Back in May this year, I was walking around the tables at Hexacon and spotted a group of German gamers playing what appeared on first sight to be a 1/300th tank battle. The metal pieces were unpainted and they seemed to be negotiating large boulders on a colourful hex map. On closer inspection, I saw that the pieces weren't all tanks and that it all looked very original. The game was in fact Full Metal Planete, a recent French production with some of the best components I have seen and which also happens to be a fine little multi-player game. It is, however, hard to describe into which box Full Metal Planete falls. It is part wargame, part science fiction and there are some abstract, chess like features thrown in for good measure.
The plot of the game is pretty unusual. Play takes place on an alien planet where there are limited supplies of a useful mineral - these just lie around on the surface waiting to be picked up. The planetary surface consists of mountains, flatlands, marshes, reefs, islands and quite a lot of water. The central sea is tidal which can make certain hexes impassable and this aspect plays an important part in the game. Each player is assumed to land his space station, which is full of useful mining and combat hardware, and his aim is to grab as many rocks as possible before launching again at the end of the game. In the time the space stations are on planet, it is possible to mine away quietly or to process some of the rocks to make more offensive units with which to attack your rivals.
The pieces available to each player are as follows:
L'Astronef is the space station which acts as home base for all the pieces. It is armed with a gun turret on each of its three podules and should it fall to the enemy, you are out of the game and he takes control of all your rock and remaining units. It cannot move and its inside is larger than its outside.
La Pondeuse is the key piece - you start with just one and cannot replace it if lost. The Pondeuse (literally a 'good layer') is the only piece that can 'process' rocks and build new units, so without it you are somewhat stuffed. When it 'eats' a rock, a unit pops out of the back, manned and ready to go. Its other attribute is an ability to predict the random tides which is valuable in the game to avoid getting units stranded.
Le Crabe is exactly that. A small, suspiciously Thunderbird-ish vehicle fitted out with giant claws that can lift and carry rocks about the board. Their main use is simply to transport distant rocks back to base or to the Pondeuse for processing, but they can also carry tanks and pontons as required. Like the Pondeuse, it has no combat capacity.
La Barge is basically an unarmed landing craft that can carry various combinations of rocks and units. This can be a great asset for moving quickly across the water but they are extremely vulnerable to the combat pieces, 'Les Destructeurs'...
La Vedette. This is a sea-going patrol boat that looks rather like Stingray. Anything can happen in the next half hour. They are armed with an unspecified weapon but as they can fire at land and sea targets, we must presume it is an SSM of sorts.
Le Char and Le Gros Tas. (Tank and Super Tank). These are land based equivalents of the vedette and are identical in combat. The Super tank has a longer range armament.
Finally, we get several Pontons which are simply floating bridge sections. These are useful for linking your base to the nearby islands (or 'firming up' lowlands) and can only be made by the Pondeuse; none are allocated at the start of the game and they are taken from the general pool.
All of these pieces are supplied as metal castings, hence the name of the game. The castings are good but not brilliant, though the tactile and weight qualities are nice enough without worrying about GHQ standard moulding. The tidal cards and rules are all well produced and the box is a luxury item. The rocks are small pieces of real granite (or similar) and they look great. The rules are very nicely illustrated and are written in witty and fairly simple French (that is, I had few problems checking on the queries). Because we haven't yet got a typed translation I am going to try to explain enough in the review to get playing. My only gripe is that the map, while graphically excellent, is made of fairly thin cardstock which really isn't in keeping with the high standards of the rest of the components. Although the game isn't inexpensive, the metal pieces make it a very attractive purchase, especially for the aesthetes among you.
Right, so you and the other players have placed the Astronefs within their designated zones and the first turn is underway. The first kicker is that your turn is timed by another player and you only have three minutes to do everything. This means it is wise to do your planning while the other players are moving as three minutes disappears surprisingly quickly. Your choice now is how to use the fifteen action points allowed each turn. These can be saved up but most of the time you will need them and more.
The movement rules are very simple. Each unit moving one hex costs one action point, two in mountains. If you are moving a fully loaded barge or crabe, this still only costs one point. It costs one to pick up a rock and one to process it in the Pondeuse. You can use all fifteen action points on one piece or spread them around as much as you wish. That's it.
Production is also embarassingly easy. The Pondeuse collects a rock and, removing it from play (not to the VP earning pile at the Astronef), it processes it into one char, crabe or ponton. Production is limited by the number of spare units available in the initial 'reserve' or dead pile. It costs one more action point to deploy the new piece behind (or on top of?) the Pondeuse and then it is ready for action. The Pondeuse is able to make up to two pieces per turn but this can only include one crabe or ponton.
Combat is a little more difficult, but still clean and simple. To destroy an enemy piece, it is necessary to 'pin' it using the the firepower of any two Destructeurs (char, gros tas, vedette or podule turret). This 'pinning' is achieved by moving first one and then another destructeur into range (and line of sight - mountains block fire) of the target and then paying one action point per piece to fire. The defending piece is immediately destroyed; no saving throw, nothing. Each piece can fire twice in a turn. This is rather chess-like but seems to work well in practice.
