Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The mechanics of huge space battles

Lots of science fiction has huge space battles in. In many ways, all that monkeying around with plot, characters and storyline is just foreplay for big fleets of impossibly large space battleships to blast away at each other and go bang.

I applaud this initiative.

And I understand, as someone making entertainment, that so much in the classic sci-fi space battle is bullshit. There are no laser sounds in space. No ship, regardless of damage ever loses its artificial gravity etc etc. This doesn’t bother me, because I’m making a not-too-serious fun battle game, so my lasers will go zap and fizz just like the rest of them.

What I’m more interested, because of the strategy nature of my game, is the actual mechanics of the battles. Take (for example) the big space battle at the start of Revenge of the Sith:

There seem to be some nice huge battleships here blasting the hell out of each other at extremely close range, and lost of tiny fighters flying around going zap zap too. The thing that interests me is the economics of it all. Why can’t side A field a fleet of 50,000 fighter/bombers instead of a nice aesthetically balanced fleet of 10 huge capital ships, 50 average ones and 200 fighters. Each of those capital ships is maybe 5,000 times the size of a one man fighter, and must cost 5,000 times as much to build.

Is it because the fighter’s lasers can’t penetrate the armour of the bigger ships at all? Do they need carriers to get them between systems? do they need refuelling? And given that the fighters fly at 100 times the speed of the bigger ships, how the hell isn’t the fighter vs fighter battle over long before a single capital ship gets within firing range of an enemy capital ship?

These are the questions which currently keep me awake at night, because I’m trying to design a set of spaceship and fleet construction rules that allow you to have lots of freedom, yet still ensure you end up building a fleet of disparate size ships that look good in space battles :D.

19 thoughts on The mechanics of huge space battles

  1. I have to admit I have been a bit sceptical about your other games, not really my cup of tea. But after your no-drm frenzy a while ago I started following your blog, and I can`t wait to buy and play this game :D

  2. Indeed, transport, logistic, firepower and higher density power fields, all sound like perfect reasons for having high size ships.

    In fact, the weird part, is the mere existance of the little fighters. I guess its related to the existance of bombers, which doesnt seem to have a reason to be, at least in a close combat between two fleets of giant ships.

  3. yeah, there cant be any logical reason (aside from cinematics) for huge ‘advanced’ ships to be battling at such close quarters :) Their lasers always seem so weak too! Nobody developed any long-range radar either…
    All adds to the fun.

    I suppose balance of ship types could be a problem in your game, not that I have a feel for how its going to work.

    If there always some aspect that can be upgraded to get an advantage, then should be ok.
    I suppose cost of building/repairing ship can always be shifted to balance the ships…

    If you can, tell us more about the game :) Is it more arcade than strategy? Do you control individual ships, or issue commands etc to groups?

    For the backgrounds I’d def go with multiple layers, if you havent already, adds more depth.

  4. I’ve always like the way the original Master of Orion had it’s space combat, with 4 sizes of ships: tiny, small, large and huge. It was very modular, so you could put any weapon on any ship, if it had the space.

    Now the biggest ships could equip teh heaviest shields, so strong that lasers could not break through, but if you had thousands of fighters all equiping limited ammo missiles, then the missiles would break through the shields and do massive damage. The same missiles though would have trouble killing all the small fighters, due to their numbers, one missile could only kill one ship at a time. Lasers could be used against the smaller ships, firing many more per turn, and streaming lasers that jumped from ship to ship after they were destroyed. Medium ships with decent lasers could easily wipe out thousands of small ships every round, but were susceptible to the more intense fire from the huge ships. The small ships were a danger to all classes when fitted with the right weapons, or they could be completely ineffective. Medium ships were a nice balance between the two, but they were more vulnerable as they lacked the large shields and fast maneuverability. Huge ships could pack a punch, and could hold heaps of different weapons with extremely strong shields, but could be overwhelmed with sheer numbers.

