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Star Wars Armada wave II

I might have been a bit unfair to X-Wing when I originally reviewed the Star Wars: Armada core set. I gave Armada a pretty glowing recommendation and praised it for giving the player more meaningful decisions and for fixing a handful of complaints that I had with X-Wing. But I kind of neglected the fact that the Armada core set has pretty much the same fundamental problem that stopped me from giving a similarly high grade to X-Wing: the limited content of the package.

X-Wing had three small ships, and a handful of alternate pilots and upgrades to add some replayability. But the game really needed some expansions to really come into its own. And I pointed that out in my review of X-Wing's core set, and docked its final score.

Don't get me wrong, Armada does offer more content in its core set than X-Wing did! It also has three ships, along with alternate ship cards and upgrades. But those three ships are different sizes and strengths, and there's ten fighter squadrons to go along with them. Armada's core set also includes the objective cards that helped to give that game more structured play, while X-Wing only had a couple of scenarios. So I still think that the Armada core set offers more value than the X-Wing core set.

However, I also knew that having a roster of expansion ships would improve the game, and I baked that assumption into my review for Armada. This may have been unfair to X-Wing, especially considering that the Armada core set has other problems that X-Wing doesn't have.

The core learning scenario doesn't do the game justice

It's been difficult for me to get friends into playing Armada. X-Wing has always seemed to be the more popular game. It took me a very long time to finally figure out why. During the past couple years of the COVID pandemic, it hasn't been viable to get together large groups for bigger board games, so I focused more on playing smaller, 2 and 3-player games to limit the number of people over at once. Games like X-Wing and Armada were ideal for that situation. In doing so, I tried a new technique for introducing friends to Armada that would hopefully get them up to speed faster, and which also seems to be much more successful than my earlier teaching attempts using the Learning Scenario.

Put simply: Armada's learning scenario is kind of crap. After teaching friends and co-workers to play the game through the learning scenario, their responses to the game has always been a resounding "meh". I then have to spend thirty minutes or an hour explaining [in vain] the merits of the full game to people who have already lost interest.

The learning scenario takes most of the strategic decisions away from the players.

The problem with the learning scenario is that it puts pre-configured fleets up against each other with no upgrade cards, no objectives, and no obstacles to navigate around. Without upgrades giving ships special abilities that can turn the tide of a game, and without objectives that give the players something to fight over, the early-game decisions of setting the starting queue of commands are really the only significant decisions in the entire game. Unfortunately, the learning scenario takes those decisions away from the players by recommending a default starting queue of commands! Once ships have been pointed at each other and met in the middle of the board, the last 3 or 4 turns of the learning game easily degrade into a passive process of drifting ahead and mindlessly rolling attack dice. Or the players forget to queue up a Navigate command, and the ships fly past each other in round 3, and spend the rest of the match trying to circle back around to get back in firing range.

Sid Meier, the designer of the original Civilization PC game has defined a game as "a series of interesting decisions". By that definition, the learning scenario of Star Wars Armada isn't even a game at all because all of the interesting decisions have already been made by the rule book before the players have taken a single turn.

It doesn't help that the six-round time limit causes the game to just suddenly end with no reason or context. Let alone the fact that (in my experience) the imperial player usually wins by default without really feeling like he or she earned the win. Having only the single Imperial capital ship means that the game is completely decided by whether the rebels can destroy that one little Star Destroyer, and if the Rebel player isn't knowledgeable enough about the game's concepts to know how to focus-fire a single Star Destroyer hull zone from multiple firing arcs, it seems exceedingly unlikely that the Star Destroyer will come down within those 6 rounds. It's un-engaging and monotonous first impression that really doesn't do Armada any favors.

Really, I feel like the learning scenario is only worthwhile if everyone involved is completely new to the game. If you bought the game and are learning it for the first time, then hopefully you're invested enough in the game already that you'll keep playing even if the learning scenario is kind of dull. But if you're trying to teach the game to a new player or 2, then the learning scenario may be more of a liability than an asset.

