20th December 2019 at 7:10 pm #4945
DropFleet Commander is a game where players assemble their fleet of low orbit spacecraft with a desire to land troops onto key ground objectives to fight for dominance. This marks it as quite different to a typical spaceship game which is often fought in large tracts of empty space without much going on. The key, therefore, in DropFleet is having the right blend of different craft to win the most objective points. If you focus too heavily on bringing the big ships then the smaller dropships will sink into the atmosphere and be impossible to remove – their deadly payload of experienced ground assault troops overwhelming the ground sectors and securing dominance. However take too few and the enemy will secure air supremacy, making it hard for your ships to support your ground assault.
This guide takes you through the basics of the design philosophy of the game, teaching you how to play, and the common mistakes to avoid.
Each ship has a certain tonnage category, ranging from Light through Medium and Heavy up to Super Heavy. When you build your fleet you will select a Class of ship and then you must put this into a Group. Depending on the Class of ship you may have between 1 and 6 ships allowed within the Group. For example the Amber (a Shaltari Medium tonnage Cruiser) can have 1 or 2 ships in the Group.
When building your fleet these Groups are not freeform – each must belong to a Battlegroup. The Battlegroups themselves can have 1 of 4 formations, with each specifying how many, and what type, of groups are allowed. They are:
- Flag: 1-2 Super Heavy Groups, and 0-1 Light Groups
- Vanguard: 1-2 Heavy Groups, 0-1 Medium Groups, and 0-1 Light Groups
- Pathfinder: 0-1 Medium Groups, and 1-3 Light Groups
- Line: 1-3 Medium Groups, and 0-2 Light Groups
So if we were building a UCM fleet we could select a Pathfinder Battlegroup, and select:
- 1 Medium Group choice of 2 Berlin Class Cruisers
- 1 Light Group choice of 4 Taipei Class Missile Frigates
- 1 Light Group choice of 1 New Orleans Strike Carrier
This fulfils the 0-1 Medium requirement with 1 selection, and the 1-3 Light requirement with 2 selections.
The Battlegroup mechanic becomes important 3 more times (twice in this section, and once in the next one). Each Battlegroup is listed on a Battlegroup card, and these are used to determine Activation order. Both players at the start of each turn, in secret, decide which order they want their Battlegroups to Activate. They do this by arranging the Battlegroup cards and then placing them face down on the table, with the top most card being the Battlegroup they wish to Activate first. Both players then simultaneously reveal the top card and that is the Battlegroup that must Activate next. Each Group within the Battlegroup is Activated separately and completely before moving to the next Group, and the order of the Groups is entirely up to the controlling player.
But which player goes first if Activation is simultaneous? Well it is only the reveal that is done at the same time. To determine who goes first each Battlegroup has their total tonnage calculated and converted into a Strategy Rating, or SR. This is simpler than it sounds. Each Light ship adds 1 to the SR, each Medium adds 5, each Heavy adds 10, and each Super Heavy adds 15 for a Battleship and 25 for a Dreadnought. So in the above example we had 2 Berlins (5+5 = 10), 4 Taipeis (1+1+1+1 = 4), and 1 New Orleans (1 = 1), for a total of 15 SR. If the opposing player has an SR of less than 15 then they win initiative, more and you win initiative, and if it is a tie then you roll off. The player who wins initiative can decide to Activate their Battlegroup first or second.
This makes Fleet composition very important. If you have some Frigates that you plan on being aggressive and getting the jump on bigger ships there is no value in embedding them in a large Battlegroup that will set the SR so high that they will never get to go first and so end up as debris before they can get their hits in. This is especially important as many of these lighter ships will want to hunt down enemy Strike Carriers to destroy them before they get into the relative safety of Atmosphere (more on this later). Or they could be those Strike Carriers! In a typical 1000 or 1250 point game where you have a good range of Battlegroups you generally want to follow these rules:
- Spread your ships over as many Battlegroups as possible to keep each Battlegroup SR as low as possible
- If one Battlegroup is going to have a high SR because of some big ships then consider maxing it high as possible
- Strike Carriers need to be able to move nearly last on turn 1 and nearly first on turn 2 so ensure they are in small Battlegroups
- Frigate packs like Taipeis which are vulnerable but do a lot of damage should be prioritised into their own Battlegroups
The best resource for building your DropFleet fleets is dflist.com
Ship combat in the vastness of space is slow and cumbersome. The high velocities of maintaining orbits means that any manoeuvring requires huge amounts of energy and quite a lot of co-ordination across the Battlegroup. This is represented by the mechanic of giving a Battlegroup an order at the beginning of its Activation.
