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I was planning on writing reviews for X-Wing's second edition epic ships and "Epic Battles" expansion packs (which released in the winter). But real-life happened. The COVID-19 pandemic put me and my gaming friends into lockdown. Having elderly relatives and other relatives with underlying health conditions, we took the lockdown advisory pretty seriously and didn't have in-person interactions with anybody other than limited in-person interactions with our immediate neighbors -- none of whom are board gamers (bummer). So I didn't get to play much X-Wing other than a couple rounds with my partner, and we didn't play any of the epic content because she's still learning 2nd edition and I didn't want to overwhelm her with new rules. So my thoughts on those expansions will have to wait until at least this fall, depending on how much game-playing I can do when the lockdowns are lifted during the summer, and assuming that there isn't a second lockdown this coming fall or winter.

In the meantime, Fantasy Flight was kind enough to not leave me completely high and dry. In early June, my loving partner sent me a link to the solo rules, and I decided to try them out. These rules were released at the end of May, in the waning days of the official lockdowns. I'm not sure if Fantasy Flight has this planned all along, or if they wrote it up quickly as a reaction to the pandemic. In either case, it's a considerate (albeit opportunistic) gesture from Fantasy Flight. It's just too bad these rules weren't published a month earlier. It would've given me more to do during the most boring stretches of the lockdown. Ah well. We have these rules for the next pandemic, I guess.

It's important to note that what I'm reviewing here is technically considered a "alpha test" of the rules. These rules are not finalized, and they may be subject to extensive changes as a result of player feedback before they officially release. If the rules change substantially for the official release, I may add an addendum to this review, or write a separate review. As of the time of this writing, the solo rules are freely available for download at Fantasy Flight's website. I do not know if Fantasy Flight is planning on eventually selling this as an actual expansion, or if the finalized version will remain free. So, you know, download it now. Just in case.

Fantasy Flight released official rules for playing X-Wing solo.

Best of all, these rules would probably work just fine in first edition as well. Players who haven't bought into second edition can still join in on the fun. You'll just have to improvise with regard to the hyperspace tokens, since those are the only components that are required for solo play, but which aren't in the first edition sets.

Dice for brains

The rules refer to the non-player ships as "solo ships", which I think is kind of confusing, since it sounds like the label refers to the solo player's ship(s). So call the non-player ships "NPC" ships (or "NPS" for "non-player ship", or "A.I." ships, or whatever you want to call them). In any case, the core conceit of the solo mode is that the player rolls a defense and attack die for each NPC ship when it activates, and then looks up the result in a behavior table to determine how each given NPC ship will behave. It's a simple enough concept that I'm surprised hasn't been in the rules earlier.

Roll dice, then look up the result in a table of possible moves.

The defense die is the principle determinant of the NPC ship's "attitude" (how it will behave). On an "evade" result, the ship will behave defensively or evasively. On a "focus" result, it will have a more balanced or passive posture. And on a "blank" result, it will behave more aggressively or boldly. This will largely determine the NPC ship's movement and action for the turn. The result of the red die will further modify the NPC ship's movement.

You look up the pair of results in a set of look-up tables. There's four tables corresponding to four possible positions of the NPC ship's target (called a "tally" in the rules). One table for if the tally is in the NPC ship's bullseye arc, one table for if the tally is in the front arc, one table for if the tally is in either side arc, and the last table for if the tally is in the aft arc. The look-up table will tell you which maneuver to perform (and at what speed).

There's also three lists of prioritized actions that the NPC ship can perform after its maneuver -- one for each attitude on the defense die. A defensive attitude will have the NPC ship attempting to barrel roll or boost out of an opponent's firing arc, or using defensive buffs (such as using a reinforce action, jam token, evade token, or calculate) if it can't escape being targeted by an opponent. An aggressive attitude will have the ship trying to barrel roll or boost in order to place an enemy ship within its firing arc, or use an offensive buff (such as a acquiring a target lock, reloading munitions, or taking a focus token) if it already has a shot lined up. Lastly, the balanced attitude will have the ship using a coordinate action on a friendly ship that is in a better position to do something useful, or it will attempt to avoid nearby obstacles.

The action taken depends on the green die.