    I’m definately looking forward to this new game though, it sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun.

  5. While I’ll almost certainly be buying this ‘space battle simulator’ I can’t help but feel a little disappointed Cliffski! I know you said a while ago you didn’t want to become a two trick pony, but I was looking forward to something as deep as Democracy or Kudos. I suppose it’s too early to make comparisons, but something tells me blasting other ships in an everlasting opening scene won’t be quite as much fun (or replayable) as running a country/life…

  6. I believe in the Star Trek universe large ships are favored because of the giant reactors you can lug around with you. All that energy can be channeled into guns and shields giving large ships an advantage over smaller ones. Of course, I’ve always thought that bombers would be a problem that Star Trek ignores.

    In Dune, they use the concept that knife fighting skills are important because a slow blade can penetrate personal shields.

    If you dig DEEP into Star Trek lore there is a very interesting story about how Scotty, in his youth, figured out that the Klingons where using battle formations to link up the shields of the line. So ships together where stronger by turning down shields near their neighbors and directing a bonus energy toward the front. He uses this knowledge to make a record number of kills in the Kobayashi Maru.

    Fighters are so small they are pretty much impossible to board and take control of.

    I think the key thing is distance. Sure fighters are fast, but their range has got to suck. And one way to push the speed (acceleration) advantage is to lower the amount of stuff you lug around. So just enough fuel to fight, just enough ammo to shoot etc. A capital ship brings all those extra’s you need for a long voyage away from base. Extra parts, medicine, food, equipment and men to cook, clean. No way you are fitting all that into a fighter.

    Another thought it mission capability. If a capital ship has a mission requirement of taking and holding a space station or blockading planets it needs to be able to deal with fighters. Fighters are going to be a very cost effective way to defend a fixed position. So this is another reason for the duel dynamic. You can also think of all those extra marines needed to storm a large space station and the equipment that comes with them.

    Can you tell I’ve thought abort this some myself? ;)

  7. The space battles (and the distinction between huge, slow ships and tiny, agile fighters) is clearly modeled after naval battles from the second world war, especially those in the pacific between the US and Japanese forces. There were confrontations between fleets of ships accompanied by squadrons of aircraft launched from aircraft carriers. If you are looking for a template for the correct range and speed relations, you should study the specs of those ships and airplanes:

    Spaceflight in Sci-Fi resembles naval operations in general. Small space ships tend to behave like airplanes. Both have little to do with what spaceflight is and probably will be the future.

    If at some point somebody will get the silly idea to fight in space (at 10000$ per kg to earth orbit weapons/armor are a ridiculous waste of money – space itself is dangerous enough) it would most likely resemble artillery duells: ships would shoot laser / particle / projectle beams at light-speed or near-light-speed across vast distances. At those distances the targets would be only visible trough powerful telescopes (think from here to neptune). At these speeds, there is basically nothing the target can do to get out of the way quickly enough. The battles would be over in an instant.

  8. outside of the ‘game world’, I doubt any military use for fighters in a battle of larger ships. as some others have alluded to, energy is key for any battle. your capital ships will not only have large beam weapons for attacking other large ships, they would also have smaller directional weapons that should be able to eliminate any small projectilea or craft with ease.

    the reason to build smaller ships is that larger ships are expensive and can’t be in any 2 places at once. so to defend the empire you would still need smaller ships as long as they are bigger than the enemy.

    so basically, once capital ship is able to get to a battle all the small ships would flee to outside the range of the capital ship. they might still engage a comparable ship that was outside the protection of the capital.

    I think you should avoid making special considerations for small ships… they will find their place, it just won’t be engaging large ships.

  9. Except a lot more complicated.

    The reasons for such ship types is going to depend largely on how you’ve envisioned your universe. For example is the tech for power shields/lasers dependent on the scale of the device that give it power if so than capital ships and other larger ships can house much large drives or what ever else you want to call the device that powers them so a large ship could provide enough power to have an extremely tough shield in which case no fighter is ever going to stand a chance against it. Just like how I couldn’t take a needle and stab some one in armour to death, I’m going to need a bigger knife to get through that defense.

