Thursday, March 16, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Some Thoughts on Knight Hawks and the Second Sathar War

This is another article from my older and even more defunct gaming site from the early 2000s. It is essentially an analysis of the space combat system packaged in Knight Hawks, the second boxed set for TSR's Star Frontiers RPG. The first boxed set for the game - Alpha Dawn - lacked any details for starships, only including rules for booking passage on starliners. I found this to be a curious omission for a space opera themed game clearly intended to compete with Traveller.

Reading the article now, I realize it has significant flaws. It could really use some editing to weed out redundant words. If I wrote it now, I would have stronger things to say about defensive fire, balance issues, and the light cruiser - a ship that combines the strengths of the heavy cruiser and the destroyer with none of the weaknesses. A little more description of Sathar retreat conditions would help in examining the Sathar player's strategy. And the whole thing just cuts off after the ship descriptions. However, I'm going to let it stand as it is, warts and all.

An Overview of the Game

Knight Hawks is an expansion set for the Star Frontiers role playing game, published by TSR in the early 1980s. It covers all aspects of space travel within the Frontier, including starship combat. The starship combat rules were designed so that they could be used independently of the role playing game. This separate wargame is refereed to as the "UPF Tactical Operations Manual" and includes ship designs and scenarios. However, the Knight Hawks role playing supplement also contained a campaign using the wargame rules.

The campaign, called the Second Sathar War, is an invasion of the United Planetary Federation. Little is known about the Sathar invaders, except that they are a worm-like alien race and are not willing to accept peaceful coexistence. The only option for the UPF is war. Unfortunately, the UPF Spacefleet and the various planetary militias are not fully prepared. The outcome of the resulting struggle is uncertain.

Oddities in the Second Sathar War Rules

Knight Hawks dates from 1983 and reflects the limitations of that period of gaming. Do not misunderstand, it is a quality product. The rules are simple and contain no game breaking loopholes. This is evidence of good playtesting, something that is sometimes lacking in later games. However, there are editing mistakes and a few exploitable quirks in the rules. This is true of nearly every game before and since Knight Hawks.

The biggest exploitable quirk in the game is defensive fire. This allows the non-moving player to fire at his opponent’s ships after they have completed their movement. The volume of fire that a stack of ships can produce is enough to stop most close range attacks cold. This is not an issue for larger ships, who have the weapons to fight at longer ranges for a few turns before closing on their weakened opponents. However, fighters and assault scouts have to get close to use their assault rockets. Defensive fire makes an assault rocket attack against an opponent not softened up by long range weapons very costly. Even worse, the militias are mostly made up of assault scouts and often face superior Sathar fleets. Even approaching from the sides or rear (where forward firing weapons cannot be used), militia assault scouts can be wiped out before they can use their assault rockets. Overall, defensive fire reduces fighters and assault scouts to running down damaged opponents, instead of being a decisive arm during the early stages of combat.

The rules for militia ship movement on the strategic map have a few minor loopholes. Militia ships are required to move towards their home system when Sathar ships show up within it. The militia ships are only able to move freely when the stations in their home system are destroyed. Militia ships are also required to make at least one attack (defined as firing one weapon at one enemy ship) before any attempt to disengage. This means that a militia force is required to send one of its ships within weapons range of an overwhelming Sathar force before retreating. It is also possible for a Sathar fleet to force a militia to "yo-yo" by exploiting the movement rules for militia ships. The militia force moves into its home system, sends one ship to attack the Sathar fleet threatening the system, and breaks off. The Sathar fleet then disengages without destroying all of the stations in the system. The next turn, the Sathar move to attack the system again. This forces the militia to go through the whole process of sending one of their ships to attack the Sathar all over again. Eventually, the militia will get worn down to nothing. Note that this is not a practical tactic, since it ties down a Sathar fleet for several turns as it moves into a system, attacks, and breaks off. It is an interesting loophole, though.

There is an error in the UPF Spacefleet Order of Battle. "1 Minelayer" is listed twice under Task Force Cassidine. It is unclear if this meant that there are two minelayers in Task Force Cassidine or that something else was supposed to occupy one of the spaces. A quick check of the Dragon Magazine Archives revealed nothing useful, so Jeff and I decided to treat it as a printing error and simply delete the extra minelayer during our campaign.

