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Starship Troopers Gameplay Review

By Russ Wakelin originally published in 2005

The latest entry into the sci-fi tabletop miniature gaming market is Starship Troopers from Mongoose Publishing. I got a chance to spend some quality time with the rule book for a few days and play a few test games. Pictures of the models and detailed box contents are available on the Mongoose website, this review is going to focus on the rules and game play.

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The book itself is full color, well written, and well edited. From the moment I started flipping through it and admiring the photos and art from the movie and TV series I realized that this game is going to play a lot different than anything I?d experienced before.

Let?s cover the basics first. The game is you-go, I-go, with each player completing a full turn before the other player gets his. Pre-measuring is allowed, and all ranges and areas of effect are measured to and from the center of a model. The center of the model is a neat touch as it eliminates the old the tip of your hull cannon is just in range? rules debate and also eliminates the need for bases on models such as the warrior bugs. This not only allows for cooler modeling options but also looks great on the table top as the spider like bug models can be placed on rock piles and other odd shaped terrain and still look cool.

The core of the game is based around ?Actions? and ?Reactions?. Every player turn each of your squads can take 2 actions. Typical actions include Move, Shoot, Charge, and Ready. Squads take actions as a whole. Each squad has a ?leader? model and only models within the command range of the leader can participate in the action. Typically this command radius is 6 inches, measured from center to center. So your squads have to stay kind of tight. This command radius system also doubles as the game?s ?morale? system. If a model is out of command radius, it can take no action, it can only react.

While friendly units (squads) take actions, opposing individual models react. At the end of any action any enemy models within 10? of the acting unit can now react. A reaction can be almost anything: run away, shoot, charge, etc. This gets things fast and deadly once units get close and the game really leverages the simple mechanic well. But before I can illustrate this there is one more fundamental I should mention: flinching.

?Flinching? occurs whenever a model makes a successful armor save. A model that flinches is pushed back 2? directly from the attacker. This mechanic not only provides the feel from the movie of the humans driving the bugs back with fire, but also combines nicely with the mechanics mentioned above to provide a simple but elegant way to handle morale, shooting, hand to hand combat all in one neat package. As you can see in the example below:

A unit of bugs is closing in on Mobile Infantry squad alpha. It is the MI players turn:

Action 1: The MI player takes a ready action

Action 2: The MI squad fires it rifles and its missile launcher (which required a ready action) at the bugs.

Bug Turn:

Action 1: Move ? Advance 6? (Now they are 11? away)

Action 2: Move ? Advance 6? (Now some of the bugs are 5? away)

Several of the troopers models are within 10?, so each MI model within 10? can react, they all elect to shoot. None of the bugs are killed, but the ones that were within 5? have flinched back and now the closest bugs are 7? away.

MI Turn:

Action 1: Fire:

The troopers fire their guns killing a bug and driving a few more back. There are still several bugs with in 10? so?

The bugs react by advancing: They close 6? and now several are only 4? away.

Action 2: Fire again:

The troopers fire again, but roll badly and only flinch 1 bug back 2?

The bugs react by charging, several get within close combat range and attack. 1 trooper is killed, two are flinched back 2?.

Bug Turn:

Action 1: Charge! Bugs advance and kill two marines.

The remaining marines react by shooting and killing bugs and flinching bugs, but there are still some left that are darn close.

And so it continues. As you can see, engagements within 10? are nasty. Of course a cagy MI player could have opted to react differently, such as falling back with some or all of his models, then readying and firing his jump jets. (Nearly all MI have jump capability, as in the book.)

?I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all.? - Rico

You may have noticed that those bugs took a lot of fire, just like in the movie. And with all those shooting actions/reactions going on in both players? turns, the game really needs a combat system that is fast and elegant. Especially since it is clear that Starship Troopers is not designed to be a skirmish level game, it is really intended to model engagements of significant model count.

