Sunday, May 26, 2013

X-Wing Review

X-Wing was released at Gencon in 2012, and was designed by a whole load of people at Fantasy Flight Games.  I was there for it's release, but I actually went out of my way to avoid it.  Walking into the dealers hall, the line around the Fantasy Flight Games booth went on for as far as the eye could see.  Then if you followed it, it went around a corner, and off into the horizon.  I knew two things seeing this game.  First, "I don't like miniature games", which is a thing I've told myself since childhood for the sake of my wallet.  Second, that if this game ever got it's hooks in me, it would be agony attempting to find the models I wanted in stock.

I successfully avoided X-Wing for 6 months, until PAX East 2013.  There I was looking for a game to join, and happened across a guy at a table with a mountain of X-Wing stuff.  He was alone, and looking to play with someone.  Then we made eye contact, and I knew right then, my wallet was forfeit.

I'm going to structure this review on a few assumptions.  I'm going to assume you will be playing the 100 pt squad building game.  I'm aware the core set has all sorts of scenarios and rules about 31 point squads.  But who are we kidding?  Once you get ahold of this game, your imagination will run wild.  You'll fantasize about what it's like to have Boba Fett chase down the Millennium Falcon.  Or what would you do with a full squad of 4 X-Wings?  Then the rest will be history.  On your credit card statement.

Rule Summary

Players start by agreeing on a scenario to play.  They can choose a simple shoot out, with or without asteroids.  Or they can choose one of many official scenarios.  Players then build a 100 point squad out of various ships, pilots and upgrades.

Ships have several statistics.  First is pilot skill.  This effects placement order, move order, and firing order.  Next is firepower.  This is how many dice the ship gets to attack with.  This is followed by agility, which is the number of defensive dice it gets to roll when fired upon.  Lastly, are the ship's hull and shield values.  This is how much damage a ship can take before it is shot down.  Many ships also have optional upgrade icons listed on the bottom of their card.

Once players have selected their ships, who is piloting their ships, and equipped their ships with a broad array of upgrades, they set up their play area.  In a standard dogfight and most missions, the play area is 3' x 3' and ships are placed in order of pilot skill, from lowest to highest, with ties going to whoever has initiative.  Usually the Empire, however if one player spent less points, that player gains the initiative.  Ships get placed within range 1 (about 4 inches) of that player's side of the play area.

After ships are placed, the first turn begins.  Each ship has a movement dial.  Players will secretly assign maneuvers to their ships using these dials, and place them face down near their respective ships.  Then, in pilot order, from lowest to highest, players will perform their maneuvers.  Each maneuver has a template, which you will socket into the front of a ship.  You then move the ship to the end of the template to complete it's movement.  After each maneuver, players may perform actions with their ship, provided they didn't run into anything.  Each ship has numerous actions listed in it's action bar, and sometimes additional actions are provided by pilot abilities or upgrades.  After the ship has performed it's action, you proceed to the next ship.

After all ships have moved according to pilot skill, ships fire working backwards, from highest to lowest.  Ships will pick a target within range 3, and inside their firing arc, usually the front 90 degrees.  The attacking ship will roll red attack dice equal to it's firepower, and the defending ship will roll green defense dice equal to it's agility.  At range 1, the attacker gets a 1 die bonus, and at range 3, the defender gets a 1 die bonus.  But only when using their primary weapon.  Any evade symbols rolled cancel out hit symbols rolled.  Then hits are applied to the defending ship, with shields going out first, then hull.

Various abilities will allow players to alter the sides of the dice, or reroll dice.  The most common of these abilities are target locking and focus.  Target locking allows you to reroll dice, and focus allows you to turn all the focus symbols to either hits or evades.  Other common actions are evading, boosting and barrel rolls.

Play continues in rounds of maneuvering then firing.  The game ends when either the scenario objectives have been accomplished, or one side has shot down all the ships of the other side.

How accessible is the game to new players?

