SciFi Saturday – Building a Battleship

As I've worked on producing and testing my Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniature spacefleet this year, one thing that I've harped on numerous times is that the officially produced Battleship figure is way too small in size. It's off-scale with the rest of the minis, is barely larger than the UPF Cruiser figure, is in fact smaller than the Sathar Heavy Cruiser (see here), and doesn't match the apparent length shown any depiction in the boxed set (see below). That's just the kind of bonkers scaling issue that will bother me endlessly (see also: AD&D time & movement scale).

So I decided to take a stab at fixing the issue. If you compare the existing miniature to the side-view illustration in the Campaign Book p. 6 (see here), you'll see that the figure seems to need an additional piece in the middle, cylindrical and wider than the other parts, that should be about 4-5 cm long. I toyed with some ways to make this superstructure -- that's a big thing to try to mold by hand, and make it look regularly machined, with green stuff -- so I was thinking about getting some dowels and cutting one off the right size. Then at some point it dawned on me that a wine-bottle cork (like the ones I have lying around as mini sculpting bases) is exactly the right size in both length and diameter. So I started with a cork and bits and pieces of stuff from the hardware store, balsa-wood cutouts, green stuff components, and matching connectors on the ends (thanks to Isabelle for some of those ideas). I took some inspiration from the Jim Holloway illustration above and added "conning towers" on both the top and bottom sides. This probably took a week of trying various elements, novice sculptor that I am. Below you can see this new "leaf" piece along with the other pieces of the official battleship miniature:

In the past week, I've been working on molding, casting, assembling, and painting the figure. The relative hugeness of the piece again made it quite a challenge! First of all I put a few coats of polyurethane on my new piece, because I was worried about the rubber mold possibly getting stuck on the wood and cork elements. Then I made two mold boxes (first one was too small), and used 3 pots of play-doh as a bed for the first half of the mold (applying lots of release agent over everything). 

I let the first half of the mold sit overnight, then did the rather tedious play-doh cleaning job the next day. Below I've got the second half of the rubber mold poured, and inside the wooden mold braces. Problem: Even though I thought I was carefully calculating and measuring the amount of rubber needed, I guess the residue sticking in the cup amounted to more than I expected, because if you look closely near the right one of my little "satellite dish" elements is still sticking up out of the rubber. So at this point I had to pour and mix an additional batch of rubber in order to cover up the top of the figure. I've used a lot of rubber here.

Next day: I was a little apprehensive about whether the rubber would detach from the cork and wood parts, but this mold came apart just fine.

One problem with this mold is that the bottom of the figure has a concave divot for where the stern of the battleship will connect, and the rubber failed to fill in that piece. I've got a very obvious gap there, that if filled in with metal would prevent the pieces from locking together. So what I've done here (Isabelle's idea) is to fill in that gap with a little play-doh. This worked reasonably well, but pouring the hot metal in instantly dries it out, so the piece falls out afterward and needs to be re-fit on each cast. Granted that it takes me about 4 or 5 tries to cast something with a new mold, this got a little irritating.

So here I am after about an hour or two in the kitchen, trying my half-dozen test pours (cutting a widening the pour-hole each time), and patiently waiting for the big hunk of metal to cool down for at least 15 minutes each attempt. (A few weeks back I actually did spill molten metal all over my fingers and got a pretty bad -- it healed up in a couple of days but hurt like hell the night it happened. So I'm trying really hard to avoid a repeat of that situation.) This one piece is so big that my ladle can just barely contain enough metal for it; and you have to pour it in about four "dips" as it takes a while for the metal to sink all the way in. Anyway, towards the end of this session I do get one really nice cast.

At this point I have all of my components together: The original battleship bow & stern sections, my new midsection piece, and all 8 engines that came with the original kit. There's a little bit of cleaning work I have to do, filing flash and digging out some remnants of play-doh from pieces I used to make molds before, nothing too bad. I also had to do quite a bit of filing on the connector pieces because my new section didn't plug into them right initially.

