Oh colour me excited! Looks like Dropfleet Commander is about to start shipping to the Kickstarter backers. I’m a big fan of Hawks 10mm ‘combined arms’ Dropzone Commander ruleset and miniature range, so have high hopes for their second game and how it interacts with the ground action. Fleet games are a surprisingly crowded marketplace with current offerings from Spartan Games, Fantasy Flight and others all competing for a wedge of the hobby dollar. Star Wars Armada, Halo Fleet Battles and Firestorm are all really solid games and that’s without chucking in a couple of legacy heavyweights like Battlefleet Gothic or A Call to Arms (Babylon 5). This is the competition Dropfleet has to outshine and fortunately Hawk Wargames do seem have a few things in their favour too.
1. The Designer
David Lewis did a great job with the design of Dropzone creating a game that rewards tactical thinking and puts the mobility front and centre via the use of the Dropships. For the fleet game David brought in the rather excellent Andy Chambers, Games Workshop Alumni and creator of Battlefleet Gothic along with one or two other excellent games I could mention (that’s right, I was mostly thinking of Starship Troopers)
2. The background
Since the original game came out Hawk have steadily been fleshing out and enriching the Dropzone universe, moving the story on chronologically with the release of each new expansion. Dropfleet dovetails into this nicely so there is immediately a strong sense of context and continuity to the fleet action. Plus the opportunity to influence the aforementioned ground game as ultimately Dropfleet is all about ‘invasion’ and getting boots (or tracks) on the ground, or stopping your opposition from achieving that end. The artwork also helps create a strong narrative, especially the evocative work Patrice has been producing since bringing him into the team.
3. The miniatures
The four primary factions are aesthetically diverse, each with a distinctive sillouette and style on the battlefield. This is carried through fantastically in the ship designs with the turret-bristling UCM superstructure vastly different to the flowing organic-like lines of the Scourge hulls.
Hawk also have a thing about scale accuracy and this translates well between the games. You can mentally draw a correllation between the sizes of the units on the ground and the fleet ships via the UCM point defence turrets on the frigates which are 1:1 scale with the Planetary Defence lasers in Dropzone. Ever since I first saw the UCM sample designs back at Salute 2015 I thought the Dropfleet ships were a masterstroke. I’m very much looking forward to assembling and painting all four factions when they arrive.
4. The twist
What really sets Dropfleet apart from other games however is the field of battle. Most fleet type games I’ve played in the past, incuding those mentioned at the start are all predominantly set in the depths of space itself, ships trading fire cross the void. Dropfleet has set its stall out as an ‘orbital’ game with the battle taking place above the planet surface. This may not sound much but it’s actually a pretty neat idea as the gaming surface doesn’t have to be a plain black starfield anymore, it can be a high altitude map of the planet surface. You suddenly have the opportunity to set the battle against a variety of backgrounds and worlds from red ‘Mars’ like planets, water worlds, Earth-like to barren moons. Hawk are producing a number of ‘map packs’ for this purpose but there are already a number of companies that produce gaming mats that would work.
It also brings gravity into play as the larger ship classes can’t enter low orbit or atmosphere due to their size and mass but their smaller frigate counterparts can. In fact falling into a lower orbital plane can spell certain doom for some of the cruisers. Shooting across orbital heights also carries penalties so that introduces another strategic depth to the game (no pun intended). Finally there is the concept of energy emissions whereby the more energy a ship expends the more visible it is (and probably easier to target) to the enemy. Salvo your big guns and you will light up on every enemy threat radar as a massive energy spike, equally run cold and silent you will be hard to spot and lock onto. In many ways Dropfleet in concept feels more like submarine warfare as you try to gain an advantageous firing solution over your opponent without making yourself a big target in return. Electronic Counter Measures can be utilised to mask energy signatures while ECCM attempts to burn through the enemies jamming. All the time this is going on you are attempting to deploy your payload of troops and armour via dropships to the surface and secure key locations.
There is a lot to get excited about in Dropfleet Commander, but equally it has big boots to fill deposing Star Wars Armada from top spot as my current favourite fleet game. I’m quietly hopeful it will give Armada a good run for it’s money and certainly plan to produce a series of hobby articles tracking progress once it arrives. In the meantime however and on the subject of Armada next up will be a few more of those classic fighter squadrons for the Rebel Alliance and Imperials.
Until then, enjoy the rest of your weekend.