You could be forgiven for thinking this is a WWII wargaming site, but look, here’s a review for a sci-fi spaceship game! It’s hard sci-fi, plays fast and was written by a history professor known for his Napoleonics rules? If that sounds odd enough for you, read on!

cigarbox-space

 

Freejumper is a small game released earlier in 2016 by Sam Mustafa. He’s the guy behind well-respected black powder era games such as Lassalle, Longstreet and the more recent (and popular) Blucher. 2016 was a bit of an experimental year for Sam, as he’d decided to try releasing several small PDF-only games instead of one big meaty printed one. So we got the multiplayer sci-fi skirmish dust-up Freejumper and the Roman game Aurelian.

Freejumper puts several players around a table and gives each one ship. If you play it with only a couple of people it’s going to work better with a couple of ships a side, but at its heart it’s a multiplayer game. You only need one ship per player and you can pick up the rules without ever reading the book, so it’s a great game for club night play.

A Freejumper is a rogue ship-for-hire in the 22nd century, trying to eke out a dubiously legal living in the lawless regions of corporate-dominated  space. Think Firefly, Han Solo, and cyberpunk and you’re on the right track. This is not about massive fleet engagements, it’s about small opportunistic ships jumping in to grab the money and run, cutting deals with the other players as they fly.

Freejumper is a card-driven game. There are some dice in the game for really random stuff (mostly systems failing when under stress), but almost everything else (ship design, activation, combat, etc) is card-based.

Force Composition

fugly-300x300Normally each player has one ship, but the design of that ship is completely open. Players get a starting amount of cash, and can buy any hull and any load of weapons, defences, special systems and crew they can afford. How you equip your ship has a massive effect on the game. Do you go for a balanced design, or one specialised for a particular job? You can’t be good at everything. Do you want to have amazing defences? Well, you probably won’t have enough for decent weapons. Ok, so go for something in the middle? Well, you risk being mediocre at everything, which in Freejumper means you might struggle to hurt anybody as damage doesn’t occur until you throw enough of the right kind of firepower to outmatch the defences.

The flexibility here is key, there are as many ship builds as your imagination allows. There’s even some nice nuances like some of the defensive systems being “projectable”, so it’s possible for a ship to buff friendlies. Of course, in the world of Freejumper that protection might come at a price, and players are free to haggle over how to split the loot.

When it comes to models, you can use whatever you like, as long as it’s under about 3″ in length. X-Wing/Armada, Full Thrust, Star Trek, or scratch built from a USB stick and some bottle caps, anything will do. I’ve been using a pack of ships for the Firefly boardgame that I picked up in a sale.

Command and Control

Most things are controlled by cards. Within each turn players can activate their ship twice, sequence is decided by drawing normal playing cards (pulling chits out of a bag would work, too). So who activates when is pretty random, and you could get two consecutive rounds (nasty).

The turn sequence is:

  1. Start of turn (reset brain impulses, reboot if required, shuffle activation cards)
  2. Play through all the activation cards (two per player)
  3. Play Drones
  4. Update scenario conditions
  5. Crew

When activated, each player plays through a “round” which consists of

  1. Active player attacks
  2. Active player moves
  3. All players “reset & repair”
The other guys has got to be hoping the red ship's card doesn't come up before he can move

The little guy has got to be hoping the red ship’s card doesn’t come up before he can move

During each player’s round they can move as much as they like, and fire any weapons they have in their hand (“online”). Once a weapon or system is played it goes “offline” and is taken out of your hand and placed face down on the table. At the end of each player’s round all players can then spend “impulses” from their ship’s brain to reset systems, returning them to their hand. Brain impulses reset every turn (ie: after every player has had two activations) so if you’re under pressure you’re not going to keep everything online. Often this is the key to destroying another ship; keep battering the defences and try to get all their defensive systems offline or damaged and you can start to do some real damage.

Cards can also be damaged by some events, and repairing them takes two impulses per card, so damage will chew through your available brain power quickly.