Errors also appear in the section describing the counters and on the printing of the strategic map. Some of the colors listed in the rules for the militia forces do not match the counters. Also, the rules state that the planets are labeled on the map, which is not the case.

The Misjump Probability Table lists a safe jump probability for battleships crossing three transit boxes per day. The problem is that battleships have an ADF of 2, which limits them to moving no more than two transit boxes per day while risk jumping. However, the ship modification rules do allow for increasing a ship’s ADF, so it is possible if modified ships are used in the campaign. In fact, a "fast battleship" would be a significant UPF advantage.

Comparing the UPF and the Sathar Fleets


The differences between the UPF Spacefleet, planetary militia, and Sathar forces reflect the background of the two civilizations. The UPF is slightly more technologically advanced and their personnel tend to be well trained. Each Planetary Militia benefits from the same technology as the UPF, but their personnel are not up to UPF standards, especially in the area of navigation. The Sathar lag behind in technology and training, but have an advantage in numbers.

The UPF Spacefleet possesses the full range of ship types. It operates the only battleships in existence. The rest of Spacefleet are made up of fairly light ships. The most common ship types are frigates and assault scouts. However, its light cruisers add considerable strength to its forces.

The planetary militias only possess the smaller kinds of ships - assault scouts, frigates, and the occasional destroyer. They are only intended as patrol forces and rely on Spacefleet to reinforce them against the Sathar. The main weakness of the militias, other than their limited firepower, is the high chance of failure when risk jumping.

The stations throughout the Frontier are both a blessing and curse for Spacefleet and the militias. They serve as a source of supply and can add to the firepower available to a defending force. On the other hand, they are targets for Sathar attacks and need to be defended. The fortresses, in particular, are both the centerpiece of a system’s defenses and the focus of an attack.

The Sathar has a wide range of ship types, but lack battleships, minelayers, and assault scouts. They make up for the lack with large numbers of heavy cruisers and destroyers. The Sathar can deploy eight heavy cruisers against Spacefleet’s three battleships and one heavy cruiser. Sathar destroyers can form the core of strike groups that perform the same mission as the UPF’s assault scouts - hitting ships bigger than they are.

UPF Strategy

The strategy of the UPF player must, by necessity, be defensive. However, this does not mean placing units on the board and waiting for the Sathar to attack. The UPF player must make taking every objective as costly as possible for the Sathar while preserving his own forces. Unfortunately, this may mean fighting a series of hit and run battles while falling back to the fortresses.

Placement of the units in the non-attached ships pool is the first chance to alter the outcome of the campaign. The UPF player puts his forces on the strategic board first, with the exception of Strike Force NOVA and any non-attached ships assigned to it. The placement of stations, militia, and most Spacefleet forces are dictated by the rules and cannot be altered. Placement of the non-attached ships is entirely up to the UPF player.

As a whole, the non-attached ships represent a powerful force. They are not the equal of the UPF Task Forces or Strike Force NOVA. However, putting all of the non-attached ships in a system that is certain to be attacked will stop or slow the Sathar advance.

On the other hand, the non-attached ships could be split up and used to correct weaknesses in the various Spacefleet forces and militias. The non-attached destroyers can be used to strengthen Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA, which are short on lighter ships. Task Force Prenglar has no fighters or carriers to support fighters, so adding the non-assigned assault scouts would give it a workable substitute. The light cruisers can significantly strengthen a militia. The minelayer is best placed in a system with a fortress, since such a system will be attacked to satisfy the Sathar player’s victory conditions. The fighters are best split up between Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA.

Once the campaign starts, the UPF player should keep in mind that the victory conditions for both players depend on the survival of the fortresses. Defending those fortresses is a top priority. Note that this does not mean parking ships in the fortress systems and waiting for the Sathar to come knocking on the door. Any opportunity to defeat a Sathar fleet away from the fortresses should be taken, as long as the fortresses are not at risk. Note specifically that the Prenglar system should never by uncovered as long as the Sathar player has ships he has not yet placed on the board.

A particular weakness of the UPF is how the militia is scattered all over the map. The rules only allow them to move one system away from their home system at the start of the game, but they can still reinforce important areas. For example, the militia in Theseus can move to White Light to protect the fortress there.

