Boardgame Reviews

Star Wars: Armada Review – I Find Your Lack Of Ships Disturbing.

 

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Designed by: James Kniffen and Christian T. Petersen
Published By: Fantasy Flight Games
Players: 2

Game supplied for free by Esdevium Games for the purpose of review.

Having just watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens in cinema it was even easier to become fully immersed on the small battle going on before me in Star Wars: Armada, a tabletop strategy game where classic Star Wars ships duke it out for supremacy and players can construct their own personal fleets, complete with numerous upgrades and famous characters like Luke Skywalker leading the charge. The very idea of using miniatures to do battle tends to make people think of stereotypical geeks hunched over a massive board moving Warhammer troops around, or of old men reenacting historical battles in pin-point detail, both utilising a suit of byzantine rules. It brings to mind dozens of dice, incredible complexity and boredom. The reason Armada works is because it gives us a set of rules that is easy to understand, a license that most of us can relate to, some quality ships that only require “pew pew” sounds to bring them to life, and the very simply goal of blowing everything up. And yet it remains tactically sound, firmly placing victory and defeat in the hands of players with only minimal luck involved. It’s the miniature wargame for people who never thought they’d play a miniature wargame.

At times those simple rules can be problematic as the “Learn to Play” guide glosses over important details or leaves certain things ambiguous, such as whether critical hits also count as regular damage. Even the thicker reference guide leaves a few things unclear. With a bit of common sense and perhaps even a Youtube video or two, though, you’ll have the rules sorted out in no time, leaving you to set your imagination free. And really that’s what Armada does best: it brings to life the classic fantasy of watching huge ships colliding in epic combat. At least, that’s what it should do. I mean, if you love Star Wars then at some point you’ve drooled over the idea of giant capital ships unleashing huge barrages of fire upon each other, and Armada promises this, albeit in a naturally limited form that needs the player’s imagination to work. It promises so much, but ultimately you don’t get it without spending a lot, lot more money.

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Opening the box is both a distinct pleasure and a stinging disappointment. The quality of the main Rebel and Imperial ships is nothing short of amazing, coming pre-painted for ease of play. It’s easy to revel in the detail on the Imperial Star Destroyer, admiring its fine paint job and imagining a tiny Darth Vader strolling around the bridge, force choking those who irritate him. Likewise the Corvette and Frigate that make up the Rebel forces look outstanding, especially against a gaming mat with a space theme. The squadrons that come with the game are considerably less impressive, lacking in both paint and detail, but that’s acceptable.  You can always toss on a bit of paint to spruce them up. The disappointment stems from how much of the box is just empty space. You rip open the packaging expecting the armadas that the game’s very name alludes to, only to discover that there’s a mere three main ships in the Core set, and as beautiful as they are it’s hard not to feel angry at a game marketed as being about massive armadas clashing but coming with just one Imperial ship and two Rebel ships. Of these three ships even the biggest is still only classified as being a medium class ship, while the Rebels field much smaller vessels. C’mon, guys, really? Yes, this is a collectible miniatures game about building your own fleet of ships and thus having to spend more cash to acquire a bigger and more impressive force is to be expected, but this collection of plastic feels pitiful for the hefty asking price.

The rest of the components are of good quality, however. The thee ships come with plastic stands that slot neatly into their bases which have dials on all four sides for tracking shield strength during combat, while a card insert provides information on attack dice. You do have to be careful, though, as the plastic is a touch fragile. I accidentally dropped a ship and while it was perfectly okay the plastic pillar that it slots into was damaged. Nothing a bit of superglue couldn’t fix, though.  The stacks of different cards are all made of nice stock, and things like the command dials feel reasonably durable. The only letdown is the dice which are cheap eight-sided affairs sorely in need of an upgrade.

Setup is a doddle once you’ve got the initially construction of the ships done, but space may be something of a problem. For just the basic tutorial Core set the rulebook recommends an area of 3′ x 3′, expanding to 3′ x 6′ when you’re playing properly, plus room to lay out some cards and other bits and bobs. To my shock even my kitchen table wasn’t up to the challenge, leading me to locate a massive chunk of wood and balance it atop another surface in order to have a good playing area. In other words if you live in a relatively small flat, you may want to ensure you can find the space to actually play Armada before spending the cash. Or just takeover your local pub, who are absolutely sure to be delighted by your constant cries of, “It’s a trap!” The playing area then gets sprinkled with a few obstacles that obstruct firing arcs and damage ships that crash into them. Finally an objective card attempts to bring a touch of story into matches by doing things like tagging a specific ship as being worth more points when destroyed, while navigation cards reward smart movement.

