I'm very happy to present Part 2 in a 3 part series focusing on Squad Construction from guest columnist Michael 'klecser' Fryda. If you missed part 1 be sure to check it out here!
Squad Building in Star Wars Miniatures: Beginning to Advanced, Part 2
This three-article series focuses on squad building concepts for Star Wars Miniatures. The first article focused on beginning squad building tips. I used the construction of a squad as an example to illustrate eight key points for starting to build squads. A summary of those points follows.
- Build to score points.
- Build to maximize and concentrate damage dealt and minimize damage taken.
- Select a compromise of some heavy hitters and some support. More damage output than support.
- Build with characters that have synergy so your whole squad is better than the sum of its parts.
- Play to your squad's strengths.
- Have a plan for addressing weaknesses.
- The more options you have, the more ways you can achieve victory.
- Don't waste points, but be ok with going under the limit if that choice gives you better options.
The next two articles will focus more on advanced squad building techniques. This article will discuss more specific squad building issues to consider such as activation control, damage concentration, and choices between building ranged, melee, or a combination.
Activations in Squad Building
If you've spent any amount of time perusing discussions on the official Star Wars Miniatures message boards, or any of the other online resources available, you've probably seen ample references to "activations" in squad building. An "activation" is taking a figure's turn. The base rules of the game say that you activate one figure if you go first in the round. Your opponent activates two, you activate two, and then you continue trading activating two figures until you are out of figures to move that round.
Discussing number of activations in games is a reference to how many figures you have to move each round and is important out of a strategic desire to be able to move more figures at the end of the round than your opponent. This is a big advantage because it allows you the options of concentrating more damage, have a greater response in positioning to your opponent positioning (which they can now not change), and allows you to potentially also add moving a piece at the beginning of the next round. These advantages, when utilized to their fullest, can result in more victories.
You win games by defeating enemy figures. Winning games can often be boiled down to you eliminating enemy figures quicker than they can eliminate yours, so that the partial squad that you are fighting with is more powerful and more capable than the partial squad your opponent has left.
One of the techniques that players use to gain an advantage in the game is to try to spread the damage out across their characters so that it takes the opponent longer to eliminate their figures. The idea is that, in Star Wars Miniatures, figures do not suffer in effectiveness when they have been damaged. A figure with 100 hit points remaining has the same capabilities as when it only has ten hit points remaining. In other words, it is better to have a figure that can potentially do 40 damage alive than eliminated.
How do players spread damage out? They take advantage of the legal target rules and position their figures so that damage that was being done to one of their figures must now be done to a different one. They "leap frog" figures in front of each other so that each character takes partial damage instead of all of the damage. Special abilities like Accurate Shot help to get around this technique, but not all figures have it.
What does this have to do activations? In each round of play, with very few exceptions, each figure can only move once. Having more activations than your opponent means that your figures are moving at a time (the end of the round) in which your opponent doesn't have the option to "leap frog" and spread damage across multiple different figures. Once their figures have gone, they are effectively "stuck" in the squares that they placed them in until the beginning of their first activation of the next round. If you have four figures to move and all of their figures are "stuck", they can't move them around to spread out the damage. If you can concentrate your damage on one or two figures that are stuck, to eliminate them, they won't be able to do anything about it.
Being able to move figures at the end of a round so that your opponent cannot respond will henceforth be referred to by its common term of "out-activating" your opponent.
Once your opponent has activated all of their figures, they are effectively "stuck" in place. This could give you the advantage of being able to concentrate damage, but early on the game you often don't have that option. That doesn't mean that out-activating your opponent doesn't have an advantage.
Even if you can't use out-activating your opponent to concentrate damage, you can still use it to position your own figures for the future. Thinking ahead is an invaluable skill in the game, because even if you can't get the drop on your opponent immediately, that doesn't mean that that situation couldn't present it yourself in the future. It is the same idea as thinking moves ahead in chess. If you out-activate your opponent, you can position your figures more optimally in response to your opponent's position. You can set up the line's of sight, or protection in cover, or use of order of your own abilities better than your opponent because you have the gift of knowing that your opponent's figures are exactly where they will be at the beginning of the next round.