Now we're looking at a day later. The first thing that happened when I tried assembling this thing is that, it being so enormous, I depleted all of the super-glue I had available. So I had to go out and get more. Then I had problems getting those big front & back pieces to stay stuck on; I probably re-glued each of them 3 times apiece. Then I was trying to glue all those little engines on in the right way; I did half of them, and then the bow would fall off. I'd re-glue the bow, and setting it down to dry would knock off a couple engines. Then the little knobs connecting the engines were broken, and I had to drill in a new spur; which caused the stern to break off. And so on and so forth. I think I was gluing for a whole night, but I finally got the thing to hang together.

Next up: Painting the battleship, starting with gray-primer and then a blue base coat. On top of everything else, I'm close to running out of blue paint just trying to get this base color down!

Last steps: Doing the dry-brush top coat in reflective metallic silver, and then mounting the piece on the upraised stand. Here I was again worried that the normal stand wouldn't support it (either in total weight or balance), and that I'd have to design some custom four-legged stand. But to my pleasant surprise, this part worked without a hitch, and the normal stand (connected to center-of-mass in my new big midsection) functions perfectly, and the whole thing seems really stable. In conclusion, I'd say that my amateur sculpting skills didn't quite match the level of detail in the original figure, but the overall scale and profile is much more to my liking, so I'm calling this a success. Below you can see the new piece with the rest of the UPF fleet of ships. Now that's what I'd call a Battleship!



SciFi Saturday – Heavy Cruiser Play

On the heels of duplicating the light cruisers for my Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks fleet, I finally got around to assembling and painting the Sathar Heavy Cruiser figure. It's a very impressive sculpture, the largest in the line: twice again as big as the cruisers I cast last weak (see below for comparison to UPF scouts, frigate, and cruiser). I considered doing my duplication job on it, but it comes in five separate big pieces and that's enough work that I wanted to avoid it;besides, the times when you'd have two Heavy Cruisers in a fight are rare enough that it's probably not worth the trouble.

While my boxes of miniatures are apparently in unusually good shape (no visible lead rot), when I started working with it I did find there was a little bit of a chalky residue all over it. So I gave it a very light sanding with fine paper, and cleaning with rubbing alcohol, and it shined up quite nicely. Then I cemented it together (everything fit perfectly) and did my usual grey prime, black-green base, metallic gold drybrush job on it. I think it looks really nice.

Now let's try it out in a game. According to my game-balancing program, the Sathar Heavy Cruiser should be about balanced against 3 UPF Assault Scouts (6 mega-credits per side, according to my point-buy system). Below you'll see me starting that game with the opposition on either side of the table (UPF on left, Sathar on right), so we can see if my game-balancer program is totally insane or not. You can also see my standard gear for playing the game – dice, protractor, tape measure, pencil, eraser, and index cards for all the ship statistics. I also got about a yard of black vinyl fabric as "space" playing surface.

Coincidentally, this engagement appears to be exactly the same as that portrayed on the original Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks box and book cover; a Heavy Cruiser being attacked by a squad of three Assault Scouts (or maybe there were four just a second before the picture was taken). We can tell the target is a Heavy Cruiser based on the number of engines it has. Although the vessel doesn't exactly have the classic Sathar ship profile, the Sathar don't have any Assault Scouts at all, so they can't be the attacker. (The only other option might be a bunch of pirate Assault Scouts versus the UPF's one-and-only Heavy Cruiser, but it seems highly unlikely for pirates to stand and fight in that kind of situation, and an otherwise odd choice of subject for the game's cover.)

Turn 1 – Heavy Cruiser moves forward one single inch. Assault Scouts race across the space at a speed of 15 inches. Weapons are just outside firing range (barely).

Turn 2 – The Heavy Cruiser comes to a complete stop, and the Assault Scouts zip in for close-up attacks (speed 12), with their path avoiding the forward-mounted Laser Cannon on the cruiser. Sathar get defensive fire, and shoot everything they can at Assault Scout III (bottom-most in the picture), hitting with a Laser and Rocket Battery for 20 points of damage (leaving that scout with 5 hull points). Then the Assault Scouts return fire, including their dangerous Assault Rockets (CA fires most of its Interceptor Missiles as defense); one Rocket hits, along with all 3 Laser Batteries, for 24 points of damage (reducing the CA from 80 to 54 hull points).

