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Month: June, 2016

X-Wing Minis Game after 10ish plays (with kids).

After 10ish plays, the X-Wing Miniatures Game goes from strength to strength. It’s easy to pick up, strategically deep, and tactically engrossing (there’s always something interesting to do, and no downtime) — better yet, there’s a vibrant community online and in person, and no shortage of interesting ‘metagame’ concerns, i.e. what the other nerds are flying these days, to occupy you when you’re not at the table. My son loves it, I love it.

It feels like the perfect starter miniatures wargame.

Read my earlier post so I don’t have to repeat the basics.

OK:

On the shelf, it looks like a dogfighting game, and it is; with most lists in a balanced game, you can’t win if you don’t fly skillfully. But it’s also a modern tabletop game played on a 3’x3′ area of your dinner table and aimed at kids raised on Pokémon — which means movement can only make so much difference, expert play is about synergy between ships and upgrades most of all, and building the right list for your playstyle (or adapting the latter to the former) makes all the difference to your chances.

What we’ve bought

There are three factions: the Rebels, the Empire, and ‘Scum & Villainy’ (bounty hunters, smugglers, ne’er-do-wells of every stripe from the Expanded Universe and games). If you’re just dipping your toes into the game and wanna go beyond the Core Set, buy a small number of Rebel/Imperial ships and leave the smaller, less immediately recognizable Scum faction to the hardcore.

The Core Sets include an X-Wing and two TIE Fighters, which is a pretty even match; there are subtle differences between the original box and and the Force Awakens box. If you’re thinking of trying the game, grab the TFA box, which runs $25ish on Amazon ($40 in stores) and gives you three useful ships, up-to-date rules, and damage cards; the original box includes Luke’s T-65 X-Wing, which doesn’t see much action in organized play — but then c’mon, it’s Luke Skywalker for heaven’s sake! You’ll do well either way.

If you want to move on from the Core Set, buy a second box — if you have the TFA box, grab the original, and vice versa. (Though goofy, this is standard advice for new players.) Here’s why: you’ll need more dice than a single box contains, and the Core Set is an extraordinary value for the money. Plus you’ll be able to fly a swarm of four TIE Fighters against Poe and Luke. If you like Star Wars, that should set your heart racing.

My son generally flies Rebels. We’ve bought a couple more ships this week, and now have the super-maneuverable but lightweight A-Wing, a wonderfully robust B-Wing (both from the Rebel Aces set), an E-Wing (the maneuverability of an A-Wing on an X-Wing-like frame), a sturdy reliable Y-Wing, and of course Han Solo’s YT-1300. The latter two fly differently from the other dogfighting ships: both feature turrets which fire in a 360-degree arc, which makes life much easier on a young pilot. I’ve decided that the Falcon is an ideal ship for kids, because while it’s not very agile (i.e. it’s bad at avoiding damage through defensive dice rolls), it can take a pounding and keep flying, and it can be flown right through the middle of the battle without too much fancy stickwork. The Y-Wing takes more thought to fly skillfully.

I think our Rebel ships are a little more forgiving for young kids than the Imperials — low agility (defense dice) but high shields (hit points) makes for an exciting health countdown but decent survivability.

I’m usually playing the highly maneuverable but generally more fragile Imperial fighters. In addition to the Imperial Aces set (two wickedly fast, fragile TIE Interceptors), four TIE Fighters (Poe was right: they really move, and a swarm of TIEs is a magnificent sight on the table, but a single well-timed shot can turn them into dust), and Boba Fett’s surprisingly fleet large ship Slave-1, we’ve picked up the TIE Advanced package, which gives you Darth Vader, who gets two actions per turn and is in theory an absolute terror. Only ‘in theory,’ though, because The TIE Advanced is considered ‘broken’ without the point-cost fixes included in the $100 Imperial Raider set — we’re not obsessives, so for casual play just implement the fix yourself without buying the damn cards. What’s the point of a Star Wars game without its iconic villain, after all?

Initial purchases: casual vs competitive play

If you’re just starting out, buy the ships you like and don’t worry about what’s competitive! That stuff only matters if you’re heading out to the local game store for a tournament or open play night.

The Core Set(s), the Falcon, a Y-Wing or B-Wing, and a couple of TIE variants (e.g. the Imperial Aces set) will make for a good time and give you a variety of choices to make on each side. Large ships handle differently from small ones, but the mechanics of maneuver-template placement are the same — it’s an easy jump, even for kids, who’ll likely prefer the big ships anyway. I’d stay away from the TIE Phantom at first, especially if you’re playing with kids; its cloaking device will frustrate young players and adds a decent amount of mental overhead for whoever’s flying.

Don’t bother with huge ships (the Blockade Runner, the Rebel Transport from Empire Strikes Back) unless you’re an obsessive collector; they hardly see organized store play, add a bunch of additional rules, and really want an extra-large table space anyhow.

If you know you’re going to compete, there are plenty of ‘What to Buy First/Next’ guides online — ‘Bell of Lost Souls’ and ‘Team Covenant’ are good strategy sites (here’s an example of a deep dive on list-building from TC), and there’s a very helpful Reddit guide on this score. But so’s you know, diving in for competitive play means buying something on the order of $150-200 worth of expansions just to get the Ideal Mix of Pilots and Upgrades; some of the most desirable upgrades, for instance, come with Scum ships, and even if you’re not flying a Scum list you’ll end up buying one or more of several ships you won’t end up flying.

