Dropfleet Commander First Impressions


I didn’t really mention it much and we don’t talk much about Kickstarters and what we are backing on the show, but I backed the Dropfleet Commander one and it has recently made it to my door! If you don’t know what Dropfleet Commander is, it’s a space ship miniatures game intended to similulate fleet actions attempting to land assets on planetary locations for the purpose of defending or retaking planets. The game is by Hawk Wargames and their other big game, Dropzone Commander, is a 10 mm combined infantry/land/air assets attempting to retake stretegic locations within a small area of a planet.

What is Dropfleet Commander Really?

As I indicated it’s a sci fi spaceship game in a universe where humanity has lost the worlds known as the cradle worlds. The cradle worlds are planets that are closer to earth (including Earth itself). Humanity was forced during the invasion by the Scourge to leave these planets, losing billions in the process, to outer planets that either the Scourge were not interested in or did not know about. Many generations have passed and humanity has rebuilt their fleets, developed knew technology, and are now moving to re-take the those cradle worlds. There are a couple of other factions, the PHR (Post Human Republic) are a group of people that left humanity and listened to an orb that showed up very briefly before the Scourge invaded. They have evolved and are now technology enhanced (likely through both nano tech and genetic manipulation). The other faction in the Dropfleet game is the Shaltari, which is the other alien race who “befriended” humanity prior to the Scourge invasion and in today’s universe the tensions between races has increased.

So, The Good Stuff

Let’s start with the models as it’s a miniatures game. The Hawk Wargames kickstarter really was to drive getting the core components in this game in plastic. Their plastics for Dropzone Commander are brilliantly detailed and have an amazing look all of their own that you don’t really find in any other game. I am not sure what plastic material they use, but it’s a little different then anything else I have worked with for miniatures. What it means is it feels just a little softer then the “hard plastic” that companies like Warlord Game and Games-Workshop use. It’s still plastic and plenty hard and primer and plastic glue work great with it! The detail at this scale also holds up amazingly well and as you can see in the painted and assembled pictures at the start of this post, the models are very well detailed. Instructions that come with the models allow you to build any number of combinations of ships from each sprue.

As far as game play, it’s written by both Dave from Hawk and Andy Chambers who wrote the rules for Battlefleet Gothic which is the old ship game in the Warhammer 40k universe. By the way, that game is just brilliant, but has been out of print for a very long time now. When you get the rule book, you instantly feel the nostalgia of BFG as the rule book is the exact same design and binding style that was used for that game. Coincidence? I think not! The rule book starts with a fluff section that both recaps what has been happening in the Hawk Wargames universe, but also advances the story arc. This is something that they do with each new rulebook or supplement that comes out for the game which I like a lot. It then has all of the rules, which really the game is not overly complex, but are fairly complete. There are a larger number of weapon and ship rules that can be unique, but it’s not on the level of a game like Infinity and I think as you get to know the rules more, the more you recognize the different special rules I think this becomes pretty nature.

From a rules perspective, if you play or are familiar with the rules for Dropzone Commander there are number of things that are familiar. The same can be said with the way the game feels compared to Battlefleet Gothic as well, but it’s definitely it’s own game. The game is very much about getting infantry and vehicles deployed to strategic areas of the map, referred to as clusters. This means that there is a big portion of your fleet is going to be carriers of dropships and other large planetary deployment vehicles. The game takes advantage of orbital conflict and uses references to altitude, high orbit, low orbit and atmosphere as this is very relevant to your reference area to the planetary object you are engaging. Most of the time, you have to get your carrier ships into atmosphere over key locations without them being destroyed and have them deploy resources to those locations. There is then an abstract interaction of land combat battles that can occur. Those battles are extremely abstract which allow the game to move along fairly quickly.

