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Subject: A Thorough and Objective Review [Battlestations] rss

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Peter
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**Disclaimer** - I’m a serious game fan, but a casual board gamer. Examples and references below are based on my personal experiences and averages of the people I’ve played with. This review assumes you have familiarized yourself with the publicly available information about the game. (i.e. Advertised game descriptions, BGG game information entry, Possible publicly available rules, etc.) If you’re concerned about spoilers do not read this review. I try to limit details in my reviews, but some things have to be mentioned to give readers an idea of what is being discussed.

GAME: Battlestations


Components:

Design QualityThe game consists of a thick rule book, I mean book., cardboard play mats and cardstock punch-out tokens. The Rule book is closer to 100 pages of information and printed in black and white. The book is illustrated with very good art work.

The tokens included are on cardstock and printed in color. The printing is two sided on everything except the character tokens. The dual sided printing is not the same, as tokens often have two separate things they represent, one on each side.

The play mats are also dual sided and colored nicely. One side is a hex map of outer space. The other side is either a quick reference or space ship stats tracker. The cardboard used for these is pretty sturdy. The hex map backings are designed to lay adjacent to each other to create larger play areas.

In addition, included are 3.5”x3.5” cards to represent space ship rooms. Each card represents a single room and they can are used modularly to create ships. These cards are in color and dual side printed as well. Each side has a different room on it.

Overall the components are of average quality, but so many are included it is no wonder this game carries the price tag it does.

The character piece tokens are cardstock cut out which are folded into a triangle and held together at the bottom with cut slots. They are OK, but tend to be the biggest complaint I hear about components. They just aren’t aesthetically pleasing and tend to lean due to the uneven bottoms.

DurabilityI imagine the use of cardboard helps keep the price point down on the game. Plastic, wood or metal components would most assuredly skyrocket the price of this game.

That said the cardboard pieces have the usual issues associated with them. Corners can suffer from fraying. Printing can wear off due to overuse and care should be used when having drinks on the game table.

The tokens tend to be the first items to suffer from wear and tear. They get bent, fray and can get lost easily. I would recommend making copies of the sheets or scanning them before punching them all out. That way, if the worst happens you can print out a new set. I have electronic copies of all the ship rooms, and print out paper copies. I can then tape or glue them to a sheet of paper for a game. It makes keeping things in order much easier.

FunctionalityAll the pieces have their parts to play, and some do better than others. Due to so much going on in the game how pieces function can vary, but overall the components do an average job.

For smaller sessions, you shouldn’t have a problem, but larger sessions can suffer from serious board clutter. A single ship can end up with many tokens on it, and the more cluttered things get the easier it is to overlook things. A good table bump or sneeze can really upset things, especially during a tense action sequence. The space map can get crowded when multiple ships get within close proximity as well. In addition the game itself can take up a significant amount of geography. For larger games the footprint can eat up a 2’x5’ table.

You’ll want to take some time sorting tokens out and keeping them in some organized fashion. Otherwise you can spend a lot of time hunting down a particular token. I highly recommend taking the extra time to pack up the game carefully between sessions. You’ll thank yourself when you open the game again.

In addition to everything included, if you plan on playing this game a lot, you are going to want to find some community created game sheets. You can create your own, but there are plenty of good resources openly available which are easy enough to get your hands on. Sheets you may need include advanced rule reference sheets, spreadsheet logs for tracking information, compressed character sheets for NPCs, etc.


Rules:

Brain BurnOK, this game is a cross between a board game and a role-playing game, RPG. The rule book is the first indication of this. The game is designed for one or more players to be led on an adventure by a game master. The game master will not so much be playing to win or lose, but to challenge the players and give them a reasonable level of risk to overcome. But I won’t kid you, getting to kill the occasional player character as game master can be fun too.

Players get to design a character and can enhance and improve that character over time and multiple game sessions. When playing the players are allowed to do just about anything with their characters within reason and a few things that are not reasonable. Because of this, instead of a standard set of hard unbreakable rules, you are given a set of guidelines to follow. Included within the rule book are the guidelines as well as a rule set which help the game master determine the physical restrictions the characters should remain within. The restrictions deal with how the physics of this make believe universe work, as well as restriction on character design to help create a balanced game.