This is a very expensive game for hardcore players.

For everyone else, I recommend doing what my son and I did: buy what looks cool and don’t try to optimize for competitive advantage. Maybe grab the Aces expansions, which are good values at two ships apiece, and/or a large ship on each side. (The VT-49 Decimator is an Imperial answer to the Falcon, with no defense dice — it can’t dodge hits without help from the cards — and huge hit points. But it’s less iconic than Slave-1, so maybe less fun in that sense.) Stay away from the Lambda-Class Shuttle at first; it’s a utility vehicle rather than a primary attack ship, and calls for a subtler approach than run’n’gun Imperial ships.

If you’re like me, eventually you’ll want duplicates. (I haven’t yet succumbed.) Swarms of A-Wings in tight formation, a trio of B-Wings looping through enemy airspace, Luke/Wedge/Biggs/Porkins bearing down on a flight of TIE Fighters…if those words don’t give you a tingle than you and I were brought up differently. In terms of point costs (not dollar value), Z-95 Headhunters and A-Wings make for cheap swarms, and six or seven TIE Fighters are still dangerous (chewing up opponent actions with a hail of concentrated attacks), while you wouldn’t field more than a couple of TIE Interceptors at a time. Don’t start buying duplicates until you’ve gotten good use out of your Core Set(s), though.

‘Action economy,’ strategy, investment

The term ‘action economy’ comes up often in nerdy game chatter. Broadly, it refers to the dynamics of player actions per turn. The Tutorial rules for X-Wing only involve moving and shooting — but once you’re into the full game, and especially once you start piling up upgrade cards, action economy is everything.

(Historical note: the most popular and influential example of this style of game design is Magic: The Gathering, with its dead-simple basic mechanics and synergizing cards which break a rule or two apiece, but the crazy grandpa of M:TG is Cosmic Encounter, a highly social strategy game and one of the greatest entertainments known to our species. If you’ve never played Cosmic with three or four friends and several bottles of wine, you owe it to yourself to seek out that experience.)

In X-Wing, each ship gets one maneuver, one action, and one shot per turn as a default. Because a ship’s combat effectiveness doesn’t diminish as it takes damage, this means you’ll always concentrate fire on individual targets when possible; it’s much better to aim four guns at one target and take it off the board, reducing the enemy’s ability to return fire, than to spread damage out over four targets and still take four shots on the next go-round. Moreover, say you’re in a 3-on-3 match, and you point all your blasters at one enemy ship: unless she’s got some way of passing actions between ships, she can only alter one defensive dice roll with a token — having spent it, she has to survive the other two attacks with unmodified dice, while the attacking ships’ll be using target locks and focus tokens to improve their odds of hitting. Concentrating fire is one simple way of playing to the action economy. It’s wargaming 101.

But!

Individual pilot/upgrade cards ‘break’ the action economy rules in small ways, and a lot of tactical play revolves around manipulating your opponent’s action economy or your own. Vader, for instance, gets two actions per turn, but it’s sometimes more useful to pass that spare action around with the Squad Leader upgrade. The B-Wing ‘ace,’ Keyan Farlander, gets to convert his stress tokens to focus tokens when he attacks, so he effectively gets an extra action every time he makes a high-stress maneuver like a 180-degree turn, which would normally prevent the pilot from taking an action that turn. That’ll change the way your B-Wings fly relative to other ships. The Fire Control System upgrade allows a ship to acquire a target lock (which can be spent to reroll attack dice) immediately after shooting — a free action which frees the player up to concentrate on ‘focus’ (boost hit/evade chances on attack and defense rolls) and ‘evade’ (extra defense) actions. Push the Limit, a very popular upgrade card, lets you take a stress token to buy an extra action right now, altering the turn-to-turn flow of the game.

And it gets more complicated if your pilot’s special ability triggers an upgrade card which generates an additional action which allows a nearby ship to take another action which…

If you watch videos of high-level X-Wing play (which is more fun than it sounds), top players are routinely averaging more than one action per ship for long stretches. That’s one big reason why competitive play is so different from casual — the action economy is central to, as they say, ‘the maths,’ and addressing probabilities directly by manipulating the flow of player actions is levels beyond the standard fly/focus/fire of beginning play. This is where the money goes, really: into powerful ship/card combinations which allow you to play a qualitatively different game from your opponent. An ‘arc-dodging’ ship with a bonus action can boost (take an additional short banking turn or forward move) and barrel roll (slide sideways) to get out of enemy firing arcs. A hit-point-heavy tank can combine focus and evade tokens to ensure near-invulnerability under heavy fire. A support ship like the Imperial shuttle (or ‘space cow’) can hang back and soak up allies’ stress tokens, granting them the rough equivalent of a boost action each turn and making the entire fleet more maneuverable at low cost.

This stuff isn’t in the rules anywhere, and it’s not obvious from looking at the most basic cards — the opportunities for ship/card synergy only become clear when you look at multiple sets at once.