- A Battlegroup may only be given a single order
- Every ship in the Battlegroup must use either that order OR the standard order
- Some ships have special rules that allow them to vary the above rules
An order is basically a way of determining what a ship can do during it’s Activation. It controls how far it may move, how many times it may turn (and how far), how many weapons it can fire, and how much energy is required. Don’t worry about energy for now, we’ll deal with it in 2 sections’ time. This is the final time that the Battlegroup composition is important (alongside which ships Activate together and what SR it has), as if you want one ship to be rushing around and another to be sat there all guns blazing that’s not going to work well in the same Battlegroup.
Order Turn Fire Thrust Energy Standard Yes One Weapon x0.5 – x1.0 Remove Minor Silent Running No No x0.5 – x1.0 Remove Major Station Keeping Yes One Weapon x0.0 – x0.5 Add Minor Course Change Yes x2 One Weapon x0.5 – x1.0 Add Minor Max Thrust Yes No x1.0 – x2.0 Add Minor Weapons Free No All Weapons x0.5 – x1.0 Add Major Active Scan No One Weapon x0.5 – x1.0 Add Major
We’ll deal with the effects of each of these in the following sections.
Scanning, Signature, and Energy
In the empty vacuum of space there is no resistance. Weapons, which are either a form of munition or a tight beam energy weapon, therefore do not have a range limit. Once fired they will carry on forever until they strike something. This is represented in the game by all weapons (other than special Close Action ones) having unlimited range. Theoretically any ship can shoot any other ship from anywhere on the table.
But just because a weapon can reach doesn’t mean it can hit what you are aiming at! With ships travelling at such incredible velocities, the gravity curve of space, and the sheer distances involved anything other than a computer targeted shot has absolutely zero chance of working. And to calculate the correct trajectory these computers must achieve a solid lock onto the enemy they are shooting at. This is handled in the game by all ships having a lock range. This is simply the sum of the Scan value of the ship shooting and the Signature value of the ship being shot at – makes sense given that bigger ships are easier to see!
So in the following example we’ll see a PHR ship of the Bellerophon Class shooting it’s Twin Supernova Laser at a Scourge Wyvern.
Remember that the weapon itself is not used at all in this calculation, we simply are adding the Scan of the Bellerophon (8″) to the Signature of the Wyvern (8″) to get a total of 16″. If the Bellerophon is within that range then it can get a lock and shoot at the Wyvern. But note the Wyvern must be within 12″ (6″ Scan + 6″ Signature) if it wants to shoot back!
I wrote before that some actions take a lot of energy. When this happens engines are at full blast or the ship may light up as all it’s weapons unleash at once. Given that the sophisticated scanning arrays of these ships see in wavelengths beyond just the visible spectrum these actions can make it much easier to see, and therefore lock onto, ships doing them. This is handled by Energy Spikes. Ships start the game with no Spikes at all, but actions can add Minor or Major Spikes (and adding a Minor on top of another Minor changes it into a Major). If you have a Minor Energy Spike then 6″ is added to your Signature, whilst a Major Energy Spike adds a whopping 12″! So a Wyvern with a Major Spike could be seen at not 16″ but 28″ away. That makes single ships with a Major Spike an attractive target to the entire enemy fleet who can hit them from a long way off (the game is played on a 48″ x 48″ table, so 28″ is more than half way across). There’s a reason why so many ships start the game in Silent Running.
There is one final trick that you can play, and that is to use the Active Scanning order. Remember that only 1 ship from each Group is allowed to Active Scan as an additional constraint, so this is best used by Battlegroups with lots of small groups in it, something like a Pathfinder Group with 3 pairs of Frigates in. Or even better use a ship like the UCM’s Lima, which bypasses the normal restriction of only 1 ship per group being able to Active Scan. And remember if Active Scanning is the Battlegroup Order then no other ship will be able to use anything else except Standard Orders – so make sure you don’t put a large gunboat that will want to go Weapons Free inside it!