The core mechanics of X-Wing are very simple, and highly accessible.  In my time playing X-Wing at my FLGS, it stood out more and more how accessible this game is.  The movement templates are a great replacement for the tape measures or rulers used in other games.  Actions are easy to understand.  Combat resolves very quickly, only requiring a single roll for each player.  The dice are fantastic, both 8 sided with symbols depicting hits, evades and focus.  This cuts any math out of the game, making it play even faster.

In fact, the game moves along incredibly fast compared to other miniature games, and even most board games.  When it comes time to make decisions, your options are fairly constrained, although not so much as to be uninteresting.  Your two most agonizing and time consuming decisions are made for you.  Who to move, and who to shoot with.  Which greatly simplifies gameplay, but I don't think you lose anything by it.

Why is the game so accessible?

X-Wing has very simple stats.  Each ship just has 5 in fact.  Plus the game does a fantastic job of always letting you know what they are.  They are printed onto the base of the ships, as well as the pilot cards.  So no matter where you are looking, you'll know everything.  The game also comes with reference material for all the movement options each ship possesses.  This is fantastic for when you want to know if you can outrun or out maneuver a ship that's on your tail.

X-Wing also comes with a quick start guide.  It leaves out a lot of the games more nuanced rules.  It doesn't mention actions, nor collisions, or squad building.  But it's a good enough introduction to the game if someone is really that squeamish.  Although I've never found it necessary to resort to a version of the game that was so completely stripped down.

All in all there just aren't a lot of rules to memorize.  Plus it's not the end of the world if you do forget one.  I played numerous games not knowing that the range advantages to attack or defense rolls are only conferred when using the primary weapon.  Or that collisions will deprive units of their action.  The game was slightly less strategic not knowing those things.  When we discovered them we immediately went "That changes everything!"  But the game was not ruined, and we were never having a bad time.  The game is fundamentally fun, and won't be broken by forgetting a rule.

There are a lot of special abilities in this squad!  Don't forget any.

If there is one thing that can be rough, it's forgetting to take your action, or use your pilot's special abilities.  It's surprisingly easy to just get caught up in the flow of moving ships around, and completely forget your actions.  Do not do this!  Try to emphasize the habit of always performing an action, even if it's the first turn of the game and nobody is in range yet.  Also emphasize always looking at your pilot card before you do anything.  It's quite easy to forget to take advantage of all your options!

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

All in all, I'd say the match ups between new players and experienced players can be quite close.  The person who taught me lamented that even his 8 year old niece repeatedly beat him.  Where a player's experience level can really shine is in the squad building.  This isn't to say that a player who is just flying whatever looks cool will always lose to a player who has painstakingly min maxed his entire squad.  Luck plays a major part.  But it's amazing how many card combos and synergies there are amongst the various pilots and upgrades.

Why does experience not matter?

Even when you factor in the metagame that is involved in squad building, it's often better to be lucky than good.  There may not be many dice rolls involved before the momentum of the match has swung away from you.  Sometimes all it takes is one lucky roll to knock out your best ship.  100 points offers you some padding to even out the law of averages somewhat, but not completely.

It's still entirely possible to go the whole game, make maybe 5 or 6 attacks, and miss on all of them because you rolled awful.  On the other side of the coin, it's very possible to fail every single evasion roll as well, since you'll only be making 5 or 6 before your entire fleet is shot down.  It's actually quite remarkable how much of the game can revolve around luck.  Although knowledgeable use of your actions and maneuvers can blunt that harsh truth.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

X-Wing plays with a lot of momentum.  Obviously a lot of that is because the ships move with momentum across the play area, thanks to the movement templates.  But it also just has a fantastic flow.  I love the feeling of desperately trying to lose someone on my tail, or turn the situation around on them.  The collision rules really add a fantastic layer of tension to the maneuvering.  Especially since losing your action means forfeiting the only means you have for mitigating the luck in this game.  You know when you collide with someone that you are now a sitting duck!  The game just has a fantastic kinetic energy to it, and time will fly by.

