There are some things that in theory should never go together, but do. Peanut butter and jelly. Chocolate on potato chips. A good ham roasted in Pepsi (trust me, it’s legit). Life pretends to express itself in familiarity, but subtly masks a lot of its true joys in contradiction. It’s the same with X-Wing, a turn-based two-player game that cuts an awkward figure in the new, relentless morass of Star Wars merchandise that has come along with the franchise’s all-new film trilogy. It is also a game with a curious ambition - to simulate the exhilarating starfighter dogfighting that is a staple of that galaxy far, far away in the typically stodgy realm of tabletop miniature battles. In theory, it should have about as much success doing so as Jar Jar Binks winning a reprievel. In practice though, it’s a surprisingly immersive and outright fun game to play that once again proves that looks can be deceiving, and that tabletop games do not require Jedi mind tricks for kids and casuals to enjoy.
X-Wing ships in a fairly small box with tantalizing cover art that not only offers a dramatic illustration of the title’s Rebel (Resistance, whatever) namesake engaged in combat, but also a small peephole offering a look at the modest set of three ship miniatures that the game centers around. ‘Looks cool!’ some may think, lured in by the surprisingly well-painted figurines offered forth. ‘Looks uncomplicated’, others may surmise, presuming that the miniscule amount of pieces on show means a light and easy game to play. Both sets of people will thus freak out upon opening the box and discovering the insane amount of cunningly unadvertised game cards and tokens hidden away inside. And boy, do they have more than enough of both to depict a proper space battle with. Ship pilot profiles, damage points, movement guides, asteroids, satellites and plenty of mysterious pieces marked with ambiguous icons are all there for you to dig out and stare at to fathom out the purpose of. In many ways its full breadth of items feels like an unintentional parody of the Star Wars’ commercial machine - excessive, miscellaneous and leaving you in bemusement as to why some of these things exist. But fortunately you don’t need half of these items just to start playing, and X-Wing’s instruction manual does a tremendous job of easing new players into its world of dice rolls and space skirmishes at a gentle pace.
In fact, after an initial bit of time is taken to set up all the basic game items, play itself is pretty straightforward. Two players each pick a side - either Resistance or First Order - and then receive their corresponding ships, complete with accompanying sets of shield tokens, a profile card and a secret decoder-style movement disc that players will use to move that ship around with. Resistance players have one X-Wing, while those playing First Order get two TIE Fighters, and both set up their pieces on opposing ends of a tabletop at least 3’x3’ in size. Once pieces are in place, opponents take turns to send their ships into battle.
Movement is itself a game of subtle deception - players hide their ship’s movement disc from rival view and after twiddling through a number of possible manoeuvres (each depicted by an arrow for direction, and a number for distance), decide on one. Players then reveal their discs and thus their action for each ship, and then use the equivalent cardboard directional guide to move their ship to the intended part of the game area. This continues until the inevitable happens - ships fall within firing range of each other, and combat can begin.
In layman’s terms, if an enemy ship is within sight and range, a player’s ship can fire on it. Sight is determined by whether or not an opposing fighter falls within a 90 degree arc radius measured from the face of the firing ship, while range is determined by a handy ruler shipped with the game. If both criteria are met, it’s time to take up dice, with firing players using red attack dice to try and inflict damage on their target (through rolling explosion-shaped ‘hit’ symbols), and defending players using green defence dice to try and avoid it (through rolling squiggly-arrowed ‘evade’ symbols).
Overall hit points are then calculated from the resulting comparison between the number of hit symbols rolled, against the number of evade symbols. If there are more ‘hit’ symbols than ‘evade’ symbols, the positive difference between the two becomes the total number of hit points the target will receive. One shield token is removed from a ship for each hit point, or if the ship has no shield tokens, one damage token is dealt instead. If a ship receives a number of damage tokens equal or greater to the Hull score depicted on its profile card, then - boom! - it gets taken out of the game. Henceforth, in an explanation that might surprise no-one, the first player to defeat their opponent’s set of ships wins the game.
