Review: 5150: Star Navy, Or How I Blew Up Rebels With Booty (I Like Booty)

5150: Star Navy cover
5150: Star Navy in the flesh.
Last night +Eric Thompson and I decided to give the new set of mechanics in 5150: Star Navy a good bashing. If you don't know what 5150: Star Navy is or the creators of Star Navy, Two-Hour Wargames, let me give you the quick rundown:

THW creates what they refer to as "immersive wargames," but what they really mean is that they create wargames which live somewhere in the space between traditional wargames and role-playing games. For geeks like us, that means that we can legitimately indulge in the pleasure of moving plastic or metal figures around on a mat with mechanics that generally support doing the unexpected, going outside the usual limited set of wargame actions that you can take. Mechanics which are written fairly loosely are sometimes a problem for a lot of players coming from the tabletop wargaming side of things, but for us coming from the RPG side of things they provide more of an opportunity.

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive AAR, more a listing of impressions and thoughts that I had while going through Star Navy so that you can make an informed choice as to whether this is a product that you might be interested in learning more about.

5150: Star Army cover
5150: Star Army
5150: Star Navy is THW's entry into the space combat wargame genre, basing its setting in their already extant 5150 series of ground-based wargames, 5150: Star Army (which targets fairly large unit operations on the ground) and 5150: New Beginnings (THW's more ambitious squad-based/RPG-focused 5150 game). So far there is no official miniature set associated with the Star Navy ships and it is highly advised that you "just play the game" – THW's catchphrase for their entire game line. Like THW's other sets, Star Navy is supposed to allow for both co-op/same side gaming and head-to-head; I'm very fond of same side gaming when it comes to my wargaming tables, so this is one of the aspects of the game that really spoke to me.

The book itself is currently my possession as a PDF with the hardcopy slowly winging its way across the world toward me thanks to physical manifestation. That at least meant my reference times were much faster than if I were trying to leaf through a physical book.

I decided before the game that we just wanted to run a very basic exchange of fire with some simple enemies. I grabbed two Free Companies squads, each with one heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. Against us was arrayed some of the really crappy ships from the Gaea Prime Rebels. (It really helps that they only have two kinds of ship.)

Set up for a simple one-off scenario was a little more complicated than it needed to be. THW produces very table driven games, that's just the nature of the beast and that's what you get when you open the box. There's never been a question about that. Star Navy occasionally reads as though someone forgot to insert a few of the tables in the hurry to get out the door. For example, in any given combat there is a side that controls the local planet and the one side that is attempting to assault the local planet. How do you decide which is which? At the beginning of a Campaign, it's dependent on part of the Campaign set up, but that's much further into the book then where you will be interested in setting up a basic skirmish. A number of rules and sections are like that, occurring after the point at which their first referenced without enough of a hook to let you understand how to make use of them or where they're at for fuller explanation.

I'm a great believer in "just play the game" so when in doubt, I picked two options and rolled 1d6 with low being one option and high being another.

I also decided that there would be no weapons other than guns and missiles available on our board. Yes, I know that seriously changes the play dynamic of some of the ships which use hangers/fighter craft heavily. I just didn't want to deal with having to manage fighters as well as capital ships, especially given the particular sloppiness with which the fighter system is written. (And that probably deserves a little more explanation; the fighter system in Star Navy is the mechanical equivalent of the grappling system in every RPG ever written. What I'm saying is it's a bit of a mess. It's written backwards, with the process of how you actually resolve a fighter interdiction being presented in the opposite order from how you will actually use it in game, the writers can't decide if they're talking about single fighters or squads of fighters, which is a big problem when you're trying to decide whether you should be matching up fighter swarm versus fighter swarm or individual fighter in swarm versus individual fighter in swarm, and it's just generally murky.)

So – set up. I decided we would just set up as though we were doing a standard patrol mission, as the attackers, with control of the local planet. After all, no one likes rebel scum.

Before we go another step I should point out that this gameplay actually took place online, using the Roll20 online game table. In the past I've used both MapTool and Tabletop Forge, and in the future I'm going back to MapTool. While Roll20 worked, issues with zooming in and out of the map conveniently and other interface issues around moving tokens made me miss using MapTool fiercely. A lot of people are really enjoying Roll20 and I don't begrudge them a bit. But as far as I'm concerned it is not quite up to the place I need a tool to be.

