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Craig Van Ness Takes Battleship to New Galaxies

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Battleship Galaxies
U.S. publisher Hasbro takes a lot of grief for publishing umpteen new versions and spin-offs of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble and many of its other long-lived games, but sometimes that exploration of the familiar can result in a game that marries some loved element of the old with a game that's otherwise new and unexpected.

That's our story for today.

"The idea behind Battleship Galaxies really came out of an idea for how we can grow the Battleship brand as a whole," says designer Craig Van Ness. (Colby Dauch and Jerry Hawthorne are credited as co-designers on BGG, but Van Ness' name is the only one on the box.) "We started talking about developing an immersive world. We thought it would be a great place to start, especially for the hobby gamer as that's something that they're familiar with. We were trying to come up with a story and express the Battleship brand other than with the classic 'B-5' coordinate."

Mulling over the essence of a brand might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of designing a game, but those types of boundaries or expectations give you a goal for where to go with a design. As Magic: The Gathering head designer Mark Rosewater is fond of saying (and resaying): "Restrictions breed creativity." Van Ness says that while the Battleship brand essence has changed over the years, two important elements that have remained are the "hunt, seek and destroy" aspect of game play and the blind reveal, "some element that you don't know about".

Given the history of the game, Van Ness says, "We first started kicking around different naval settings, from classic WWII to modern naval warfare, kicking around the idea of how to grow that story, but we quickly find ourselves leaning toward science fiction as sci-fi lets you do almost anything you want. Fantasy and sci-fi are the best genres for a game designer to be in because you can make your own rules. We knew we wanted factions, wanted to tell a story about the factions, so we started drawing up characters and ships. That's the story part of it."

"The game design part of it runs a parallel path," continues Van Ness. "While you're coming up with cool heroes and factions, you need to figure out how they interact in the game. I've always been huge fan of Magic: The Gathering, and I feel this has a mix of a collectible trading card game and a miniatures trading game. You can build anything you want with your tactics deck and the miniatures."

Board Game: Battleship Galaxies

So what's in the box and how do you play? To start with, you receive two sets of ten spaceships, two sets of 36 faction cards, two energy boards and markers, two screens and two sets of twelve ship cards, with each player (or team) receiving half of everything. The game also includes two game boards, two coordinate dice, blue and red pegs for shields and damage, and an assortment of tiles.

The rulebook includes five missions or scenarios, with Van Ness repeating the rulebook's suggestion that players start with mission #1, a simple set-up on a single game board in which players are told which ships and which tactic cards to use, with the goal of destroying all of an opponent's ships on the battlefield.

Players start the game with ten energy and a randomized hand of five tactic cards, which are a combination of heroes, additional weapons, upgrades and events. On a turn, you add ten energy to your storage, draw a tactic card, deploy any ships that you want (paying the cost to do so), then activate any ships that you want (again paying the cost required). When you activate a ship, you can move it up to its maximum movement value, then use its primary (or secondary or additional) weapon if an opponent is in range. If the hull of an opponent's ship takes enough damage, the ship is removed from the game.

Admittedly that simple description glosses over a hundred details of game play:

-----• The ten spaceships available to a player are divided into four individual ships and two squadrons of three ships. Each ship/squadron comes in three flavors - standard, seasoned, veteran – which have nearly the same stats for things like the activate cost, movement value, number of starting shields, hull strength and primary weapon. The differences between the ships are the launch cost in energy, possible secondary weapons and bonus actions at launch or during the game.

-----• When you choose a mission, the mission will often designate the ships and cards that players will use. Alternatively, players can draft their own fleet and tactic decks. Before the game, they decide on an energy total and choose ships that sum up to this total, placing any other ships and their respective ship cards (which detail the stats) back in the box. The players then secretly and separately create a tactics deck containing as many cards as half the starting energy. "It's rough to say, 'Here's everything you get, now figure out what the best combos are," says Van Ness. "The scenarios ease players into the game that they're playing and introduce complexity and other things." You then place your ships and deck behind your player screen, revealing ships only when you launch them on the battlefield.

-----• Medium and large ships often have a capacity number, allowing you to load other, smaller spaceships within them when they launch. These smaller spaceships can then be launched later in the game from the ship in flight, allowing them to appear in the middle of the battlefield instead of starting from a player's backline. The risk, of course, is that if the larger ship is destroyed or taken over by an opponent, then the ships being carried are removed from the game.