    Also if there is no technology for bombers that are effective against shields there is no reason to have fighters to defend the bigger ships from them.

    So a lot of the reasoning behind this is going to depend on what technologies you see the races possessing.

  10. If you’re really interested in some well thought out space combat take a read of David Weber’s Honor Harrington Series, starting with “On Basilisk Station”.

  11. Don’t let space battles keep you up at night…

    I would take a look at the new Battlestar Galactica since the strategies behind their space battles seem to make a lot of sense.

    Basically, there’s your big capital ship- it can launch nukes at other big capital ships and has large artillery batteries that create defensive explosions so the small fighters can’t get through.

    The fighters/bombers dog fight and will try and get through these firing solutions if they win out. Ultimately, the fighters need their capital ship or bombers to take out the defensive artillery to get through.

  12. Hi Cliffski,

    All of the above points are vaild. The closest we have in the “Real” world would be the carrier groups of the US fleets. You have a large carrier which is supporting a group of smaller ships which in turn protect the larger carrier by carrying out tasks / threats that it is too large, cumbersome or slow to respond to but yet these tasks or threats could cripple the carrier.

    Examples are:

    Ship to Ship destroyers (Fast and agile with options of smaller attacks boats / helos & Marines or short to mid range fire power for both surface to air – surface to sub or surface to surface). Also having shallower draft can go closer to shore (In space maybe this would be that large capital ships are more affected by space station and planet gravity)

    Minesweepers (thick hulls – specialist equipment, divers etc)

    Cruisers / Frigates – Large combat vessels – long range attack, heavy shelling capabilites.

    All of these need the support of a huge capital ship in order carry supplies, fuel, additional weapons or ammo (Torpedos or tomahawk missles are HUGE !!!). Then you have all the logistics of support staff such as doctors & medics, mechanics, engineers, crane operators, cooks, radio & sonar ops etc etc.)

    Check this from the current US 7th fleet :

    The U.S. 7th Fleet is the largest U.S. numbered fleet, with 60-70 ships, 200-300 aircraft and approximately 40,000 Sailors and Marines operating in the region on a typical day.

    Check out Janes Fighting ships if you can a copy from the library or try or check the Navy at for an over view. Or try for a list of press releases with info on range, cost etc on ships and aircraft the MoD have bought.

    When a fleet puts to sea they could be gone for months at a time without the ability to put into port so must be totally self suffient and carry all the weaponry, supplies, ammo, fuel etc that they need. (Deep Hyperspace jumps?)

    Then when you look at the smaller fighter craft these need to be supported from a large carrier to hold spares, ammo, fuel etc – (Those Fuel cells don’t last forever !!!)

    As for why wouldn’t have loads and loads of smaller fighters? Simple – its cost and support vs effectiveness. Even though they can bring larger prey (HMS Sheffield in the Falklands was sunk by a MiG firing a Exocet I think.) they are still limited by their range, payload and tactical effectiveness.

    A Jaguar / Tornado / F16 / MiG costs about £30M – then add the cost and time of training the pilots at about £1M each. Then add ammo (a Tomahawk Cruise Missle is rumoured to cost £0.5M before you add a nuclear warhead.) Flight time is limited by both crew availability, range of fighter before needing refueling and then “up time” of the aircraft itself due to need for maintenance.

    Then factor in the range – A Harrier Jump jet has a MAX range of about 1200 miles less if fully loaded or flying at top speed (hence having to launch attacks in the Middle East from Turkey or carrier groups and not Europe.)

    Then add the fact that these are really fragile airplanes that can be bought down even by a flock of birds crashing in to the cockpit canopy or being sucked in to the engines before you even get them in to potential combat. It’s very easy to bring down these with automated missle systems or even small arms fire such as 50mm machine guns.