Combat between vessels is handled via the rolling dice, the traditional way of waging war since cavemen first fashioned bone dice and embedded them in clubs to do extra skull-crushing damage. Ships are divided into four different quadrants, with each one sporting its own weapon strength, shielding and firing arc, all of which help serve to differentiate ships from one another. The Imperial Star Destroyer, for example, is able to decimate foes with its powerful frontal firing arc and the fact that it has strong shielding capable of absorbing a lot of damage, but its rear is far weaker with considerably less firepower and much weaker shield, making it vulnerable to flanking moves. To engage a vessel you must first choose which of the four hull zones on your ship is launching the attack and whether the enemy is within its firing arc. Then you must decide which of the four quadrants on the enemy vessel is the target, depending, of course, on whether you have line of sight on them. Bigger firing arcs are nice, but it also makes specific areas of the ship easier to hit, such as that rear end of the Star Destroyer.  Next you must gauge the combat distance using a measuring stick that breaks it down to short, medium and long-range combat distances, with three sets of three dice apiece being used depending on the range. Black dice represent close-quarters combat and do the most damage, while blue dice are for medium and red are for distant shots. At the shortest range all three dice type can be used, while medium range uses red and blue, and the longest range only uses red dice. Each ship has different dice available depending on its type. By default, for example, the Imperial Star Destroyer has access to red and blue dice, but doesn’t have any close-range weapons, so while it can certain do battle close-up it won’t be as effective at it as a ship that boasts devastating close-quarters black dice. Furthermore different hull zones affect the dice available, replicating how a ship’s weapons vary, so again in the case of the Star Destroyer the front zone is capable of unleashing hell with a barrage of three red dice and three blue dice, while the rear is less deadly at just two red dice.

To damage the enemy hull and eventually annihilate the target you must first whittle down the shielding on any given zone. To counter incoming fire ships have access to expendable defensive tokens than can be used to redirect damage to adjacent hull zones, cancel incoming fire by evading it and even brace to help reduce the destruction. The attacker can counter these by rolling accuracy icons on their dice which let them pick a token and make it unusable during that attack.  Once the shielding is taken out damage is done directly to the hull by drawing face-down cards from the damage deck, and naturally when the amount of cards total the ship’s hull amount it is destroyed. Meanwhile critical hits are taken in the form of face-up cards that carry potentially massive penalties that can do things like knock out long-range combat abilities or even make changing speed a risky proposition.

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Movement of these massive flying tubs is handled brilliantly, asking you to plan out your course while accounting for the momentum of your ship, meaning you’ve to consider a few moves ahead or else risk flying straight off the playing area, or into a deadly enemy attack.  To move you whip out the fantastic thingy-movement-stick-thing-sticky-thingymajig, or maneuvering tool as it’s actually known, and lay it down on the playing surface, lining up the nubs on the side so that they connect to the appropriate place on the base of the ship. Along the top of this magical stick resides numbers ranging from zero to four which represent the different speeds ships can travel at.  A ship must always move according to its speed and cannot simply opt to not move unless it has been brought to a standstill, which is where plotting out a route ahead of time comes into play. The Imperial Star Destroyer can only get up to a sedate speed of two, but the Rebel forces are much faster, with one ship capable of travelling at a speed of four, which is great for scooting around but also means that it has to move quite far every turn.  In my first game I completely forgot to account for the fact that no matter what was going on my ships would always have to move their alloted distance, and wound up in a few very awkward situations because of it. The maneuvering stick also has four joints that can be clicked left and right. This is used to turn ships as they move across the playing area, with each vessel  having a chart on its card that dictates how many clicks each joint can be adjusted at any given speed. Unsurprisingly in most cases ships become less agile the faster they are travelling through space. It’s a smart mechanic because it allows for different vessels to have unique handling characteristics without the need for numerous movement templates, as seen in Fantasy Flight Games other Star Wars space game X-Wing. Furthermore the nature of the system means you can frequently see disasters and triumphs coming a turn or even three ahead of time, leading to fantastic moments as you visualise the destruction of your Star Destroyer as it slowly but inevitably flies into an ambush, or realise that you’re going to hurtle straight into some asteroids.