As a last resort you can try rebooting your brain. This will clear all accumulated software damage, but everything goes temporarily offline leaving you completely defenceless until you reset it all. You do not want to reboot when the vultures are circling, but you can at least still fly while you’re doing it, so running away a tactical withdrawal  or hiding behind a planet while frantically bringing all your defences online is an option.

Normally the limit on how much you can do in a turn is the size of your ship’s brain. A large brain will allow you to maximise the amount of system you keep online. One exception to this are the crew cards. Crew members can be bought who can take actions (such as resetting or repairing things, thwarting attacks) at no cost in brain power. The main drawback is that they can only be played once per turn, while other systems can be played as often as you’ve got the brain impulses to reset them.

Movement

Planets can act as cover, and allow ships to corner at high speed by entering orbit

Planets can act as cover, and allow ships to corner at high speed by entering orbit

This is the main area where Freejumper veers away from the “hard sci-fi” label. It’s very simplified, each ship has a thruster rating, and can move that number of 3″ forward segments (or pivots) in their move step. The only limit on pivoting is when you’re towing, which limits you to 90°.

So a ship with 5 thrusters being chased by another ship could zoom 12″ forward then pivot 180° at the end of the move to face its pursuer. In a way that is pretty realistic, spaceships can rotate pretty easily, but the odd part is that you can pivot half way through a move and then zoom off in another direction as if you have no momentum. Maybe you don’t, insert “exotic propulsion” handwaving stuff here, I guess!

Ships can orbit around planets, which allows them to change vector without losing speed (handy), and if you fly into a solid object you die. None of this is particularly realistic physics, for example black holes suck everybody towards them 6″ at the end of the turn, when in reality their gravitational effect is no different from a star. But I get the impression that overly realistic physics simulation is something Sam felt bogged down many “serious” spaceship games and wanted to avoid. Given Freejumper’s lighthearted tone I think it’s acceptable, but I would have liked to see what Sam could come up with that was a little more realistic.

Deployment and Scenarios

The game is really all about scenarios and several examples are included in the rule book. These have a range of objectives and can be played as a mini-campaign. Interestingly some pit all the players against each other, while in some they have to team up against a common enemy. As always, there’s nothing to stop temporary alliances during gameplay, or backstabbing and grudges. Some scenarios actually includes a secret “snitch” who’s working for the police and has to make sure one other player doesn’t survive.

Combat

Getting behind an opponent can be nasty

Many weapons have no firing arcs, but getting behind an opponent can still be nasty

As mentioned above, Freejumper is fairly hard sci-fi. Sam has deliberately avoided a lot of really lazy sci-fi tropes, the main one being the “dreadnoughts in space” idea. Even modern naval combat is nothing like that any more, so why would space combat hundreds of years from now be? So there are no gun turrets. Some weapons do only fire over the frontal arc but many others have 360°, as do all defences. Position isn’t totally without effect though, objects in space can provide cover, and getting hit in your rear arc allows the enemy to target your engines and systems.

Damage in Freejumper comes in different flavours, and is done without having to track hit locations. There are 4-5 main classes of weapons:

  • Projectiles = structural damage = short range  but impossible to defend against
  • Beams = software damage = countermeasure is “positronic shields”
  • Effectors = structural damage = limited to frontal arc, countermeasure is “shimmers”
  • Broadcasts = disables systems or causes other strange effects = unlimited range, countermeasure is the “firewall”

The advanced rules also include drones, which follow the target and cause various nasty effects, and have their own specific countermeasure; the “butterfinger”.

Ships attack before moving in their go, so  to use short range weapons or ones with a limited arc you need to get in position in the previous round and hope you get to shoot before the target activates and dodges away.

To attack an enemy ship you simply announce the type of weapon, and if the enemy has an online countermeasure they can play it. This will completely neutralise the attack, and both the weapon and the defence then go offline. If the target doesn’t have any defence then the weapon inflicts a set amount of damage. No dice rolls involved. This means damaging an enemy in Freejumper is about having more weapons online and available than the enemy has defences. To keep systems online your ship has to have enough “brain” available to keep resetting them in the R&R step. The amount of brain power available can be reduced by software damage, or by simply throwing a ton of firepower at an enemy and burning up their brain’s ability to keep bringing the defences back online.

