By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 27 June 2018
Being a sci-fi fan, I do love spaceships…and watching small fighters doing amazing things. There’s a great deal of sci-fi materials focusing around a group of pilots, their (mis)adventures, how they grow, cope with their losses, and still overcome whatever it is the Universe decides to throw at them.
Tachyon Squadron offers to bring that feeling to your gaming table.
Writer’s Note: This review is of an early release version of a game. The book is complete with the exception of art and last-minute changes, both of which could impact the final score and the quality of the game.
Taking place after the Great Galactic War, fought between the Stellar Republic and the Dominion of Unity, reached a standstill, Tachyon Squadron puts your group of pilots in the cockpit as they fight to keep the Dominion of Unity from retaking the newly independent Draconis Sector. Severely outnumbered and outgunned, can your inexperienced but passionate, hot-headed, and naturally skilled squadron keep the sector safe?
The game utilizes a modified version of Fate Core, and requires a copy of Fate Core to be used properly.
==What You Get==
In its current form, Tachyon Squadron is an 184 page PDF, and does not include art (but does include spaces for said art). Within those 184 pages, we are given the rules of the game in the first half, with the latter half being (mostly) setting information, sample adventure, and pre-generated content.
As a modified version of Fate Core, much of the game is familiar to those used to the main line, with a few differences. To name a few changes, we are given an entirely new approach to combat (specifically starship combat), a new set of guidelines and rules to handle equipment, and a new set of skills to work with.
Like everything else that is marked as being powered by Fate Core, the game is hackable to cover almost anything you could want, but the game absolutely shines with some of the new additions to the rules.
For example, one of the things players struggle with in Fate is how to best utilize Aspects and, more frustratingly, creating them. While most groups have workarounds for this (song lyrics/titles, catchphrases, etc), I find that this is one of the hardest things for people to do. Instead of leaving players adrift to come up with their own secluded Aspects, the book actively promotes that each Aspect be tied to another player, a bit of gear, and the Trouble Aspect (a problem for most) has been replaced by “Decompression”, or how your character recovers from Stress.
There are a number of other new additions to the game that, like The Dresden Files, absolutely change things for the better.
My favorite one in particular would be how Gear/Equipment is handled, as it plays a much more interesting role than window dressing or an Aspect. In fact, specialized gear is now a Gear Stunt…that doesn’t cost you anything. Getting the item (and the related task of doing so) is the “cost” that is paid, and the benefits are a bit different. Many of these designated items act like what my group and I call “micro-stunts,” in that they offer a specific limited benefit (like a +1 to a narrow roll), but the real mechanical “new and shiny” is in maximizing (and minimizing) dice.
With this new mechanic, you take one of your dice and turn it to a “+” if you maximize, or turn it to a “-” if you minimize, with a maximum of 2 in either direction (and they cancel out). Therefore, if you have a specialized scanner, it would maximize one of your dice on an Overcome or Create and Advantage action will performing an Investigation, Repair, or the one specific thing it is designed to do. Simple as that! This mechanic opens so many doors for things, just as how Dresden Files gave us new ways to handle stress (handled the same way here).
Outside of the mechanics, Tachyon Squadron is proving to be a useful resource for anyone who like pilot-themed games. There are pages dedicated to maneuvers, techniques, and terminology used by pilots to help players get into character. As someone with no pilot knowledge outside of what I see in books, movies, and shows, this is a wonderful resource.
As written, Tachyon Squadron as a setting taps into a number of fanbases. The pre-designed setting is classic Space Opera, and the details presented within touches on a number of popular franchises revolving around pilot drama, like Space: Above and Beyond, Battlestar Galactica, and Star Wars (especially the Rogue/Wraith Squadron novels). As someone who has touched base on most of the sci-fi list of their suggested viewing, I can safely tell you that they do these justice.
All of this information is easy enough to tweak and hack for any other pilot-themed game, allowing GMs and players to tweak the game to be any dogfight-heavy game of their choosing. Want WWII flying aces, a modern-day military skirmisher, or a Battlestar Galactica-themed game? Tachyon Squadron has you covered!
While I am fond of a number of the mechanical additions in Tachyon Squadron, I do have a few of my own concerns and aversions that may be a bit more personal than actual faults.
For example, the damage mechanic we see for ships is rather complex when compared to Fate Core. In this case, ships have shields that take hits first (three shifts of damage, specifically), and afterward, they take “Instances” of damage. An Instance of damage counts as two shifts of damage, and therefore functions similar to Consequences in Fate Core.
While this alone isn’t so bad, it does mean that, after shields are gone, you are halving whatever damage is left to determine how many Instances you are causing, which then leads to two other frustrating points.
The first is the extra step to determine which location was hit. Each time you take an Instance of damage, you have to roll a single Fate die to determine which system is hit. While it is interesting, I felt it was a slightly convoluted way to handle it (yet another step), when it could have just as easily been handled by having it tied to the roll (i.e. different colored die in your roll, the die closest to you, etc). It’s also just a general slowdown element which is a bit bothersome for the game.
The second issue is how the damage is calculated. Tachyon Squadron brings back the hotly-debated (at least at my tables) Weapon rating, with many of the specialized weapons being in the range of Weapon:5 (meaning 5 damage, plus the margin of success). While this is useful for dealing with big ships (that usually have a special Armor rating), it is a bit of a headache in dogfights.
Granted, combat should be fast and deadly, but I just felt there were extra moving parts here that make the game run a bit slower (and the comments in the “Play Examples” make it feel as such).