These are not rules you will read in an hour or two and be ready to play fluently. You can get a game going quickly but to do so you will only use a cribbed version of the rules. As you advance your proficiency for this game you will gain the desire to learn more rules.

Expect to spend an hour or two initially learning what you need to, and then several game sessions before you begin to master the entire rules set. Experience with role-playing games is a big plus here. This is a large rule set which, when compared to other board games, is an advanced level of complication. Compared to RPG rule sets, the rules are actually on the simpler side of things.

If you desire to obtain this game be ready for a significant mental investment.

InterpretationBeing a rule set similar to an RPG, there are always going to be situations which are not covered in the rules. There will often be contradictions in the rules which arise. These situations call for a level headed game master to mitigate. The game master will have to make a decision as to how the situation should be resolved. But this shouldn’t be feared, and isn’t necessarily a drawback. With open ended games like this, players are encouraged to be creative. When creating such an environment it’s impossible to create a rule set which covers every possibility.

Aside from what isn’t covered by the rules, you will invariably find yourself misunderstanding or misinterpreting some of the rules. Often rules won’t make sense until you see them in action. Sometimes the rules appear vague. This appears to be an unfortunate side effect of large rule sets in every game with an advanced level of complication. One solution is to check online for community answers to these issues, or look for errata. The game is popular enough that finding answers shouldn’t be hard.

Be ready to have the rule book at arms reach all the time. The number of obscure game mechanics will ensure the occasional rules reference.

RetentionDon’t even try, unless you’re blessed with eidetic memory. If you’re a player you only need to remember the rules regarding character creation and character actions. If you want to be a game master, your going to need to remember a lot more, but don’t get bogged down with every rule. Remember the basics, and the most commonly used mechanics. Then train yourself on how to find the more obscure stuff. If your running a session which includes specific mechanics, familiarize yourself with those just before the game begins so their fresh.

I’ve played this game for years, including running demos and instructing other game masters, and I still find myself looking up rules regularly. This is one of those necessary evils when dealing with a game of this type.


Implementation:

Set UpUnless you organize your components between game sessions, and use a few setup shortcuts, game set up will take some time. Plan to spend about an hour before the game begins to set everything up.

If you keep organized and use shortcuts, you can cut down setup time to about 15 minutes. Expert players who prepare before showing up for the game can get a game set up in as little as 5 minutes, but that is definitely the exception.

There are three factors which slow down setup. First is game master prep. If the game master uses a pre-made scenario their prep time will be significantly reduced. But if you game master a lot you will eventually want to design your own scenarios, and even chain a few together for a campaign. In this case you will want to make preparations prior to meeting with everyone else for the game.

Second, players will need to make characters. Again if pre-made characters are used, the time needed is minimal. But most players will want to build their own personal space opera hero. “I want a cross between Malcolm Reynolds and Montgomery "Scotty" Scott.” Or “Oh, I want my character to act like Han Solo, but be a skilled scientist.” Creating a custom character will take some tim, but is a very important part of the fun to many players. Unless the players have their own rulebook, sold separately, they will need to create their character during game setup. Players obtaining their own rule book, or borrowing your book between sessions can allow them to prep their characters before the session begins.

The final factor is setting up the ships, game board, and tokens for everything. This can be done by the game owner prior to the other players arriving, otherwise it will take some time to sort through everything and get it set up.

Turn TimeTurns don’t work like most games. The players all take their turn at once, and then it’s the game master’s turn to choose an action for each non-player character, NPC. Game play alternates this way. The players choose the order in which they act and may spend some time discussing their options.

As a game master you will need to be prepared to sit for longer periods as the players discuss options or converse, “in character” to each other. This usually isn’t a problem at all though. Game masters have so much to control and track that any downtime is usually a reprieve to catch up with note keeping and planning actions for their army of non-player minions.