It might seem obvious that a massive brain is key, but they’re expensive. Any more than about a level six brain (able to reset at most six things per turn) is pretty rare, and it’s not hard to hit a ship more than six times in a turn, especially if you’re ganging up on it. Bear in mind that weapons need to be reset the same way as defences, so a ship going all-out on defending against concentrated enemy fire won’t be returning fire.

The ability of software damage to degrade a ships fighting ability makes beam weapons (and positronic shields) popular, but structural damage can injure crew (represented by cards with special abilities) and when you take more than your hull can handle you explode. The fact that you can’t defend against projectile weapons and the sheer destructiveness of effectors mean it’s not all about beam weapons. All the different weapons are dangerous, even the relatively “soft-kill” option of broadcast weapons. Having  a broadcast-heavy ship sitting down the back hacking the hell out of the enemy is a good force-multiplier in a fight. Splitting the loot with one could be a deal that saves your bacon.

Ultimately, unless there is a complete mismatch in systems between ships it’s very difficult for ships to destroy each other in a one-on-one fight, to take down an enemy Freejumpers will generally have to work together and gang up on one foe. A range of capabilities can be useful here. For example, a ship with a lot of broadcast weapons can do good work shutting down or damaging enemy defensive systems so that a friendly with powerful effector weapons can attack and get in some real damage.

Morale and Psychology

Pretty simple: there is none. Players are representing the AI mind that runs the ship, not any squishy meatbag crew that might be aboard. Freejumpers do often carry human (or post-human) crew, but they don’t have to. The game is really designed to be played as a campaign, so jumping out of the system before exploding will allow you to (hopefully!) patch your ship up and fight another day. Self-preservation is up to the player.

Normally I don’t like games that don’t include psychology, but in this case I think it works.

Victory Conditions

Well, if you survive and make it out with enough cash to repair and refuel your ship, you’ve won. As they say in Firefly: “Keep flying!”.

Various scenarios have specific objectives, but in most cases it’s just about trying to get paid. And not dead, obviously. You die if your ship loses its last point of “structure” and explodes, but you can dodge that by fitting an escape pod (they’re cheap), and you’ve always got the option to jump out of the system if you’re getting hammered, although doing so might mean you don’t get paid.

Even though many scenarios are listed as “free for alls” the tactical realities of the game mean that ganging up on your enemies gets the best results, so temporary alliances will pop up and “money” will change hands. Ultimately the only real objective for a Freejumper is to get paid, upgrade your ship and become the biggest baddest kid on the block.

Yes, but is it fun?

It’s a simple to play game, that is designed for multiplayer and encourages the players to cut deals, stab each other in the back and generally act like scoundrels. If you can’t see the fun in that, check your pulse.

I’ve got to admit I was really looking forward to this game, but was a little disappointed when it came out. The artwork for the game (particularly the cards) isn’t great, and looks very low-budget. I suspect that’s simply because it was! Sam Mustafa is a one-man band, and it’s his own money he’s sinking into his games.  However, it turns out the actual game he’s written is solid and a lot of fun, so shame on me for judging a book by its cover. But you might find the first impression it gives to new players is a bit dodgy. Slap some space ships down and get them playing, they’ll probably change their mind.

Another big plus point: the barrier to entry is ridiculously low. You only need one ship and a deck of cards to play. If you’re in the UK you can pay through the nose to get the cards shipped from the states (thanks a lot, Brexit!) or download them for free and print them yourself. Each player does need their own set, so for multiplayer games down at the club I got five sets printed onto card by Doxzoo for about £24. The downloadable cards do lack the backgrounds and artwork on the back that you get with the professionally made ones, as they’re intended for people to print at home. The rules aren’t expensive and terrain requirements are pretty minimal. If you’ve already got the stuff for literally any other spaceship game then you’re good to go.