Friday, 6 July 2012

I lost my heart to a starship trooper

As I've said before, I try to keep the focus of this blog squarely on miniatures gaming of some sort and don't really talk about the other activities that come under the gaming banner, like roleplaying, boardgames or computer games.  You won't, for example, be hearing my opinions of the Mass Effect 3 Red/Green/Blue endings here.

However for the last week or so I've been wrapped up in a game that's a worthy exception to that rule.  The Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator is... well basically it's the best game of pretend-spaceman you're ever likely to come across.  Players each take the role of a bridge officer on a spaceship, one runs the Helm station, another the Weapons station, others control Engineering, Science and Communications.  Each player has their own PC configured to run their own bridge station, and all are networked together to form a whole bridge.  The Captain doesn't directly control a station, he just sits back and co-ordinates the action, giving orders, requesting information etc.

The game itself is very simple - veterans might recognise it as fundamentally an implementation of the very old Star Trek games from the early days of mainframe and microcomputers, just in real time and infinitely better graphics.  There are starbases to defend, aliens of various races to encounter and fight, space monsters, black holes and asteroid belts.  But what really brings the game alive is the human interplay and co-operation between the bridge officers that's required.  The crew needs to co-operate as a team to maximise effectiveness or carry out some of the more elaborate tactics.  How the players interact is where the magic happens.

This is not us.  We're not quite so pretty.

So yesterday we had our first almost-full bridge crew get together.  By a stroke of luck we'd just had our front room freshly redecorated and therefore completely empty of furniture, so for the day it was temporarily transformed into the bridge of the Artemis, with a 40" wall-mounted TV acting as the Main Screen, two tables placed in front of it in a V shape for the bridge stations and a Captain's Chair at the point of the V.  We were, perhaps, the first ship in starfleet equipped with chintz curtains, but otherwise the layout was suitably bridge-like.

The chaps arrived around 11ish and after a short briefing on the various bridge station controls, the four cadets (including Mi Hermano Midshipman Jonesy) we launched into the first simulated mission.  Throughout the afternoon, we each rotated through the four bridge stations (there were five of us, so we doubled up Science and Comms) trying each of them, plus a turn in the Big Chair.

Comms has to handle all the signal traffic between Artemis and all the other ships & stations in the game.  Although at first glance it seems like a fairly dull and unexciting job, at times there can be a vast amount of signals and the Comms officer needs to filter out what to report to the Captain and when.  More importantly they need to speak up at the right time.  On a couple of occasions (as captain) I had an inexperienced Comms officer report a mundane request for supplies, right while we were in the middle of a battle with an enemy ship.  It's a very subtle station.

Science, which we doubled up Comms with, has the best sensor display available.  They can identify enemy ships at long range, pick out weaknesses in their defences, and can both zoom in to see great detail or zoom out to see the big picture.  The Science officer would often be the only player who could see certain enemies and had to verbally give us intercept directions.

Helm is fairly straighforward - you steer the ship.  Obviously in combat you're trying to keep the best position in terms of range and weapons arc,  Occasionally the ship needs to take the fastest route from A to B, even if that's through the middle of an asteroid field.  The helmsman is always busy, especially during complex tactics like bombing runs or counter-missile defence.

Weapons too is a fairly busy station.  Although the standard firing system is fairly automatic - lock your weapons on a target and they'll always hit - there's still plenty of subtlety possible.  Defence against missile or fighter attacks requires some quick and accurate mouse-clicking to select the best targets, and there's the advanced option of targeting specific ship systems like weapons or drives in order to cripple rather than destroy.

Engineering is perhaps the subtlest and most fascinating of the stations.  Half of the job is directing damage control parties to repair damaged ship systems, although these can often be left to work autonomously.  The real work is in juggling the power distribution to various ship systems in order to improve effectiveness.  Shunt extra power to the weapons and they'll cycle faster, giving you more shots on target.  Extra power to shields and they'll recover from damage faster.  More power to the manoeuvre system and your thousand-ton starship is out-turning fighters.  But in the words of a certain faux-Scotsman "the engines cannae take it", and overcharging your systems like this causes them to overheat - this can be mitigated slightly by shunting coolant to overheating systems but the ship has only a limited supply.   A good Engineering officer should almost be invisible to the rest of the crew, but be keeping an eye on what's happening in the game and shunting power to and from needed systems as the situation changes.