Which is why X-Wing gets much deeper and more enjoyable the more you invest in it — ‘invest’ here meaning both time and money. This is the great innovation of ‘German-style’ board games and M:TG-descended American games: the idea that very simple rules, graspable by kids, can support complex strategies and a long learning curve without requiring the gigantic player buy-in of, say, classic hex-based wargames of the 70s and 80s. That mix of immediate playability and serious depth, characteristic of the best games of the last couple decades, is one reason why X-Wing seems to be the bestselling minis game in America right now — the others being the Star Wars name, obviously, and the fact that you don’t have to paint the gorgeous minis to start playing.

Logistics

Speaking of those minis: I bought these two Stanley organizers from Amazon and a 2-inch sheet of Pick’n’pluck Battlefoam at the Compleat Strategist in Boston. (The foam is too tall for the short organizer, almost certainly taller than I needed, but it’s what they had.) I grabbed a bunch of tiny compartments from the shallower organizer to hold tokens during games, picked’n’plucked foam like a madman for an hour or so, and ended up with a superb organizational solution that keeps the ships well protected, easily stores every card and token and movement template etc., but — this is a small thing that does, I confess, matter to me — still looks cobbled-together and not particularly nerdy.

Pick’n’pluck foam is incredible. It just works. Caveat: make sure you spend some time laying out your minis to get a dense packing arrangement.

I considered buying a proper battlemat, which is essentially a 3′ square mousepad, but decided that $40-50 was too much to spend. Instead I found an extra-large yoga mat for just over $20, cut it carefully in half, and made a ‘starfield’ with a silver Sharpie. Looks good, works vastly better than a bare tabletop (no sliding or bumping), and cost half as much as a proper mat. The surface is less perfect for the task than the expensive mat, but I’m totally satisfied.

Be warned that X-Wing requires a large table space! You need a 3’x3′ space for the mat itself (that’s the size of a proper game), with probably 6″ of clearance on two sides for cards, templates, tokens, whiskey, etc.

Our local nerd store has smallish tables to accommodate M:TG play, but they offer huge portable minis tabletops for 40K and such, which are ideal. If you have a small table, this lightweight foldable presentation board is a near-perfect solution, except that it’s so light you’ll surely bump it around, and will therefore need to think about how to keep it stable. (Ask your local science grad student where she got her display board.)

Actually I’m gonna buy one of those boards this week.

Examples of play

X-Wing videos are a great way to figure out the dynamics of the game. Team Covenant has the best production values and surprisingly charming, earnest announcers. (OK now look. There are very very few women in the X-Wing community. The TC announcers are very much dudes, which is fine — dudes are people too — but when it comes to the speech patterns and inflections of nerdboys, forewarned is forearmed. That said, announcer Zach Bunn is particularly knowledgeable, and the hosts’ periodic outbursts of gratitude and affection for the X-Wing community are heartwarming.)

Here’s a 2015 World semifinals match. The three-time champ, Paul Heaver, is extraordinarily good at every aspect of the game. In this video he’s flying a ‘stress hog’ Y-Wing, piling stress onto his targets and interfering with his opponent’s action economy. The challenger, Jeremy Howard, is flying a ‘Palp Aces’ list — two high-pilot-skill Imperial aces and a shuttle with Emperor Palpatine to soak up stress tokens and modify attack dice left and right. Just look at how many tokens all the ships have the whole game — these are carefully optimized lists.

Here’s a mirror match from the 2016 Hoth Open (I think it’s the USA national championships) between Palp Aces lists using Whisper, a cloaking TIE Phantom that gets a focus token after every hit. Superb piloting here, and a handy demonstration of the importance of both human error and ‘pew pew’ noises.

And finally, Nathan Eide, a 16-year-old(?) kid, flying a triple Imperial Aces list against three Jumpmaster 5000 behemoths. From my viewing, Nathan is the best tactical pilot on the scene — younger and more error-prone than Heaver, not surprisingly, but vastly more entertaining to watch. I don’t care for Jumpmasters, but honestly I don’t have a sense of what it takes to fly them well, whereas the dynamics of Imperial aces make sense to me. Either way, this match features two very different lists, which is handy.

In sum

Buy the Core Set. It’s a blast. My wife likes it, my son loves it, and I — well, we’re well past 5,000 words on the subject. You know what I think.

Irreal Life Top Ten, June 2016.

