Dirk Johnson
Dirk Johnson
February 18th, 2021
A Billion Suns Game Review
Updated Feb 18th, 2021 evening
How It Started
a billion suns tabletop simulator screenshot
"A Billion Suns – Interstellar Fleet Battles"
This tagline was listed in an email from
Osprey Publishing
and it certainly caught my eye. Though the product wasn't released yet, it was SciFi, so I had to look, right? Osprey's product description pages tend to be terse and limited (I really wish they would add some excitement to their product pages), but after clicking and looking, it was enough to get me cautiously excited about what this new fleet-level space miniatures game might offer to a SciFi gamer like myself.
First of all, Osprey has had some great successes with their miniatures rules; e.g.,
Frostgrave
and
Gaslands
, to name a few. And even better, A Billion Suns (ABS) was written by the creator of Gaslands, Mike Hutchinson, so it has some good roots.
After the success of Gaslands, Mike set up a company called
Planet Smasher Games
; take a look!
Second, I've played many different spaceship combat miniatures systems over the years (
SilentDeath
,
Battlefleet Gothic
,
X-Wing
,
Full Thrust
to name just a few), and adding another system under my belt is always a fun challenge – comparing and contrasting is always good talk around the gaming table, am I right?
So I hopped online, did a search, and found Mike had already set up
a website for ABS
- Score! The game overview and blog posts got me more excited. I even found that Mike had done a Gamma test (aka., a mature Beta test). Doh! I had missed it.
ABS also has
a facebook page
Not letting my disappointment get the best of me, I pinged Mike via email, introduced myself as a fellow game company owner, and offered to do a game review if he would forward me the Gamma rules. Mike kindly obliged! Thus you have this game review here. I'm so excited to share with you my experience playing A Billion Suns... seriously... I'm feeling the excitement of playing it even as I type this. :)
Caveats
If you want to continue reading with the end in mind, or you just want the TL;DR, jump down to the Conclusion section
The primary caveat of my game review is that I play-tested with the Gamma rules. There were spelling errors, mislabeled diagrams, some explanations were too terse and/or vague, and one even had contradictory text. I'm hopeful much of this will be cleaned up in the final product, so some of my comments below may no longer be relevant now that the rules have been released.
My other caveat is to say that the only thing I am getting as recompense for this review is:
1. Playing the game before it is released (that feels pretty neat, actually), and
2. A free copy of the final rules (thanks Mike and Osprey Publishing!)
I assure you, my review here is objective (as much as humanly possible from a true SciFi fan ;), and represents both my own opinions and those with whom I play-tested.
One final thing to note is this play-test only covers the core rules, and does not go into the campaign system nor the solo rules variant that you can find on the ABS website. Adding these will most certainly add more dimensions of enjoyment to this game.
Simulating The Game
At the time I was ready to sit down with other players and try out the rules (after having read through them a few times), Mike had just released an official Tabletop Simulator (TTS) module for ABS. I thought it would be cool to play a new game on its own official virtual tabletops, so I decided to base this entire review on my experience playing on TTS.
You can find the official ABS Tabletop Simulator module by going to the Workshop section of TTS on Steam and doing a search for "A Billion Suns". Look for the module created by 'crikeymiles'
I should note that when I started my play-testing, I was new to Tabletop Simulator. This means that some of my frustrations you will see noted below in the review may in some way represent my unfamiliarity with the TTS controls and settings.
What Sets A Billion Suns Apart
Being a game designer myself, I know how every serious designer's dream is to create the "perfect" game system, whether it be a card game, a tabletop miniatures game, or a role-playing game. But, as we come to find, no game is perfect.
Therefore, when I go to play a new game, rather than look for all that makes a game imperfect, I like to look for those rules and mechanics that unleash my strategic thinking, help the game flow smoothly and elegantly, and give it a feel of being greater than the sum of its parts.
The following are the parts of the game that met these criteria for me during my play-test.
