Strategic Musings in Beyond the Gates of Antares
Beyond the Gates of Antares (BGA) is a game of tactical ground combat in a science fiction setting in the far future. The game pits small, platoon/company-sized formations from various civilizations against each other in battles on alien worlds. The question that comes up with any game of this natures (and there are many) is how did these opposing forces end up on the SAME planet? The background of BGA defines a universe with millions of inhabited planets and many star-faring civilizations vying for supremacy. In most cases, at least one of the combatants is not native to the planet the battle is taking place on.
So, how did one or more of the combatants get to the scene of battle? The obvious answer is by space ship. The BGA universe postulates a vast network of interstellar gates which allow space ships to travel from one star system to another. It is also stated that these ships can be armed and that space combat is possible under certain circumstances. Therefore we can also assume that most worlds would prefer to engage a potential invader in space rather than let them land on their planet and engage them there. So, it is reasonable to assume that one of the prerequisites for ground combat, as we see it in the game, is that the invading side has either defeated or somehow eluded the defender’s naval forces.
The obvious historical parallel is the campaign in the Pacific during World War II. There we had many small islands invaded after the attacker gained at least temporary control of the surrounding waters. In most cases either the Japanese (in the early stages of the war) or the United States (in the later stages) defeated and drove off the defending naval forces and then made their landings unmolested by enemy naval forces. The one great exception was the Guadalcanal Campaign where the naval upper hand changed many times and each side was able to reinforce the island during the brief times they controlled the seas—prolonging the battle to take control of the island for many months.
BGA, being a ground combat game, does not give us any details of how naval combat works or the tactical constraints which define it. We are given a few of the strategic factors. The most important one is the gateway system which allows interstellar travel. This is centered on the great red supergiant star Antares. Antares is an artificial construction, built by unknown parties. While it is in truth a sun, with gravity and energy output of a type M1 supergiant, it is also the intersection of millions of transdimensional gateways leading to other solar systems. The entrances to the gateways project above the surface of Antares, but are right on the edge of the photosphere and thus subject to intense thermal and radiation effects. Only ships with strong shielding can survive these conditions.
Each gateway on Antares leads to one, and only one, star system. A ship passing through the gateway will be delivered to that star system, emerging at the other end of the gateway, which is usually at the edge of the solar system. Transit time varies from a few hours to a few weeks, although the time appears to be constant for each individual gateway. Clearly the ends of the gateways are locations of strategic importance. A star system wishing to protect itself from attack and also to have access to the gateway network will wish to control both ends of its gate.
Unfortunately, this is not an easy or simple thing to do. As noted, the Antares end of the gateways is a very hostile place. Ships cannot linger above the star indefinitely. Large ships with substantial power reserves can survive in Antares space for weeks or months, but will eventually be forced to pass through a gate and return to a star system to repair and replenish or face destruction. Smaller ships must make their way from gate to gate as quickly as possible. Permanent space stations are not a possibility. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the builders of the gateways have placed additional obstacles to securing the Antares end of the gateways. Unknown forces prevent ships from either establishing a stable orbit around Antares or in pulling away from the star to a safe distance. Ships emerging from a gate at Antares are restricted to a narrow band above the surface. Lastly, the gates have built-in defenses which do not permit combat in their immediate vicinity. Any ships attempting to engage in combat there will be violently flung away, and often destroyed. Combat above the surface, at a distance from the gates, is possible, but the extreme conditions above the star reduce detection and weapons ranges dramatically.
In spite of these difficulties, many of the major powers do attempt to maintain some level of control at the Antares ends of their gates. Squadrons of spaceships can be rotated through the gates and placed on station for periods of time before being relieved by another squadron. These squadrons can patrol the region around the gate, operating outside the ‘no-fire zone’ and potentially intercepting non-friendly vessels attempting to approach the gate.