Aside from  mentally calculating each ships course ahead of time to avoid collisions you need also plan out commands that can confer powerful bonuses.  To do this you need to pick up a command dial and spin it around to the order of your choice. A navigation commands lets you adjust speed and add an extra click to a joint on the maneuvering tool; a concentrate fire command improves your combat capability by adding an extra die; activating squadrons lets you move nearby squadrons and attack with them, whereas normally they can do one or the other, and finally an engineering command lets you repair your ship based upon its engineering level. The catch is that these commands are made in secret and then hidden until a ships activation. But  bigger ships require you to stack command dials, with the top dial being revealed upon a ship’s activation. In the case of the Imperial Star Destroyer you need to have three commands stacked, so at the start of the game you pick up three command dials and attempt to judge where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing three turns in advance, simulating the vast chain of command that massive warship has. Each turn you’ll take the command dial you just used and issue a new order before placing it back on the bottom of the stack. By comparison the Rebel ships in the Core set are able to react quicker to emerging threats, altering their plans on the fly in a way that reflects their more roughshod methods compared to the Empire’s strict procedures. Should you not want to use a command you can opt to take a token instead that can be used at anytime but will provide a far weaker effect. Take the Concentrate Fire command token; rather than letting you add a die to an attack, the token merely lets you reroll one die. It’s a clever system, and when combined with the movement system it forces players to carefully consider their strategies before committing entirely to the plan, without leaving them entirely screwed if it all goes wrong.

With ships able to attack twice in a turn, although they cannot shot twice from the same hull zone, and the combat phase coming before movement a lot of emphasis is placed on analysing the battle and correctly positioning ships to not only take full advantage of being able to fire twice at either one or two enemies but also to keep your strongest shields between you and the opponent while targeting their weakest area. Combined with the command system and the ways ships move it all serves to create a game that demands you consider every move and attack well before it happens, making this fascinating blend of back and forth action as each player tries to out-think the other. Plans are constantly concocted, executed, abandoned, revisited and modified.

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It’s not all about the capital ships, however, as the Rebels have four X-Wing squadrons to consider while the Empire fields six squads of TIE fighters. While you can activate squadrons early in a turn using the appropriate command, most of the time they are used during the Squadron phase after moving and shooting with the larger vessels. The maneuvering tool isn’t used for these guys, rather they’re scooted across the playing area using the other side of the measuring tool normally used to determine combat distance. Combat between squadrons is also simplified as there’s no hull zones or shields to consider, instead Tie Fighters and X-Wings are classified as “engaged” if they’re within a distance measurement of one of each other, and while engaged can’t move away from the fight. Dice are simply rolled with critical hits and accuracy icons counting for nothing until one squad or the other dies, with a few special rules thrown in for good measure, such as how Tie Fighters can reroll one dice by using their Swarm ability. They are also capable of attacking capital ships, and while they usually can’t do substantial damage they can certainly make an impact if left unchecked, especially the X-Wings since they have the Bomber ability which lets them resolve critical hits, too. By the same token capital ships can also fire at squadrons, although with nowhere near the same degree of firepower they can bring to bear against another ship.

