Designed by James Kniffen and Christian T. Petersen. Published by Fantasy Flight Games. Released March 2015. Review copy provided by publisher.
Naval tactics games are a favorite niche of mine. Multiple ships with crews in the hundreds of people, all working together to outmaneuver and destroy their foes. Take that to space? Hell, take that to Star Wars? You have my attention. Thus it was with Star Wars: Armada, and I’ve been hankering for another crack at the game ever since Gen Con last year, hoping that it’d live up to the brief taste I got of it. What its core set delivered is a focused, enjoyable strategic-tactical experience that both stays true to its Star Wars roots and has the potential to be as good as, or better, a space tactics game than any we’ve seen in a long time. If you’re like me, by the end of your first playthrough you’ll be doing copious research to ensure your future victories. While many players won’t be blown away by their initial impression, the starter set lays a solid foundation for a miniatures game, showing a lot of promise in a relatively small package.
Continuing the kind of quality that Fantasy Flight established a few years ago, Armada‘s miniatures, cards, and tokens are all of the highest quality and latest design. The pre-painted miniatures are a joy to use and look wonderful on the table, and are certainly the highest quality pre-painted minis on the market right now. The little stands of three fighters that make up the squadron miniatures are monotone plastic, but they’d take paint if you really wanted them to be colored. The layout of the statistics cards is quite good, if a little cluttered for my tastes, but cards that contain a single rule or special ability are given a lot of space for clear text in larger than average font. The best thing about the components in Armada is that they’re all intensely customized to go with the game you’re playing. From the custom movement stick to the spinning dials and sliders on every ship’s base, every piece is made so that you can quickly and handily track whatever statistic you need to without resorting to clumsy piles of tokens or pads of paper.
Turns are comparably simple to Armada‘s older sibling X-Wing Miniatures. Each round of the game is divided into distinct phases, and each phase has a very straightforward order of operations – it’s the kind of very understandable base you want in a good skirmish or war game. First, you give your ships hidden commands, often forecasting those commands to meet your needs in a future round. Second, you reveal previous commands on a ship, fire with two arcs of its weapons, and then move it according to its current speed. Then your opponent does the same, then you continue to trade until every ship on the board has acted. Third, you activate each squadron of small ships, which can either move up to its speed or attack. Finally, you do a bit of cleanup, recover your ships’ limited-use resources, and start the next round.
There aren’t that many wrinkles beyond those simple phases, but the tactical considerations are much deeper than you think. Take speed, for example, each ship’s speed is fixed unless you alter it with a command, and it has to keep moving that exact speed each round. If you’re not careful your route can get away from you, sending your ships on a collision course with others or running them out of the combat area. Changing speed, however, is the domain of the secret command dials you give ships each round, which for larger ships means planning your major course corrections a round or two in advance. Since your ships’ weapons are more or less powerful in their different arcs of fire, you need to manage your position against others’ in order to maximize your firepower and keep your strong shields facing your opponents’.This is just one example of how Armada‘s simple systems allow for interesting and complex emergent gameplay based on adapting how your ships move to the battlefield – or forcing your opponent to do the same.
The rule of mandatory movement only narrowly controlled, combined with the game’s emphasis on tactically focusing on a starship’s same facing to wear away its shields, causes moments of play like this to appear: Your opponent’s Victory-II Class Star Destroyer is bruising its way up the center of the table, taking pot shots at your ships. Your only chance is to outflank it, so you push your corvette and frigate into a high speed band trying to reach its back arc. Meanwhile, your powerful X-Wings are tied down in the center of the table by enemy TIE fighters – because once fighters get within a certain distance of each other they become engaged in a dogfight, unable to move or change targets until they deal with the other squadron. Your imperial opponent anticipates your move, though, and nudges the prow of her V-II a bit to one side, bringing your corvette careening helplessly into the most powerful bank of guns her ship has. In a fast volley, your corvette is gone and you’ve got to re-evaluate the tactical situation fast.
That’s not to say that the movement and firing minigames are always fun. The proprietary measuring stick that allows you to move your starships can be a bit bulky and finnicky, forcing you to lay it over other game elements and take your best guess as to where you’ll end up when placing your ship. That said, it’s a far sight better than a stack of custom maneuver templates for every single ship, or forcing the fleet combat into a grid or hex based system, and it’ll really only cause problems in ultra-competitive play – what’s a few millimeters of fictional ship positioning between friends?
For those seeking a combined strategic-tactical experience, Armada definitely has what you’re looking for. Utilizing the command system is a pleasure, and having to script actions a few rounds in advance really does feel like an admiral relaying actions to their fleet. You choose between Navigate, Engineering, Concentrate Fire, and Command Squadrons. Each ship is better and worse at some of these things. If you don’t want to take the benefits of the command dial you’ve chosen, then you can take a command token to get a lesser effect on a later round – say, prepare to do some engineering work because while you’re not in combat now, you will be soon. SImilarly, learning the strengths and weaknesses of your ships to give them appropriate fleet roles is a lot of fun, and figuring out that you much prefer a short-range bruiser like the Victory-I Star Destroyer over the longer-ranged and pricier Victory-II is not as much a matter of game balance as it is personal preference. In the long term, surely, a metagame will develop and the best Armada ship lists will be identified, but those looking for a casual local gaming experience in the meantime won’t be disappointed.
The game’s learning curve isn’t too steep, and it uses mostly custom components that are purpose-built to convey the information they’re meant to convey. That really lowers the learning curve, and ensures a new player can consistently find information when playing a different faction from one game to another. The more in-depth experience of playing a faction looks to be improving into the future as well, and the preview statistics and models for the Wave I and Wave II ships seem like they’ll add to the game rather than detract.
After each game of Armada with a new player, not one was left with anything other than a taste for another go. While it’s certainly not a game you can get anyone to play in the first place, for even casual miniatures fans this game is hours of enjoyment waiting to happen. The only real barrier to entry is price – like any other premium game with custom components it’s not cheap, sitting at US $99.95 for a starter set. Likewise, while that base is fun to play with, you’ll certainly want more ships, all clocking in at $20-30. For an investment of something like $200 over a few months, though, you’re going to have more than enough ships to keep you entertained when you break out the game for casual play. If you’re putting more than that into it it’s going to be more game than what you would’ve bought with the cash otherwise – you’re clearly playing it a lot.
Bottom Line: Star Wars: Armada is a solid game and a fantastic base to build a line on, the only thing holding it back is the premium price.
Recommendation: Those with even a passing interest in tactics games or space ships owe it to themselves to play this one at least once.[rating=4.0]