Thursday, 10 August 2017

Rookie Pilot: Remember What Your Squad Does!

Rookie Pilots is a series of occasional blogs looking at common mistakes players make, either when they're just starting out or trying to step up their play from the kitchen table to the tournament hall.
There's an awful lot in X-Wing that you need to pay attention to.  You need to be planning your moves, guessing their moves, dodging asteroids, deciding whether to Boost or Focus.  And that's before you even get into having to remember everything your opponent is using and what it does and what everything you're using is - what the pilot abilities do, what the upgrades do, how they all interact... 

It can be a lot to take on, and it can be very easy to forget something important.  In this edition of 'Rookie Pilot' I'm going to cover something that I see happening a lot, which is wasted points being spent on upgrades that never get used effectively because players just completely forget about them.

"Wars Not Make One Great"

When I was learning to play X-Wing one of my mentors drummed a handy motto into me which goes as follows: 

"The most expensive upgrade is the one you never use".  

If you don't get any use from an upgrade then it's not generated any value and you effectively just threw those points away.

A while back I played a few games against a newer player who was using Rey and Poe Dameron.  His collection was still lacking a lot of expansions so he couldn't really outfit Rey the way you might want to but he'd put some good thought into what he did have available and so he fielded this:
Rey (YT-1300) - Cool Hand, Finn, Recon Specialist, Millennium Falcon (sloop), Concussion Missiles, Smuggling Compartment, Burnout SLAM, Guidance Chips

I know he didn't have the Ghost expansion for Kanan Jarrus crew, or the U-Wing for something like Expertise, but in Cool Hand and Recon Specialist he'd at least worked to make sure that Rey would be focused on attack and defense, and on at least one of her Sloops or K-turns thanks to Cool Hand.  When you're able to reroll blank results (with Rey's ability) having focus tokens is a huge advantage so I thought he'd actually done pretty well with the limited pool of upgrades he had available.  The Concussion Missiles didn't really work, either with Finn or with taking Focus actions not Target Locks, but they filled a slot and rounded out his squad.

All in all it clearly wasn't the ideal Rey, but he'd done his best with what he had.

Then we played a couple of games and after those games we had a recap:
  • Cool Hand: used 0 times
  • Millennium Falcon: used 0 times
  • Concussion Missiles: used 0 times
  • Burnout SLAM: used 0 times

He had remembered to use his Recon Specialist a couple of times, but in key moments he would Target Lock instead of Focus despite the fact that Rey already got to reroll dice and he'd paid 3pts for a Recon Specialist to double-focus!  When you add it all up my friend had effectively been playing with a 90pt list as there were 10pts of Upgrades sat at the side of the table which he never really put to use in the game.  

That's one extreme of the problem, with multiple upgrades that weren't really ideal to begin with sitting unused, but at the opposite end even more experienced players like myself can struggle with forgetting things at key moments.  Despite playing a Crack Swarm of TIE Fighters last year I still found myself struggling to remember Crack Shot when I put a single copy of it into my Nettling Imps squad.

"Luminous beings are we.  Not this crude matter."

X-Wing is pretty easy when you start and it's all right there in front of you on the table.  You've got a ship and a maneuver dial.  When you fire you may need to look at your pilot card to see how many dice to roll, but really all that's on the base of the ship anyway.  Pretty much everything you need to know is happening out on that 3x3 mat.

One of the hidden challenges when making those first steps up from the basic game of generic ships with not many upgrades is that there's actually a complete shift in where you need to be paying attention during a game.  By that I mean, physically, you need to be looking at different places.  

You're used to looking at this the whole time...
Where you've been used to spending your time looking at the play area - at dials, ship positions, maneuver templates - you've now got to give at least as much focus to what's sitting just off the table in you and your opponent's squads and upgrades.  

...but now all this stuff is AT LEAST as important as what's happening on the table.
For some players I think this rookie mistake is literally just a case of 'out of sight, out of mind'.  You started playing X-Wing by looking at the table because squads weren't important and that's become a sort of tunnel vision that means you're so focused on the table you never stop to think about the upgrades.

The trouble is that the point in the game when it comes to use these upgrades is almost always too late to be thinking about whether you should use them or not!  

If you don't have these effects and abilities in mind right from the start of the game then I think the odds of you suddenly remembering them just at the point you should use them is probably a bit of a longshot.  More than that, though, a lot of the time the way you're playing should be taking into account what those abilities are so that can create positions to use them.

