I love miniatures games. I have for years and years. I honestly don’t know when I became so fascinated with the idea of waging battle with tiny tanks and soldiers; I just remember being in college and finally getting a chance to play Warhammer 40,000 (40k) and it was the coolest thing ever. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve played a pretty wide range of Science Fiction and Fantasy war games at this point, with Warmachine sitting pretty in my top spot for the last few years. Recently though, a new game has been making inroads: Dropzone Commander, a newish 10mm mass-battle game from newcomers Hawk Wargames. I won’t go into any specifics here, but suffice it to say, it’s a very well-designed game with some great models and an interesting background; battles are cinematic and tactical, with minimal rules bloat to bog down the game. I’ve had a blast the last year or so building up a group and getting in a pile of games.
But even with the great games I’ve played over the years, there’s always been one itch I couldn’t scratch. See I’ve always been fascinated by naval combat, and by extension starship combat. One of my favorite games growing up was Homeworld, undoubtedly the king of starship battles. I loved how purposeful it all felt, how grand and weighty your decisions were when you knew the repercussions could last far beyond the immediate moment. These weren’t games where you could just flippantly change your mind as thousands of tons of steel were sent off to slug it out. So once I established that miniatures games were not a thing I was going to stop doing, I immediately started looking for a naval combat game. Much to my dismay it seemed that such games were few and far between, with Battlefleet Gothic long out of print and Firestorm Armada too problematic to buy in to.
So needless to say when Hawk Wargames announced that they would be making a companion game to Dropzone Commander, one that would be focused on the great battle fleets of the games four existing factions, and that they were working with none other than Andy Chambers of Warhammer 40k and, more importantly, Battlefleet Gothic fame, I was all in. So Dropfleet Commander erupted onto my radar, launching the company’s first Kickstarter campaign along with it.
Now I know what you’re thinking, imaginary reader. You’re thinking “But Chris, you said in your High Heavens review that you hate when established companies use Kickstarter! Have you no shame!?,” and you’re right, I did say that (and my shame levels are questionable). I do still hate it, generally. Hawk has done a lot to ease my worries in that regard by being very clear about their intents with the campaign however.
First of all, the campaign has a very specific purpose: the production of the molds needed to make the game’s core units in plastic rather than resin. For those unaware, plastic is extremely cheap on a per-model basis, but the cost of the molds is several times that of a resin or metal mold and most companies simply don’t have the capital to launch an entirely new game system in plastic from day one. When Hawk launched their flagship game, Dropzone Commander, they did so with an all-resin model range. This was extremely economical for them as a startup but the higher cost-per-model of resin made the price to start a Dropzone army far higher than many people were willing to swallow. Only after several years on the market was Hawk able to produce the army starter boxes in plastic, which helped the community explode as it suddenly became far more affordable to new players. Hawk wants to avoid this with Dropfleet, so plastic starters are a must from day one.
Secondly, Hawk is very aware of the pitfalls of past miniatures Kickstarter campaigns. Many a promising game has disappeared to the annals of history after their backers received every model they’d ever need to play and stores had no reason to ever stock their product. Without the influx of new players, the backers grew bored and expansions died on the vine. Knowing this, Hawk has made very clear that not only are backers not getting every ship in the game, but they’re getting a fraction of planned units. Instead, the backers of the Kickstarter will have access to the games core units, Cruisers and Frigates, but will have to go to the store with everyone else to get their centerpiece Battleships and Dreadnoughts. That’s not to say backers aren’t getting their own fun stuff, but I’ll cover that later.
So at this point I’ve talked a lot about the WHY and HOW of Dropfleet without actually talking about Dropfleet almost at all. So what is it? Well it’s a space combat game between two opposing fleets of capital ships fighting over control of the planet below. Each match takes place over a roughly France-sized chunk of planet dotted with cities, factories, and other strategic resources. The goal is to capture objectives on the surface while engaging and destroying the opposing fleet.
What makes Dropfleet really stand out from the field is their use of altitude and range. Unlike any other starship game I can easily think of, battles in Dropfleet don’t take place in deep space (after all, what is out there that you’d want?). Instead they take place over planetary objectives and at one of three altitudes: High Orbit (think the Moon), Low Orbit (satellites), and Atmospheric. Since the goal is to get troops to the surface and attack objectives down there, plenty of ships will want to drop low to fulfill their missions. But you must be careful since most ships aren’t designed to enter the atmosphere of a planet. A crippled engine could spell death for an otherwise-healthy Battleship as it plunges into the atmosphere and begins to burn.