In my experience, rookie Rebels either fail to focus-fire the Star Destroyer,
or over-run the Star Destroyer and can't circle back into range before the round limit is reached.

I built custom learning fleets using expansion content

My solution to the aforementioned problems was to create my own custom learning fleets that try to highlight more of the game's mechanics and strategic nuance. I created a pair of 250-pt fleets that use some expansion ships. They're not huge fleets, and they still ignore some rules in order to keep things relatively simple. For example, neither of my custom learning fleets has a fleet commander upgrade, nor named squadrons, nor are any objectives used. The custom learning scenario is still a 6-round deathmatch, just like the core set's official learning scenario.

But what the custom learning fleets do have is multiple ships for each faction, so that both players have more than one ship to manage (and for the other player to optionally focus-fire). Each of those ships has at least one upgrade card that specializes it in some way. I also threw in a more diverse set of squadrons, such that both factions have 1 interceptor squadron and one bomber squadron.

I built these learning fleets using Ryan Kingston's Fleet Builder web app, and have provided links to the pdfs of my Imperial and Rebel learning fleets below:

I've had more success at teaching Armada to new players by using home-brew fleets.

My Rebel fleet includes a Nebulon-B Escort Frigate, CR-90 Corvette, and 2 X-Wing squadrons (all from the core set), as well as an MC-30 Torpedo Frigate and a Y-Wing and A-Wing squadron (from the Rebel Fighter I expansion pack).

My Imperial learning fleet includes the Victory Star Destroyer and 4 TIE Fighter squadrons (from the core set), as well as a Raider and Gozanti carrier cruiser and a TIE Interceptor and Bomber (from Imperial Fighters I expansion pack).

So yes, in order to create your own home-brew learning fleets like mine, you would need to invest in at least a couple expansions. The single Victory Star Destroyer in the core set is simply not enough. You don't necessarily need to get the same ships that I have, but I would highly recommend getting at least one small ship for both the Rebel and Imperial fleets, as well as the respective squadron I expansion (to get the Y-Wings, TIE Bombers, and so forth). Ships like the Imperial Raider and an extra Nebulon-B or CR-90 for the Rebels is probably sufficient if you want to keep the point cost, actual dollar cost, and complexity low.

And if you want to keep things really simple, you could probably create a pair of 200-point fleets with just 2 ships on either side (or maybe a 3rd small ship on the Rebel side). If I create such a squadron, I'll share it here as well.

You want to be careful when creating your own learning fleet. Don't make anything too complicated, because you don't want to overwhelm your new player(s). Limit each ship to just 1, 2, or maybe 3 upgrades that give the player easy-to-understand choices. I also recommend that you avoid including more than 2 or 3 squadron keywords in the game. "Escort", "Bomber", "Counter", and maybe also "Rogue", are probably fine, but throwing in things like "Grit", "Intel", or "Snipe" might be a bit much for a new player. Most importantly, make sure that every ability and keyword that you put into your custom learning fleet is something that you are familiar with, so that you can explain them adequately and answer any questions that the new player(s) may have regarding how they work.

Players are exposed to more strategy and fleet versatility.

This home-brew learning scenario makes the skirmish a little bit bigger, exposes more of the rules and strategic possibilities to the players, reveals the variability and customization that is available to players, and returns more of the important decisions to the players. It's just enough for each player to have a couple upgrade cards to specialize their fleet, and to introduce the concept of upgrade cards and abilities. But it's not so much that it confuses or overwhelms them, or forcing them to construct their own fleet without any foreknowledge of how the game actually works. When I've used these custom fleets to teach the game to new players, I've found that the rookie players tend to be much more engaged with the game. More importantly, after the game is over, they are more interested in learning about what other ships and upgrades are available, and they have been more likely to return for a second game.