The next round
The advantages of out-activating your opponent do not end with the end of the current round. The next round will start when the current one is over. If you out-activate your opponent, you have the added possibility of continuing with moving a figure if you win initiative. Winning initiative could mean that the string of figures that you moved at the end of the round could continue, further crippling your opponent's chances of responding effectively.
These reasons are why activations are so important for squads.
Squad building techniques for out-activating your opponent
How do you build to out-activate your opponent and what special abilities help you when you do?
Building squads with the specific purpose of out-activating your opponent is called "using tempo control" because you are building to control the pace of a how a round goes.
The most obvious way to out-activate your opponent is to simply build squads with more lower cost figures in them. There is a danger here. If it were so simple as to achieve victory by always having more pieces than your opponent then everyone would build 150 point squads with 50 Ewoks. This doesn't work because every higher cost figure you replace with several lower cost ones exchanges activations for power and a lower ability to hit and damage figures. Higher cost figures generally have increased odds of hitting and damage enemy figures. If you have all activations and no power, then you can't damage your opponent.
So how many activations should I have? The best advice here is for you to practice and find out. You need to figure out what ratio of activations to power increases your chances for victory. A balance is needed. Too many activations means that you don't have the power to do the job of eliminating enemy figures. Too few means that your opponent does all of the things discussed above.
Certain figures can increase your chances of out-activating figures without compromising power. Specifically, there is a suite of highly coveted figures in the game that have commander effects that either force you or allow you to choose to activate one figure per phase instead of the normal two. These commander effects are unique in that they extend to Droid and Savage figures, which are immune to most commander effects.
The figures that force you to activate only one per phase are San Hill and Admiral Ozzel. These figures may seem counter-intuitive because it would seem that it would be a disadvantage to only be able to activate one figure at a time. This is partially true. Only being able to respond with one figure to an opponent's actions really limits a player's options in that moment. Remember that the goal is to trade being able to respond in force during the beginning and middle of the round, in exchange for being able to respond with great force at the end of the round.
Some figures allow you the choice of how many figures you can activate in a phase, including just one. These figures are General Dodonna and Grand Moff Tarkin. General Dodonna allows you to choose to activate one or two characters per phase and has the advantage of activating one figure when necessary to out-activate your opponent. Unlike San Hill or Admiral Ozzel he has the added advantage of being able to activate two figures in a phase when you need it. Grand Moff Tarkin allows you to choose to activate one, two or three figures in a phase, with the limitation of needing to have line of sight to an enemy character at the beginning of a phase.
The goal of all of these figure's commander effects is to activate half of the number of figures as your opponent must activate during the beginning and middle of the round so that you can get that big advantage at the end of the round. This is easier said than done and requires practice to do effectively. A common pitfall of this method of gaining an activation advantage over an opponent is that the limitation of one activation per phase frequently causes players to be unable to effectively respond to opponent moves during the middle of a round. When figures get engaged in the later rounds of the game, the need to respond more quickly increases. Timing is everything, and not understanding the timing can result in the method back-firing.
Special abilities and other boosts
Once you have a solid concept and method for out-activating your opponent, there are specific special abilities and commander effect boosts that you can build into your squad to take advantage of your end-of-round response, or to help mitigate the effects of only activating one figure per phase.
Two special abilities are the kings of activation control. They are Opportunist and Deceptive. Opportunist make your figures more effective at the end of the round because it grants a +4 bonus to attack and a +10 or +20 bonus to damage against figures that have already activated. Deceptive gives a +10 bonus to damage only. These special abilities are the bread and butter of out-activating your opponent because they increase your damage chances against figures that have already gone. Making your opponents activate is what out-activating them does. When you build with Opportunist or Deceptive, you build with the idea that figures with these special abilities will activate only after opponent figures have moved in the round.