The UPF player should study the possible Sathar retreat conditions carefully and try to figure out which one the Sathar player has chosen. Triggering the retreat condition could win the game for the UPF player.

Sather Strategy

The Sathar player decides the tempo of the game - he decides how his forces are split up and where they attack. The UPF player must respond to the Sathar player’s action. Unfortunately, the Sathar player is limited by the Sathar victory conditions (destroy twelve stations, including all four fortresses) and the secret retreat condition. The UPF player knows that the Sathar has to attack the fortresses at some point to win and that certain things will trigger an automatic Sathar retreat. However, when the fortresses come under attack and what triggers the retreat are up to the Sathar player.

Because of the number of alternatives, this section will outline a few broad early-to-mid game strategies for the Sathar player. These describe which start circles to use and what targets to attack. After that, the Sathar player will be reacting to how those first few attacks went and the mid-game will begin. The number of variables to consider during the mid-game carries it outside the scope of this document. The end game will be simple - kill all of the fortresses that are left and make certain that the Sathar destroy a dozen stations total.

Above all else, the Sathar player must remember that his objective is to destroy stations. The ships that the UPF and the militias will put in his way are nothing more than distractions. Do not get caught up in hunting down ships. Go after the stations and the UPF ships will have no choice but to defend them.

The Zebulon Entry Option

The Sathar place a fleet in the start circle leading to the Zebulon system. The attack fleet moves through Zebulon and attacks the fortress and armed station in the Truane’s Star system. Destroying both stations would put the Sathar player closer to achieving his victory conditions. The Sathar attack fleet would then proceed to Dixon’s Star and Prenglar.

There are two major possible obstacles to a Zebulon Entry. First, the UPF player may reinforce Truane’s Star with ships from his non-assigned pool. This can be countered by simply waiting until all UPF forces are on the board and strengthening the attack fleet enough to assure victory. Second, Truane’s Star is a possible start location for Strike Force NOVA. Make the attack fleet powerful enough to take on both the militia and Strike Force NOVA.

The Prenglar Assault
This is a "go for the throat" option. The Sathar places as large a fleet as the rules allow on the start circle leading to the Prenglar system. This forces a showdown with Task Force Prenglar and gives the Sathar a shot at both stations in Prenglar.

There is considerable risk in this plan. The UPF player could try risk jumping Task Force Cassidine to Prenglar. He could get lucky and Strike Force NOVA could show up at Prenglar. The worst case scenario is facing all three major Spacefleet formations in the Prenglar system. The only way to mitigate the chance of failure is to make the attack fleet as strong as possible. If defeated, the Sathar fleet should try to link up with any other Sathar forces on the board.

The payoff of a successful Prenglar Assault might be worth the risk. It is fast enough to catch the UPF player off guard, especially if he has already started moving his ships around. Smashing a major UPF Spacefleet Task Force and killing two stations (including a fortress) will seriously weaken the UPF player. This is too big of a threat for the UPF player to ignore.

The Fromeltar Entry Option

This is not quite as exciting as a Prenglar Assault. The Sathar place as large a fleet as possible on the start circle leading to the Fromeltar system. This positions the Sathar fleet to attack Fromeltar, Dramune, Cassidine, and Prenglar. A successful drive through all of these systems will put the Sathar player close to achieving his victory conditions.

Unfortunately, there are some powerful obstacles in the way. Fromeltar, Dramune, and Prenglar are all possible start locations for Strike Force NOVA. Drumune has a fairly powerful militia, which Task Force Cassidine is likely to reinforce. A worst case scenario has both Strike Force NOVA and Task Force Cassidine reinforcing Drumune. The Sathar attack fleet should contain as many ships as the rules allow to counter this possibility. Still, such a battle could easily go either way.

Successfully attacking Fromeltar, Dramune, Cassidine, and Prenglar will kill off eight stations, including a fortress. It is an ambitious plan that involves facing the most powerful forces that the UPF player can field, but such a showdown is inevitable. Even if a Fromeltar Entry gets stalled or driven back, it will put the Sathar player closer to achieving his victory conditions.

