X-Wing. Even a mention of that weird ship and my heart twists in knots.
X-Wing. It’s more than a ship. It’s one of the best releases of Fantasy Flight Games’ 23 years of existence.
But, like the embers of Alderaan floating through the void, its fire has been dwindling. A game that lit up our minds and allowed us to recreate the trench run is now not much of a game at all.
The systems employed find strength in their sense of urgency and speed. This is a game that at its utmost feels like you’re clinging to the edge of a rotting T65 pilot’s seat and white-knuckling a control stick. That feeling is gone. Now we’re flying ships we’ve never heard of and stuffing them to the brim with enough upgrade cards and modifications to fill a Star Destroyer docking bay. It’s over the top and not in a desirable way.
So I don’t play it. I haven’t in over a year; that was until a couple of months ago. That’s when Heroes of the Aturi Cluster happened. Praise the ghost of Wedge Antilles.
Heroes of the Aturi Cluster is a world-shaker. This is a sophisticated expansion from superfan-turned-designer Josh Derksen. It allows one to six players to fly a Rebel squadron during the Original Trilogy timeline. It has RPG elements where you gain experience and acquire new skills and upgrades. It has a branching narrative structure with multiple campaign paths and many unique missions. It also has a simple yet robust artificial intelligence system to run the Empire. It even keeps your beer cold and puts the toilet seat down.
It does it all.
This thing is a triumph because it offers exactly what I wanted from X-Wing: it refocuses the game on the narrative experience of piloting a ship in the films that owned my youth. It’s a simulation/RPG/miniatures game hybrid that’s pure magic. No longer are we spending a half hour building force lists, flipping through cards trying to find the three upgrades that fix our unbalanced ships.
No one’s telling me I shouldn’t take Luke Skywalker because he’s not competitive. It’s Luke fucking Skywalker. This is a game called X-Wing.
Instead I’m flying a T-65 with Aresa ‘Hiccup’ Quee behind the console. This is me. I’m a human Lieutenant who was living in poverty on Coruscant before joining the Rebellion. I have an itchy trigger finger and never return to hanger with torps in the tube. Some day I’ll fly an A-Wing and pretend to be Tycho Celchu.
One of the best aspects of Heroes is the expansion of upgrade slots, particularly Elite Pilot Talents. You open up new slots as you grow in pilot skill and can start stacking your character in unbelievable ways. Abilities that you never would have taken in a competitive match are suddenly amazing and useful in unforeseen ways.
Now this is X-Wing.
You fly missions. These are similar to those scenarios included with each expansion product but they’re actually good. Instead of shoving them into the depths of my ridiculous 12 piece plano storage solution, we’re actually looking forward to the next slice of story. There’s permanence and drama and experimental ships like TIE Phantoms that are legitimately scary.
Each mission has you flying through unique conditions looking to accomplish narrative goals. You’ll rescue escape pods scattered in nebula, disarm mine-fields blocking hyperspace routes, and even feebly protect a Rebel Transport from assaulting shuttles.
When was the last time you actually saw a Rebel Transport hit the table?
I mentioned the AI is fantastic. It’s so solid because it’s simple and easy to execute, yet only minimally gets in the way. You roll on a chart specific to the ship type and take into account its target’s bearing and distance. The result gives you a maneuver and you execute it.
The most interesting aspects of the enemy sub-systems are in how they convey the deadliness of the more unique Imperial units. The potency of ships like the Phantom and Interceptor is gained by allowing these killjoys to break the rules. They sometimes perform more than one action or pull off surprising combinations that shock you. They require you oppose them with respect and skill. Those demands breed satisfaction.
Enemy squadrons also occasionally contain elite pilots. These receive bonus skills drawn from a deck. This means you won’t quite know what to expect or how to prepare. Burn those eyeballs down as fast as they appear.
One of the delicate points in this design is in how it scales. The more players you add the more enemy ships must hit the table as well. This can get burdensome at the extremes as you have more cards, charts, and plastic to manage each round. Setup time also inflates and some of the charm can be lost in the frenzy and overhead.
Escorting a YT-1300 rescue freighter through ion clouds.
There’s also an awkward contrast in how Heroes feels all-encompassing yet ignores much of the X-Wing line. While this is certainly understandable as many of the ships simply aren’t desired – get your ARC-170s out of here – it’s also a bit disappointing not seeing native support for Z-95s or Rogue One ships. Bare as a Wookie’s posterior is the clear need for a scum campaign or a mission set featuring outlaws as opposition as well. In its current state it feels as though it hasn’t quite reached its potential.
A hint of unevenness also seems to be wafting through the air. Overall the material feels well playtested and confident, however, it’s easy to recognize that less offensively capable ships like A-Wings and Y-Wings can struggle to keep up in the experience game. A system that collected XP into a group pool would be much more desirable and work to smooth out some of the shortcomings. I appreciate the intention of rewarding slightly selfish play and kill-stealing, but it can lead to issues that compound as time goes on.
Mostly though these complaints are inconsequential. The focus is on accomplishing your mission and living to fight another day. The way in which the permanence of a campaign causes you to reevaluate tactical decisions and value preservation over sheer aggression – it’s frankly astounding. X-Wing changes radically with these shifted priorities and it becomes something different, it becomes something better.
I thought I was out. I nearly listed my collection for sale and that would have been a huge mistake.
Now I’m more excited than ever. The fire is back.