Multiple Game Tables
Yes. Multiple game tables. In concept, this sounds really cool. However, sometimes what sounds cool in theory does not work out well in practice. I can say without hesitation, this was so cool in practice.
Each table is its own area of space. A table can be, well, a table, a chair seat, a kitchen counter, or anything, small or large, as long as it allows some maneuvering and the minis can remain standing.
What makes the multi-table game work are the jump points. Jump points are used to bring battlegroups (a homogeneous group of ships) on and off the table. You can also use jump points to jump between tables. Jump points are valid combat targets, so if the enemy has a well-placed jump point that is wreaking havoc, blow it up and smile.
Contracts, Not Skirmishes
Let's be honest: us strategy gamers play strategy games for the thrill of pitting our minds and wills against that of our opponents'. When I'm looking for a good excuse, I also say I do it to keep my mind agile and lucid, as, like any other aspect of our human makeup, if we don't use it, we
will
lose it.
So I was skeptical when I discovered that Mike had taken the focus off of skirmishes and had refocused the players on contracts.
In ABS, each player is a CEO that starts the game with no ships and no credits. During game setup, 3 random contracts will be chosen: could be mining, could be fighting space kraken, could be saving virus infected innocents.
It takes ships to complete contracts, so CEOs must go into debt to requisition ships and jump them onto the tables. As contracts are completed, CEOs earn credits and begin to pay off their debts. If they are really good (and blessed a bit by lady luck), they will end the game in the black. The CEO with the most credits (or, less impressively, in the least debt) wins the game.
The game comes with 12 core contracts to chose from with more available on the website
Again, I was skeptical going after contracts would be as enjoyable as just slugging it out in an all-out battle. However, I found that refocusing on contracts and using debt/credit as the measure for victory has some neat effects on the feel of the game:
1. The biggest (and thus more expensive) ships are not necessarily the best ships for victory as they may not be the ideal ships for the contracts on the tables
2. It allows for more varied paths to victory: do I focus on a single contract?, do I try to do them all?, do I focus on preventing my opponent(s) from completing their contracts and thus win simply by being less in debt?, and so on
3. The tug-of-war between widening the gap to victory by fielding more ships to ensure that victory is a nice tension in the game and makes the right choices less obvious
Even though the focus of the players is on contracts, there were plenty of direct engagements along the way, so the game scratched that itch nicely. But there was also a sense of sweet victory when I ended up winning a game by 1 credit (or, more accurately, by 1 credit less in debt) because I had managed my finances vs field control better than my opponent.
In any case, the rules seem well suited for all-out battles if that is the flavor you prefer, so, as Mike likes to say, "your tables, your rules".
Easy To Scale
One of the deterrents to playing a tabletop miniatures game is the time investment required to set up and then complete a game session (not to mention the $$ spent on minis ;).
This is a big plus for using the TTS module for playing; setup is literally a few minutes before you are already into the heat of the game, and the minis are FREE
ABS has a neat mechanic for scaling a game and thus scaling the complexity and time investment. Based on the scale you choose during setup, you will have more credits available to earn, and thus be more inclined to go further into debt to field more battlegroups. Additionally, some contracts modify their conditions and enemy ships based on the chosen scale.
Building in an adjustable scale from the ground-up without losing the flavor of the game is a huge deal for someone like me who usually has limited time to sit down and play.
Elegant Combat Resolution
One of the biggest factors to enjoying combat miniature gaming is game flow. If you can keep the flow, and thus the action, moving at a steady pace, everyone gets their 17 seconds of victory dance despite perhaps losing the game. It’s the smack talk after the game about your one great maneuver (sometimes years after the game if you have a good gaming group,) that makes the memories sweet, am I right?
Sometime ask me about one of my great Silent Death battles where my battle cry of "Helmut!!" won the day
One of the biggest impediments to game flow are the combat resolution mechanics. Truth be told, this is the part of the ABS game mechanics that causes me a little bit of prefessional jealousy; Mike's combat resolution mechanics are elegant.
