Friday, 9 September 2011

5150 Star Army Review

I have always has a tempestuous relationship with THW products. On one hand I am a true fan of the way their rules truly buck the trends so common in wargaming and deliver a very different play experience to anything else on the Market. On the other hand, I've never been sure if I was playing them correctly and had trouble making sense of them in many cases. I found the layout baffling, the language used unhelpful, seemingly endless charts that seemed to have limited effect.. There were always speed bumps that stopped me really enjoying the experience.

It is for these reasons I never bought the original 5150. Five years have passed and THW has stuck with it. They have released many more games and paid a great deal if attention to fans. THW fans are pretty hardcore and luckily, very enthusiastic and positive toward newcomers. This is important to know because THW rules are supported through their Yahoo group, which boasts thousands of members. Some people say this Yahoo group is a strength of the system. (To play Devil's advocate I would suggest that if the system was that well written it would not require a Yahoo group to comprehend it... But let's put all that aside for now.)

After reading a couple of good reports I took a chance and downloaded the PDF from I'm glad I did because this book is really, really damn good.

First, to judge the book by its cover. Gone are the cringey CG efforts of the previous editions. Like all current-gen THW covers, this one is tasteful and professional looking.

On to the rules, they are written in a much more clear and direct way to the older sets (my experiences have been with Legends of Araby, CR 2.0 and 3.0) and explain the game in a very well thought out sequence that makes the game a pleasure to learn. The layout is thoughtful and a tremendous improvement for the company.

The game is presented this time as a campaign system specifically for running battles that the ubiquitous Star Army might take part in, rather than a "everything you can imagine" approach. This focus makes the whole product feel tighter and more polished. There are lists and charts for alien and insurgent forces that will proxy well for a lot of mini ranges on the Market.

Some of my favourite positives about Star Army:

*No points values. The game runs great without needing them. Brilliant.
*Vehicle rules that are both different to infantry systems yet share common mechanics. Slick.
*Vastly improved squad mechanics that are quicker to use, yet lose no flexibility. Nice.
*Great campaign system for military battles.
*Highly scalable to your own minis and terrain collections. Plays well with a handful of figures as well as platoon strength forces.
*Arguably the best solo rules and quick scenario generator on the Market.

Negatives? Surprisingly, none so far. I need to get some games under my belt to make any more comment, but as far as reading the book goes I am enthused about playing and feel likeI know how to.

One caveat may be the price. $20 USD is more than I'm accustomed to paying for a PDF, and there are a lot of comparable products for a good deal cheaper. However I don't feel cheated in any way and will hopefully get a lot of fun out of the book.

If you are at all interested in the THW family of games, this one represents a genuine turning point and you owe it to yourself to try it out.

Happy Gaming!


  1. Great review; thank you. I've never gotten into the THW rules for the exact same reasons: weird language (pass two dice?) and too many charts to reference. I've wanted to like them so much and your list of positives for this game is impressive. $20.00 is a bit steep for a download though. I know that sounds miserly, but for 20 bones I could buy enough terrain-making material to last a year, or enough 15mm figures for a platoon.

  2. I was so turned off by CR3 that I was never interested in the previous 5150. Honestly, I wasn't sure you even needed minis to play... after the first turn, it just seemed to move from one chart to the next. So I rolled my eyes whenever its (very vocal) supporters would suggest 5150 as a replacement for games like 40K or AT43.

    But this new version is getting some damn good press, and from gamers I truly respect. For the price... Honestly, if Ed and crew would release a new version of Chain Reaction that gives us a taste for the new 5150, it would help quite a bit.

    Chris K.

  3. I think at one point I heard that Ed wanted to incentivize the purchase of the print books (which come with the .pdf version as well), and that's why the .pdf version isn't much of a price break. I do wish that the .pdf versions would strip out the white space and add-in bookmarks, but I can always do that myself later.

    At the moment I'm favoring games with more than one squad... too often my enemy has gotten more toys on the table than I have (no vehicles yet, however).

  4. Nice review!
    I played a few games already. The reaction system is still there but smoothed down to allow you easily to use much bigger forces.
    I heard a lot of people feeling like jumpin' from table to table when playing a THW game. This is a pain until you understand the mechanics as a whole. After learning that, I think there are only very few games which need less bookkeeping and less mathematics.
    The best part for me, especially as a solo player, is that you never know what happens next in the game. My last two batreps ( ) were played using 5150 SA.

  5. Pahoota- not miserly at all. In 15mm gamer terms $20 is a lot. I only splashed out myself because I had some store credit built up on RPGnow.

    Chris- tread carefully, if you really hated CR3 to death, this game is very similar, just much slicker and makes more sense.