It should be noted that despite the immense size of Antares (it has a surface area of approximately four quintillion (10 to the 18th power) square kilometers) the number of gates can range from tens of million to as many as one hundred million. This means that gates can be (assuming an even distribution) as close as a few hundred thousand kilometers apart. We do not know just how fast a ship can travel above Antares. The background mentions that speed is restricted by the density of the plasma flow, but since the gateways inside star systems typically reside several billion kilometers outside the star’s habitable zone, we can assume that travelling from one gate to a nearby one is easy for any spaceship of this era. As a result a patrolling squadron could potentially guard several adjacent gates.
The background material also contains a map showing the areas ‘controlled’ by the major powers in the game. The Panhuman Concord, Isorans, and Vorl all dominate huge regions, with the lesser powers also having territories. The maps might simply show the regions where the gateways lead to words controlled by those powers, but it is not unreasonable to assume that the control may extend to the region above the surface of Antares itself. Squadrons of warships may well spend tours of duty patrolling the space around the gateways, defending them from intruders. We can imagine that gateways close to the border with a hostile power will lead to star systems with major naval bases, home to large fleets ready to reinforce the patrol squadrons if an enemy is detected. Still, the number of ships needed to create an impenetrable barrier would be so large we have to believe that it can’t be done everywhere. We can also assume that hostile ships or fleets can sometimes penetrate those barriers and pass though gateways the defenders consider their own.
This being the case, we can postulate that most important worlds will have significant defenses on the system end of the gateways. In fact, this may be the primary means by which worlds are protected. Patrols at the Antares end might, or might not be able to intercept an invader, but since an invader MUST come through the gateway, any defenses around that gate will have the chance to engage the enemy.
The nature of the defenses around the system end of a gate is open to speculation. We are told that the same ‘no fire zone’ as exists at the Antares end also exists at the system ends. This means that any permanent defenses, in the form of battlestations or minefields cannot be placed right on top of the exit. We don’t know how wide the no fire zone is, nor do we know the range of the space-based weapons so it is hard to determine just how practical such defenses really are. For example, if the no fire zone extends one million kilometers from the gate and the range of weapons is 300,000 kilometers (one light second), then you would need around 45 battle stations to create a barrier whereby nothing could move past without at least briefly coming under fire. Not an impossible number for a major world to build. But reduce the range of weapons to 30,000 kilometers and the number of battlestations needed soars to 4,450; probably an impractical number. Minefields would be facing the same unforgiving geometry. Of course, if the weapons ranges were longer in relation to the no fire zone, the number of battlestations or mines could be significantly reduced. Sadly, we simply don’t know what the numbers are.
It is probably prudent, for the sake of the game, to assume that any sort of impregnable barrier around a gate exit would be prohibitively expensive for all but the most important star systems. A far more likely means of defense would be a squadron or fleet of warships, perhaps backed up and supported by a battlestation or two. An enemy emerging from the gate would be engaged by the defenders if the odds were favorable, or if not, the defending ships could either fall back or take refuge under the guns of the battlestations (we can safely assume that a battlestation, not being expected to move quickly or far, could be made far more powerful than the largest mobile warship which are restricted in size to the maximum width of the gates themselves—4 miles).
But even if the defending forces are strong enough to challenge an invader, there is also the very real danger that the invader, not instantly coming under the guns of the defender upon exit, might well elude the defenders and escape into the star system. This is a situation which probably happens very frequently in the Antares game universe.
We can also assume that many systems do not have the technology or the resources to put any significant defenses at the gate at all. This is probably the case with many worlds in the Determinate and probably also true for many worlds in the Concord or Senetax which are far from the borders.
The net result is that in a great many cases an invader will get loose inside the target solar system.
What happens then can vary enormously. If the invader is simply interested in doing damage such as destroying mining ships, small outposts, orbital facilities, or just bombarding the inhabited planet, then it doesn’t really concern us as no ground action is likely to happen. But, if the invader’s plans include landing on a planet, moon, or asteroid—or a space station for that matter—then we can have ground combat.