And all of this is true not just for planning ahead to use and maximise your own upgrades, but for planning ahead to avoid or minimise the impact of your opponent's upgrades.  If they've got Plasma Torpedoes how do you manage the speed of your approach to either get out of arc, or duck into range 1?  

If they've got a Tractor Beam how do you avoid being pushed onto an asteroid?  The point at which your opponent says "I'm going to use my Tractor Beam" is too late to realise that you probably needed to do a 3-speed straight instead of a 2-speed straight so that you weren't parked next to a rock.

If you're really struggling with this Rookie Pilot issue then the best way to get a handle on it is to introduce a new discipline... whatever you're about to do: check your squad, check their squad.
  • Putting down asteroids?  Check your squad, check their squad.  A wide open table isn't giving you any information about whether you want to cluster asteroids up or spread them out.
  • Deploying?  Check your squad, check their squad.  Do you want to joust or are you scared of their firepower?  Are they going to joust or are they going to try and drag it out?  Which flank are they going to use?  Are they going to feint away and try to switch sides?
  • Setting a dial?  Check your squad, check their squad.  Are there any upgrades or abilities you need to bear in mind?  Do you know what maneuvers your opponent's ship can do?  Do you know what maneuvers your opponent's squad means he wants to do?  What order are ships going to move in?  What is the threat you're trying to bring to bear on your opponent, what is the threat you're trying to avoid?
  • Taking an action?  Check your squad, check their squad.  Do you have anything that would affect your decision - do you need to target lock for a missile, do you need to barrel roll to get out of range 1?  If you've already got rerolls from Rey's ability do you need a Target Lock as well, if you've already got a Focus modification from A Score To Settle should you Target Lock to reroll any blanks instead of focusing?
  • Getting into Combat?  Check your squad, check their squad.  Do you have multiple weapons to choose from, multiple targets?  Who are you going to shoot at - is the obvious target the right target or is the opponent trying to draw you into making a mistake?  Should you focus or save it for defense?

It will slow your games down when you first adopt this discipline but I think you'll be surprised just how quickly this drums into you what both you and your opponent are playing, and how quickly you find yourself remembering most of it without even having to look.

"Never his mind on where he was.  Hmm?  What he was doing!"

You have to take ownership of the ships and upgrades you're using.  This means knowing why they're there and how you're going to use them, right from the start of the game.  Let's pick up that example of the Rey list my friend was playing.  I'm pretty sure that at the start of the game his train of thought was something like this...

"I'm the Millenium Falcon, how cool is that?  There's a big open space in front of me and I want to kill that ship that's opposite me on the table, so I'll do a 4 forward and try to get into range and start firing."

I may have been a bit 'cruel to be kind' in what he's thinking, but my train of thought would have been something more like this...

"I've got a turret on the Falcon but I don't really want to use it because Rey, Finn and the Concussion Missiles all need my front arc.  I can't sloop a lot to keep my arc on targets as I've got Recon Specialist not Kanan and I'll be stressed and unable to Focus, but I've at least got one good sloop thanks to Cool Hand and I'll actually be able to use it on a K-turn as well which my opponent might forget about as Rey usually sloops.  Because I find turning around harder without Kanan I want to try and keep the fight in front of me as much as possible, ideally with first engagement at range 2-3 for my Concussion Missiles, so a slow approach is better to give me more rounds of firing before the enemy gets behind me and forces me to burn Cool Hand to turn around."

There's obviously a lot more to remember in my version, but what it highlights is that the upgrades I'm bringing are changing how I fly the ship.  

If I've got the loadout for my squad in mind right from deployment then I'm owning why those points were spent and what they're there to do.  Right off the bat I've got a much higher chance of putting myself in position to use those upgrades, and if I'm actively trying to make them happen then I'll also be more likely to remember to use them!

Once you've learned to avoid this rookie mistake you'll find it triggering a positive chain reaction through your games.  You'll be setting up asteroids with an idea for how they're going to give you space you need, or stop the opponent from moving around freely.  You're going to be deploying with a clear plan for how you're going to try and engage, or what you think the opponent is likely to do.  You'll be more likely to put your ships into the right place to use your upgrades, and then remember to use them, because they were in your mind all along.  

And when you pick up those four red dice for your big missile shot you'll feel the satisfaction that comes with having planned it all out turns earlier.

