Thursday, 28 April 2016
Battlefleet Gothic Part 2 - The Rules (Games Workshop Specialist Games Review)
So, after a long delay, here we are at last with the rules. Of all the Specialist Games produced by Games Workshop. Battlefleet Gothic had to be one of the most tactically diverse options. True, you had Blood Bowl to an extent despite its relentless RNG fun, and the ever underrated combo of Warmaster and Epic 40,000, but Gothic had a few benefits working towards it. Whereas Epic relied heavily upon formations and army positioning, Gothic was more generally dynamic, and tended to more frequently shift with the flow of battle. True, you still had to worry about which ship you placed where, but the setting and special rules worked far more in its favour, especially when it came to movements and ordinance.
You see, for those who have not played it, Gothic was basically the best elements of the Age of Sail and Second World War dressed up in skull-decorated space combat. So, each and every one of your major ships had to be managed as if it were either working against the wind (mostly in the case of the eldar) or operating as if it were run via ye olde boiler engine rooms. This meant angling your vessel degree by degree was a key part of the rules, as were a number of special orders. Going All Ahead Full would run the risk of doing far less damage to the enemy in the long run and also putting enemy vessels outside the firing arcs of your main guns. Equally, your could slow your vessel for faster turning or even pull a few more insane stunts, often with the added limitation of one order per turn or even a couple of turns after that.
Many orders came down to just the bigger ships, the light cruisers to battleships, but that didn't mean the player had other concerns. As many of these vessels were built for broadsides over forwards mounted guns or massive turrets (albeit with a few astartes grade exceptions) the vast majority of these ships were outfitted with long range high-damage outlets in the form of bomber squadrons and torpedo spreads. Of all the elements Gothic played with, this had one be one of the most distinct, fun and sometimes infuriating. You see, you didn't just launch squadrons or fire the torpedoes. No, instead you fired them and they raced across the map. Entire waves of these damn things could be racing back and forth between vessels at a time, forcing fleets to desperately veer about to avoid them.
On the one hand, this entire mechanic was fantastic in terms of long term tactical gameplay; with both players needing to adapt movements, re-plan strategies in the face of risking a few heavy hits breaching their hulls. It forced armies to alter their formations, movements and positioning at every turn, and it remains a personal favourite when it comes to player intelligence in predicting ranges, movement and positioning. Even if you're stuck with just a few cruisers facing down one another, it always added an edge to the game which required you to pay full attention to the board. On the other though, this could be an absolute nightmare to keep track of. Corsair and Craftworld Eldar fleets in particular suffered badly from this given many of their key advantages stemmed from bombers, torpedoes and heavy hitting long-ish range weapons, and the Imperium was often no better. So, in the right game it could be fantastic, but in the wrong one it could drag a match to a near standstill as your ships veered about a forest of missiles.
Heavy artillery issues aside, the actual turn system itself had an odd elegance to it. While certainly a little clunky in places, and had the old GW problem of leaving the opposing player waiting an eternity for someone to finish moving, shooting and whatnot, its structure was clearly defined. You basically had three major phases here (movement, shooting, ordinance and the end turn) meaning you decided the general flightpath of your ships, fired their guns and saw who would be unfortunate enough to plough headlong into a torpedo. The end turn basically dealt with recovery efforts to repair damage, removing blast markets and resetting a few things until the next player could start. While boarding actions and a few faction unique ideas were also present, each fitted neatly into these turns or was mechanically built so they could directly run alongside standard movements.
The fact you weren't left skimming back and forth between books for details as is so often the case in many modern Games Workshop releases, and there was little bleed over between various turns. Infinity, Firestorm and a few others had this old problem of trying to reinvent the wheel when it came to turn based systems, and while it certainly had its fans, it could often prove infuriating at how malleable each structure was. After all, Infinity in particular could be equal parts infuriating and hilarious when a player dumped every action into one guy and proceeded to have him decimate the other side; yet at the same time it ran into the failing that it all too often made the majority of certain forces seem superfluous or ended games before they began. Plus, while Gothic's rigid structure could be seen by some as archaic, it made it much easier to get to grips with the rules as a whole and for new factions or ships to play with expectations and new ideas.