Full confession, after seeing Mike's combat resolution mechanics, it gave me clarity on how I could solve a rough spot in the dice mechanics for the tactical RPG I am working on... thanks Mike!
If I were to detail the key points of the mechanics that make it work so well, I'd boil it down to these 3 things:
1. Unifying the 2 concepts of how easy a ship is to hit with how much damage a ship can take
This is, to say the least,
unnatural
, but it works sooooo well!! This unified concept is called a ship's "silhouette". Its value represents, as noted, how easy it is to hit (the higher it is, the easier it is to hit) and how much damage it can take before being destroyed (the higher it is, the more damage it can take before being destroyed).
2. Unifying the 3 concepts of:
- how likely a weapon is to hit
- how much damage it does when it does hit
- how hard it is for the target to resist the damage (using shields) after being hit
A die that successfully hits its target will cause damage: a d6 does 1 damage, a d8 does 2 damage, a d10 does 3 damage, and a d12 does 5 damage.
This unified concept is all comprised in a weapon system's dice "type" (what I would call "size"). The larger the type of die, the
less
likely it is to hit its target (as larger weapons are harder to aim), the more damage it will do, and the harder it is for the target’s shields to resist the damage.
3. Making rolling lower better than rolling higher
There is a reason most games don't do this – it is bred into us to believe that "more is better", but again, this works sooooo well in light of points 1 and 2 above.
A Quick Example Of Combat Resolution
Situation Report:
A Gunship battlegroup comprised of 2 Gunships is firing on a Corvette Battlegroup comprised of 1 Corvette.
Gunship Specifications:
A Gunship's dice count and type is 2d6 (2 six-sided dice) for both its primary and auxiliary weapon systems. A d6 does 1 damage per die that hits.
Corvette Specifications:
A Corvette's silhouette is 5 and its shield rating is 2
Attack Details:
Each of the Gunships have the Corvette battlegroup in range and arc for all weapon systems, giving the attacking battlegroup 8d6 attack dice. Because a Corvette has a silhouette of 5, all dice that roll at or
below
5 will be added to a "hit" dice pool.
Additional combat rules: a) rolling a 1 is a "crit" – add 1 more die of the same type to the "hit" dice pool, and b) rolling a die's highest value is a "dud" – remove the die from the "hit" dice pool
Attack Resolution:
The attacking CEO rolls 8d6 for the attack and gets 6 5 4 4 3 3 2 1: the 6 is discarded as a dud and the rest of the dice are added to the "hit" dice pool. Because of the single crit (the 1), an additional d6 is added to the "hit" dice pool, for a total of 8d6.
Similar to when rolling to hit, when rolling saving throws, duds do not cancel hits, no matter if the roll is at or below the shield rating
Saving Throw Resolution:
Due to a Corvette’s shield rating of 2, the Corvette battlegroup is allowed a saving throw. The defending CEO picks up all the 8 dice in the "hit" dice pool and rolls them: 6 5 4 4 2 2 2 1. The 2 2 2 1 dice are discarded from the "hit" dice pool because they are less than or equal to the 2 shield rating (and they are not duds), leaving 4 dice in the "hit" dice pool.
Damage Resolution:
Each remaining d6 in the "hit" dice pool will cause 1 point of damage, meaning the Corvette battlegroup takes 4 damage. As the silhouette of a Corvette is 5, the Corvette battlegroup does not lose its lone ship as it can take 5 damage before being destroyed. However, the Corvette battlegroup does track the 4 damage, and one more point of damage will force the battlegroup to remove its only Corvette.
Simple. Elegant. Flowing.
Confusions And Frustrations
While learning to play, I ran into some confusing parts of the rules as well as some frustrations with the official ABS TTS module. I will address these separately.
