Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Balancing Starmada

A follow-up to last post's thoughts on applying Colonial Battlefleet's tech rules to Starmada: Admiralty Edition.

At the end of the day, what are we really looking for here?  Perfectly balanced combat (ie, pick any two fleets designed with these parameters and run by perfect players and each will come out with a 50% win rate) obviously isn't happening - even if we did figure out how to design ships this way, it wouldn't be any fun.  On the flip side, a 100%-0% split between two fleets is probably also unacceptably unfun.  Is 75-25 good enough?  66-33?  Where do we draw the line (and how do we draw it without a combinatorial volume of playtesting, given also that familiarity with how to use a particular fleet effectively follows with time playing it)?

One (probably simplest) solution follows from the ancient principle that battles are almost only fought when both sides believe they have a chance of victory.  If, after reading the enemy fleet designs, you honestly believe that you have zero or negligible chance of victory, say so!  Yield preemptively, thereby denying your opponent the satisfaction of crushing you, or request a fleet swap at a handicap (ie, "your ships are so much better than mine that if I were to play yours and you mine, I could beat you at a 30% handicap in fleet points".  If your opponent agrees with your assessment, no battle need be fought.  If your opponent disagrees correctly, then they can have the satisfaction of handing you your ass with your own fleet.  If your opponent disagrees incorrectly or dishonestly, then they suffer on the receiving end of their own cheese).

This does rely on knowledge of the enemy fleet.  I argue that this is representative of a functioning naval intelligence apparatus in a post-first-contact scenario.  It is not, however, traditionally the way we have played, and it also does not scale well up to larger numbers of players.