  1. William Steig, THE REAL THIEF (1975): Nominally for children — but more sophisticated in language, story structure, and moral outlook than kids are used to today — this is the story of a palace guard wrongly accused of thievery and the titular real thief, an abject soul every bit as sympathetic as the guard. (Spoilers follow.) The guard’s friends turn on him despite his obvious innocence, and the guilt-ridden thief returns the stolen treasure to clear his name; then he has to go find the guard, who’s in hiding. Their meeting is an extraordinary scene: the guard immediately forgives the thief, because the real villains are his so-called ‘friends.’ Together they agree never to reveal the thief’s identity. The rendering of the thief’s descent into compulsive criminality is believable and harrowing, and the inner life of the guard is vivid and immediately recognizable. Steig’s deft illustrations help bring the story to life, but it’s the writing — compact, insightful, slyly funny — which carries the day. The final sentence is a ‘happy ending’ on par with The Princess Bride. This is a beautiful book.
  2. ‘Video sports’: First of all, don’t call them that — they’re games, not sports, unless those words are to mean nothing at all. But thanks to my burgeoning X-Wing obsession, I finally understand the appeal of watching livestreams of nerds playing games. The danger, of course, is that the commentators will tend to be emotionally crippled manchildren with all the subtlety of humour that God in Her wisdom granted a piece of rotten fruit. The upside is that mainstream tabletop games have gotten extremely sophisticated in the last twenty years (thanks, Klaus Teuber et al.!) and video games are now every inch as ‘cinematic’ as the shit movies they’re stealing their visuals from (and donating their attenuated moral senses to). This high-level X-Wing match is a lovely bit of light comedy featuring two friends flying identical spaceship fleets. They go for each other’s throats and enthusiastically hug at the end. The commentators are personable and reasonably articulate and know the game backwards and forwards. We live in a dark age, but this is good news.
  3. Clinton: Her reputation was salvaged by her stint as Sec’y of State — though I’m sure the number of people who can name an actual accomplishment during her tenure is statistically equivalent to zero, and I’ve heard sound arguments that her job performance was anywhere from middling to disastrous. But she’ll receive an even bigger reputational boost from simple contrast with Trump. We’ve known for a while how this would go down: anyone the GOP could possibly nominate would be humiliated on the debate stage by the oiliest (and now most experienced) of Dem candidates, and the Trump nomination was the undreamt-of best possible outcome for Clinton. Now she has an delusional moron to run against. She is smart and ruthless, as transparently self-serving as Obama said, a shockingly inept campaigner — I hope she says a prayer of gratitude every morning for her opponent. She will win ugly, Trump’s political career will be over. And we’ll keep drinking neoliberal poison for eight years while the sea levels rise. There is, of course, one small danger: if something goes wrong for Clinton during this campaign, the upsurge in fascist sympathies may bring about open streetside conflict not seen since 1968.
  4. Sanders: He’d have been a terrible president. (Everyone gets that, right? The man’s admirable, moral, more thoughtful about foreign policy than he’s given credit for, but his own party would’ve had him running uphill both ways to use the goddamn bathroom, never mind the Republicans — and try to imagine a Sanders TV address on 9/11/01.) Yet we need to say it over and over or it will be true forever: by dint of his political beliefs rather than his sex or gender, Sanders had the harder race to run. And he came dangerously close to winning despite lacking even a single structural advantage (ignore the eagerly self-clowning Josh Marshall et al. when they snark that the caucus system is ‘rigged’ in favour of insurgent candidates). The essential Sanders postmortem right now is Matt Taibbi’s furious piece on Dems learning the wrongest possible lessons from this primary season — bookmark that page, by the way, since it’ll apply in 2020 as well, assuming Clinton’s serious health problems don’t recur before then.
  5. Max Richter, SLEEP: New Age music for the New Yorker crowd. Beautiful, then boring, then beautiful again as it pushes past ‘interest’ into simple coexistence — then boring all over again, this time for the rest of its eight-hour runtime, assuming you can bear to listen to more than an EP’s worth of orchestral swells and closing-montage piano chords. I haven’t tried sleeping with Sleep on the stereo, but by process of elimination it must be perfect for the task; after all, there’s little point having it on while you’re awake.
  6. GAME OF THRONES and VEEP: Two years ago you could make a case for these as HBO’s best shows: Veep, a merciless comedy about the venomous incompetence of Washington, boasts a couple of TV’s best comic performances and Armando Ianucci’s signature subtle comedy (which masquerades as a stream of profane insults but reveals its depth at quieter moments), and GoT was compulsively watchable even for those of us who realized how much richer the books were in every way. Both shows have missed the mark this season, though — oddly enough, for the same reason: they’ve had to go beyond their creators’ visions. GoT showrunners Benioff and Weiss are working without a complete book of George Martin’s to base the season on, and while they can still write a strong scene, they have neither Martin’s ambition nor his skill at crafting serial storylines. And they can’t begin to approach the scope of the books’ myth-history or social texture, its step-by-step depiction of the simultaneous rise of several forms of religious fundamentalism throughout Westeros and Essos… There’s a lot more fanservice and lurid nonsense in this season of the show, more big pointless declarations, more coincidence, and fewer moments of unexpected connection and revelations of vast scope. The first few episodes were merely stupid; it’s picked up somewhat, but the pacing’s been inconsistent and the Dramatic Plotty Bits (e.g. Daenerys’s tiresome born-in-fire rerun) haven’t quite hit. Meanwhile Veep has simply lost its verbal wit and its subtlety of characterization; it’s currently just a funny workplace sitcom. It’s surely too simple to blame the missteps on the showrunner transition from Ianucci (a cerebral Scot) to an American who worked on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I suspect the show has fallen prey to that old TV curse: they no longer have a Genius in the Writers’ Room. If you don’t believe me, watch a random episode from Seasons 2-4. Same with Game of Thrones, by the way (Season 5 featured some extraordinary cinema (Hardhome!) but was marred by e.g. Benioff & Weiss’s utterly cack-handed Dorne storyline, while Seasons 2-4 were as good as their word).
  7. Pulse: I’m writing about these other things because the news this week is horrible, and (even more horrible) no longer unexpected. My heart breaks for the families of the victims in Orlando. I don’t want to dwell on the rage I feel about the hypocrisy and capitulation of ‘sophisticated’ observers quick to pretend these murders were solely about American TV and not a specific murderous form of fundamentalist religious insanity. Talking about TV, or TV characters like Donald Trump, is easier at the moment than facing the horror of 50 dead and 50 wounded and millions terrorized. Forgive my lack of nerve.
  8. Luttwak on fascism: His LRB essay ‘Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future,’ once ‘merely’ sobering, is now terrifying: ‘A vast political space is thus left vacant by the Republican/Tory non-sequitur, on the one hand, and moderate Left particularism and assistentialism, on the other … [T]hat is the space that remains wide open for a product-improved Fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the Fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.’
  9. Adulthood = childhood + discretionary income: The website narrative.ly ran a piece by an aspiring novelist, if memory serves, about how she was afraid to confess to her husband that she collected My Little Pony toys and did My Little Pony cosplay and went to My Litle Pony Conventions and so forth, but then she told him and he didn’t actually care because he collects stupid video game stuff. The deep message — being honest is important — is a banal but useful reminder. The surface content is deeply disturbing. I don’t actually object to adults liking children’s stories, not at all. I object weakly to adults filling their houses with children’s toys, but I recognize that this isn’t so different from filling a house with, say, statuettes of the Virgin Mary, which would seem weird and excessive but not contemptible. I strongly object, however, to the idea that the best use of adult time and money is reliving childhood fixations. Increasingly, the American ideal of ‘adulthood’ is about the freedom to ‘explore (and/or express) your identity’ rather than the obligation to join the community body — and the notion that your identity is what you own is so deeply ingrained that this woman is, as Freddie de Boer points out, the norm. She’s living the dream: her husband helps her surround herself with a fantasy of eternal childhood, and she gets an NYT byline out of it. Funny thing about that fantasy, though: among other things, it’s a recipe for absolute political apathy and cultural atomization. Which is another big reason Maria Cook and her My Little Ponies are in narrative.ly and you’re not.
  10. There is no ten.

