There has been a recent rise in discontent among X-Wing players, with a growing chorus of unhappiness at the state of the game. There are always those who aren't happy with everything and want something to be different - the perpetual 'buff the T-65 X-Wing'ers, for instance - but it seems as though we are hitting a low point in the number of people who are complaining. A recent podcast by the Mynock Squadron boys became a lightning rod for much of that dissatisfaction, leading to extensive discussions on forums.
I've made it clear in recent blogs that I feel somewhat the same way, and indeed I agree with most of the things that the Mynocks raised in their podcast. I want to use this blog to tackle that head on, lay down my own take on what the issues are, whether they're real or not, and what possible solutions might be.
To summarise, I think there are four key areas causing unhappiness, and I'll look at each one in turn.
- Power Creep
- Mechanics Balance
1. Power Creep
Definition: recent waves have been more powerful than older ships/pilots - this is both a common player perception and appears to be borne out in recent results from Regionals/Opens. It seems very difficult to create winning squads without playing these new ships.
|Recent Regionals are weighting heavily towards new ships being the best chance of winning|
Power creep is perhaps the toughest of these four topics because it's genuinely not clear what the right answer should be, or even what criteria you would use to decide that answer. Power creep is a meeting point of several pressures all working against each other:
- Some players don't want their old investments to be rendered worthless, they also don't want the ships and pilots they like playing with rendered obsolete. This is bad for players, thus bad for the game.
- Part of the attraction of a 'living' game is that it changes, presenting both new problems and new solutions to old problems. If new expansions don't challenge the status quo then the game is stagnant and some players get bored, this bad for the game
- A game that doesn't continue to sell new expansions effectively ceases to exist once the company making it stops making money. New expansions need to be good enough to persuade people to buy them because the contents look interesting/powerful. If you don't sell expansions it's bad for the game.
So you need a solution that doesn't change the game while keeping it fresh, and doesn't render old investments useless while encouraging players to invest in the new stuff as well.
That's quite a trick if you can pull it off!
My experience of these sorts of 'living games' like X-Wing comes primarily from Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft TCG and Netrunner, and they all arrived at the same solution - set rotation - but for different reasons (WoWTCG for a very cynical reason that it's not worth sharing).
Magic arrived at set rotation very early in its life cycle as a necessary result of its explosive growth from a game printed in somebody's basement to the biggest game in the world. Some of the older cards were poorly balanced and not just were they better than newer cards but there simply weren't that many of them in existence - there literally weren't enough Black Lotus cards in the world for everyone to have one. Magic established a two year set rotation for it's 'Standard' format (since added to by formats that rotate over longer periods, like 'Modern') and this meant that most players only need to keep up to date with the most recent releases. This had two big benefits for WotC: first, it continually drove sales of their newest products, and secondly it allowed them to sidestep power creep entirely.
Every few expansions WotC will deliberately release a wave of Magic sets that suck. These expansions come out and people will buy them a bit but not as much as other waves because the cards just aren't as good as cards from the years before. Isn't this commercial suicide? No, it's commercial genius! When the older powerful sets rotate out of the Standard format the weaker expansion becomes the new baseline - power level is relative, after all. This means WotC don't inexorably crank up the power level on Magic: The Gathering, instead they go through cycles of ramping it up then resetting to do it all over again. Magic has been around for nearly 25 years now, and still a lot of the best cards were the earliest cards, proving that rotation can be a long term answer to power creep.
Netrunner arrived at set rotation for a different reason, which was that the ever-growing range of expansions became a daunting obstacle to new players jumping into the game. Netrunner didn't particular have an explicit power creep trend as much as a cynical strategy of seeding one or two great cards in each expansion to make sure that players felt obliged to buy almost every set when it came out. That meant it was very difficult for new players to get up to speed without buying up an exhaustive back catalogue, and that back catalogue was only going to grow. Rotation locked the amount that players would ever need to buy, and also meant old cards would drop out of the game to leave new design space for future cards to revisit themes and mechanics in new ways.
