Monday, April 10, 2017

The basics of fleet building

First and foremost, I (Eric) am going to be moving into a new house this week so my availability is sketchy at best. I'm hoping to be able to get one more article in this week when I have some downtime but I make no promises. I'll do my best, though. On to the article!

John and I have been dancing around the topic of fleet building for a little while and I figured now that I'm caught up to wave 3 of the Imperial releases it's time to at least get the basic parameters established for fleet building. I'll do my best to explore the considerations that go into it at higher levels but this is not an exhaustive guide. Everyone makes fleets differently and so if you're successful and your process doesn't follow my recommendations exactly, then good for you. Anyways, let's get to it, shall we?

The core idea
This is the most nebulous section on building a fleet and it mostly comes down to "daydreaming." Effectively, you need a starting point for a fleet. That can be one of numerous elements that goes into a fleet, but it's usually some core element that you expand from. This can be due to wanting to try something new, wanting to show up someone who claims "X sucks and can never win," wanting to revisit an older fleet you ran in an earlier wave with new options, wanting to try a variant on someone else's fleet list that did well in a competitive event, or even just wanting to use something you haven't used in a while. If it's a specific fleet element it could be a ship, commander, squadron type, squadron approach (small, medium, large), specific new upgrade, objective (or objectives) you want to try, or any combination of the above. The important thing is having a core idea and then expanding from that.

Fleshing out the core idea
Once you have the basic plan of what you want to do, build out from there. Let's suppose my core idea was "I would like to use a large fighter group with Rebels." That core idea will create some immediate early "no duh" ramifications for my fleet, such as:
  • I need to invest a lot of points into squadrons (spend 120-134 points in squadrons).
  • I need to invest points into commanding those squadrons (include adequate number of carriers and upgrades that assist your squadrons).
  • I need a commander who works well with squadrons and with the ships I'm bringing to support them.
  • I need objectives that support squadrons.
And that's just the easy parts of the example - as you get down to your 400 point (or whatever value you are playing at) limit, you will find that you can't quite do everything you hoped to do with your concept. Tough choices will be made. You may even want to add a splash of something else so you don't have all your eggs in the core idea basket. It's up to you.

Field testing the prototype
Now it's time to put your fleet on the table and play some games with it! As a general rule, I don't recommend making major changes to a fleet immediately unless it performs terribly due to a crucial flaw in its construction. More often you encounter problems running a new fleet due to player error because you're unfamiliar with your fleet. That's to be expected and it's important to be able to distinguish between the two. Once you have enough data, you can start making changes to your fleet to make it more competitive or in some sad cases decide the core concept is simply not as competitive or functional as you were hoping and shelve the whole idea altogether and move on to something else. You will need to repeat this process several times before you have a final product that is refined enough that the tinkering with it is largely (...for now) at an end.

Anticipating playtesting results and shortening your development cycle
Wow, that sure seemed simple, didn't it? Well, yes; it was. The problem with the basic method of fleet building that is common to newer players (let me take a quick time out here to assert that you are loved and swell, new players, and don't let your current inexperience get you down) is that the basic fleet that is originally created is often extremely unrefined. It will get smashed in early games and take numerous iterations to really hone into something competitive. More experienced players can often create a first draft that is several iterations more advanced than newer players and thus their "development cycle" is much shorter than that of less experienced players. The benefit of creating a competitive fleet more quickly is immediately apparent, but over the long-term it also means that more experienced players create and use a greater variety of competitive fleets in the same time as less experienced players create and use a lesser variety of competitive fleets. This has a great meta benefit. For example, if somewhat-experienced player A is playing against very-experienced player B and player B's fleet is already honed to near-perfection and player B has already played an "end stage" archetype similar to player A's fleet and knows how it operates, player A is in for a rough game as his fleet may not yet be fully developed and player B has better knowledge of what to expect from both fleets.

Okay, so what do more experienced players consider about fleet design that less experienced players don't just yet? The answer is several basic things whose importance varies. I'll try to number them and explain in more detail below.