If you're a newer player then maybe you won't read the situation entirely right.  Maybe you'll even get it completely wrong!  But you'll be putting in place the discipline and critical thinking steps that will ultimately serve you well once your experience and knowledge of the game have developed.  You'll make mistakes but mistakes can be learned from and corrected, which is how you're going to progress from Rookie Pilot to Red Ace.  If nothing else you won't be giving your opponent a 10pt head start by flat out forgetting what your squad does.  

And, once again, all this applies just as much to taking ownership of how your opponent's squad affects your squad.  If Soontir Fel is going to be particularly hurt by Asajj Ventress handing out stress then you need to own that impact and carry it throughout the game.  If Poe Dameron's tanky shield regeneration is going to make him impossible to kill 1-on-1 in the endgame then you need to know that right from the start of the game.  

Remember: by the time it starts to matter it's often too late to do anything about it!

"I can't.  It's too big"

If you're still learning the game and struggling with this sort of thing then having to remember all about these upgrades and abilities on top, and plan it all out in advance... that's going to be too much to remember, right?

No, it's the opposite.  In actual fact by giving yourself a strategy to stick to with these upgrades and abilities actually makes future decision-making easier.  This is because the choices were already made, or at least heavily influenced, by what has already happened in squad building.
  • What speed should I dial in on my move?  I want to force a long range engagement, which racing forwards makes it hard to do so I should probably go slow.
  • Do I want to K-Turn or S-Loop?  Well if I've got Kanan crew he lets me clear stress if I S-Loop but not if I K-Turn.
  • Should I Focus or Target Lock?  Well I paid for Recon Specialist and I can already reroll my blank dice with Rey's pilot ability so I'll Focus.

One of the tell-tale symptoms of suffering from this particular rookie mistake is that it can seem like every decision players make in the game is independent from the others.  Instead of a cohesive strategy where every decision is leading towards the same goal you'll see people finish their maneuver, plop their ship down on the end of the dial and then realise they have to take an action and just stare at the table like they've never had make this sort of decision before.  Then they'll pick up their next ship dial and do the same thing again.

When you don't take ownership of your squad and how your opponent affects it then a lot of the time you're leaving yourself without clear direction pointers for a lot of decisions you'll make during the game.  

You're actually making things harder for yourself.  You're going to spend time considering and eliminating options turn after turn when the choice should be obvious - it's a constant burning of unnecessary mental energy on tactical decision that could have been avoided by thinking about strategy instead.  If you need to then keep a few notes - write some bullet points on the back of your hand and you won't be the first person to do so!

"No more training do you require.  Already know you, that which you need."

So, to summarise:
  1. When you're making a decision look at the ships & upgrades involved BEFORE you look at the table.  What abilities & upgrades (yours or your opponents) are going to affect what you're looking for, or what you decide to do?
  2. Own your squad right from deployment.  Know why you've picked the squad you're using and plan how you're going to make your upgrades & abilities matter.
  3. Your opponent's squad is just as important as your squad!  Don't just look down at your own abilities and upgrades, make sure you know what your opponent's squad does, how his pieces fit together.
  4. Frontload your thinking.  Your squad setup will probably guide a lot of your decisions and make life simpler during the game, if you let it.  Don't fight unnecessary battles against your own squad's strategy if you can avoid it.

"Mind what you have learned.  Save you it can."


  1. Thanks for this. I really love your writing about x-wing. I learn so so much from you. I´ve only been playing at the kitchen table for a couple of months but been reading your blog almost since I started playing x-wing. For a couple of weeks I´ve been thinking about make the move from the kitchen table to competition and this blog made me want it even more. Reading about mentors made me thinking that I would like to find a mentor to. So I can get some feedback. Thanks so much for your important great work you do here. / Rindi.

  2. This is brilliant. Thanks for putting this together.

  3. David, always a good read. Your articles always give me something to think about and DO help improve my game--when I remember! (Maybe a "pre-flight" checklist would help me with that).

    Anyhow, the only other comment I would add concerning this article is that rookie pilots should not undervalue the importance of doing repetitions with a list. It will help them understand their squads weaknesses & strengths, but also get a better sense of the value of the upgrade cards they've chosen: "Is Cool Hand really worth those points? Would Wired, Predator or _______ have been a wiser choice?"

    All too often squad lists and upgrades are dismissed for not winning the game for oneself when starting out, so it goes directly in the bin, so-to-speak.

    Repetition will help a player remember pilot abilities, ship maneuvers, upgrades and their effects, as well as suss out a weak upgrade choice and/or tactics. And soon enough, a lot of it will become second nature.