The X-Wing Miniatures Game.

This is my new gaming obsession. Dad-gaming report first, then some more general observations about the game.

Playing X-WING with kids

My son and I bought X-Wing at Pandemonium (our FLGS in Central Square) for the obvious reasons:

  • It’s absolutely beautiful on the table — easily the most aesthetically satisfying tabletop game I’ve ever played
  • It’s Star Wars
  • It’s shockingly cheap considering the quality of the components; Fantasy Flight absolutely knocked this one out of the park

But also for a couple of nonobvious ones:

  • The Quick Start Rules present a radically simplified version of the game, which isn’t deep enough to sustain adult play but which is absolutely perfect for little kids — my son, not yet six years old, picked it up instantly (and loved it, which is the main reason we bought the game)
  • The game’s rules are layered such that you can add a couple of subsystems at a time atop the Quick Start rules
  • Upgrade cards, the heart of the squad-building game or ‘meta,’ can be added in small doses, allowing for good control over the complexity of the game

The importance of the last two points to parents can’t be overstated. Our very first Quick Start game was intoxicating mostly because Luke Skywalker was flying against two TIE Fighters on the table right in front of us, but in our second game we only added rules for blaster range, obstacles, and barrel rolls (but not Focus/Evade/Target Lock actions). Critical hits we just counted as two regular hits. This kept things novel for me and manageable for my son. (Also, see below about the organization of the game docs.)

The full ruleset is a little too complex for a 5yo to grasp all at once. After a half-dozen or more games, my son can’t yet keep track of all the moving parts and suffers from the usual kid attention span problems around the half-hour mark. But he’s now aware of the various subsystems and still really digs the game. So we have momentum going into the next half-dozen games.

In short, if you can resist the urge to buy every single ship and can figure out which rules add manageable complexity and fun to the Quick Start, this is a perfect game for kids — and should stay engaging for a long time as they grow into the rules and start picking up expansions.

Some other games we’ve played

I’ve only played two games of Magic: The Gathering, using prebuilt dueling decks. It was obvious why people love it, but the ‘meta’ — the deckbuilding aspect along with the realtime social dimension, i.e. what decks and combos are being played competitively this year — is forbidding. True, there are M:TG formats that allow you to compete without spending too much. But ranked players need to spend a lot of money and an enormous amount of time (and study!) to keep up. And the aesthetics of M:TG are essentially nonexistent: the game quickly turns into a series of math problems, with ‘theme’ little more than a mnemonic aid.

(Dominion has that latter quality too. The genius of Dominion is that it moves deckbuilding to the table and eliminates the collectible/’meta’ aspect, so that competitive and casual Dominion player are separated by expertise and not income. The core mechanics of Dominion were of the ‘brilliant, and in retrospect obvious and inevitable’ sort; the game can’t be overpraised, I think, though it’s lost a bit of geek currency as other games have built on its innovations.)

My son and I have played a few games of the Pokemon CCG. It’s fun enough — another very solid kids’ game — but is much less deep and interesting than M:TG, and certainly doesn’t compel me like Dominion. Honestly, it feels like a knockoff. I lost interest in it right away, and my son was more interested in looking at the cards than in playing more games.

The appeal of expansions

I bought a handful of additional ships right after we started with the X-Wing Core Set, so we only had to make do with the original box for maybe three games. But I’m sure that with the full rules and the range of pilots and upgrades included in the set, you could easily play eight or ten games without getting bored. That’s fantastic value for money, especially if you buy it on Amazon (~$25; we got ours at the FLGS because we like people and Jeff Bezos is scum, but YMMV).