The big one though is range. Long story short: there is no range, every gun is infinite range. Instead, what you have to worry about is who you can see. Two stats determine if your ship can fire on an enemy: your Scan and their Signature. Add these two numbers together and you get the range from which you’re able to effectively target their ship. In-game effects can modify these numbers too, adding and removing Spikes from a ship’s Signature. Going Weapons Free to fire a massive barrage may wipe out that cruiser that was giving you trouble, but be careful the extra Signature doesn’t make you a prime target for the enemy Battleship.
What’s exciting about this is exactly what I was saying earlier when I talked about why I love naval combat; your decisions have a ripple of repercussions. Spikes aren’t easy to get rid of and they can double or triple the range from which enemy ships can effectively target you. It may be worth it to Full Thrust towards that objective now, but perhaps not if it opens a key ship up to massed weapons fire. This, I suspect, is what’s going to separate the good and the great Dropfleet players. What’s the song, “know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away”? Knowing where and when it’s worth it to pick up Spikes will be key in making winning moves.
Players take control of one of the four main factions in the Hawk universe (unfortunately for some Dropzone players, Hawk has explicitly said that Resistance will not be a playable faction in Dropfleet). These include the noble United Colonies of Mankind, the terrifying Scourge, the aloof Post-Human Republic, and the mysterious Shaltari. Each faction has a character and play style all its own, so let’s dive right in. One thing to keep in mind is that everything I write here is based on Hawk’s explanation of beta rules. I could have things wrong or things could change before release. That said, the overarching themes of each faction should remain fairly constant.
The United Colonies of Mankind (UCM) are descendants of those that escaped the initial Scourge invasion about 200 years ago. Based in the Outer Rim Colonies far from Earth and the Cradle Worlds, they were overlooked in the first Scourge attacks and now they seek vengeance for the lives lost all those years ago. They bring the might of an entire people dedicated to a single unifying purpose: to wipe the Scourge from the galaxy and take back their homes, whatever the cost. The UCM fleet exemplifies flexibility. With a wide range of enemies, they must equip their ships for any action. Their ships tend to pack one of two main weapon types, railguns and burnthrough lasers. The railguns are turreted, with wide arcs of fire to ensure the UCM can almost always make the shot. Burnthrough lasers on the other hand are extremely narrow-band weapons that require the ship be facing directly at the target, but their ability to hit multiple times as they burn through armor plating and into the deck below makes up for it. UCM will also pack fairly strong armor compared to most of the other fleets, making them resilient to unconcentrated fire.
The Scourge are parasites, moving from civilization to civilization to consume and gather hosts before moving on. On the ground, their forces consist of a mixture of hosts and bio-organic constructs equivalent to the tanks and walkers of their foes. Their ships are lightly armored, but fast, and carry devastating weaponry that can inflict extra damage in a single hit. They are also extremely dangerous at close range, excelling at the knife-fight. From what we can tell their weapons lack the wide arcs of UCM turrets, perhaps limited to a single 90-degree arc each, but nothing has been explicitly stated to that effect.
The Post Human Republic (PHR) were human, once. Shortly before the Scourge invasion, an entity of unknown origin offered humanity a safe haven, but not all accepted. Those that did have reemerged now as cyborgs, part machine and part human. They follow the orders of the White Sphere, the entity which saved them 200 years ago, but to what purpose no one knows. The PHR does not have the numbers of the other races, so they must make sure every life spent counts. Their ships are heavily armored, able to shrug off blows that would cripple the craft of other races. In addition, they mount devastating broadside armament. It might take some time to bring those side arcs around, but you don’t want to be on the other end when they do. Broadside weapons come in three sizes: Small, Medium, and Large. They trade volume of fire for power-per-shot as you go up in size, leaving PHR commanders to decide carefully what they might need in each battle. (Unfortunately, we only have renders of the PHR fleet at the moment, painted models are in the works.)
