Sunday, March 3, 2013

X-Wing Miniatures Game

No franchise is more beloved of gamers than Star Wars, and it's actually had a number of pretty good games. My personal favorite is The Queen's Gambit. The two Star Wars adaptations of Risk (Clone Wars and Original Trilogy) are still Risk but surprisingly good, and Clash of the Lightsabers is a nice fast 2-player game that melds euro-y mechanical tightness with a nice thematic detail. The West End and d20 Saga Star Wars RPGs are decent but to me nothing special, and there are still a lot of mediocre games trying to make a quick buck off the license along with the well-intentioned but misguided (Star Warriors), but overall I can't complain. Fantasy Flight has now thrown two new games into the ring (X-Wing and Star Wars: The Card Game), with one more (the official release of the Edge of the Empire RPG) coming soon.

X-Wing was hard for me to know what to make of initially. It's built on a very similar engine to Ares' Wings of Glory (which has mechanically similar, but quite different in feel, WWI and WWII versions). Players simultaneously plot their moves ahead of time, then reveal and execute turns, loops, and whatnot and then fire their weapons. There are enough clear similarities between the games, and my respect for FFG's in-house design team is low enough, that my initial impression was "OK, they just ripped off Wings of Glory" and to proceed to apply similar heuristics for tactics and strategy. Fortunately for gamers and unfortunately for my pilots, it is not. In fact, in terms of where the game is – where the real decisions lie, and what the game tensions are – X-Wing is very distinct from its parent game.

For starters, combat in X-Wing is quite lethal. An off-the-rack TIE fighter can absorb 3 points of damage before exploding in a cinematic fireball. An X-Wing with its 3 attack dice can do that outright one time in 8 – the 8-sided attack dice have hits on half the faces. If your attacker is focussed, the odds increase to almost 50%. If he's Wedge, or locked-on, or a Marksman, or at point-blank range, or all of the above, the odds – which you really need to be told about – keep on increasing. Now, the TIE Fighter is going to get some weaker evasion dice, and he may be spending effort on dodging. Nonetheless, the X-Wing in this confrontation will only need to land one or two blows to take out its target. In Wings of Glory, inflicting the 18 damage points required to take down an Me-109 is likely going to take three or more point-blank shots from a Spitfire.

Where Wings of Glory spends all its attention to detail on hardware differences – the different turning or speed or weapon capabilities of different aircraft – X-Wing is much more focussed on pilot capabilities. The differences in speed and maneuverability between an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter, while not zero, are pretty small compared to the differences between Luke Skywalker and a generic Red Squadron Pilot. The single most crucial performance asymmetry of real ariel warfare that is at the core of the design in both Wings of Glory games – turning radius – varies only slightly across all fighters in X-Wing. The TIE fighter may be slightly faster than the X-Wing, but at a given velocity everyone turns in the same circles, with a few differences on the edges (A-Wings and TIE Fighters have a slower minimum speed so can execute somewhat tighter circles, while Y-Wing pilots take stress for some tight turns).*,** Putting Wedge Antllies in the cockpit, on the other hand, dramatically increases the ship's lethality. 

Lastly, scenarios in X-Wing don't give you an order of battle, instead they give you points (usually 100) with which to buy your forces. The number of available options for spending these points is large, assuming you've invested in a modestly-sized collection. Pilots for your fighters are the big cost, but pilots can also be given special skills (marksmanship, determination), fighters can have additional weaponry added (proton torpedoes, ion cannons, various missiles), and there are more specialized upgrades (R2 units for your X-Wings, and Slave I or the Millennium Falcon can be tricked out with half-a-dozen different options). If like me your perspective is Wings of Glory, you might think "Aha! At last, a point-buy system for getting reasonably balanced match-ups!". But that's not what this is about.

Because of the game's lethality, X-Wing is about big battles. Where in Wings of Glory you would be content with the complexity of controlling 1 or 2 planes, in X-Wing you'll want 3 or 4 or more fighters to stay interested. In Wings of Glory, you'll be primarily concerned about how to maneuver your one or two planes to improve your positional advantage on the one or two enemy planes in your vicinity. In X-Wing, you'll be concerned about how to use your entire squadron such that pilot special abilities and synergies are maximized and any special weaponry you've bought is employed to its best effect. And, crucially, you'll want to spend your 100 points such that your squadron is both tactically coherent and as potent as you can make it.

At the end of the day, X-Wing is a deck-building game with a detailed combat resolution system. I think you will enjoy this in direct proportion to how much you enjoy tricking out your squadron and seeing how it fares in battle. The tactical game is pretty good, but a little random and not, in isolation, enough to be engaging for more than a few plays. But combine it with the fairly rich squadron purchasing system, and now you've got something. You've invested the pre-game energy in your pilots and ships and (probably) developed both a more nuanced tactical view of how it should be employed that may only play out over a few games, as well as something of an emotional attachment to your pilots.

