Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Flotillas, Activations, and other Heretical thoughts...

If you at all follow the Armada forums on FFG's website you will have noticed the bevy of recent threads debating the role of flotillas in Armada.  I am on record as saying flotillas have been one of the best things to happen to Armada.  However, amid all of the various threads on the subject I think I have also come to understand the other side of the debate.  I thought I would break down the arguments here, if only as an exercise in getting them straight in my own head.
I have an unbridled love of all things XKCD
Activation Advantage

Armada falls in to a category of games with alternating activations where players take turns activating individual units rather than their whole forces.  Other games using this scheme include Battletech, Dropzone Commander, Bolt Action, and Imperial Assault.  This contrasts with games like Infinity or Warhammer 40k that have each player using his whole force before passing play to their opponent.  Both of these methods have their pros and cons, but for the most part I prefer games that use alternating activations.  <There are other methods too, but that isn't important to this discussion.>

In any game with Alternating Activations players quickly learn the tactical advantages of having more activations than an opponent.  Depending on the other aspects of the game's design, that advantage can be large or small.  In Armada, like the others, activation advantage is typically strongest in the early turns.  By using low-power activations (like a naked flotilla) early in a turn you can hold off on your more crucial activations until you know more about the board state.  This advantage tends to diminish as the turns progress as the board state will often dictate that the higher-power activations (like an upgraded ISD) be used earlier in a turn.

Having more activations than an opponent can also allow for some strong combinations by activating a ship at the end of one turn and then immediately again at the beginning of the next.  This last-first setup can be game swinging and was the basis of many fleets during the Wave 2 era of Armada.  The last-first combo requires 2 things: having more activations than an opponent and also being the first player.

The nature of activation advantage has been a source of heavy debate since Armada was first released.  The debate has manifested itself in many ways and the game has swung back and forth as to how strong activation advantage really is.  I used to believe it was the most important consideration when building a fleet (this was during Wave 2).  I went to the North American Championships last summer believing this was the case and was very certain the tournament could only be won by a 4 or 5 activation fleet.

The Top 2 finishers had only 2 ships each, one of whom whipped my butt in a late round.

Now, that is one very small sample size and didn't completely refute the existence of an activation advantage, but it did cause me to reevaluate some assumptions that I was making.  Since that time I have tempered my beliefs on the strength of activation advantage.  It is a real thing, but I no longer rate it as being among the most important considerations in an Armada fleet.  (FWIW I currently find threat weight to be more telling.)

The Regionals Tournament data only shows a very small tendency towards favoring more activations at the top tables when you look at average fleet size.  What does stand out is that pre-flotillas large ships did not do well at the Regional tournaments.  They seemingly suffered the most from activation advantage.

Activation advantage is really the source of the current debate, which is just a repackaging of an old debate.  Some players feel activation advantage is among the most important things in Armada fleet building.  Others believe it is not.  This starting point really sets the parameters of the current discussion about flotillas.  As I have looked at the arguments on both sides it struck me that the perception of the strength of activation advantage has heavily influenced the positions being taken and the arguments being made.
  • So, a good question to ask yourself is "how important is activation advantage in your opinion?"
I don't think there is a right or wrong answer, but it is good to know for yourself and recognize for someone you are discussing the issue with.  Someone with a different answer to that question may reach some wildly different opinions about related issues.

Flotillas - Fix or Scourge?

However you feel about activation advantage, I feel pretty good about stating it was much stronger during Wave 2.  Intended or not, FFG provided what I would call a soft fix for activation advantage in the form of flotillas.  By providing the game with a cheap activation FFG has allowed any fleet type to have a fair number of activations.  I think this has allowed large ships to see something of a resurgence.

To be completely honest my concern when flotillas were first announced was that they were just going to push activation counts up by a large amount across the board.  Sure, large ships could benefit, but small ship swarms would simply pad their activations as well and ship counts would simply shift upwards across the board.  That does not appear to be the case.  Two and three ship fleets have largely disappeared from the Regionals Data and four to five ship fleets have become the new normal where they used to be the high end.  What we haven't seen in the data is a growth in six to seven ships fleets that I would have predicted.

When I see that, coupled with the impressive variety in admirals doing well at the top tables, it made me feel that flotillas have been very good for the health of the game.  By allowing fleets that previously struggled with low activations to pad their counts, flotillas seemed to be enabling a wider variety of fleet types to be competitive.  This seems like a good thing.

There is of course another side to that story.  Flotillas are in nearly every fleet.  They are completely ubiquitous.  While they don't define the fleets themselves, their presence begins to feel same-y to some players.  Flotillas can work with nearly any fleet type, so they have found their way into most all of them.  I can understand why some players find that boring.  This leaves us with 2 questions:
  • Are flotillas mandatory to be competitive?
  • Does that speak to a game imbalance?
Again, knowing your personal opinion on these questions is important in framing the debate.  Your opinion on whether flotillas are mandatory is likely influenced by how you feel about activation advantage.  I can understand why some would feel flotillas are mandatory for some builds to achieve activation parity and how that can be frustrating.  I still don't think that those players would argue we go back to the pre-flotilla meta were certain builds were nearly impossible to make competitive.