Conversely, it is not possible for any unit to move into a hex which is covered by two or more enemy fire arcs. This allows defensive lines to form, especially in valleys and narrow waterways. The only exception to this rule is if the move into the hex completes the offensive pair required to kill off one of the defenders. Mark Green tells me this is like the permitted suicide rule in Go, for those of you who can relate to this. Most units require just the one attack to destroy them but the Astronef has to have each of its three turrets knocked out before it is subdued. When this happens, the enemy has to occupy it with one piece and then it's all over for the defending player.
Those then are the basic play mechanisms which are used almost every turn to pursue your chosen strategy. As I mentioned earlier, it is possible to take the wimp option and just collect rocks all the time, producing the odd crabe for ease of transportation. This is fine as long as the others leave you alone. More likely, especially with three or four players, is that each player will find himself mining and running a war effort at the same time. In some cases it can be worth going all out to capture a badly defended Astronef, particularly one belonging to a peaceful miner as it will likely be full of valuable rocks. Usually, tactics fall somewhere between the two extremes where active mining is balanced with hindering, opportunist raids on your rivals.
The interaction of the units due to the combat rules is fascinating. It is an easy mistake to gaily commence mining in the early game before you have adequate defence lines set up. An enterprising neighbour will quickly send a couple of tanks over to sort out undefended crabes or, far worse, the pondeuse. Anything venturing out alone, especially within range of an enemy base, is asking for an attack by the destructeurs - the vedettes can be really nasty as two can emerge and take out a barge and contents in just one turn. It is therefore essential to cover non-combatants with overlapping fire zones from tanks and vedettes at all times. Longer term, your Astronef should also be adequately defended as it can be outflanked without external firepower support. Extending this, although the pondeuse has to be outside to manufacture pieces, it can sit next to the Astronef and be protected by its gun turrets. Only send it out if really necessary and never put it on a barge.
The other factor affecting play is the planetary tide. Each turn, a card is flipped to show whether the tide will be low, normal or high for that turn. Each player with a pondeuse will already know what the card is (having looked at it the previous turn) but players often forget and can of course lose their pondeuse at any time. If the tide is high, all the swamp areas become rivers and land units caught in them are immobilised. I nastily suggested they should be sunk, but then I wasn't the one with a pondeuse and two rocks at risk. Also, the reef hexes become fully navigable by sea-going craft. If the tide is low, the marshes and the reefs become terra firma. The effect of all this is that the map changes most turns ("Diabolique, non?" say the rules) and it adds another big factor to your movement decisions. Is it really worth collecting that rock out on the penisula if your crabe is going to be stranded for two or more turns? Is it worth sending a vedette up a newly-formed river only to be left high and dry when the tide goes out? One solution, especially if you are surrounded by this dodgy ground, is to build pontons to bridge the gaps.
Victory is decided in an unusual way. Victory points are earned for rocks collected and taken off planet in the Astronef (2 points per rock) and for each surviving piece (1 point). The kicker is that the number of turns is actually variable with the players having the option to leave the planet at the end of the 21st turn or to wait until the 25th. The decision to take off early is made simultaneously by all players and of course gives the option of simply launching and counting the winnings; very useful if the enemy tanks are closing in. Players in a strong defensive position will probably want to stick around to collect as many rocks as possible or to finish off their attacks and, because the decision is made secretly, just one player could be left with a free run at the remaining minerals.
Full Metal Planete uses the classic game device of limited resources and multiple tasks to force decision making. Add to that the possibilities for overall strategy and a very interesting game emerges. The three games I have played have each been very different. I think this depends on who is playing and whether there are standing rivalries, but the game definitely benefits from having three or four players mixing it a bit; the two player game, unless the Astronefs are very close, is a bit boring as it is when two or three take the wimpy collecting route. Full Metal Planete is also a game that rewards the well planned dramatic move and punishes, severely, the stupid mistake. Because of the time constraints on each move, the latter are fairly common. Once again we encounter the classic European syndrome of simple basic game mechanics allowing for in-depth strategies at the higher level.
As a game collector, who tends to like nice bits, I was happy enough with Full Metal Planete even before I played it. The fact that it turned out to be such a good game was a major bonus. It plays quickly (about 90-120 minutes), the rules are logical and easily understood and it really does emphasise good decision making and resource allocation. There is also plenty of room for vicious play and diplomacy if that's your bag. I would think there is ample scope for the tinkerers to add new units and rules (such as random mineral distribution, underground mines, Moles....) without unduly affecting play. I am of course wary of reviewing a game which, to my knowledge, hasn't yet arrived in the country but that really is the benefit of tackling Full Metal Planete in this newsletter. Those that are interested enough will dig a copy out from France or will pester Mark Green at Just Games until he buys some in. I recommend this game highly and foresee it being a big success.
Full Metal Planete is published by Ludodelire (27 rue du Chemin-Vert, 75011 Paris) and is designed by Delfanti, Mathieu and Trigaux. It costs between FF300,00 and FF350,00 (mine cost the DM equivalent of £35 from Germany) and should be available in most game shops on the continent. Just Games (01- 437 0761) may well be stocking the game in the future.
Thanks to Mark Green for the timely rules translation.
Mike Siggins. 3/10/89.
Sumo - Mike Siggins