Orbiting a planet, to paraphrase The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, is the art of falling towards the planet and missing. In practice this means that the best way for ships to stay in orbit is to travel at high speeds around it. This is represented by almost all of the Orders requiring a ship to move at at least half of it’s Thrust value. To go any slower would mean that it would start to drop into the atmosphere and be destroyed. At these high speeds it is also quite hard to manoeuvre, as to change direction you not only have to speed up in the direction you want to go but slow down in the direction you were previously travelling in. The game mechanics represents this by limiting the number of turns that you can make, typically just a single 45′ one.
All the ships in the game have powerful engines, and so if they crank them up they can go beyond the normal limitations. This is represented by Orders like Course Change that allows a second turn, and Station Keeping, where the engines are used to directly counter the planetary gravitation. Of course the massive amounts of energy required to do this makes the ship much easier to lock, and so a Minor Energy Spike is accrued. This makes for a really fun and challenging mechanic, which rewards clever players who set up their fleets well enough that they don’t need to take such actions, whilst still allowing players the ability to catch up on their mistakes for a small penalty. And especially in the middle part of the game (Turn 3) when the fleets join in closer combat you see a lot of high energy moves as ships try to slow down or make tight turns whilst others go weapons free. However at the start of the game it is well worth trying to use either Silent Running to glide in ships that you want to keep safe for later, or go Max Thrust (again for a Minor Energy Spike) to get some ships as deep into the battle as fast as possible. One good tactic is to load some Strike Carriers into a small Battlegroup, play them last in Turn 1 on Max Thrust and then play them first on Turn 2 to drop them into Atmosphere where they are much safer.
Weapons and Damage
A wargame wouldn’t be a wargame unless you can shoot some stuff! And Dropfleet is no exception, as the ships come with a wide array of different weapons. This section will briefly detail the different type of weapons, where they are strong and weak, and how shooting works. We’ll also talk a bit about the damage mechanics, and Critical Damage too. For reference we’ll use one of the best gunboats in the game, the UCM Avalon Class Battlecruiser.
This ship has 4 weapons, two sets of UF-4200 Mass Driver Turrets (medium calibre weapons designed for Cruiser sized platforms), a Viper Super-Heavy Laser (a Battleship killer), and some Shark Missile Bays. The odd one out here is the last one, and you can see that these are listed as a Close Action weapon; this means that they function quite differently to the other weapons. We’ll cover the differences as we go along.
The first column on the list is the Lock value (4+ for the UF-4200’s and 3+ for the Viper Super-Heavy Laser). This is simply what is required to hit the enemy. It doesn’t matter what the enemy ship is (unless it has special rules) the required roll is the same. A 4+ you hit, and anything else you do not. But wait, there’s more! If you roll 2 better than required then it counts as a Critical Hit. This is exactly the same as a normal Hit, but the target ship does not get an Armour saving throw. Given most ships save on a 3+ or 4+ this is quite a big deal. There are a few other modifiers, but the main two is that shooting to a different orbital layer carries a -1 to hit, and shooting through the Atmosphere requires a straight 6 to hit – and of course this will also affect your Critical Hit chance. This is our first big difference with Close Action weapons – these can never be used through Atmosphere.
But what can you shoot at? Well 3 things determine this – can you see the enemy (because there may be a moon in the way), can you lock the target (is it in lock range), and can your weapons target the enemy (is it in your weapon arc)? Only something solid like a moon can block line of sight, so this is quite rare, but debris and asteroid fields can reduce your lock range. Speaking of which we saw that your lock range is equal to your Scan Range + Target Signature Range + Energy Spikes (and now – Debris). But for Close Action Weapons you only use your Scan range – after all they can only be used close to your ship. Also the Atmosphere is extremely “loud” with regard to the amount of EM radiation it gives off, so ships in Atmosphere can only be targeted if in Scan range; Signatures and Energy Spikes don’t matter at all. Finally each weapon has a Firing Arc. The only really prohibitive one is F(N) which uses a very narrow (15′) arc right at the front of the ship that can make it hard to line anything up. These ships are best used near the back of the table so that the arc becomes as wide as possible, with enemy ships requiring Energy Spikes to be seen. UCM ships generally have the best arcs, which make them good brawlers, but this is countered by them being quite low damage compared to other factions. Most interestingly a lot of PHR ships only have massive broadside weapons, meaning they have very limited front arc capability. These are very important when it comes to giving orders – a ship that has a F(N) arc cannot turn if you want to go Weapons Free meaning they are hard to properly utilise. Put these by themselves in low SR Battlegroups so that they have a chance to react before the enemy. This is the main drawback of the Avalon; if you want to fire those Mass Driver Turrets and the Viper Super-Heavy Laser it must be aligned with an enemy ship on it’s F(N) arc and select Weapons Free. This is very difficult to achieve. So hard you should consider only taking ships that have a good F(N) weapon if they have no other weapons (other than Close Action weapons, which can always be fired in addition to your single weapon attack), like a New Cairo Class Light Cruiser.
