Note: Mongoose will no longer be publishing figures for Babylon 5: A Call to Arms as of March 31, 2008.
Review By Russ Wakelin originally published in 2004.
Who are you? What do you want?
I have long been a fan of games involving 'naval maneuver'. I guess it's the images of massive ships slowly turning to bring huge guns to bear while smaller craft zip about and fighters fill the sky. Games such as Starfleet Battles, Harpoon, Man O' War, and Battlefleet Gothic have all captured my attention. However, one rarely sees these types of games being played in hobby stores or gaming clubs. Why?
One possible answer is that the genre just doesn't appeal to a large audience, but I believe there may be another reason. Games like Starfleet Battles and Harpoon are mind-boggling in scope, encompassing a huge number of ship types, races/countries, support craft, weapons systems, etc. This is their appeal; you can do anything and be anyone from the represented universe. The problem is that this diversity comes at a price. The games take literally days to play. And the record keeping is a project in and of itself. Only the most fanatical gamer can find time to play these games regularly.
At the other end of the spectrum are games like Man O' War and Battlefleet Gothic. These games have relatively simple, elegant rule systems, play very tightly, give the player good in-game tactical choices, have minimal record keeping, and even large battles can be played in just a few hours. These are kinds of games that can be played in an evening, or in a tourney or league format. However, because the rules are so tight, it becomes difficult to offer the gamer a lot of different options, either in fleet choices, races, weapons systems, etc. Or, if they are expanded, new fleets require very specialized rules that fundamentally don't fit well into fleets designed with the core system.
Enter the newest contender in the Naval tabletop game market: Babylon 5: A Call to Arms from Mongoose Publishing. I say newest because although the initial release of the game was last year, this fall (2004) marks the release of a revised edition, along with a hard cover rules expansion A Sky Full of Stars. This review will cover both these releases in an effort to examine the game as a whole. Does B5: A Call to Arms (hereafter B5) attempt to bridge the gap described above? Yes. Does it succeed? That's what the rest of the article is about.
I will show you the Babylon 5 that I know. You will find that a revelation of the highest order. Ambassador Londo Mollari
Each game turn is divided in to phases: Initiative, Movement, Attack, and End. A turn involves both players going through the various phases together, alternating between ships. The first phase, initiative, determines who will have the choice to act first or second in a given phase. Initiative is based on a die roll, with each race having different modifiers to the roll. Certain ships (such as command vessels, etc) can add additional initiative modifiers.
Once initiative is determined it's time to move ships. Each player alternates moving vessels until all ships have moved. For example player 1 will nominate a ship, attempt a special action and then move the ship. Player 2 will then nominate a ship, attempt a special action and then move that ship. Player 1 now selects another ship and so on, with both players alternating until all ships have moved.
This "integrated phase" mechanic works nicely. It keeps both players fully engaged in a turn. You're only one ship away from being able to respond to what your opponent just did. It also gives the game a more dynamic feel. For example, in the beginning of the turn you may have been thinking about giving your carrier the special action "Scramble! Scramble!" when it moved, allowing it to launch more fighters. But as the movement phase unfolds you notice that your opponent's fleet seems to be adopting a formation that will bring a lot of weapons to bear on your carrier in the upcoming attack phase. When it becomes your carrier's turn, you've had a chance to rethink your plan and instead you have the ship perform the "Close blast doors and activate defense grid" special action, which will help reduce any damage you suffer.
While we're on the subject, let's talk about special actions. Before you move a ship, you may opt to have it perform a special action. These range from increasing your ships speed for the turn to opening a jump gate. Some actions affect how the ship will move for the turn, and some require a "crew quality test" and are not automatic. BFG players may recognize this mechanic as similar to "Special Orders." However where BFG had about 6 different special orders, B5 has 16 special actions.
When all the special actions and movement are finished, it's time to shoot. The attack phase is integrated just like the movement phase. Player 1 nominates a ship, fires all the weapons, and resolves the hits. Now player 2 picks a ship, fires all the weapons, and resolves the hits. Repeat with player 1 again. Play continues until all ships have had a chance to shoot.