Before fielding your fleet you can also deck ships out leaders, improved weapons, better personnel and more. Both sides can field a fleet commander who is assigned to a single ship which becomes your Flagship and therefore something of a target, as destroying it destroys the commander, rendering that powerful ability useless. On top of that ships can also be equipped with a variety of different upgrades that fall into several categories such as ordinance, support teams and defensive retrofits. An upgrade can only be installed if the ship has a matching icon, and a further limitation is that some cards can only be used by either the Rebels or Empire. Handy upgrades include things like close-range Concussion Missiles for the Star Destroyer that will also damage adjacent shields upon a critical hit with a close-range black dice.  You could also take along an Enhanced Armament that adds an extra red die to broadside attacks, or an Expanded Hangerbay so that you can activate more squadrons when using a squadron command. There’s also Title Upgrade Cards that essentially turn a standard ship into a named vessel from Star Wars lore, such as the Dominator. This also bestows extra abilities, so in the case of the Dominator it can sacrifice shielding to increase attack power, a risky proposition that can nevertheless turn the tide of a fight when used correctly. Even squadrons can get a boost from leaders, which in the Core set is Luke Skywalker for the Rebels and Howlrunner for the Empire, with Luke boasting the powerful ability to ignore shields when bombing capital ships, making those X-wings a real threat to the Empire.  The final detail to consider is that ships come in two variants with altered stats for each. You could take a more ranged ship over its close-quarters counterpart, or perhaps favor the extra squadron rating to make better use of the swarms of fighters.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Core Set of Star Wars: Armada is lackluster experience, a meagre glimpse of what the game can and should be like. With even just one more ship apiece for each side battles are far more interesting and dynamic. The lack of content in the core set combined with the fact that there isn’t even enough dice for a lot of rolls or a second movement tool makes it feel…well, cheap, especially when you consider that a dice pack can be bought separately, as can an extra tool. It also creates a very limited tactical landscape. Most battles involve the two Rebel ships heading left and right in order to force the Star Destroyer to focus on just one ship while the other flanks. The Imperial tactic is to simply corner a ship and attempt to keep it in the front firing arc since that’s where the most powerful weapons are. Meanwhile on the squadron front the Imperial goal is to use the Tie Fighters to swarm and decimate the more powerful X-Wings so that they can’t launch raids on the Star Destroyer. The limited roster of ships that almost every game played out in this manner, with some deviation but nothing major. Likewise the small set of upgrades cards provide the smallest glimpse into the myriad of tactical choices available with a larger roster of ships. Each side has one fleet commander, and the upgrades are designed so that they can all be applied and will come to exactly the same point total for each faction. There’s a single squadron type per faction, too. Again, there’s very little room in the Core set for players to flex their grey matter.

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And yet there’s also getting around the fact that it’s a supremely fun game to play, even with its less than armada sized armadas. A good demo should leave players wanting more, but at the same time leave them feeling as though they’ve got a good idea of what the game is truly like when its in full swing. The Core set fails at this second part, but it certainly left me wanting much more. This brings us to the horrible topic of price, because Armada is not a cheap game to invest in. The Core Set runs anywhere between £50-70, depending on where you buy from, while outfitting both the Imperials and the Rebels with one big, new ship each, such as an Imperial Star Destroyer and Home One, will hit you for around another £50-60. Some smaller ships and packs of squadrons cost around £15-25 apiece. As always money won’t affect my final judgement because value is a very subjective thing, but I have to say that these prices are frankly absurd. £35 for an Imperial class Star Destroyer feels entirely too much. Yes, it looks amazing and you get new upgrade cards to play with, but that’s a lot of cash for a lump of plastic. If you have friends interested in collecting the game, too, and you only want to focus on one faction over the other then that brings the cost down, but if you want to maintain a balance between both factions for when a mate comes round then it’s going to cost a lot.

This all serves to make it difficult to form a decisive opinion, because I’m supposed to be reviewing the Core Set and not Armada in its entirety, especially since I don’t have access to the wave 1 and wave 2 expansions. On that basis the Core set feels like an expensive demo, a gateway to a brilliant game but only for those willing to part with a lot of money on top of what they’ve already spent. I can’t help but feel that Final Flight Fantasy, the game’s developers, have potentially restricted their own audience thanks to these high price points. The fact that the Core set doesn’t even contain enough dice is a slap in the face. But the rules themselves so clearly make for something special and the models are so enticingly beautiful that I’m hooked, and find myself looking forward to every battle. Nor can I wait to get my hands on some new ships to see if I’m correctly about the Core set merely being a glimpse of what the game really has to offer. In other words I’m recommending Star Wars: Armada as a whole, or really as an addiction, rather than the Core Set in itself. I know, I know, that does go against my own methods which dictate I review the product and the product only, not its expansions, DLC, add-ons, updates, changes or anything else. The Core Set is fun and you’ll enjoy each match, but it’ll grow old quite quickly. By then, though, it will be too late for you.

Reco

 

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