Gameplay

We started with the two player starter in our test game with the rules and I had ready the rules. For a two player starter, you get an amazing number of ships. Each side has 1 heavy cruiser, 2 cruisers, and 4 frigates. With a rather lengthy explanation, Dustin and I had our first game to give this a try. It should be noted, that since this is a planetary battle, and not a space battle, your game mats from Bolt Action, Warhammer or whatever, that are green or whatever work perfect. I just picked up the terrain from my last Bolt Action game and marked off the table edge with some tape and placed the clusters and areas of debris fields as indicated by the scenario. In this game, I played the UCM (the base human faction) against the Scourge played by Dustin. We were able to really get into the game and make fairly tactical decisions. The objectives, with the way they were layed out, brought the two fleets together and prevented someone from sitting back on their table edge as much as they can.

In most scenarios in Dropfleet, you don’t start the table with any of your ships on the table. Your fleet is divided into Battlegroups and each battlegroup has a strategy rating assigned to it. These are written on cards to mark what is in each battlegroup. At the start of each turn, you secretly build a deck with these cards in the order you will activate each group. This makes a unique “you activate a squad/I activate a squad” gameplay style with the lowest strategy rating getting to choose who activates first. I definitely see this being a great part of future list building and with the addition of Admirals which affect this as well…this seemed brilliant to me.

Ranges are infinite in Dropfleet, but are limited to the range your ship is able to detect enemy ships. Each ship has a signature and scan range that allow it to detect and be detected by other ships. Then ships, as they take orders and do actions may gain what’s called spikes that make them easier to detect, or they go into silent running which makes them hard to detect. You roll a decent number of dice in the game, but nowhere was I throwing buckets of them, which is nice. I think there are some ships that will be capable of generating 20+ dice in an attack, but at this point, I don’t have any of those and they aren’t used in the demo. Still, ships were dropping fairly quickly and getting half wounds and becoming crippled is rough (usually destroys the smaller frigate class ships).

The Bad Stuff

No wargame is perfect, and this one has it’s faults. I am going to start with the thing that we both just through out right off the bat, and that was on the frigates in particular, but really all of the ships the bases are used for tracking damage with these little pegs. The pegs don’t go in the holes very well, sit extremely loose and it’s hard to put them in and out of the base holes with the models above the base without knocking things everywhere. The next thing with the bases is that the bases are also used for tracking your spikes as well as your atmospheric level. I get the fact that they were trying to avoid having to do more book keeping on the table, but IMHO this could have been done with different colored dice or something. Still, if you had a hull points dice and a orbital layer/spike dice for each ship on the table…it might lose some of it’s cinematic feel, but the bases are hard to read. Particularly the blue and black at a distance look exactly the same. The yellow and red spike conditions I didn’t have an issue with seeing from my side of the table on my opponent’s ships.

Next, and this was more a comment from Dustin, then myself, but crippled ships didn’t seem as handicapped as they should be. The frigates being destroyed was pretty cool, but for the most part, a crippled cruiser functions much the same as one that is full of health. I don’t know if this should be tweeked because once you are crippled it’s not long until your ship is destroyed, but that, in comparison to Battlefleet Gothic, felt a little weak.

Finally, ships in atmosphere for me felt impossible to kill. This worked to my advantage as I was able to get shots early on one of Dustin’s strike carriers and knock it out, but needing 6’s to hit a ship in Atmosphere meant that once those ships got to that level, they were near invincible. That being said, we were playing the demo and we both did not have enough strike carriers to deploy troops so losing one early meant you likely lose the game. There is also the factor that for listing, particularly for that scenario, you definitely want ships in the fleet that do not suffer penalties for shooting at things on the planet (planetary bombardment) and in atmosphere. I can see that going a long way to making the spaceship game and the battle going on in space more dynamic and feel more important. As it was, with the demo, I was felt a little wanting for a reason why our cruisers were destroying the heck out of each other.

Last Impressions

Overall, I really had a good time playing the game. The ships are remarkably good looking. I am a huge fan of the company and the setting. It’s a great take on sci fi, and while not completely original, doesn’t seem to happen a lot in table top games. I really recommend checking out the game if you are into a great, space ship battles game. Starter boxes, in particular, the 2 player starter for this is going to be a great purchase and a great way to get started. All of the two player starters are perfect to match up against another person with the two player box. The rules references are great aids as you learn to play as well and after a game or two you will be ready to start list building and adding new ships to your fleet and start really building out your play style.

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