If there's one thing you do more than anything else while playing Star Wars: Armada, it's shout INTENSIFY FORWARD FIREPOWER.
The last of Fantasy Flight's major Star Wars board games that I haven't got around to reviewing yet on this site (it was released in 2015), Armada is a game primarily concerned with capital ship combat. So you're not as worried about stuff like this:
As you are this:
Given the special place big ships like Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Cruisers have in the Star Wars universe, and how memorable many of the classic trilogy's space battles are, you'd think the design of a game like this would come naturally. Only...think back to the Episodes IV-VI and you realise that you never actually see any of these ships go at it!
(Yeah, capital ship combat features in the prequels, but blergh.)
They shoot at fighters, and get shot at by fighters, and blown up by Death Stars, but you never see a big Imperial ship exchanging direct fire with a big Rebel ship. The closest we get is the lop-sided shootout at the beginning of A New Hope.
You can assign "hero" cards to your fleet, granting a unique set of perks or abilities. With little to directly inspire (or dictate) the look of these battles, then, Fantasy Flight have been given a little leeway to do their own thing, which means for the purposes of this game we get to imagine Star Wars ships as floating versions of something out of Master and Commander. Gone is the idea of ships existing in a 3D space and being able to spin their guns around, replaced with battles that take place on a 2D plane using ships that have fixed locations — left, right, front and rear — for both their guns and shields.
This is not a staged photo. It's a very messy battle. What this means for play is that each ship in the game has its own set of distinct strengths and weaknesses. Star Destroyers have strong hulls but are only useful if they're firing straight ahead. And smaller Rebel ships pack quite a punch but will wither under direct fire.
Ships also have different speeds, and turning ability, and defensive capabilities, so this is definitely not a game about parking your ships and just shooting the entire time.
Instead, it's a game about planning and momentum. Because many of Armada's ships are so slow to move and turn, and because each game only comprises six turns (don't worry, they're long turns), there's little scope to go flying by the seat of your pants. Rather, you need to arrange your fleet in advance, set everything in motion then stick with things until the bitter (or triumphant) end.
As you'd expect from FF, the models are incredible. Even on the smallest ships, like this Nebulon-B Frigate, the detail is terrific. It's a fine balance to strike between the strategic and the tactical, but it's one that Armada gets right. There's just enough scope to allow your initial deployment and overall strategy to dictate the terms of the battle, but you're not trapped by this; between escort fighter squadrons and the ability to assign perks to various ship systems, there's just enough wiggle room to react and throw punches regardless of what's unfolding.
Combat is handled with dice, and of all of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games, I think Armada has the weakest system for resolving it. Which, given the massive ships on display, is a bit of a shame. It's not bad, far from it, but it's not as tense or interesting as X-Wing or Imperial Assault.
Fighter squadrons are much faster and more nimble than the capital ships, and useful for harassing an enemy. Attackers roll dice depending on which set of guns (left, right etc) they're using, and defenders are left to use a series of defensive tokens to counter or soften the blow, negating some hits while able to deflect damage to other areas of their shields. This turns combat into a spongy, drawn-out affair, which might fit the theme but ends up making combat a little too reliant on a ship's overall stats, as rarely do you get truly decisive attacking rolls (or defensive counters).
Still, like I say, this fits the theme, and my overall experience with Armada is one that generally matches the feeling I'd want from controlling these big, slow and heavily-armed ships. If X-Wing is a knife fight on a dance floor, Armada is 1000 guns at 1000 paces while sipping a nice cup of tea. Different ways of resolving the same dispute, sure, but both satisfying in their own way.
Note: I usually play the game with both the Wave I and Wave II expansions, the latter especially noteworthy since it's the one with big Imperial Class Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Cruisers. The core set of the game comes with just a Victory-class Star Destroyer, Nebulon-B frigate and Corellian corvette (and some fighters).