Star Fleet Battles is a ship-to-ship warfare simulation game, which uses cardboard counters to represent the ships, shuttles, seeking weapons, terrain, and information on a hexagonal map. It is not simply a game, but rather a detailed game system for two or more players (there are some solitaire scenarios). Typically, a player will have one ship in a game, though he can control an entire fleet, if he can keep track of the paperwork and options involved; multiple players can play as teams, with each team splitting up the work of running a squadron or fleet, or a 'free-for-all' fight can be run. Ships represented in the game are typically starships from such classic Star Trek powers as the Federation, Romulan Star Empire, Klingon Empire, or purely Star Fleet Universe creations such as the Hydran Kingdom or Interstellar Concordium.
The game system uses an impulse-based turn system, which is a departure from the traditional I Go-You Go alternating system used by most wargames. A ship's speed determines how often and when it can move based on a 32 impulse movement chart. Generally, a unit only moves one hex at a time, making 32 the maximum 'speed' in the game. Similar systems are used in games such as Steve Jackson's Car Wars (which uses a 5 phase system) and is designed to more realistically simulate unit movement in an environment where the units can move a great distance in the time needed for non-movement functions, like weapons fire, to occur.