It delivers here in an innovative way that combines a weapon?s ability to hit, wound, and/or bypass armor into one die roll. Weapons each have a number and type of dice that are rolled when they shoot; in some cases there are modifiers. Each model has a target, save, and kill number. When the squad shoots, the number and type of dice (D6 or D10) for the weapons are rolled, and the numbers rolled are compared to the target models? statistics. Every die roll that meets or exceeds a target?s kill number bypasses armor and causes an automatic hit (usually killing the model). Every die roll that is lower than the kill number but higher than the target number hits the target, but the target gets to roll their armor save: fail they die, make it they flinch. Any die roll lower than the target number is a miss.

Example 1:

    MI rifles are range 20? and roll 2D6 in shooting.  
    A unit of warrior bugs is 15? away, their stats are Target: 5+, Save 4+, Kill 8+.

4 troopers fire their guns: 8D6 are rolled, each die that rolls 5+ would be allocated against a bug. Each bug that is allocated a hit must roll its 4+ save on a D6. On a 1-3 it is killed and removed, on a 4-6 it flinches and is pushed back 2?. Note that the basic rifle shot has no chance of bypassing bug armor.

Example 2:

   MI rifles have under slung grenade launchers.  Troopers can opt to fire a ?bug killer? grenade that is range 10? and rolls 1D10 in shooting.
   A unit of warrior bugs has some models within 10? with stats as in example 1.

Of the 4 troopers, two are within 10? and elect to fire their grenades while the rest fire their guns. This time the squad rolls 4D6 and 2D10. The D10 rolls are 9 and 6. One bug is killed automatically because the 9 exceeds the kill number, one bug gets an armor save or flinches. The other 4D6 are resolved as above.

Note that this system uses the defender?s stats to determine to hit rolls required, not the attacker?s stats. FoW fans will be familiar with this concept and can attest that it works well. This allows the game designers to build units that are easy to hit but hard to kill (e.g. Target 4+, Save 3+, Kill 8+), hard to hit but easy to kill (e.g. Target 6+, Save 6+ Kill 7+), or someplace in the middle.

There are die roll modifiers in the game. Dice are rarely added together, but cover and weapon stats and abilities can add and subtract to/from the weapon die rolls and model saves. For example, some low yield nuke weapons roll 2D10+2, which is definitely handy when trying to kill Tanker bugs running around with stats like Target: 8+ Save: 3+ Kill: 12+ and able to take 6 hits before dieing.

?On the bounce.? - Rasczak

The rules also cover a lot of special ability types. There are special movement types (e.g. jumping, hovering, tunneling, tracked, wheeled, climbing), special weapon effects (e.g. Requires Ready, piercing, persistent) and special unit rules (e.g. Multi Hit). These special rules allow the game to cover a wide variety of unit types, from infantry to vehicles, to insects.

The special movement types are very interesting. They require a unit to have taken a ?Ready? action prior to use. The next action can then be a special move action. For example, all MI troopers have the Jump/12? ability because of the jump jets in their power suits. This means instead of their usual movement rate of 4?on foot, they can spend one action to ready and the next jumping 12? gaining extra movement and ignoring terrain. But that?s just the beginning.

Whenever models perform special movement they can take a shot or charge attack anywhere along the movement path. That is, while the MI trooper is jumping through the air, she can elect to fire her gun at any point in the movement. They can literally fire on the bounce. Of course the bugs are not to be out done. Jumping or flying bugs can make a close combat attack as they pass by enemy models as well.

The whole rule set comes together with consistent, solid mechanics that cover a wide variety of sci-fi combat situations. These rules can cover tunneling, aircraft, indirect fire, point blank fire fights, long range artillery, vehicles, walkers, giant bugs, skimmers, flamers, acid jets, guided missiles, you name it. And somehow it does it all without feeling like it is skimping in any way. Of course, to take advantage of all these cool rules you need army lists to create your forces.

?I need a corporal. You're it, until you're dead or I find someone better.? - Rasczak

There are three core army lists included in the rule book: The Mobile Infantry, the Arachnids, and the Skinnies. The MI and the bugs are very detailed with MANY unit types and options, while the Skinnies look like there is enough to get a taste, but there is clearly room for growth in future supplements. But before I can go into any detail on list options, I first need to cover how missions work.