The Outer Systems Gambit

This plan addresses a problem with the Zebulon Entry Option, the Prenglar Assault, and the Fromeltar Entry Option. All of the other plans focus on attacking the fortress in Prenglar to the point of ignoring most or all of the other fortresses. A Sathar attack fleet sitting in Prenglar is in a poor position to attack the remaining fortresses in Madderly’s Star and White Light. The Outer Systems Gambit is designed to supplement other plans by killing off these fortresses.

The Sathar place a fleet in the start circle leading to the K’tsa-Kar system. After destroying the station there, the fleet moves to attack White Light and Madderly’s Star. This puts the fleet in position to attack Cassidine.

There are a number of things that the UPF player can do to counter this plan. Moving the militia in Theseus to White Light results in a fairly strong blocking force. The White Light militia can also be strengthened using ships from the non-assigned pool. Task Force Cassidine could move in to support the fortress at Madderly’s Star, but only by uncovering the Cassidine system or splitting up. Of course, a lucky roll by the UPF player could have Strike Force NOVA showing up in time to save the day. The best way to addresses these concerns is simply to make the attack fleet powerful enough to fight off a combined attack from Task Force Cassidine and Strike Force NOVA.

Combining Options

The rules allow the Sathar player to put no more than half of his ships in a single starting circle. This forces the Sathar player to divide his forces. Each of the plans above were designed to be combined with one other. Note pursuing three or more attack plans at the same time invites defeat in detail.

The Prenglar Assault combines well with either the Zebulon Entry or the Fromeltar Entry. Such a combination would pin down Task Force Prenglar and complicate planning for the UPF player. Task Force Cassidine would either have to move to block the threat from Zebulon or Fromeltar, reinforce Prenglar, or split up to do both. Even if the Prenglar Assault fails, the surviving ships can still link up with the other Sathar fleet.

The Outer Systems Gambit works best with a Fromeltar Entry. Combining it with the other plans exposes both fleets to defeat in detail. The UPF player could, for example, use most of his forces to defeat a Sathar fleet threatening White Light and Madderly’s Star while keeping a Sathar fleet coming in from Zebulon at bay. The UPF player can then turn his ships around to destroy any Sathar ships left on the map. The key to a successful Outer Systems Gambit is keeping Task Force Cassidine from reinforcing Madderly’s Star or White Light. The Fromeltar Entry is perfect for that.

Knight Hawks Ships

The game provides a variety of ship types. In general, larger ships carry more weapons, but are less mobile than smaller ships. Likewise, smaller ships need to use their mobility advantage to survive against the firepower of larger vessels.

One unusual feature of the game is that the ships on all sides are identical. A Sathar frigate is identical in performance to a UPF Spacefleet frigate or a militia frigate. This simplifies the game, but deprives it of a certain amount of atmosphere. Instead of different ships, the UPF and the Sathar are distinguished by giving each side a different fleet mix. The UPF possesses battleships, minelayers, and assault scouts. They favor frigates over destroyers. The Sathar rely on an older fleet of heavy cruisers and destroyers. Also, if skill levels are used, the UPF are better trained than the militias. The militias, meanwhile, are more skilled than Sathar (who are rated the same as pirates).

Fighters

Strengths: Most mobile unit in the game. Can use evasive maneuvers against torpedoes. The assault rockets it carries gives it firepower out of proportion to its size.

Weaknesses: Most fragile unit in the game. Carries only three assault rockets and no other weapons. Must be supported by a carrier or base.

Comments: The assault rocket is powerful, but short ranged. This forces fighters to close through defensive fire. Always approach enemy ships from the sides or rear, which limits defensive fire to battery weapons. Always operate fighters in groups to spread out defensive fire. Expect to lose fighters before they get in position to attack.

Assault Scouts

Strengths: Almost as mobile as a fighter. Can use evasive maneuvers against torpedoes. The assault rockets it carries gives it firepower out of proportion to its size.

Weaknesses: Fragile.

Comments: Assault scouts do the same job as fighters and do it better. Assault scouts use fighter tactics, but will tend to survive longer. The laser battery is a good backup weapon, allowing assault scouts to use defensive fire and as a long range option.

Frigates and Destroyers

Strengths: Large enough to take damage and still fight. Mobile enough to avoid the forward firing weapons of heavy cruisers and battleships.

