For all the immersive settings, competitive tactics and dramatic dice rolls, a big part of the appeal of miniatures games - if you’re like me, at least - is getting to play with toys. From HG Wells’ wargaming with toy soldiers in Little Wars through to the gorgeous detail and pristine paint jobs of modern Warhammer models, it’s hard to deny the joy of slamming together squads of tiny plastic grunts on a table.
Maybe it should be little surprise, then, that Snap Ships Tactics is so immediately appealing. Having played a demo game at last year’s PAX Unplugged ahead of its release this summer, the upcoming miniatures game proved itself to be far more than its ‘X-Wing, but Lego’ gimmick might suggest. (Disclaimer: PAX Unplugged is run by Dicebreaker owner ReedPop.)
The miniatures game has spun out of a range of literal toys, which let you construct custom spaceships using chunky Duplo-like blocks. The ships can be used with a free augmented reality app played on a phone or tablet, which lets you view a 3D model of the ship via your camera before flying it around in a virtual galaxy, shooting enemies in a fairly simple but serviceable game. The app also offers a step-by-step guide for building suggested vehicles; it’s a slick, well-designed experience.
The Snap Ships toys are by themselves delightful. The universe’s opposed factions of The Komplex and The Forge have their own distinct colour schemes and styles, the former opting for jagged black-and-red spikes favoured by Star Trek’s Klingons or Star Wars’ Empire while the latter adopts rounded grey-and-green shapes more akin to the Federation or Rebels. As well as nimble dogfighters and bigger gunships there are spider-like mechs, Gundam-esque bipedal robots and drones.
The tabletop game is far more than an afterthought to the toys.
Most importantly, building the toys is fun. Pieces snap together with the satisfying pop of K’nex, and the versatile multi-directional blocks that make up each vessel’s chassis can be easily swapped around to personalise your craft. (Sets come with instructions for a variety of suggested builds, or you can invent your own.) Accessories such as weapons - which actually fire plastic projectiles - fins and engines lock in the same way. The ship’s cockpit even pops open to let you seat your miniscule pilot.
That’s all well and good, but Snap Ships Tactics isn’t just about the toys. It’s a fully-fledged miniatures wargame like Star Wars: X-Wing or Wings of Glory, in which players can pit their constructions against each other on the table. Happily, the tabletop game is far more than an afterthought.
Tactics introduces a custom control panel for each ship that holds a series of cards representing various systems such as shields, weapons and engines. Its masterstroke is tying gameplay elements to each vessel’s particular physical loadout of shields, guns and engines - as attached to its model. Adding wings might grant your ship the ability to barrel roll, spikes can cause extra damage by ramming opponents, armour can grant protection at the cost of speed, while weapons from lasers to missiles come with differing ranges and damage values. The game is kept balanced by a build value for each ship and the number of slots on a panel; larger ships are possible, but come with the downside of reduced evasion and a bigger target.
At the heart of the gameplay is a pleasingly strategic power management dilemma. Players can assign a number of power cubes to activate each of the cards in their control panel - for example, to manoeuvre or take a shot - but can’t reuse a card until the cubes are removed, cycling the power back around. Only a set number of cubes are reset each turn, opening up the window for a ship to push on one turn at the risk of being left vulnerable the next. It’s a simple but immensely satisfying way to put players in the cockpit.
Making things more complicated are additional red cubes, which represent heat generated by more powerful systems. Heat can be vented separately to power, but can also result in additional damage when targeted by an enemy - a neat risk-reward decision.
In classic wargame fashion, the ships move around the table via X-Wing-style movement templates, attempting to line up shots on their opponents without being gunned down first. Attacks are resolved using dice rolls - what else! - with the number of dice based on the weapon being used and the evasion of the target. While lasers and other projectiles can hit instantly, missiles take a turn to impact, creating exciting opportunities for a ship with rockets incoming to try and lose them in a nearby asteroid field.
Snap Ships Tactics never overwhelms with rules, but still manages to layer in the tactical complexity of wargaming.
Snap Ships Tactics never overwhelms with rules, but still manages to layer in the tactical complexity of wargaming necessary to give it legs - there are rules for cover, flanking, firing arc bonuses and attacks that target specific parts of a ship, all without requiring a tome of rules to understand.
In one gentler contrast to similar games that punish for colliding with terrain or the edge of the map, terrain effects are universally positive, offering additional movement, damage reduction and cooldown when overlapped by a model - so accidentally misjudging your turn and hitting a cardboard tile doesn’t feel frustrating. Flying off the map simply turns a ship around, rather than immediately losing it.
While we played a competitive team match, with four ships split into opposed teams, Snap Ships Tactics will support single-player and co-op modes using AI card decks to control opponents. (Designer Josh Derksen previously created the impressive co-op campaign mod Heroes of the Aturi Cluster for X-Wing - it shows.)
Based on my short time with it so far, Snap Ships Tactics is a complete joy - and easily one of my most anticipated games of 2023. The ingenious level of customisation possible through its combination of versatile toy blocks and effective, engrossing gameplay makes it thrilling to create your custom ship before seeing how it fares in battle. It’s a near-perfect combination of irresistible gimmick and clever execution, wrapped up in the pew-pew delights of cinematic spaceship battles.
Having spent nights in my Philadelphia hotel room changing blocks around and personalising my hardy vessel, I’m already planning my first builds, itching to dig through a hefty bucket of plastic blocks in search of the ship that will take me to galactic glory.