Our gun arrays are now fixed on your ship and will fire the instant you come into range. You will find their power quite impressive... for a few seconds. - Susan Ivanova
The shooting and weapon rules are simple, but very flexible. Each ship has a given number of weapons. The targeting process itself is straight forward. Ships don't block line of sight, a weapon system can fire at any target in its arc, ships may fire weapons at different targets, and even a single weapon system can split fire among multiple targets. All measurements, including range, are taken to/from the center of the ship and pre-measuring is allowed. Each weapon has several common stats: Firing arc, attack dice, range, and traits. The game only uses six sided dice (D6), and you'll want a lot of them. The attack dice dictate how many D6s are rolled when the weapon fires. Every D6 that comes up equal to or higher than the target's hull value scores a hit. Hits typically reduce a ship's damage and crew values until the ship either becomes crippled, undermanned, or destroyed. Most hits have a 1 in 6 chance of scoring a critical, which cause all kinds of nasty results from disabling weapons to blowing out reactors.
Traits are used to customize weapons. Instead of having to memorize (or look up) the difference between a Narn ion torpedo, an Earther laser cannon, and a Centauri twin particle array, you simply glance down at your ship profile sheet (or Army Builder fleet list) and see which traits apply to that weapon. The rules for each trait are listed in the main rule book. It doesn't take long to start remembering what traits like "Armor Piercing," "Twin Linked," and "Double Damage" do. By adjusting ranges, attack dice, and traits it is possible for the game designers to come up with a nearly endless variety of weapons, without requiring players to look up every individual weapon system by race.
As guns blaze away and attack dice are rolled, the results are recorded. Record keeping in the game is reasonable. Players need to keep track of three things on each ship as they get hit: Damage, Crew, and Critical Hits. Damage represents the structural integrity of a ship; when this number reaches zero: dead ship. Each ship also has a threshold Damage number; when the Damage value falls below this threshold, it is considered "crippled" and becomes less functional. Crew represents how well manned a ship is; you don't want that to hit zero either. Like Damage, crew has a threshold number that if it drops below the ship is considered to have a "skeleton crew" and also becomes less functional.
Systems can fail long before the hull looks like Swiss cheese or two thirds of your crew have been spaced. Critical Hits can occur at just about any moment. In addition to causing more damage than a conventional hit, criticals can reduce a ship?s capabilities until they are repaired. As a result, criticals and their current effects must be noted for each ship as well.
If this cockpit breaches, I'm screwed! - Michael Garabaldi
So far we've looked at how capital ships work, but how do fighters, breaching pods, and other small craft fit in? In B5 these are referred to as Auxiliary Craft. Auxiliary Craft have their own mini phases at the end of the movement and attack phases. Players do not alternate moving each fighter flight. Instead, players move all their own auxiliary craft at once at the end of the movement phase. i.e. After all capital ships on both sides have moved in the movement phase one player moves all his auxiliary craft, then the other player moves all the flights that belong to his fleet. A similar event occurs at the end of the attack phases, with all of one player's flights attacking, then all of the other player's flights attack.
Attacking works just like capital ships. Each fighter type for each race has weapon systems, with the same stat info as capital ships, although their ranges and attack dice are typically MUCH lower. Still, enough fighters attacking a single capitol ship can start to do some real damage. Fighters have a hull value just like capital ships, and if an attack die rolls equal to or higher than that number, then they are hit. Fighter flights themselves have no stats to keep track of; one hit and they are destroyed.
It's not quite that easy to blow them away, however. Fighters almost all have the "Dodge" trait that allows them to ignore any hit if they roll higher than their Dodge number, typically 2+ for agile fighters and 3+ for heavier craft. This is an interesting mechanic, as it allows fighters to easily avoid the massive weapons designed to smash capital ships, while remaining vulnerable to things such as explosions and anti-fighter weaponry which bypass this save.