The Search For Clarity
One of the things that confused me while learning the rules was remembering when I was supposed to be dealing with a ship or a battlegroup. Until the rules became second-nature (which happened pretty quickly, honestly) I had to continually step back and think, "OK, am I dealing with a ship-to-ship situation or a battlegroup-to-battlegroup situation?" This question comes up, for example, when determining valid targets for engagement, taking and applying damage, or evaluating the mass of a ship class or the battlegroup as a whole.
As an example, for the active battlegroup to target an enemy battlegroup, only one
ship
in the active battlegroup need have a single
ship
from the target battlegroup in its primary arc and range in order to target the entire
battlegroup
(thus a ship-to-ship situation). When determining which ships can then add their weapons systems dice to the battlegroup’s attack pool on the target battlegroup, a
ship
may only lend it’s weapons system if it has at least one target battlegroup
ship
in its range and arc (thus a ship-to-ship situation). When rolling the attack dice, the dice are rolled together as a single
battlegroup
attack, and when applying the damage from that attack, the damage is taken by the target
battlegroup
as a whole (thus a battlegroup-to-battlegroup situation). This can result in an unintuitive outcome in which the ship(s) that actually end up getting destroyed in the target battlegroup may actually never have been in arc and range of the attacking battlegroup’s ships.
Another confusion in the game rules came specifically from the "Power to Weapons Systems" Tactical command. During the game, CEOs may spend command tokens to give special tactical commands to their battlegroups. On one of the playing aids, the description of "Power to Weapons Systems" says that by spending 1 command token, the CEO may "subtract one from the result of every attack dice of one type in the attack pool". This sounds to me like if I have a mixture of dice types in my attack pool, say d6's and d8's, then I can spend 1 command token and subtract 1 from all my d6's or d8's, regardless of what ships' weapons systems these dice came from.
However, reading in the rules proper, I see this wording for "Power to Weapons Systems": "subtract one from the result of every attack dice of one weapon system in the attack pool". This sounds to me like I can only subtract 1 from the dice of one weapon system from 1 single ship in the battlegroup. This would mean I would have to keep track of which dice came from which ship in this large pool of dice I was rolling.
As these two versions of "Power to Weapons Systems" rules were at odds, we choose to follow the interpretation we found on the playing aid.
Other confusion came from how the rules were structured. I believe Mike was trying to introduce the rules in a staged manner, which is not bad in theory, but the rules felt repetitious and fractured, requiring me to look in several places in the rules to find the complete rules set surrounding a single topic.
For example, the rules proper were spread throughout 3 sections: a tutorial, the basic rules, and the advanced rules. When you get to the advanced rules, you see the comment "Once you are comfortable with the basic flow of the game, add these additional rules.". This is what I would expect from the advanced rules section: more rules to introduce slowly to the basic rules, once I was comfortable playing the basic rules. However, nowhere in the basic rules did I find out how to determine how many command tokens each CEO started with, so it was literally not possible to try out the basic rules first without reading into the advanced rules to find that information.
Finally, I have to make quick mention that the tutorial could barely be called a tutorial at all. It was more like a “movie trailer” section intended to create a curiosity to dive into the rules. I would have loved a true tutorial section.
As noted before, please keep in mind I was working with the Gamma rules, which were by no means meant to be polished, so I am hopeful that Mike and Osprey have worked out these issues in the final product.
Cool Ships I Couldn’t Use And Other Frustrations
Update: Mike has addressed many of my frustrations regarding the Tabletop Simulator module for ABS that I mention below. Thanks, Mike!
It really shows Mike's enthusiasm and commitment to the game that he took the time to make an official Tabletop Simulator module for ABS. He also said, when he released it, that he was not expert at creating TTS modules, so please take all this feedback for what it is, constructive criticism to make the module better.
When you first open the module, you are presented with a lot of eye candy: 4 tabletops with nice space-themed tablecloths, 2 different varieties of 3d ship models, playing aids laid neatly by the boards, a deck of contract cards, bags of dice and other tokens, and so on. Everything you see laid out excites you to play the game.
