Battlestations (Gorilla Games, 2004 - Jeff and Jason Siadek) is a complex game, more complicated than most any other game I've played. It can best be described as a space role-playing-game converted to a boardgame. Players each control a character that has statistics, abilities, weapons, etc.; while they control a spaceship on a map. In a sense, Battlestations is a lighter combination of Star Fleet Battles and a board game dungeon quest. Add in a one-hundred twelve page rulebook, scores of counters, dozens of modules, and more - and it would seem that you have a war game that only the heartiest of "grognards" would enjoy.
But I really enjoyed the game, finding it one of the best gaming experiences I've had all year. While I dabble in role playing games, and rarely get involved in complicated games, Battlestations clicked after only about an hour; and the depth and fun factor of the game overrode my suspicions. One thing that really impressed me was how balanced the game was; each player had their chance to "shine" (an important part to any role-playing game). The space combat was fun and exciting, and the fact that players moved their characters around the spaceship in the middle of the battle fray. This creates exciting situations - such as one player flying a ship, while another is frantically fixing the engines, and the other two are fighting off a boarding party of aliens.
Some thoughts on the game…
1.) Universe: I'm a big science fiction fan, and the Siadeks have done an excellent job in creating a universe that is unlike any I've seen. Many of the aspects are similar to others in the genre, but overall, the whole backstory works well. Humans are the only species with two hands / two feet, while the others are certainly alien - something that very few sci-fi worlds do. The Silicoids look like a pile of rocks, the tentacs look like a pile of cooked Ramen noodles, the Xeloxian looks like a three dimensional starfish, the Zoallan looks like a furry cockroach, and the Canosian looks like a tumbleweed. Each alien has its own weaknesses and strengths, and in the games I've played, all of them were used to great success (although a Xeloxian boarding party is pathetically weak!). The game is presented in a series of missions, each mission allowing the players to increase their stats, fame, and abilities. Even the ships of each race are fairly different, with detailed maps in the book. A good story is necessary for a game like this, and Battlestations is chuck full of story.
2.) Rules: The rulebook, as I stated earlier, is over 100 pages, and that's a lot of reading and rules. I read the entire thing from cover to cover before playing our first game, and I still forgot much of what I read. The beginning of the rulebook pleads for players to not be intimidated by the thickness, and that players should simply jump in and start playing. Well, that's exactly what we did in our first game; and after about an hour of constantly referring to the rulebook, space combat finally clicked. Even in our third playing of the game, we still had to look up rules, but the game was certainly running much smoother by that point. Understanding the game is much easier than many war games (like Advanced Squad Leader) but still would be tremendously daunting to a newcomer. Frankly, only one person needs to have a good grasp of the rules - the gamemaster. The rest need only know the basics: how to do their functions on the ships, initiate combat, ship battles, etc. Players who are fans of role playing games or wargames will find the rule book simple; fans of simplistic games, such as "Eurogames", will be overwhelmed.
3.) Characters: Each character has to pick one of five skill sets (five predetermined numbers), and apply them to five different stats (athletics, combat, engineering, piloting, and science). Each character also picks one of four professions - Marine, Pilot, Engineer, or Scientist. Many rolls in a game use one of the five skills as their base. For example, when pumping the engines, a player would use the engineering skill, adding their stat number to their roll. Players who have a profession may make a "professional reroll" - rolling one of the dice again. For example, if I am using my Pilot to turn the ship and need a "10" to succeed, I roll two dice. If, after adding my piloting skill of two to my roll of seven, I would fail. But my "professional reroll" allows me to reroll one of the dic, hoping to get a total of "8" or higher. This system works extremely well. A player who is a Marine can become an extreme killing machine but fair poorly when piloting a starship. A player who is an Engineer can fix ship modules, while they can't do much to heal another wounded player. A player who is a Pilot can make extreme spaceship maneuvers, while they may be terrible in combat. One player cannot do everything, and I really enjoyed the mixing of the four different professions. At first glance, it may seem like the Marine and Pilot have all the fun, but they couldn't survive without a good Engineer and Scientist.