Most Auxiliary Craft also have a dogfight value. This is a modifier, usually +1, +2, etc. Dogfighting occurs when opposing flights of auxiliary craft come into contact with each other in the movement phase. The flights are locked together, and neither can leave until the other is destroyed. Dogfights are resolved in the attack phase. Each side rolls a die, adds their "dogfight" modifier, and high roll wins, destroying the opposing flight. A tie means they're still locked in combat. As an added twist, if players can manage to bring in additional fighter counters into contact with the enemy in the movement phase, they will give additional bonuses to the dogfight roll.
Bringing it Together
Boom. Boom boom boom. Boom boom. Boom! Have a nice day! - Susan Ivanova
The end result is a movement and combat system that covers a broad spectrum of situations without the need for a lot of complex rules for each unique craft type or in game event. Want to bomb the hull of a Narn destroyer with a flight of Star Furies? No problem, use the same mechanics as firing capital ship weapons, you'll just need to be real close. Want to capture that crippled ship? Just take the appropriate special action.
The game play is fast and brutal. Many ships have fairly long ranged weapons (30" or more) and weapons fire fills the sky right from turn one. With no shields to protect you (there are none in the B5 universe) ships are ravaged almost immediately. And because the turns are integrated, you're able to dish damage right back at your opponent almost as soon as his ships rip into you.
An added bonus of the integrated phase system is that the game plays very well with more than two players. Instead of having to wait for 3 other players to move and shoot their entire fleets before you get your turn again, you now only wait for 3 other ships to move before you again get to advance one of yours. This also makes allied betrayal more difficult. In more traditional you-go-I-go games, if an ally decides it is time to end the alliance without warning, he can hit you with his entire fleet before you can respond. This can often have catastrophic results. In B5, this kind of betrayal can still occur, but after the first ship fires at a member of your fleet, your fleet can begin return firing. While the results may still end up being catastrophic, at least you have the satisfaction of knowing it will be catastrophic for both of you.
All of this comes together into a fast paced, diverse rule set that is as fun for two players as it is for 6 (or more!). But a game system needs more than a good set of rules to captivate players. It also needs a broad range of fleet and ship choices, and a methodology to keep fleets balanced.
Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Mimbari Fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else! - Delenn
Games, tabletop in particular, can live and die based on the amount of choices offered to players. No matter how good the core rule set is, if there is not enough diversity both in overall fleet choices and options within a given fleet, the game will soon become stale. The Babylon 5 license provides Mongoose Publishing with a rich, full universe with many races and ship types. And Mongoose takes full advantage of it.
The main game box includes fleet lists with over 80 different classes of star ships. The addition of Sky Full of Stars increase the number even further and adds variants to many of the classes for even more diversity. The main races have 10-20 classes each, and often several varieties of support craft. Ships, like weapons, have "traits" which give them special abilities. These traits range from the expected such as "Scout" and "Carrier" to the exotic such as "Adaptive Armor" and "Self Repairing Hull."
This much variety can feel daunting, but like weapons, the traits and basic ship stats help. Once players get a handle on the various ship traits and what they do, it is easy to flip through the fleet lists and assess the capabilities of a ship at a glance. It also means in most cases don't have to read up on your opponent's fleet special rules. Instead you can just glance at their fleet roster, read the ship and weapon traits, and quickly understand what you are up against.
That's a lot of ships! That's a bloody awful lot of ships! - Marcus Cole
Building a fleet from this massive collection of ships is a rather unique process. Ships have no point values; instead the game has 5 priority levels: Patrol, Skirmish, Raid, Battle, and War. Each ship is assigned a priority level. For example, light scout ships and fighter wings are patrol priority, while the giant Shadow war ships and massive Earth fighter carriers are War priority.
To play a game, players select a scenario (aka mission). The scenario describes deployment zones and mission objectives, and SOMETIMES suggests fleet sizes. Many scenarios simply say "players choose". So to fully describe a game players or event organizers must indicate that they will play the "Battle Scenario" with fleet Raid 2. Raid 2 means that it is a priority "Raid" mission with 2 "fleet points"
The priority of the mission dictates how much it will cost, in fleet points, to include a ship from a given priority in your fleet. Choosing ships from the same priority as the mission are a 1 for 1 exchange. i.e. At Raid priority each "Raid" ship costs 1 fleet point. If a player chooses to take ships from one priority below Raid, which is Skirmish, he can have TWO skirmish ships for the price of 1 Raid fleet point. If he chooses to take ships from 2 priority levels below Raid, which is Patrol, he can have THREE Patrol ships for the price of 1 raid fleet point.