Another thought might be to establish some sort of tier rules for the construction of fleets, much like Magic the Gathering does for decks.  This would allow us to classify certain traits, abilities, or combinations of traits into tiers.  Starmada is ultimately a toolkit game; it makes sense that we should select subsets of the game to use for different purposes. I think it makes sense to have two scales: shipbuilding complexity (cheese) and tactical complexity.  Consider the following a request for comments:
  • Basic (Cheese 0, Tactics 0):
    • Max hull 15
    • Default movement: Naval
    • Max range 12 if Naval movement is in use, 15 with vector
    • Max engines 8 with naval movement, ??? with vector movement
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix B are Armor Plating, Countermeasures, Fire Control, Point Defense, and Hyperdrive.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix C are (list of weapon traits generally regarded as simple, non-problematic, uniformly effective, and/or easily mathematically verified).  I would suggest for this list:
      • Anti-Fighter (situational but non-problematic)
      • Area Effect (situational but non-problematic)
      • Double Damage (easy math)
      • Extra Hull Damage (easy math)
      • No Hull Damage (non-problematic)
      • Non-Piercing (non-problematic)
      • Slow-Firing (non-problematic)
      • Variable RoF/Imp/Dmg (easy math...  though actually I have my doubts about relative balance among the Var* traits)
      • Notable omissions: range-based traits (extremely situational), Piercing (strongly situational based on opponent fleet build).  Extended Arcs and Extended Accuracies are right out.
    • The only options permitted from Appendix D are Naval and Basic movement modes, which are recommended for ease of use.  Sequential Movement is permissible by agreement of all players.
    • From Appendix E, only Explosions are enabled.
    • The only option permitted from Appendix F is customized fighter flights.  However, only numerical customization of fighters is permitted, not fighter traits.  The following limits apply to fighters:
      • Flight size: 4 to 8
      • Speed: 8 to 12
      • To-hit: 4+, 5+, or 6+
      • Defense: <= 2
    • From Appendix G, planets, asteroids, and asteroid fields are permitted.
    • Cheese level: Monty Pythonesque; no cheese in stock.
  • Extended (Cheese 1):
    • Max hull 20
    • Max range 15
    • Max engines ???
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • All options from Appendix B except Stealth, Tech Levels, and Flotillas are permitted.
    • All weapon traits from the Core book except for Continuing Damage, Inverted Range-Based traits, Increased Hits, Increased Impact, and Repeating are permitted.  Anti-Fighter and Catastrophic from the supplements are permitted.  No more than one range-based trait per weapon is permitted.  Extended Accuracies, Ranges, and Firing Arcs not permitted.
    • All customization options available for fighters under rule F.1 of the Core rules may be used, except that fighter defense is capped at 4.  No other rules from Appendix F are enabled by default.
    • Cheese level: Burrito.  There may be some cheese here, but it will hopefully be tasty rather than unpleasant
    • Expected metagame: Not sure.
  • Advanced (Cheese 2 - More or less where we ended last cycle, with a few extra patches):
    • No max hull
    • Max range 24
    • Max engines ??? / all ships with engines must carry at least one weapon.
    • Discontiguous firing arcs are not permitted.
    • All options from Appendix B except Flotillas are permitted.
    • All weapon traits from the Core book are permitted.  
      • Repeating and Increased Hits weapons firing at 2+ do not repeat on results of 2, and count extra hits from 3 rather than 2.
      • All weapon traits from the supplements except for Starship-Exclusive, Piercing +3, and Ignores Shields are permitted.
      • Increased Impact weapons may not generate more than six points of impact per die (as might happen if combined with Piercing +2 and Halves Shields...). 
      • Multiple range-based traits are permitted, but no more than three total traits per weapon.  
      • Extended Firing Arcs are permitted, but 2+ Accuracy is not.
      • Spinal Weapon Rule: Maximum 1 G-arc weapon, which must be in its own battery and is not reparable by damage control.
    • All fighter customization options available under rule F.1 in Core and supplements are permitted.  Independent fighters are also permitted.
    • Cheese level: Limburger. Possibly too cheesy.
  • Complete (Cheese 3 - stuff we banned last time):
    • Nothing is forbidden, all is permitted.  Notably the following should be restricted to Complete:
      • Flotillas
      • Ammo
      • Strikers / Seekers
      • Starship-Exclusive, Ignores Shields, Piercing +3
    • Cheese level: Casu Marzu.  Dear god why.
Running semi-orthogonal to the Cheese Axis is the Tactics Axis.  This mostly deals with the movement type, sensors, optional orders, and such, as well as a few shipbuilding options which contribute strongly to tactical complexity
  • Simple (Tactics 0):
    •  Movement: Naval or Basic
    • All other options from appendices D and E are disabled, except for Explosions and optionally Sequential Movement.
    • From Appendix G, only planets, asteroids, and asteroid fields are permitted.
  • Less Simple (Tactics 1 - this is about where we were last time):
    • Movement: Naval or Basic
    • From Appendix B, Cloaking Devices and Mines are enabled.
    • From Appendix C, the Slow-Firing trait and Dual-Mode Weapons are enabled.  The Carronade trait is enabled, but may only be used on one mode per dual-mode weapon, and not at all on single-mode weapons (As much as I love my Range 15 Carronade "Long 9s", this, I am told, was its intended function, and so this is what it is most likely balanced for).
    • From Appendix D, Emergency Thrust and Evasive Action are enabled.
    • From Appendix E, Damage Control, Directed Damage, and Shield Reinforcement are enabled (Shield Reinforcement, incidentally, seems potentially helpful for short-range ships trying to close the gap with long-range ships).
    • From Appendix F, Combat Interception, Dogfighting, and Launch and Recovery are enabled.  Launch Tubes are permitted during shipbuilding.
    • From Appendix G, all terrain except Black Holes are permitted.
  • Less Complicated (Tactics 2):
    • As Less Simple, but with the addition of Newtonian Movement, Screens, Critical Damage, Sensor Modes?, and Breachers
  • Complicated (Tactics 3):
    • As Less Complicated, with the addition of Pivots, Rolls, Sideslips, Delayed Turns, and Overthrusters
    • Searchlights may be used to model even more active sensor management.
It might also be worthwhile to backport some of Starmada Nova's more tactical features.  Flares (deployable temporary cover), escort ships (ships that block line of sight/fire for enemy ships), and their seeker implementation (normal weapon that doesn't hit until the turn after it is fired, shots in transit can be fired at and destroyed) were all promising.  I'm vaguely tempted to permit weak AE-style seekers somewhere up the Tactical chain, since seekers actually do pose a lot of interesting choices and lack a lot of the swarmy board-control features of strikers, but all direct-fire expendables to date have shown themselves to be problematic so I'm filing that away under "Cheez-Whiz: May or may not be cheesy."

In any case, the way I see this working is that regular players maintain a handful of fleets at varying cheese levels, so that when a new player shows up and it makes sense to play Cheese 0 / Tactics 1, we actually have sane ships around to do it with rather than throwing them into the deep end with Ammo and Flotillas and suchlike.  This approach scales better than trying to build a tech tree with every trait or suggesting that we read each others' fleet lists before games.


  1. Just wanted to pop over and say thanks a bunch for this guide. I love the game, and bought it a week ago after trying it at a local convention. I designed a bunch of cool ships, but then after reading your blog realized that they /may/ be a bit ridiculous, even if they aren't full-blow cheese monsters. This guide should go a long way to establishing a standard if I can get games going. So again, thanks!

    1. Very welcome! Have fun, and let me know of any issues you find with my categorization!