I've spent a long time resisting talking about previews and spoilers for upcoming expansions, just because I always fear that once you start down that path forever will it dominate your blog. There's so much new content coming down the pipe that trying to blog about it all just winds up turning you into 'the new content review guy'.
The new Alpha Class Star-Wing expansion (hereafter referred to as 'the Gunboat') is going to be an exception because as the most hyped and long-awaited ship released since the Millenium Falcon in Wave 2, I know that a lot of eyes are on it. It's come at an important time for the Empire as well, with Imperial fleets struggling in the current metagame.
So is the Gunboat the saviour of the Galactic Empire?
There's something I want to show you right away about these pilots...
The way that the costs ramp up on these things is one of the steepest curves of any ship, certainly of anything the Imperials have been given recently. At +8 cost on the base Nu Squadron Pilot, Major Vynder is one of the few pilots to be costed more than +6 on base and that puts him in illustrious territory with the likes of Darth Vader, Soontir Fel and The Inquisitor. Even outside of the top Imperial pilots Vynder finds himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fenn Rau, Dengar, and the PS9 Poe Dameron.
And Major Rhymer in his TIE Bomber, who has the dubious privilege of being the only pilot in the game to be costed at +10 on his base generic (if you ignore the unique case of the Outer Rim Smuggler).
I'm confident that Major Vynder's pilot ability is not on a par with the likes of Fenn Rau or Darth Vader's ability, and so I'm pretty sure Major Vynder is more like Major Rhymer and significantly overcosted. You're paying a very heavy tax for the ability to SLAM at PS9 (with Veteran Instincts) and I think in most metagame environments that tax isn't going to be worth paying.
I think Vynder's actually going to be a lot like Whisper's TIE Phantom, in that he's looking out for points in the fluctuating metagame when he's going to be the last person moving and thus able to leverage his SLAM into arc-dodging and extra damage.
It's a similar story as you go down the list: +6 pts on base price for Karsabi is the same you have to pay for Quickdraw, Captain Nym or Miranda Doni. Is Karsabi's ability as good as theirs? No, although the gap is maybe a bit closer. The Rho Squadron pilot is at least priced in line with a lot of other 'Generic with an EPT' pilots, but then it's also worth pointing out that pretty much all of those type of pilots have been rotten.
What this pricing structure is telling us to do is to focus on the Nu Squadron Pilot. Either it's the only one of the pilots costed appropriately and the others are overcosted, or (if you flip the argument the other way) the other pilots are costed appropriately and the Nu Squadron is undercosted at 8pts less than it's top pilot.
Whichever version you like the sound of, it's the Nu Squadron that seems most immediately attractive to me.
I'm flat out very disappointed in the Gunboat's dial.
I understood all along that the fact it had SLAM would be a limiting factor on how maneuverable it was, but I hoped that two years on from the K-Wing we might get something more adventurous. I expected to see some powerful red moves on the dial, like a 3 K-Turn or Tallon Roll, or even a hard 1 turn (if the Upsilon Shuttle can do it, this can!).
I wanted to see the developers playing with how red moves and SLAM interacted with each other, but no, we got it played very safe and just a small incremental improvement on the K-Wing. Without the K-Wing's turret the Gunboat really needs ways of swinging its firing arc about and it's just missing the option to stress itself to get where it needs to be.
I think it's also possible that players are overvaluing the potential of being able to SLAM through 180 degrees and still fire. In theory that's a bit like how a TIE Defender is able to pull a white k-turn and swing around it's guns, but in practice those SLAM turns throw your firing arc way off to the side and they do it in a very predictable way. SLAM is going to be most valuable for rapid engage/disengage attacks and for enabling differing attack vectors for the opponent to worry about.
Are you going to turn in tight to engage his front, or try to SLAM around the outside of an asteroid to hit him in the flank?
All told there's nothing wrong with the Gunboat's dial. It's fine, I guess. It's just... it's a bit boring. Imperial players don't like boring dials. The TIE Striker got to play around with s-loops on top of it's ailerons movement and it's fun, the Gunboat just gets the Wave 1 T-65 X-Wing dial.
TITLES & PLAYSTYLES
The Gunboat's style of play is probably going to be heavily influenced by the two titles available to it, a lot like how TIE Defenders are driven by either /x7 or /D titles.