    Then you factor in how long a fighter is useful for – Maybe 10 years if you are lucky?

    Now weigh that against the cost of an Aircraft Carrier at a cost of £1.5B with a life span of nearly 50 years (The General Bellgranio that was sunk in the Falklands had seen service in WW II). Then when you think of the potential firepower and attack aircraft that can be supported and launched coupled with the potential to absorb a hell of a beating it means you have to take these in to play.

    As an interesting side point have you thought about different “races” having not only different types of craft for identification but also different styles / choices of play? i.e. Look at the Feds vs Klingons or Romulans – The Feds seems to have that mix of ships but no huge battle crusiers like a D’Deridex or Negh Var class whereas the Klingons only really have small B’rel’s or K’Vort Birds of Prey and then the larger Negh’Var’s and VorCha’s whereas the Romulans seems to really only have the D’Deridex or small scouts.

    However that said I think you have to allow everyone to make their own mind up on what and how they are going play. Hey – If you want to burn some quick small fighters and wear down your opponent while he tries to build a large capital ship then if it works for you…

    I wonder if some of these are really too small a variable to consider (Do you need to work about if you cooks?) but others would be key – i.e. Like in Star Trek you loose your Chief Engineer so it takes twice as long to repair something or you loose an XO so you loose targeting ability?

    Would it annoy a player if your little fighters kept coming back to refuel / re-arm or would you have to think more about how and when you launch an attack? – would your opponents scanners pick you up?

    Do you want to leap one ship with the engines for it through hyper space and then (after a delay that leaves you vunerable as you get sub light systems on line and you recharge shields) launch 100’s of small heavy armed fighters?

    Don’t know the answer – Like you said – So many Variables!?!

  13. hmmm. regarding OP:

    “Why can’t side A field a fleet of 50,000 fighter/bombers instead of a nice aesthetically balanced fleet of 10 huge capital ships, 50 average ones and 200 fighters. Each of those capital ships is maybe 5,000 times the size of a one man fighter, and must cost 5,000 times as much to build.”

    Both sides forces were depleted from the battle, that based off some sources was lasting for a whole week at the time of the movie. So it is likely most of the fighters were wiped out earlier. The Republic forces and reinforcements would also be exhausted as they were recalled from bloody sieges and long-term naval battles in the Outer Rim

    “Is it because the fighter’s lasers can’t penetrate the armour of the bigger ships at all?”

    Actually they can penetrate armor. They have issues penetrating the overlaying SHIELDING that is much stronger often.

    “Do they need carriers to get them between systems?”

    the separatists do need to; and most Republic fighters do, but the ARC-170s don’t. the various Jedi Starfighters can use hyperdrive rings

    “do they need refuelling?”

    eventually, yes.

    “And given that the fighters fly at 100 times the speed of the bigger ships, how the hell isn’t the fighter vs fighter battle over long before a single capital ship gets within firing range of an enemy capital ship?”

    the big-ass Lucrehulks not deploying all their fighters at once, but in waves. Reinforcements from both sides dropping into battle.

    also for a good source on the mechanics on space battles, look through here for a more ‘hard-sci’ POV regarding many things

  14. Let’s not forget the usefulness of fighters as a missile delivery system.
    1. They’re fast
    2. They’re hard to hit
    3. They’re extremely maneuverable
    4. They’re really cheap to build and can carry about 6 missiles each on launch rails (maybe more).
    5. 6 missiles x 100 fighters will likely overwhelm a capital ship’s defenses. Boom.


  15. One thing that strikes me that’s telling in alot of sci-fi is the concept that big ships in space are going to be slow and unmaneuverable.

    That’s totally bs, in an environment without gravity or resistance. The weight of ship the size of the titanic will have the same weight as one the size of a fighter. All it matters how fast thrust can be generated, and the ship with the biggest engine wins!