The converse is true as you go up: i.e. If the same player were to chose a "Battle" priority ship it will cost him 2 Raid fleet points for one "Battle" ship. The scale going up is not linear, so a "War" priority ship will actually cost 4 Raid fleet points.
To sum it up, if an event was hosted that requested players to bring "Raid 2 fleets," players could field as many as 6 "Patrol" ships (an "all Patrol" fleet) as few as 1 "Battle" ship or something in between. Note that players could actually have more counters on the table than 6 if they want to get fancy. Most races can field fighter wings as a single patrol choice. The wing sizes vary slightly from race to race, but they are typically 2-3 fighter flights for a single Patrol choice. So some crazy guy could field nothing but 6 fighter wings, which would be something like 18 flights. So if someone wants to re-enact Pearl Harbor in space...
In addition to the priority system there is an optional rule involving service dates. All ships are assigned services dates. Players can choose to restrict a given event to a particular service date range. This is an interesting element that is common in historical war games, but rarely seen in the sci-fi genres. It also allows for additional interesting fleet options, such as the two versions of the Babylon 5 station itself provided in the Sky Full of Stars supplement.
How it's packaged
The Babylon Project was a dream given form. - Commander Jeffrey Sinclair
Everything needed to get started comes in the B5: A Call to Arms "Revised Edition" boxed set. The box includes two lightly bound 8.5x11 inch "books" (almost booklets really) and enough counters to represent every ship in the game several times over.
Book One: Rules is 48 pages and covers all the game play mechanics, weapon and ship traits, rules for terrain (dust clouds, planets, asteroids, etc.) and some basic campaign elements.
Book Two: Fleet Lists is a 96 page full color 8.5x11 booklet that covers how fleet construction works and has over 80 ships spanning 9 races. Each ship has a full page dedicated to describing it, along with a photo from either the show or of the miniature. It also includes some "generic" civilian ships for scenarios including space liners, orbital satellites, freighters, etc.
As mentioned above the box also includes light weight, color, card stock counters for every ship in Book Two. Actually there are 3-6 copies of each ship, and 30 copies of most fighter types. In addition to the ships there are also counters for jump points and jump gates.
I should probably point out that B5 is designed to be played with either counters and/or models. At the time of this writing, Mongoose has a miniature for just about every ship in Book Two. Originally these models were available through retailers only in $99 (US) fleet deals. However this fall also marks the release of the ships sold individually in blisters.
The supplement, Sky Full of Stars (SFoS), is a beautifully bound, full color, 208 page hard cover tome. It contains rules adjustments for people who have the OLD 2004 edition of A Call To Arms, but it doesn't include the game rules themselves. It also re-lists every fleet, and the full stats for each ship in those fleets. Because the 2005 Revised Edition already has these updates and ship corrections, players who purchase that do not need to buy SFoS to be sure they are playing with the latest rules set.
However, SFoS is still a tempting purchase for any serious B5 player, be he a veteran 2004 gamer or a new 2005 rookie. It contains quite a few advanced rules not found in the boxed set, including rules for boarding actions, planetary assaults, and space stations. It also introduces a new kind of auxiliary craft: breaching pods and a couple new stats for ships such as "Troops". There are also some new Special Actions like "Scramble! Scramble!" which lets carriers launch more fighters in a given turn.
As mentioned, the complete fleet lists are provided again in SFoS, but they are greatly expanded in just about all respects. Each race has two to three pages of background material covering their origins. There are also MORE ships per race in the book, and many classes now have variants. The "League of Non-Aligned Worlds" is a single fleet choice in book 2, however in SFoS the league is broken up into four new fleets of each of the 4 major races in the league: Abbai, Brakiri, Drazi, and Vree.