Engagement rules for an NPC ships basically follow common sense. An NPC ship will attempt to use its best attack against an opponent in range, and will modify its dice in order to maximize hits (on attacks) and evades (on defense) as efficiently as possible. For example, the NPC ships will attempt re-rolls (from a target lock, for example) before using a focus token. Again, this should all be common sense to anybody familiar with the core X-Wing rules.

Concessions and recommendations

The concept is sound, and is mechanically functional. However, the semi-randomness and lack of awareness by the NPC ships obviously means that they are prone to making incredibly dumb moves. Thankfully, the rules do make special allowances for the NPC ships to be able to fly off the map without being automatically destroyed. If an NPC ship leaves the play area, instead of being removed, it is placed back on the play mat at the location where it went out of bounds, is rotated to face the middle of the play area, and is given a stress and disarm token as a penalty. It's a fair handicap to give to a literally brainless adversary.

NPC ships cannot flee the play area. They are placed back on the board with a stress and disarm token.

However, there are no special rules to prevent the NPC ships from executing other dumb moves that can potentially damage them (and maybe even throw the game). They will collide with other ships and fly through obstacles, and there's nothing in the rules (that I've seen) that allows them to avoid such mistakes. In fact, many entries in the look-up table specifically instruct the NPC ships to fly towards obstacles. I guess maybe this is done in attempt to bait the human player into chasing the NPC and potentially also ending up flying into the obstacles. Either way, I'm not sure if the game should be designed to go out of its way to fly NPC ships into obstacles. My proposal to Fantasy Flight games: allow an NPC ship to make one re-roll if its first maneuver would cause it to fly through or overlap an obstacle. If the re-roll still causes a collision with an obstacle, then so be it. Pilot error.

It would probably be far too complicated and tedious to include rules to negate other bad moves, such as colliding with other ships, flying by the target, or turning away from a target. And besides, these are all mistakes that real, human players will make regularly enough during actual play. There is a certain degree of bluffing and anticipating an opponent's move baked into the game, so making a bad move because you mis-judged what your opponent would do is part of the game's strategy. The important thing is that the human player has to plan all of your maneuvers before the NPC ships roll their dice, so the moves of the NPC ships are unknown to the player until it comes time to make the move.

NPC ships are prone to flying right into obstacles. In fact, they are sometimes instructed to do so!

Hyperspace Horde Mode

The structure of the solo game is based more on the "Escalation" game mode (from the core 2nd edition rulebook) than on standard match or tournament play. Two hyperspace tokens are placed on the board, along with a full set of obstacles. NPC ships spawn at the hyperspace tokens, and additional reinforcement ships spawn in as the turns progress. The first reinforcement comes in at the end of round 4, and the second reinforcement comes in at the end of round 7. I use charge tokens to track the turns, but one could also grab the turn tokens out of the Armada game if it's handy to do so. The player, however, does not get reinforcements. It's a deliberately-unbalanced setup in order to offset the sub-optimal, semi-random behavior of the NPC ships, by giving them a numerical advantage against the player. It's more like a single-player "horde mode" in a video game.

Two waves of reinforcements enter on specific rounds.

But it is you playing against yourself, so there's nothing stopping you from setting up the game however the heck you want!

I first played the default scenario with 2 player X-Wings versus the waves of TIEs, and I absolutely owned them. It was no contest. This was partly due to being able to position my ships such that I could focus-fire and kill one of the TIEs on turn 1 (before it had a chance to shoot back), and also because the reinforcing TIEs made some bad moves (running into each other and flying through obstacles and such).

I decided to make things harder for myself in the second game, so I replaced the pair of X-Wings with a single Scum YT-1300 (Lando's Falcon from the Solo movie) with an Autopilot Drone Escape Craft. It was a Christmas gift that I hadn't been able to play with yet, so I thought I'd give it a try. This time I got my ass handed to me. The freighter's 2 attack dice was just not enough against the TIEs' three defense dice. Even with the drone taking a few shots before dealing an automatic crit to two TIEs when it self-destructed, I was just completely overwhelmed.

A single YT-1300 freighter was significantly overwhelmed by the reinforcing TIEs.

A test bed

The lesson here is that if you deviate from the recommended setup, you will need to put some thought into how to properly balance the opposing squads. The rules provide some guidelines for creating opposing squads using either point values or threat levels, and you can adjust the difficulty by adding or removing upgrades or low-cost ships from one side or the other. There's also some recommendations for special "scenarios" to spice things up. One is having to destroy a large or huge "transport" ship before it escapes off the edge of the board. The other is assigning one enemy fighter as a non-limited "ace" (complete with upgrades) that starts with a lock on a specific player ship (presumably a bounty or vendetta).