Our forces had the great advantage on the Long-Range Scan, so we had a massive advantage in set up. Attackers would be coming in 45° off of the defenders' vector, at up to double the thrust of our fastest ship. Movement in Star Navy is pseudo-Newtonian, not requiring you to turn your ship to apply a different vector but you do continue going in whatever direction and speed you're headed unless you apply thrust. Table was 6' x 4' and thanks to our massive LRS advantage we got set up 5 feet away from the defender. Which is a little challenging if you are supposed to set up with a 45° inbound vector.

THW games are usually quite explicit when it comes to forces controlled by the game mechanics. They have a PEF (Possible Enemy Force) system which requires acquiring line of sight to a PEF to resolve it into whatever force it might be followed by at least a loose set of tables to help determine how that force will operate, based on what kind of force it is. Star Navy completely eliminated that segment of the game at the tactical level as far as I can tell. There was no guidance on how enemy forces should be set up other than within a foot of the contesting force side of the board, or was there any sort of driving architecture for determining what the enemies would do on their activations. That's actually kind of a big deal. We ended up just sort of running the enemies as we would've run our own forces (because we're cool like that) but it felt weird. After playing games like All Things Zombie and 5150: Star Army where the mechanics actually provide some level of control of the non-same side forces, it felt like a significant omission. In the campaign game, where action occurs on a larger scale map before contact is made and the battle occurs, there is some guidance about how PEF forces move in the strategic sense but not once engaged tactically.

Once we got set up, decided how the enemies would actually function in the context of our game, and started pushing around some pixels and making some shots, the mechanics smoothed out quite a bit. It is more than possible to have a matchup between ships where one can simply not destroy or even damage the other; ships with equal guns and shields will simply drive around each other and throw rocks and loud insults until the end of time. The guns can never possibly break the shields so there's no way to do damage and cause some sort of tactical change. That's where missiles come in; since missiles are not affected by shields, only AA and AA has a statistical chance of failing as does dodging, you need a mix of vessels with both. (Missiles have the drawback of only having a 12 inch range and a 180° front firing arc, which means your missile carriers need to be foresight-full if they're not maneuverable.) Guns take a -1 to hit if you're greater than 36 inches away, but as we discovered that's not necessarily a big deal.

I've mentioned that the movement system in Star Navy feels quite nice. I will reiterate that here. Movement had a nice mix of trying to predict where the enemy was going to be and trying to maneuver your own ship to be in a safer arc – assuming you were up against a ship with missiles since guns have a 360° firing arc. All you care about with guns is range and shields, and the latter will make a much bigger difference than the former. Missiles require that you get in close and keep the target in your front, which can be a bit challenging. Fighters, when we add them to the mix, have a movement range of 24 inches and no requirements on their turns, meaning they can get to a target and start putting damage on it fairly easily – assuming they get through any screening fighters and ships' AA.

In a real sense, that covers all the ways in which ships can do damage to one another in a space combat game. While I might want some sort of "space torpedo" that has an independent, multi-turn lifespan and is somewhat harder to destroy than a fighter but cannot attack fighters itself, that's a pretty minor thing and it can probably be hacked on with just a tweak of the fighter rules. I would also like some sort of more flexible limitation on firing arcs, allowing me to designate ships with broadsides as opposed to everything turreted. (Fans of Full Thrust will know what I'm talking about.) That would force a bit more maneuverability/need to maneuver and add a bit more interest on top of the already pleasant maneuver game.

There's one more aspect that's extremely important in THW games in general, and in Star Navy in specific, and that is the degenerative effect on Reputation for a ship that takes damage. Reputation represents a ship's morale, capability, skill, and overall quality. Any attack that actually does damage requires a check on the ship factions' table of behaviors versus their Reputation. Not rolling under the ship's current reputation on 2d6 (individually) means the ship begins accumulating -1 to Reputation, leading to a bit of a death spiral. A drop in Reputation can lead to a ship simply choosing to flee the battle rather than take any more damage, even when relatively undamaged. Attacking the morale of an attacking force provides an interesting pressure on command to try and keep the low Reputation ships out of harm's way while still allowing them to apply some sort of tactical force. Woe betide the commander whose flagship gets driven from the board because that will knock down the Rep checks of the rest of their force for the rest of the game.