We now own both Core Sets — Luke vs two TIE Fighters, Poe vs two First Order TIEs — and four expansions: Rebel Aces (B-Wing & A-Wing), Imperial Aces (two TIE Interceptors), the Millennium Falcon, and Slave-1 (Boba Fett’s ship; please tell me you knew that). It was really hard to stop there. My son can’t stop ogling the huge ships: the Rebel Blockade Runner and troop carrier, and the big Imperial assault carrier (which can carry four TIE Fighters on its underside). I can only fend him off for so long. And eventually we’ll need a complement of Headhunters, a Y-Wing or two…

Because the ‘meta’ has changed with each of the game’s eight waves of expansions — for a while a heavily kitted-out Falcon with lite wingmen was the list to beat, then an Imperial Shuttle pulling stress tokens from a couple of laser-dodging Imperial aces, etc. — it’s easy to feel obligated to keep up with the expansions, especially if you start reading up on strategy or watching YouTube videos of competitive play. (Here is the best one I’ve seen — a matchup of identical lists featuring some amazing flying, some very bad luck, and an inexplicable mistake which costs one player the game.) Do not give in. You don’t need much to have a great time playing the game, and some ships dramatically alter the character of play: the Falcon, for instance, shoots in a 360-degree arc, and Slave-1 is built for missile launches and ion cannons, so each of those ships takes the game in a new direction from the core set.

The nice thing about the ‘meta’ is this: there’s no obvious ‘best possible list,’ nor have I heard about ‘broken’ builds (as in D&D online fandom/nerdrage). One guy, a software dude named Paul Heaver, has won three out of four World Championships — but he’s won them with completely different squads. That speaks to the designers’ skill, and the playerbase’s cleverness and adaptability.

Getting started

Each turn is simply structured:

  1. Choose a maneuver for each ship in secret using its slick little rotating maneuver dial. The first few times you play, this’ll be the grooviest part.
  2. Reveal and perform maneuvers, then declare an action for each ship, worst-rated pilots first. Special abilities and upgrades can allow multiple actions; certain maneuvers stress pilots, preventing actions; hitting an asteroid or proximity mine is bad, etc. To perform a maneuver, carefully lay down the appropriate template using the little nubbly guides on the ship’s base, then move the ship to the other end of the template. This is hard for little kids at first. Playing on a slightly squishy surface — a playmat or even a yoga mat(!) — makes it easier, more precise, less accident-prone.
  3. Fire! Best-rated pilots shoot first, one attack per ship (in general). Depending on the action chosen in phase 2, modify the dice roll: Target Lock lets you reroll attack dice, Focus improves certain attack and defense rolls, etc. Assign damage, clear away anyone who’s been blasted into space dust, etc.
  4. Clear unused tokens and GOTO 1.

Skilled players talk about the ‘four pillars’ of strong competitive play: building your squad list, placing asteroids, placing your fleet, and actually flying. In casual play, especially with kids, flying is the most rewarding and fun part — that’s where your energy will go. Playing with the Core Set only deemphasizes squad (‘list’) building, and asteroid placement is something of an arcane art, so your first few games will mostly involve playing chicken with your enemies and occasionally crashing into things. It’s terribly fun. Then you settle down and start thinking strategically.

The tactical and strategic components of the game are beautifully balanced. Because you’re flying a pretend spaceship instead of laying down cards, there’s a real chance for piloting skill to overcome advantages of preparation — all else being equal, you expect a T-70 X-Wing to outgun a couple of TIE Fighters on the strength of its heavy shields and decent maneuverability, but it could easily go the other way if the TIEs can concentrate fire (draining the X-Wing’s supply of tokens each turn) and use their superior dials to stay out of the Rebel’s firing arc. And with the right upgrades, those TIEs could become much more serious threats.

You might be a little disappointed by the fact that the Core Set only comes with three ships, but this isn’t 40K (or indeed M:TG); each ship handles differently from every other, and you have tons of interesting choices to make at every step of the game. A single ship can fly for a damned long time — and win, if you fly right.

Assuming you don’t pilot your ships out into the infinite void when there’s a battle going on, there are no ‘dead turns’ in X-Wing. And because play is ordered by individual pilots’ skill ranks, you’re not sitting around waiting for the other player to finish a whole mess of moves. Check out the competitive match linked above: each round is several minutes long, but (even accounting for the fact that the maneuver stage has been edited out of the video) there’s no real downtime for either player. That’s a real achievement by the designers…and a big boon for parents playing with little kids.

Squad building and ‘the meta,’ briefly

Each pilot and ship upgrade has a point cost; typical squads are 100 points. Building a squad means literally shopping for the right equipment given the kind of flying you want to do. You have a wide variety of options: heavy tanks orbited by little buzzing wingmen, swarms of ‘jousting’ ships (e.g. TIE Fighters) pulverizing enemies with concentrated fire, bombers outfitted with explosive ordnance, ‘stressbots’ which clamp down on the opposing side’s ‘action economy,’ fragile ‘arc dodgers’ which maneuver nimbly out of trouble but don’t last long under direct fire…it’s all wonderfully thematic (Han’s special ability is the power to gamble on a total reroll — and yes, he shoots first), and unless you play obsessively and spend a ton of money you won’t exhaust your options. Needless to say, you’ll fly Han and Chewie differently against a squadron of TIE Fighters than you would against, say, a giant Imperial transport ship.