    They can also put thrusters all over the ships, not just on the back, creating a ship can move side to side, up and down, diagonally or whatever. A ship like this would have awesome agility. I would really like to see something like this in action!

    Oh hey and I recommend any who are interested to read a book called “The Lost Fleet” by Jack Campbell. Its a great piece of sci-fi that actually contain realistic space combat ideas (no silly pew pew sounds) and has a great story that’s fun to read to boot.

  16. @ James

    Your half right on it being bs. Newton’s 3rd law (I think) – for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. i.e. the ships weight is the resistance force, yet once moving the ship needs forward (or where ever) thrusters to stop. In example asteroids(you can look it up).

    Anyway on to the debate on figthers usefulness. John listed most of the reasons

    “1. They’re fast
    2. They’re hard to hit
    3. They’re extremely maneuverable
    4. They’re really cheap to build and can carry about 6 missiles each on launch rails (maybe more).
    5. 6 missiles x 100 fighters will likely overwhelm a capital ship’s defenses. Boom.”

    now to some to that

    6. harder to Find (compare the sig of a battleship to that of a bird)
    7. different tactical options available
    and finally the main reason 8. to keep those D^#$ bombers from destroying your expansive captial ships

    As far as the different ship sizes, different tactical options are open to different size ships. here’s a few examples of which;

    1. fighters/bombers hide in an asteroid field, enemy fleet goes by, fighter/bombers ambush enemy fleet (may not apply in everyone’s verse)

    2. wolf pack of frigates vs. battleship: one frigate play’s decoy, drawing the battleship’s guns away from the other frigs, other frigs eat away at the battleship’s armor, until a. battleship goes boom, b. battleship recieves reinforcements, or c. other

    that’s my reason’s and I can’t say anything more. most the stuff has been mentioned in the above posts.


  17. I realize I’m a bit late to the party, but its a topic that interests me, so I’ll share my two cents:

    Based on all the knowledge of physics I have, I don’t see any reason you would have crewed fighters or bombers of any sort. The reason fighters are so popular across scifi formats is a combination of being a great plot device to get the protagonists into the action, and second, because WWII was the greatest conflict in our societal memories, and it only makes sense to model things off it. Its just not as exciting to have the protagonist standing on the bridge of a starship giving orders for the entire battle.

    That is not to say you wouldn’t have some sort of drone filling the roles we imagine fighters and bombers taking. But as long as a human is onboard piloting the craft, there are pretty low limits on the accelerations possible. You would be far too vulnerable to any number of extremely accurate weapons conventional weapons. Its plausible that there would be a role for drones fighters and bombers in ordinance delivery and defense, but why would you put a human on one? Maybe you have some serious trust issues with AI… But at the tactical level, you wouldn’t need terribly advanced AI to run a drone; if your willing to assign list of specific targets with priorities before launch (or before loss of communications after launch) the drone wouldn’t need to make any complex decisions. It would just go down the list, executing a doctrinal attack routine on the highest priority intact target on its list, and if it survives return. No real room for the AI to start any funny business.

    To justify the existence of crewed fighters/bombers, you need to scifi-up a justification for them. Some reason why big ships are slower, and simultaneously, why the speed of the fighters/bombers provides them a major advantage. Why a fighter can better deal with an attacking bomber then the defense’s of a large ship can, and why a bomber can better deliver its payload then its mothership could (sure 100 fighters with 6 missiles each could deliver 600 missiles, but why didn’t you just launch 600 missiles from the mothership and skip the cost of the fighters) . And then you need to ask if your going to have capitol ships be more then glorified carriers of the fighters/bombers.

    As for why not build the biggest ship you can, there is the question of defending multiple locations, but then you’d end up with a uniform ship size, or maybe a battleship and patrol ship with little in between. The only reason I can think of is that the defense capabilities of a ship don’t scale perfectly. If a cruiser costs 10x as much as a frigate, but has only 7x the shielding; even if it maintains 10x the firepower, there are situations you would want the frigates.

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