Freefall: Introducing the Beta

June 1997, by Bruce Biskup

Vampires just went terminal sir.

Acknowledged Lieutenant Yancey responded Captain Harwood of the UNSS destroyer Haiti. He smiled inwardly at the calm of his crew for everyone in the command center knew that they were soon to die.

Captain Harwood looked up from his screen that was displaying the Vs marking the incoming hostile missiles. Missiles whose warheads had just separated from their boosters were now screaming towards them at an incredible speed. Their vessel was state of the art but was not equipped to handle the saturation missile bombardment that the Mars rebels had sent them. UN Intelligence officials did not believe that the rebels could manufacture advance weapons in such a short time. Therefore, the UNSS Haiti was designed heavily towards the offensive with minimal defenses. It was a mistake that Captain Harwood and his crew were not capable of overcoming.

Captain Harwood spend his remaining moments reflecting on how he and his crew arrived at this time and place to die. 18 months ago, the UN Space Marines were defeated on Mars by so called “Mars patriots”. The ensuing diplomatic activity provided time for both the Earth and the Mars rebels to arm and equip themselves. Diplomacy failed and both sides waited for the other to strike. The Mars rebels struck first, today.

The Deep Space Surveillance network picked up the Mars ships at very long range. Contacts were intermittent but good enough to determine that they were ships, or so Admiral Toolbridge thought. The rebels successfully suckered the Luna Covering force out into space with decoy missiles. Too late in realizing the ruse, Admiral Toolbridge made another mistake in having the squadron reverse its course to race back to Earth space before the Mars ships arrived. The squadron made it back in time but did not have the fuel to maneuver. The rebel commander must have known this since the Mars vessels stood at long range and volleyed four missile salvos into the squadron. Without fuel to maneuver, the squadron could only sit and wait for the end. Maneuvering out of the intercept would take the squadron out of the capture trajectory for Earth orbit and into space forever. Either way though Captain Harwood, they were dead. All that was left was for the end to come.

History records that the first clash between the Mars rebels and the UNSS fleet was a tactical victory for the fledgling Mars navy. All 5 vessels of Admiral Toolbridge’s destroyer squadron were destroyed by the 1st Martian Destroyer flotilla. Lacking any remaining missiles to attack the Earth/Moon space factories or overcome the local defenses, the Mars attack group was forced to retire back to Mars space. Both sides realized that this war was going to be a long and bloody conflict.

OK, so I am not much of a science fiction writer, I won’t quit my day job.

For June, I would like to introduce the beta of the latest game from BoneGames: Freefall: The Battles for Mars Independence. Freefall is a space combat game that takes place in the near future between Earth and Mars forces. The game can be played as either a tactical fleet on fleet engagement or as a long term campaign game. This might sound familiar to those of you who have followed BoneGames. Freefall is an evolution of our earlier release: LNL (Laplace, Newton, & Lagrange) but is in fact a new game.

I wanted Freefall to be playable in a fleet engagement in an evening and a campaign game in a few days. To accomplish this goal, I have tried to design Freefall to play fast and to be fairly simple. With Freefall, I started with the basic movement system of the LNL and expanded the game to include more features. Paramount among the additions was a design-your-own ship system that is part of the campaign game and can be used with single action tactical battles. Like LNL, the movement system is based on tracking a pair of velocity vectors for each ship. As in LNL, players will have to learn how to manage fuel, velocity and position since the ships portrayed in the game will not be able to perform aerobatic maneuvers like those portrayed in popular science fiction movies.

I must stress that Freefall is a game and not a simulation. I have tried not to be too blatant with breaking the known laws of physics but I had to make many compromises to make Freefall work as a game. To quote an old engineer’s axiom: All design is compromise. Freefall contains many compromises of reality for the sake of game play. For example, orbital mechanics is not modeled realistically in Freefall nor is the game a 3D game. Players will note that the planets in Freefall move about the board in circles. This is not how it really works but it is the simplest way to implement moving planets into the game.

There always seems to be a discussion on about how a true space game needs to be 3D. I have tried to play a few 3D space games and the hassle of the 3rd dimension is not worth the loss in game play.

I purposely designed the game without a scale. This may seem heresy to a wargamer but this decision greatly simplified the game mechanics and significantly sped up the game play. I originally designed the game scaled to match our Solar system. To implement the real size of the solar system I used both a strategic board and a tactical board. Play would have to move between the two boards smoothly to keep the game flowing. This is similar to how the different game scales mesh together in Task Force Games Starfire game. After working with this two level system for a few days I finally gave it up. The complexity was interfering with the quick play that I wanted Freefall to have. Again, I was designing for good game play and not reality.

I must admit that the design-your-own ship system is rather arbitrary. The DYO system was something that both Josh and I wanted to include in the original LNL game. At the time we couldn’t come up with a system that we liked since we couldn’t come up with a way of relating each system to one another. Freefall actually began when I was looking at a copy of the old rules and just started doodling equations for calculating ship systems. I looked at each system as a separate entity and ignored the issue of trying to relate each system to each other. After about 30 minutes, I had convinced myself that this could work and went back to editing the game.

Those of you who have played LNL will note several major differences between LNL and Freefall in the ship systems. For Freefall, I have added several new ship systems. Sensors (S#), Command & Control centers (CIC), Electronic Countermeasures (ECM#), and Electronic Counter-countermeasures (ECCM#) are all new systems in Freefall. The expanded system list is providing some variety in ship designs. All are based on current naval/aircraft system concepts and fulfill the same role. I wanted to include in Freefall all systems found on modern naval vessels that would be applicable to space combat that I could easily incorporate into the game.

Another big difference between the two games is how range is determined. Essentially, the maximum engagement range is the maximum sensor range of the ship. Essentially, if you can see it, you can hit it. This leads to a major hole in the current game concerning the sensor rules. I am still working on this. I want some sort of dummy counter system for vessels on the board. I need a system that allows for contacts to grow and move about the board so that players will have to periodically clear data by turning on their active sensors. However, I want the system to not slow the game down too much. I might even make the sensor rules an advanced rule section. Some feedback from players could help with this issue.

The last major addition to the game was the Random Event cards. Joshua and I have had much experience with using cards in our game designs and so it seemed natural to use a deck of cards to provide technological advancement, random events, and to prematurely end the game. The current deck is far from fixed. Changing the mix of cards can radically change the nature of the game so feel free to experiment. The cards can be used for both tactical scenarios and campaign games. The variable end of game feature in the campaign game is a feature we like to use help to shorten the game. The variable game length also helps to promote action by the players since no one really knows when the game is going to end so it is best to start doing something as soon as possible.

I believe that is enough about Freefall for now. Take a look at the beta rules, play the game, and let us know what you think. I will be looking forward to comparing your results with the comments and feedback from my local playtesters.

Winter ’99 Note from Joshua

Freefall is no longer available in public beta. Work is continuing on it, and a public beta may be made available at a later date.