Thursday, January 12, 2017

Star Wars Armada - First Game

The battle begins

I finally got to play a game of Star Wars Armada over the weekend. Short Version: It's good!

The history: The game's been out for almost 2 years. When they first announced it I was very interested - could this be the "Epic" to X-Wing's "40K"? Then I saw the price - $99.95! For a game with 3 ships! That's ... out of line. Points of comparison:

  • 40K 5th edition: 10 tac marines, 5 terminators, a marine captain, and a dreadnought on one side, 10 boyz, 5 nobz, a boss, and 3 deffkoptas on the other side. That's potentially 8 separate units. Admittedly, none of this is painted, but it was also 70 bucks a few years ago. The 6th/7th edition is similar, though the price has crept up towards the $100 mark
  • Dropzone Commander: 3 tanks, 3 APCs, 3 AA vehicles, 6 stands of infantry, 3 dropships each for two different sides, plus a playing mat/poster, 10 cardboard buildings, a full rulebook, and a tape measure. Also not painted but those are quite a few separate units and a nice looking set of terrain to play them on. It lists for 60 pounds and so runs 70-80$ U.S.
  • X-Wing: 3 ships, templates dice etc, lists for $39.99 - the same number of ships, the same basic equipment, less than half the price. Smaller ships, but still a similar item.
The other downside is that, much like X-Wing, if you read some reviews one starter set is barely enough to play a game. The popular verdict seems to be that you need two sets to have a solid base for extended play. That's at least manageable for X-Wing as that puts it into comparable territory with 40K, DZC, and Warmachine when it comes to starter sets. It really hurts Armada. I can't see kids getting into this on their own (unlike X-Wing) so I think that limits its growth to a degree. Hopefully it does well enough to continue being supported for a long time.

Now if the worst thing I can say about a game is that it costs a lot- note that I do not say "too much" - then that's actually a pretty good thing. It looks great on the table and the way it plays it does feel much more like a "big ship" game as opposed to zippy little fighters whooshing around and exploding in one salvo. There are firing arcs beyond "front" and "360", everyone has shields, and facing matters. You have limited control over speed and maneuverability compared to X-Wing, meaning that it takes some effort to do much besides go straight and that will limit your ability to do other things well. This comes about in two ways:

First, the maneuver tool simplifies decades of plotted movement vs. free movement arguments in everything from Full Thrust to Star Fleet Battles. Each ship has a diagram that indicates how many "clicks" it can turn during each move at each speed (bottom left corner up there). Allowed speeds are from 0-4 so it's a limited set of possibilities. This means turns are limited by speed like the turn gauges of old space and naval wargames but everything is built into the ship card and the tool - no protractors! No paper gauges for different turn modes and speeds! It's all of the "realism" we've wanted but in the most playable form I've ever seen for a 2-D space combat game. Yeah, the tool is a little flimsy but buying two starters means we have two of them for now. 

The second part of this is the command dial. Now with X-Wing you pick your move each turn and put it down each turn and that's where you're going. Armada does not do that. Your ship has a basic movement capability based on speed and the maneuver tool and it can probably fire in all directions to at least some degree so I don't see the potential for those uh-oh moments like in the smaller scale game. The command dial instead is "what do you want to be good at next turn" - repairs? shooting? fighter control? or movement? The bigger the ship the more dials you have to lay down at the start of the game, so while the blockade runner is deciding what it's going to be good at this turn the Victory SD is deciding what it will do 3 turns from now. That makes a big difference and you get situations like I chose "repair" a turn ago but no one shot at me this turn and I could have boosted my firing if I had known. 

Also, if you can't or don't want to use the bonus effect right now you can take a "token" instead and save it for later. It's at a lesser effect, but it mitigates the wasted opportunity without allowing for a total change. The "Intensify Firepower" command dial lets you add an extra die once during your shooting. If you save it and use it later it's only a re-roll, not an additional die. It's still good, just not as good. 

