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Halo: Fleet Battles delivers the action, won't break the bank

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Make no mistake about it; miniatures wargaming is expensive. Choosing to get involved in one is a commitment of treasure, time and — if we're being completely honest here — storage space. So what if I told you that I'd found a miniatures game that was super fun to play and highly customizable right out of the box? What if I told you it was particularly well made and a tremendous value?

And what if it also happened to be Halo-themed?

You'll remember that Master Chief is a space marine. Not a space army guy. Not a space sailor. He's a marine, and marines need ships — ships to jump out of, ships to jump in to. Ships to smear with alien viscera. Ships to blow the hell up.

Halo: Fleet Battles is about those ships, and it turned a lot of heads at this year's Gen Con convention. Over the last month or two, I've been putting it through its paces and I'm fairly impressed with how it's holding up.

What makes Fleet Battles so special is its fleet building mechanic. Before any dice can be rolled in anger, each side of the table must prepare their fleets, which are divided into battle groups. Each battle group must have a capital ship, and may contain additional support ships. Inside those ships are hangers, which you get to fill with your choice of fighters and bombers.

This gives would-be space admirals tremendous flexibility in how they comprise their fleets. You can double up on capital ships, creating a fearsome damage-dealing battle group. You can fill another battle group with bombers, and another with fighters to work in tandem to destroy the enemy in detail. Or you can opt for smaller, more nimble ships like frigates and cruisers in order to outmaneuver your opponent and hit them in the rear.

You can do all of these things within one fleet, making it well-balanced and ready for any eventuality. Or you can specialize each one, creating a tricked-out fleet purpose-built to do this one cool thing you've always wanted to try. Simply building an army, for me at least, is an exciting way to spend an evening.

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And all of this customization is done by simply swapping out the cards on a miniatures' platform, perhaps moving a ship from one platform to another. This grants the game many meaty, tactical options — even with just the starter set, The Fall of Reach.

Yes, it's something like $120 here in the States. But I can't stress enough just how much gameplay there is inside that one box.

What's even better is the attention to detail Spartan Games has lavished on these minis. Working hand-in-hand with the Halo loremasters at 343 has paid tremendous dividends. The ships themselves look exactly like they do on the small screen. They're also not terribly hard to put together, although a few of the Covenant craft did give me some trouble, leading to nasty scars on the surface of the minis from dripping glue. (My suggestion is to get some nice, thick plastic cement if you can find it, as the thin stuff just won't do.)

Even better, they all sit next to each other on the table, and on the shelf, tremendously well. The larger ships, some approaching six inches long, slide smoothly around and even over the smaller ships, making for ease of play as well as ease of storage.

Spartan Games worked hand-in-hand with 343's Halo loremasters, and it shows.

The included campaign isn't all that exciting, as it's really just a series of tutorial missions. But it goes a great job of teaching the game, which is fairly complex. Only by the fifth game or so are players set loose with the full set of game mechanics.

Those mechanics are, unsurprisingly, dice-driven. But Fleet Battles has a very unique system. You'll be rolling a lot of dice in this game, a dozen or more at one time and, depending on the range of the enemy, the damage your ships have sustained and various other factors, those dice will do more or less damage.

It's a bit tricky to pick up at first, but after the first few games it's fairly straightforward. What it does, however, is subtly support the game's theme. A massive capital ship, bristling with guns and other high-tech frippery, will make a lot of noise every time it fires off a salvo. But it takes a crew in good order, and a competent command structure, to put a volley on target. So it makes sense that, when a ship is under fire or otherwise stressed, even when you're rolling a bunch of dice sometimes they don't really do anything.

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Fleet Battles also benefits from an excellent utilization of the Halo universe's characters. Two come in the box, one for the UNSC and another for the Covenant. Expansions include fan favorites like Cortana, who gives players multiple buffs to attack and defense. She also has the ability to reach out and sabotage Covenant computer systems. And, unlike every other character unveiled so far, she can be destroyed.

More than anything, Fleet Battles tells a good story at the table. Dogfights will erupt, sucking in smaller craft from all over around a hapless capital ship. Daring maneuvers will pay off, scoring devastating hits in the enemy's unprotected sectors. Boarding parties will cut their way through ships, plant explosives and bring them down. Cores will be breached and explode, taking their ship with them but also sending debris into neighboring units and causing hugely destructive cascades down the enemy line.

If I have one complaint, it's the paper punchouts. They're simply too thin to be easily moved around the table. Thankfully, Spartan has already released a set of precision-milled acrylic chits. They're a must-buy if you're getting into the game, and I'm looking forward to replacing the included fighters and bombers as well when that set comes out.

Also on the horizon are massive resin ships, fully playable but with their own unique rules. First up is a Covenant Assault Carrier and a UNSC Supercarrier, each of which will run around $85.

So while miniatures gaming is a fairly expensive hobby to get into, Halo: Fleet Battles is very much worth your time. It represents an exceptional value for your gaming dollar.

For more tabletop gaming, check out Polygon's dedicated section here.