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Tabletop Game / Starfire

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"For an instant, the decades rolled away and it was the time of the Second Interstellar War, when Commander Nikolai Borisovich Antonov, his Operations officer, had learned of the birth of a son on the eve of the Second Battle of Ophiuchi Junction. They'd all had a little more to drink that night than they should have, but Nikolai had survived both the vodka and the battle. And toward the end of the Third Interstellar War, President Anderson had met Vice Admiral Antonov's newly commissioned son . . . who now sat across from Minister of War Production Anderson, tossing back his vodka so much like Nikolasha that for an instant it seemed . . . Too many memories. We are not meant to live so long."
— Howard Anderson, Crusade

Starfire is a hex-map-based Wargame, focused on combat between fleets of space ships.

Building ships and fighting between individual ships was originally designed to be almost painfully simple, so that the players could focus on fleet tactics. As the game evolved, however, the rules grew more complex, until players needed to keep track of almost as much information per ship as in Star Fleet Battles. (Which, coincidentally, was originally written by the same author).

The game is now in its fifth edition.Of particular interest is the fact that David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series of SF novels, became a contributor to the game starting with the Starfire III: Empires supplement of the 1st Edition. Some of Weber's online comments about the game, and his involvement with it, can be found here (the black text on that page is an expandable link container). Weber later teamed up with Steve White to write novels set in the Starfire universe, of which 8 have been published so far:

  • Crusade (part of The Stars At War)
  • In Death Ground (part of The Stars At War)
  • The Shiva Option (part of The Stars At War II)
  • Insurrection (part of The Stars At War II)
  • Exodus (by Steve White and Shirley Meier)
  • Extremis (by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon)
  • Imperative (by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon)
  • Oblivion (by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon)

Not to be confused with the DC Comics character, Starfire. Also bears no relation to the 1980 coin-op Arcade Game Star Fire, or to the rocket-armed F-94C, or to the nuclear fusion process that powers actual stars.

This wargame provides examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: All starships have a 60 degree "blind spot" directly aft. If an enemy can work its way into a ship's blind spot, it can shoot all of its weapons at the ship and its target will be powerless to fire back.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: When dealing with humans, the Vestrii (from Alkelda Dawn) like to wear powered armor suits that make them look like humans — often hot chick humans.
  • Antimatter: If nuclear missiles don't pack enough punch for your Space Navy, you can upgrade their warheads to the antimatter variety, which (depending on the tech level and which rule revision you're playing with) can do anywhere from 2-5 times as much damage. Of course, having all that antimatter sitting in your starship's missile holds can be a tad dangerous....
  • Armor-Piercing Attack: Lasers pierce (a limited, tech-determined number of) shields. Energy beams do the same with armour. Primary (force) beams skip armour and shields, but only do a single point of damage. Capital primary beams drop the "only do a single point of damage" bit, though they still do less damage than a standard capital-scale weapon would.
  • The Battlestar: The first expansion published during the 1st Edition years, Starfire II, introduced fighter carriers. Fighters are tiny, fragile, single-seat weapon platforms capable of flying faster and turning more sharply than a normal-sized starship. Their carriers mount their own weapons with which to defend themselves even if all their fighters are deployed. The Terrans, Orionsnote , and Ophiuchinote  first encountered them when they ran into the Rigelliansnote .
  • Beam Spam: Take your pick — laser beams, force beams, primary beams, energy beams, needle beams, capital force beams, capital primary beams, capital energy beams, second-generation capital force beams, nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers, heterodyne lasers, and don't even get me started on inertial sinks.
  • Bears Are Bad News: The Rigellians. Not only do they look like bears, they believe in the extermination of all other spacefaring species.
  • Boxed Crook: The pirate Thomas Calloway in the Nexus magazine #4 article "The Gauntlet".
  • Bug War: The Fourth Interstellar War against the Arachnids.
  • Cat Folk: The Khanate of Orion. If you smile at one, don't let your teeth show; they'll consider it a combat challenge.