Let's go through an example of a complex tactic - the bombing run, and how the stations have to work together.  Your ship carries a number of very destructive mines which can affect ships in an area effect, but these are deployed out the back of the ship and remain stationary once armed.  Artemis encounters a large fleet of enemy ships, say a dozen or so vessels including Dreadnoughts and Battleships in close formation, far too tough to attack and destroy individually, so the Captain calls for a Bombing Run.  The Weapons officer immediately starts loading mines loaded into the ship's torpedo tubes, and the Engineering officer temporarily boosts power to the Torpedo system to make them load faster.  Meanwhile the Science officer is scanning the enemy ships and picks out the largest and most dangerous enemy, or alternatively works out the densest part of the enemy formation, while the Helmsman brings the ship about and lines up for the run.  Once Weapons calls that the mines are loaded, Engineering pulls power from the Torpedoes and instead boosts power to the Forward Shields (as we're going to be charging head first into a mass of enemy ships, we'll certainly be taking some fire on the way in).  The bombing run commences - Helm heads straight into the enemy formation at Warp speed, while Science watches the range indicator on his detailed sensor view.  When he calls that we're in the right position, usually just past the centre of the enemy formation, he calls the shot.  Helm drops out of warp in response, and at the same instant, Weapons drops the mines.  The next instant, Helm re-engages the warp drive to get us out of the mines' blast radius before they're triggered, while Science officer watches his sensor view to report how many ships are destroyed and which survivors are most vulnerable for a follow-up attack.

So after five hours of learning the ropes at a moderate difficulty level we took a break for a barbecue, then came back an hour or so later and started to push the difficulty level up to see how well we could handle things.  We ran one mission at Level 10, but that created so many ships that it overloaded the poor Science station's PC with its "eagle-eye" view of the whole sector. so we dialled it back to 9 for the rest of the night.  For the finale we ran through a series of scripted missions including the three-part "Trials of Deneb", which were progressively harder "gauntlets" to be run.  In the final mission, we'd managed to take out four major battlefleets and all the "elite" enemy ships (who had special abilities like cloaking devices or super-manoeuverability) except one.  We'd lost three of the four starbases in the sector and were limping back the lone survivor, low on energy and out of torpedoes.  We ran out of energy just as the starbase came into sight on the main screen, along with the remaining elite enemy, which turned to attack us.  We were almost dead in space, forward shields failing, no warp drive to escape and just two mines left.  The engineer shunted the last micro-ergs of power from every other system to our impulse engines getting us moving forward at a near crawl, unable even to turn right or left.  We passed the enemy and dropped the mines in the slowest bombing run in the history of space warfare.  The resulting blast flattened our rear shields and caused major systems damage, but it sent that alien bastard straight to the Black Fleet and we survived... just.  It was a highly satisfying end to a fantastic games day.

(More accurately, it was one AM the following morning.  Which should tell you just how into the game we were.)

Playing Artemis was different from any other game experience I've tried.  Most other co-operative games, whether boardgame or computer game, see the players operating as individuals contributing towards a common goal.  They may have differing abilities, but player A can go-off and do one thing while player B is free to head in a different direction and do something else.  In Artemis, the players are each contributing to the function of a single individual, the ship.  Weapons can only fire at an enemy that the Helmsman moves into range with.  We only learn that we need to go to rescue DS4 if Comms relays the distress message (or Science spots it on their long range sensors).  It drives the players towards teamwork like no other game.

And if you're liking the sound of all this, there's two other things that'll really bake your noodle.  Firstly,  up to six people make up a bridge crew for a single ship, but the software can support up to SIX ships running from the same server, operating in a shared simulation.  And secondly, the game is capable of operating over the internet.  While this means you could have a bridge crew in Marshall, Missouri co-operating with an engineer sitting in the UK (a real example) you would lose a little of the social element of being in the same room together (and being able to throw things at the Weapons Officer when they forget to raise shields in combat, for example).  But how about two or more ships with bridge crews gathered in different locations, with perhaps the Comms officers in contact using a VOIP program like Skype?  That's certainly possible.

This is not us either.  We're much prettier.

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