At that point we really need to start looking at just what the capabilities of the warships are. Because not only will they be fighting each other (not really our concern) but they could also use their weapons against ground targets (and conversely ground installations could fire at spaceships). I suppose Rick could just decree that orbital bombardments do not happen. Perhaps there is some interstellar convention outlawing it, but when we consider the Ghar and the Vorl, it seems unlikely that such a thing could work. It’s possible that most powers will refrain from mass bombardment of population centers or from any sort of area bombing which would badly damage the planet’s biosphere, but this would still allow localized orbital fire support.
So what sort of weapons would the ships be likely to employ? If the Antares universe parallels our real history to any extent, then we can expect to see bigger and more powerful versions of the weapons we already see in the game.
Plasma weaponry appears to be the primary form of energy weapon. A plasma is defined as a group of ionized particles in a gaseous form. A plasma weapon would presumably accelerate this plasma, using magnetic fields, and direct it against a target. A hand-held weapon could probably only accelerate the plasma to a modest velocity of a few dozen kilometers per second (slow enough to allow for a satisfying zip-zap of flying plasma bolts 🙂 ). Larger vehicle-mounted weapons would have a higher velocity and higher damage potential. Interestingly, the damage potential will be affected more by the velocity of the plasma than the amount, so weapons might all fire a similar sized charge. Ship-mounted weapons could be much larger with the plasma accelerated to a sizeable fraction of the speed of light. This velocity will be critical in determining the effective range of the weapon—not only due to dispersal of the plasma, but because a slow-moving bolt can be dodged more easily as the range increases.
Mag Weapons work in a similar fashion as plasma weapons, except that instead of a plasma, they accelerate a solid projectile such as a flechete to high velocity using magnetic fields. The projectile would have a much higher mass than a plasma bolt, but also a much lower velocity. Handheld and vehicle mounted weapons would probably be limited to only a few kilometers per second in most cases. This low velocity would drastically limit the range of such weapons mounted on ships and it is unlikely they would be employed for this purpose.
UNLESS… We need to take into account the problems of fighting in Antares space as opposed to the normal space of a solar system. In Antares space the ships are operating inside a cloud of plasma and the rules state that the maximum speed of ships can be restricted due to the ‘granularity’ of the plasma flow. It is entirely possible that the plasma and the magnetic fields which might be encountered above Antares could adversely affect plasma weapons, either drastically reducing ranges or conceivably making them completely ineffective. In such a case, mag weapons might be feasible alternative even though engagement ranges would be very short.
This raises the possibility that ships might mount two sets of armament, one for use in normal space and one for use in Antares space. It is also possible that some ships might be constructed strictly for use in normal space (i.e. system defense ships) rather than waste space and mass on weapons which are only used half the time.
Phase Weapons are used only by the Isorians and use some sort of time-altering technology to allow multiple shots to be fired nearly simultaneously. Sadly, the rules do not specify exactly what is being fired, plasma or some solid shot. In either case, we can expect the Isorians to adapt this technology to their space-based weapons with the same characteristics/problems as noted above.
Fractal Weapons are not well described in the rules, but they are a heavy weapons which will destroy solid objects at ranges which seem comparable to plasma weapons. However, they are described as needing to build up power over a period of time and this might rule out their use against a rapidly moving target like a spacecraft.
Compression Weapons are able to ‘consume’ matter and reduce it to a compressed state. Ground forces use them in a heavy support role. They are described as having a short range so that would seem to eliminate them as a space-based weapon, unless we assume the inhibiting effect of the Antares environment as described above, in which case they might find application similar to the mag weapons.
X-launchers are basically artillery which throw explosive munitions. It is unlikely they would be of any use in space combat (see note below on missiles.)
Missiles, i.e. self-propelled and guided weapons delivering a warhead to a target over a distance, are strangely absent in the sphere of ground combat in the Antares universe. We have no idea why this should be the case. Whether this exclusion also applies to space combat, we also do not know. One would think that a missile carrying a nuclear warhead would be an effective anti-ship weapon. There is no mention made of any extremely effective anti-missile systems making such weapons obsolete and we would have to think that such a system would be equally effective against ordnance fired by X-launchers, so it is unlikely it exists. Missiles would seem to be a practical addition to space weaponry so we can only puzzle at their absence. Of course a drone could be considered a sort of missile and kamikaze drones might fill that function—except there are none of those, either.
