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Five useful design observations from X-Wing Miniatures

In which your humble contributing editor attempts to parlay his obsession with tiny Star Wars ships into useful game design observations.

If you were to spend time with me in person over the last few months, you would have likely heard me babbling about my newfound love of Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game. After spotting its sister game Star Wars: Armada at GDC 2016 (and realizing I could name all the ships thanks to a teenage Star Wars obsession), I took the dive this year into the smaller dogfight simulator despite years of swearing off community-driven collectible card games. 

Now, of course, X-Wing Miniatures isn’t the only movement-driven miniature game out there (it has its roots in WWII dogfighting tabletop games), but despite having played a variety of tabletop games, I hadn’t seen any game that relied on such directed movement before. Over the last few months, while building up a small fleet of ships, I’ve tried to cobble together a few specific takeaways about what makes X-Wing “fun” beyond the fantasy of just simulating a Star Wars dogfight. 

In case you’re unaware of how the game works, here’s a quick primer. Players (usually two, but sometimes more) build a squadron of ships with varying pilots and abilities from the Rebel, Imperial, or Scum & Villainy factions. During turn-by-turn play, players assign maneuvers to each ship in their squadron, which use an order-of-operations system to line up shots and use abilities. 

With that out of the way, here’s some takeaways that (I hope) help developers whether they’re working on board games or video games similar to X-Wing…

Unpredictability in unit movement isn’t just fun, it’s thrilling

Generally, when I think of video game traversal systems, for turn-based or free-flowing games, one of the general consistencies is a near-guarantee of where player characters will move from A to B. “Mistakes,” if they exist, are left for general positioning or attacking in combat-driven games. But X-Wing Miniatures’ maneuvering system allows for even expert players to bungle basic movement, which is a feature, not a bug, in this game. 

While players do have control over what maneuver their ships perform on a turn by turn basis, they can’t be 100% certain of where their ship will wind up. Other variables, including asteroid tiles, opposing ships, or even friendly ships, may cause ships to bump, collide, or land without a clear firing arc on their opponent. 

For instance, say a player (like your humble writer) tries to fly three TIE fighters in a tight formation. One bumps the other, and the only way to get it clear is to fly it away from the enemy. 2 turns from now, it’s going to be late to an engagement where most of the ships will get their first shots off. 

BUT, because of that first mistake, that third TIE fighter is now set to catch an opposing A-Wing that’s soared past the opening salvos. Had it completed its initial flight path, the first two ships’ flanks might be entirely exposed. A mistake from turn 1 becomes an advantage in turn 2 that helps that player recover from that decision. 

I could give other examples, but the fact that movement isn’t a guaranteed thing in X-Wing adds to the fantasy that these ships are being “piloted,” not just directed, and adds an important level of gameplay variance worth learning from. 

Characters who break the rules make party formation fun

In an interview from a 2015 tournament series, two of X-Wing Miniatures’ game designers were explaining their philosophy about bringing characters from the Star Wars films to life. In their example, Emperor Palpatine (who doesn’t fly a ship but can travel on some of them) is a character meant to upend a game by guarunteeing whoever is controlling him one hit or evade result with every dice roll. 

But scanning the whole board, there’s actually a clear pattern of (mostly well-known) characters who ignore or simply break the core rules of the game. Shadows of the Empire protagonist Dash Rendar allows the player to mostly ignore the asteroid tokens. Han Solo gets two chances to land a perfect hit (at no cost). And Dark Forces hero Kyle Katarn gets to hoard and dispense focus tokens like they were candy at Halloween. 

I guess this is kind of a character ability lesson, but if you’re looking at a good barometer for what makes a good “rule-breaking” ability, the high-cost characters of X-Wing Miniatures pulled from the movies or animated shows are a decent place to start. 

Sneaking in useful abilities to lower-skilled units creates variance in player builds

Generally, the trade-off in pilot skill to pilot cost in abilities works like this: If a pilot is more expensive, it probably has an ability that puts it slightly above the average power curve of the game. Poe Dameron can turn focus results into hits for free, Darth Vader can perform two actions instead of one, etc. 

But during a conversation with an expert Imperial player recently, he commented that for say, the TIE Defender (of LucasArts’ TIE Fighter fame) it wasn’t economical to go for the more-expensive elite pilots. Instead, he chose to fly cheaper units who couldn’t equip the Elite Pilot talent cards, but whose unique abilities made it worthwhile to put them in his squadron. 

There’s a clear trade-off there, but it’s only possible because Fantasy Flight has given clear, interesting abilities to characters who players might overlook at first. It helps broaden the play identity for different ships, and makes ships that might seem “weaker” more appealing when they get to pair with other abilities. 

Modular abilities can help “patch” other units

Whenever Fantasy Flight releases a new set of ships for X-Wing Miniatures, they also come with ability cards that fit into one of a few categories (Elite Pilot Talent, Torpedo, Modification, Title, etc). While Title cards can only be applied to one type of ship, other ability cards included with each new expansion can be introduced as a means to tweak the identity and playstyle of previously released ships.

In one clear-cut example, when the YT-2400 freighter was released (the Outrider from Shadows of the Empire), it came with a Title card that let it use Cannon weapons in a 360 degree arc, not just out its firing arc. But at its release, most Cannon cards were limited in range in some fashion. So either a Cannon would fire only at close range, leaving some enemies out of reach, or it would fire at long range, leaving a donut hole around the YT-2400 that ships could sneak into. 

Some time later, Fantasy Flight created the mangler cannon, one of the few in the game that can shoot at all ranges, cementing the YT-2400’s ability to scoot around the battlefield without a care for range. There are some nitty-gritty power trade-offs I could get into, but instead of introducing specific changes to 1 ship, Fantasy Flight brought in a new ability that multiple ships could take advantage of while solving this one design challenge. 

Core mechanics can be tweaked to represent abstract ideas

If you’re struggling with representing abstract concepts in your game, X-Wing Miniatures has a few mechanics worth looking at. For instance, there is a cloaking mechanic in game that can turn ships invisible, without any fancy visual effects. How does it work? When cloaked ships de-cloak, they’re required to perform a barrel roll maneuver moving them further away from their current position, and while they’re cloaked, they get to roll an extra evade dice to block shots. 

What that represents is the idea that an opposing pilot has SOME idea where the cloaked ship is (because the pretense of the game is that this is a combat scenario, not a game with aware/unaware status), but doesn’t know exactly where they are. So it lets players still shoot at the missing ship, but it also lets the cloaked ship gain the upper hand in positioning. 

In another instance, why does the Special Forces TIE fighter have the ability to shoot out a rear arc when it doesn't seem to have a visible weapon facing that way on the model? Because it’s the ship that Finn and Poe stole at the start of The Force Awakens, that had a retractable rear cannon. In a doubly-efficient move, this means Fantasy Flight can ship another TIE Fighter expansion with only minor changes to the paint and molding

And in a particularly morbid example, how does Biggs Darklighter, Luke’s doomed friend from A New Hope appear in this game? If the other player has Biggs and another ship in their sights, they’re required to shoot Biggs first. So he’s always providing cover for his squadmates…at the expense of his own life. 

X-Wing Miniatures does have limits in what its mechanics can express, but from Jyn Erso to the array of astromech droids to C-3PO himself, many Star Wars characters have a role in the game that can be translated somehow into dice roles, dimensionality, or modifiers on the game’s order-of-operations-style system. 

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