  • Civil War: Long after the Fourth Interstellar War was over, the Terran Federation grew so large that its core worlds and corporate worlds no longer respected the needs of its fringe worlds. Thus, the fringe worlds declared their independence, and the core worlds tried to pound them back into the fold.
  • Deflector Shields: A ship's shields behave like ablative armor, providing protection by collapsing. The more shields you install on a ship, however, the less room your ship will have for other systems. Higher tech levels have access to more expensive shields that provide more protection per hull-space.
    • A starship's Ion Drive engines also produce a "Drive Field" around the ship, which no physical object can cross without being vaporized. Thus, nuclear missiles are programmed to detonate just before they reach their target's drive field — and that separation distance at the moment of detonation means the target ship takes far less damage than it would if the missile had come into direct contact with it. (The effect of a missile hit on a unit with no drive field varies from edition to edition. In Starfire III, one hit by a missile completely destroys a mothballed (and therefore driveless) unit. In 2nd Edition, missile damage on driveless units was multiplied by 10. In 3rd Edition, it was multiplied by 3, except for space stations which multiplied such damage by 2 and may or may not have had a weak drive field.)
  • Energy Weapon: Lasers are the first type of beam weapon available to a low-tech civilization. At higher tech levels, an empire may have access to X-ray lasers or high-powered heterodyne lasers. All types of lasers will pass right through a target's shields, but not through a target's physical armor.
  • Fantastic Rank System: Nexus magazine #8 and #12 had articles on the militaries of the Khanate of Orion and Protectorate of Rigel, including their rank structure. Khanate rank names tend to end in "claw" (for comissioned officers) or "fang" (for generals and admirals). And, yes, they have almost exactly the same number of officer and general ranks as modern terrestrial militaries do, despite being a species of cat people.
  • FTL Travel: Of the "portal network" variety. Strategists measure the "distance" between star systems not in light-years or parsecs, but in how many warp-point hops it takes to get from one system to another. Strategic maps look more like the state diagrams of the old text-based adventure games than actual maps.
  • First Contact: Occurs between the Terrans and the Khanate of Orion in 2205 A.D., at the piddling little backwater star system of VX-134. Both starships in the encounter opened fire on one another.
  • Heavyworlder: The Gorm home planet has much stronger gravity than any other spacefaring empire's homeworld. Originally, this was the reason given for their ships' ability to mount greater numbers of engines and thus have higher top speeds. When helpful readers pointed out that Ion Drive Engine technology didn't actually generate G forces on the ship or its crew, the reasoning was retconned to be that the Gorm's higher radiation tolerance allowed them to operate more engines at once.
  • Hive Mind: The Arachnids, being closely patterned on the Arachnids from Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, exist as a mentally interconnected colony of many many worker bugs and only a few "brain bugs". They have no qualms about sending worker-manned starships on suicide missions, since the loss of a worker isn't seen as a "death" in the human sense.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Arachnids consider humans a delicacy.
  • Inertial Dampening: The standard Ion Drive Engines can instantly bring a starship from a standing stop to a sizable percentage of the speed of light, almost like an inertialess drive. Likewise, a starship can instantly drop from full speed to a dead stop, and then resume speed again, up to 6 times per turn. What it can't do easily is change direction.
  • Intelligent Gerbil: The Khanate of Orion are cat aliens. The Ophiuchi Association are bird aliens. The Rigellians are bear aliens. The Crucians are bat aliens. The Arachnids are, as might be expected, spider aliens.
  • Lensman Arms Race: The Tech Advancement system assures that these happen. At the beginning of the First Interstellar War, the Terrans and the Orions had shields, ion drive engines, low-powered lasers, and launchers that could fire long-range or short-range missiles (but not both). By the end of the First Interstellar War, both sides had tractor beams, anti-tractor shearing planes, hybrid long- and short-range missile launchers, anti-missile point defense, datalinks that could coordinate missiles fired from multiple ships to overwhelm the target's point defense, and multiplex tracking that could allow a single ship to fire on multiple targets simultaneously.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: Due to the presence of Point Defense systems on most units, damaging an enemy at long range requires you to inundate him with so many missiles he can't possibly stop them all.
