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

by waxbanks

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.

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