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Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Steve Cole writes:

A very long time ago, back in the mid-1990s, I had an idea for a ground combat game in the Star Fleet Universe. I called it Star Fleet Assault and printed a two-page preview in SFB Module P6. There, it languished for many years.

I always wanted to do that game, since I've carried a rifle while wearing a green suit more than a few times, and Steven Petrick and I spend endless off-duty hours discussing Army and Marine issues, weapons, technology, tactics, and history.

Every now and then, I'd find Star Fleet Assault in the file and work on it a little. Every time Steven Petrick and I did anything involving ground troops (such as the "buy a battalion rule" we did in Captain's Log), I'd think back to Star Fleet Assault. Often, the new item would be modified by the need to make it fit into Star Fleet Assault, and often, I'd go update Star Fleet Assault for it. I actually dragged it out and playtested at it two or three times in 15 years.

When the corporation got started, we ran surveys every now and then to decide what new products would be done. I'd always insist on putting Star Fleet Assault on the survey, but it usually came in about ninth or tenth on a "best three get published" survey. Then, one year (2009) we did a survey and Star Fleet Assault came in high enough to get put on the schedule. So I started seriously working on it. I sent copies of the draft to my top staffers, who sent a few comments but really weren't into ground combat. I did find two groups I had never used before who said they would test it.

We had some issues over the years. I had to delay it for six months in the spring of 2011 when I found out that the two groups who actually tested it clearly had not actually tested it. (To be fair, their reports came back as "everything is great" and I didn't check for myself. They aren't listed in the product, and their names will never be released. There is no reason they need to be embarrassed. Not everyone actually understands what playtesting actually means.) The only bad result of the playtesting fiasco was that the countersheets went to press needing a couple of things we didn't know we needed (outposts, vehicle damage markers, external passenger markers, mechanized weapons vehicles) so a few minor rules got sent to the next module.

In the fall of 2011, I had to delay it again because the Mongoose project took a lot more time than anyone had ever expected. Even my plans to release it in February of 2012 slipped into March, then April. I thought I'd get it out the door on 23 April but that little "trip over the sidewalk" accident laid me up for a week, so it finally went on the printers on 30 April (and no copies will actually go out the door before 1 May because the print engines are being serviced and cannot print the three other products that have to ship on the same day).

But the delay was good for the game. For one thing, we had Xander Fulton do a real modern artistic color wargame map, which beats the heck out of the stylized map I did. (On my map, a green hex was forest. On his map, a forest hex actually looks like a photograph looking down at a bunch of trees.) For another, Loren Knight did some new art for it. For another, Adam Turner did a magnificent cover painting. I also had time to get the scenarios and special rules just the way I wanted them. I started watching WALKING DEAD (having never been a fan of zombie movies) and added a zombie scenario. (We needed a good solitaire scenario anyway.) Best of all, somewhere along the line, Star Fleet Assault became Star Fleet Marines: Module 1-Assault with Module 2 (Last Stand) scheduled for next year and more modules (including Sky Cavalry) in the future.

Most of all, I had months of playing the game with Steven Petrick. I enjoyed that most of all. You would think that in the 20 years he has worked for and then with me, Steven Petrick and I would have played thousands of rounds of hundreds of games. Actually, we have probably played a game only a few dozen times. We probably spent as much time playtesting Marines as all of the gaming we have done together since the corporation was formed in 1999. It is certainly several times all of the Star Fleet Universe playing we have done before now. (I can actually remember only one time we have played SFB together: the Flivver playtest.) Given that it took both of us back to the best years of our lives, those spent in the US Army, those playtest sessions became a special time I will always treasure. For a few hours, I was a 20-year-old soldier who weighed less than half what I weigh now and could run up and down a mile-long hill without breathing hard.
As playtesting goes, it was not just fun, but it was intellectually stimulating work. It was never "Steve versus Steve" but it was more "Steve & Steve mutually playing the game solitaire." I'd point out mistakes and missed opportunities and so would he. I'd suggest a new tactic and he'd show me why he had already thought of it and rejected it.

Having learned the Art of War in my father's classroom at Command & General Staff College and commanded a company in the State Guard, I thought I was the better military tactician. Boy, was I wrong. If I ever had to take my entire company against Petrick's much smaller platoon, we'd get whipped in one battle. Maybe the fact that he had Infantry Officer's Basic Course and lead real platoons in the real Army means something I never gave him credit for?) I did lead a real squad in the real Army, and a State Guard company, but as a battlefield company commander, Steven Petrick is a natural genius and a born killer, and yet extremely reluctant to get his troops shot to pieces attacking my prepared positions. Every battle we fought was one-to-one and he won all but one of them. Go figure.

What also developed during the playtesting process was a host of new rules, including beaten zones and snap-shots. I'm the game designer and the rules are mine, but Steven Petrick showed me the tactical situations and said "go write a rule to make this work like it does in the real world." (I pointed out to him that the battle was not on a real world but an imaginary alien planet, and he pointed out the the Star Fleet Universe has survived longer than any other gaming universe because the engineering actually works.

Steven Petrick was an absolute genius at coming up with new tactics. He became devious at forcing me to spend my firepower blocking hexes of lesser importance so that the rest of his troops could reach more important locations. (If I didn't take the bait and spend the firepower, he just cancelled the second half of his movement and used the troops I didn't fire at to launch pinning attacks that allowed him to move freely on the next turn.) When we brought shuttlecraft and sky cavalry into the game, he surprised (stunned!!!) me with a dirty trick. I used my defending troops to establish beaten zones across the entire front, keeping his troops away from my defenses. Then he simply leapfrogged over those beaten zones in his shuttles, landed directly adjacent to my foxholes, and disgorged those sneaky dragons and hairy apes (and a few Klingon officers to herd them into the attack with cattle prods).

One thing that happened was that we noticed that a lot of the battles revolved around the central town, and with every counter in the scenario jammed into a dozen hexes, things got intense. We decided to have Joel create an 11x17 black & white play aid (a double-size version of the map, covering only the area right around the town). I am fairly sure that nothing in the rulebook explains this, so it may be a mystery to some players. (Oh well.) We also added another play aid, a sheet of cardstock with the Sequence of Play, terrain chart, list of die-roll modifiers, and combat table printed on it.

Finally, the game design was finished (Saturday 28 April). I then spent a day with Jean getting the typos, punctuation, and capitalization right. While I spent three hours listening to Jean tell me to "capitalize this, spell that one out, you don't need that comma," she did (with fresh eyes) discover some rules that did not work, and some bad cross-references. (Jean had earlier pointed out to me that, living in the Texas panhandle, I had never realized that marshes and swamps are not the same thing.) Then I spent a day with Leanna getting the PDF ready for printing. Now, I have to go do the FLAP list, award combat ribbons, and set up the BBS topics for the inevitable "Snap Shot" tactical notes to be published in Captain's Log #45.

It's almost a unique game for the Star Fleet Universe, having only 24 pages of rules. (Well, actually, it only has TEN pages of RULES. The other 14 are publisher information, scenarios, tactics, charts, and a full-page example of play.) It was kinda fun to do a game with so few rules. (That's a direction I think I want to keep moving in; my next game has only three pages of rules.)