My strong advice: buy ships you think are cool, and don’t worry about the competitive ‘meta.’ Get Large ships through Amazon to save money, but if Amazon doesn’t offer a subsantial discount (e.g. their small ships are very close to list price), head to your Friendly Local Game Store and support local and small businesses.

The material reality of X-WING

The components are ridiculous! Serious players replace their heavy cardstock tokens, maneuver templates, and range markers with acrylic plastic, which gets expensive; normal humans won’t have to. Fantasy Flight Games has a reputation for top-notch material components, and X-Wing‘s are just superb.

The miniatures themselves — for nerds like me, maybe the game’s primary selling point — are exquisite. I really like the design of the game, I love its strategic and tactical elements, but it’s impossible not to gush about the miniatures. The Falcon mini is as detailed as my large-scale Kenner toy from back in the day, very nicely painted, and it only cost ~$24. Seeing it glide across the table in mid-battle is a thrill every single time.

The cards are standard FFG sizes, so you can sleeve them if you’re an obsessive, which I am not yet.

Storing the ships is a problem, albeit a solved one — I use a smallish sheet of pick’n’pluck foam in a deep Stanley tool organizer, with little plastic bins for the cards and chits, and everything fits with room to spare. It took a couple hours to put together. Other folks repurpose the vacuum-formed plastic packaging, but I didn’t feel like busting out a heat gun for this project. There are limits to my madness.

Documentation

The Force Awakens Core Set comes with two rulebooks: a ‘Learn to Play’ book with the streamlined Basic Rules and an intro to the full rules, and a comprehensive alphabetical reference which is fully useful only after you’ve read through it once. As usual with cyclopedia-type rulebooks, it’s only as good as its index, which is imperfect.

Hint to technical writers: double the length of the index, include ‘redundant’ entries (if ‘Overlapping’ is in there, ‘Collision’ damn well should be!), and put the index on the front cover of the book.

All this said, the documentation is good once you have the hang of it.

You can find hundreds of pages of fanmade guides as well, especially formation flying tutorials and beginner guides and rundowns of popular squad lists. Check out the FFG forums (which are nowhere near as toxic as, say, rpg.net).

Concern, complaint, caveat

  • It takes a longish time to set up. Once you get the hang of it it’s not so bad, but arranging the components is a bit of a hassle — it’s very much unlike M:TG in that regard. You can’t just slap the pieces on the table and say ‘Let’s go!’
  • You’ll benefit greatly from a playmat (or a yoga mat), which will run you a couple dozen dollars at minimum — $50 for a nice one. They’re like giant mousepads, and they transform minis play. But because the standard surface is 3′ square, you may not have a table big enough. Our little dinner table is only 30″ wide, I think. Something to think about.
  • This bears restating: to ‘keep up’ with the game is expensive. Buying one of each ship will give you plenty of competitive squads, but you’ll want more than one of many ships (and cards). Casual play is cheap, but there’s a serious temptation to pick up a ship here, a ship there, and the cheapest of the lot are $12 or so. Be vigilant, and set limits on spending in advance.
  • Near as I can tell, this hobby seems to be all male. I’ve seen no evidence of women playing competitive X-Wing; I’m sure they’re out there, but I don’t know how to find them. RPGs have a sizable female playerbase, but miniatures wargames (like M:TG) seem to still be a male domain. If you’re a woman interested in playing X-Wing at the FLGS, all I can do is apologize for the atmosphere of unwelcome, and suggest bringing a tight crew of female friends who won’t take any shit from anyone. (The X-Wing community has an admirable mantra, ‘Fly Casual,’ which is all about helping one another out and being cool about imprecision and welcoming new players and so forth. But there are hard physical limits on adolescent males’ ability to empathize.)

Drooling

Every time I look at the X-Wing pieces in their big foam-lined case, I want to take them out and play. I love this game. I love playing it, watching it, and reading about it. It tickles all my sensitive nerd places — particularly when we throw a little John Williams on the stereo while rolling the bones — and while it’s not inexhaustibly deep, it’s going to be a lot of fun for a long time, and gets a lot more compelling as you travel along its learning curve.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Oh, and if you have some money burning a hole in your pocket: X-Wing is only one of five Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight. Armada is a deep game of capital ship combat with mechanics somewhat similar to X-Wing‘s; Imperial Assault is squad-level infantry combat on a grid, with a clever campaign system; Rebellion is a galactic-scale wargame; and then there’s the well liked RPG, which is split into several titles (Force & Destiny, Edge of the Empire, etc.). FFG’s big on custom dice and superb production values, but they also just design good games (look at Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica). I look forward to bankrupting our family with more FFG products.

Hite/Bauman: THE CTHULHU WARS (2016).

Lovecraft memorably spoke of his sense of ‘adventurous expectancy’ as the impetus behind his work; this slim Osprey book stresses the ‘adventurous’ part, telling the story of the US military’s several-hundred-year war against the Mythos, from Cotton Mather and Roanoke to Special Forces operations in post-9/11 Afghanistan. I picked it up for Ken Hite’s name, of course; his Nazi Occult kicked off the Dark Osprey line a couple of years ago with his usual panache, and this was originally a solo Hite title. Gotta say, I’m a lot more interested in a new Hite book than a new Cthulhu book — the Mythos doesn’t generate much adventurous expectancy in me anymore — and I was surprised when it arrived the other day, having forgotten I preordered it six months ago.

