It has been a long while since I’ve dabbled in wargames, even skirmish games that use a dozen models rather than multiples of squads. Maybe you’re in the same situation.
In part, that stepback from the hobby had been due to cost and the space required. To be honest, that other part is that I’ve felt a bit intimidated by the complexity of the rules. My last few wargame encounters were dominated by rule-based gotchas or crafty/over-powered builds.
Stargrave replaces those concerns with the welcome embrace of the battlefield. The sci-fi skirmish game is easy to learn, quick and finds an outstanding balance between being casual and offering a regular weekend treat.
For a start, Stargrave does not need any more money from you or any more models. Yes, there are some official minis from North Star but this game is not designed to lure you into the investment cycle of maintaining the best army by buying the latest troop release.
Even better, Stargrave does not care which miniatures you use for the game. I’ve not seen anyone use old Star Wars figures for the skirmish game, but I imagine it is possible.
As a skirmish game, you’ll likely have a half-dozen or so models to track. Your friends, one, two, three or however many you can squeeze onto the tabletop, will have roughly an equal number. These squads will be cut from the same set of rules, and there’s no asymmetric where one army type is made up of few but powerful soldiers and the other a swarm of cannon fodder.
Stargrave can be played as a one-off, but it also has campaign rules that use experience points, the loot you win on the battlefield (typically only the victory points system in other games), and upgrading the spaceship.
You start with a captain (your best squad member), a first mate (your second best) and a handful of crew.
Each has a simple character sheet that can fit on a business card.
In combat, roll 1d20, add your fight score with bonuses and compare that to the total your rival got. If you got higher, you won, and if you also rolled higher than their armour value, you’ve injured the target of your target. The damage done is the difference between their armour value and your total.
I’m barely simplifying, and yet that’s it.
Your squad can only carry a certain amount of weapons and armour. They have several inventory slots to fill, and large weapons fill more than one space. The advantage of carrying large weapons or heavy armour is that their bonuses are higher than others standard. The cost is not just that space these bulky and powerful items take up but that they will slow your space mercenary down.
There are no big tables of inventory, and Stargrave uses a few broad categories instead.
Even better weapons can be found, occasionally bought, and squad members may have special powers.
There is an economy of credits (CR) in Stargrave. At the start of the game, credits are the resource players spend to design their squad around the captain and first mate. Competing crews won’t be the same. One might make heavier use of combat specialists, and another, for example, might be highly mobile.
During the game, credits can be won by getting to loot tokens and securing them. There are two types of loot; physical and data. It’s more than a cosmetic difference. Either might be more money, physical loot might be worth more credits, but data may also provide experience points.
Some gear requires an upkeep cost. Notably, while there’s an endless supply of raw recruits, if you want to add a medic, hacker or trained trooper to your squad, that’ll cost credits. Weapon and equipment upgrades cost money.
Healing also costs money.
Even if a critical figure, like your captain, is eliminated from one game of Stargrave, they are not necessarily out of the campaign. Figures removed from the skirmish with zero health left may still survive; it comes down to the cruel whims of the dice but having a medic on a well-equipped ship helps!
I imagine Osprey, the publisher, and Joseph A. McCullough might well support the game with separately sold scenarios and campaigns. There are several scenarios included in the back of the 176-page Stargrave book.
Look and feel
I’m delighted that Stargrave looks and feels approachable. I have memories of tightly packed text, world-building for model selling, tomes of lore and an encyclopedia of look-up tables. These core rules are nothing like that.
Stargrave uses a single column of text in a good size font, frequent and small paragraphs and ample use of sub-headings. It’s as if someone wisely followed web-design UX principles, and since my copy of Stargrave is a PDF, not a paper book, those best practices seem like a good fit.
There are full-page illustrations between the chapters, often fantastic and nudging ever so slightly towards a visual mythos for the game. There’s not much of a setting for Stargrave, more of a concept, but notice how many designs make use of protruding mouthpieces that end with a triangular snout.
In the chapters, though, there are photographs of painted tabletop models. Many of these are the figures you can buy North Star.
I prefer the illustrations with their grim and gritty vibe. The models, in surprisingly contrast, are so clean and colourful that they almost look out of place. I know, I’ve just said the real objects felt less accurate than the illustrations, and that can only be the theatre of the mind roleplayer in me speaking.
Each photograph also reminded me of what a terrible miniature painter I am. Yes, they resurrected ideas that maybe I could do it with practice, but those whimsical daydreams must be squashed to protect my endangered bank balance.
More importantly, the flow of Stargrave makes sense. For example, running, jumping, falling and swimming are all together. There’s no such thing as “movement” or “advanced movement” (as one wargame I once had used). Even if you pick the wrong entry in the index, you’ll likely find a pointer to the related rules with a page number reference wherever you end up.
Occasionally there are illustrations to help visualise encounters on the battlefield. For example, showing what it takes for two or more models to be considered ganging up on one and what might happen if a third player enters the scene.
I’m impressed. Stargrave makes me wish I had a room with a decent-sized table in it. Those are dangerous thoughts.
As it stands now, rather than running a mile, if a friend suggested a group of us consider a monthly Stargrave campaign, I would give it serious thought. And to be clear, I don’t have the time; something else would need to be let go.
Stargrave has achieved this herculean impact on my consideration because the game itself is the opposite. It’s light, easy, adaptable and approachable. It doesn’t make demands; it invites. The rules are articulate and show the experience of years of feedback on sister games like Frostgrave.
- Osprey Publishing’s Stargrave.
Disclaimer: My PDF copy of Stargrave was provided for review.
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