Thuloid Speaks: Star Wars Armada, a Review
Greetings, House made new! May your upgraded digs ride eternal, shiny and chrome. While life for Thuloid has its frustrations, what with the wave of people defecating on his place of business*, gaming is not among them. I might mention the new Games Workshop Morbidly Obese Fantasy Space Marines (their actual name), but those malproportioned shitty Blood Angel-knockoff models have effectively killed any lingering interest in Warhammer Fantasy. Oh, you haven’t seen them yet? Let our own network member Dice and Brush give you a gander.
*Literally. Second time in just more than a month. Barbarians in this town, I tell you.
Meanwhile, I’ll talk about something I enjoy. “What’s that?” you say, “a post about the influence of Matthias Flacius, the Magdeburg Confession and the doctrine of right of resistance of lesser magistrates on early modern political theory? Perhaps with tasteful sideboob?” One day, if you’re lucky, but not today. Today I will introduce you to a game that most have eyed but fewer tried– Fantasy Flight’s new offering, Star Wars: Armada.
First things: Armada is not X-Wing, nor X-Wing scaled up some. Its orientation is toward capital ships, with fighter squadrons providing essential support. Now, despite the name Armada, we’re not talking about vast numbers of ships here. A standard game is 300 pts. Word is that will increase to 400 with the release of wave 2 later this summer. But, to give you some idea of the size of forces, the starter box includes a Victory-class Star Destroyer and 6 squadrons of TIE fighters on the Imperial side, and a Nebulon B, a CR-90 Corvette and 4 X-Wing squadrons. The recommended size of a starter box game is 180 points per side, which uses all the ships and is quite conservative with upgrades.
After enjoying the starter box (retails for $100, can be purchased for significantly less), I sprung for the Rebel Fighter Squadrons (two stands each of X-, Y-, A- and B-Wings and a named pilot option for each) and Assault Frigate Mark II (looks a bit like a fat whale) expansions. That gets me 300 points easily, in a bunch of different ways. Once the game settles at 400, my guess is you’ll see lists of one or two big ships, two or three smaller or medium sized, and then various squadrons. It might be possible to just squeeze in five star destroyers with no support, but that fleet would perform horribly.
So let’s talk a bit about mechanics. In Armada, you activate one capital ship at a time, then your opponent activates one, until both of you are done. At that point, you activate two fighter squadrons, then your opponent two, again until done. That’s a turn, and a game is six turns.
But what happens in a capital ship’s activation? Glad you asked. The first thing that happens is that you turn over the top command dial on your little stack. Now this is a cool mechanic. Ships have a command value, roughly correlated with size. So a CR-90 has a stack of 1, whereas a Victory star destroyer has a stack of 3. At the beginning of the turn, each player sets the most recently activated dial to one of four commands and puts it on the bottom of the stack:
- Navigation, to help with movement
- Concentrate fire, to assist shooting
- Engineering, to repair damage, or
- Squadron, to enhance squadron activations
On activation, that ship’s top dial is turned over and either used that activation or exchanged for a command token that can be stored till later for a lesser effect. A ship can move and shoot without a command, and squadrons can activate in due order, but the commands enhance that ability. Repairs always take a command. So big ships have to plan the emphases for their activations two turns ahead of time, whereas small ships can set it that very turn. A Star Destroyer is a very powerful ship, but sluggish. A Corvette is fast and responsive. A named admiral like Tarkin is hugely expensive, but his ability to assign command tokens is invaluable to the Imperials.
Next comes shooting. That’s right, in Armada a ship shoots before it moves. Since few games work this way, it takes a surprising amount of thought to set up shots carefully. Each ship is divided into four arcs, which are used for both shooting and receiving fire. Two arcs of a ship can fire per turn, and shooting is divided into three range bands. Each range band opens up a different type of weaponry which rolls a different color of dice (oh, Fantasy Flight and their silly proprietary dice). Black dice are short range and are heavy munitions–torpedoes, bombs and the like. Blue are medium, and include ion weaponry. These are great for rolling “accuracy” results which cancel defense tokens. Red are lasers, decent for damage. A ship has both a shield value for each of its arcs and an array of weapons, indicated by dots of the respective color–each dot is a die. So a Victory I Star Destroyer has six dots in its front arc–3 red and 3 black. It shoots with a respectable 3 dice at long and medium range, but at short range adds 3 devastating black dice to that. Don’t get caught directly in front of a Victory I.