The first thing I did was grab some miniatures and placed them on the tables. So cool! I then noticed Mike had set them up to auto-measure when you move them. Very helpful. I laid out some tokens, shook the dice, looked at the playing aids, all seemed in order. Then I tried to play my first game.
Long story short, in our first play session, Wade and I spent a long time trying to actually use the miniatures in an effective way, but just couldn’t do it. You see, in ABS, positioning and distance is important. Additionally, the rule is that ships can be as close as you’d like to each other, even if their bases overlap, as long as they can stand up. However, due to the way the miniatures were imported, their "collision meshes" would not let us get the miniatures any closer than 1.7" before they would fall over. And, to play effectively, we
had
to get our ships grouped closer than 1.7".
We ended up calling it for the evening, and before we met again, I imported some flat ship tokens that we could use for our ships so we could get them close in formation. We were disappointed not to be able to field these beautiful minis, but it was necessary to be able to play a practical game.
Another frustration was with the contract card deck. Yes, it had the 12 base contracts in it, but the contracts require playing cards Ace through 10 of each suit in order to randomize and track the credit earnings for each contract. So, even though we could track the actual contracts in the module, I had to keep a set of playing cards at my desk, and my opponent had to take it on faith that I was being honest when I said he drew an Ace for his contract reward.
We also had some other minor frustrations:
1. the list of ships was missing from the playing aids
2. there was a bag of bags of tokens you had to take out and set up instead of the bags starting set up in the playing area
3. there were certain types of tokens required for the contracts but for which there were no token bags, so we ended up having to use the wrong tokens for contract setup
However, despite these frustrations, great or small, in the end we worked around them, and really had a marvelous time playing. All of my opponents said they would definitely use the TTS module again.
Conclusion
This review ended up a bit longer than I had intended. I hope you take this as an indication of how much I enjoy playing A Billion Suns. This is how I would summarize my thoughts on ABS and the Tabletop Simulator module:
The Fun
Once you get the rules down, A Billion Suns play flows very well. The rules are elegant and provide a lot of variation of play. The focus on contracts and making your credit line your victory points provides a lot of strategic depth and replayability. ABS’s ability to scale the challenge and opportunities during play combined with the Tabletop Simulator module means you can get in a satisfactory game session with only a few hours to play.
The Frustration
The Gamma rules that I reviewed were not well structured, some explanations were too vague, diagram explanations were sometimes wrong, and, in one case, the rules were contradictory. The tutorial was more of a "movie trailer" than a tutorial.
The Tabletop Simulator module, as of this writing, is a great start, but needs some polishing to make it ready for playing ABS, the most important of which is fixing the 3d miniatures so they can stand close together without falling down. That being said, it's not difficult to fix things up a bit yourself and play an awesome game in TTS.
The Recommendation
I think Mike has put together another winner here. I would definitely recommend picking up a copy, hopping on Tabletop Simulator (or even better, sitting down in person with friends once this horrible pandemic is under control), and making your way through the contracts.
Once I get the final rules in my hands, I plan on trying out the campaign rules, some new contracts, and definitely exploring the solo rules.
Parting Shots
I'd like to conclude with a look at our play-testing in TTS and some anecdotes and quotes from our play-testing.
a billion suns tabletop simulator screenshot
A great view from Tabletop Simulaor of jump points, planets, facilities, damaged battlegroups, contract fulfillment, and battlegroup conflict
Laura, who is not a regular miniatures game player, found the rules easy to understand once we got playing. She also loved Mike's humor in the rules, "I think its funny he thinks d4s are gross." (Yes, there are no d4s in the game, and they are gross.)
Wade said, "There are a lot of simple rules that seem to make this fun" (This is a great complement coming from Wade.)
Bob said, "Do you ever win this game with a positive number?" (Bob is a finance guy, can you tell?)
All players said they would definitely play again, preferably in person, but also using the Tabletop Simulator module
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Crazy Cockatoo Games
; all rights reserved
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