Is it imbalanced if flotillas are in every fleet?  Well, I sure thought it showed the Demolisher title was imbalanced when it was in nearly every successful Imperial fleet, but flotillas feel different.  They typically aren't the core of the fleet, but rather enablers.  I find that to be a key distinction, but don't begrudge someone that thinks the opposite.  Flotillas are at the same time representing a fair number of the ships in players fleets, but a relatively small number of the points being spent on those ships.  It is an odd dichotomy.

FFG seems to have provided us with flotillas as way to counter activation advantage.  It seems to be pretty effective in that regard.  There is an open question if it was too effective to the point of flotillas being mandatory or making the game cookie cutter.

Upgrades vs Core Rule Changes?

In addressing activation advantage disparity through the release of flotillas, FFG has followed their established pattern.  They typically prefer to address imbalance in their games through future releases rather than core rules alterations.  I know this from their patterns as well as direct conversations with their developers.

That isn't to say they haven't changed the core rules for games in the past and wouldn't do so again in the future, but it is generally not their go-to move.

I would also say that flotillas have not been the only fix for this issue.  The new objectives in The Corellian Conflict also have been something of a patch.  By allowing the creation of stronger objective sets, the second player has been incentivized quite a bit over first player in many cases.  This has in my experience helped mitigate the last/first activation strategy.

So, then we have a new set of questions to ask:
  • Is FFG satisfied with the release of flotillas as a patch to activation advantage?
  • If not, will they choose more releases or a core rule change?
A player that believes activation advantage is not that important would likely assume that flotillas have helped the game achieve a good level of balance in that regard and not see the point in further tinkering.  At the least no more than some future upgrades as an alternative to flotilla use.

A player frustrated with the ubiquity of flotillas might prefer a stronger fix via a change to the core rules.  Something that helped a 2 or 3 activation fleet to not be at a significant disadvantage to a 5 to 6 activation fleet.  But this would be a significant change to how Armada works and fairly difficult to go back on.  Some assume that the absence of an updated FAQ is due to FFG working out just this sort of change.  

Any kind of fix would also have to account for the flotilla genie being out of the bottle and not compound with that to cause further issues.

Of course, because this debate is taking place on the internet many players are speculating on what shape those upgrades or core rule changes might take.  Let's take a look at some of the popular choices:  
  • An officer upgrade that can be spent to allow you to pass your activation.  Possibly for large ships only.  This upgrade makes sense if you feel that large ships suffer more against a fleet with activation advantage.  Giving up your officer slot would be a significant disadvantage to this upgrade.  This would allow a non-flotilla approach to evening out an activation disparity.  I can see the appeal, but I think I personally would choose a flotilla over this style upgrade.  It doesn't cost a valuable officer slot and I get the other benefits of a flotilla like Comms Net, squadron activation, flak, or blocking.  This has also been speculated as an admiral ability.
  • I am not aware of many other upgrade suggestions to address activation advantage.  Perhaps an upgrade that triggered or became more powerful when outnumbered would be appropriate.  
  • There have been suggestions to allow a 'pass' mechanic into Armada.  If your opponent has more remaining ships then you, then you could pass your activation.  This would be a significant change, but one that is on par with a change FFG made with Imperial Assault.  
I don't necessarily see the point, but that is likely due to my lowered opinion of the importance of activation advantage.  To a player that thinks it is overwhelmingly powerful, these change would be necessary to save the game. 

Now, these aren't the only changes being thrown around lately, but those are due to a different, but related issue...


Lifeboats, Relay, and the Death of Fun

As I said earlier, evidence pointed to flotillas being a successful fix for activation advantage issues.  However, evidence pointed to them maybe being too successful.  The ubiquity of flotillas has lead to a couple of new tactics that many consider to remove some fun from the game.

Lifeboats - Despite a paucity of hull points, flotillas are relatively survivable due to their Scatter tokens.  They aren't especially difficult to kill if the attacker is at all prepared for them, but can be annoying to kill in the absence of the right tools.  Flotillas are also very cheap in terms of points cost, so if they don't participate in the battle their absence isn't a huge detriment.  These two factors have combined to produce the Lifeboat.  In general the Lifeboat involves throwing your admiral on a flotilla and driving it away from the main battle.  Your opponent is left with the choice of sending signficant forces to chase it down or just ignoring it.  It's pretty effective, but some are of the opinion it is un-fun or un-thematic.  I don't really care one way or the other, but can sympathize with the un-fun viewpoint.

