Stargrunt: King of Hastilude

25mm scale sci-fi hover APC by Daemonscape Miniatures/Ground Zero Games

Having written before about my preference for hastilude over tournament style play, I wanted to point out a lesser known sci-fi rule set that exemplifies this style of play: Stargrunt II by Jon Tuffley. (Yes, the rules can be printed as a free PDF.)

Stargrunt so eschews the tournament style that it makes it explicit on page 10, in a six paragraph section about why you won’t find any point values. The reasons are:
1. Point values are largely arbitrary: there is no obvious way to abstract a unit’s value in a way that really represents its capability on the table, and inevitably it becomes an exercise in marketing for the miniature manufacturer to periodically ‘rebalance’ the game to sell more minis at a higher cost(!).
2. It encourages what he calls “competition mentality” where you’re looking for loopholes in the rules to win rather than trying to force a fight on your own advantages, making proper use of terrain, and so forth.
3. This tends to produce ‘march across the table in a straight line blasting’ type game, which a cursory search of battle reports on YouTube shows that this is a very common occurrence in games like Warhammer 40k or even historicals like Flames of War or Team Yankee.
4. It is really just a poor substitute for making a satisfying narrative scenario, which really does not take much time and effort.

Considering that this book was written in 1996, this is really an Ecclesiastes 1:9 moment. While you may have just noticed these problems, they are actually perennial, and so there’s usually no need to reinvent the wheel in solving them. Just have a GM or develop a scenario! It’s also amusing to note that even in the age of 40k 2nd edition, people were wise to Games Workshop’s practice of setting the market price of their miniatures based on their points values (he says this explicitly, albeit without mentioning GW by name).

Beyond that philosophical digression, Stargrunt’s gameplay is extremely satisfying to a gamer looking for hastilude. Here’s what I like best about it:

I. No Individualized Statline

Every unit in Stargrunt is described primarily by three values: a unit quality (Untrained through Elite), a leadership rating (1-3, from best to worst), and a morale rating (Confident through Broken). The method it uses of denoting this on the table with counters is so elegant it can be done with only two markers! There is no needlessly duplicative boilerplate statline like in Warhammer because Stargrunt II was developed from the ground up, not an attempt to distill RPG stats into wargame format.

Why is this better, besides the obvious reduction of needing to look up a unit’s stats in a codex or army list? Simply because there’s less room to make ‘special exceptions’ to make cheesy units. Your unit is either made up of good troops with a good leader or it’s not, and everything from its ability to fire accurately, survive casualties, take cover, or call for support is based on this.

II. Dice Ladder

Stargrunt uses most of the standard polyhedral dice, from D4 through D12, to represent those unit qualities I just mentioned (Untrained get a D4, Green gets a D6, Regular a D8, Veteran a D10, and Elites a D12). Besides using more of your dice collection, this offers two significant advantages over the now (unfortunately) prevalent single-die-only games like Warhammer, Bolt Action, and Frostgrave.

The first is that there’s simply more possibilities in an eight, 10, or 12 sided die than a D6, so there’s less need of making special rules exceptions to make a unit interesting or useful. The second is that it offers a way out of modifier hell: bonuses or penalties will just shift the dice up or down the ladder (e.g. your enemy is in light cover, so downshift your D8 quality dice to a D6 when shooting). There is no more need of doing long-chain, small-digit addition and subtraction in your head to figure out exactly what number you need to roll.

III. No weapon ranges

Stargrunt just accepts that, with the exception of pistols, shotguns, and close combat weapons, anything your guys are equipped with is going to be able to reach from one end of the battlefield to the other. This is both realistic and a huge relief in terms of gameplay, as you are no longer checking weapons tables. Isn’t it ridiculous when your Panzers have to move for a turn before they can successfully engage the enemy, over a table that is almost never more than a quarter mile in scale length (and usually much less than that)?

Again, unit quality is what matters. Since a regular unit has a D8 quality die, their range bands are in 8″ increments. If something is 8″ away, it’s at close range and they just roll their D8. If it’s 24″ away, that’s two more range bands, and so the dice shifts down the ladder twice to a D4. Simple! And it implies that better units will do better at longer ranges, thus multiplying their effectiveness.

IV. Concealment and cover

Stargrunt is one of the very few mini wargames that distinguishes between concealment and cover, which of course makes a big difference in real life, and it does so in an elegant way. Concealment and Light Cover both impose a 1 die-shift penalty for the shooter, while Heavy Cover imposes a 2 die-shift penalty. However, Light Cover also grants a 1 die-shift armor bonus for the defender, while Heavy Cover grants a 2 die-shift armor bonus, if casualties need to be determined. This is far better than modern Warhammer’s totally arbitrary system where cover saves are weak and largely don’t matter to high armored units like Space Marines.