So you roll the number of dice according to your Attacks Value (4 for the UF-4200 Mass Drivers), count up the number of Hits and Critical Hits, let the enemy make saving throws, and then multiply that by the Damage stat to see how many Hull Points have been removed. Generally a ship will fight at full ability right up until it is destroyed, but there is the chance of doing extra internal damage from Critical Damage. This can occur from special weapons, but primarily happens when a ship reaches half it’s Hull Points. The Critical Damage has 9 results, ranging from a minor nuisance to the loss of more Hull Points and the loss of systems like not being able to shoot for a Turn. They can suffer Orbital Decay as well, which given that most ships cannot go into Atmosphere without being destroyed is a big deal! Here Frigates are most at risk – all but the PHR ones have 4 Hull Points, and as 6 of the 9 results cause the loss of 2 or more further Hull Points it means that just 2 HP damage has a 66% chance of destroying the ship. PHR are better off with 5 HP, so they would still be left with 1 (unless you do 3HP of damage, and then they are 66% dead too!).
And finally – the loss of a ship is not a quiet event. Some will explode and shower nearby craft with hot debris making them easier to lock onto, whilst others will explode and create a vortex in space sucking nearby ships in. A single Frigate lost can cause a chain reaction taking out an entire Group. Which is devastating / hilarious (depending on whether it happens to you or your opponent!).
So far we’ve only written about attacks using direct ship to ship weapons. But one of the most evocative and interesting part of any ship based game (no matter the medium fought in) is the ability to send out smaller faster craft to bomb the enemy or provide a defensive screen. This is known as Launch capacity. All factions have some good ships that are denoted as Carriers, and these hold the Fighters and Bombers that conduct the defensive or aggressive runs. It’s a very powerful part of the game, so you are strictly limited to how many you can take. And there is little reason to not max out on this, as the ships that have the launch capacity are among the best designed in the game, both from a rules and a model perspective. Here are the main work-horses of each of the factions:
We’ve already seen the Bellerophon, and it may be the best ship in the entire game. This is mainly because PHR Bombers are ridiculously good, with a lock of 2+ rather than 3+, meaning that half of the attacks on average will be Critical Hits. With 4 Launch and a single weapon it is easy to keep these ships out of range of the enemy, using Standard Orders to clear the Energy Spike you get from launching Bombers, and easily manoeuvring to line up a powerful Twin Supernova Laser attack. Perfectly balanced with plenty of Hull Points.
The Hydra rivals the Bellerephon in that it is an almost identical design, just a bit weaker across the board. The increased Launch capacity doesn’t quite make up for Scourge Bombers not being as good, it’s main weapon is much weaker, and it has worse Scan, Signature, Hull, and Armour. It’s reduced cost of 40pts doesn’t make up for this. However I don’t think any ship is going to come off that well in comparison, so it’s better we focus on how it works in the fleet, and here it comes out with flying colours.
The Basalt sits between the Bellerephon and Hydra in terms of quality and points cost. It’s very similar to the others, but suffers similar weaknesses to the Hydra. The main difference is that the main weapon is much stronger, so it can do more than just Launch. But with worse Hull Points and Armour it is very vulnerable to being picked off. Fortunately a 12″ Scan range allows it to sit back. Which is perfect for the Shaltari fleet strategy which is all about control and range. Who needs a good Armour save when you cannot be targeted?
