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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Halo: Fleet Battles Review

Newly minted studio Spartan Games brings us Halo Fleet Battles, translating the all-conquering Xbox game franchise to a tabletop near you, Spike Direction spins up his MAC and gives it a go…

Halo: Fleet Battles enables you to fight space battles set in the Halo universe, either as the human’s UNSC Navy or The Covenant, on a scale roughly comparable to Star Wars: Armada, largely focused on the movements of capital ships.

What we’ve got here is, The Fall Of Reach set, which acts as a starter set for Halo: Fleet Battles, giving you everything you need (except for a tape measure) to play a pretty decent sized game, or campaign right out of the box, based on that famous losing battle from Halo history.

The Epoch Heavy Carrier, never before seen outside of Bungie/343 archives.

Opening the box the first thing that struck me is how much you get, for roughly £80 you get rules, two huge fleets (the models are shown actual size on the side of the box, nice touch),cardboard scenery in the form of planets, asteroids and such, and an absolute mountain of counters, reference cards and special dice, compared to similar games this is pretty good value, and the models are made from appropriately coloured plastic, so they don’t even require painting (unless you really want to, I’ve always thought it a real chore for anything based around ships or spaceships), and they look fantastic, Halo fans will recognise the covenant ships from the games, and the human frigates such as good old Forward Unto Dawn are represented by a horde of teeny models each about the size of a 20p. The UNSC fleet centres around a Epoch class heavy carrier, a ship apparently designed by someone at Bungie many years ago, but never seen by normal humans until the release of this game, a nice bit of deep background there.

I was keen to get my hands on a Pillar Of Autumn (that’s a Halcyon class cruiser folks) and while there are similar ships in the set (Marathon class heavy cruiser) that exact class of ship seems to be coming in a future expansion, along with representations of The Master Chief, Cortana, Captain Keyes, and truly MASSIVE models of the Infinity and covenant supercarrier Long Night Of Solace, so there’s lots to look forward to, if this game performs well.

The mechanics of the game are pretty straight forward, your fleet is split into battlegroups and the players move and attack with alternate battlegroups until all their ships have been activated, there are also mechanics for launching fighters, bombers and attack craft, all of which boils down to gathering great handfulls of special dice and rolling for hits, with modifiers for speed, intervening terrain, special weapons and so on. The way it works is not a million miles away from X Wing and Star Wars Armada.and pretty intuitive once you’ve got it all figured out.

And there’s the rub, a fairly major snag which seriously got in the way of my enjoyment of this game at first, and it centres around this little fella.

Otherwise know as the riddle of the sands…

It’s not badly written as such, but it is written in a way that makes learning the game very difficult, hiding the essential details of basic game mechanics behind unnecessary fluff or in separate sections, with one crucial nugget of information tucked away, chapters apart from it’s friends in the movement phase, or whatever. This means referring back to the rulebook is a bit of a pain, in fact, and I may be wrong, but there’s at least one rule that I couldn’t find in the book anywhere, that I’ve only seen on the reference sheet.

I’m also a little confused as to what level of player this is aimed at, in some ways it seems as if Spartan Games want to attract Halo players who may be new to the tabletop, for example there’s a lengthy, adorable section towards the beginning of the rulebook, explaining what dice are for, that I’m now going to quote,

“Halo Fleet Battles uses dice to generate results for actions. The use of dice generates exciting random outcomes that simulate the chaos of battle, the varying skill levels of crew members and much more. The use of dice means that you can never completely predict the outcome of any tabletop action, and that, even in the darkest hour, there is always hope…”

Problem is, anyone green enough to need that explained to them is going to be hopelessly lost in the gaming design mire that follows, and more experienced gamers are just going to want to get to the meat and get playing, without the handholding.

It’s not all bad though, during my playtesting I was rescued by my saviour, The Fall of Reach campaign guide. This series of missions introduces the main rules a few at a time, giving you a couple of games to work out the basics, before realising two games in you were doing it all wrong, getting the hang of it, then throwing in the rules for fleet commanders, attack craft and so on. Without that I’d have been hopelessly lost, with it I just about figured out how to play properly.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, now that I understand it, this game is pretty good. The basic mechanics are straightforward, hingeing around the old ‘roll x dice, count your successes’ formula, but modifiers coming from terrain, fleet commanders and ship loadout rules among others enable players to steer outcomes, either by cancelling out their opponents successes, or altering the Firepower Rating, which changes what you need to achieve in order to get a success. It’s pretty well balanced, with the UNSC having numbers on it’s side, while the Covenant ships are hard as nails.

The UNSC fleet converges, combining their fire for maximum damage. While a Covenant Battlecruiser swoops in with it's Plasma Beam sweeping through multiple targets.
The UNSC fleet converges, combining their fire for maximum damage. While a Covenant Battlecruiser swoops in with it’s Plasma Beam sweeping through multiple targets.

The overall feel of the game is also quite satisfying, with the emphasis clearly put on tactical maneuvering and the strategic skill of the players, rather than throwing in too much randomness, or struggling with steering the ships into the right position (the movement mechanic is very simple and direct, and measuring distance is permitted at any time, there is no range guessing), as in the aforementioned Star Wars games. The end result is to feel like a UNSC admiral on a bridge somewhere, following a battle on a tactical display, giving orders for firing solutions and so on. Should it catch on, this would make a great tournament game.

In short, despite niggles with the writing of the rulebook, Halo Fleet Battles has got off to a strong start and I heartily recommend to all Halo fans with tabletop leanings,

I need more people to play with!

"Embittered ex-cinema projectionist spews his bile onto the crumbling, post-digital movie industry!" Also likes history, tabletop games, the original xbox, loud guitars, long walks on the beach, and comics.

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