Finally, I find that some of the new gear mechanics may be a bit harder to grok and to hack in the grand scheme of things. Tachyon Squadron puts the onus of technology creation on the group, and finding a balance between Weapon rating, any penalties, additional Aspects, and additional effects (alternative skills, maximizing dice, etc) may be an odd thing try to balance. This is doubly true for starship gear, as we are also given a new resource to track in the form of Equipment Bays, which act as Stunts for ships.
It’s…more convoluted than I’d like, personally. That’s really the gist of what’s wrong with Tachyon Squadron, and I’m not sure if there’s a way to fix it without losing some of the essence of the game.
At this time, the art is going into the Middle category. We only have access to a few images from the Kickstarter, but we don’t know where they’ll appear in the book (if at all), nor do we know what other art will be here. Some Evil Hat books have amazing art that is well placed, and others fall a bit short. Since I don’t have anything to work on, I can’t put this in either good or bad for the moment.
This is more of a pet peeve of mine, but I find it odd that we have a game about fighter ships but not very much in the rules to support bigger ships out of the box. Granted, the game is about fighters and their pilots, but it seems odd to omit the details about the ships these pilots will be on more often than their personal fighters. I mean, Star Wars fans know that carriers or other capital ships play a huge role for starfighters, and any Battlestar Galactica fan will admit that Galactica played almost as big a part in battles as the Vipers the hotshots would pilot, so the omission of ways to deal with bigger ships as anything more than window dressing or a large (and dangerous) target in the core rules was a bit irksome to me. This is being remedied with a 10,000 word electronic supplement that covers the Dominion and the use of capital ships.
One thing I’m really feeling ambivalent about is how this is setting the stage for a Fate Space Toolkit. While I absolutely love the idea of having that kind of resource, it just seems that Tachyon Squadron is being used as the testbed for the “tech” we’ll see in the final version, and since the Fate Space Toolkit is being hinted at within the Kickstarter (and it’s text-only preview is being used as a stretch goal), it makes me wonder if it’s worth suggesting to wait for the toolkit or suggest that everyone gets on board with this one.
The biggest debated topic, for me, is the new system used for space encounters, and the new rules that are implemented. I absolutely have a love/hate relationship with them, and I can’t tell which direction it should fall in a review.
To sum up the mechanic: characters make the equivalent of an Initiative roll, and after results are announced, are placed on a chart. You can only target those beneath you in the Initiative chart (showing superior placement), and at the end of the round, everyone degrades by one.
All participants are given two “phases,” with actions that are available within each phase or taking the whole phase. For example, attacking is only available in Phase 1, while a “Tactical Refocus” to try to move up the chart is an action available on Phase 2, and rescuing an ejected pilot takes both phases.
From there, it works very much like any other Fate Core game, but getting to that point is what makes Tachyon Squadron stand out.
On one hand, I enjoy it. The system captures the feeling of a dogfight, of jockeying for a better position than your foes and making each move count. It mechanically captures that feeling of escalation, desperation, and how combat devolves over time. It also provides an easy way for all players to track where they are and who they can target thanks to the use of various placeholders, and the mechanic is robust enough to be used in various other styles of games (or have elements hacked for later).
On the other hand, I’m not that fond of it. There’s a bit of extra bookkeeping for everyone involved, and with the other bookkeeping tasks added on in this game (like maximize/minimize, tracking multiple types of ship damage, various Armor/Weapon rules, etc), it can be a bit much and it feels like it bogs down play.
I’m also not too keen on the extra materials needed for this. As I mentioned last year as I prepared for CharCon, I love the idea of running a Fate game out of a small box and not needing too many materials. Technically, if I don’t need rulebooks, I could run it with a few pencils/markers and a pair of deck boxes (Deck of Fate, It’s Not My Fault, cut index cards). Tachyon Squadron absolutely needs more space and tools to promote visual cues, such as standees or minis, readily visible charts, and multiple sheets per player (due to ships ideally having their own sheet). It’s just a bit much, honestly, but some of it is absolutely vital to get that right feeling pitched by this game.
At the end of the day, I am waffling between 3.5 and 4 buns, with an inability to make a set decision because the product is currently unfinished. Artwork and any final changes can absolutely sway this score in either direction.
As a Fate Core game, Tachyon Squadron shoots for the stars and delivers a ready-to-run setting that can easily be hacked to any number of favorite franchises (just about anything from their inspiration page, really). It’s an easy to grasp setting with a number of new mechanics and streamlined elements that will make any Fate-loving sci-fi fan jump for joy.
Of course, the game has its flaws, such as the more convoluted (but necessarily so) encounter mechanics, the lack of support for bigger ships, and the overall limited selection of materials for the campaign. The game does set the stage for the Fate Space Toolkit hinted at during the Kickstarter, but critically speaking, Tachyon Squadron is almost like the teaser for this main course.
If you are a fan of Fate and have been itching for a good sci-fi RPG that focuses on pilots and their antics, or are looking for a ready-to-play and easy (or rather, easier) access RPG with this focus, then absolutely pick up Tachyon Squadron.
If you are not a sci-fi fan, have no need for piloting hijinks, or are frustrated by what is “lacking” in this book, then give this a pass (and consider the Fate Space Toolkit when that is released).
Tachyon Squadron is being funded on Kickstarter and is currently slicing through stretch goals. At this time, the book is only available as a text-only PDF from the Kickstarter, with the final version having an estimated release date of July 2018. The book is written by Clark Valentine, and will be published by Evil Hat.