Expansions reveal the strategic value of the round limit

Using the fleet-building rules and playing with objectives completely changes the dynamic of the game by putting the important decisions back in the hands of the players. Players have more options available to them, more meaningful decisions to make, and the victories (or losses) feel more earned. That's true with the core set content (and its 180-point fleets) beyond the learning game. It's even more true when you start throwing in expansion ships.

Having expansions in play (or a second copy of the core set) increases the fleet-building points from 180 points to 300 points (and tournament rules have since increased the point total to 400). With expansions, players have a lot more ships and firepower! That 6 round limit that seems so arbitrary and insufficient in the learning game is suddenly enough to take multiple starships out of the game because you have more ships on the board shooting and focus-firing on specific targets. The games that I've played with expansions were almost always decided on either the fifth or sixth rounds, making that 6-round turn limit feel just about perfect.

More ships in play means more firepower for focus-firing specific targets.

That doesn't mean that one fleet or the other is completely wiped out though. It just means that one side or the other has usually lost enough ships to be effectively crippled. The round limit serves to spare the players from having to go through the motions for another hour or longer, circling ships back around for another volley in order to clean up the remaining ships and formalize an already foregone conclusion. Yes, it's certainly possible for a skirmish to still be hanging in the balance after the sixth turn, but most of the matches I've played have been decided by that point. Even so, I still wish that the core set had included more turn counters (probably 10 or 12), just in case players want to agree to playing a longer game. It couldn't hurt.

Having more than just the three core ships in play also changes the strategic dynamic of the round limit. In X-Wing, I've found that it's always optimal to try to eliminate the opponent's weakest ship(s) first. This is due in large part to the fact that there isn't much disparity between the attack power of ships. In most cases, the difference is only + or - one die. Eliminating the weaker ships first reduces the number of attacks that the opponent gets to make against you. Without a round limit, you'll eventually be able to take out the stronger (and presumably higher-cost) ships later.

Armada players have to decide whether to target weaker ships to remove them from play,
or go after the bigger, more dangerous ships in order to score the most points before round limit expires.

In Armada (with expansions), you have to actually decide whether its best to try to pick off the easy targets early (in order to limit the firepower that the opponent can levy against you), or to focus-fire on the largest and most threatening target (which is also worth the most points). Because of the round limit, you can't necessarily do both. Unlike X-Wing, the disparity in attack dice between a small ship and a large ship is pretty wide, so picking off smaller ships doesn't reduce the enemy's attack power as much as picking off a weaker fighter in a match of X-Wing. Thus, there does not appear to be any one single optimal answer that is "right" 99% of the time, and so the choice of which ship(s) you target first is actually a meaningful decision in Armada. You can go after the smaller, weaker, cheaper ships first, but you might not score enough points to win before the six turns run out, and the opponent will still have all their biggest guns trained on you.

The larger fleets also require more space to play, and so the rules recommend playing on a three foot by six foot play area, with initial deployments being limited to a smaller three-by-four area in order to prevent ships from being too spread out. With this larger play area, the round limit also serves the valuable purpose of preventing a player from simply playing keep-away and dragging out the game. The downside, of course, is that it does enable a player to run away during the final turn or two in order to force a time victory.

Sadly, the individual ship expansions do not seem to include any new objective cards or scenarios. There's already a decent mix of objectives in the core set, but it would have been nice if some of the ships had included more -- especially the large flagships like Home One and Imperial Star Destroyer. The Interdictor's canonical ability to interrupt hyperspace travel also seems like it could have been ripe for some dedicated scenarios. No such luck. Apparently, you need the campaign expansions if you want new objectives.