Laser Weapons are also missing from the Antares arsenals and again we can only speculate as to why. At face value they would appear to have a greater range and be less affected by the problems of Antares space than the other weapons we have seen, but perhaps there are factors we do not know about that make them ineffective.
So, what can we deduce about these weapons as used for planetary bombardment or planetary defense? If we have to deal with an atmosphere, this might reduce the effectiveness of plasma weapons. Mag weapons might have their accuracy effected by atmospheric conditions. Simple bombs or kinetic impact weapons fired from something like an X-launcher might well be employed, even though they were of little use in space combat. The major concern comes back to the range of these weapons. If the weapons are effective at hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands of kilometers, then just a few ships could potentially hit any location on a planet. Conversely, planetary defense installations using the same weapons could hit approaching ships at a long range and pick off shuttles trying to bring troops to the surface. If the weapons are only effective at ranges measured in hundreds of kilometers the situation is very different. Ships wanting to support ground troops would have to be nearly overhead to be able to do so, meaning a single ship could only support a relatively small group of troops. Planetary defenses, either on the surface or in orbit would have to be extremely numerous to defend an entire planet and it is likely that most worlds could only afford to defend cities and other important locations and large stretches of the surface might be undefended.
Considering the nature of the Antares game, the second situation, with weapons ranges very short, would be far more conducive to allowing ground combat, so we should probably choose that condition (if we are allowed).
Reduced ranges also greatly affect the issues of space combat we discussed earlier. Trying to make an airtight defense of the gateways becomes nearly impossible and an attacker will almost always be able to fight his way into a star system. Whether he can then get through to the planet will depend on a great many factors, but the possibility of doing so is increased. If the attacker has a significant naval superiority then we have our ‘Pacific Island’ scenario which will see the attacker in complete control of the space around the planet and landings able to occur unimpeded except by planetary defenses. This would probably be the most common situation, although if the invasion takes a long period then the possibility of a naval counterattack increases and a ‘Guadalcanal’ scenario cannot be ruled out.
Ships in the Gates of Antares Game
All this hypothesizing is of little use until we can apply it to the Beyond the Gates of Antares game (and thus the stories we write about it). So, how do we fit ships into the game? Probably the easiest way to do that is to treat them like we would air support or ‘off board artillery’ in a World War II game. We already have barrage-type weapons in the game, so this would be handled in the same fashion. One side or the other (presumably not both, but who knows? Mark Barber proposes the possibility of stealthed ‘orbital artillery’ used by the defender) could ‘buy’ orbital fire support which could then be called in against ground targets. Rules would be needed for spotting targets; can the ships do their own spotting or do targets need to be spotted by ground units? Once spotted the targets would be attacked in the normal fashion, although we can assume that ship-mounted weapons might be more powerful than those normally seen in the game. Obviously point costs and the frequency at which fire missions could be called for would need to adjusted to avoid an unbalanced game, but that doesn’t prevent us as writers to make the support overwhelming if our story calls for it. In our World War II parallel, the US often bombarded a target island for weeks prior to landing troops.
Planetary defenses could also be a factor. The existence of defense installations could prevent an attacker from ‘buying’ orbital fire support. Again, taking our tack from real history, ground (shore) batteries could be more powerful than a ship on a ton for ton or dollar for dollar basis. So ships in orbit might have to avoid coming into range of planetary defenses—unless they had a clear numerical superiority and weren’t worried about taking some losses. Indeed, a major objective of an invasion would be to knock out such installations and many scenarios (and stories) could revolve around battles to attack and defend such vital sites. I think we can assume that such large planet-to-space weapons could not be easily used against ground targets (it would be like trying to use a 12” shore battery against attacking infantry) and they would simply be an objective in the game/story.
Another thing to consider is just how troops and equipment get from their transporting spaceships down to the planet’s surface. Most of the game scenarios seem to assume that both contending forces are already on the planet and are simply meeting in some location. But the initial landing could well be a desperately fought action in its own right.