  • Meaningful Name: In 1st Edition, the surprise attack launched by the Rigellian Protectorate against the Khanate of Orion took place at Paurl Harbor.
  • Mobile-Suit Human: The Vestriian encounter suit is supposed to be this, but they just can't seem to get the face right. Their suits sometimes make up for this with curvy hips and the Most Common Superpower.
  • No Bulk Discounts: In 1st Edition, if your empire manufactured 2 or more identical starships, you got a 10% cost discount on all identical ships after the first. This encouraged players to create "classes" of ships, like real navies do. However, this rule was removed in 2nd Edition.
  • Nuke 'em: Standard anti-starship missiles are all fitted with nuclear warheads. The only reason a starship can withstand so many hits from these missiles is that their engines' Drive Field prevents physical objects from coming into contact with the ship's hull — so the missiles have to be programmed to detonate an instant before they reach the target's Drive Field.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Fighters, like starships, take time (and distance) to change heading, and must always be pointed in the same direction they're moving. Since a fighter's weapons only fire in a 60 degree arc to the front, a fighter squadron will try to maneuver such that their enemy is in its firing arc but no enemy fighters have it in their firing arc.
  • One-Hit-Point Wonder: Any hit on a fighter destroys it. (Getting that hit is significantly harder than hitting a starship, however.)
  • Our Wormholes Are Different: Naturally-occurring warp points link the star systems to each other. They can only be traversed by a ship with a Drive Field, and have a chance of destroying ships if 2 or more of them try to make transit at the same time.
  • Planet Terra: It ain't called the Terran Federation Navy for nothin'.
  • Portal Network: Warp points form a naturally-occuring one.
  • Proud Warrior Race: The Khanate of Orion, a thinly-veiled copy of the Kzinti. The Rigellians, by contrast, are simply out to exterminate the competition.
  • Reactionless Drive: Little description is given as to how the standard Ion Drive engine works, let alone as to whether there's any exhaust coming out its tailpipe, but starships can cruise (and make any number of course changes) at 5-10% of the speed of light for weeks without refuelling. The Shiva Option explicitly refers to it as a reactionless drive.
  • Shout-Out: The Primary Beam is a shout-out to the weapon of the same name in Gray Lensman.
    • The Arachnids are closely modelled on the Bugs in the Starship Troopers novel.
    • The introduction of the Space Fighter and fighter carrier in Starfire II was inspired by the original 1970s Battlestar Galactica. The 1st Edition rules example for a squadron control sheet even used the name "Blue Squadron."
    • The Khanate of Orion bear a striking resemblance, both in physical appearance and mannerism, to the Kzinti from Larry Niven's Known Space universe.
  • Single-Biome Planet: In the Nexus magazine #9 article "Heeaquii War Scenarios", Heeaq VII is an Ice Planet.
  • Space Base: Space stations are sprawling space complexes which, due to the lack of a Drive Field, are especially vulnerable to missile fire. Base Stations (a.k.a. Orbital Weapon Platforms), on the other hand, have the full protection of a starship's Drive Field, even though they don't go anywhere.
  • Space Battle: The whole game.
  • Space Fighter: See The Battlestar above.
  • Space Is an Ocean: The Ion Drive Field of a starship can instantly bring a vessel from a dead stop to 1/10 of the speed of light. However, a ship must always follow its nose, it can't fly sideways or backwards. It takes time and distance to change heading once a ship has started moving.
  • Space Navy: The ship weight classes are named after their wet-navy equivalents — Escorts, Corvettes, Destroyers, Light Cruisers, Heavy Cruisers, Battlecruisers, Battleships, Superdreadnoughts, and Monitors, not to mention Cutters and Pinnaces. The Terrans' main military space force is even called the Terran Federation Navy.
  • Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: Big but slow capital ships, small but fast cruisers, fighters and fighter carriers.
  • Standard Starship Scuffle: Distances are realistic — a single hex represents a region of space 150 thousand kilometers across (reduced to 75 thousand in 3rd Edition Revised) — but the tactics and feel are still of old naval ships banging away at each other with broadsides.