The real trick for the game master is to learn a lot of shortcuts to reduce the amount of time it takes them to finish the actions for all their NPCs, and tracking all the necessary information generated from doing so. This isn’t bad if the game master is running a single ship with four NPCs. On the other hand, if the game master is responsible for five ships crewed by ten people each, the NPC actions can take an hour. A standard short cut is for the game master to skip die rolls for the NPCs and just allow them to complete any task which could be achieved by rolling a “7” on two six sided die. The NPC’s won’t fail average skill checks but they also won’t be able to achieve any daring stunts. Another short cut is, when moving NPCs around ships, allow them to move one module and take an action, or move two modules with no other action, saves from counting all the spaces. These shortcuts save the game master a lot of time and keep the game moving along..

RoadblocksPlayers who like very structured choices when playing games can find an open ended game like this very daunting. The lack of definable choices will cause them to ask/say, “What can I do?”, “I don’t know what I should do.” The most frustrating question I hear is, “What are my options?” It’s impossible to give them every option they have from doing nothing, to opening an airlock and ‘spacing’ themselves, (not generally the best choice). Players who find it difficult to handle open ended games tend to get their character played by the other players. This always detracts from the enjoyment of the game.

Getting new players can be a challenge. Many players do not like learning complex rule sets. Also, non-gamer types will most often shy away from such a complex game. On the flip side, this can be a great gateway game for getting hardcore board gamers into RPGs. Yet, it generally doesn’t work the other way around.

Personal preferences and play styles can conflict easily with a game like this. Some players may want to continue a campaign over several sessions. Others may want to play unrelated scenarios as one-shots. Some players will want a game which feels like Star Trek, others will want to play a game that feels like Babylon 5. Your diplomacy skills may be challenged here.


Theme:

Design DepthMarianas Trench deep here. The entire rule set and all the components are designed to recreate a sci-fi space adventure. The game mechanics allow for just about any type of stereotypical space action, and/or clichéd sci-fi theme. The flexibility of the game mechanic infrastructure allows players to recreate just about any of their favorite sci-fi space stories, be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, etc, etc, etc. Be it your favorite novel, movie, TV/radio series or a creation of your own this game will allow you to recreate it.

The art on the components is decent enough to help spark your imagination and keep players ‘in character’ while playing.

Thematic ElementsThe alien races available are truly alien, not just humans with prosthetics or fantastically colored skin. The game component art is all futuristic space like. The rules and game mechanics are all designed to create a balanced physics in a sci-fi fantasy universe.

Character and ship module abilities all help bring flesh and bone to the cardboard and paper components.

QuirksRunning the razor thin edge of actually being a RPG, this game draws a lot of elements from RPG type games. You may find players who just have to play the same ‘favorite’ character no matter how stale everyone else feels the character has become. You will also find being a good game master is not a skill set everyone has. Because of this, usually the same one or two people in a group end up running the game all the time and don’t get time to play as a character. This can be a cause for burn out in the game master player.

You will also find the open ended game style, and virtually unlimited variables allowed, will be a cause for very memorable gaming. If you play more than twice, you’re sure to have something occur that will become a repeated story for years to come whenever friends get together to reminisce. “Remember the time we fought that fleet of 7 star cruisers with only one frigate and a scout. Chuck kept the scout out of cannon range and just fired missiles, while we took the frigate in for close combat. In the end we flew kamikaze into the enemy’s flagship and caused a chain reaction of explosions that took out the entire enemy fleet. Ole’ Chuck returned home a hero. That was so cool.” Or, “How about the time we caused a lot of damage to that huge enemy space station but it was able to maintain hull integrity? Then Bob shot it with a weak one damage shot and it failed hull integrity from already being so damaged. It was like Bob shot this massive station with a rifle in just the perfect spot causing the whole thing to blow.”


Immersion:

Down TimeGames of this type will always have some downtime for its players. This can be due to some players completing actions which require more effort to resolve, or from the game master having to pause to catch up with notes or plot actions.

Players who aren’t into story and just want to destroy things will become bored in-between action sequences while ‘in character’ development scenes occur. Poorly prepared players / game masters and obscure rules referencing can contribute to delayed breaks in the action.

One mistake newer players make happens when a scenario begins. Often game masters will place ships too far apart, feeling the time it takes to close the distance can be used in preparation for the battle. More often than not, the players spend a few turns doing nothing because the ships are too far apart for actions to be effective. When you place ships on the board, don’t be afraid to place them close. A rule of thumb when starting out, place ships two hexes closer than you planned to. Trust me.