Starship troopers is the first Sci-fi game that I?ve seen take the kind of list you build into account when determining the mission type and objectives you play. When building your army for any race, you must first select the ?Priority Level? that your list will be: 1, 2, or 3. The priority level will determine what units and options you can include in your list. Priority 1 lists are light recon/raiding forces usually consisting of the core unit types without a lot of variety in support. While Priority 3 lists are meant to be the main body of the fighting force and have access to all support and upgrade options. Priority 2 is someplace in the middle.

When a 1500 point Priority 1 MI force prepares to play a 1500 priority 2 bug force their priorities are compared and tables are consulted to determine who deploys where, which side has what objectives, and who goes first.

This is a very interesting twist, as it allows you to have influence on the type of missions you will play based on the type of army you build. This is different from many other gaming systems, which sometimes place restrictions on the army you build AFTER you choose the mission. It also adds an additional way to control game balance. Players can take those super powerful units in their list: Ape suites, tanker bugs, plasma bugs, etc. But to get them they must take a higher priority level, and therefore perhaps face certain challenges in missions when facing lower priority forces. (Such as going second)

?M.I. does the dying; Fleet just does the flying.? - Rico

Now we can get to the lists. The mobile infantry really have two and a half lists. Their base ?Power Suit? list includes models based on the TV series. A squad of 5 troopers is around 220 points base, and all are equipped with jump capability, and a rifle that has the grenade launcher with 3 different choices of grenades. Models can be upgraded to carry heavy weapons, special weapons and at higher priority levels Ape suits, robots, skimmers, flight packs, and more. The second list is an all Ape suit list, and the ?half? is the list of fleet aircraft support, which is available to both the other lists in quantities and variety depending on priority level. There are also options to give some models ?heroic traits? to build your own famous heroes. Again, these are only available at the higher priority levels. Model count for a typical MI list will probably be low, ranging from 20-40 models in 1000 to 2000 point games.

The Arachnid list has a lot of variety also. Combining bug types seen both in the movie and in the TV series, the list includes not only the warriors at 75 points for a unit of 5, but also a selection of flying bugs, acid spitting bugs, flame spitting bugs, etc. The bigger bugs from the film are there too, including the Tanker bug at 250 points (the giant bug Rico climbed on in the film) and the plasma bugs at 300 points (the giant blue/purple artillery bugs). Even the mighty ?Brain Bug? is there. Of course, the priority level you choose dictates which types of bugs you can choose from. At priority level two or higher bug players can also purchase a variety of tunneling options for their units, as well as tunnel entrances and other terrain options to enhance their tactical abilities on the battle field. The bug list does not feel like a one trick pony. There is enough selection there to allow players to build lists in different ways. Bug armies are going to have a pretty high model count, especially priority one lists that don?t have access to the big expensive bugs. Expect 50-120 models in 1000 to 2000 point games.

Unfortunately I didn?t get much time to really study the skinnie options, so you?ll have to check that out for yourself.

?Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has. Use that freedom.? ? Rasczak

If someone asked me to sum this game up in one word, I?d choose innovative. The action and reaction system combined with the efficient combat mechanics keep the game fast, tense and fun for both players regardless of whose turn it is. The priority and mission creation system means that not only will a bug army play differently from an MI army, but an MI priority 1 list will play differently than an MI priority 3 list. This gives the game more army list depth and variety than is initially apparent in its three race selections.

Will this be enough to distinguish Starship Troopers as a great sci-fi miniatures war game for years to come? There are a lot of factors that contribute to the success of such a game. Not the least of which is miniature quality and manufacturer and retail support. But the rules are also an important part of that formula. Andy Chambers and the rest of the Starship Troopers design team certainly have given the game a good strong start in that area. This game is definitely worth a look.

?You once asked me for advice. You want some now? Never pass up a good thing.? ? Rasczak


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