The little guns: Squadrons

First off, I want to talk about squadrons. There are several sets of squadrons available. Both the rebels and empire have a pack of squads that adds basic fighters (TIEs, Interceptors, and Bombers for the Empire, and X-Wings, Y-Wings, B-Wings, and A-Wings for the Rebels). There's also a second squadron pack for each faction that includes more advanced and specialized ships (like the VT-64 Decimator and Lambda shuttle for the Empire, and Z-Wings and Shadowcasters for the Rebels, among others). Lastly, there's a "Rogues & Villains" pack that includes smuggler and bounty hunter ships for both factions (Millennium Falcon, Slave I, and so forth). Sorry Scum fans, there is no third Scum faction in Armada, like there is in X-Wing.

Some of these squadrons include a Counter ability. The "Counter II" ability (on A-Wings and TIE Interceptors) makes these fighters absolute beasts against other squadrons. It allows them to counter attack with 2 blue dice every time they are attacked by another squadron, even if they are destroyed by the initial attack! Counter I is also good, but it's only a single blue die. A-Wings, in particular, can absolutely tear through TIE swarms thanks to this Counter II ability. They're also very fast, which allows them to quickly move to engage and lock-down TIE swarms in order to screen other fighter squadrons or bombers.

Bombers are difficult to use effectively unless
you have dedicated carrier support.

Bombers and rogues

Bomber squadrons seem like they would be really powerful, but I've had a hard time using them effectively. The problem is that squadrons can only move or shoot on their turn. They can't do both, unless a capital ship activates them using a "Squadron" command. Since squadron activation doesn't happen until after all ships have activated, the ships being bombed usually move away from the bombers before the bombers can make their attack. You really need to use "Squadron" commands in order to get the most out of bombers, which means you're not using "Concentrate Fire" commands with those capital ships, and I'm just not sure if the tradeoff is worth it.

The exception to this is the "Rogue" ability, which allows a squadron to move and attack during the squadron activation phase. The "Rogues " Villains" pack includes some squadrons cards that have both the "Rogue" and "Bomber" traits, such as Dash Rendar and Boba Fett, which can do some serious damage to your capital ships if left unchecked.

Regular bombers can be made much more viable with certain abilities, or with certain support ships and upgrades. The Major Rhymer TIE Bomber triples the range of any squadron nearby whenever those squadrons attack a ship. This helps offset a lot of the problems with bombers as a unit type. The Imperial Gazanti Cruiser and Rebel Transport also have some cards that make those ships into very good squadron controllers.

Imperial Raider is a dedicated anti-squadron ship.

Imperial Raider

If Rebel squadrons become too much of a pain to deal with, you might want to consider investing in the Imperial Raider expansion. You might recognize this ship from X-Wing or from the Battlefront II video game's campaign. The ship was original conceived for X-Wing and then ported into Armada and featured in Battlefront II.

This raider excels at combating squadrons. It has upgrades that allow it to take extra shots at squadrons or to count as being "engaged" in order to lock-down enemy squadrons and screen other ships or squads. Combined with the "Gunnery Team" crew and "Quad Laser Turret" weapon upgrades, it can clear the board of Rebel fighters before moving on to attack other ships.

The big guns: Capital ships

If you want to bring lots of firepower into the game, then you should invest in the large capital ships. These ships can roll between 6 and 9 dice from a single hull section, which (with luck from the dice) can maybe be enough to obliterate a small corvette with a single volley.

Imperial ships tend to have strong forward-facing weapon arcs, and the Rebel Liberty MC80 cruiser has a similar configuration. These ships benefit tremendously from the Gunnery Team upgrade card, which allows them to attack from the same hull section more than once. If an opponent can get to the side or rear of these ships, then these large ships will become sitting ducks.

Capital ships bring lots of firepower to a battle.

Most other Rebel ships, however, are based on broadside configurations, with most of the firepower distributed along the port and starboard arcs. The Rebels want these ships exposing their sides to the enemy and circling around them. Getting multiple shots off can be trickier with these ships, however, since it's harder to position multiple firings arcs such that they overlap a single target, and you probably don't want to try splitting the enemy forces up the middle and risk taking fire from both flanks. These ships definitely give the Rebels a distinct feel compared to the Empire, or the core set's smaller Rebel ships.