It’s a simple yet robust gameflow and one that actually doesn’t favour First Order players over Resistance, despite the advantage in ship numbers. As mentioned, each ship’s profile card might add a bit of fictional color, but they’re not just for show - each comes with a set of scores that gives that ship unique characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Both Attack and Defend scores determine how many dice players are allowed to roll depending on whichever action the ship is taking. Shield scores state how many shield tokens a ship is given at the start of the game and Hull, also as mentioned, is the number of damage tokens a ship can take before it’s destroyed.
Within these scores, the game’s balance is achieved. TIE Fighters, being fast and nimble, enjoy high Defense scores, but suffer low Shield scores thanks to their fragility. The tougher, better-rounded X-Wing meanwhile enjoys both higher Attack and Shield ratings, but lower Defense as they’re slower and easier to hit. With differences in movement actions also applying to different ship types, the strategy required to win as either Resistance or First Order thus involves differing tactics: use the superior numbers of your TIEs to overwhelm your enemy with swift double-team manoeuvres, or use your X-Wing to withstand being chased about for a couple of combat phases so you can launch crippling counter-attacks at the right moments. Both are viable options, but again, the game is flexible and forgiving enough for you to try a completely different approach if you prefer.
Whichever approach you try, it is absolutely guaranteed that you will find X-Wing incredibly absorbing to play. The basic rules are incredibly easy to pick up and still manage to convey thrilling space duels as you try to second-guess your opponent’s movement while at the same time preventing them for getting wise to your own. Repeated play also reveals just how well-balanced each side’s stack of ships is, and it’s uncanny just how much games in action begin to resemble proper Star Wars dogfights, despite the presumption that the turn-based flow of proceedings could stifle any attempt to build pace and drama.
If players decide to involve the advanced rules, they’ll also find an added layer of strategy that further enhances the combat without slowing down the game. A small set of additional special actions can be taken once per turn with these rules, such as employing actual ‘evade’ tokens to further improve your Defence rolls, or instigating Target Locks on enemy ships to give you an edge in the firepower department. On top of this, should standard fighting become boring, the game also ships with a Mission booklet that offers three unique combat scenarios that come with their own objectives for each player, leading to further variations on play and a whole subset of exciting challenges. The Ambush mission is a personal fave - its narrative portrays a sole X-Wing pilot luring two pursuing TIE Fighters into a minefield, and essentially gives the Resistance player a bunch of mines to lay in the game area which they can detonate at will. In essence, this makes for a game mode where your opponent can easily find their pursuit completely ruined if they send one of their ships near to one of these explosives, enabling both sides to easily grab defeat from the jaws of victory if they unwittingly make a mistake. It’s a great setup and can also feel incredibly rewarding, whether you’re the Resistance doing the detonation, or the Order deftly avoiding destruction to home in on your prey.
In theory, its combination of simplicity, equal yet differing squadrons and embellishing additional rules may make X-Wing an example of miniature gaming perfection. It isn’t quite there though - seasoned tabletop gamers will still find it far too basic to treat as a serious game, as it most certainly misses the required subtle complexities that such hobbyists demand. Those looking for a quick game or two may also occasionally find that the mechanics can force the flow of play to really drag itself out. Players can easily cancel each other out by straying too far out of range from each other, unintentionally or otherwise, and stalemates are also further reinforced by a lack of variance in both attack and defence dice. All too often, attacking play is left unrewarded by miserly dice rolls that cannot generate enough hit points to mark any damage - an especially frustrating issue during the situations that ships end up in point-blank range of each other. Not to mention the 3’x3’ game area requirement can also cause its own share of problems when you simply don’t have that kind of space in your household, let alone your table. With so many assorted cardboard knick knacks in play along with the ships, moving your pieces around can sometimes be a cumbersome experience, especially when movement requires the use of big, clumsy path guides and combat requires a bigger, clumsier ruler which makes it easy to accidentally knock things around.
Nonetheless, X-Wing is an excellent game of tabletop dogfighting, one that will satisfy both fans of Star Wars and miniatures alike. It should be commended for succeeding at a task it has no right to fulfil, and with a plentiful collection of additional expansions already on sale (think old-school Rebel and Empire craft, Millenium Falcon etc.), there is more than enough for those drawn in by the game to keep on coming back for more. Proof that, despite some of the utterly useless pieces of crap that continue to get sold under the banner of Disney’s obtained golden goose, you shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover.
Unless it’s a book about the Extended Universe, you can probably judge that shit as much as you like.