4.) Components: There are a large variety of square and hex counters provided with the game - good artwork, and fairly easy to punch out. The modules themselves are what I enjoy the most. Each is a five by five grid, with hallways, doorways, and stations. The stations fit together in different formations to form one of dozens of different spaceships. Each module is double-sided, which allows more modules to be in the game. The components I like the least are the characters. There are enough characters to have two of each profession of every species. The characters are small fold-out cardboard pieces that have to be cut apart and folded together to move around. They're functional, and I'll use them, but they certainly don’t look very imposing. Miniatures would increase the visual effect of the game, and in fact, Gorilla Games is producing them for each species. I'm not sure that I'll buy them, as I'm not a good painter, but people who get really involved with the game may enjoy them. The space boards can be joined together to form large maps of hexagons, which function well in battles. Each space board is double-sided, showing either a ship control card or a player combat card. These cards are invaluable, with the ship control cards using glass stones to track their statistics. Everything in the game fits in a large square box of medium quality.
5.) Experience: Part of what keeps the game interesting is how players' characters grow and change over the course of missions. In that regard, Battlestations is very similar to a roleplaying game. Unlike a roleplaying game, however, players need not get involved in a long campaign to have fun - they can simply play one scenario. However, it's the extended gameplay that is fun. Piles of special abilities come in the rulebook, with more in each expansion. Weapons, new equipment, and more will keep players active and coming back for more. A story based on cloning allows players who die to keep their characters with minor setbacks. Battlestations has this "hook" which will keep players playing this game for many months to come.
6.) Modules: The way that the modules can be put together to form spaceships is ingenious. It allows constructions of millions of different types of ships, each with different capabilities and specialties. Do players want more firepower, or a transporter station? Do they need more engines or living space? Are the guns close to the helm, so that the pilot can get to them quickly, or back by the engines, so the beefed up engineer can utilize them. Each module has one or more "battlestations" in it, which are used to operate that specific module. Players can operate remote modules from their current battlestations, but at a "-3" penalty. This makes the layout of the ship important, and players have to occasionally dash around the ship during combat. Star Trek this is not - it's closer to Star Wars in this fashion - and I love it.
7.) Space Combat: I'm not a big fan of space simulation games, as they are very nearly always over complicated and simply too long for what is actually a quick space battle. The space combat in this game isn't much faster, but the fact that the characters can move around the ship to perform different actions really helps. What makes the game really interesting is that space combat and personal combat can happen simultaneously. A pilot sometimes has to make the decision whether to continue steering the ship, or join his crewmates in resisting a party of borders. An engineer must determine whether it is crucial for him to stay in the engine room, pumping up the power there, or joining the Marine in a boarding missile to attack the enemy space station. When all of this is happening at the same time, it gives cause for frenzied battles and situations that feel realistic AND fun. In one battle, both ships had sent boarding parties to the other ships, and two battles occurred simultaneously, while the ships themselves were locked in combat. This, my friends, is simply cool, and the system works extremely well.
8.) Colors: Each profession has a color (red, green, blue, or yellow), which is associated with it. Weapons, modules, and skills on the skill chart are coded in these colors, making it simple to determine what profession was good at what task. A nice system (as long as you aren't colorblind).
9.) Possibilities: While the basic game is fairly simple, the rulebook allows for many, many possibilities. Players can do a myriad of things, such as teleport a bomb over to the enemy ship, change the modifications of a gun, track and tractor in missiles, warp out in the middle of a mission, use the science bay to ask questions. Players don't have as much freedom as they might have in a role-playing game, but for a board game, this one is certainly close.
10.) Fun Factor: If a player isn't scared away by the awesome hugeness of the game and the thick rulebook, they will most likely love the game. It's everything you've seen in almost every science fiction movie - in a game. The replayability is huge, and the game induces the sort of stories like "Remember the time that Sam loaded himself in the missile, and fired himself at the enemy ship, and missed and hit the sun?", or "remember when Bob the engineer was cornered by two aliens and killed both with one lucky throw of a grenade". Games that leave stories like this are worth playing, worth getting involved with, and worth having fun in.
11.) Expansions: There are at least three expansions for the game, each adding a new alien race, two new modules, and a book of rules, missions, etc. The expansions are certainly not necessary to play the game, but for players who are really enjoying and involved with the game. I have the first, and it adds a lot to the game, but I could see how it's not needed for casual players.
There is a lot more about the game that I could talk about, but anything I say can't compare to actually playing the game. Some games in my life have given me tremendous game experience - ones that translate into stories that bring back great memories. Duel of Ages is one, which is why it's my favorite game. These games, regardless of mechanics, are just so enjoyable to play, produce such thrilling stories that I'll never get rid of them and always be glad to own them. Battlestations is one such game.