In the end it’s a somewhat…workmanlike book. Bauman started from Hite’s outline, notes, and isolated fragments of prose, and cleverly worked the conceit of Hite as his deceased lunatic informant into the text. He did well. Short pieces of prose are superbly effective, and the final page (unsigned) finally breaks through to a subtle Lovecraftian creepiness. But the rest of the book is, as the title promises, Muskets/M-16s/Nukes vs Cthulhu (including a nice little picture of that last) — an extremely implementation-dependent idea, because it’s almost self-defeatingly unscary on the face of it — and the deliberately dry ‘after-action report’ approach keeps the book from attaining the extraordinary allusive density of Hite’s usual work. At day’s end, ‘an Osprey campaign book with bits of Lovecraftian flavour’ is a different kind of conceit from ‘assume every lurid tale about occult Nazi shenanigans is true,’ the former bound to a dust-dry house style where the latter can explore different approaches, and while there are occasional eerie echoes throughout The Cthulhu Wars, it reads like an elaboration of a Neat Idea rather than a coherent dark vision. It ends well, but the buildup to that end isn’t as satisfying as I expected.

In other words, the idea of ghouls eating the dead at Chickamauga is no more horrible to me than the idea of those thousands dying at Chickamauga in the first place — but I can imagine a version of the story, a bit more subtly shaded, which might go beyond the fact of ‘Mythos + USA History’ to something deeper, darker. The book’s last chapter escalates neatly, suggesting a properly Lovecraftian Bad End out beyond the final pages, but with the exception of the final sentences, nothing in the book haunts me, which is the only thing I ask of HPLesque work. Partly that’s the premise. Partly it’s the fact that the book does exactly what it says on the tin, but only that.

To clarify what probably seems like fanboyism: plenty of nerds dig Ken Hite’s writing, but I think that even his fans don’t realize how much work his work is doing.

Hite’s Suppressed Transmission columns, along with material like the Mythos section of his Trail of Cthulhu (or for that matter his bravura ‘nerd trope’ verbal improvisations at cons), make a strong case for him as the possessor of one of the most fecund imaginations and the most singularly effective prose style in RPGs. (Only a handful of writers, like S. John Ross and Jenna Moran, are as consistently strong on the page with Detwiller, Stolze, Laws, Wallis, and a few others up there too.) I’ve compared him to Douglas Hofstadter, whose Metamagical Themas columns are an equally singular achievement, showing a similarly catholic creativity. Hite’s prose has music to it, but (unlike Ross’s or Moran’s, or Hofstadter’s when he keeps his punnery in check) it isn’t particularly beautiful. Here’s the thing, though: while there are other writers with similar styles, Hite’s (somewhat scary) instant recall gives him the ability to shade every trope he deploys with a historical parallel here, a mythic resonance there. I keep coming back to the word density — in his best work, every sentence is a campaign seed, and every other word is bi- and tri- and tetrasociated until it generates a kind of psychedelic effect, a more functional and sane equivalent to the ‘eliptony’ nonsense which fills some number of his bookshelves. (Check the ‘Bibliophany’ in the first Transmission omnibus for a bulletproof reading list of eliptonic crazytalk and disreputable scholarship.)

So my reaction to The Cthulhu Wars is inescapably coloured by Hite’s name on the cover. It’s no slander against Kennon Bauman that the book fell short of my expectations — the Stolze/Hite Grim Wars book for Wild Talents disappointed me too, and Stolze is the man who wrote Progenitor for Christ’s sake! Collaborations are tricky: as a hardcore Phish fan I resigned myself long ago to the fact that 98% of the time Phish’s collaborations can only dilute their weird alchemical mixture (whereas the much less precisely tuned Grateful Dead thrived with guests onstage). I suspect that it’s a little like that with Hite: he supplements other people’s work well, and I bet it’s not hard to match the tone of his prose, but the characteristic contour of his work, the way it optimizes for polyvalence, is easy to parody and fiendishly hard to replicate properly. Think of the way Lost replicated the tiresome complication of The X-Files with none of its visionary ramifications — a failure of implementation which comes of not having That One Weird Mind in the writers’ room, the one who zigs left when the other folks are zagging right, in total confidence that it’ll all work out if the room just rolls with the punches.

(TV-nerd sidebar. The X-Files is an odd case: usually the head writer/creator shapes the show by being the best at writing it; cf. Community, Buffy, or (when Brian Vaughn and Drew Goddard weren’t around) Lost itself. But as the recent X-Files miniseries reminded a fanbase that seemed to’ve forgotten, Chris Carter is a hopelessly hamfisted scriptwriter who made a great show by virtue of his sensibility and imagination, not his actual teleplays. The Weirdest minds in the room belonged to Carter’s writing staff — the enigmatic Mr Morgan in particular.)

So this is all the long way ’round the barn to saying that The Cthulhu Wars was a perfectly fine read, Kennon Bauman stuck the landing, I consider it a Minor Victory on its own terms, but it’s not quite on the same level as GURPS Weird War II or The Nazi Occult. That shouldn’t even count as criticism; this is my psychodrama, not the book’s.