Several commander effects either grant Opportunist or Deceptive, or grant direct bonuses to figures that attack enemy figures that have already activated in the round. The combination of Thrawn (Mitth'raw'nuruodo) and Admiral Ozzel is a natural combination. Admiral Ozzel extends your activations so that you have more figures to activate after your opponent's figures have activated. Thrawn gives allies Opportunist, increasing their effectiveness against figures that have already activated.
Not all special abilities or commander effects help to boost the attack effectiveness of figures when you out-activate your opponent. Remember when I mentioned that a problem with only activating one figure per phase makes you less likely to respond during the middle of a round? Special abilities and commander effects that grant added defenses to figures are often utilized in squads that are designed to out-activate opponents to help deal with reduced ability to handle your opponent activating two for every one of yours at the beginning and middle of rounds before your opponent is finished activating pieces.
Additional techniques for gaining tactical advantages
Activation control is one of many choices you can make when building squads to increase your chances of games going well. The following techniques can all be used in different ways to give you an advantage over your opponent.
Building to concentrate damage and understanding the odds
We've already discussed the importance of concentrating damage in eliminating more enemy figures then they have eliminated in your squad. One thing that you can do in building your squads is to build to increase your chances of doing damage to your opponent. The more attacks you can land on your opponent, the more damage you can do and the better your chances of victory. Twelve chances to damage your opponent are better than six. If you can build twelve chances in without hurting your activations or odds very much, you'll have more chances to do damage. It is always important to understand and play to your odds. Take Grenades for example. Under normal circumstances, Grenades is a 50/50 chance of success. For every two uses of Grenades on the enemy, you would expect one failed save, on average, from your opponent. The more Grenades you lob, the more chances you have to do damage. Each use is an independent event and the individual chance of success doesn't change. But if half will hit on average, you need to build to play the odds and respond accordingly. The execution of your squad depends upon how close to the odds the actual odds go. So, for example, if I have twelve figures in my squad with Grenades 20, I expect that it is possible for me to do 240 damage, but that that is a very unlikely for my opponent to fail every save. In reality, about six of those twelve will hit, on average, and so I would plan to be able to do about 120 damage to my opponent with twelve uses of Grenades 20. It could easily be 140 or 100, but it is unlikely that I will do 240 or zero damage. Part of building squads is about planning for damage concentration, but also understanding the odds and what your squad is likely to do.
Understanding your squad build can help you to be a good sport when playing your opponents, in addition to becoming a better player. Understanding the odds means that you should know what to expect out of your squad build and not get upset when odds go in places where they aren't likely to go. In the example above, there is no reason to be upset if your opponent makes all of their Grenade saves, because the odds are against that anyway. Remaining cool and calm in the face of difficulties is part of winning or losing games graciously. Don't expect all of your Grenades to hit, because that will happen in only the most unlikely circumstances.
When designing squads, you may think that building with figures with the highest damage statistic is the best plan. This isn't always the case. The concept of damage "overage" is one thing to consider when building your squad. Damage overage is the idea that if you eliminate an enemy figure with 20 hit points with an attack that did 40 damage, that extra 20 damage effectively didn't matter. You paid the cost of a figure that could do 40 damage but you could have done the job with a cheaper 20 damage figure. In short, the points you spent in building in a figure with extra damage were wasted when you could have done the same thing with a cheaper figure and perhaps increased activations. That is an over-simplification of course. It isn't always wrong to do extra damage if it means eliminating a key enemy figure. The basic idea of overage is an issue of efficiency of using build points and using your figures in the correct order for optimal damage.
Many players scoff at the idea of having lower cost figures that only do 10 damage in their squads because they immediately dismiss the low damage as ineffective. This is not always the case. For example, consider the special ability Twin Attack. Twin Attack allows you to make an extra attack against the same target. This can result in more damage to your opponent, but your opponent can also use it to their advantage if you have not built your squad effectively. If your entire squad is built of higher cost Twin Attack figures, your opponent can force you to attack figures (through legal target rules) that only require one attack to eliminate. If you eliminate an enemy figure on the first attack, the Twin Attack is lost and the build points that you spent to get Twin Attack are wasted.
