable compromises in their gameplay.
That’s not to say that no reductions can be made; to the contrary, I do think that a shorter play time of around two hours would pay some significant dividends and could perhaps be achieved without severely compromising the overall feel of the game play. At that game length, I think FSA and DW would gain more appeal as secondary games, thus expanding the potential pool of players.


Game length is definitely one of those topics where Your Mileage May Very, so I appreciate my readers sticking with this post all the way to this point! To recap, my estimation is that the “average” game of FSA or DW takes about three hours to play, and that game length limits the appeal of these games to gamers who are looking for a supplement to the “primary” game that they play. I also assess that trying to get FSA and DW play time down to X-wing levels would probably result in a compromised experience, though getting the playtime down to about 2 is probably achievable.

Of course, this brings us to the question of what, exactly, can be done to reduce the playtime of games based on the Spartan Engine, but that will have to wait until part 2. Until next time…

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Ruckdog’s Report Episode 5


Andy is back with Ruckdog’s Report #5! The big discussion point this time around is on the trend of digital rule books. Do they make gaming experiences better?

Pictures of Andy’s Ice Maiden:

YouTube Video version:

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The Spartan Game Engine

The Spartan Game Engine



Hello once again! In this post, I’m going to attempt to provide a description of the game engine that Spartan Games initially created in 2008 and then iterated on for various versions of Uncharted Seas (US), Firestorm Armada (FSA), and Dystopian Wars (DW). For fans of these games, a lot of this is going to seem pretty old hat. Given that fans of these games are likely most of my readership, it does beg the question of “Why bother?” Well, Warcradle is embarking on a development process that will ultimately lead to new editions of US, FSA, and DW being brought to market. As I mentioned in my post on the background for DW, I recognize that Warcrade may very well change some aspects of how the games play as part of their development process. Thus,  I feel there is value in this exercise in as much as it will help to establish a baseline for comparison and further discussion in the future. Continue reading

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Dystopian Wars and World War II

Dystopian Wars and World War II


Before I get too far into this, I should point out that I recognize that Warcradle has plans to make significant changes to the background story for Dystopian Wars.  However, as yet the details  have not been revealed to the general public, so I felt it this would be a good opportunity to take a look at how the “old” fluff compares to our own real world history, with the idea that this post can serve as a point of comparison once the new fluff is revealed in the fullness of time. On with the show!



Scene: A Friendly Local Game Store. I’m playing a game of Dystopian Wars with a friend on a table in a corner, having great fun rolling buckets of dice and sinking ships. A curious stranger, drawn by the unique aesthetics of the game, stops buy to have a look. 

Me: Hi there! How are you today?

Stranger: Oh, hello! What game is this?

Me: This is Dystopian Wars.

Stranger: Oh, cool. What’s the game about?

Me: It’s essentially World War II, 70 years before it actually happened, with all kinds of crazy steam-powered stompy robots and flying aircraft carriers.

The scene I just described, with slight variations, has played out numerous times for me over the years that I’ve been playing Dystopian Wars (DW).  The game’s setting focuses on a world-wide conflict, and the natural thought progression is to try and place the fictional war showcased in the game into context with a real conflict from our own history. In other words, the game begs the question “Which real war is the Dystopian War most similar too?” For me, the comparison of DW to World War II (WWII) seems to come naturally, almost unbidden, and in this essay I want to examine why that is so. From my perspective, DW is closest to WWII due to the level of technology employed, the geo-political alignment of the great powers involved, and the scale of the conflict. Continue reading

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Episode 27


Greetings! This month on the MBS Podcast, Greg and Andy tackle two great topics. The first is Ship Miniature Identification; how do you tell what ship is what and who it belongs to on the table? Later, our hosts discuss space combat in the Star Wars universe, and why it seems like Star Destroyers always seem to be exploding!

Ship Miniature Identification: 44 Min

Star Wars Space Combat: 1hr 23 Min

Links Discussed:

2018 MBS Painting Contest


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Thoughts on the Revised Ningjing

Thoughts on the Revised Ningjing

Yesterday, Warcradle posted up some new renders  on their official Facebook page of the Ningjing battleship design they have been working on for Dystopian Wars (DW). The changes to the design are both dramatic and subtle; clearly a lot of work has gone into it since we first saw the design back in early December 2017. Given how much the model has changed, I felt compelled to take a detailed look and see what those differences are!


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Ruckdog’s Report Episode 4


This time around, I take a look back at some of the games from my collection that came out between 2010 and 2012. Was this a “golden age” of sorts for naval gaming?

In addition to the audio format, I’ve also posted a video version to the MBS YouTube channel!

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MBS YouTube: Roll Tide in Ranked!

MBS YouTube: Roll Tide in Ranked!

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