Finally, the Shaltari are the enigmatic, advanced race that any good Science Fiction setting needs. They are the masters of energy shield technology and their ships are highly maneuverable. Many of their weapons are mounted on their forward arc, requiring them to point almost directly at their enemies to deliver the killing blow. Their use of energy shields gives them a fairly unique mechanic however. Normally, they are the lightest armored vessels in the game, easy prey for any ship that gets a lock. The problem is that they come with a similarly low Signature, meaning enemies need to close in for the killing stroke. Activate their shields though and that all changes. The Shields Up order exchanges a huge Spike for a massive increase in armor, turning Shaltari into an incredibly tough opponent to bring down. More than any other faction Shaltari players will have to master the games Spike system to bring their full power to bear.
One thing that Hawk has traditionally been good at is simplifying their dice system and Dropfleet is no exception. Each weapon has an accuracy value that dictates what the player has to roll on a single six-sided die (d6) in order to hit. A “3+” for example means that a result of 1 or 2 is a miss and a 3, 4, 5, or 6 is a hit. The way Hawk sees it, any weapon worth shooting at a starship is one that will hurt it, so they do away with the traditional “roll to damage”, instead moving straight to the defenders armor. Each ship has an armor value which dictates what the player must roll to ignore the damage, meaning low armor is good. This changes if the attacker rolls 2 higher than the minimum to hit, i.e our 3+ weapon from above rolls a 5 or 6. This results in a crit and the defender doesn’t get to roll their armor, instead taking the damage immediately. Ships that take too much damage may become crippled, resulting in lost weapons, engines, sensors, and more.
Weapons also have firing arcs as shown on the model bases. These may be multiple arcs, “F/S” meaning the weapon can fire in the ship’s Front and Side arcs for a total of a 270 degree arc while “F” limits the weapon to the ship’s forward 90 degree arc. Other weapons may use the “Narrow” arc, and extremely, well, narrow arc of fire that is marked on the front of each ship’s base.
A second weapon type currently called “Close Action Weapons” are present on every ship. These represent powerful but easily countered weapons like guided missiles, plasma bubbles, and lasers; weapons that would lose their potency or be shot down thousands of miles short of their targets under normal circumstances, but which can be used en-masse when two ships get close enough. If an enemy ship is within your Scan range (don’t add any Signature modifiers) you can attack with Close Action Weapons, and your opponent can defend with their point defense. This seems to be the only point in the game that involves massive numbers of dice, with larger ships mounting Close Action Weapons and Point Defenses with “2d6” (2 six-sided dice) or more attacks and defenses. The attacker rolls that many attacks against the enemy ship and for each hit the enemy rolls their own value of defense dice, with each success cancelling one hit.
There will also be strike craft in the game, Fighters and Bombers launched from Carriers. It’s a little unclear at the moment exactly what they will do in game mechanics, though my best guess is that Bombers will be useful for hunting Frigates or crippled capital ships, while it sounds like Fighters may be able to assist capital ships with Point Defense.
So What Can I Get?
The main draw of the Kickstarter is the availability of the plastic starter boxes. Each box ships with 3 Cruisers and 4 Frigates and we’ve been told that two boxes plus a larger ship or two is roughly a normal-sized game depending on which ships are chosen. Hawk is very wary of turning the campaign into an online store, so the only things you’ll find besides the starters are the rules and accessories like maps, cards, tokens, and dog tags. The single exception to that rule are the Kickstarter exclusive Battlecruisers. Each faction gets one (though we won’t see the models for the Scourge, PHR, or Shaltari until November 25th) and these will not be made again.
That’s not to say Battlecruisers won’t be made again, but when they are they will be different models. Each of the exclusives will have unique rules to play with, but in tournament play they will only be allowed as alternate models for generic Battlecruisers (if you’ve played Dropzone, think Famous Commanders). There’s also a double-sized, 11-inch long UCM Battleship model that won’t be available again, but it’s not a playable model (though there will be a smaller playable version when the game ships).
Since the game blew through its goal in the first 9 minutes, the campaign has hit a pile of stretch goals so anyone who pledges now will get a bunch of free ships on top of their base order, perfect for getting friends and family hooked. The Kickstarter page has a detailed break down of each backer reward level, so find the one that’s best for your faction and go pledge. 2016 is going to be a good year for spaceship fans. And now, more pictures!