Speaking of the factions, Gothic featured some of the diverse and surprising mixture of factions in any 40,000 setting when you judged it by mechanics. While Warhammer 40,000 itself isn't unwilling to play with expectations or certain rules, they've never quite broken or altered things so dramatically as some examples found on here, to the point where entire fleets could have completely different movement rules. Oh, they still followed the same basic pattern, still followed the same basic turn layout, but you had things like ork roks behaving like drunkenly driven asteroids, while eldar vessels needed to position themselves against the sun to remain fully operational.
To go through the general factions one by one (including a few of the more prominent ones added in later books, just for a little extra content):
Imperials are the most generally diverse. Even removing the Adeptus Mechanicus (who were basically Imperial ships on steroids) and the astartes fleets (who were the glacial, insanely well armoured fleet) they featured the broadest variety of hulls. These guys were built upon Age of Sail combat, with big broadsides being the core of their factions. While some ships were fitted with turrets, fighter bays or even massive ramming spikes, these are the kind of ships which were always hitting their hardest whilst orbit strafing enemy targets. In the overall metagame, they were the Mario, with no glaring weaknesses or massive strengths short of a somewhat slow speed and heavier armour approach to things.
Chaos was the opposite of the Imperium, which might surprise many. Rather than big battleships, much of their way of war focused upon massed fighter bays and longer range combat, staying out of their foe's range as their vessels tended to be somewhat fragile. Oh, they could still take a few good hits, but nine times out of ten an outright slugging match against Imperial or ork vessels was going to end very badly indeed. This said, their more advanced tech and bigger lance batteries meant skilled players could usually demolish their foes.
The other races tended to fall into extremes of these. Orks were close range, hardy fighters with access to all sorts of odd craft (like the ever awesome brute ram ships and space hulks) and proved to be excellent at boarding actions. Their main shortcoming often stemmed from the fact their firepower was often randomly decided thanks to custom builds. Combined with a slower speed, lack of good fighter support and some serious problems when it came to a variety of big capital ships, and they tended to fall towards the low end of the competitive streak.
Eldar, by comparison with the others, defined hard to play and hard to master. With fragile ships, odd movement rules and a very limited array of vessels to choose from, they were not the most popular faction. Their strength often lay in their frigates more than anything else, with their capital ships best serving as ranged combatants, spitting out barrages of torpedoes and bomber wings - both of which were among the best in the entire game. The few times you did run into an experienced or talented eldar player, chances are you were going to get your backside handed to you.
Dark Eldar were odd in that they retained so many core elements of their counterparts, but they also abandoned many of their usual tactics. Lacking battleships and limited purely to a single cruiser and escort class, they lacked the fighter wing and torpedo capabilities of their cousins. Instead, they made up for this via insanely powerful main guns and an incredible speed, largely bereft of the main solar weaknesses of the craftworld eldar. This said, they're even bigger glass cannons as a result, so you can expect to quickly die the second more than a few ships focus their fire upon a single vessel and land a few lucky hits.
The Tau Empire were a late addition to the game and proved to be a very odd one, least of all thanks to the fact they had two completely alien versions of one another. The first were those met during the initial Damocles crusade, while the latter was considered the "modern" fleet, streamlined and sleek. The big advantage tau ships retained was their ranged torpedoes, which could be redirected to alter course and speeds in order to nail their targets. That and the fact they proved to be surprisingly effective close range brawlers when push came to shove, even if they fell short when it came to boarding actions.
The Tyranid Hive Fleets - added at a much later date - were probably the weakest of the bunch sadly, despite some entertaining ideas. Unable to fully express the concept of a seemingly unstoppable horde of voidspawned creatures, their numbers were largely limited down to what was expected for a somewhat large assault fleet. Much like the orks, their forte lay largely in close range assaults and boarding actions, but they had the additional bonus of being able to chew their way through enemy vessels and a few fun mechanics like spore clouds and bio-plasma weapons. The key problem was that each tended to act on their own instinct and formation was key to retaining control of each vessel, causing no end of problems if you wanted to catch up for faster vessels.
Finally, we have the necrons. These guys are the single most infamous faction of the entire game, thanks largely to the fact they were damn near unstoppable. Being eldritch horrors with some of the most advanced tech ever conceived, their fleets could steamroll practically anything they faced down and in one-on-one fights they could almost always emerge on top. Along with having excellent armour, guns and boarding actions, they could outrun most vessels and had an unparalleled turning speed. So, what was the big catch? Simple - They had a points cost to match their sheer broken power, both in deployment and value. If a necron player got careless, and the enemy fleet nailed just one cruiser, chances were that they would win there and then. 'Twas a very silly balancing act to be sure.
