A Call to Arms: Noble Armada is Mongoose Publishing’s third iteration of their in-house starship miniatures game, originally released for Babylon 5, now set in the Fading Suns universe. The game is sold as core rulebook with the essential rules and stats for five noble fleets, each of which is sold separately in fleet backs and ship blisters.
Noble Armada was a starship game in its own right, published by Holistic Design. The new A Call to Arms edition ignores those rules, but retains its dark, feudal vision of humanity’s future. It’s a good pairing; A Call to Arms was a solid game when it was tied to Babylon 5, but some of the factions — like the Minibari — felt unbalanced. The new edition gives the designers a chance to re-balance the game against five human feudal houses, while still allowing for more exotic touches in the form of alien species like the Vau and the Symbiotes. At the same time, the game remains fast playing, balancing powerful weapons against capable defensive systems without reducing the game to a mindless slugfest.
One of the biggest advantages to the original A Call to Arms was that it was released as a boxed set with the core fleets ready to be punched out from cardboard chits. It meant you could start playing immediately without a huge upfront investment, and then build up your metal fleets as you had time and money. The Noble Armada incarnation ditches the cardboard fleets, but it remains very affordable. A fleet starter set — which includes enough ships to build a 1,500 point conventional fleet – retails for $29.99. This isn’t a handful of plastic ships – these are metal minis that include a light carrier, two destroyers, two frigates, two galliots (troop transports), two explorers, and a handful of fighters and torpedo bombers. The exact mix of ships varies based on the fleets, but I was impressed with how much you got for your $30 (or less, depending on where you buy them).
The core rulebook itself retails for $29.99 ($17.99 PDF), which means you can be up and running with the game for $48 to $60. Compared to other games — like Warhammer 40K, which might require you to spend upwards of $150 to field an army – that’s very affordable. Even throwing in the Fleets of the Fading Suns expansion book ($14.99), you’re still spending far less than with Warhammer.
As for the game itself, it plays well. A Call to Arms successfully calls to mind the classic broadside battles of old, whether it’s 19th century frigates blasting away at each other or the Enterprise and Reliant exchanging broadsides in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Our 500-point battles took about two hours, and I loved how the fleets were able to make multiple passes, raking at each other with their main guns, occasionally smashing through to major systems, and surviving long enough to make a second pass. This isn’t the sort of game where starships disintegrate into stardust after taking a single hit. Instead it’s a slugfest, but one with a good deal of tactical leeway.
The different faction ships are all built around different core technologies. House Hazat focuses on boarding actions; while its fleets have plenty of firepower, every vessel (even diminutive explorers) carries troops. House Decados is all about close range firepower; any ship that gets close will find itself torn to pieces by their guns. House al-Malik relies on missile technology, making them good mid-to-long range combatants. And so it goes – each group its own strengths and character which helps prevent fights from degrading into simple slugfests.
The fights themselves are straightforward. It begins the Initiative Phase in which players roll 2d6 to see who goes first. The higher score wins. movement phase. The individual who won initiative can force the one who lost to move first; each person moves a ship until every ship has moved. Starship movement at least gives a nod to inertia, with each ship having to move at least half its speed before making a turn. Special maneuvers can modify that – All Ahead increases speed while All Stop lets you reduce or even halt your forward momentum. Next up is the attack phase, where everyone takes turns shooting at one another.
After this comes the boarding phase, which is when ship-to-ship combat takes place. This is a new addition to the Call to Arms rules and it involves a RISK-like opposed roll; the victor takes or retains the ship. It’s a dangerous maneuver because once the ships have grappled each other, it’s entirely possible that the defenders could defeat the attackers and then move into the opposing ship! The end phase is when ships can attempt repairs for damage systems and general record keeping is done.
It moves along quickly. I’d say we could fight a two-player, 500-point engagement in 60-90 minutes, faster if there are a few lucky hits and ships really start blowing up. The game’s ship classes run from frigate to dreadnaught. Some of these include carriers, which are ships capable of carrying starfighters and bombers. There are also ships dedicated to anti-missile defense, troop ships, and attack shuttles.
