Saturday, September 21, 2013

SciFi Saturday – Spaceship Costs


The first and largest section of the Star Frontiers Knight Hawks Campaign Book (about a third of the whole) features rules on designing and purchasing spaceships for use in the game. What's not ever included are complete construction-profiles for the stock ships in the game, or how much a "normal" one would cost. Out of curiosity, I've priced up the standard military ships in the game, and the results are below (costs generally rounded to the nearest million credits):

Ship Type M-Credit Cost Computer Level
Fighter 0.35 3
Scout 1 3
Frigate 2 4
Minelayer 2 4
Destroyer 3 4
Lt. Cruiser 5 4
Carrier 7 5
Hvy. Cruiser 9 5
Battleship 12 5


So the standard military ships in the game range between about 1 and 12 million credits. This brings to mind the possibility of a fairly simple point-buy mechanism for opposing fleets, where each player is granted a certain number of mega-credits with which to buy ships (with fighters at 3 per point). I'll discuss that a bit more at the end. A side note from this project is the observation that all computer systems aboard spaceships, as per the SF Alpha Dawn rules, are in the range of levels 3-5 (coincidentally following the engine size: A-type engines connect to level 3 computers, B to 4, and C to 5). Also, the spreadsheets in the zip file above (ODS format) can be used as templates to quickly stat up other ships, if you like.

Well, that's what the pricing rules say; now here's some analysis of those costs. The pricing system given is not very realistic in physical terms. For example, consider last week's discussion about the dimensions of ships. Again: Since cost increase is linear, but given surface area increases as a cube, by paying 20 times more money you get over 3,000 more material in your hull (comparing fighter to battleship). So from that real-world perspective, the costs ought to be higher -- or else the ships should be smaller.

Alternatively, we might compare to real-life warship costs. For example, consider some costs circa WWII, on which our boardgame is thematically based, and for which information is fairly easy to come by. Fighter planes in the 1940's cost some $50-100 thousand to produce (link); whereas a battleship might cost $80 million (link). So while the price difference ratio between the two in our SFKH game is only 1:36, in real life we see it's more like 1:800. This once again indicates that the large ships are too cheap (the battleship could be 20 or even 100 times more expensive than indicated to be realistic) -- or from the opposing perspective, it's a signal that the SFKH capital ships are much smaller, relatively speaking, than WWII naval combat vessels. Take your pick.

Another problem is that there's just not a whole lot of headroom for upwards advancement in the system. For example, if your PCs can afford a size 10 freighter, then as soon as they double their money they have the means to trade up to something like a battleship or similar maxi-sized vessel. (Of course, in real life a shipping vessel is not remotely as expensive as a military warship.)

So in summary, compared to real-world examples, the big ships in SFKH are too cheap. But let's return to the question of using the prices, computed from the construction rules, as the basis for a balanced point-buy game. Well, unfortunately in my limited experience that seems not to work for exactly the opposite reason: the prices for the big ships are too expensive! Every time I game-test this, the big ships get beaten by a price-equivalent batch of smaller ships. It's not too difficult to say why, as the reasons are multitudinous:
  1. First you've got the standard "damage spillover" problem, common to this or almost any other game (it had to be a key part of my Book of War analysis). Having to shoot down a bunch of small targets is likely to "waste" some damage with each kill, whereas a single big target suffers the full amount from every hit (and thus taking fewer hits for the same total damage).
  2. Exacerbating that further, in SFKH, the hull points don't scale with physical size; they actually trend downwards on a pro-rated basis for larger ships (see here). This is totally opposite to real life, where the whole point of a bigger ship is to load it up with thicker and more durable armor. But in SFKH you're getting less defense for the credit, almost as if the hull armor is getting thinner the larger you make the ship.
  3. In addition, your mobility is getting worse. While the single biggest expense in the SFKH construction rules is the payment for the engines (number goes up, and size also goes up, so geometrically increasing), what you're getting for that increased payment is of course worse and worse acceleration and maneuverability. The opponent is running rings around you, lining up shots better, and likely getting off the first attacks (which is a huge advantage: it's the very first thing in my strategy tips). While this might make sense if the ship was carrying heavier armor, as we see above, in SFKH it's actually the reverse.
To repeat: In game-balance terms, the computed prices for big ships are too high, in the sense that big ships are getting demolished in the game by an equivalent value of smaller ships. Which is exactly the opposite of the problem looked at it terms of realism from real-world examples, or even just plain geometry (up above).

What to do? Well, I guess if I was rebuilding the game totally from scratch, I'd bump up the Hull Points for the bigger ships by fairly significant amounts. This would synch up with the stated dimensions, better match real-world battleship characteristics, and make the higher prices worthwhile in-game. But the problem with that is that the tactical game statistics (like Hull Points) are clearly more fundamental to the product, and the prices we're getting here are second-order effects that weren't actually computed or utilized in the original game. So because of that I'll recommend instead lowering the prices to something that game balances the combat statistics, stipulate that the SFKH capital ships are somewhat physically smaller than initially expected (actually matching our WWII comparison and even the official miniature figures), and basically hand-wave away the details of exactly where the pricing gets reduced.

In fact, there's some precedent for exactly that hand-waving of the pricing. In the SFKH Campaign Book there's an explicit gray zone marked out around whether the construction system shown is at all valid for military vessels (even though that's the whole thrust of the boardgame); the rules for ship weapons say:
The procedure above applies to civilian ships only. Most players will observe that military ships carry more weapons and defenses than civilian ships, with fewer penalties. This is possible due to small but significant technological refinements in military designs... [SFKH CB p. 19]
So in the final perspective we're clearly given the authority to make up whatever prices we want for the SFKH tactical game military vessels and call it a day. More on that next time.


Edit (9/23/13): I should note that the prices computed above don't include expendables such as fuel, ammunition, spacesuits, or the recruitment & training of officers and crew. That latter item might outweigh all the other expenses, but it would have similar problems in that the book specifies a geometric increase for less-than-linear game benefit (e.g., 1 fighter pilot versus 400 crew on a battleship).

2 comments:

  1. Could the cost/value discrepancy between small and large ships be intentional?

    If my foggy memory serves me there were only three battleships in the UPF fleet and one heavy cruiser.

    Plus the assault scout was credited for turning the tide in the Sathar War, and destroying the assault carriers was one of the possible Sathar victory conditions for the campaign.

    Maybe the cost effectiveness of smaller ships was by design, or the other points are post-hoc world building after they noticed the discrepancy?

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    1. Well... I'll just say I pretty much doubt that, because I don't see any sign that the price rules were even all added up for the basic ships in the game. But you're right that could be a very convenient interpretation.

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