    Derek- that kind of incentivising stops me purchasing at all! ;) I'm looking forward to running more than 1 squad too.

    Brutpaul- the solo playability is the key reason I like these rules. Reading your stuff now!

  6. Spacejacker,
    I agree with you about the layout of old THW rules. There was huge improvement since All Things Zombie. I play 5150 (old one), WHAA, ATZ, RRtK, RSBS solo and cooperatively. These games are great. We love them because of their realistic flavor. With a little practice we don't need most of the charts.
    Above all we have fun with each game. We don't need more...

    If you want to have a look to our games:
    - 5150 (sci fi):
    - ATZ (zombie):
    - WHAA (heroic fantasy):



  7. Nice review. I have the book but only gave a quick read so far (I was hooked by CR 3.0 and I'm still getting started with ATZ.) I have to agree with your remark about the discussion group and rules. On the other hand, the community that has emerged is also great at bringing up new ideas, scenarios, house rules etc.

  8. Regarding the yahoogroup being the strength or the sign of weakness of THW:

    I think it's s bit of both. The weakness is that it's usually difficult for veteran gamers to get used to the THW way. If you try it with newbies or kids - they catch on it very easily because they don't have the habits of traditional wargaming set in their minds yet.

    This is also the strength of the system - it's different than most other games available. Now some other authors got to create reaction systems for their games, but Ed's original approach is still my favorite.

    Of course it would be great to see the rules written in such a way that is easy for a new player to understand and get used to. But it means even more examples and explanations - which means higher page count, bigger and more expensive books or less content in them. If you are a bit experienced with THW you don't want the basics again, you want more meat... and the books are big already!

    It would be cool to see that you don't need the support from the group to be sure you understand the rules correctly. But then even with other games like the most popular Warhammer things you have many internet communities (official or not) which support the games. So THW products are not any different. But it's always great to have a group that is willing to help you in need, to offer suggestions, tips and inspiration.

    And as for the prices of PDFs. Yes, I am used to paying less for downloadable rulesets, too. Yet I never buy printed versions because shipping would make it too expensive for me. Actually I think Ed has a point in saying that you're paying mostly for the content, not for the medium which transfers the content. So the cost of paper adds little to the price, because the major part of the cost is the cost of the gaming goodness.

    Of course I would be happy to see PDFs priced at 50-75% of their harcopy equivalents - but I still thing you're getting a good worth for the price. Remember that most of the new books count like 100 or more pages, which is quite a lot of interesting rules and ideas for any gamer.

    Unfortunately for similar prices you can get much better quality books from other publishers - for example very nice Ambush Alley books cost $18-25 per PRINTED book, at high production quality, nicely illustrated, etc. Field of Glory (high production standards) run at ca. 15 GBP ($20?). So you can easily get a book of higher quality than THW books for price comparable to THW PDFs.

    You may ask me if it's still worth checking THW stuff? In my opinion: yes, it is. The nicest book doesn't mean as much as good content to me.

  9. For me, since Im not a hardcore gamer and more of a painter I really want clear and simple rules, I mean you could have the best game system but if your rules are written is a poor over complex form I will just move elsewhere.
    Also the non native english speakers such as myself do really struggle if things are not that clear from the beginning.
    Even if Im very curious about the solo rules I will avoid spending 20 dollars just just to check that out. Maybe in the future.

  10. I fully agree with you, Navarro. Having such a wide choice of available rulesets you may wish to choose the one that you feel most comfortable with.

    But let me ask you: Have you tried Chain Reaction 3.0? It's absolutely free and by no means it's not a cheap and limited demo version, but a fully usable and pretty complete ruleset. OK, it doesn't have as many explanations or examples as 5150:SA but it gives a good idea of how THW games play. And for me it's the best kind of wargames I've ever played. If you dislike it - you won't like any THW products. If you like it, you may wish to try 5150:SA, which is even more complete (over 100 pages of meat) and much clearer. Actually it's the clearest THW ruleset so far.

    Don't think I am trying to convince you to get into THW gaming, but why not give a free ruleset a try when it costs you nothing?

    You say you don't want an unclear ruleset. But did you notice that most people say that 5150:SA is the game where THW ruleset became clear and comprehensible at last? :)
    Moreover, you don't know if you will find THW rules unclear. Or do you? :)

    I am not a hardcore gamer and you know it. Actually I play very little and just because of it I want my gaming to be as enjoyable as it can get, that's why I choose the games I like the most. And 90% of them are THW games. At one point I was a hardcore rules junkie - reading, comparing, playtesting - and I think I tested quite many of them, but most of them didn't feel as cool as THW to me.