Board Game: Battleship Galaxies

-----• Each ship card has an image of the ship with a superimposed set of coordinates. When you attack a ship, you roll the two coordinate dice – one showing A-J, the other 1-8 – then consult the attacked ship's card to see whether the attack hit. White spaces shows a miss, gray a hit. The red starburst is a critical hit on the ship; if a ship has no shields and is hit on this location, the ship is instantly destroyed.

-----• To destroy a ship, you must first remove its shields (through damage), then impose damage equal to the strength of its hull. Some special powers affect only shields or siphon shield strength from the defender to the attacker. Shield regenerator tiles will sometimes be in the game to allow players to build up defenses once again.

-----• Each tactic card has an energy cost and a specified time during which it can be played, such as the deploy phase or action phase. Each ship card specifies the possible number of upgrades, heroes and additional weapons that a ship can have, so not all cards can go on all ships. What's more, a hero on one ship cannot be placed on another. You can hold a maximum of ten cards and can discard a card at any time for one energy. The tactic cards add another "blind reveal" element on top of the hidden starting fleets and the possibility of loading ships inside one another and give players more chances for smart plays – "playing the right card at the right time," says Van Ness.

-----• Movement is straightforward, with ships moving up to their maximum distance and changing direction as desired. A ship can fire in any direction within the range of its weapon. Many weapons allow for more than one attack when you charge them – that is, pay a separate energy cost – and you can attack different ships with these attacks if desired.

-----• In addition to shield regenerator tiles, the game includes other tiles – energy source, debris field, etc. – that are randomly placed on the board or specifically placed on the board, depending on the mission chosen.

-----• If you move adjacent to an enemy ship, your ship might take damage from that ship's Electronic Countermeasures – but you might want to move in close due to a weapon being more effective at close range or an attempt to take over an opponent's ship.

Naturally in a game with this many details, things have changed over time. "Early in development, we tend to start simple," says Van Ness. "We didn't have shields, for example. Certain ships had four kill zones, which allowed for too much luck, so we had to draw that back."

"It's a hard balance – the luck and the strategy, going back and forth," Van Ness continues, but finding that balance is essential to the nature of the game and the publisher. "Game designers at Hasbro want to let you tell a story after you're done. They put you in the world for a little bit, and you want that element that a player could win even if they roll horribly."

The critical hit mechanism, already present in early development, ties into this drive for storytelling opportunities. "That gives the player something to root for when he holds the dice," says Van Ness. "If I just roll right, I'm blowing up that whole ship. You have to take the shields down to pull it off, but one little Sparrow can take down Vapor's Fate [the largest ship on the other side]."

Board Game: Battleship Galaxies
Red pegs for damage – like hearing the ice cream truck down the street...

What's interesting about Battleship Galaxies is that while most of the design and game play is wide open – players can create their own decks and fleets, they can deploy in any order desired, they can maneuver as they like within their ships' limits, they can customize their ships with tactic cards and play them when they like – the coordinate element of ship combat throws you right back into childhood, with you calling out "B-5" and waiting to see what the other player says. Says Van Ness, "It's a throwback to the core game of Battleship. There are many different ways that designers have recorded hits of different parts of bodies and ships, but the coordinate system was a fun way to tie it back into the core game."

Asked for advice on how newcomers should approach the game, Van Ness says, "Read your cards and read your powers. Take your time. The first time you play, you're going to say 'I wish I could have done this, could have done that'. With the energy you really can sit back and wait. Hold your energy; don't pile everything in one ship because everything you pile in there will blow up, too, if that ship's destroyed. Look at your first five cards and plan accordingly."

Everything in Battleship Galaxies screams expansion possibilities, from the basic "The Saturn Offensive" subtitle to the explicit collection number printed on every tactic card, every ship card and the box itself, a number described as "the collection the card belongs to".

On the topic of expansions, Van Ness says, "When you develop a game like this, you tend to develop lots and lots of cards and lots of ships, then you pick the cream of the crop. There's definitely a system in place." For instance, the designers started with eight factions, each with their own characters and different ways of fighting. "At one time the game also had a multilevel board, which seemed a bit too fussy and analog, moving above and below. It made the games go longer than we wanted them to."

The bottom line, says Van Ness, is that we "plan for success, see how this goes, and move on from there".
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