The heart of the game is ship-to-ship combat, and it does this well. Each weapon system has a certain number of attack dice, a range at which they can hit, and then special traits that modify the roles. For example: Heavy Blasters can hit at 32” and get 3 six-sided attack dice at Multihit 3. This means that if one of the attack dice hits its target, it actually counts as 3 hits. Attack dice attempt to beat a target number set by the enemy’s hull – e.g. Hull 3 means you need to roll 3s or better to hit the ship. Bigger ships have better hull scores.
For each hit against a ship, you roll one six-sided die to determine damage. On a 1 the hit is against a bulk head and does no damage, on 2-5 it does a point of damage, and on a 6 it does a point of damage and does a critical.
Criticals make the game. They generate the excitement, and they’re the thing that can take a top of the line cruiser and turn it into a smoking hulk in a single round. When you score a critical, you roll against a critical hits chart that maps to core ship systems like Engines, Weapons, or Reactor. Each hit does additional damage and weakens the target system; e.g. an Engine hit will slow down a ship while a Weapons hit can make systems Inaccurate. Multiple crits to the same system can be catastrophic; not only to do they do more damage, but they further cripple the ship and have a chance of escalating each turn.
This is the Call of Arms equivalent of the A Wing crashing into a the command bridge of the Super Star Destroyer Executor in Return of the Jedi or the Reliant tearing apart the Enterprise when her shields were down in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. They can have a tremendous effect on the momentum of the game, and are easily its best feature.
There are other aspects of the game that aren’t as fun. Call to Arms can be maddeningly inconsistent when it comes to die rolls. Sometimes you’re trying to meet a target number (combat), sometimes you’re trying to roll higher than a target number (crew checks), still other times you want to roll lower (fighter dodge checks). This has caused us to waste a fair amount of time looking up rules; I suspect one of these days we’ll just need to copy everything down to a single rule sheet and use that instead.
We’re still trying to figure out game balance. We’ve played a dozen games, and so far it seems like House Decados has a significant advantage. Their ships are close range bruisers, and can throw a truly amazing broadside of six Multihit 3. Attack Dice. That means a Decados ship has the potential to do 12 hits each turn; that outstrips its competition by a sizable margin. Decados has ripped through every ship they’ve come close to, and the only hope anyone has is of trying to stay just outside of their attack range and pepper them with medium range weapons. It requires careful maneuvering, but is that a balance issue, or just encouragement that people actually use tactics when fighting a fleet? The Kurgan Fleet, on the other hand, seems underpowered. Its heat-based weapons can cook crews from the outside, but shields render these attacks Inaccurate. At the same time, the Kurgan don’t have ships that can easily bring down shields. Their suicide fighter-bombers might help restore balance here; we haven’t had a chance to use them.
Most of the fleets are fairly well balanced, and while the Decados and Kurgan fleets have caused much debate within our group, I think it says something about the game that five of us invested in it – we haven’t seen that sort of adoption of a miniatures game since our HeroClix days.
The core rulebook includes 12 different scenarios you can play [check] and rules for randomly generating star systems and their component planets for use in an ongoing campaign. There are also rules for celestial debris such as dust and asteroids, as well as larger obstacles like planets. In your games we’ve found that space debris is essential; some scenarios are unwinnable without it, and they can be a great balancing factor in other games (think Star Trek II’s Mutara Nebula or The Empire Strikes Back’s asteroid field).
Noble Armada is the sort of game where you get to roll a lot of dice and blow things up in spectacular fashion. It requires a certain degree of strategy to play, but it’s still possible to have fun following a charge-straight-at-‘em approach. I’ll admit that after more than a year of playing the game, we’re still figuring it out, but we’ve had a lot of fun doing it.
- A Call to Arms
- Publisher: Mongoose Publishing
- Rulebook MSRP: $29.99 ($17.99 PDF)
- Fleet MSRP: $29.99 (boxed set)
- Web site: www.mongoosepublishing.com/