    But I am fully aware that one man's meat can be another man's poison, and that's why I am not trying to be persuasive - just telling you that there is a way of testing if you like it before buying anything.

    Well, actually it's better than that - not only before buying but maybe instead of it! There are people who find CR3 sufficient for their gaming needs with its flexibility. Because it's flexible as long as you stay within the genre of modern/scifi firefights.

    One thing is an undeniable fact: THW games are very different than most wargames you may know, and it may take some time to change your habits. The funny thing is that if they click with you, no other game will feel right or realistic enough. ;)

    As I said - it's much easier to get into THW if you don't have any habits carried over from more traditional wargames (like IGOUGO, repeating sequence of turns, no reactions, total control, lack of fog of war)

  11. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Well for simplicity sake Im liking Fubar :) One or two pages and its done... and songs of blades and heroes for fantasy around 30 pages.

    These things you have to try them on your own and make your own judgement but also the quantity of systems its so big today that if your not a rules junky there's no way you can try them all out without investing time I do not have.
    Thats why I prefer to check some battle reports and read some reviews rather than pick everything out... and when seasoned players english native hints that the rules are a bit errrr not so clear then that rules system goes to the end of the pile :)
    The few games I did with confrontation rules still gives me shivers and I doubt I will ever again spend that much time filling the gaps.

    I will check out the game you suggested.

  12. Thanks for the review! I've got the older version of 5150 and the 1st edition of Nuts! and find them both difficult to read. Mostly because of the layout. But using CR3.0 as a reference makes it a bit easier to understand.

    I may look into getting the Star Army book soon, although I've been eying Rally Around The King as well.

  13. Uh, I posted as my wife by mistake. It will teach me not to post from her computer even if it's the one I have at hand...

    Now again, but from my own account:

    @Navarro - tried Fubar years ago and don't remember it well. SoBH is excellent though.

    I am not checking all the rulesets these days as I don't have time for that anymore. I still think I'd need to see the "In The Emperor's Name" rules though.

    @Atom Kid - haven't played RRTK yet but it seems much like one of my favorites - the old Warrior Heroes. Unfortunately the old version was one of the most unclear rulesets I know (and I know many) but the gameplay was excellent. The new one seems seriously rewritten, because it's so much clearer than the old version. Can't comment on the gameplay yet.

  14. @navarro -there are many not native english speakers playing THW games. Myself included. And I must say these rules weren't harder to understand than other rules. For example I played battletech wrong for many years till I played on a convention. Oh, that was so embarrassing ;-)

    IMO veteran gamers used to other rulesets need to overcome their ego to enjoy THW rules. Used to plan their games to the minimum detail they hardly can give up the control of their game. And in THW you have minimum control. You never know what happens around the next corner, who gets reinforcements next or how your troops are going to react. No plan survives the battlefield and this uncertainty builds up a tension like I never experienced in a wargame before. It feels much more like a RPG game without needing a game master leading you through your adventure...

    In other words, if you like to play a game strategic like chess, THW will not be what you are looking for.
    But if you like to play an adventures game feeling more like watching a good movie, you will get pretty close to that with these rules.

  15. Interesting, so in short the game system takes over and you have little control of what's happening... Thats something I'm willing to try out but I can see some of the vets getting a bit stressed about it :)

    I don't like the over competitive environments and prefer narrative adventures for my games so this sounds like a nice alternative

    Can I assume that THW games have all a strong solo gaming component?

  16. Yes, all THW games are ideal for solo or cooperative gaming.

  17. Thanks for the solid review Spacejacker. I've had similar experiences with THW in the past and was very 'meh' when I saw Star Army coming out.

    It hasn't been for lack of trying, but the rules are so cool, and so lacking at the same time it is frustrating to play them (while simultaneously being fun).

    As for the Yahoo Group, sheesh, have you tried to keep up with the 600+ messages per month?

  18. Yeah, I don't like yahoo groups one bit. I think this edition of the rules has finally nailed it in terms of making sense. It's certainly an acquired taste though.

  19. By the way, I picked these up thanks to this review, just got my copy in the mail today.

  20. I'm painting a ton of scenery for my campaign, lots of stuff coming up!

  21. I bought Battalion Commander and largely it was because of this review... granted it's not Star Army but a scaled up version of it.
    I've personally found the rules to be very dry and cumbersome. I sincerely want to know if there's an alternative to this alternative as I'm not keen on the book keeping, chart handling, and the amount of play that is done by the rules. I also think I should mention that you are encouraged to base your guys on strips like you might for 10mm. There's no way I'm doing that with my 28mm guys. If it were a fantasy game.. sure.. but man, I am not locking them down just for this game. I'm sorry but while I like the departure from IGOUGO, I don't have the time or patience for this game.

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