There is a lot of variation between ships in terms of distribution and strength of shields, strength of weaponry (short, medium or long range, and whether a ship likes to fire forward or broadside), and even the angles of the arcs. A Victory II Star Destroyer (same model, different ship card for 12 points more) has no black dice, but blue instead–very different armament. Also different between ships are their available defense tokens. No dice are rolled for defense–rather, tokens are spent to reduce damage, redirect shields or partially evade attacks. These tokens refresh every turn (unless used a second time in a turn, in which case discarded), but this means that fire from multiple sources can quickly overwhelm defenses. Keeping your ships alive depends on planning.
Movement comes directly after shooting, and includes both speed and course. Speed can only be changed by using a navigation command. Because they love weird game aids, Fantasy Flight has developed a strange movement ruler. It is segmented plastic, with each knuckle capable of up to two clicks to the left or right, and numbered to correspond to a speed. A ship’s card indicates how many clicks it can turn at each knuckle at a given speed. Ships must move, and they must move their full speed. While measuring is allowed, sometimes it just doesn’t help. It’s surprisingly easy to get a ship “stuck” so that at its current speed it has only one (or none) viable move without colliding with another. Again, this isn’t X-Wing. Moving these ships feels like driving a boat, not flying a fighter. A small ship, going fast, has to cover a lot of ground but has a great deal of flexibility. A Star Destroyer chugs forward with little ability even to turn. It can get going to reasonable speed but will never be maneuverable. One minor quibble with the game might be the frequency with which large ships can get locked in a collision duel, in which each has no choice but to ram the other in its activation, causing damage to both. On the other hand, capital ship collisions seemed rather common in the Star Wars movies, so call it “cinematic.”
Squadrons can be activated early with a command, or toward the end of the turn, but either way their overall game function is the same. Nearly everything said so far about capital ships is ignored with squadrons. They don’t use the movement tool (they move freely using a distance ruler), they don’t worry about collisions, and they don’t require much planning. Some (most Rebel squadrons) can in swarms threaten capital ships. Others (TIEs), are little threat to big ships but effective at intercepting other squadrons. Capital ships can fire at squadrons, but a ship’s ability to do that is a separate value from its other armament, and again varies widely. Squadrons get “stuck in” with each other when close, and can’t break away until one or the other is destroyed. Their fights are randomish affairs, ignoring criticals and involving few defense tokens. FFG seems to have done a respectable job in forcing players to think about which kinds of squadrons they’d like to bring–each kind of ship “feels” roughly right. Lists are capped at 33% squadrons, which is a limit that players would easily break if possible, but that 33% at present includes four distinct options for each faction, not including (very potent) named squad leaders. Luke, for example, rolls a single black die if he attacks a capital ship, and ignores shields entirely.
I’ve used the word “cinematic” already, but it applies to this game. Ships behave as a fan of movies and various EU materials would expect them to. This is a more strategic game than X-Wing by far, less dice driven and much less about various abstract-feeling token mechanics and card combos. The level of immersion is quite a bit stronger. In Armada, I tend to think a lot about how to set up shots, avoid catastrophic damage, and accomplish mission objectives (which I haven’t mentioned, but are important). The table is mercifully cleaner than in X-Wing as well. Fantasy flight has put dials for shields right on the bases of ships, and squadron bases include both a damage dial and an activation slider. No tokens, aside from objectives laid down at the start, are ever placed in the playing area. Information is all on the ship’s base or its card. The rules do not take long to learn. There are quick reference cards for command/token effects, and beyond that the most important thing is keeping the difference in mechanics between squadrons and ships straight.
The ships look very good on the table. Squadrons are simple and small, but take paint rather easily (as a test, I didn’t prime them). Not as well as primed minis, but about like Reaper Bones. I’ll give mine a shot of dullcote after I’m done just to be sure about chipping. I know the big ships take paint beautifully, as they’re pre-painted like the X-Wing ships, and have a nice level of detail.
Some reviews raise price as an issue with this game. I understand that–it’s not free, by any stretch. If a player is expecting to buy one of every ship that comes out, it could be expensive. Not GW-expensive, but not SAGA, either. But let me add up my expenditures to prove a point. My FLGS doesn’t carry the game right now, so online discounter it is. The starter box, an Assault Frigate and a box of Rebel Fighters gives me a number of options for 300 points. Comes in at ~$122. I really like the Rebels, so I’ll be purchasing the Rogues and Villains expansion (squadron-sized minis for both Rebels and Imps, including various bounty hunters and ne’er-do-wells), the MC30c Frigate and the Home One (Mon Calamari Cruiser). That’s another $63 via the same site, $185 in total, and I’ll own a ton of options for 400 points of Rebels and half as many Imperials. If you’re really planning on playing this, buying into both factions is on the pricey side. Buying one is manageable.
Anyhow, this is an enthusiastic thumbs up. I could go into battle reports, and maybe one day I will, but right now it’s enough to say this game and Infinity are scratching my itch pretty well.