The X-Wing Miniatures Game.

by waxbanks

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.

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