Unplugged: Stay on target with X-Wing Miniatures

October 19, 2012

Miniatures-based games are a topic you are not going to see that often in this space, mostly because they tend to require a much more in-depth commitment than regular board games, and I personally use that time for Magic instead. In addition to assembling armies, frequently carefully spending a predetermined limit of points on each piece and ability to keep opposing forces balanced, many minis gamers will spend a crazy amount of time just painting the often-undecorated metal figurines or physically constructing simulated terrain to better enhance the play experience.

The recent Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures game published by Fantasy Flight doesn’t need its incredibly detailed plastic ships to be painted, and most of the action takes place in the void of space (give or take some asteroids), so right away this game already seems to be something of an on-ramp to what is otherwise often a staggeringly foreboding subgenre. The base set comes with three ships: one powerful but somewhat awkward X-Wing and two fragile yet nimble TIE Fighters. Expansions for additional ships are already available with more on the way, but for now let’s just focus on the basics.

Other than the plastic, there is also a ton of cardboard in this small box as well as two different types of cards. The cards that aren’t used for tracking damage (with criticals on one side and basic damage on the other) represent the various pilots available, which includes both named characters like Luke Skywalker (Darth Vader is available in the TIE Advanced expansion) as well as lesser-skilled nameless extras to fill out your ranks. Each pilot card has a corresponding baseplate slip so you can remember which ship has which pilot at a glance, and there are also numbers that can be used to distinguish the identical ones.

Each turn begins with each pilot selecting a maneuver on their dials in secret. These maneuvers will indicate how far each ship travels and in what direction (turning or straight) and are executed by placing the appropriate cardboard guide in front of the ship’s base and then moving the ship to the other end. After moving, a pilot can execute one action indicated on their card that usually grants them a token to be used later that turn (focus, evade, target lock, etc.).

Following movement, each ship can take one shot at an opposing ship within range and within their firing arc via a helpful ruler-like guide that indicates close, medium, and long range and thus any bonus dice that might be granted to one side or the other. Attack dice are rolled, and then defense dice are rolled to see if they can cancel out successes, with uncanceled successes equating to damage taken, either to the ship’s hull or to its shields (if any). This process generally continues until one side is destroyed although some included scenarios might have other victory conditions.

Sounds simple enough, yes? And for the most part, it is. X-Wing Minis is a really streamlined game that tries to do reduce as much of the usual minis rule-managing as possible. You won’t find any tape-measures here, although the trade-off for that is a sometimes-unwieldy stack of movement templates, one for each distance traveled (ranging from one to four base lengths at present) and each type of turn executed at those distances. And instead of relying on numerical statistics and bookkeeping to determine hits and damage, everything here is handled by the custom eight-sided dice. Without venturing into preconstructed squads, the most complicated aspect of the base set are the various actions that can be taken and their effects, but there aren’t too many of them and players should pick up on what they do quickly. Then all they need to do is figure out how to fly.

You see, much like RoboRally, it can be difficult to visualize where your ship will end up at the end of your move and, sometimes more importantly, which direction it will be facing. Ships move in an order according to their pilots’ Pilot ratings, with lower-ranked ships moving first and the most skilled ones going last. And perhaps in keeping with the fact that almost all movie space battles seem to take place on a 2D plane instead of in three dimensions, if the end point of a ship’s move would cause it to overlap with another, instead the second ship’s move gets cut short until they are merely adjacent (of note: adjacent ships cannot fire at each other) instead of simply flying over or under it (which, to be fair, would be a nuisance to keep track of). Combat is handled in reverse order, which allows the more skilled pilots to both move last and fire first, effectively giving them the most options for their targets and this better control of the scenario.

Of course, there is only so much control you can really have over the actual dice. Some actions and abilities allow you to either reroll or outright change certain die results, but other than that you are at their mercy. Didn’t roll enough hits or evades? Well, that’s a problem. You rolled well but so did your opponent, effectively negating your efforts? Same result, but probably more frustrating in the long run. And “the long run” is what you might be in for if the dice are truly against you. A basic two-player game between one X-Wing and two TIEs should take about 20 minutes, but that only applies when you actually hit each other. A game filled with the right (or wrong) rolls can, in theory, last forever. And that’s before you add in options (like astromechs and proton torpedoes), larger squads and multiple players on each side.

Still, if you want to get into a minis game you could do far, far worse. The licensed Star Wars theme really carries this game, and allows for much forgiving of its inherent sins. In what I feel is a confession that probably should have been at the beginning of this article, I haven’t even actually played this game, nor do I intend to. There’s just too much reliance on chance for me, but even then, this game is still a blast to watch thanks to how simplified (and, let’s be honest here, gorgeous) it is. If you like the theme and don’t mind the dice, I would definitely recommend you pick up a starter and grab a friend.