Turn 3A – The Heavy Cruiser rotates to point its Laser Cannon at one of the Assault Scouts. It's only allowed to do this because of its current zero-movement; in fact, that's why it started so slowly and came to a stop to begin with. (Generally that's the strategy I use with the big slow ships now, to use them as stationary gun platforms; otherwise their cannons can't get lined up at the faster ships. Good idea or not?) You can see in the picture that the enormous size of the Heavy Cruiser miniature makes it a bit awkward to portray this on the table. But the figures aren't to scale, and this does count as the Heavy Cruiser being lined up at Assault Scout II. All of the Scouts' defensive fire misses, while the Heavy Cruiser scores hits with 2 Laser Batteries against Scout III; with another 12 points of damage, it is destroyed. (Cannon, torpedo, and rocket fire against the other Scouts all miss.)

Turn 3B – The Assault Scouts, already traveling at a speed of 12, fly by the Heavy Cruiser, arcing around for second attack-run. Long-range laser blasts shoot out from each side, but none of them make contact (only 5% chance to hit at this range).

Turn 4A –The Heavy Cruiser slowly rotates, following the retreating Assault Scouts with its main Laser Cannon; a rather intimidating sight. While the Laser Batteries on both sides again score no hits (just barely at the edge of their effective range), the Heavy Cruiser rolls a perfect 01 with its Laser Cannon, scoring an unexpected hit on the lead Assault Scout! Rolling 2d10 for damage comes up with 19 points – a thunderous shock, leaving the Scout with only 6 points remaining.

Turn 4B – With the Assault Scouts' only legitimate threat being their short-range Rockets, they fly in for the next attack (traveling 12" and ending within 3" of the Sathar ship). The Heavy Cruiser fires all defensive batteries against the damaged lead ship; while its Rocket Battery misses, all 3 Laser Batteries hit, scoring 19 more points of damage and destroying it. The remaining Scout fires its Assault Rocket; and even though the Cruiser launches its remaining ICMs to fend it off, the Rocket hits anyway and explodes for 13 points of damage (leaving the CA with 41 hull points left).

Turn 5 – The Heavy Cruiser rotates again, zeroing in all its weapons systems on the remaining Assault Scout. The Scout's laser battery misses. The Heavy Cruiser then hits with the lined-up Laser Cannon and two of its Laser Batteries, and with good rolls for damage, hammering home for 28 points of damage; the last Scout is instantly incinerated.

Conclusion – The Heavy Cruiser, sledgehammer of the Sathar attack fleet, wins this fight, and accelerates back into the dark regions of space! While it was only brought down to about half-damage in the engagement, I've played out other fights and in a perfect reflection of the game-balancing program, it does win about half the time. Basically it comes down to the early die-rolls; note that the Heavy Cruiser had spectacular rolls here, eliminating one Assault Scout while none of the Scouts' Assault Rockets landed in the first attack. Reverse that and the game goes very differently.

One particular house-rule point: Note that I don't enforce the "closest point" defensive fire rule (by the book, ships should be able to target their defensive fire at any point traveled by the victim ship in the prior turn). Reasons for the change: (1) It's already the clunkiest part of the game on a hexmap, trying to mark & adjudicate all movement for that rule. (2) It's even more fiendishly difficult, basically infeasible, in open tabletop play without discrete hexes. (3) It would discourage or eliminate this fast-moving flyby attack by the scouts/fighters as seen here, which I really like a lot. (If it was enforced, the CA would get double shots at close-range above; so it would seem that the VS couldn't afford that disadvantage, and instead would have to make a slow controlled approach to get off all their Assault Rockets on a single attack run. Much less interesting.)

Finally, any thoughts on my use of the Heavy Cruiser as a motionless gun platform, rotating in place to line up its main Laser Cannon on each turn? Can you think of a better usage in this or a similar scenario?


SciFi Saturday – Cruiser Construction, Pt. 2

Last week I showed off the mold-making I did to duplicate the cruiser miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game (the largest molds I've made to date). This week I'm taking them into kitchen for the actual metal casts.

