(First posted to rpg.net in 2001-2002.)
Starfire began in 1979 as a simple, fast-playing game of starship combat. Its original micro-pouch edition, published by Task Force Games, cost about US$5 and featured about 10 pages of rules and 20 pages of scenarios. Ship display sheets were painfully simple, with each starship capable of being represented by a single line of text, like so:
Endeavor DD (2) SSSAAHWILWIWIIII(6)
Endeavor was the ship's name. DD is the modern-naval abbreviation for a Destroyer. The (2) represented its Turn Mode, i.e. how many hexagons the ship had to move forward before it could make a 60 degree turn. Each S was a shield, each A was a unit of armor, the H was a cargo hold, each W was a gun/missile "weapon" launcher, each I was an ion engine, and the L was a laser. The (6) was just a quick summary of how many ion engines the starship had, and thus how fast it was -- a ship could move as many hexagons per turn as it had engines.
Each ship was assumed to be able to run all of its systems at full power every turn. Missiles and gun shells were in unlimited supply. If a ship was hit by enemy weapons and took damage, letters on its line of text would get crossed off from left to right, one letter for each damage point, so that after taking 7 damage points the Endeavor would look like this:
Endeavor DD (2) xxxxxxxILWIWIIII(6)
As you could imagine, designing your own ships was trivially easy. You put your shields and armor and cargo holds on the left, so that they'd get destroyed before your critical systems did, and then you packed whatever useful systems you could afford to buy into the remaining "hull" space. Each system had a cost in "megacredits," for purposes of game balance, and a size in hull spaces. (Engines cost more megacredits and took up more hull spaces the bigger the ship they were installed in.) If you wanted to get really fancy, you could even use "Tech Levels" to indicate whether a particular system was available for building into your ship or not — e.g., missile launchers were available at Tech Level 1, but force beams did not become available until Tech Level 4. Starships from different races could meet each other and have big space battles thanks to the existence of naturally-occurring "warp points" that linked star systems together.
It was an exceedingly simple, elegant system.
The problem was, the designers couldn't leave it alone.
They added high-speed Fighters and Carriers reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica (Starfire II). They added captial-ship missiles, which had to be kept track of individually, and an incredibly complex strategic campaigning system (Starfire III: Empires). They changed the fighter rules (Strikefighter) and tried to integrate them more cleanly into the main Starfire rules (Starfire 2nd Edition) but ended up throwing in more "goodies" like antimatter warheads and HAWK missiles and the need to keep track of all missiles, capital or otherwise, so that overall the system became more complicated, not less. They re-issued the strategic rules (Starfire New Empires) and added a new tech level. They revamped the main Starfire rules again (Starfire 3rd Edition) and, when it came time to reissue the again-revamped strategic rules (Imperial Starfire), they added more new systems and changed existing ones. They issued scenario packets that added new systems (Alkelda Dawn's jump engines, intertial sinks, and kinetic weapons being the most notorious). They revamped the main Starfire rules yet again (Starfire 3rd Edition Revised) and in so doing, as an almost throwaway notion, cut the game-scale size of a hexagon at the tactical level in half from 150,000 km to 75,000 km — the first change to the tactical-level game scale since the micro-pouch edition was first introduced.
And now, we have the 4th, "Galactic," Edition of Starfire, available from the Starfire Design Studio.
I was hoping that this new 4th Edition would streamline all the latest tweaks to the rules into one great, glorious, unified whole, far easier to pick up for a new player and far easier to master for the serious wargamer. Instead, the opposite happened. A whole new system of "tech trees" was introduced, completely doing away with the old Tech Level system. Description of each weapon's effects (normal, ignore shields, ignore armor, ignore shields and armor, etc.) are spread out over several places in the rules. The combat tables have been removed from the main rulebook and sequestered away in the "Space Master's Guide." The tech tree descriptions associated with the new and far-more-plentiful systems are almost impossible to read, and there are misplaced sentences that make the reading even more confusing. Improved shields, which used to be far more efficient than composite armor, are now far less efficient than composite armor, despite the fact that they still cost more megacredits. A new more-regular-than-before system of lower-case postscript (or subscript) letters signifies the generation and size and capabilities of each weapon system variant — and there are a lot of weapon variants.
And nowhere is there a table summarizing the different kinds of missiles, or the different kinds of missile launchers (there are many), or the different kinds of lasers or force beams or energy beams, or the different kinds of anything else.
No one picking up the new Galactic Starfire rules for the first time would be able to just start playing. No old Starfire veteran could hope to learn the new system from these new books, to the point where he could play with even mediocre competentce, in anything less than several days. This once-simple space combat system has now become horrendously — and, dare I say, needlessly — complicated. You might as well be playing Star Fleet Battles. Which, I might add, was made by the same company that used to make Starfire when Starfire was still a simple, easy game.
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