Admiral Raddus ambushes and interdiction

One of the newer Rebel expansion ships is the Profundity expansion inspired by the Rogue One movie. Profundity and Admiral Raddus allow Rebel player to set aside some of your ships and then deploy them mid-battle. This can be great for ambushing the Empire or exploiting vulnerabilities in the Empire's flanks. The trade-off is that each round you spend with your ships sidelined is one less round that they get to spend shooting enemy ships or drawing fire away from the Profundity itself.

Admiral Raddus works particularly well with a ship like the MC-30 Torpedo Frigate. The Torpedo Frigate specializes in close-range bombardment, but has no long-range offensive or defensive capabilities. This means it might be stuck soaking up long or medium-range attacks for a round or two before it has a chance to meaningfully respond. It can move at speed 4, which can close distances very quickly, but it also runs the extreme risk of overshooting the enemy and putting the frigate in a position in which it can't turn back into the battle before the round limit has expired. With Admiral Raddus, however, you can set it off to the side of the board where it can't receive pot shots from the Empire, then deploy it into the game positioned and oriented such that it will be guaranteed to stay in the middle of the fray, where its torpedoes can do the most damage.

Admiral Raddus and the Profundity can ambush Imperial forces mid-skirmish.

If the Profundity and Admiral Raddus are becoming a problem for you as the Imperial player, you might want to consider investing in an Interdictor Star Destroyer. The Interdictor is one of the older Imperial expansion ships, being available since wave 4. This ship was not very well regarded by players for much of Armada's life span due to its high cost (both in terms of its fleet points and its actual cash costs to buy) and its relatively weak offensive capability. It was always intended to be a dedicated support ship, but back when the core rule was 300-point fleets, it was really hard to justify the investment in an Interdictor because that often meant you couldn't afford to field a heavy-hitting ship. After all, a dedicated support ship doesn't really do a whole lot without one or more actual warships for it to support. With the more relaxed 400-point limit, there's a bit more wiggle room for the Interdictor to work in its designated role, alongside another actual warship, and not feel like a waste of points.

The Interdictor's base stats are really mediocre for a ship of its size and cost, but it has a variety of upgrade options that can specialize it in several different ways. The Combat Refit with the Targeting Scramblers, Interdictor title, and either Engineering Techs, Wulff Yularen, and/or Projection Experts can turn the Interdictor and all other ships in your fleet into tanks.

It's various experimental projectors and tractor beam can be used to interrupt enemy ship movement and manipulate the battlefield to the Empire's advantage. Unfortunately, the Interdictor cannot be used to bring a Rebel ship's speed down to zero and prevent the use of defense tokens, but it can be used to keep Rebel ships stuck in inferior positions. The Gravity Well Projector upgrade is also circumstantially useful on the off chance that you played a Hyperspace Assault or Fleet Ambush objective, but now it can be re-purposed specifically as a counter play against Admiral Raddus, since it can force the newly-deployed ship to be placed on the board with speed of zero. It might act to deter Admiral Raddus builds altogether.

Larger, 400-point games give more wiggle room for including support ships like an Interdictor.

It's a shame that capital ships like the Interdictor doesn't come with its own special objective cards. I could imagine several different ways that the Interdictor's ability to disrupt hyperspace jumps could be used to create interesting objectives or scenarios. Perhaps a setup in which the rebels start with only part of their fleet in play and must destroy (or disable) the Interdictor in order to allow reinforcements to arrive? Or perhaps a scenario in which the rebels are outmatched by a larger Imperial fleet, and they must destroy the Interdictor in order to escape to hyperspace? Or maybe the Interdictor disables the turn counter, such that one fleet or the other must be destroyed in order for the match to end?

What do I recommend?

