What is it all about?
No Stars in Sight is a tactical, miniatures game using the following guiding (design) principles:
- A platoon battle will come down to a series of heroic actions by small groups of soldiers.
- Small arms fire primarily results in the enemy being pinned down. Casualties are much less common than normally assumed in games.
- A vigorous fire fight can result in one side being pushed back without having suffered significant losses.
- Wounded and dead will significantly impact a squad's ability to operate effectively.
- Irregular militia and insurgent troops should operate differently from regular trained forces.
- Tabletop scale should be treated realistically. Your typical gaming table represents the "tip of the spear" in most cases, engaging the enemy at very close ranges.
- Games should be playable on a relatively small table and without spending a fortune on figures.
- Large open spaces in sight of the enemy are very difficult to cross. Try to avoid having fire lanes that are 5+ inches wide and running the length of the table.
- For your first game especially, set the forces pretty close to each other – 2 feet apart – on a table with fairly dense terrain.
- Projectile weapons are still the dominant infantry weapon.
- Resource scarcity has made the seizure and control of vital resources of top importance. This has led to an increased importance for small, well trained infantry units.
- The basic rebel with an automatic rifle doesn't look terribly different than they did 200 years ago.
- Advances in computers have produced highly autonomous computer systems that can operate with minimal human input. True human level artificial intelligence is still not viable but autonomous systems can operate to the level of a well trained animal.
- State of the art infantry can outfight a force far larger, however, the cost of deploying such units makes them prohibitive. Local mercenaries with a more modest technological base are often employed in their stead.
- Ground based vehicles are still dominant but gravity suspension systems have begun to see deployment. Such vehicles will supplant the role of helicopters.
- Great advances in genetics have improved the health of the populations in rich countries, as well as opened the possibility for genetic “optimization” programs and cybernetic enhancements.
The core concept – or at least one of them, I assume there are five – is that players keep track of each leader's stress level, both temporary and permanent, in order to determine how effective they are with command and control. The easiest way to explain this is by way of example.
Each turn each leader attempts to "activate" in order to get his unit to perform actions. He gets a total of 1D6 activation points, minus his current stress level. Each time the leader succeeds in activating he temporarily adds one point to his stress. So a simple example, at the start of the first turn of the game Leader 1 has 0 stress. He rolls 1D6 and scores a '4', so he has four activation points to spend having his unit perform actions. After he is done, he adds one temporary point to his stress. He decides to try and activate again so he rolls 1D6 and subtracts 1 (for his current stress level) and rolls a '2'. He has 1 activation point to spend and after all activations are complete, increases his stress to 2 temporary points. He decides to try and activate once again, rolling 1D6 and subtracting 2, getting a '2', resulting in 0 activation points. This indicates that he is "exhausted" and can no longer attempt activations for the remainder of the turn. Play moves on to the next unexhausted leader. (Note that you are not required to use one leader until exhaustion before using another.)
At the end of the turn, all figures that have stress (typically only leaders and vehicles, but sometimes individual soldiers that can operate solo) subtract up to three temporary stress each. Any remaining stress becomes permanent. So, if you really try and push your luck and activate four or more times a turn, that excess stress stays with the leader.
I found this mechanism pretty easy to handle. I try and reduce the number of markers on the table, and definitely do not like it when I have to use multiple markers for a single figure, so I kept an index card on the side with each unit listed. As I would accumulate stress I put a tick mark. When a stress point became permanent I used a '0' to indicate its permanency. Pretty simple and effective.
What can you do with an activation point? The most common use is either to remove pinning from a single figure or activate one figure so it can move and fire.
Because you are rolling 1D6 for the number of activation points command and control can be pretty haphazard. When you are using very small squads, say 5-6 men, it is very easy for everyone to be able to do something every activation, until you start pushing your luck. For larger squads, however, you have to start alternating who gets activated or start using group orders.
There are two group orders: group movement and suppression fire. Group movement is just that, a group of 2 to 3 figures close together moving together to the same area. It costs only a single point, but at the expense of none of the figures being able to fire. Suppression fire allows a group of 2 to 3 figures close together to fire at a target for a single point. The tradeoff, however, is that none of the fire can kill or wound and none of the figures can move.
Shooting is easy ... and difficult all at the same time. When you activate a figure you can choose to either fire before or after the move. I believe you are also expected to fire as a group, if firing at the same target(s), although this is not strictly necessary.
I say it is "easy" because the method for figuring out combat results is relatively simple. Each figure generates so many firepower, based on their training, with some weapons generating additional firepower. Each firepower point generates 1 "shock" die and 1/2 a "kill" die. Shock dice cause pins and kill dice cause hits (wounds and kills). The numbers to hit are fixed, so no list of modifiers to deal with.