Why is the game so enjoyable?

X-Wing for me perfectly channels the original trilogy.  I grew up obsessed with Star Wars.  I played all the old video games from the 90's.  I used to carry around the Star Wars RPG by West End everywhere I went as a kid.  I completely immersed myself in the source books they published.  But all that fanboyism couldn't weather the storm that was the special editions and prequels.

I still want to play this.
This is a game that could have easily gone for rampant commercialism.  They could have sold each ship with just one pilot.  They could have phoned it in when it came to the variety in abilities and upgrades.  They could have included Jar-Jar instead of beloved Expanded Universe characters.

Instead they focused on providing a fun game, that is strongly based on the Star Wars that people who grew up in the 80's and 90's remember.  A group that desperately needs some tender love and care after Greedo shooting first, and sitting through Anakin's atrocious romance.

X-Wing made me love Star Wars again.  It reminded me about everything I adored in it.  The cool space ships, the endearing characters, and the exciting space battles!  The vast array of pilots you'll remember from the films and Expanded Universe are fantastic.  Everything feels like an intrinsic part of Star Wars.  Not lazily bolted on or painted over like some products.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Lots of the strategy in X-Wing happens during the squad building.  There is a lot of really fun metagaming that goes into countering the sorts of ships and abilities you know your opponent enjoys using.  There are also a lot of abilities that really shine during some of the missions.  For example, Biggs is invaluable during escort missions.  His ability to draw fire to himself basically gives the escort target an extra 5 hit points.  The counter to this is frequently missiles.  Lots and lots of missiles.  Take Biggs out as soon as possible so you can focus on the escort target.

Poor Biggs, never long for this world.

100 Points also gives you plenty of options, but it's just restricting enough that you can't do everything.  Frequently you have the choice between 3 really good ships, or 5 or 6 really weak ships.  Most players go somewhere in between.

Once the game begins, it's mostly tactical.  Most games I've played have lasted about 5 turns, with only a few really dragging on.  Most ships can be taken out in only 2 or 3 good shots.  Although the Tie Fighters can easily be shot down on the first attack.  So long term planning isn't really something you want to engage in too much.  If you think too far ahead, your ships could easily be shot down before you get there.  It's often better to shoot first, and ask questions later!

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

I really enjoy the dilemmas in this game.  That moment where you add up everything you want in your squad, and realize you are 2 points over is painful.  Deciding what to cut is an incredibly difficult decision.

This would have been a
tough maneuver to eyeball.
Then every step of playing is full of tense decisions.  First you have to decide on your maneuver.  You aren't allowed to measure ahead of time, so you'll spend a lot of time eyeballing the ships, trying to estimate if you have space for a maneuver or not. Then once you finish that, you'll be running all manner of scenarios through your head.  Where do you think you opponent is going?  Do you think you can make it all the way through your other ships so they don't count as a collision?  Wait, if you do that straight maneuver that close to the edge, is your ship able to turn quickly enough that they don't go off the map next turn?  You can spread your ships out to try to cover all their possible vectors.  But then you are spread thin and easily picked off.

Then comes the wide array of actions.  Do you target lock and fire your missiles?  Maybe you want to target lock this turn, focus the next, and try to get your missiles off then?  But you have the shot now, you might not have it next turn, they'll see those missiles coming a mile away.  You might not even survive until next turn.  Maybe it's better to just focus or evade in case they come after you.  This ship does have most of your upgrades and is a huge target they'll want to take out.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

What makes the dilemmas so amazing is the pilot skill system.  It creates this dynamic sliding scale of partial information.  The lowest skilled pilot has to move first, and they are operating completely in a vacuum.  Pardon my pun.  But they have no information at all.  They take their maneuvers completely blind, and must decide on an action based off of zero concrete information.  Each pilot that goes after them knows a little bit more, and you can make a slightly more informed decision for their actions.  The last pilot that goes knows absolutely everything that everyone else has done, and can make the best decision possible.