  • Subsystem Damage: The entire combat system is practically defined as this. A starship's control sheet is basically a string of system codes, where each code represents a shield, a layer of armor, or an "internal system", like so: SSSSAAAZLIRIII. (Each S is a shield, each A is a layer of armor, and the other letters are various internal systems like lasers and ion engines.) With most weapons, one damage point destroys the first undamaged system on the control sheet — so, after taking 9 points of damage, the same ship's control sheet would look like this: xxxxxxxxxIRIII. In order to destroy a starship, all of its internal systems must be destroyed. Thus, while a ship is being pounded on, more and more of its systems will go down and the ship can do less and less.
  • Technology Levels: Until 4th Edition, the technological progress of all races was gauged by a single ladder of Tech Levels. At Tech Level I, you got Ion Drive Engines, Shields, Missiles, and Lasers. At Tech Level III, you got Tractor Beams. At Tech Level VIII, you got fighters. Didn't matter if you were Terran, Orion, Ophiuchi, Rigellian, Gorm, or Arachnid; all races progressed exactly the same, even if they'd never encountered another starfaring race before.
  • Tech Tree: Introduced in 4th Edition to replace — or, rather, enhance — the old system of Technology Levels. Each empire still has an overall "Science Level", but the development of specific new pieces of technology is based on earlier development in that particular Tree; the Science Level is merely a limiting factor that prevents an empire from going too far down one Tree at the expense of all the others.
  • Theme Naming: Like the Real Life Navy, nearly ubiquitous when naming the starships belonging to the same class.
    • In 1st Edition, all Ophiuchi ships had Arabic names, and all Rigellian ships had German names. This despite neither race having ever heard of Earth before.
  • To Serve Man: The Arachnids of the Fourth Interstellar War find humans a delicacy.
  • Tractor Beam: A starship's tractor beams are a terrifying weapon, capable of yanking enemy units around like ragdolls and preventing them from dodging your weapons fire. As a consequence, the "shearing plane," which nullified all tractor beams used against a ship, was invented immediately after tractor beams first appeared on the battlefield.
    • A variant called the "Presser Beam" also exists, which serves not to draw an enemy unit closer but to push it away.
    • The Force Beam and Primary Beam were developed by using tractor technology to punch instead of push.
  • 2-D Space: The game is played on a flat hexmap, after all.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: Starship hulls, and individual ship systems, are priced in "megacredits."

The novel series also provides examples of:

  • Aliens Are Bastards: Where to even begin.
    • The Rigellians, from the Third Interstellar War, weren't discussed much in the novels, but what is known is that they were xenophobic, killed all inhabited planets they seized, and enough of a problem that the Terrans, Orions, Ophiuchi, and Gorm had to form the Grand Alliance for the first time to beat them.
    • The Thebans during the Theban War were ensnared by the Church of Holy Terra, a fake religion formed by the psychotic and zealous disciple of a survivor of the Second Interstellar War, where the Terrans and Orions fought. Believing the Orions to be evil, and Terra in need of defense, when they found out that the Orions had allied with the Terrans, they then decided to enact a crusade to liberate Holy Terra from the "fallen" Terrans.
    • The Arachnid Omnivoracity from the Fourth Interstellar War, a hive mind of telepathic spider-like aliens that considered all other sapients to be food to be slaughtered and then cultivated as livestock. They viewed everything around them as resources, including their own species, and built massive City Planets designed to house as much of their species and their food as possible, with no regard for living conditions, as they didn't consider themselves to even be "individuals".
    • The Tangri Corsairs, centauroids that looked upon all bipedal races as inferior, and all victories of said bipeds against them as flukes by weak leaders that could not organize a proper horde.
    • And finally, the Arduans, telepathic refugees from a world gone supernova. Utilizing colony ships that were sleeper/generation hybrids powered by micro black holes due to not knowing how the warp line system works, those that languished as generations in the ships slightly devolved into religious fanatics, and when the revived sleepers began to object to them believing all other sapients were animals pretending to be people due to lacking any psychic sense, they began butchering their own people, all "for the sake of the race".