The "hard" part is the flexibility of being able to shoot before or after, with or without support from others. There is no Movement phase and then Shooting phase. Nor is there a requirement to finish one figure's activation completely before starting another. (You do have to finish a unit's activation before starting another, however.) You can shoot some of your figures, then move others who then shoot afterwards, and finally end by moving the figures that shot initially. It is this flexibility that will probably cause most players to limit the number of figures under their command, or at least in each unit. More testing will tell.
Morale is built into a number of small rules and are largely reflected by figures being pinned or retreating. There are no morale "breaks". You will find that a unit simply becomes so ineffective due to casualties and pinning that they cannot do anything. The negative modifier to the activation point roll will get such that you, the player, will stop attacking, start pulling back, tending to the wounded, and trying to get as many soldiers in close groups (defined as figures within 1" of each other) so you can perform group moves and suppression fire to get the most effect for the few activation points you receive. I like this effect. It not only feels right, but it sounds like accounts I have read about others huddling together when things get bad and people dealing with the wounded rather than being on the firing line. As this models basic psychology I think it can apply to many other periods.
Many rules use a high casualty rate for combat and state that a casualty represents men "rendered ineffective", "wounded", and "killed" without ever bothering to specify what percentage are in each category. This makes it particularly difficult for translating effects for a campaign game. Although breaking each category out in a game may sound like it might be more complex to play out, my playtest game shows otherwise. The main thing is that there is a bookkeeping component to this game – using markers, a roster, or both – so you can see exactly how a unit's effectiveness degrades.
So, using the review system from before, here are the game ratings for No Stars in Sight (NSIS).
Drama – do the rules create tension during play?
The use of a die roll to determine the number of activation points a unit receives can cause swings from an entire unit being able to act to one figure to none, exhausting the leader from giving any more orders that turn. There are quite a number of random rolls, in fact, such as variable movement while rushing across open ground, reaction fire/opportunity fire/overwatch, chance to pin, hit, wound, or kill, assault, morale, and so on. All of these contribute to the drama as the rolls usually lead to direct consequences, like being pinned in the open.
I would not say that the game can "turn on a dime", but I would say that a player's expectations of how well he is doing goes up and down throughout the game. If that does not describe drama, I am using the wrong term.
NSIS rates 4 out of 5 in Drama.
Uncertainty – are there enough elements that introduce uncertainty into the game?
The rules have a number of chance elements, as indicated above. What is nice about it is that the rolls are relatively easy to remember in not only the number needed for success, but the number of dice to be rolled. There are very few modifiers to rolls. I think the number of rolls have been reduced down to just the necessary elements.
NSIS rates 4 out of 5 in Uncertainty.
Engaging – do the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences?
The player makes a number of meaningful decisions in the game, from who gets the limited resource of activation points, to what order you perform actions. For example, during my playtest I came upon many instances where I forgot to fire before moving, where there was a possibility to pin the enemy on overwatch. Trust me, the consequences were often that I ended up getting people pinned or wounded out in the open!
I think the lack of strict structure to the turn sequence increases the player's engagement.
NSIS rates 5 out of 5 in Engaging.
Unobtrusiveness – do the rules get in the way?
As stated previously, most of the numbers needed for success are easy to remember, as is the number of dice to roll. There is one chart, which is the chance of being wounded or killed, by armor type. Given that there are four armor types for infantry (not counting Powered Armor, which is a totally different beast), a chart is probably easier to remember than a set of rules.
Where the rules do get in the way, and it is probably something that applies more to NSIS than to the other FiveCore titles, is that rather than using die roll modifiers there are a number of exceptions to rules. A good example is the use of Exo-Suits in Assault. Rather than using the standard to hit roll then determining the whether the figure is wounded or killed (by armor type), Exo-Suits change the chance to hit, but if hit are automatically killed. Until you play the rules enough this will be something that forces you to refer to the rules, and not just the QRS. Speaking of which, because of these exceptions, the QRS is not so useful unless you don't use things that cause exceptions. That is why I lowered the rating by 1 point.
Speaking of modifiers though, I should not come across that there are no die roll modifiers. There are a few. But because the norm is constant hit number with some exceptional cases, I consider those rules that modify the die roll to be yet another exceptional case.
NSIS rates 3 out of 5 in Unobtrusiveness.
Heads Up – are the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet?
As indicated above in the Unobtrusiveness rating, the numbers are easy to remember, so a QRS is not really necessary. Also because there is little structure to the turn you don't need the Turn Sequence printed out as a reminder of what the next step is. As stated before, rule exceptions can be a problem if you use quirky gear and the QRS gives no indication of these exceptions.
NSIS rates 4 out of 5 in Heads Up.
Appropriately Flavored – do the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played?