So now that Armada has been out for a number of years and is a pretty mature game, what expansions do I recommend for my readers? Well, keep in mind that I'm not playing very competitively. I don't do tournaments, so I'm not building hyper-optimized power fleets with the intent of crushing expert opposition as efficiently as possible. I play more casually with friends, so I care more about creating unique and fun experiences with the game.

For an authentic Star Wars experience, the obvious most essential expansion to buy is the Imperial Star Destroyer. Of course, you'll need to maintain competitive balance by pairing that with a large Rebel capital ship. Honestly, any of the three Mon Calamari cruisers will work (Home One, Liberty, or Profundity). Of those, Profundity probably gives the most unique play experience due to upgrades that allow mid-battle deployments.

The next most essential purchase would be to expand your squadron support. In order to get all the iconic fighters from the movies, you'll want both the Rebel and Imperial Fighter Squadron I packs. This will add Y-Wings, A-Wings, B-Wings, TIE Bombers, TIE Advance, and TIE Interceptors to your list of available squadrons. Lastly, the "Rogues & Villains" pack is a good starter set so that you can get the Millenium Falcon and Slave I.

Beyond that, it's really going to come down to personal preference. What ships do you like, and what are you trying to do with your fleets?

The Imperial Star Destroyer is an obvious must-have expansion ship.

Personally, I like to have a variety of ship types with novel functionality. To that end, my Imperial recommendation would be to supplement your fleet with a Quasar Carrier, and a Raider Corvette. This gives you lots of squadron activations (Carrier), and a dedicated anti-squadron gunboat (Raider) if the Rebels start fielding more squadrons in order to counter your Quasar's squadrons. I also think the Interdictor is just really cool-looking so I recommend it with a huge caveat. It provides some crowd and table-control options, and is a valid circumstantial counter to a Rebel Profundity / Raddus build, but it is more of a novelty and isn't very good in competitive games because most competitive players will know how to work around the Interdictor's abilities.

As for the Rebels, I feel like their ship choices are more up in the air. The stand-alone Nebulon-B Frigate is a good option, even though the core set already comes with a Nebulon-B. The expansion gives you access to the Yavaris title, which is one of the best abilities for squadrons. But I think my favorite Rebel ship might be the MC-30 Frigate. The Torpedo Frigate variant can be an absolute beast with certain upgrade cards and hit-and-run tactics. It has proven to be a favorite of several of my friends who I play against.

Lastly, both flotilla ships (the Rebel Transports and Imperial Gazanti Carrier Cruiser) are surprisingly good and versatile support ships for very low cost.

Regardless of what expansion ships you chose to buy, I can confidently guarantee that you'll have more fun with Armada after playing with a handful of expansions. They add so much variety and firepower, and highlight more of the strategic nuance of the game. And, as pointed out in this review, I think rookie players will get a much better first impression of the game, if you teach them to play using a few expansions. May the Force be with you!

The MC-30 Torpedo Frigate's brutal close-range broadsides have proven popular with my playing groups.

PROS

  • Very nice, detailed, pre-painted collectible-quality plastic miniatures!
  • Allows for larger fleets and wider gameplay variety
  • Round limit prevents larger battles from dragging
  • Extra firepower usually leads to a clearer victor before the round limit expires
  • Excellent variety in abilities and specializations
  • Support ships have plenty of utility
  • Expansion squadrons are much more powerful and useful
  • Teaching new players with some expansion content seems to improve their first impressions of the game

CONS

  • A larger play area is recommended. Do you have a table big enough?
  • Individual expansions can be expensive!
  • I wish there were a "classic" Star Destroyer model

FINAL GRADE FOR EXPANSION SHIPS : A+

Note: This is a review of expansion content only.
Please click here for my review of the base game.

Manufacturer: Fantasy Flight
Lead Designers: James Kniffen and Christian T. Petersen
Original release: 2015-2018
Player(s): 2-players
Game Length: 2-3 hours
Official site: fantasyflightgames.com/en/products/star-wars-armada/

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