In a Nutshell: Science fiction roleplaying/skirmish wargaming hybrid. 81 page PDF from Two Hour Wargames, written by Ed Teixeira. Based on the company’s Chain Reaction rules engine (reviewed here) and to my mind an upgraded and simplified version of 5150 Fringe Space (reviewed here). The best thing about the games from this stable is that they work equally well played solitaire, co-operatively, or competitively. In this particular one, you’re a freelance space trader operating on the edge of the law and looking to make enough money to retire in comfort. Preferably somewhere without any extradition treaties.
If You’ve Never Played a THW Game Before…
They’re skirmish wargames with roleplaying elements, designed from the ground up to be used for solo or same-side play as well as the usual head-to-head wargaming.
In most such games, side A moves, shoots and conducts melee, then side B moves, shoots and conducts melee. In the THW “reaction system”, side A activates and moves some of its figures; side B reacts to that movement, which in turn may cause side A to react to that reaction, and so on. That goes back and forth until it peters out – usually one side dies, is incapacitated or flees – and then side A moves another group of figures. It plays much faster than that description would lead you to think.
The combat scenarios are stitched together by some really clever setting and campaign rules which generate background on the fly as you play. In terms of equipment, your characters have whatever you think they should have, but they can only carry a handful of items at any given time.
Each player only really has control of one figure, the rest move according to dice rolls and the rules. That’s like Marmite: You’ll either love it or hate it.
The basic rules have variants for most common genres; if the title is prefixed with 5150 you’ve found one of the science fiction games.
Now read on…
The book isn’t really split into chapters, so I won’t review it that way. The heart of the game is the combat system, which is supplemented by a barebones setting, character generation, spaceship and space combat rules, scenarios, and a campaign system.
The 5150 universe is dominated by the Gaian Hegemony, which competes with multiple other powers, often violently. Gaia Prime is at the centre of a series of ‘rings’, each of which has its own selection of races. Each ring has an effectively infinite number of worlds, and each world is defined by which race owns it, a Class (which determines what kind of NPCs you can meet), and a Law Level. The latter two are both generated by rolling 1d3, which is easier than Fringe Space’s table lookups.
Character generation is straightforward; your PC (or ‘star’ as THW calls them) has a Rep, one attribute of your choice and one rolled at random, a race and a profession. NPCs have only one attribute. Optionally, characters can have two skills as well, People or Savvy.
Your initial Rep is probably 5, but you can choose another level if you want. Rep dominates combat, controlling your initiative, hit chances in melee and ranged combat, and recovery from wounds. Rep can go up or down during your adventures, and its final level determines your level of success in the campaign game.
People and Savvy deal with interpersonal and technical challenges respectively. Attributes are like Edges or advantages in other games, each gives the star a little edge under some circumstances. Tucked away in the summary tables at the back is a note that a relevant Profession gives a beneficial modifier on Challenges – that’s the rule you use when none of the other rules seem to cover what you want to do, and would be a skill task in most modern RPGs.
Stars have three advantages over NPCs, Extras, or as THW calls them ‘grunts’. Star Power allows you to soak damage, Extraordinary Effort allows you to roll an extra die for success once per encounter, and Free Will means you can bypass certain reaction table rolls and do what you want instead. These have been toned down a little in their effects since I last played a THW game; Free Will in particular now only affects the Will to Fight table.
There are six playable races; basics (humans), grath (regenerating ragers), hishen (cruel slavers), razors (fast-moving aliens with a psychic blast), xeogs (blue-skinned space babes) and zhuh-zhuh (sentient apes).
Gear consists of weapons (limited to pistols, SMGs or melee weapons) and assorted enhancements: Enhanced body parts and loops are both cybernetic upgrades, while stims are combat drugs. Basics use these to increase their chances against the other races, all of which have some sort of combat edge over humanity. Other gear such as commlinks is handwaved to the point of not being mentioned at all. There are six different types of spaceships, rated for Thrust, Firepower and Hull size.
Unlike other THW games, combat is played out on a small 8×10 battle board, with the two sides forming lines on opposite edges. Initially, THW produced tabletop skirmish games relying on figures and terrain, but recently the roleplaying games have shifted away from that to something you can play without either. Also unlike other games from the stable, both sides take a Will to Fight test (effectively a morale check) at the end of each round of combat; I suspect this will make fights shorter.
If you want more detail on the combat system, I strongly recommend you download the free version of Chain Reaction and check it out. Its strong point is that it has the best AI for solitaire or same-side play I’ve ever encountered; simple to use, brutal, and relentless in its punishment of poor tactics.
Space combat is entirely abstract, with ships cycling round a system of tables until one side is destroyed or achieves its objective.
The campaign is a story you tell by linking your combat encounters together. There are 13 basic encounter types, each of which has an objective, rules for NPCs you may encounter, and any special rules. Some encounters trigger other encounters. There are still PEFs (Possible Enemy Forces, tokens which may be groups of NPCs or just the wind in the trees), but while in earlier THW games these used to move around the tabletop according to dice rolls, in No Limits you just meet them one after the other. I suspect this will remove some of the drama, but it also makes setup a lot simpler.
During a campaign month, you have an involuntary encounter, optionally move to a new area (which may yield a second involuntary encounter), and either have a voluntary encounter or lie low. Some encounter types can only occur as voluntary encounters.
Fringe Space had a complex movement system involving moving between sectors in rings, between rings, and so on, but this has been replaced by the simple statement that you can go anywhere you like in one month.
Your objective in the campaign game is to survive ten years and retire in the best possible style.
Unlike earlier editions of 5150, No Limits has an example campaign with some pregen characters and a sequence of 16 encounters to get you started and show you how things are done. All the NPCs are fully statted up and can be reused later on.
Very basic layout, two-column black on white text, very few illustrations by game standards. You get a sheet of 40 counters and a sample 8×10 battle board (there’s a set of 12 that can be bought separately, or you can make your own, or you can play with figures and terrain on a tabletop; the author says in the forum that he often plays in PowerPoint, and I could see myself playing in Roll20).
Suggestions for Improvement
There’s a bit about military careers in the introductory flavour text that seems completely disconnected from the game. Maybe they use the same text for the companion game of squad-level military combat, 5150 Missions – Infestation.
There are several different explanations for how to determine world law level.
I miss the ship map from Fringe Space, which I thought was very cool (the city map is still included).
Weapons and armour are very basic. Nothing stopping me importing them from other titles in the range I guess, say Chain Reaction.
Like all THW games, this one packs a lot of meat into a very small package. Unlike most of the others, it de-emphasises weapons, armour, and encounter terrain; in this one, it really is all about the story. It is also unusually focused on solitaire play; I don’t see how head-to-head would work, and I think co-operative play would be harder than usual.
If you’re hankering for a more military focus, I expect Infestation covers more gear and more combat-oriented encounters, but I haven’t read it yet.
In its drive towards simplicity and great story mechanics, this game looks like it will be very fast and easy to play. But I can’t help feeling it has lost something along the way.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I plan to use this in 2019, because it’s a good fit to my current requirements, but to be honest it doesn’t enthuse me as much as earlier games. Perhaps I’m just getting jaded.