I like SF. I like wargames. I like naval adventure fiction.
These tastes put me square in the middle of the target audience for
David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. And yes, I do
enjoy them; Weber may be a hack, but he’s a very competent hack who
delivers good entertainment value for my money. So I was pleasantly
surprised to learn, this weekend at the annual Philadelphia Science
Fiction Convention (Philcon), that there is now an Honor Harrington
wargame — Saganami Island Tactical Simulator (SITS).
Weber started out as a game designer writing novel-length
game tie-ins before launching the Honor Harrington books in the early
1990s. In retrospect, it’s a little surprising that an Honorverse
wargame didn’t get produced ten years ago. There has long been a
flourishing genre of wargames that simulate 3D space combat;
Star Fleet Battles, set in the Star Trek universe, is
perhaps the best known of these. A tie-in to the Honorverse should
have been a natural.
On the other hand…most tactical space wargames are junk. As much
as I enjoy SF and wargaming, I can’t stomach a game that (as so many
do) just blithely handwaves away the actual physics of space combat.
Another deeply annoying flaw of most space wargames is that, though
space is a 3D maneuvering environment, they tend to have at best
rather poor support for modeling 3D movement and tactics. You end up
with games that are essentially 2D naval maneuvering with a thin and
patchy SFnal veneer.
If all I’m going to get is 2D maneuver with funny-shaped ships, I’d
really rather play a Napoleonic-era naval wargame like Wooden
Ships and Iron Men or Close Action — one
that sweats the details, that tries to get cannon ranges and
wind-driven movement right. And in fact I have a lot of experience
with such games. In general, I find they reduce space wargames to the
status of unsatisfying shams by contrast.
So I am pleasantly astonished to report that SITS (or rather, the
earlier Attack Vector Tactical game it’s based on) is a
true breakthrough in 3D game design. By use of an ingenious bit of
shaped plastic called a
tilt block, SITS ship miniatures can be
placed with an 0, 30, 45, or 60-degree increment of roll or pitch with
respect to the game table. The movement and firing rules use charts
that hide a lot of 3D-geometry and spherical trigonometry under an
Thus, you can really do 3D maneuvering in this system — and I
did, in fact, in a demo game that pitted two Havenite
Sultan-class battlecruisers against a Manticorn
Star Knight-class heavy cruiser. The system reproduces
the feel of Honorverse battles from the books extremely well, even to
the point where it models the attrition of missile salvos by several
layers of defenses from countermissiles down to sidewall. We even had
one of those explosion-wreaks-havoc-on-the-Manticoran-bridge scenes
Weber likes so much happen quite naturally.
Unlike most Peep division commanders in the books, I knew how to
use my tonnage advantage effectively — in this case, “Never mind
maneuvers, just go at ’em”. And the Manties didn’t have Honor
Harrington on the bridge pulling miracles out of her butt. So this
time, the good guys lost.
It’s a sign of good design that I was able to apply the tactics
that are supposed to work in the Honorverse books and get the
notionally correct result. I was also impressed by the fact that the
designer, Ken Burnside, modeled physics so carefully in his ruleset
that there are explanatory sections describing the heat-dissipation
equations he used.
Yes, there is a certain amount of handwavium and unobtainium in the
game system — the Weber books are space operas, after all. But Ken
(who I met and got to talk with) keeps the McGuffins to the bare minimum
necessary to capture the feel of the Honorverse. For me, this painstaking
effort at verismilitude makes the whole system far more enjoyable.
The only criticism of this game I have is that it is too
complicated to be accessible to most casual or social gamers. While
Ken Burnside’s components do a tremendously clever job of simplifying
your tactical information management, the game domain is irreducibly
complex and it shows. Personally, I relish that as a challenge, but
undeniably this game is not going to be a hit with the
beer-and-pretzels crowd. Only serious gamers need apply.
For those serious gamers, the rewards will be large. SITS aims
both to break new ground in realistic tactical space wargaming and to
capture the drama and feel of the Honor Harrington novels. It
succeeds at both these objectives, combining them with a panache I
would have thought impossible until I saw it. Kudos to Ken Burnside
and Ad Astra games for a truly superb design, which I hope and believe
will permanently raise the bar in space wargaming.
(Note: when I told Ken Burnside I was likely to plug SITS on my
blog, he asked me if I did so to add the caveat that Attack
Vector Tactical is temporarily unavailable due to production
constraints. I gather they’re having to work hard just to keep up
with the demand for SITS.)