Battlestations is one of my favorite games. It’s the title Jeff Siadek and Gorilla Games have become known for, currently ripping it up in a glorious second edition that makes the modest original release a distant memory. Dirtside is the long-teased standalone expansion that pushes the experience to the surface. Just like its predecessor, this is a quirky amalgamation of dungeon crawler, adventure, and roleplaying game. It stands on its own as a complete experience with depth and editorial commitment, but its legacy will be that of broadening the scope of a game that doesn’t really need it.
Battlestations is conceptually seductive. Much like the indie video game FTL, players control crew members on a spaceship by maneuvering through rooms and actively engaging consoles, weapon systems, and support machinery. The tactical element here is gratifying as your ship is represented with large tiles reminiscent of dungeon crawlers like Descent or Warhammer Quest.
Actions are reflected on a macro-scale board with ships, missiles, and asteroids littering the black. The game comfortably operates on both perspectives, interweaving reflective systems that heighten the tension on both levels. It’s a wild game where the pilot is screaming at the engineer for more juice, but the bright lad can’t make it to the engines because a tentacled starfish pirate has him pinned behind a bulkhead. Meanwhile the gunner is white knuckling the main cannon and trying to snuff out an incoming missile chasing the ship. There is boarding, managing power levels, launching of fighters, all kinds of zany wonderment.
Dirtside does what it says on the tin. It uses the same rules structure – with several new flourishes – to facilitate excursions to planets of various distinction. And most significantly, it captures the spirit of Battlestations.
Events trigger unexpectedly, special rules changeup the gameplay, and unexpected enemy behavior throws a spanner in the works. Each mission is expertly written, full of tension and occasional humor. The clever and inventive scenario writing is one of the shining qualities of this series and Jeff Siadek’s work. You will take your crew to strange worlds to investigate mysteries, commandeer surface weapon installations, and shut down facilities. Ships can operate in atmo and rain down death while characters on the surface cut across fields in motorbikes and transports. Each session is chock-full of emergent narrative and stomach-churning twists. It’s wild and unpredictable and it’s clearly Battlestations.
One key difference between the two games is that Dirtside utilizes a simple AI system to control enemy behavior and spawning. This is a leap from its parent system which is more complex on the opposition side, requiring a player to GM the game and operate enemy spacecraft. This change lends a certain demeanor to Dirtside, making for a more direct experience. To recapture some of the dynamism, missions often trigger scripted twists at key moments and lean more heavily into the event system. It tries to mimic the mystery of human behavior and action by injecting surprises and color when given the chance. This is most evident in the eight-mission campaign which successfully layers additional concepts and rules as you progress.
I’m not wholly comfortable with the shift from a player-driven opposition to AI. It certainly works and it does come with the appreciable boon of allowing for solitaire play, but it loses a touch of the sophistication and integrity of the system. There is some direction on having a player control the opposing forces, but it’s not quite as interesting as the play found in Battlestations proper.
Other limitations of its predecessor remain. You will still want to commit to a full campaign to get the most out of the system. One-off games are fine and can be joyful, but you’re only scratching the surface paint off the potential here. It’s also a deep and heavy game once you’ve pushed beyond the initial learning phase. If you’re playing both Dirtside and full-fledged Battlestations, this adds even more systems you must internalize and cope with. It’s not too demanding or beyond that of learning something like Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s certainly a step beyond Imperial Assault or Oathsworn.
And this really drives to the heart of how I view this product. It certainly stands alone as a complete release. It has a full rulebook with a tutorial campaign as well as dozens of rich and interesting missions. The full ruleset is provided without a required secondary purchase, rectifying one of my complaints with the Battlestations 2nd Edition boxset. And it’s an expansive ruleset at that. You can still accrue experience and treasure to enhance your characters and improve their outlook. You can operate several different vehicles, encounter dozens of alien types, and acquire many different skills and abilities. It seems like it’s all there and you’re all set for indefinite long-term play.
But I think this is less effective and less interesting as a standalone release. The surface missions are entertaining and thoughtful, but they don’t hit quite the same highs as the interstellar adventures. Perhaps this is a result of knowing what’s missing – a conundrum a prospective player may not share – but it feels like a component of the whole, a module to be added to the Battlestations macrocosm.
Ideally, I want to run a Dirtside mission as a side adventure in an existing Battlestations campaign. An addendum to a current arc or a brief set of linked scenarios as a shakeup to the existing formula. It works well in this regard as it enhances the world building and character development of Siadek’s vision. It offers new challenges as well as shifting the perspective on various alien species as you get to visit their homeworlds and know their harsh realities.
The shift in tones between the two formats allows for some breathing room and reflection. It deepens my appreciation for each style of game and reverberates the accomplishments and deeds found in the variety. It also enhances the overall existence of the system as a faux RPG. It broadens the available experiences and creative limits, while also allowing for new avenues of character specialization and mechanical exploration.
The product itself serves this purpose as well. It comes with another set of miniatures to fill out your previous collection, helping to alleviate those pains of wanting to run four Vomegs on the board at once. The rest of the material you can isolate in its own box and view it as a large content expansion. Conceptually, it’s another frontier to visit, another galaxy to tear apart and leave smoking.
And because it’s best served as an adjunct to the previous release and an already established campaign, it’s not exactly essential. Battlestations 2nd Edition is a fantastic game that offers limitless play. Dirtside seeks to offer a parallel approach, and it does find success, but its missions and format are not as ultimately moving or abundant as the space-faring missions. It’s why, as I’ve stated, it’s really best served as an interesting, if unnecessary, aside.
Some may be perfectly happy just owning Dirtside and playing an entire campaign focused on the ground. That’s fine, and the system is robust enough to keep you interested. I, however, view this material stronger when placed as part of the whole. Regardless of how you engage this game, I’ve found it to leave a lasting satisfaction grounded in dramatic over-the-top action befitting the Battlestations identity. It just won’t replace or overtake that game’s influence.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
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I was surprised to see this reviewed – I feel like Battlestations seems to be a bit of a black sheep in the modern board gaming scene due to it’s somewhat antiquated (if charming) design.
As someone who is also into Core Space, I find myself in a conundrum. Do you consider these games basically competing in the same category – emergent storytelling trough campaign scenarios? Have you had an easier or harder time getting your friends into one system or the other? Core Space just seems way more streamlined and easy to get to the table, despite the difficulties of physically getting it to the table. I want to get into both games but I think it’ll be hard enough to give just a single one of these systems enough time and effort to let them shine.
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Hey Zak. I’m not totally surprised, but I do wish Battlestations got more attention.
Both BS and Core Space do play in the same genre, at least partially. There are some practical differences which separate them in my mind.
I’ve found Core Space works better with less people. I don’t mind playing a one off with each player controlling a single character and two players per crew, but that doesn’t necessarily work very well long term. It can, but the semi-cooperarige nature can make for some long-term discomfort if crews turn against each other early.
I personally mostly play Core Space solo for this reason. I have played it many times with others, but it’s just a bit more difficult due to get played.
BS works great as I GM and run it like an RPG in terms of trying to present challenging scenarios as opposed to a competitive opponent.
I also find BS much easier to transport to someone else’s house. I have some Core Space assembled outside the box, which makes for more difficulty.