So would set rotation work for X-Wing? Well I think it's extremely problematic because most of the 'iconic' Star Wars ships were in the early waves so they would be the first ships rotated out of the game.
As a result X-Wing doesn't rotate its ships from earlier waves and that leaves you dealing with the problem of power creep. Make new ships better than old ships and the game suffers, make new ships worse than old ships and the game suffers. So what the hell are you supposed to do?
The answer might be to rotate sets, but do to it implicitly through game mechanics rather than explicitly through removing sets from play. This is something that I know by the term 'churn'. When you 'churn' something you're cycling it and in game balance terms that means you give everything it's time in the spotlight but then the spotlight moves and something else gets the chance. The game changes, everything is relevant at some point, old players get some use of old ships but there's also incentive for them to buy new ships. The wheel ever turns.
I think FFG's strategy is probably to 'churn' X-Wing rather than to power creep it. While my graph on wave balance was alarming not every ship released is immediately powerful, even in Waves 8 and 9, and indeed it's taken Wave 9 to really shine the spotlight on ships like the YV-666 and K-Wing from Wave 7. A lot of the ships from Wave 10 look pretty underpowered on first inspection which makes me doubt 'power creep' is fuelling them, but instead that once released they're waiting to be churned to the top for a while.
Churn doesn't have to be as specific as picking a ship and buffing it until it's the best ship in the game then next wave picking another ship and buffing that until it's better, though. That's a really blunt and unsophisticated way of approaching churn when you can move whole blocks of ships and strategies at once... make having lots of green dice a good strategy, then make having a lot of hull a good strategy. Give players a reason to bring a lot of small ships, then a reason to play just a couple of ships. You're cycling play styles not specific ships, letting players adopt the ships and pilots that fit those play styles.
In principle I really like the idea of 'churn' as a solution to a game like X-Wing as any time you're in a period of the game's ever-turning wheel where you're not having fun then a little patience will see the wheel turn again and maybe you'll like it more. When you know everyone is getting a turn it's easier to be patient and wait for your turn to come around.
I have two specific concerns:
- FFG haven't said that's what they're doing so when you see things like the dominance of Waves 8 & 9 it makes you think maybe they're just cynically emptying your wallet.
- It's a tricky thing to judge without robust playtesting that can accurately predict the metagame impacts of new releases. Not just the impact of what you're playtesting now but of unreleased product on that metagame and of these new things on the metagame that the unreleased product is going to produce! Still with me? Basically FFG are designing a couple of waves into the future, so if they're designing Wave 12 but have misread what Wave 11 will do to the metagame then Wave 12 might not have the desired effect when it comes to be released.
In addition to this, the dominance of Waves 8 & 9 right now aren't just churn as there's a clear power leap in cards like /x7 and ships like the Shadow Caster, Jumpmaster and Protectorate Fighter. Were they genuine mistakes or a cynical cash grabs? It's hard to tell when FFG largely refuse to engage in a dialogue with the community and keep their intentions so closely guarded.
Definition: X-Wing used to be simple. Go back far enough into the past and you had two ships, two dials, a couple of actions and pilot cards. Each successive wave adds new abilities, new mechanics, new titles, new card combinations and the game is losing a lot of what made it good to begin with.
Complexity is a similar problem to power creep as you're really talking about complexity creep. It's caught on horns of the same triple-pronged dilemma:
- Make the game more complicated and long-time players who were attracted by the simplicity and elegance of X-Wing will be turned off
- If you don't make the game more complicated then where is the design space for new cards that don't just retread old ground? A game as simple and elegant as basic X-Wing leaves little room for future design.
- A more complex game is just as likely to attract new players who are used to other complex games as it is to turn off old players.
Personally I come from a background in games vastly more complicated and intricate than X-Wing will probably ever be, but I can step into the shoes of the guys who loved the elegance of move/shoot/move/shoot in Wave 1 X-Wing. I understand that it's a turn-off for a lot of players, especially the old-timers.