The genius here is that unlike a pure plotted movement game this is plotting a bonus effect - if you choose poorly your ship will still be able to move and shoot. It won't cost you your turn, it will just cost you in terms of what you could have done better. Pre-plotted movement games sometimes mean that if you guess wrong as to where the battle is going to happen you get a ship or three off on the other side of the board doing nothing for a few turns until they can get back into the fight. That's not going to happen here, but I was still annoyed when I ended up with repair orders when a boost to my fighters could have turned the game. Rewarding good thinking/strategy with a bonus instead of punishing bad thinking with a penalty or failure is my favorite trend in game design, from boardgames, to miniatures, to RPG's. In this case it's a very actual-play friendly version of plotting ahead and I think it's going to be very enjoyable.   

You might think he's going to blast the Nebulon here. He didn't.
My response was "NO NOT THE PRINCESS!" Ah well. 
Combat is fairly simple - that ship card shows you what color of dice you roll in each firing arc and like in X-Wing there are misses, hits, criticals, and a special result. Hits knock down shields (tracked on dials on each side of the ship). Once the shields are down hits start to count and criticals do bad things to your ship and crew beyond just "damage".  

One fun element is that each ship has some defensive maneuvers it can take (the green things on the ship card up there) like bracing for impact, evading, and rerouting shield power. Different ships have different mixes and some of them have conditions on their usage like "only at long range" etc. You can do them once per incoming volley and if you want to use them again in the same turn you effectively burn them out, losing the ability to do that same defense for the rest of the game. They are tracked with counters so you always know what's available. On top of all that the special result on the combat dice allows the attacker to ignore (or turn off) one of the target's defenses. So there's a lot of back and forth consideration when you blast a ship. it doesn't take all that long to resolve but there's a nice set of choices to make between what your ship can do, what the dice are showing, and what your target can do. 

Fighters: Yes they are in the game and they can have an impact but at this scale they are not the main focus. They have a speed rating from 1 to 5 and can move up to that speed in any direction - so there's no need to advance plot them, as it should be. They have a damage rating vs. other fighters and a separate damage rating vs. ships. If you have enough of them they could hurt a ship but I think it would take a lot for that to happen. There's a "screening" rule that if opposing squadrons move into range 1 then they cannot move (it's assumed they're dogfighting) and they can only shoot at other fighters.  A concerted effort to take down the other guy's fighters might leave enough of your own alive to hurt a big ship but I don't know that it's that simple. They feel very ... expendable. The game comes with X-Wing's and basic TIEs and that's enough to get started. The other types for both sides are in expansion boxes as are things like the Falcon, Slave I, the other bounty hunter ships, the Ghost, etc. 

The end of our first game

There are clearly some other influences here in the mechanics. the one I felt the most was Battlefleet Gothic. Chucking a handful of dice for different results, giving special orders to gain bonuses during the turn, and different types of fighter squadrons moving around the board jumping on each other - all of that felt somewhat familiar. That's nice, and yet it plays smoother than BFG did in a lot of ways. There's no pencil and paper tracking either - it's all on the ships via dials or with counters by the ship card. Once it's put together it's pretty nice. 

We've only scratched the surface with our one game but Apprentice Blaster and I both really like it. I think this may have lit our fire more than X-Wing did and we both like X-Wing quite a bit. One of the big deals at cons in the 80's that I can remember was trying to recreate the space battle over Endor. usually with model ships of some kind and some home-brew rules adapted from something else. That old con favorite is now extremely playable - with some investment of course.

The other comment Blaster made during the game was "What of Armada was like this game?" Yeah, I felt it too. This system is such a fit for a Trek game.

Oh look, someone else is looking into this already.

And this:

Lots of inspiration out there. More to come I am sure.

So how did we end up with the game after griping about the price? Well if there's a thing you're interested in you need to check Amazon for it. Their prices change every day. For months they had Armada listed at $60. Leading up to Christmas 2016 it shot up to $80. Then the day after Christmas it dropped to $45. I have no idea why, but at that point I jumped on it and got two sets per the general recommendation. So that's what we're working with for now. I figure since we like it we will pick up a ship or so a month and see how it goes. The no-painting thing with these games means we can add it into the rotation of "stuff we play" without adding a big pile of ships to the painting backlog and that's a pretty big attraction around here. 

1 comment:

Stu Ordana said...

Thank you for reviewing the game. I have been interested in Star Wars Armada since I learned about it but the price has kept me from picking it up.