All Things Zombie cover
All Things Zombie
Star Navy is not as drop-in/dropout friendly as previous THW games have been, and certainly not nearly as drop-in/dropout friendly as All Things Zombie which is the gold standard in games which can deal with people coming in and out on a regular basis. I believe Star Navy could be made to be so, but out of the box we're missing several pieces that would make it much more reasonable. There are some definite flaws in the presentation of Star Navy in terms of editing and structure that can occasionally make it harder to understand the intent of the game than it needs to be. There seem to be a couple of missing sections here and there, not just enemy command in tactical battle but actual Quick Reaction Sheets which should be present in the back of the book for factions which are described in the book itself, like the Gaea Prime Rebels which have no QRS and it doesn't even help to know that they are Gaea Prime forces because Gaea Prime has both a Planetary Defense Force and a Star Navy QRS. (I decided that the rebels use the Star Navy QRS and probably should have decided that they used the PDF QRS. Live and learn.) There is a transparent pitch to the upcoming expansion books for Star Navy which include one of the major setting factions, The Bugs, with no description of what that will actually contain other than some more ships. I can only guess that it will involve some significant additions to mechanics to cover bioorganic ships. That would help a lot, since the "ship construction system" in Star Navy is minimal at best. THW games are not known for their obsessive need to point balance armies, and that's a good thing – balance is a thing that seems to happen post hoc when you look at multiple engagements. In this case, some sort of discussion of how to create a balanced Order of Battle for a fleet might not go amiss. While there are several examples and mechanics are simple, trying to create your own material that works with the material that already exists could be a challenge.

Now, having said all the bad things, let's say some good things.

Star Navy does the job, and it does the job very well. The job is to provide a mechanical platform for ship to ship combat, one that flows quickly once you understand the basics, one that gives you opportunities to make interesting decisions, one that allows you to model a number of different mechanisms to do a thing through the same mechanic in order to simplify description. The game is fun. That is the ultimate goal of the game, to be fun. It achieves that. You can take any models that you have or build any icons that you want to use and start banging ships together pretty quickly. The mechanical resolution system integrates morale and skill neatly and effectively.

… When I start trying to put things together like that, it looks like the number of negatives outweighs the positives of the game, and that's not really what I want to convey to you. The problem is that I have a lot of experience with space wargames. I love space wargames. You give me some ships and some space and some guns and I'm generally happy. I have Renegade Legion: Leviathan on my shelf, for the love of God. I played DirtSide 2 and Full Thrust, I've been active on all of their mailing lists since before there was a web. I love space combat. 5150: Star Navy is a worthy game to sit next to them. It's a game at the very beginning of its conceptual life, with constrained tactical options and a number of rough edges. It includes two ways to play ongoing campaigns, not just a war of factions but you can also decide to run your own pirate gang, go out and plunder merchant ships, and dodge the law. That is supported within the context of gameplay, mechanically and textually. That's pretty cool stuff. That's unusual stuff. The focus on morale as an important aspect of space combat? That is some important and unusual stuff. So don't go away from this review thinking that I don't like 5150: Star Navy. That would be wrong. I want you to be aware that there are many games in this field, and I'll provide links to a number of them at the end of this post, not because I don't want you to buy Star Navy but because I want you to go out and buy all of these or some of these as well as Star Navy to get a better idea of what is possible in the field of space combat.

I definitely plan to run Star Navy again with all the bells and whistles turned on. I'll probably set up a faction versus faction conflict and go through the whole nine yards there on setting up and running missions. My intent is to actually record the goings-on with Hangout so that people can see and experience how gameplay actually happens. We'll see how that goes.

TL;DR version: 5150: Star Navy is a solid space combat game. On the Squid/Fudge cognitive scale it gets a +3.

5150: Star Army:
Omega Warrior:
Dirtside 2:
Stargrunt 2:

5150: Star Navy:
Full Thrust:
Renegade Legion:
Steel Rain: Tactical:
Hard Vacuum:
Fleet Action:

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  1. Hey, you didn't mention that there's points in the rules. Just kiddin'. Thanks for the review and suggestions.

  2. I thought I'd give you a pass on mentioning that there was a Class-linked table. Better to gloss it than suggest the mechanics suggest a Class 4 ship with all Guns and no Shields is worth the same as one with all Shields and no Guns. :P

    See, I'm generous!

  3. One reason why I hate points is because it's so arbitrary and depends on the opinion of the fellow making the values. My first gaming experience was with WRG 2nd edition and it was all about points and "perceived" balanced games.
    Thanks again for the review.