Relay Introduced with the Wave 5 squadrons I think relay is actually a neat and thematic ability.  It allows a ship to issue its squadron commands through a specialized communication squadron.  In some ways it compares to the Boosted Comms upgrade that increases the range of squadron commands although it is not an exact analogue.  The issues is coming from combining Relay with some Lifeboat style tactics.  You can end up with flotillas cruising around far from the main battle, but still having an impact through the use of Relay.  Again, players feel this is relatively un-fun to play against (or with I suppose)The tactic itself is solid, but does require a pretty significant investment in Relay squadrons to make work.  It has a few places that it can be disrupted and you do lose out on the other utilities of the flotilla like blocking or flak.  Still, having a bunch of ships on the table that never intend to engage isn't necessarily the most exciting or interesting thing from a game play standpoint.  I really don't care about the tactic as I haven't found it to be especially effective, but I wouldn't miss it if it went away either. 

While neither of these tactics necessarily bother me, I think it is valid if players find them to be an un-fun aspect of the game.  So, while flotillas may have helped the game achieve some activation parity they may have introduced some other issues that could be addressed.

There have been a few different proposals thrown around to address these issues separately from the activation issues.
  • One popular suggestion would ban the placement of Admirals from flotillas.  That would certainly solve the Lifeboat issue.
  • Another would have Flotillas included in the 33% of your points that can be spent on squadrons.  It would certainly add an additional cost to using them, but I don't think works with flotillas helping players build well-rounded fleets.

  • My personal idea would be to have flotillas not count as ships for the purposes of getting tabled.  Basically if all you have left are flotillas and squadrons, you lose and give up 400 points to your opponent.  That would add some significant risk to both Lifeboats and Relay abuse.
Flotillas as a Scapegoat

So, I think the conflation of their role in mitigating activation advantage and these "un-fun" tactics has made flotillas something of a scapegoat in Armada.  I still think their net impact on Armada has been for the good although I can understand why a player might think the opposite.  I certainly don't want to go back to the pre-flotilla meta where there were fewer competitive fleet archetypes.


I guess I will close by reminding anyone bored enough to have read this far that most of the differences in this debate are based on perceptions of some pretty simple ideas.  It is hard to change someone else's perceptions and having a difference doesn't preclude being able to both enjoy the game.

I have enjoyed writing this as it was fun to explore the different sides of the issue.  Hopefully if you read this far you found it interesting or enlightening.  Please comment here on the blog or in the forums and let me know what you think.

7 comments:

  1. Well written, and pretty much in line with my feelings on the topic.

    I wouldn't be bothered by either of the milder suggestions (no lifeboats and not counting for being tabled), but my local meta seems to be having more fun anyway.

    Cheers

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  2. I feel like you and I are nearly 100% in agreement on everything involving flotillas. I feel like they've been a positive influence, I don't understand the apocalyptic screaming, and I would support some minor changes like the two you proposed to handle the "un-fun" elements some people seem to particularly hate.

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  3. How to kill flotilla: Raider I-class with sensor team and expanded launchers/external racks

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    1. Flotillas are pretty easy to kill overall, but lifeboats are trickier. Now that build you propose does make an interesting lifeboat hunter. And with External Racks, does come in a fair bit cheaper than many flotilla + Admiral combos it would be hunting.

      If you are worried about killing Lifeboats that's a reasonable place to start.

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  4. I would like the community in their league games to try the tabling with flotillas and squadrons and data somehow collected - tabling needs a greater chance of happening. I feel flotillas did help mitigate the Demolisher (esp with Scatter). Of course tools exist to kill flotillas; I don't think they are necessarily efficient and attacking your opponent's backfield is easier said than done.

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    1. I haven't tried it yet myself, but have kinda noted the impact it might have on games I've played or watched. Anecdotally tabling would be more frequent, but of course people would play differently too.

      Efficient Flotilla killers are easy to find. Efficient Lifeboat hunters are less so.

      Have you tried that rule Q?

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  5. Hey shmitster, great article. Appreciate the thoroughness and broad perspective you brought to this discussion -- something not always present in internet conversations. ;)

    I agree with your position that flotillas aren't breaking the game, and that a huge rules change could be an over-reaction and cause additional problems.

    My only problem with flotillas is Lifeboats--not from a gameplay perspective, but from a thematic perspective. I always feel weird putting Vader on a Gozanti when I have a Christmas Tree Avenger on the board. I mean, I still do it every time, I just feel weird about it. From an even more abstract view, I'd say that I don't like that the designation of flagship in Armada just means the ship that has your admiral on it, and that the game incentivizes players to not put their admiral on their most important ship (spread your points out).

    I'd like to see more gameplay around flagships. I'd only want to see this through upgrades, though, and only by splashing in a couple upgrades -- no need to go overboard and skew things in the other direction. Something like an upgrade that does X or X+Y if on your flagship, or a new class of upgrade that can only go on flagships, but since any ship can be a flagship, it can go on any ship (and thus wouldn't need an icon a la titles or commander slot). The cool part about something like that is that you're not outlawing Lifeboats, you're just adding more options which should help increase diversity (which I think is one of Armada's greatest strengths).

    Anyway, that's just some spitballing. Like I said, I don't think anything needs to be fixed right now. In 3-4 releases from now, if all we are seeing is fleets that are half flotillas, then I might be open to a rules change. But hopefully, that won't happen!

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