The UCM ship, like in so many other areas, is significantly the worst Carrier. Which is a shame because it’s such a nice model. The design follows the other ships in having Launch and one big gun, but UCM Bombers are the worst, it only gets 3 of them, and the main weapon is underwhelming. Add to that a poor Scan and you have a ship that is probably 20-30 points over-costed. This, sadly, makes the UCM the only faction that might consider taking no Launch at all. They do have another option in the New York class Battleship, but 250pts is not worth it for 7 Launch and 2 medium weapons (remember you’d need to go Weapons Free to fire both, and pick up a Major Energy Spike).
The final note is that Bombing runs (and Close Action) weapons can be picked off by the lighter defensive weapons that all ships have. This is known as Point Defence. You roll a number of dice equal to your PD stat, and for every 5-6 rolled you can remove one Hit made on you (2 to remove a Critical Hit). However as most PD is very low this has almost no impact against Bombing runs. However this PD score can be boosted with Fighters and specialised Aegis defence ships.
Orbital Layers and Dropping Troops
And we finally get to the meat of the game – dropping troops into objectives! Ultimately this is what the game is all about, and barring a couple of specific non-drop scenarios your entire game plan for winning should be focused around getting your troops onto the ground (or into space stations). The objectives are spread around the table in Sectors, which are locations into which troops may be dropped. Sectors are grouped into Clusters. This represents a larger theatre of war – troops will fight other troops if in the same Sector, and can move from one Sector to another Sector in the same Cluster, but may not move between Clusters (which will be hundreds of kilometers apart). It is your drop ships that need to carry the troops to the Clusters (think of a cluster as a city), and then drop them into the Sectors (think of this as a suburb or zone of that city). For example if New York was a cluster, then The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhatten, Queens, and Staten Island would be the Sectors.
There are two main ways to drop your troops into Sectors, and drop capable ships will specify which of these they can use. The first, and most common, are Dropships. These can carry either one Infantry brigade or 1 Armoured company. Typically these will be employed by Strike Carriers, specially modified Frigates that are able to travel into the Atmosphere to drop their cargo onto the ground. Drop capable ships are considered to have an infinite number of troops (of any type) on board, but are restricted to how many they can drop in any single turn, and for Strike Carriers this is usually 1 Dropship, as like the Gargoyle – one of the fastest ships in the game, perfectly suited to reaching far away Clusters quickly.
The other type is to use Bulk Landers. These ships are not as protected or nimble, but make up for it by having a lot more space. Whilst Armoured companies are unable to fit, it is instead possible to drop 3 Infantry brigades, or an Orbital battery. These latter options don’t have any ground capable abilities (so will be automatically over-run by even a single Infantry brigade), but can instead be employed to shoot down enemy landing craft. For every drop ship that attempts to land a die is rolled: Dropships are destroyed on a 5+, but Bulk Landers, which as we mentioned are not as able to defend themselves, are destroyed on a 3+. This means that even a single Orbital battery dropped early can have massive consequences for any future landing attempts into that Cluster. Scourge, with their faster ships, are well advised to try and win the drop race and get an Orbital battery down early to help with likely losing air superiority later in the game. Frigates don’t use Bulk Landers as they are not large enough, so you will instead have Cruiser sized ships called Troopships, such as the UCM’s San Francisco, and the Scourge’s Chimera.
The PHR have slower but more powerful options here, with 2 similar ships that pack a lot of firepower and armour in addition to being drop capable. The only choice is whether you want an Orpheus for it’s ability to kill things in space, or a Ganymede for it’s ability to bombard the ground.
But what of the Shaltari? Well they have a totally different mechanic. Instead of moving their ships with the troops to the Clusters, risking highly valuable people and assets, they instead utilise their teleportation technology to beam troops directly into combat. This has quite a limited range, however, so they cannot risk putting their large transport capable craft, called Motherships, into harm’s way. So to get them within range they chain Void Gates together to transport them down to the planetary surface. Like other dropships there is a maximum capacity available, with Motherships able to make 3 drops but Void Gates only able to make 1; so you need to ensure that there are enough Void Gates near the Clusters to make maximum use of the drop capability.
And there you have it! Whilst there are many more topics we could cover (Torpedoes, Bombardment, Orbital Layers, and more!) it is best to leave it here so that no reader is over-whelmed. What you should have now is a basic idea about the flavour of the game, as well as some simple tactics to help in your first games. Good luck!!
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