Naval Gazing

In researching A Billion Suns, I came across this review of Naval Thunder on DriverThruRPG:

This is a pretty standard set of naval rules. Less fiddly than some – which is good – but like virtually all other naval rules, it is simply a set of formulae for blowing things up. The player will never be presented with a challenging decision. He will simply maneuver his ship to maximize shooting, and then start rolling dice. At that point a lot of high rolls is ‘better’ than a lot of low rolls.

This is the limitation of every naval set, not just Naval Thunder. The basic limitations are that the player always knows far too much about the enemy than he should. And for that matter, far too much about his own fleet!

To be fair, most naval gamers will be satisfied with this set. There is nothing illogical, and an adequate amount of ‘chrome’, but then there’s nothing specially fun either. Just like all sets, you present your broadsides and start rolling the dice.

Review on

This is an elegant expression of what I am setting out to avoid with the design of A Billion Suns.

In both fiction and gaming, space battles tend to model themselves on two real-world theatres: WW1 naval battles or WW2 dogfighting. Battlefleet Gothic and Firestorm Armada are very much the former, X-Wing and Silent Death very much the latter. The original Star Wars movies contain both.

There are some great exceptions too. The space combat in the remake of Battlestar Galactica is surprising and different, and Dropfleet Commander presents a quite different tactical model with it hallmark combined arms structure of using bigger faster stuff to drop smaller tactical stuff.

I do not want A Billion Suns to be a WW1 naval game in space. Not that this is a bad thing, but just that’s it’s been done already. Battlefleet Gothic is great, and there’s little purpose is simply writing my own version of that.

A Billion Suns needs to feel unique on the tabletop. The game needs to provide challenges and decisions and a feeling that no other spaceship game has provided so far. One obvious element of the naval feeling is lumbering movement. I’ll talk about that in a future blog post.

Another important ingredient to this naval feeling is the deployment of forces. I don’t like the idea that two fleets of spaceships would turn up somewhere in space an line up in neat deployment zones facing each other. I just doesn’t sit right with me. Also, when I think about my favourite visual moments from science fiction film and television, space battles should be more chaotic and three-dimensional that that.

There Is No Deployment Phase

Very early in the design, I hit upon a principle that I liked very much: there is no deployment phase!

As a designer, part of my job is challenging pre-existing structures and exploring if secret fun lies hidden and unexplored. The “deployment phase” is virtually ubiquitous in tabletop wargames. I cannot think of an example of a game that doesn’t pre-figure play with a deployment phase to set the armies up ready for turn one. It is the natural order of things.

And yet… we are in space. Our ships are arriving from hyperspace. We are no a medieval army that has marched for a week to meet in a field and is planning a surprise attack at dawn. The deployment phase just seems odd and out of place.

Assuming some form of faster than light communication and some form of faster than light travel, our admirals should be able react to the changing situation of the battle to call in reinforcements nearly instantly from anywhere within light years of the fighting.


In the current version of A Billion Suns, each turn features a “jump phase”, prior to ships activating, in which players may hyperspace ships onto the table form their collection. As I’ll go into in a future blog post, this game also doesn’t require a pre-written army list, so players are free to jump in whatever ships they need for the situation, so long as they are prepared to pay for them.

Add to this the fact that larger ships can drop new jump beacons to allow new ships

to arrive into different locations in later turns and you end up with a swirling, evolving, ever shifting battle.

As you will see from the current playtest draft (available to playtesters that have signed up here), there are other ways in which this game seeks to avoid the feeling of a naval game, but this lack of any form of battleline deployment, combined with the ability to bring new vessels in at will, makes the game feel very unique on the tabletop.

If you are interested in seeing how this works out on the table, sign up to be a playtester and get early access.