How do you build to take the most advantage of Twin Attack, avoid damage overage, and spend your build points most efficiently? This is where cheaper yet effective figures can be a more efficient use of build points. You can use that cheaper figure to eliminate low cost "fodder shields" to make sure that your Twin Attacks are concentrated on doing maximum damage. The key thing to remember is that you generally want to use lower cost figures to eliminate lower cost figures and high cost figures to do the main damage of your squad. Commander effect heavy squads can change this dynamic, but the general principle can help you build more balanced squads.
Choosing where to put your damage
Sometimes choosing to put your damage where you want it to go can be just as valuable as concentrating it on one figure. One key enemy tech piece that is not a legal target could be the key to gaining advantage. All the damage in the world doesn't matter if you can't target it. Special abilities like Accurate Shot, Sniper, It's A Trap, and Disruptive can allow you the choice of being able to target a figure that you normally could not. These abilities, especially Accurate Shot, are coveted for squad building because they allow you to choose to eliminate those key enemy tech pieces that would normally be protected by legal target rules.
Melee, ranged, or mixed?
Following the suggestions above can open up a whole new way to look at squad building. You can go as deep as you like in terms of nit-picking what combination of figures will give you the best chance of victory. What about more general ways to look at squads? One question that comes up frequently is: What proportion of my squad should be melee and what proportion ranged? Let's look at three ways you could go and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.
On first inspection an all melee squad looks to be a bad idea. You can't damage your figures until you get close and in the meantime any ranged pieces that your opponent has can potentially get LOS and therefore attacks on you. They also have the big disadvantage of only being able to influence the part of the field that they are located in.
There are advantages to all melee squads. Melee figures generally have more hit points and higher defenses than ranged figures. They don't need to worry about cover since they always attack when adjacent. Sometimes they can be more cost effective than ranged pieces. Melee figures can sometimes get access to Super Stealth or Cloaked to avoid attack-backs from enemy ranged pieces. Big beefy melee figures can also be effective point sinks, allowing you to preserve your points for longer in a timed match. If you can get them in the center, melee figures are good at securing Gambit victory points without as much worry of being eliminated as ranged figures.
Ranged pieces have the advantage of being able to attack from far away. This is a huge advantage. Super Stealth and Cloaked ranged pieces have the added advantage of not being able to be targeted by enemy ranged pieces if they have cover.
Of course, ranged pieces also have disadvantages. They tend to be very fragile close up. The key to defeating ranged squads is often just getting close to them when you attack.
Many of the solid squads that people see posted on the message boards are a mix of the two and they are a mix for a good reason. Having both melee and ranged figures increases your options of what you can do and who you can damage at any given time. While your melee figures are going to engage the enemy (or sitting back to protect your shooters), the ranged pieces can be doing damage to enemy figures. The melee figures can be effective gambit getters that have a gun behind them that is shooing any would be attackers away.
I usually advocate a mix of ranged and melee for the best squads because it gives you options. The more choices you have to influence the field, the better of a response to the enemy you'll be able to bring.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. Certain commander effects and character synergies can make all melee or all ranged squads good. If the synergies are not there for what you are interested in playing, keeping your options open is always good.
This second part of a three-part series focused on some specific more advanced squad building issues. The main points included:
- Out activating your opponent can give you a big advantage.
- Specific commander effects and special abilities can help you get the most out of out-activating your opponent.
- Spending points to concentrate damage is an important goal of squad building. In doing so you should understand the odds of doing damage.
- Spending build points on a mix of low cost, low damage figures and higher cost high damage figures is often preferential to either extreme.
- Avoiding damage overage, or putting heavy damage where it can be most useful, helps you to get the most out of the points that you spend on a figure.
- A mix of ranged and melee figures in a squad can help you to respond to a bigger variety of situations that you may face.
The final part in this series will focus on the big picture, or meta-analysis of squad building. The article will explore using fore-sight to build more effective squads, building to beat a wider variety of squads, local meta analysis, squad research and how to practice effectively.