1) What is the state of my meta?
An understanding of what is common, uncommon, and basically nonexistent in the local competitive scene (henceforth:"meta") provides an immediate benefit. For example, if you know that most fleets bring little to no fighter squadrons (for now), you can spend less points total on fighters to oppose them and more points total on bombers (which in that environment are more effective). Conversely, if your local meta tends to be fighter-heavy, then your squadron-heavy fleet needs to invest more points than usual into fighters and bomber support (like Intel and Escort) to deal with that.

That's not even getting into more macro-meta (hoo boy here go the fancy terms) considerations such as "if my local meta is heavy on fighter squadrons because it's viewed as a necessary counter to other players bringing lots of bomber squadrons, is a bomber-heavy fleet even going to be the best approach in the first place?"

The larger your competitive field, the harder it is to really nail down what the meta is or is not. In your local play group(s) you can get a very strong sense as to what the rough group consensus is (for now, it changes if competitive archetypes show up). For larger urban areas/provinces/states, it gets trickier. For something like Nationals or Worlds, it's a huge question mark. There seems to be a very rough idea as to what kinds of archetypes are doing well overall across the world but it's extremely easy to misjudge this, as all of us but FFG's silent data-collection group can only judge this is through community forums and other online data sources. People who have an axe to grind about particular builds (right now it's usually squadrons and flotillas getting the complaining) are going to be very vocal about what they think is too good. When a random person on the internet thinks something is very strong, all you know is that they believe what they're saying and that's often because they struggle to beat it. That is usually due to their meta (a particular build is stronger there than it would be elsewhere, or at the very least stronger against player A's preferred builds), and/or it could be a function of their skill level (the best player in their meta will usually win anyways and right now s/he is playing X). It's usually not the case that X is so abusively insanely good that it's clearly nationally dominant. If you want some evidence of this, look up the Worlds upsets that have been happening since the game was released - Worlds is consistently won by unique previously-unheard-of fleets that just showed up from nowhere and is not, in fact, won by the "nationally dominant fleet that everyone knows is broken."

So in short, be aware of what kinds of builds are getting attention nationally and consider why they're doing well. Just be extremely careful to avoid panicking about them or building to counter them if they're not common in your meta. Different builds do well in different places for different reasons and your meta may not be in the same situation as the meta of the players complaining about the Doom Fleet of the Month.

In Latveria, nobody complains about Doom's fleet, no matter what month it is!
2) Do I have enough activations/how do I handle fleets with more activations than me?
If your opponent has more activations(/ships, as each ship uses one activation) than you do, that puts you at a disadvantage. To be fair, the disadvantage is on a sliding scale: having 1 less activation than most fleets is not a considerable disadvantage, but having 3+ less activations often is. When your opponent is able to wait you out by activating his less-crucial ships first, it can cause you to commit your more potent ships before you'd like. Your opponent can then respond to the final positions of your stronger ships by avoiding their strongest arcs and/or attacking them when they come into attack range. It's not a great position to be in.

A good fleet considers its activation count. My general advice is the bare minimum number of activations you should consider is 4. With the introduction of flotillas into Armada, it's easy to add one or two activations on the cheap even when using more expensive medium or large ships, and flotillas serve a number of helpful support functions that other more combat-focused ships appreciate. In my experience, most fleets cap out at 6 activations with the occasional outlier at 7 (or super-rarely, 8). In general, fleets that go past 6 activations are usually sacrificing anti-ship firepower (by using 3+ flotillas) or squadron coverage (by going very light on squadrons or sometimes using none at all), which expose them to problems elsewhere that can be exploited.

There's nothing wrong with going a bit light on activations at 4. The important thing is considering how you're going to handle higher-activation enemy fleets when/if you do encounter them. We'll cover this a bit more in question 5, but it's important to have an answer to this question.

3) Do I have enough deployments?
This is something of a subset of question 2 but it deserves its own small space for consideration. In short, fleets with less deployments run the risk of being out-deployed. For example, if you show up with 3 Imperial Star Destroyers and I show up with 6 ships and 6 squadrons, then you will get 3 deployments and I will get 9. Even if I am first player, I can delay my "serious" deployments with a first deployment ship and then three subsequent deployments of squadrons. By the time that's done, all 3 of your ISDs are on the table and I know exactly where all your ships are and what speeds they are going and I can deploy my remaining 5 ships (with the important combat ones held back, of course) with that information. That's a very tough situation to be in (it can be handled, but it's not fun).