V. Morale over casualties

Unless a Stargrunt unit is behaving very foolishly or gets caught out on the open, they are much more likely to be broken than wiped out. Even in games like Bolt Action, where ‘pins’ (called ‘suppression’ in Stargrunt) are extremely important, it is explicitly said that units are more likely to be annihilated than dissolve due to pins. Not so in Stargrunt, where troops are more likely to be wounded than killed outright, and effective enemy fire followed up with close assault will typically see that unit slide down the morale ladder to Broken.

Besides more accurately representing the human element in combat, this is simply more fun. Units that break do not simply disappear off the table, as if they were killed, as in Bolt Action, OPR, or 40k. They actually run away and this causes morale problems for other units who see it. Also, it’s possible to rally them and return them to the battle! (You used to be able to do this old version of Warhammer, but I guess they thought it was ‘too complicated’ for their target audience of imbeciles.)

Wounded (but not killed) soldiers compound this problem, as most troops will actually suffer morale degradation just from having their wounded colleagues moaning for help alongside them. If you can treat them with a medic or evacuate them from the field, on the other hand, their confidence levels can go up — even higher than their starting level! — because the troops feel like they are being taken care of rather than thrown away in a meatgrinder. Finally, medics are valuable! This is really brilliant stuff for those concerned about simulating will-to-fight!

Finally, while Stargrunt Suppression is similar to Pins in Bolt Action, there are important differences that make suppression more of a problem to deal with. Instead of making it harder to do things, Suppression makes it impossible. A unit can only accumulate a max of two Suppression markers at once, but almost all actions they can take require the unit leader to first clear these Suppression markers. With two actions per unit, a unit with two Suppression markers must use all its actions to clear them, and may not succeed. Thus, while Pins make it harder to do something, Suppression makes it impossible unless first taken care of. To be honest, I think both of these systems have their points in favor, and Bolt Action’s system is very elegant in what it does, but Stargrunt’s really emphasizes the inability of troops to do anything productive when worn down by fire.

VI. Mission motivation

Stargrunt is the only system that I know of that incorporates the concept of mission motivation into the rules. Mission motivation is simply the degree to which each unit (or side) considers the mission they are on to be important enough to risk their lives on. This offers a unique and satisfying way of demonstrating how low quality units that are desperately fighting for a cause (or their lives) can outfight much better trained and equipped units that are only on a routine patrol (or are a few weeks away from retirement).

VII. Chain of command and Activations

Stargrunt is typically an alternating activation system; you activate one unit and do your thing, and then your opponent activates one of his. However, one of the possible actions for a unit to take is to issue an order to another unit lower than it on the chain of command. Since a unit has two actions, this means that a platoon LT can activate two other squads. If it’s the company commander, he can activate his two platoon leaders, who can in turn each activate two squads, so one activation can actually send four squads moving and shooting. This is like “You Men, Snap to Action” in Bolt Action, but on steroids. It does not require you be within 6″ (because radios exist!), and there’s no theoretical limit if you have a high enough command element on the table. When employed correctly in this alternate activation system, it greatly rewards coordination and combined arms action.

VIII. Communication and observation

In Stargrunt, there are clear and elegant rules for communicating between units (including calling in artillery and airstrikes) and trying to observe and identify hidden units (mines, snipers, concealed enemies) on the battlefield. Since this is such an important part of warfare in any age, it’s great to see it dealt with explicitly rather than ignoring the potentially disastrous chance of failure that typically comes with ‘God’s Eye View’ level gaming.

There’s more, but I’d be going on all day. To be sure, Stargrunt is much more crunchy than games like One Page Rules and requires considerably more thought and attention, but this, to me, makes it much more satisfying. A bit of advice, though: don’t jump in and do a big battle on your first try. You will be rewarded by trying out the rules little by little in a series of smaller engagements until you are familiar with the mechanics.

Are you also a Stargrunt fan? Are there any other systems you think deserve more love and attention, or handle certain scenarios particularly well? Let me know in the comments.

5 responses to “Stargrunt: King of Hastilude”

    • You are, of course, correct. What I meant was that Frostgrave, as a single die-type system, is more susceptible to the “OMG SO RANDOM!” effects that come from flat probabilities, whereas die pools operate on a curve. It’s why I prefer Silver Bayonet’s 2D10.

    • I have not played Dirtside. It’s the same suggested setting and probably a similar style, but I imagine the play has to be considerably different considering the scale difference.

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