If you're not going to rotate older simple cards out of the game to make room for new simple designs then the only design space left is to make increasingly intricate & complex designs. You're going to get ships like the ARC, which is the first to pair an astromech slot with a crew slot and thus the first to create new potential combinations... but what else was the answer: to not give it those slots, to not explore new design space?
One of the best examples of this new 'complexity' in the game, which I happen to really like, is that pretty much every new ship comes with either a title or bespoke upgrade that only that ship can take. By design this makes all new ships more complex than old ships because the ship isn't just 'Statline + Dial' but 'Statline + Dial + Title', but is also means that ship has something unique in how it behaves. The TIE Advanced Prototype gets Evades when it target locks, the Quadjumper has a tractor array, the ARC and TIE/sf are the same many ways but treat their rear arc differently. Giving each ship a unique identity was previously something that lay primarily with the dial, but as design space for the dials filled up adding the titles gives more room to create unique ships.
Personally I like the titles that gives ships more character, but I also understand it's a step away from the simple elegance of what X-Wing originally was.
Too Much Of A Good Thing?
The complexity creep is probably harder to solve than power creep without resorting to rotation. It's a lot harder to 'churn' upgrades and complexity in out of the game, at least without resorting to forcing it with power creep by making new ships that are very simple but overly efficient and demand play. Instead we are going to get more and more upgrades that interact with exponentially more and more upgrades, on ships presenting new potential combinations of upgrades (like the ARC's crew/astromech slot), creating more and more potential for unhealthy combinations.
The solution might be to adopt rotation of upgrade cards to at least limit the number of possible combinations, and mean that if any particularly powerful combinations do crop up then there's a lifespan on how long that can exist. Rotation of upgrades would actually fit extremely well into FFG's current distribution model as we're used to sets reprinting old upgrade cards anyway, and now those reprints not only serve to put the cards into the hands of new players but to move the cards in and out of tournament legality. It creates new design space for new cards, and keeps formats and ships fresh and ever-changing not ever-preserved legacies of waves from years ago.
Hell, if you rotate your upgrades you might even coincidentally create the churn of ships desired as an answer to power creep!
3. Mechanics Balance
Definition: a growing perception that better dice modification and dice inflation (having more dice - Finn, Fenn Rau, Ghost etc) are making how you actually fly your list less relevant. To some players it seems like X-Wing has become a game about building a effective squad, rather than flying a squad in effective ways.
So far I've been able to remain a largely neutral narrator as both power creep and complexity creep are issues that don't directly affect how I feel about X-Wing as a player. Mechanics balance is one that I do feel passionately about, though.
The game of X-Wing runs in three phases - Planning Phase, Activation Phase, Combat Phase - and feel like the balance of the importance of these three phases has been badly warped by recent releases. In short I feel like the Activation Phase is now so powerful that a player who maximises that phase can largely ignore deficiencies in either of the other phases. It's possible to make your ships so powerful with multiple actions and interlinked upgrade effects that you can largely shrug off mistakes in the Planning Phase or bad luck in the Combat Phase.
|I quite like the idea of a game about maneuvering for position in dogfights.|
I think this is a problem, but it's also something that I think especially hurts players who came into the game a long time ago, when the game was dominated by the Planning and Combat Phases, and Activation Phase was largely just bookkeeping between those two phases.
The first thing to make clear is that the Activation Phase doesn't work alone in this, indeed much of what is happening in the Activation Phase is just following through on decisions and combinations that you worked on during squadbuilding long before the game even began. It's here that you take advantage of the fact that you've built a squad where you can take three actions with your ships. Combined, Squad Building and Activation Phase now take what I view to be an unhealthy slice of where the game's balance lies, which is a problem not just for game balance but also for the 'feel' of a game that was ostensibly about the cat and mouse dance of manuevering and positioning.
The advantage gained of taking multiple actions in the Activation Phase is now enough to entirely eliminate any advantage you might get from superior positioning you created when you set your dials in the Planning Phase.