With the advent of the space station rules, each race also gains at least one station. Even the Shadows pick one up in the form of the infamous "Shadow Cloud". Earth, of course, picks up not just a regular star base, but rules for TWO different versions of the B5 station itself. Show fans should know why there are two different versions. Let's just say one is "Battle" priority and one is "War" priority.
There are also a few other goodies in SFoS. Rules for John Sheridan and G'kar's uncle are provided. The campaign rules found in Book 1 are greatly expanded upon. And there are over 20 pages of scenarios to try out.
Is it all shiny?
"Okay, we made a mistake. I'm sorry. Here, open my wrist."
"Centauri don't have major arteries in their wrist."
"Of course we don't. What do you think I am, stupid?"
- Londo and Garibaldi
Sky Full of Stars and B5: A Call To Arms are not without their flaws. The $50 (US) boxed set, while a reasonable value when compared to other board games, does feel like it could contain a bit more for the price. While the rules are well written and well edited, and the fleet lists look great in full color, it would have been nice to see higher end binding. Some card stock quick reference cards would also have been a real plus, looking up each critical hit result in the booklet can be cumbersome. Throwing in a few six sided dice probably would have helped a bit too.
There are also no status markers of any kind included in the sheets of ship counters. A few counters to denote crippled vessels, which vessels were on certain special actions, or which vessels were reloading their "slow load" weapons would have been handy.
At the other end the spectrum, the $35 Sky Full of Stars book feels like a bargain when compared to the price of similar quality RPG and miniature gaming books. It only has two missing components that prevent it from being a perfect release. It has no index, something that constantly plagues the gaming industry for some reason, and Mongoose decided NOT to include the complete rule set in the book.
My guess is that they decided to not include the complete rules here in order to make the book a better value to veteran players. Every page contains new content if you currently only own the 2004 edition. However I think the convenience of having all the rules and a complete fleet list in one, beautiful hard cover book with an index would have quickly proved worth the additional $5-$10 price increase for the extra 20 or so pages required.
My only other gripe is with the order the ships are presented in the fleet lists. For some reason the ships in each fleet list are listed in alphabetical order, not in priority order. For example, there are 35 different choices in the Earth Alliance Fleet List in SFoS. When trying to decide what Raid priority ship you might want to include in a fleet, it would be much more convenient if all Earth Raid ships were listed together, so each could easily be compared. Instead, a player must look at the fleet breakdown in the beginning of the list, note the names of each ship at the Raid priority, then look each one up across the 20 pages of Earth Alliance vessels to compare them.
Captain Sheridan! We thought you were dead!
I was. I'm better now. - Captain John Sheridan.
When compared to the clean game mechanics, the vast fleet choices, and the rich universe of the B5 license, these complaints are minor. Tools like Lone Wolf's Army Builder make fleet design and ship comparison a snap and I'm sure it won't be long before everyone's favorite gaming aid company, Gale Force 9, markets counters, tokens, and other cool markers for B5. As for reference sheets, several fan sites have already developed reference aids for the 2004 release, and updated versions will probably be floating around the Internet soon.
The big picture is that B5: A Call to Arms manages to combine the sticky peanut butter complexity of vast player choices with the chocolaty goodness of fast, dynamic game play. And, like the peanut butter cup, the results are innovative, surprising and tasty. The integrated turn system means the excitement is non-stop as each player is always in the game countering moves and returning fire as fast as he takes it. The massive fleet options will keep players asking themselves tough questions for a long time to come. Should I take more "scout" trait vessels when facing Mimbari to deal with their many "stealth" trait ships? Are fighters or capitol ships better when facing the Shadows? If I call a Vorlon player a "squid" to his face will he be offended? I don't know, but I do know I'll have fun finding out.
The game has all the elements to be successful and Mongoose is certainly planning to support it. One look at their web site shows up coming releases ranging from new "fleet deal" boxes to $9.99 starter sets. The support for both counters and models means that both budget gamers and modeling fanatics can find a home in the same system. Plus, Babylon 5 has a strong fan base; even 10 years after the first episode hit the air.
Today there is only one place to go for the ultimate in tabletop space combat. The name of the place is Babylon 5