Time WarpIf you’ve ever played a RPG you know it is very easy to lose track of time with a game like this. Hours can easily pass while playing a session and you may find yourself trying to convince other players to play just a little longer so your group can achieve one last goal.

In extreme cases you may want to set an alarm to ensure your session’s scheduled end time doesn’t slip by unnoticed.

Where Am I? You have every opportunity to lose yourself in this game. It is designed to let the player ‘become’ the character they are playing and act out their fantasy to be a William Adama or James T. Kirk. Expect to forget your troubles and your responsibilities for a while. It is entirely possible you will forget your surroundings and believe you’re in command, or part of a crew on a space faring star jumper.

Summary:

This is one of my favorite games. I don’t get to play it as often as I like because of the time investment required, but there is no denying the enjoyment I get from this game. I generally recommend this game to anyone mildly interested. I’ve never had someone tell me they regretted taking my advice. The game is on the higher end of the cost scale, but not as bad as some. There are several expansions available to increase options and add depth. All of the expansions are worth getting in my opinion but I recommend playing the base game a few times before making additional investments, just in case. Each expansion adds to the rules and you’ll want to be familiar with the base game before adding even more options.

There are also unpainted metal miniatures and 3D ship modules available for those who are not averse to investing in the game and prefer to have their games pimped out. These additional components, along with a black vinyl hex map, can really enhance immersion as well.

The components are average, but plentiful. Players gain more from the mechanics than the components so the component quality isn’t required to be extravagant. The rules are very complicated compared to board games, and will require a significant investment of time and mental expenditure. Also, implementing the game will take a few sessions to become proficient. The game is virtually all theme and immersion is built into the design. Be prepared for freestyle gaming with open ended choices.

Thank you for reading my review. It makes the effort worthwhile.
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Flying Arrow
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What are some of the "open-ended" decisions you faced? There are a ton of options available to the players, but I was under the impression that those options are all that are available.
 
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Peter
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While its true the actions you take are limited in the results they will achieve, the decision as to what action you take is not limited. Yes there are only a few things you can do that may affect the game positively, and often experienced players know there are only a few actions which you should choose to take in certain situations. But this shouldn't be mistaken for limiting your options. When its your turn you can choose to do anything. The game does not require you to choose one of the given actions. Your character can even do nothing if they choose.

Many times goals can be achieved by attacking a problem laterally instead of directly. In one scenario I ran for a group of players, they were sent to eliminate a threat. The threat was a scout ship with a cannon. The players were pretending to be pacifists. Instead of destroying the opponent ship they boarded and stunned the crew. It was tense but they won. The problem was as pacifists they didn't want to kill or capture anyone, and negotiations were not an option because the opponent crew were zealots. In the end the players asked if their engineer could detach the gun module and eject it into space. Thereby disarming the ship. The rules don't cover this as an option. But considering the circumstances, as a game master I ruled they could and assigned a difficulty to the check. They succeeded without accidentally ventilating the ship and accomplished their mission.

Point being, open ended means you have a lot more options compared to games which require you to choose between option 'A' or option 'B' and in some cases options 'C' or 'D'.
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That makes sense and as the GM you can run the game that way (or maybe everyone runs it that way), but that sort of freedom seems to take it off of the border between boardgame and RPG and puts it squarely in the RPG category. From my reading of the rulebook, I never got the sense that the players had that sort of freedom. There are 50-100 different actions they can take with defined difficulties and resolutions - that's a lot of freedom already. With defined actions/results, a defined winning condition, and structure to players' turns I think it's a boardgame (or at least on the border). But if you allow players to have freedom to invent actions and the GM to have the freedom to decide difficulties, the concept of "winning" doesn't make much sense anymore, and that's where (in my mind) it would become strictly an RPG. A fun game either way, I'm sure. But when (if?) I get a chance to play, I don't think I'll allow the open-ended actions.
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Colin Hunter
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To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I...
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To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I...
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You can play the game anyway you want. I don't play with open ended actions either and it seems to work, it really depends on the group. It is worth mentioning though that the GM will always have some open ended parts, it isn't quite decent, sometimes the GM has to use their discretion, not a lot, but sometimes is all.
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