Lets' look at an example: Rookie Pilot X-Wing vs Countess Ryad with Push The Limit and TIE/x7.
If the Rookie Pilot tries to joust the TIE Defender one-on-one it's going to end badly, as it's going to take the Rookie Pilot approximately 35 shots to push 6 damage past the Defender's Focus and Evade tokens while Ryad will destroy the Rookie Pilot in just 4 shots, on average. Now it's a fair argument that you wouldn't expect a basic pilot to beat a much better ship that costs more points one-on-one, but as Countess Ryad only costs ~70% more than a Rookie Pilot is is really fair that the TIE Defender is approximately 900% better?
The imbalance in cost/reward is so great that even two Rookie Pilot X-Wings firing at Countess Ryad should be destroyed with the TIE Defender on one hull left.
That's bad enough, demonstrating how the Activation Phase is dominating the Combat Phase, but it also undoes the Planning Phase as well. If you plan your X-Wing dial very well and get into the TIE Defender's blind spot then the reward for doing so is... an 85% of doing no damage, because of their tokens. If you had both X-Wings in play and managed to bump the TIE Defender it would still an Evade token and your second X-Wing would still be odds-against to deal any damage! Attani Mindlink ships still get focus, Dengaroo still got his focus, the Party Bus doesn't need actions for his crew abilities anyway... there's an increasingly large amount of this stuff about and it pretty much all arrived in Waves 8 & 9.
It doesn't matter how you stack it for the X-Wings, the action economy that the /x7 and PTL TIE Defender is able to generate in the Activation Phase is enough to mean that it cares relatively little about the distraction of either the Planning or Combat Phases - it knows it's going to win anyway. The problem with the tension between 'cheap cost-efficient ships' and 'expensive ships with lots of upgrades' is that nothing stacks cost-efficiency better than packing the upgrades, and that the traditional counterstrategy of the cheaper ships (bumping the expensive ship to prevent access to those upgrades) has been undermined by recent upgrades like /x7 and Attani Mindlink.
That's one example but you can apply it in similar ways to Colonel Vessery, to Asajj Ventress with Push The Limit, to Fenn Rau with his Attani Mindlink focus and the Evade from Autothrusters or Concord Dawn Protector, to Soontir Fel's turtling last year, to the corrupted action economy of Dengaroo and Zuckuss, to the combined dice modification of the Party Bus, to the SLAMmed bombs of the K-Wings. The biggest problem with all of this imbalance, to my mind, is that it's so selective in which ships can really benefit from it and that means it's playing a large role in ensuring that whole waves of ships are rarely seen in competition.
The strength that all this action economy generates - planned for in Squadbuilding, achieved usually in the Activation Phase - means that the positioning of the Planning Phase is increasingly denied the ability to reap rewards in the Combat Phase.
Addendum: it's also fair to point out that there's recently been a rash of effects that allow your opponent to interfere with where your ship actually is - cards like BoShek, or Tractor effects like Ketsu Onyo or Spacetug Tractor Array that don't require the opponent to give up their shot in the Combat Phase. This is a direct assault on the Planning Phase, over and above whether good positioning is actually worth anything much against token-laden defenders.
Change = Bad?
So, let's set aside the argument about whether that's happening or not and deal with the hypothesis that it is. Is it a bad thing? The game has changed but has it changed for the worse? For some people the answer will be no: they'll adapt or even thrive in a world where success is something you plan for in advance with strong squadbuilding rather than something you achieve on the day with inspired flying and positioning. For other players, though, its certainly a bad thing: a sudden swing in the game away from what they've enjoyed in the past and what they believe the game of X-Wing was about.
I'm one of those people. I think that most of the activation phase is just what I described it as at the top of this point - bookkeeping of tokens and effects - and I think that bookkeeping is a lot less interesting and enjoyable than playing for position and taking your best shots where you can.