  • Aliens Love Human Food: The Orions have developed a taste for human alcohol; bourbon is generally thought to be the most popular one, but some (usually those who were close to Admiral Antonov) prefer vodka.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: The preferred strategy of Senior Admiral Torhok in Exodus and Extremis, and later the Kaituni in Imperative and Oblivion. In fact, a general sign of the Destoshaz degradation in Arduans is a myopic preference for massive sweeping offensive actions at the expense of everything else in warfare, as the allied forces against them prove in both wars.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game:
    • At the start of the Fourth Interstellar War during In Death Ground, it becomes apparent that the Arachnids possess two key qualities: a predatory mindset at their command level that can create intricate tactical and strategic traps and feints, and a willingness to accept ridiculous loss ratios to accomplish their objectives. This culminates in the disastrous Operation Pesthouse, where a huge portion of Allied forces are baited into a trap filled with several enemy fleets due to the Arachnids sacrificing several systems to lure them in. But by the start of the sequel book, The Shiva Option, Allied commanders have fully mobilized the war machine of the Terran Federation, and begin to use the Arachnids' qualities against them, with experienced Allied admirals coordinating traps for their opponents to fall into, while also expecting to be lured into a trap and planning accordingly, on top of having the greater resources to turn the rates of attrition back on their enemies.
    • In Insurrection Francois Fouchet orders the murder of his political rival Fionna MacTaggart, confident that his immunity from prosecution as a member of the Legislative Assembly will protect him. One of Fionna's political allies breaks Fouchet's neck in the middle of the next session, taking advantage of his own immunity as a member of the Assembly.
  • Bring News Back: In both In Death Ground and The Shiva Option, deep scouts from the Terran Federation Navy discover closed warp points with huge strategic implications — while they're several systems deep in enemy territory and have no way of getting a message home.
  • Chew-Out Fake-Out: In Crusade, Commodore Hannah Avram thinks she's going to get seriously admonished by Admiral Antonov (possible charges could have included "mutiny, treason, insubordination, misappropriation of private property and everything else short of littering"). However, at the end of his "critique", Antonov praises her actions note  and gives her a field promotion to Rear Admiral.
    • In The Shiva Option, Rear Admiral Eileen Somers (CO of Survey Flotilla 19), had to report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding her actions. While out of contact with the Terran Federation or the Alliance, she made a pact with the Star Union of Crucis (a multi-species confederation that was also fighting the Arachnids), giving them advanced weapons, technology and training to help their war effort. When she finished her report, the Joint Chiefs decided that she had acted in the best interests of the Alliance. Only...
    Sky Marshal MacGregor: "Don't let it happen again."
  • Do Not Go Gentle: All sides tend to fight bitterly when facing inevitable defeat.
Their role had suddenly narrowed to inflicting as many enemy casualties as possible before their own unavoidable cessation of existence.
  • Fantastic Caste System: One of the traits of the Arduans. In additional to two general physiological types, the smaller, dark-skinned phenotype that is better with selnarm and the larger, golden-skinned phenotype that is more of a physical build, each Arduan is later placed into a specific caste based on ability.
  • Humanity Is Superior: Weber rarely misses an opportunity to point out how much better Terran industry, and to a lesser extent technology, is than the Orion Khanate's.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Played around with, and ultimately subverted, in Exodus and beyond. The Arduans, lacking any frame of reference for the transmissions they receive upon nearing a human system, misinterpret documentaries of the Fourth Interstellar War and of the Terran Civil War as the rest of the galaxy being barbarous savages. It doesn't help that the Arduans' definition of "sapient" includes a psychic sense that other species don't possess until the Arduans discover that humans can develop it. Further compounding the issue is that the Arduans, during their centuries-long exodus, have mostly devolved their own psychic senses to the point that their own mental flexibility is severely hampered, and most of them simply can't conceive of the idea of living with other sentient species.
  • Info Dump: This is David Weber we're talking about here.
  • Knight Templar: The alien civilization in Crusade thinks of the Terrans as their godlike saviors, and the Khanate of Orion as the devil — to such an extent that any Terrans seen aiding the Orions are viewed as "fallen angels" who must be exterminated for the greater good.