Weaknesses: Relatively fragile compared with larger ships. Only carry a small number of ICMs, making missile weapons a serious threat. Frigates lack long range particle weapons, while destroyers only have an electron beam battery.

Comments: Frigates and destroyers are very similar. They can either be used for fighter-style attacks or to escort larger ships. A group of frigates and destroyers is mobile enough to attack heavy cruisers or battleships from the sides or rear. These attacks can be devastating if the group can get close enough to fire torpedoes. While on escort duty, a frigate or destroyer is mobile enough to intercept a threat before it gets too close.

Minelayer

Strengths: Carries a large number of mines and seekers, which can be placed on the map prior to a battle using the campaign rules.

Weaknesses: Lightly armed for a ship about the size of a destroyer. Carries only a limited number of ICMs, making missile weapons a serious threat.

Comments: Minelayers are specialized ships. Once the mines are laid, the wisest thing to do with a minelayer is to keep it out of the way. This is especially true during a campaign, since a minelayer can escape to reload and participate in a later battle.

Light Cruisers
Strengths: Best mix of firepower, mobility, and hull strength in the game.

Weaknesses: None.

Comments: Light cruisers are almost as tough and well-armed as heavy cruisers, but are also almost as mobile as destroyers. Adding light cruisers to a group of frigates and destroyers will slow the group down a little, but the increase in overall firepower is worth it. Light cruisers should not be forced to move in formation with heavier ships, since this will rob the light cruisers of their mobility advantage.

Heavy Cruisers

Strengths: Durable and well-armed.

Weaknesses: One of the least mobile ships in the game.

Comments: Most other ships can literally fly rings around heavy cruisers, but their firepower earns respect. Heavy cruisers are best used as the core of a fleet. They advance towards the main target while smaller ships maneuver around them. The seeker missiles are useful against ships that try to get behind them. A heavy cruiser can be very useful while defending a station. The heavy cruiser can orbit with the station and fire on any attackers. The heavy cruiser’s lack of mobility will not longer be a factor. Even better, the station and heavy cruiser can support each other with ICMs.

Assault Carriers

Strengths: Can rearm fighters. Nearly as tough as a heavy cruiser.

Weaknesses: One of the least mobile ships in the game. Lightly armed for a ship nearly as large as a heavy cruiser.

Comments: Assault carriers are essential to using fighters offensively in a campaign. Without carriers, fighters are limited to defending stations. The campaign rules clearly state that fighters without a carrier or station to use as a base are destroyed at the end of a campaign turn. This makes carriers prime targets. They should be escorted by a small strike group of frigates and destroyers at all times. More importantly, carriers should stay clear of close engagements.

Battleships

Strengths: The biggest and best armed ship in the game.

Weaknesses: Rare. Only a little more mobile than heavy cruisers.

Comments: Like heavy cruisers, battleships from the core of a fleet. They essentially do the same jobs as heavy cruisers, but are better at them.

Armed Stations

Strengths: As tough as a heavy cruiser. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement. Lightly armed. Limited number of ICMs make missile weapons a serious threat.

Comments: Alone against a large attacking force, an armed station is a sitting duck. It lacks particle beam weapons and will be outranged by fleets containing ships larger than frigates. Even worse, its best defenses are masking screens, which render its own laser battery useless. It does have rocket batteries, but an enemy fleet has no reason to get within range.

Fortified Stations

Strengths: Tougher than a battleship. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement. Lightly armed.

Comments: A fortified station is better armed and more durable than an armed station, but this is not enough against an enemy fleet. A fortified station lacks particle beam weapons and will be outranged by fleets containing ships larger than frigates. It also suffers from the same problems as armed stations concerning its masking screens and rocket batteries.

Fortresses

Strengths: Most durable unit in the game. Well armed. Can support fighters, if available.

Weaknesses: Limited to orbital movement.

Comments: Tough, armed with a good mix of weapons, and carrying a variety of defensive systems, a fortress is a hard target for any fleet. The only flaw in its defenses is the lack of a stasis screen. Even alone, a fortress will inflict some damage to an attacking fleet before being destroyed. However, it is unlikely that a fortress would be caught alone in the course of a campaign, due to its importance to the victory conditions.