I do wish that the rules would provide more detailed examples of how to set up the "transport ship" variant, especially if an epic ship is to be used. Does the transport simply move in a straight line across the table, or does it roll for an approach and attitude like any other NPC ship? Does the transport function as a combatant that counts towards the point total or threat value of the NPC squad? Should we use a larger play area? If so, do we change the pace at which reinforcement ships arrive? Do we reposition obstacles so as to not be in the path of the transport ship? Do we just let the transport ship run over the obstacles? Do we reposition the hyperspace tokens? A sample diagram of setting up an epic solo game would have been nice. So Fantasy Flight, that's my second suggestion: a more thorough explanation of the "transport" scenario.

The rules suggest some variants, including destroying an enemy transport before it flees the arena.
But the explanation for how to set up and play this particular scenario is extremely limited.

I bought the Huge Ship Conversion Kit last fall, but hadn't gotten around to trying it out yet. I decided to learn the new huge rules by playing a solo game against a huge "transport" ship and some escorts. This gave me an opportunity for an "I told you so!" moment. If you remember my review of second edition, I was extremely critical of Fantasy Flight's decision to not print point costs on the cards and to rely on an official app instead. Well I don't know what is going on behind the scenes at Fantasy Flight or 10Clouds (the company that was contracted to write the official app), but despite having released the Huge Conversion Kit and three stand-alone huge ship expansion for second edition, the official app has yet to be updated to include any of the huge ship content.

So despite having paid for the Huge Conversion Kit, that content is still not playable using the official content included in the game. You cannot build squads with huge ships using the official app, even though the instruction manual specifically says to do that. Instead, you have to find an online pdf that lists the point costs for huge ships and their relevant upgrades. This document, by the way, didn't show up for me in a Google search (as of the time of this writing), but if you're looking for it, you can find it under the "Rules" subsection of the "Products"s list on the X-Wing Second Edition page of the Fantasy Flight website. All of this headache could have been avoided if Fantasy Flight had just printed the default point costs and upgrade slots on the damned cards!

But anyway, I digress. You can read all about that headache when I eventually get around to reviewing epic play in second edition.

Contrary to what the manual says, huge ship points costs and upgrade slots are not available on the official app,
as of the time of this writing.

Playing solo with (or against) different factions or ships can allow a player to test out new builds or learn the ins and outs of a particular ship, pilot, or upgrade in a safe and controlled environment. Sure, it's not going to be the most competitive experience. Don't expect to win a solo match with a test build, then sweep a tournament with that build against actual players. But you can at least get an idea of whether your experimental build is even viable, and identify flaws in the build before you potentially embarrass yourself in an actual competitive match. I'm pretty sure that most (if not all) elite tournament players were already doing this with their own solo play rules all along.

Lastly, the rules also suggest the option of playing a co-op game against the NPC ships. In this case, each player would control one (or more, depending on the size of the squads) ship. This could be fun in and of itself, but more importantly, it could be a great way to teach the game to a new player! Playing a co-op game against NPCs allows the new player to learn the mechanics of the game in a low-stakes, non-competitive environment in which both players can have fun. The more experienced player isn't going to trounce the new player and give that new player a negative initial play experience, nor would the experienced player have to "go easy" on the new player and possibly have a less fulfilling game.

Functional, but no substitute for the real thing

The solo rules (as written in the open alpha at the time of this writing) are serviceable, but I'm unlikely to play them if another player is available and we can play a standard match. Even a competitive game using a pre-built scenario from a rulebook or expansion is going to provide a more engaging experience. The solo rules provide a new way to play the game, especially for some players who maybe don't have many game-playing friends, or who live in isolated areas. And if these pandemic lockdowns start to become a more common occurrence, it gives us a way to continue playing the game without risking spreading a deadly contagion to our friends and families. It also has some value as a practice and learning tool for both experienced players and complete newbies. And so far, it's completely free!

Now if only Fantasy Flight would release solo rules for Armada...

Comments (1) -

07/10/2020 13:42:25 #

"if these pandemic lockdowns start to become a more common occurrence" ...
are you already drifting off into some kind of shmi-fi parallel universe or Silent-Hill-esque nightmare of your own?

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