    • The aliens got their ideology from an isolated Terran expedition while the Terrans and Khanate were at war. When the aliens emerged into the galaxy, the Terrans and Khanate were on friendlier terms...
  • Lensman Arms Race: To keep up with the Arachnids, the Allied navies (especially the Terrans) are forced to build more—and bigger—warships than ever.
  • Match Cut: In Crusade. ("... Redwing!")
  • Military Science Fiction: Of course!
  • Nightmare Sequence: In Death Ground has a scene where Admiral Villers is woken from his sleep by klaxon alarms signifying the arrival of the Bugs. Villers prepare for battle, reflecting how even this nightmarish situation is better than the actual nightmare he just woke up from: watching the people of the planet he's protecting be slaughtered, with all of them having the faces of his wife and daughter.
  • The Political Officer: Played straight in Crusade, where a diplomat was given complete authority over the so-called "Peace Fleet", which was sent out to negotiate with the Thebans. When the Thebans launched a surprise attack, the Terran fleet was in a very vulnerable position, and most of it was destroyed.
    • In The Shiva Option, Vice-Admiral Terence Mukerji was added to Admiral Raymond Prescott's staff as a "governmental liaison". However, since Admiral Mukerji had no authority over operational matters, all he could really do was take up space and make a nuisance of himself...which he did.
  • Poor Communication Kills: What starts the two wars against the Arduans.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Certain select individuals have received "antigerone" treatments, which vastly extend their lifespans. Admiral Ivan Antonov, the main fleet commander during Crusade, is still healthy enough to be recalled to active duty in In Death Ground nearly a century later.
  • Saying Too Much: In the novel Crusade, Fleet Chaplain Manuk assures Admiral Lantua that the absence of any reference to "the true faith" in their prisoners' history records can be explained by data manipulation deceiving their ancestors. The knowledge Manuk displays about how history can be falsified causes Lantua to realize that the Theban church has been falsifying history and lying to the people, which leads to Lantua's Heel–Face Turn.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Honor Harrington series, also by Weber, reuses concepts, technology, personality, even a few names.
  • Strategy Versus Tactics: There are two types of drives: military drives, which are very powerful and take up a small hull volume but must be periodically shut down for maintenance, and commercial drives, which are bulkier and slower but are actually faster over long distances due to their greater endurance. Most warships accept no substitutes for military drives; however, the Bugs use commercial drives for their fleets, making their ships less capable and survivable but allowing them to more easily gather and deploy the crushingly huge attritional fleets they favor.
  • Unwanted False Faith: In the back story for Crusade, a Terran starship crash-landed on an inhabited alien planet during the First Interstellar War, and its captain told the inhabitants there how the Khanate of Orion was the enemy. The aliens take his words as Divine Revelation, painting the Terrans as angels and the Orions as devils. So when, long after hostilities between the Terrans and Orions have ended, an Orion starship happens to poke its nose into their star system, they blast the "devils" to smithereens. To prove to the Orions that we're still friendly and prevent another war, the Terrans have to attack this alien race — who, unwilling to give up their Cargo Cult beliefs, conclude that these new Terrans are "fallen" Terrans.
  • Weapon Running Time: Combat between starships is heavily missile-oriented. Some missiles are relatively slow and can be intercepted by point defense. Others are blindingly fast - almost lightspeed - and at the ranges that combat occurs, these "capital" missiles can't be intercepted, only blocked by shields. In Insurrection, one of the weapons breakthroughs produced by the Zephrain research base is a missile that runs for such a long time that if it misses on its first run, it can turn around and make a second attack. Needless to say, that comes as quite a shock to the opposing forces.
  • You Are in Command Now:
    • After the first battle in In Death Ground, the highest-ranking survivor aboard one ship (which is scuttled soon afterward) is the assistant navigator, who was ninth in the chain of command.
    • Later in "In Death Ground," Admiral Teller is told that he is in command of the task force when Admiral Villers decides to Hold the Line.
    • When the first major exclusion into bug territory goes wrong, Admiral Prescott takes command of the fleet after Admiral Antonov's ship is crippled, and he orders them to leave him.