As I take this photo, I've got the biggest chunk of metal I could fit in my ladle melted and hot on the stove. The mold for the UPF cruiser figure has been cleaned, prepped, dusted with talcum powered, and joined together with cardboard and all the big rubber bands I could find.

Usually the first few casts are playing around with how big the pour-hole connector needs to be. Small means the metal won't pour in properly, large means the sprue is hard to clean up and may snap part of the model off when you try to clean it. Since you can open it up with a knife but can't close it down once rubber is removed, I start pretty small and open it up a tiny bit with each pour. The very first pour just clogs up in the pour-hole and doesn't get any in the figure at all. Here on the second pour (shown below), most of the model filled up, but the pour-hole clogged before it was complete.

By the third pour we have metal in the whole figure but a minimal sprue (and so easy to clean up in the nose area). However, a new difficulty raises its head: the rubber bands don't get this mold very tight, and there's a rather large amount of leakage and "flash" around the seam of the entire figure. I try putting on more rubber bands, or placing them in key areas more carefully, but that doesn't change anything. That's going to be a big cleaning job with needle-nosed pliers & file.

Next problem: The cleaning job is so big, in particular the internal space between the engines, that the fairly delicate engines tend to snap off with the flashing as I try to remove it. Here are two casts that have been wrecked at the end of the cleaning because of that, and will have to get re-melted down. (Also shown are the extra engines I'm making to add to each figure.)

Another day, and I decide to bring in some more serious equipment. My partner Isabelle goes to her sculpture studio and brings back a big 3-foot-long clamp for molds such as this. I put the mold between blocks of wood (not just cardboard) and ratchet the clamp into place carefully.

Well, this almost works but not quite. The mold is now tight enough that there's no leakage or flash around the edge -- but the downside is that it's so tight the cast has actually lost some of the detail around the tops of the engines. I try using the clamp a few more times with very gentle pressure, but this issue can't be fixed. After musing about my options, I decide to go with the rubber band technique, get all of the sculpt filled in, and just commit to carefully cleaning the flashing I get around each figure. I'm only planning on making a few of these, anyway.

Another problem: My standard cool-down time is insufficient for these much larger molds. For example, here's the Sathar light cruiser after about 5 minutes of cooling down on the kitchen table. What happened here is that the pour-hole (the biggest volume in the mold) formed a solid shell around its exterior, but was still molten metal inside. Not knowing that, when I went to separate the mold, the pour-hole cracked open and spilled liquid metal over the table and almost myself. (Wouldn't be crippling but probably pretty unpleasant.) Note to self, etc.

Of course, the spindly extended engine-struts on the Sathar ships (which I've always thought the most attractive part of the design) don't always get the metal flowing all the way into them. That's actually not so bad, because I'm intending to snap some good legs apart anyway for additions, and throw the rest of the figure back in the ladle for re-use.

At some point, waiting for a mold to cool down, I realize that the handle on my ladle is actually sliding apart sideways as I watch it! I've had it going so long and hot in the kitchen this weekend that the plastic in the handle has started to melt and slip off the arm. I quickly shut off the burner at this point and rescue the ladle handle, eek.

So: There comes a point where I finally have the duplicate casts I was looking for (a pair each of UPF and Sathar cruisers), with miniature bases, stands, and extra engines, and I get some time in my workroom to assemble them. The official cruiser miniatures only come with 2 engines apiece, which doesn't match the Campaign Book rules, and generally doesn't make much more of an impression than the 2-engine frigates (although having more engines connected would make the mold prohibitively difficult). So below you can see me bracing up the Sathar cruisers, and adding the extra engine struts I cast, for 4 engines total per ship (equally around the radius of each). This involves placing & filing the struts for a smooth connection, drilling the ship & engines with a pin vice, snipping off some paper-clip wire for an internal anchor, and super-gluing the whole thing carefully together.

Nearing the end of the process, I've primed the miniatures with gray spray-paint and set up to paint them. My painting process is exceptionally simple for these ships.

