Flotilla is a charming, quick-playing space combat sim by Blendo Games (aka Brandon Chung), the creator of Gravity Bone. It's a member of the small but growing subgenre of strategy games where you plan a turn's action and then watch it unfold in "real time." Like the signature work of the "turn-based real-time" strategy, Laser Squad Nemesis, Flotilla takes the twitch out of the RTS genre, replacing it with careful planning of each unit's movement. Compared to LSN, Flotilla has a simple command system, with most of the complexity coming out of the game's 3d environment.
Even after playing the tutorial, it will probably take new players a while to get used to the game's control scheme, as it is often necessary to change the camera's position in order to be sure that you are sending that ship, say, behind the cover provided by an asteroid and not straight into it. However, once one gets used to the system, it plays quickly and easily, and an entire game of Flotilla, complete with about a half-dozen fleet engagements, can be played in about a half-hour. The "Adventure" mode of the game is structurally similar to that of Strange Adventures in Infinite Space - you have fixed starting resources (in this game, 2 missile-armed destroyers), and a limited amount of time for your adventures (in Flotilla you have "seven months to live"). The result is that you can't go everywhere or do everything, and that the game doesn't even have to include options to "grind" or accumulate, as the game's protagonist doesn't have time to waste.
For a game that starts with a terminal illness, Flotilla is charmingly light-hearted. Among the wacky folks you meet in space there are Penguin Bandits, Rastafarian Cats, Greedy Pigs, and Officious Deer. There are also, with comical incongruity, human beings in this universe. Many of your encounters offer two choices, some of which actually present ethical dilemmas: not all of the consequences of your choices are immediately obvious, and there are interactions between different encounters and choices. You have little control over these interactions, as you don't know what an unexplored star system holds, and once you go there, whatever happens, happens. There is no option to skip the encounter and come back later.
Some players may find this lack of control frustrating, but the brevity of any game of Flotilla means that there is plenty of opportunity to experience and experiment with other combinations. There may even be a way to cure your illness, but if so, I haven't found it yet. There's a little low-key philosophy in the mostly-random encounters in Flotilla: even if you're dying and have nothing to loose, it still usually pays to be nice to people; there's no-one scummier than a slave trader (even if he's a fish); and the difference between paying a tax and getting robbed is largely semantic. More than anything else, the "zen of Flotilla" is this: getting ahead in the world takes a little soul, a little skill, and a whole lotta dumb luck.
This has a pronounced effect on the combat engine that is the heart of the game. You start out with two missile-armed destroyers, arguably the weakest and definitely the most fragile ship in the game (except for the occasional unarmed freighter). You can acquire more ships, including the heavily-armed Battleship, but only based on encounters that you have little control over. Each ship has two upgrade slots (mostly in the form of a % bonus to speed, armor strength, rate of fire, etc.), but acquiring upgrades is also mostly random. As a result, sometimes you will face a large flotilla of Penguin Bandits with as little as your two starting ships and no upgrades, and sometimes you will face the same hostiles and outgun them 2:1. And if you loose one of your destroyers in your first battle, you are probably looking at a very short game indeed.
Players looking for more "even" odds will probably spend most of their time in skirmish mode, where you get to choose the exact composition of each side's fleet. The basic weapons and tactics of the game are very simple, yet the permutations are satisfactorily complex. There are only two types of weapons: projectile (including missiles, torpedoes and the battleship's rapid-firing main gun), and beam. Projectile weapons have a very long range and are unguided (a game-balance necessity: guided missiles would break the game). Most of the game's tactics revolve around the use of projectile weapons: all ships, even the destroyer, have enough armor on their front and top to deflect projectiles harmlessly. It becomes crucial then, to flank and "dogfight" enemy ships in order to score hits on their sides, or, for extra damage, bottom or back. As this is space and the ships can rotate freely, moving “under” a ship can easily be countered by the ship rolling to face its armor "down."
Beam weapons are the exception to this rule: they have a very short range, but they never miss (if their target is in their arc of fire), and they ignore armor. They also do a lot of damage: letting a destroyer get within range of a beam weapon usually means loosing the destroyer. As soon as you add a ship that has a beam weapon (or the Dreadnought, which has two) to your fleet, your tactical options roughly double. The combat model for Flotilla isn't any more "realistic" than its cast of talking cats and pet Yetis (that's right, pet Yetis), but it makes for good gameplay. The sheer randomness of encounters and unpredictability of rewards also has its gameplay advantages: taught, difficult battles are justified by the possibility that, if you can pull this one out, you'll be able to accumulate a real fleet soon (and if not, there's always the next game).
Some people will never play Flotilla because of the graphics: they are simple, even primitive, and frankly not as charming as Gravity Bone's Lego-like characters, though game's 2d art of Pirate Chickens and Penguin Bandits make up for its uncharismatic destroyers and dreadnoughts. A bigger flaw in Flotilla is its weak multiplayer support. There's no way to play over the Internet, and multiplayer requires you to plug in a gamepad for Player 2 (even though this game could easily allow "hotseat" versus play). Perhaps Chung didn't want to impose a turn-planning time limit on this oddly relaxing game, or slow it down with a PBEM option. What this game really begs for is a "play by chat" option. A larger-scale sequel might also offer a greater variety of weapons, tactics, and customization, but that could easily spoil the game's simple charms.
Flotilla has a few rough spots, and isn't going to satisfy anyone's fantasies of acquisition or control, but that's part of what makes it enjoyable as a game. It's focused, funny, eminently replayable, and, at $10, about the price of lunch at Chili's (and definitely more nutritious). Flotilla isn't the kind of game that invites all-consuming obsession, but it is a game that I expect I'll be returning to for years.