There are two basic ways of getting from orbit to the surface (and vice versa), by a vehicle of some sort and by transmat. Transmat is a system of mater transportation that is similar to a Star Trek transporter. An object disappears from one spot and reappears in another. Generally there needs to be a transmat array—a machine of some sort—at each end of the process, although it is possible (although risky) to do so with an array at only one end and a small transponder at the other. For emergency evacuations, the transponder is usually carried by the person or object to be transported. For an insertion, the transponder needs to be sent to the target location in a drone or piece of ordnance. A defender with a functioning nanosphere can often disrupt such actions. In most cases, an attacking force will need to reach the planet in vehicles until a secure transmat array can be deployed on the planet.
What sort of vehicles? Well, there’s no real reason that the transport drones we already see in the game could not be used. The rules indicate that there’s not really that much difference between ground vehicles and space vehicles. They state: “Suspensor technology of this kind underpins practically every aspect of Antarean material culture, from the smallest drone to the largest spacecraft.” They also indicate that craft driven by suspensors alone are rather sluggish in gaining altitude, but can be made more agile with the addition of thrusters. The small interceptor bikes are noted to have such thrusters, so they can’t be large or clumsy and we can assume that they could be added to drones as needed.
So, a transport drone or a combat drone could simply debark from a larger ship and fly down to the surface. We can think of the transport drones as being the ‘Higgens Boats’ of the Antares universe (or perhaps Amtracks or DUKWs) and the combat drones as DD tanks. (perhaps jettisoning their thrusters upon reaching the planet just as the DD tanks got rid of their snorkels upon reaching shore.) Of course it is also highly probably that larger landing ships which can bring down heavy equipment also exist. (LSTs, perhaps.)
There are also the drop troopers. These are placed above the target area either by transmat, or by a vehicles and then descend as individuals using grav-chutes. Presumably this would be done in situations where heavy ground fire can be expected and single troopers would have a better chance to survive than transport drones.
So, a typical planetary assault might go something like this:
The invading fleet arrives and destroys or drives off the defending naval forces. It would be entirely possible that the defender, if badly outmatched, might seek to preserve some of its naval assets by either having them flee the vicinity of the planet, or in the case of smaller vessel, land on the planet in hopes that the opportunity will arise later to make raids against the enemy fleet.
The invader makes a thorough reconnaissance of the planet, locating major defense installations and troop concentrations. Landing sites will be selected. If time is not a crucial factor, then the landing sites would probably be as far from defense installations and troops as possible to reduce losses. The troops would land and a defensive perimeter formed. Transmat arrays would be brought down and follow-up forced transported and a land campaign would begin. The invading fleet would remain overhead providing orbital fire against any counterattacks, and then supporting the troops as they begin their own offensives. The ground troops would move to overrun planetary defense installations, allowing the fleet overhead to increase the area of the planet it can dominate. Given time and resources the invader will eventually win.
If time is critical or if the attacker has overwhelming strength and doesn’t mind taking casualties, then a more direct approach might be taken. This would mean an assault directly against strong enemy defenses. The ships of the fleet would move in and engage the planetary defense installations, destroying them if they can, and distracting their fire if they can’t. Drop troops will land in the first wave, taking losses from ground fire, but once on the ground fighting to destroy defense installations and carve out a secure landing zone. These will be followed immediately by combat drones landing directly from orbit. With the support of the drones, landing zones will be established for transport drones to arrive with more troops. If all goes well, the landing zones will be expanded to the point that transmat arrays can be landed and the invasion go into full swing. As things progress, the ships in orbit will concentrate on supporting the ground troops rather than engaging the planetary defenses. As in the safe approach described above, if the attacker has sufficient resources they can expect eventual victory.
Either method described here can generate a lot of interesting games and interesting stories!
Of course there will also be many situations where the combat will involve much less than a full-blown planetary invasion. Often we will be talking about small raids or exploration forces. These are more in tune with the scenarios described in the game rules. Even so, it’s entirely possible for even a single ship to provide orbital fire support as described above.