As it stands, the genre being represented is today, with some moderately advanced gear. The basic design philosophy, unlike say Warhammer 40,000 is that it is the man, not the gear, that determines how effective he is in combat. If you agree with that, then it is appropriately flavored.
Note that there are a lot of rules that I have not used, as I wanted to start simple and not get wrapped around the axle with too many quirky items. (See the AAR that follows.) There are a number of aliens and weapons defined. There are droids, system hacking, vehicles, and so on. Again, the rules tend towards "hard" (i.e. believable) science fiction rather than science fantasy ("Anoint your bolters brothers!"), so if you don't mind using your Space Marines as something other than super-soldiers that walk over everything, you will probably like the flavor.
NSIS rates 4 out of 5 in Appropriately Flavored.
Scalable – can the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or number of units played – from a 'normal' game?
Right now the game is aimed at a platoon per side. Can it scale up? Yes, sort of. There are suggestions to use more figures per base, but play each figure straight (i.e. as if it were one man), call each base a fire team and each unit a platoon and voila, you are at company level. To me that is not really "scaling the game up".
The limiting factor is largely the bookkeeping aspect of tracking stress on each unit leader. How many leaders a single player can control is pretty finite. Increasing the unit count increases the bookkeeping, so complexity increases linearly.
Increasing the number of figures in a unit only means that more people will be standing around doing nothing each activation because the game mechanic is that you only get 1D6 activation points per unit, regardless of the number of men in the unit. There is no scaling factor based on the number of men in the unit.
NSIS rates 3 out of 5 in Scalable.
Lacks Fiddly Geometry – do the rules require fiddly measurements or angles?
This is a game of line of sight, shots through gaps, and shooting while the enemy rushes from one piece of cover to the next. Because rushes to cover compares the distance to move to a D6 roll to determine success, being a fraction of an inch farther away means you have -16% less chance of success. This is the sort of factor that can lead to disagreements. Nudging or bumping figures a small amount can change distances and line of sight, also causing problems.
What the game generally does not require are measurements for range; most weapons shoot the entire length of the board. But, given that the author recommends lots of line of sight blocking terrain, this might well be a game in which you break out the laser pointer.
NSIS rates 2 out of 5 in Fiddly Geometry.
Tournament Tight™ Rules – are the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the players need to 'fill in the blanks'?
Let me start by saying that my preference is towards tighter rules, where everything is spelled out clearly by the author, not looser rules where the author leaves certain mechanics up to the individual players, gentlemen's agreements, and a roll of the die where agreements cannot be found. So a high value means 'tight' and a low value means 'loose'. If you like looser rules, subtract my rating from '6' and that would probably be your rating!
These rules are not intended for tournament play. Although the author never states it, I think it is expected that the players "own" the rules and come up with their own interpretations where there are gaps. The biggest gray area is in the sequence of actions and exactly how much latitude you have. Also, some terms are used and it is not quite clear what is meant by them. Some rules are subtle and it is not clear whether that is intentional or poor wording on the part of the author. (Hopefully I will remember to point to all of these areas in the AAR.) All of these contribute to players adopting local variations that the author might not do himself, but is probably okay with.
NSIS rates 2 out of 5 in Tournament Tight™ Rules.
Solo Suitability – do the rules have elements conducive to solo play?
There are no hidden elements to the game, at least that I have read as of yet, so that alone grants the rules high solitaire suitability. In fact, some of the other negative factors – interpretation of ambiguous areas, player interpreted line of sight, short movement distances, movement into cover controlled by D6 roll – all fall by the wayside when you are gaming solo.
In addition, the author has provided some ideas on campaigns and gaming solo, so I am not really sure if this should not be considered the primary way of playing them! Unless my gaming buddies show some interest after reading this review, I will probably simply use them for a solo campaign.
NSIS rates 5 out of 5 in Solo Suitability.
Component Quality – are the components provided made with quality?
This is a new rating, meant primarily for board games, which addresses the quality of the physical components. As I bought the rules as a PDF the rating is not really applicable. Note that the PDF is featureless, however. A page linked table of contents would have been nice, but as with most publishers these days, it appears to have been produced by "Print to PDF", which is acceptable.
As a side note, publishers should consider what Ganesha Games has done, which is to include two versions of the rules: a normal, full-color PDF and an ink-saving version for printing out.
NSIS rates Not Applicable in Component Quality.
Test Game of No Stars in Sight
Well, this review is getting long, so expect the AAR for the test game next time. Just a hint: in my mind, the game swung back and forth a bit, probably because I was not used to how non-lethal combat can be (if you do things right). This back and forth is what makes me think the game will be one that I play a bit more often, although as I shared in the review, I will probably stick to these for solo efforts only.
It produces a fun game with "realistic" results, if you agree with the author's premise (which I do). A few fiddly bits, but eminently tweakable. Recommended.