What often proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of the franchise wasn't the factions themselves but the individual ships. You see, much like Necromunda and Mordheim, vessels could build up experience. While they wouldn't change weapons or gain greater armour, you could attain benefits throughout a campaign, with improved crew skills or whatnot, allowing you to actually develop your fleet over time. It was a solid idea to be sure, but unlike the aforementioned games, its flaw lay in how it tried to achieve this. The whole progression system basically came down to a few lines and little else, and there wasn't much in the way of detailed or established support for it in the long run.
What was truly interesting, however, was how certain vessels were pushed to serve as "heroes" for certain factions, unique variants of vessels or admirals which could alter a fleet. Yriel, Typhus and Abaddon were three of the most infamous of these, capable of flying the Flame of Asyryan, Terminus Est and Planet Killer respectively. However, they were not bound to these craft, and Abaddon in particular was famous for being pushed about various battleships for just a few extra points, thanks largely to a few benefits he offered. Along with a massively increased Leadership bonus of 10 to any ship he's on, he comes with the Calgar brand re-roll one failed Leadership test per turn and a variety of special rules, some good some hilarious. For example, it's damn near impossible to cripple a ship he's on via hit and run attacks and thanks to his personal vanguard of Justaerin any boarding action hits like a sledgehammer. This said, he goes nuts if a vessel fails a Leadership test under his fleet, prompting a reaction worthy of a Commissar.
The actual Planet Killer itself is what you'd get if Diablo was chief designer of the Death Star. It's a giant floating space cannon, outfitted with the Armageddon Gun, which can put most exterminatus strikes to shame. When it's not blowing up whole planets in seconds, it could be fired through entire fleets. Really, with a massive range of 90cm, you basically pointed it towards where a few enemy vessels were lined up, fired, and it would hit all of them in a straight line. While the others - which we'll save for later releases - never reached quite the heights of that insanity, they certainly had their own innate quirks and fun concepts. Unlike current 40,000, when a hero ship showed up in the game it didn't become the single most important thing on the battlefield, but it instead often served as a major wildcard or something to liven things up for both sides.
So, what about weapons and damaging the vessels themselves though? Well, in all honesty, most of those were actually relatively tame and straight forwards. Rather than the complex systems of engineering explosions, malfunctions or damages one would expect, much of it often came down to simple numbers. While damage could certainly affect the performance of a ship, you just had a shield and armour value to work with alongside a number of hits. bigger ships like the Desolator Class vessels could take twelve hits in total, while raiders and frigates were often only limited to a single one. You couldn't really save against these directly via luck, so a lot of the game tended to come down to tactical positioning; after which you were given the choice between hitting the enemy with everything you had at once (the ork way) or picking them off one by one in a series of skirmishes or duels. Actually inflicting the bonus system affecting damage often just came down to piling on enough firepower until you got a critical hit, and then hoping you rolled something dangerous like a bulkhead collapsing.
More than anything else, Gothic seems to have been a product of its era. It stood out among the others for its setting, and with very little real competition in the way of tabletop fleet combat games, a lot of its ideas were quite experimental. It tried to push towards new thoughts and concepts in terms of scale, movement and positioning ships, but to stay simple enough to remain accessible. That surprising simplicity is evident in the pages of the core rulebook and did help it early on - in spite of some obvious Imperial bias - but it's hard to say that it would have been a true long term success even with Games Workshop's support. The addition of the necrons was one indication that the designers weren't entirely sure where to go with this, and many future expansions would often either play it safe or go so out there that they would leave players scratching their heads. This isn't to say that the game was completely bereft of new ideas though, as it did see several major updates over the years. Along with the Armada supplement - which I hope to gt to at a later date - both Fanatic and the Battlefleet Gothic magazine introduced new ideas. Scenarios, missions and campaigns were produced along with more than a few tasty Forgeworld builds, but after just a few scant years this dwindled to near nothing. It never quite saw the heights of Epic Armageddon or the full revitalizations other Specialist Games benefited from.
Looking at it again with the benefit of hindsight, Battlefleet Gothic is archaic but definitely charming to be sure. Even with its innate flaws, it's obvious why this would become a cult classic among fans and why new players would continue to pick up on it long after it had been left to die. It's hard to say it's worth a look today as a full on game, but given how cheap the core rules usually go for second hand, it's worth examining as a part of Games Workshop's history and perhaps even for a few friendly games. So, yeah, it's good but not great is the final verdict.