I recently introduced a small rule that totally changed the game.
Initially, deliberately, A Billion Suns didn’t really give a hoot about the movement phase. It was intended to play as fast as possible and make you feel like you are an admiral in a war-room, pushing little wooden armies around with a broom. I wanted to avoid the “lumbering movement” trope, where you have to carefully measure a fiddly sequence of 1” moves and 45 degree turns like so many other naval and space fleet games. Not that that isn’t fun, just that I wanted to try to create a different feel for this game.
In a recent conversation Glenn Ford, (the lead developer on Gaslands and owner of Man O’ Kent Games), noted that a side-effect of the decision to design the rules to support any size or shape of base, (all measurements are made from and to the centre point of the model, normally it’s flight stand), is that the game doesn’t particularly care about the movement phase. Ships don’t take up space so you don’t have to worry as much about out-manoeuvring and outflanking and getting just the right lines of sight on the enemy.
This was a fair observation, and not the situation I wanted, so I went looking for a simple way to address this.
I had tried a couple of things already to force interest into the movement phase. I tried a rule where the number of shield saves you roll depended on the number of inches you moved that turn, which was pretty cool but too fiddly to track mid-game. I tried making it possible to use ships in a battlegroup to “slingshot” other ships further than their normal movement, but it ended up feeling like you were cheating and wouldn’t have felt intuitively “right” for most players. I had tried a sort of “ship AI” system, which I wrote about here and which isn’t really pulling it’s weight at the moment.
Currently, the movement of ships is quite free. You simply pivot on the spot and then fly in a straight line to where you want to go. Ships ignore other ships when moving and there’s little that can block your transit around the board. It makes ship movement lightning fast. After moving, you make your attacks. If you have pivoted too much, you lose the ability to attack with your primary weapon systems.
As ship movement became more abstract, I needed to introduce something to make positioning more significant and make the the decisions you make during the movement phase more interesting.
The change I introduced is simple: once a ship finishes moving, any ships that can target that ship with their auxiliary weapon may immediately make passive attacks.
This isn’t a new idea, obviously. There are no new ideas. One of my favourite models in Malifaux is Jaakuna Ubume (she’s horribly creepy), who has a 3″ aura around her that causes damage to any model that ends it’s movement nearby. My favourite master in Malifaux is Pandora, who projects a bubble around her within which you do not want to fail willpower duels. I love the snap-fire in Infinity, in which you can interrupt another model’s action to shoot them. I always loved the overwatch rule in 2nd edition Warhammer 40,000 and Necromunda.
In all these cases, the rules create a sort of “force projection” effect, where the model projects a zone of board control, saying: this is my territory, if you enter it, bad things will happen.
The effect of this new passive attacks rule in A Billion Suns was transformational. Suddenly the play area was a mess of overlapping zones of control, with ships projecting force and controlling sections of the board. Suddenly there were perilous corridors of death and no-go area. You had ways to protect objectives from aggressors and exert pressure on your opponent’s decision making outside of your turn.
It had the effect of almost drawing a tactical heads-up display over the board in my minds eye, which is so utterly in-keeping with the core concept of “admiral in far future war-room”.
Each time you move a ship you now need to analyse the position and facings of the nearby enemy ships for passive fire zone, particularly if things are up close and personal, which they tend to be as I have very deliberately made weapon ranges uncomfortably short in this game.
As soon as this rule hit the table, I needed to make a further tweak, to change the arc of fire of auxiliary weapons to the front 180, rather than 360. This had nothing to do with auxiliary weapons feeling too powerful and everything to do with forcing more interesting decisions. Now the direction you are facing matters even more, as in directly influences your passive board control.
The movement phase was interesting again!
It’s an incredible exciting moment when you strike gold like this: some cog slots into place bringing the whole more to life with it’s presence.
I had a similar experience when I hit on the idea of skid dice in Gaslands being a mini-game in which you had to resolve ALL rather than ONE of the skid dice. That small change allowed loads of other things to click into place, and Gaslands would be a poorer game without that mechanic. I hope that this passive fire rule might have a similar effect on A Billion Suns. Time will tell.
In addition, this change also strengthens an existing element of the game which is that the more powerful weapons in the game have “doughnut” ranges. Heavy and Macro weapons have minimum ranges (something I first experimented with in Hobgoblin), and so ships that get close enough to the big guys can avoid the heaviest weapon fire by getting “inside the doughnut”.
These heavier weapon classes are almost exclusively primary weapon systems, meaning you cannot use them during passive attacks, meaning that the larger ship classes have to rely on their smaller weapons to defend against close attackers, which feels very right.
If you’d like a chance to test-drive this lovely new movement phase and slip inside someone’s doughnut, sign up to be a playtester!