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.
For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to the underlying game engine that powers older version of US, DW, and FSA as the Spartan Engine. In describing it, I’m going to focus on two basic types of characteristics. The first are what I’m referring to as Core Mechanics, which include turn structure, movement, and shooting. These core mechanics were consistently employed across all versions of the games using the Spartan Engine, and were critical to the gameplay. Without one of these characteristics, the game engine simply wouldn’t function. The second set of characteristics I’m going to look at are secondary in nature, in that they aren’t critical to the basic functions of the game engine, but which help to add depth and interest. I’m referring to these as Modules, and they encompass things like boarding and carrier rules. Admittedly, this distinction is entirely arbitrary, so there is plenty of room to disagree with my classification of any given characteristic. Lets dig in!
From my perspective, the core of the Spartan Engine rests with its basic turn structure, movement rules, and shooting mechanics. This is not to say that these sections of the rules for all versions of US, FSA, and DW are identical; in fact, they are categorically not identical, with all sorts of small variations and changes between both the different games and between the various versions of each game. However, I contend those are relatively small differences, and that the Spartan Engine and the resulting overall gameplay remains recognizable across the various games despite those differences.
The basic turn structure remained essentially the same over the years. Generally, there were three phases per turn: A pre-turn phase, an activation phase, and a clean-up phase. The main activity during the pre-turn phase is the roll for initiative (invariably a 2D6 roll). The activation phase is where the bulk of the games take place, as the players alternate activating their units. Activating a unit involves conducting all moving, shooting, and boarding for that unit. Finally, the clean-up phase takes place at the end of the turn after all units on the table have been activated. This phase is where players tidy up the markers on the table, resolve damage effects, and the like.
The basic movement mechanics for the Spartan engine have remained remarkably consistent. Models move in inches, and use a turning template to maneuver. When maneuvering, a model (or its base) is moved along the edge of the turning template, consuming a portion of their allotted movement to do so. These turning templates may be a radius (as in the case of US & DW), or a 45-degree angle (FSA and DW flying units). Models have a minimum move of some sort, the exact nature of which varies from game to game. It is also not uncommon for very small units (often represented by tokens of some kind) to essentially be exempted from this system, with 360-degree mobility and no minimum moves.
Weapons in the Spartan Engine act over a series of four range bands. The size of these range bands is typically 8”, with Range Band (RB) 1 being 0-8”, RB 2 being 8-16”, RB 3 being 16-24”, and RB 4 being 24-32”. FSA was the only version of the Spartan Engine to deviate from this convention, with some weapons having 10” or even 12” range bands. The profile for a weapon will list the number of D6 that weapon system generates at each range band. Often, that number of dice goes up as range goes down (ie, the player rolls more dice at closer range). Thus, at long ranges and/or against tough targets, a single weapon system may be inadequate to overcome the defenses of a target and cause damage.
In order to allow players to hit targets more reliably, the Spartan Engine offers players the option for most weapons to Link with other weapons on the same model or with similar weapons present on other models in the same unit to increase the number of dice being thrown in the attack. One weapon is selected by the attacking player to be the lead weapon, while all other weapons contributing to the attack form the “link pool.” The link pool is then divided in half and added to the lead weapon, the resulting dice being referred to as the Attack Pool. This attack pool is rolled against a single target model.
When the dice of an attack are rolled, they normally hit on a 4, 5, or 6, with the 6’s counting as 2 hits and “exploding,” allowing the attacking player to roll another D6. It’s important to note that this additional dice is not a re-roll, and is not part of the original attack pool. Consequently, an attacker could theoretically generate an infinite number of hits on a target, as long as they keep rolling 6’s. Once all dice are rolled and all 6’s have finished exploding, the attacking player adds up the total number of hits they rolled. This system of exploding dice means that the smallest frigate is a threat to the mightiest dreadnought! In games using the Spartan Engine, you always want to make every attack possible, even if its only a few dice, because You Never Know.