Personally although I approach games in quite a dedicated high-intensity way I'm ultimately in a game for the enjoyment not the competition. The 'enjoyment' in X-Wing comes in the Planning Phase for players like me, while tokens and action bookkeeping is a chore that slows the game down and interferes with the flow of move/shoot. It might lead to a fantastic cerebral challenge of trying to ensure your actions are better than your opponent's actions, but it's not exactly exciting - I don't sit at home of an evening and amuse myself with a nice bit of admin and filing.
Even if a game is balanced why would I play it if it's not also fun?
4. "It's not Star Wars"
Definition: the earliest waves had the most famous ships, but there's not an exhaustive supply of them so it had to run out eventually. As recent waves are getting played far more heavily than older waves we've stopped seeing X-Wings and TIE Fighters so it's stopped looking and feeling like Star Wars. To some players we're now playing "Generic Science Fiction Space Battles: The Miniatures Game".
This is one that is hard to approach rationally because it's an emotional response. If we were dealing with anything other than Star Wars then you could happily rotate & churn sets all day long, do your job as a designer perfectly and keep the game extremely well balanced but continually healthy and changing. It's the holy grail. But if you do that with Star Wars you're going to hit a real problem, because to an awful lot of your customer base the ships are not being rated and weighted based on their game mechanics and balance, but on an emotional basis to how much they make people feel like they're really playing Star Wars.
This is a toughie! How can you churn/rotate the ships in your game but also lock off ships like the X-Wing/TIE Fighter/Millenium Falcon and ensure that that they're always near the top of that ever-turning wheel? It's probably close to impossible.
And yet, for a group of players they really do need that to be the case. They don't need the X-Wing to be at the top of the wheel but they'd really like it not to ever drop into the lower half, or be dragged through the mud at the bottom. And also they're the first ships so the least complex, but please don't make them more complex. Or more powerful. Or less powerful.
It's an impossible ask and yet at times like these, at this specific point in the metagame that we find ourselves in now, a failure to address this can have a huge impact on how much people actually enjoy playing X-Wing. X-Wings are bad, TIE Fighters are bad, TIE Interceptors are bad, A-Wings are bad, B-Wings are bad... about the only ships from the original trilogy of films that are knocking on the door of being considered 'good' are Rey in the new Millenium Falcon, and Y-Wings with their pesky Twin Laser Turrets. It's probably fair that for a lot of people the competitive metagame doesn't look or feel very much like Star Wars, and it's probably also fair to say that this is affecting how much they enjoy playing it.
It's something that is personal to each player. Some only want to see the ships from the original trilogy, but others have gobbled up every bit of expanded universe Star Wars and are super-hyped to get an E-Wing into the game. Some are disappointed that a central hero like Luke Skywalker is rubbish, but some love seeing Manaroo and Dengar working together on the table. It's not something you can easily legislate for as a designer, but I think it's something you can address by trying to ensure that the fundamental cost efficiency of the most iconic ships and pilots remains attractive to ensure that they'll always be playable. You can then work to ensure that new cards and mechanics don't invalidate what had gone before.
And once again, as with power creep/churn having a dialogue with players so that they can understand that, although their favourite ships might be bad right now, that FFG plan to address this in future helps you to be patient.
"You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion"
What's happening right now in all this recent fuss about the state of the game is that all these four factors are combining to hit a lot of the same group of players. If you like the older ships or object to being forced to play the new flavour of the month, if you like the elegance of the basic rules of X-Wing, if you like the importance of positioning on the table, and if you like playing with the most iconic ships in Star Wars... then everything is set against you.
Those players feel under attack, and they feel like they're being pushed out of the game they enjoy.
I think that's why the complaints have reached a peak at the moment, because for a lot of players there's very little going right and there hasn't been for a long time. They've been patient, and that patience has been rewarded by more and more things coming along that they don't like. They're genuinely approaching breaking point in their relationship with the game, at least with the competitive forms of the game.
So what do you do when Order 66 gets proclaimed? When the clones turn on you do you die fighting for your way of life, or do you run and hide in a distant corner of the galaxy and practice the old ways?
I'll look at some answers to that question in my next blog...
I'll look at some answers to that question in my next blog...