First step is a flat base coat. I make the UPF ships navy blue, and the Sathar a greenish-black mix. On my initial tests Isabelle said the Sathar color wasn't any good, because "it looks like something diseased". At which point I said that was exactly what I was aiming for, because in fact many of the Sathar ships are famously named after diseases. So, a happy little accidental compliment.

Then for the finish I use dry-brushed metallic paint: silver for the UPF ships and gold (kind of suggesting brassy/bronze archaic armament) for the Sathar. These look really good! The UPF ships in particular have all kinds of nice details to them, and the dry-brushing really brings them out. On these large ships I'm happy to have more of the dark base color peeking through, representing some amount of age and battle-damage, and this brings out more contrast and detail to everything (whereas the smaller ships need to look sleeker and faster, and so a bit flat). All I have to do now is put them on their stands and they're ready for use in-game. A success! But not without a lot of trial-and-error, and learning that this is probably the upper bound of what my rubber mold-making technology can handle.


SciFi Saturday – Cruiser Construction, Pt. 1

My first project this year working with miniatures for the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game was to make molds & duplicate a number of the frigate/destroyer ships, so I could have several on each side of a fight (as shown in most of the book scenarios). My second project was to create some extra UPF assault scouts. The third project was to sculpt & cast miniatures for the one-man fighters in the game, for which no minis existed -- and which taxed my ability to work with figures & molds so very small. So the next project had to be casting some duplicates of the larger cruiser ships on each side -- from which I would learn what the issues would be for the largest-scale objects that my process can likely handle. The cruiser mold-making is shown below, with metal casting left for next week.

First of all, here's the original UPF cruiser that I'm trying to duplicate, next to finished versions of the frigate and fighter miniatures. Note that it's at least twice as large as the UPF frigate I made previously.

The mold-box I make out poster-board is obviously the largest one to date, and it took all of 4 pots of play-doh to make the bed for the first part of the mold. Also you can see that the walls are already bending out somewhat, which will turn into a bigger problem when the weight of the rubber gets poured in there.

Now, part of what I'm concerned with here is being efficient with the rubber compound. (It's rather easy to wind up throwing out half as excess using the official 3-cup mixing instructions.) In fact, making molds for two cruisers will almost use up one entire shipment of rubber compound. Anticipating this, I've quite carefully calculated the volume of the rubber I'll need for each half of the upcoming molds, and measured & marked a plastic cup with guides for that purpose. I really don't want to waste any! 

So of course when I go to pour it, I slip with the cap and wind up spilling a huge glob all over my hand, table, canister, pants, floor, etc. Work gets suspended as I clean all of that up.

Anyway,  the first half of the mold does get made, and a day later I took it out of the box, remove the large chunk of play-doh (putting it back in the pots for re-use later), and go to clean up that half of the mold. As you can see in the photo below, there's lots of little globs of play-doh that I have to pick out (with dental tool & brush, kind of like an archeology dig), and there are fairly big parts of the cruiser that have been buried in rubber that I also have carefully cut out. That probably takes an hour or two by itself? Definitely the least-fun part of the project.

A day after that, I've poured the other side of the mold, let it cure, and then separated the two parts. As usual, the pour-hole has been enclosed and I'll have to cut that open right after I take the photo. Looking pretty good so far, although the sides did noticeably bulge outwards on me (which bothers me mostly for how it sucks away rubber that I want covering the top).

Let's not forget about the cruiser for the Sathar opposition. Because of the extended engine struts, this one takes an even larger mold-box and even more rubber compound material. Below I have it set in its play-doh bed, with release agent sprayed on, and the rubber compound mixed and about to pour. (Fortunately this proceeds with no ridiculous spillage.)

As this largest-yet mold starts to bend and leak around the edges, I finally get smart and grab these 90-degree pieces of wood that we have laying around in the closet, and use those to brace up the sides of the mold while it cures overnight; a really nice solution. Later on I find out that the reason we have those chunks of wood is that my partner Isabelle made them years ago for use in mold-making. Oh, well, it's always satisfying when a mystery gets resolved.

After the first half cures, here I've got the remove-play-doh and cleaning project to do again. Of course, this one's even bigger and even harder to dig out. (And especially being careful around those delicate engine struts to get all the clay but not move or dislodge the figure which would cause "smearing" in the cast.) 

