Dropfleet Commander is a new sci-fi fleet-scale game from Hawk Wargames. As the name suggests it’s designed to complement their 10mm tactical sci-fi game Dropzone Commander.

The game just ran a Kickstarter and raised an obscene amount of money, which probably isn’t surprising given how popular Dropzone Commander is and how nice the miniatures for it are. I haven’t played the game, it’s not even in beta yet so this is not a review. I’m posting about this because I think it’s a sci-fi game that fixes some of what’s really broken about most big space battle games.

What’s the big idea?

Dropfleet battles take place in orbit over a planet. Opposing fleets fight to control objectives on the surface by dropping troops on them. It’s all about winning the space battle so that you can control the ground war. I really like games that have some context at higher or lower scales like this.

Fleets consist of large capital ships and fight with onboard weapons as well as squadrons of fighters and bombers. Motherships and strike carriers will be deploying dropships (or equivalent alien tech) to move troops down to the surface.

UCM Beijing Class

 

What’s different about it?

The game includes a lot of well thought-out ideas. I’ve got to admit my bias here: most current space games make me bang my head against the wall. Often they’re just a straight copying across of the tactics, weapons and terminology from naval wargaming. The worst bit is it’s not even modern naval wargaming. For some reasons the designers seem to think combat in the far future will resemble the age of sail, with multi-gunned behemoths firing broadsides at each other. That makes absolutely no sense, and really breaks my suspension of disbelief.

Dropfleet is guilty of a little of this (the ships are big boat-shaped things divided into naval classes and protected by armour, for example) but it also makes some smart decisions that avoid the worst silliness. By restricting combat to orbit the game suddenly makes sense to play on a 2D surface. This is a biggy for me, one of the reasons X-Wing didn’t grab me is that flying space fighters around in 2D seemed really artificial and gamey. Wings of War/Glory is pretty similar to X-Wing but for me that works, as WW1 dogfights were done at low level and in the horizontal.  There’s a mechanism in Dropfleet for three altitude levels which takes some vertical movement into account. The lower level is within the atmosphere. Movement is hugely reduced in atmo and ships that lose propulsion at this altitude will have their orbit decay and crash. Above that you have low and high orbits. So far, so good. When you think about, orbit is where real space battles would take place, as it’s the bit of space actually worth controlling.

PHR Ajax class

 

Sensors, ECM and stealth matter in Dropfleet, which really sold the game to me. Too many sci-fi games seem lower tech than moderns. In Dropfleet your weapon ranges depend on the quality of your sensors and the target’s signature level. A small ship running silent and stealthy with a low signature can’t be targeted until you’re close enough to burn through it’s stealth and/or jamming. Likewise, in a big ship if you power up all the engines and weapons and make a lot of electromagnetic noise your opponents can hammer you from across the table. Besides being realistic and nicely hard sci-fi this adds an interesting layer of tactical thinking to the game. The best way to get the troops onto their objectives might not be to go in all guns blazing from the start.

Speaking of objectives, there will normally be several cities arranged in clusters, so the action will be spread across the table. You’ll have to decide what clusters to contest with what forces.

But enough waffle from me, there are some videos on Youtube giving some mini demos of some rules mechanics. They’re from Beasts of War, but for once Warren isn’t being too annoying:

Factions for Dropfleet mirror those in Dropzone. The humans are represented by the UCM (United Colonies of Mankind) and the cyborg PHR (Post-Human Republic), the aliens are the nice Shaltari and the nasty Scourge. No Resistance, obviously. The starter set contains UCM and Scourge, but I’ll probably be flogging my Kickstarter Scourge as I think the models are a bit silly-looking. The biomechanical HR Giger thing is a bit of a tired stereotype for bad guy aliens I reckon . The other fleets look a lot better, but that’s just a matter of personal taste.

Ok, when, where, how much?

The full game should be released about mid-2016. There will be a beta-testing phase involving some of the Kickstarter backers, and Hawk seem pretty keen to engage with the community in general as they finalise the rules. That’s brilliant, and something some other games designers should be paying attention to.

Shaltari fleet

There will probably be starter fleets that match those on the Kickstarter. The success of the KS campaign will mean Hawk have got the dosh to get all the ships done in plastic, which was their main goal. Starter fleets on the KS went for £35 if you bought them as a bolt-on, so somewhere north of that would be a good guess.