The OS-1 loadout emphasises more missiles, and it also allows you to fire them after a SLAM action has given you a Weapons Disabled token. How good is that? Well, I think the answer is probably 'not as good as you'd immediately think'.
- Firstly if we're prioritising the lower PS Nu Squadron Pilot then you're faced with the age-old problem of how to move into target lock range without the opponent then either moving either into range 1 or out of your arc.
- Secondly the OS-1 restriction on only firing on things you have a target lock on rules out some of the better options you could equip to sidestep that problem of target locking the right target. Unguided Rockets, Proton Rockets, Deadeye and even Targeting Synchroniser are all things that won't help you out. You'll have to do it the hard way.
- Thirdly OS-1 naturally creates an expensive ship as you have to buy the title, and then the missiles. If you're not using the cheaper pilots (in order to avoid all the problems already noted) then you're doubling down on the problem that Major Vynder is already overcosted before you even start loading him up with missiles! You can make a threatening Major Vynder at PS9, but you're paying a lot to do so.
- Finally, although the OS-1 title lets you fire a missile after a SLAM you're struggling to actually mod those dice and make them all hits. The SLAM was your action so you can't target lock, but if you had Long-Range Scanners you could target lock the turn before then SLAM in and fire, though you wouldn't have focus. If you have Advanced SLAM then you could focus, but you'd need to have target locked the target already without the help of Long-Range Scanners, and the same is true of Guidance Chips. It feels like you need two mod slots to really make OS-1 count, and without them you're paying through the nose for missiles that you can't even use to their potential.
I don't like the OS-1 title very much, but I do like the XG-1 title quite a bit more. Like the OS-1 title it lets you fire after you've SLAMed, but this time it gives you cannon slots to equip. The only big problem is you're limited to firing with cannons that cost 2pts or less, but I imagine that's because having a swarm of these things whizzing about with Ion Cannons would have been deeply unpleasant to play against.
- XG-1 is cheaper than OS-1, and the cannons you can fire when you've SLAMed are cheaper than missiles. The XG-1 title naturally keeps your cost down while the OS-1 title naturally pushes it up.
- The XG-1 title doesn't require a target lock to fire, so all those problems of range and picking the right target that will still be in your arc, which OS-1 suffers from, go away.
- The big downside for the XG-1 title is that it just doesn't deal very much damage! Instead of smashing people down with missile strikes you're tickling them with a Flechette Cannon or annoying them with a Jamming Beam. Given that the Gunboat only has 2 primary red dice it really needs some added firepower and if you're planning on SLAMing then the XG-1 title doesn't give you that.
There is an interesting 'third way' for the Gunboat, which is to use XG-1 but not worry about the SLAM-firing trick and just equipping a more expensive cannon, like a Mangler or Heavy Laser Cannon. This concept buffs the Gunboat's red dice output, and with the HLC attached it's shipping damage much like if it had missiles. The downside with this version is that you're not really making much use of the Gunboat's 'unique selling points' of the Reload and SLAM action, but it's certainly an effective-looking option.
POSSIBLE GUNBOAT BUILDS
I'm going to leave you with an example build for each of the Gunboat pilots which each address how I'm trying to solve the ship's problems (and I think the ship really does have problems).
Nu Squadron Pilot is a really efficient little points package, but I think it's problems are that it only has two red dice and whether you fit missiles or cannons it struggles to really take advantage of it's two unique actions: Reload and SLAM.
Missiles or Cannons. Missiles or Cannons. Missiles or Cannons. Which to choose?
- Nu Squadron Pilot - Harpoon Missile, XG-1 Assault Configuration, Flechette Cannon, Long-Range Scanners (25pts)
To my mind this is the best of both worlds. Bringing a Harpoon Missile with Long-Range Scanners gives your Gunboat the opportunity to deal damage while pairing with a Flechette Cannon and the XG-1 loadout gives the option to both control with stress and stay on target with SLAM while still firing. And because you're not trying to OS-1 SLAM & fire your missile you'll always be launching it with a Focus token for the dice mods. The combo of missiles and cannons means your opponent will always be trying to guess whether you're trying to disengage with SLAM to reload more missiles or SLAM around to harass them with the Flechette Cannon.
At 25pts each you've got the option to bring a squad of four of these (or subtle variations on this loadout) and that sounds like quite a powerful squad.