Hours later, I've gotten it cleaned up to this level, with more to go and bits of covering rubber still needing removal. I actually think I gave up at this point and set it aside for another day. Which led to a late discovery -- it's actually a lot easier to clean up if you let it sit overnight so the play-doh dries out and gets all flaky. Finishing the cleaning the next day turned out to be much, much easier. (This advice assumes that you're patient enough to wait about 2 days per half of the mold for curing & cleaning.)

Finally, the other half of the mold gets cured and a day after that, the two halves get separated.Last thing is to take the exacto knife and open up the pour-hole, as usual, and then I think we're good to go. Next week I'll show when I take these molds to the foundry (kitchen) and actually start casting in metal.


SciFi Saturday – Sathar Ship Names

This is a continuation of my analysis of ship names in the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game; today, looking at the names of the various Sathar Attack Vessels. Again, I've looked at both rulebooks in the boxed set, all the official modules, and Dragon/Ares magazine articles. Like last time, you'll see a complete list of names below, for the entire fleet order-of-battle at the time of the Second Sathar War (Campaign Book, p. 55) -- which also matches the total number of counters that come with the boxed set:

Sathar Ship Name Roster

  • Frigates (8) – Stinger (TM9), Disease (Ares88), Apocalypse (Ares88), Hellscar (Ares96), Torment, Convulsion, Calamity, Blasphemy.
  • Destroyers (15) – Venomous (TM8), Vicious (TM9), Pestilence (TM9), Doomfist (TM9), Nemesis (TM15), Bludgeon (TM16), Viper (TM16), Vampire (SFKH0), Deathwind (SFKH0), Devastator (SFKH0), Balefire, Contagion, Corruption, Pernicious, Mortifier.
  • Light Cruisers (7) – Faminewind (TM15, Ares88), Deathstroke (TM16), Plaguewind, Warscythe, Malediction, Ruinator, Night Foe.
  • Heavy Cruisers (8) – Perdition (TM8), Star Scourge (TM9), Carrion (TM16), Firestorm (SFKH4), Blood War (Ares88), Grim Reaper, Black Ruin, Excommunicator.
  • Assault Carriers (4) – Infamous (TM9), Maelstrom (TM16), Predator (SFKH4), Deathknight (Ares86).
Source Key: TM = Tactical Operations Manual (i.e., boardgame rules, with page number);  CB = Campaign Book (with page number), SFKH (SFKH official module, with number), Ares (Dragon magazine Ares section, with issue number). Where no source is given, the names were added by myself (Delta). 

For the 25 officially-identified Sathar ships, we see that the names are most commonly related to one of the "Four Horsemen": War, Famine, Pestilence, or Death (in fact, each of those specific words were included in at least one published ship name). Many are related to concepts of damnation (5/25 = 20%), storms and wind (4/25 = 16%), or poisonous/dangerous animals (4/25 = 16%). In addition, a sizable proportion of the names are given as compound words (9/25 = 36%).

Notes: Ares88 includes a light cruiser named Famine, which is so close to the Faminewind (from TM15), that I assume it's the same ship and not included it separately above. Ares96 identifies a UPF frigate named Hellscar, which seems much more appropriate as a Sathar vessel, and so has been included above. In rare cases, names are given for a few Sathar Fighter ships, but I did not bother to include them above (Ripper and Reaver in SFKH4; Horror and Fear in Ares86).

I found the following very helpful for making up some of the new names above: "English compound words and phrases: a reference list, with statement of principles and rules", by F. Horace Teall (link). In addition to those new names above, here are some more that got cut from the final list, that you might consider if you want to expand or make replacements to the Sathar ship roster -- Defiler, Vilifier, Spoliation, Anethema, Denunciator, Purgatory, Condemnation, Iniquity, Paroxysm, Distemper, Retribution, Cancer, Rancor, Contamination; Backstabber, Warwind, War Head, Cross Bones, Rats Bane, Wolfs Bane, Pain Killer, Crosshair, War Waste, King Cobra.