It's a fantastic system.  But what's truly fascinating is how well it keeps the game moving.  It's already decided what order all the ships are going to move and fire in.  That would ordinarily be the subject of much thought by the players.  However, it replaces those decisions with agonizing choices about what actions to take.  This keeps the game from ever grinding to a halt, or becoming too deterministic.

Physical component design and limitations?

First off, the models in this game are fantastic.  Amazingly detailed, and just gorgeous to look at.  I was hesitant to ever put my models away.  I wanted to keep them out on a display shelf between games, frozen in a mock battle.  I did eventually find a good storage solution however.

There are some problems however.  The bases slide all over the place.  On a smooth surface, you risk upsetting the game state just by breathing too hard.  The models are very lightweight, and the bottom of the base is mostly recessed.  This results in hardly anything making firm contact with the table, and there is hardly any friction holding the ships in place.  I'm a little surprised they went with bases shaped like that.  A perfectly flat base would have provided better table contact and more friction.  However, I've seen some very creative work done placing bits of foam or rubber inside the bottom of the bases to keep them in place.

Also, using the templates and measuring distances isn't as exact a science as you might believe.  Especially when ships are moving through one another, or have balled up into nasty clumps.  Quite frequently we've had to just eyeball certain distances, or do our best guess at where a template ends up, because there are 2 or 3 ships in the way.

I do however love the reference material.  If a ship adds any rules to the game, it comes with a reference card that explains it's abilities.  The artwork on the cards is fantastic as well, even if it gets overshadowed by how amazing the models are.

What could have been better?

I can sympathize with Fantasy Flight Games on this.  They have a hit game, and they are struggling to meet demand.  However the quality control could use some work.  Many of the models I received had crooked wings and blasters.  They have uneven paint jobs and can look wildly dissimilar.  My Millennium Falcon even began falling apart as soon as I took it out of it's box!  I heard something rattling in the front, and then bits just started falling off.  Luckily I was able to glue everything back in place.

That being said, they are still better models than I'd ever be able to put together myself.  I sincerely doubt I'd get the wings on a Tie Fighter even remotely straight.  Or do paint jobs even half as good as the ships already come with.  My complaints are chiefly with consistency, not quality.  It bugs me to no end to see a row of 5 Tie Fighters, each with their wings slightly askew, and each a slightly different shade of grey.  Each ship on it's own looks fantastic though.  I'm also willing to admit that these are things that are likely to only be a pet peeve of mine, and entirely unrealistic to expect to be fixed.

Long term prospects?

I instantly fell in love with X-Wing.  From the moment I first sat down at that fateful table at PAX East, I knew this game was going to have me in it's clutches for years to come.  About the only thing that could kill it for me, is if Fantasy Flight Games doesn't watch the power creep of new ships.  It would sour me on the game quickly if newer ships are better in every way, and cost less points too!  But so far that doesn't seem to be the case.  Perhaps in a year or two I'll revisit the issue.

As it stands now, I play X-Wing nearly every week.  I'm constantly thinking about squads I would like to build and try out.  Like most X-Wing players, I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of Wave 3.  The only thing that concerns me, is that I think the metagame might overshadow the actual game, and I'm not really sure how I feel about that.  I think for the game to truly shine, you need to have regular opponents to play with.  You need that experience of responding to each others builds.  X-Wing on it's own is fun.  But it's the metagame that raises it to true excellence.

As a testament to how compelling the metagame for X-Wing is, here's a story.  I own plenty of ships for both sides.  But even so my friends are thinking of getting their own sets.  A first in my group!  But they want to enjoy going through their own lists of ships and pilots and building a squad that is truly theirs.  There have been numerous game systems I've tried to get my friends to buy, to no avail.  I'm shocked that X-Wing might be the first one to break their frugal habits.

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