The Rho Squadron Veteran doesn't really let you fit four into a squad but it's nicely priced for running three. I think the Rho's low PS means it suffers from most of the same problems as the Nu Squadron when it comes to running OS-1, but it can be a good spot to explore the Heavy Laser Cannon build.
- Rho Squadron Veteran - Crack Shot, XG-1 Assault Configuration, Heavy Laser Cannon, Linked Battery, Long-Range Scanners (32pts)
This build likely flies quite a lot like the HLC Brobots do, sweeping in and out with SLAM setting up long range Heavy Laser Cannon shots rather than trying to stay on top of the target turn after turn. With 12 heavily-modified red dice a squad of three of these has got some hard-hitting jousting potential, although I think it will struggle against opponents who can successfully manage their range, especially if they can stop the Gunboats from properly disengaging to bring their big cannons back around for another pass.
The three extra points you pay for Lieutenant Karsabi really only gets you one thing, and that's the option to avoid the post-SLAM firing restrictions of either XG-1 or OS-1 by taking a stress instead. So the first thing we can say is that we're taking Karsabi because we expect to SLAM a lot, and the second thing we can say is that we're taking Karsabi because we're going to use weapons that don't really work with XG-1 or OS-1. If you're not fulfilling both those requirements then take a Rho Squadron Veteran instead and save 3pts.
- Lieutenant Karsabi - A Score To Settle, XG-1 Assault Configuration, Ion Cannon, Linked Batteries, Long-Range Scanners (30pts)
My big issue in building for Karsabi is that his abilities kind of drives me into loading up expensive weaponry (either Cannons >2pts, or expensive missiles) and yet I'm paying a premium for him already, which is why I've tried here to keep the rest of his cost down and use him as a frustrating control ship. You're paying just 30pts for a frustrating Ion Cannon carrier who 'man marks' a more valuable opposing player out of the game. You could use Mangler cannon or Heavy Laser Cannon for more damage, add Advanced SLAM for more dice mods, but the costs start to spiral quite rapidly. A cheeky Cruise Missile might even be a nice addition if you've got the points, just to give him some teeth.
Finally, Major Vynder. As I explained at the top of this blog I think you're paying a high premium for Major Vynder being able to SLAM reposition at PS9, so it makes sense to have a build that will leverage that strength.
- Major Vynder - Veteran Instincts, Harpoon Missile, Extra Munitions, OS-1 Ordnance Configuration, Advanced SLAM (37pts)
High PS means you can SLAM and target lock something and be confident it's there to fire at so it's really supporting you going the missile route, but it also means you'll need Advanced SLAM to be able to take that target lock action. I've included Extra Munitions just so that Vynder can double-tap his missile strikes back-to-back without having to run away and Reload half the time.
37pts is expensive, and in a metagame of PS10 pilots and turrets the value of a PS9 SLAM is uncertain, both offensively and defensively, but if you're looking for the type of build that really maximises what Vynder brings to the table then I think this is it.
I wasn't one of the players who has been frothing at the mouth for the Gunboat to be added to the game, which means I'm hopefully able to avoid looking at it through rose-tinted spectacles.
My initial response was that it just wasn't good enough especially in a metagame dominated by high-PS bombs and turrets. I don't think that's a particularly controversial statement to make because, to be honest, there's not many non-turreted ships that are good enough right now.
On further reflection I still think that most of the Gunboat builds have more weaknesses than strengths, but I have come to have a bit of respect for just how much you can cram onto a Nu Squadron Pilot for their cost.
- Low-PS generic pilots aren't doing well right now.
- Ships jousting with their primary firing arcs aren't doing well right now
- Firing ordnance at low PS is awkward
- Ships with just 2 primary red dice aren't doing well right now
But despite all those points against them maybe, just maybe, I can see them working. That 25pt Nu Squadron Pilot build I made with the hybrid Harpoons & Flechettes... I actually wouldn't mind throwing four of those onto the table and seeing if they could go. They're quick, they're pretty tough, and they throw stress tokens out to annoy aces. The big question is whether they can reliably get their Harpoon Missiles off and actually kill things or just buzz around and annoy them.
I just wish the Gunboat had a more challenging maneuver dial, because I feel like even if they're good they're not ever going to be particularly exciting. And that's a shame.