In the various Dropfleet debates, there seems to be a consensus that an overwhelming amount of strike carriers are a superior tactic with no real good counter except “bring more strike carriers”.
I have played very little outside our local meta is limited, and we mostly like to play more balanced fleets, so I have not encountered this problem myself (and I do think that most people complaining about this problem, have little real experience with it). However, I do think there is a problem with the strike carrier.
What is the problem then
Between the protection of atmosphere, the generally low-performance corvettes and that the majority of points are in sectors in most scenarios, strike carriers seems a little too good. In most scenarios, you can do a double-tap and hide in atmosphere around your selected cluster before anybody has any chance of stopping you. In atmosphere, even the corvettes has a hard time to kill a strike carrier. Unless a strike carrier pops up to score a critical location or change cluster, it requires a disproportionate amount of firepower to kill it.
On top of that, the fighting between the orbital vessels becomes less relevant. They are basically fighting to score critical locations and space stations (if any) and to free firepower to take out strike carriers which is a less important part of the game which is a bit silly. I do like that DFC is not a game where the only objective is to kill all your opponents ships, but I would like it to be a game where killing the opponents ships has a significant impact on the game result.
To clarify; I don’t think this is “ruining the game”, but I do think it needs to be taken care of to move the game in the right direction. I will in this post come with a number of suggestions to inspire others (maybe even Hawk / TT) to try out some different ideas.
What do I want
Even though this is sci-fi and terms like “realistic” always seems a bit strained, I would like landing of trops to seem more realistic.
At D-day the allies did not send in all the landing craft unsupported, because then countless thousands would have died needlessly. You want to send in a varied selection of ships in different support roles to nullify enemy defence to ensure, that the landing craft can arrive safely and deliver its soldiers at the target with as few losses in transit as possible. You want to secure (at least to some degree) the area before sending in the boots that hit the ground.
The current rules does not encourage that. It is superior for the strike carrier to speed ahead and leave the support behind.
What can be done?
Below is a couple of suggestions I think might be interesting, in no particular order. The best solution might even be a combination of several of them.
Make atmosphere less safe
One of the problems is that atmosphere is a darned safe place to be. This is mostly coming from two factors; that you can only shoot at targets within your scan range and that all lock rolls are reduced to 6+. This has the effect that even some of the mightiest heavy cruisers and above are basically helpless in killing a puny strike carrier.
One small change could be, to reduce the penalty for firing into atmosphere to a +2 modifier to lock rolls. This would make atmosphere less secure and since most primary weapon systems are 3+ lock rolls, a +2 penalty would double the amount of hits, though no crits would be present still. The lesser weapons – 4+ lock typically – would be around the same effectiveness.
This might not solve the issue fully, but it would make it more risky to “hide” in atmosphere.
Make armour unable to hold sectors
Strike carriers have the unique ability to drop armour. But we all know that feet on the ground is the key to holding anything, so why not make armour unable to hold the sectors?
If armour couldn’t hold sectors, strike carriers would be more useful in a second-wave attack on an already occupied sector but not very useful as a first-wave assault, since the few infantry it can launch would be quickly taken care of by the six a troopship can deploy a round later.
To make it even more focused, maybe it could be limited to only launching armour so it was totally unable to provide troops to hold a sector. It would require some balancing in the missions as you would probably need fewer clusters / space stations or fleets would need a very large amount of troopships.
Make strike carriers rare
This might not seem all that suitable with the background material, but it is a simple solution. If strike carriers are rare, there is no way around fielding those troopships as 2 / 4 strike carriers in skimish / clash is insufficient if not supported by troopships.
Make corvettes better
This has also been discussed at length. Even if strike carriers didn’t need to nerfed, it probably needs to be done as they are currently too expensive to what they achieve.
What you need here is to make them better in atmosphere without making them better in orbit. Suggestions could be that the “air-to-air” rule also adds -2 to lock rolls bonus in atmosphere or that you double the amount of attack dice for the air-to-air weapons (so a santiaga has 6 lock 4+ attacks), but make them non-functioning outside atmosphere.
This would add a nice “corvette-fighting-corvette” element to the game, though we do not want too many corvettes (too many small ships all over the place).
Strike carriers lost cost Victory points
Losing a strike carrier with thousands of soliders is a great loss and any admiral responsible faces serious repercussions – even if he wins the battle.
At scoring rounds, each lost strike carrier awards 1 victory point to the opponent. Losing a strike carrier early in the game (in round 4 or earlier) will cost 2 victory points and later in the game, 1 victory point.
This will both reduce the amount of strike carriers bought along and would also mean that you are more careful with how you deploy them. Bringing half an army of strike carriers would make you very vulnerable it the enemy focused on killing them instead of your (few) combat ships.
Sectors can defend against unsupport strike carriers
All ground sectors have some anti-air support. This is easily negated with a ship of the line nearby, but without it, the strike carriers have a hard time penetrating and launching troops.
If you launch troops to a sector and have no medium tonnage (or above) ship within 6″ of the cluster center, all tokens launched are destroyed in a 3+ – similar to a defence battery (but better). Troopships will be unaffected since they themselves are a medium tonnage ship.
This will require any strike carrier who want to be something other than a total gamble to be escorted by at least a single light cruiser and killing that light cruiser will hamper the strike carrier significantly. If you want to be more certain, you can bring more cruisers and voila – now you are bringing an escort. This is probably my favourite suggestion.
Strike carriers only carry a limited supply of troops
A strike carrier is a small ship only able to hold a very small contingent of troops and hence cannot in itself support a full-scale assault. It is able to serve as a bridgehead or support in a critical area, though.
Strike carrier dropships have the L(1) rule meaning that they can only drop once. As a part of this change, all strike carriers should have their price reduced somewhat and/or an improvement of their armament so that they have something to do after launching. In this case, you might also want to make it impossible (or even harder) to use a defence battery against it.
Missions should have more space stations and critical locations
When you look at the missions in the rulebook, 3 out of 8 have no space stations and of the remaining 5, only 2 have them in the skirmish-sized battles. There do tend to be a lot of critical locations, but the value is always significantly less than for the clusters.
There is no reason for this to be the norm. Missions should on average be half-and-half of space stations and sectors and all should be critical locations. This will make strike carriers considerably less powerful compared to troopships because when it comes to space stations, troopships are at least as viable as strike carriers as I have previously described.
It will not solve the problem fully, but it will minimize it.
So, what to do?
Well, you could experiment with some of these. I would love to hear your experiences. However, experimenting by ourselves in our local groups are unlikely to change anything.
I think it would be much more interesting for Hawk (or TT) to choose one or more methods they would want to experiment with, and then make those the experimental rules for a couple of months, gathering data on them and see, where the meta will move next. Because one thing is certain – whenever you change the rules to accomodate a weakness, a new weakness emerges.