Does all this hew to the feel of Star Wars? Yes-ish, with the caveat that like most classic books and movies, Star Wars speaks in different ways to different viewers. The emphasis on people more than machines is clearly right, although more pictures of people on the card design would have been a no-brainer (and restoring some of the female pilots cut from Return of the Jedi would have been awesome). For me personally though, X-Wing buys into one thing that has always bugged me about Star Wars material not written by George Lucas: it assumes that all the people we see on screen are more competent than everyone who doesn't get name-checked. I always thought the classic stories focussed on Luke and Han and Leia because they were interesting, not because they were the biggest bad-asses in the entire universe. Games, books, and comics frequently assign superpowers that are just not in evidence in the movies, where the humanity and relative ordinariness of the characters is such an important element. In fairness, X-Wing is far from the worst offender here, but it still bugs me a bit that Wedge Antilles has a table presence that vastly exceeds any other Red Squadron pilot. I always thought he was some guy who happened to be Luke's wingman. Both excellent pilots, but really, does the Rebel Alliance have nobody else? These personal feelings aside, X-Wing does do a good job of evoking the feel of the scenes in the movies. Action is fast and furious, combat is capricious unless you've heavily invested in an über-pilot, and the miniatures really are fantastic – very attractive and very faithful to the original models, but durable enough to stand up to the stress of play (the design of the stands themselves isn't that great, but Litko makes a nice replacement if and when something breaks). 

So, generally pretty appealing, but a couple obstacles remain. Firstly is the lack of decent support for multiplayer. 100 point squadrons are borderline OK, with players each taking control of 2-4 ships. Due to the lethality of combat though, someone is bound to have a ship or two knocked out early and face waning interest. It's not bad, but out of the box X-Wing is really optimized for two players and you'll have to make do. Multiplayer really wants specialized scenarios with multiple squadrons on a side, with players buying their own (smaller) forces, possibly with different tasking. This is slightly unfortunate given the possibilities and given how good Wings of Glory is for 4 or more players. (As an aside, when playing multiplayer do not neglect the very important rule that you cannot show your maneuver dials to your allies).

Secondly, do not mistake the point values assigned to various upgrades as a reasonable approximations of their worth. Squadron building requires thought. You can't throw together 100 points of stuff and and figure it'll do OK any more than you can throw together 60 vaguely appropriate Magic cards and expect that deck to perform. There are good and bad buys in the mix, and you can build both very potent and very underpowered ships and squadrons. This is fine – part of the game even – but something casual players who enjoy Wings of Glory may find frustrating. While you won't go too far wrong fielding X-Wings, an off-the-rack Y-Wing is pretty pricey for what you get in most cases, and as such is a specialty ship. Add an Ion Cannon to it and it's a huge hole in your budget unless it's filling an important tactical need. For the Imperials, their fragile TIE fighters require attention to synergizing pilot abilities to be competitive – but a large, finely-tunend Imperial squadron can be a beast.

Thirdly of course is cost. As usual, Fantasy Flight has shipped a core set that is playable only in a technical sense, and is a teaser more then a satisfying game. You're going to need more ships for this to work – my feeling is at least a second core set and a few of the Wave 1 expansion blisters. With big-box games now routinely weighing in at $60 or more it's actually not too bad comparatively and you do get nicely detailed and painted ships, but it can add up. For me, the online prices were palatable, full retail not so much. Fortunately, you're also going to need multiple invested players, so there is no reason you can't pool ships in a regular gaming group.

I quite enjoyed X-Wing, although it took me a little bit to get there. As a long-time Wings of Glory player, the similarities between the games are deceptive and it took some effort to appreciate a rather different game. As an older gamer, it's filling a tricky niche though. It needs multiple players who have bought in enough to have forces available and be willing to spend the up-front time tuning their squadrons. It's not a ton of time, but it is some. It's best as a two-player game until we get some scenarios optimized for multiplayer. It's in the same general niche as Wings of Glory, but it lacks that game's accessibility and easy tactical richness. Having said all that, though, X-Wing is definitely not Wings of Glory, and it brings a very different, richly varied, and exciting experience. And honestly, who doesn't want to fly around authentic, nicely-painted X-Wing miniatures?


* Because the TIE Fighter has the Barrel Roll action available, it can technically turn in a noticeably tighter radius than other ships. Unfortunately, since doing this costs the pilot his action, this comes at the expense of evading or focusing – actions crucial to keeping his fragile ship alive. So it's helpful, especially if it means dodging out of someone's firing arc at the last minute, but not a general-purpose ability. See also the following correction.

** Correction: This sentence originally stated everyone's turn radius is the same. This is not quite true. Everyone uses the same movement templates at any given speed, but not everyone can use the shortest/tightest-radius template. The ability of TIEs and A-Wings to do very tight turns is not insignificant, but it's rather different from (say) knowing that your Spitfire can out-turn opponents at any speed, and its just not as important to the X-Wing design in my opinion. For a look how the different fighters move, check out this file on BGG. Some of the distinctions seem nonsensical (why is a speed 2 sharp turn an easy maneuver for an A-Wing, while a speed 3 is not? Why can the A-Wing and TIE Interceptor do an Immelman – sorry, Koiogran – at speeds 3 and 5 but not 4?).  Who knows. But the system does work, and provides some maneuver differentiation without going crazy.


  1. Having only played two battles using the basic set, I got to enjoy how a pair of tie fighters work well together against a single x-wing. I'm looking forward to playing some games with multiple ships on each side.

  2. I'm a pretty big fan of star wars, but I've actually never played Queen's Gambit. I'll check it out soon!

    I have high hopes based on what you said.