The player controlling the target model then compares the number of hits rolled by the attacking player and compares it to the Damage Rating (DR) and Critical Rating (CR) listed in the target model’s profile. If the number of hits are equal to or greater than the DR (but less than the CR), the target takes one point of damage. If the number of hits are equal to or greater than the CR, then the player rolls on a Critical Hit chart to determine what happens to the target. Typically, critical hits result in at least 2 points of damage to the target, along with some other debilitating effect such as reducing movement, preventing the model from turning, etc. If the number of hits rolled by the attacker is greater than a multiple of the target’s CR (ie, the number of hits is twice the CR, triple the CR, etc), then it is possible for the target to suffer multiple critical hits from a single attack.
Models that receive damage must subtract the amount of damage points they have received from their dice pools. For example, if a model with two points of damage normally gets 10D6 for a weapon at RB 2, it will only get 8D6 instead. Once a model takes a number of damage points equal to the Hull Point rating listed in its profile, it is considered destroyed and is removed from the table.
With just the Core Mechanics in play, the Spartan Engine is fully functional as a game, if perhpas a bit bland. This is where the Modules come in. These are sets of rules that “plug in” to the Spartan Engine to provide additional layers of complexity, different tactical choices, and also serve to differentiate the various games from each other. It’s these modules, for example, that make FSA feel like a space game compared to DW. There are a substantial number of these modules, and some may not be present in all versions of the Spartan Engine and/or change radically between the various editions of a particular game. Consequently, I won’t be able to give a full accounting here. Instead, I’m focusing on a few that I feel are most commonly present and which contribute the most to the “flavor” of a given game.
Spartan never seemed to be quite satisfied with how carriers (and the small air/space craft that they launched) worked in their games, mainly FSA and DW. I make that statement based on how much they were modified and changed over the years between the various editions of these games; to the best of my knowledge, no two games using the Spartan Engine handled these in exactly the same way.
The way that boarding assaults were handled in the various Spartan games changed almost as much as the carrier rules did! The potency and complexity of boarding changed dramatically from game to game, and version to version. In some versions, it was a deadly form of attack that could eliminate a relatively healthy model from the game. In other versions, boarding was an ancillary attack method that was good for finishing off damaged models but not much more.
MARs and Weapon Types
MARs have become such a big part of the Spartan Engine, it might at first seem like an odd thing to include in the Modules category. However, they are not as integral to the engine as they might first appear. In fact, the first versions of US and FSA did not even have MARs “at launch.” Instead, these were added later as separate downloads before being fully incorporated in later editions. DW 1.0 was thus the first game using the Spartan Engine to have MARs from the very beginning. Likewise, weapons and munitions types are something that was added to and iterated upon in later versions of games using the Spartan Engine. Things like Nuclear and Beam weapons in FSA, or Tesla and Heat weapons in DW fall into this category.
The rules governing the interaction of terrain with models in the Spartan Engine is something that have fluctuated over the years, though not as much as the carrier and boarding rules. Some of this fluctuation is caused by differences between the “wet” games (US and DW) and the space game (FSA), as an asteroid is not the same thing as an island or sand bar! Additional churn in the terrain rules comes from the tweaks made to the Line of Sight (LOS) rules, which are almost a module in their own right. This was yet another “lever” that Spartan often pulled to differentiate its various games from each other.
Tactical Action Cards (TACs) and their predecessors, the Squadron, Turn, Action, o Reaction (STAR) cards, appear to have been an attempt to introduce a “fog of war” element into the game by providing another source of uncertainty for players besides dice rolling. These cards, which were sometimes blindly drawn but always kept hidden from your opponent, provided things like speed boosts, ship repairs, and gunnery buffs. As such, in addition to giving another variable for players to consider TAC/STAR cards also lent another command and control element to the game
While the Spartan Engine certainly evolved over the years, the various versions of US, FSA, and DW all share a distinctive flavor and “family resemblance” to each other. I believe this is down to the fact that all three of these game shared the same basic core characteristics as I outlined above, while incorporating different modules as necessary to differentiate the games from each other to better match the settings of each of the games. It will be interesting to see Warcradle’s iteration on this engine in the coming months and years!
Until next time…