Regionals data (shout out to shmitty, whose data collection for Regionals is always impressive) indicates that most fleets in wave 5 averaged out to just under 7 deployments. I personally feel uncomfortable with anything under 7, myself. Being able to see your opponent's intentions before revealing the most important elements of your fleet can be very helpful. You don't need to bring a ton of ships to add more deployments to your fleet - even a pair of cheap TIE Fighters (16 points) or Z-95s (14 points) will do the trick and also add to your anti-squadron firepower too!

If you're low on deployments, good objective choice can help a bit - objectives like Superior Positions or Solar Corona turn the disadvantage on your enemy by having you deploy everything last and defensive objectives like Station Assault or Fire Lanes make it pretty clear where your fleet is going to be anyways, allowing you to gain victory points through the objectives while not really giving up much in the way of surprises as to where your fleet is going to be (hitting the objective button as frequently as possible).

Lt. Telsij knows all about the problems you have when there's too many of them.
4) How do I handle defense tokens/destroy enemy ships?
So to tell you another thing you already know: your fleet is trying to destroy the enemy's ships. Enemy ships are not big fans of that plan and they have defense tokens to throw some hurdles in your way. You do damage the most effectively when you can largely ignore those defense tokens and this is accomplished in basically one of two ways: quantity of attacks or quality of attacks.

The first option is quantity of attacks. This kind of approach is most easily seen in a bomber fleet where numerous squadrons can attack one enemy target whose defense tokens get overheated quickly and won't do much against numerous small packets of damage coming its way. You also see this in fleets using several small ships, particularly if they can get in attacks on the same target in one turn (such as longer-ranged CR90As and Nebulon-Bs) - the first attack or two can be defended against just fine, but the more of them that come in the harder it is to use defense tokens against the damage without discarding them for good. Thus the earlier attacks face somewhat-reduced efficacy but the later attacks usually hit for full damage or force defense token discards (which means that ship is in for a world of pain next turn).

The second option is quality of attacks. This kind of approach is most easily demonstrated on larger ships with the right upgrade suites. Say for example you have an ISD-II (or, if you're a Rebel, an LMC80) with Leading Shots, Gunnery Team, and XI7 Turbolasers as well as an Intel Officer. This ship is designed to consistently get maximum value from its attacks - it can (when possible) attack twice from its best hull zone, it can at medium range spend a blue die to reroll any other dice it wants (which provides it more consistency and can help fish for accuracy results when you need them), its attacks cannot be redirected very well at all (due to the XI7 Turbolasers), and the Intel Officer assures that even at long range where you're unlikely to roll an accuracy icon, you can still force the opponent into a bad position of not being able to use his best defense token unless he's okay with it going away forever. In short, this ISD build prioritizes quality of attacks, as for its points cost it's not getting a great quantity of them.

This type of overall fleet approach is more common with lower-activation fleets using more expensive ships. The idea here is instead of trying to overheat enemy defense tokens by overwhelming them with smaller attacks, you're trying to get around your opponent getting to use them much at all through reliable accuracy results and/or Intel Officer use as well as upgrades that diminish the value of other spent defense tokens (such as XI7 Turbolasers or Heavy Turbolaser Turrets or the like). Because defense token use is troubled against such attacks, it's very common to also include upgrades that allow for rerolls (like Leading Shots or Ordnance Experts) to ensure that your "hard to dodge" attacks will hit as hard as possible and to improve your chances of getting accuracy results if you don't have an accuracy-guarantor like Home One or H9 Turbolasers or the like.

If your fleet overall has a common plan to handle defense tokens, you'll find it operates more effectively than if you've got a smattering of this and that with no clear unified plan. There's nothing wrong with including a bit of both approaches in a fleet (for example, you might want to include an H9 Turbolasers Torpedo MC30 in your "quantity of attacks" fleet so you can handle flotillas more easily, or a bomber wing may be a part of your heavier-ship "quality of attacks" approach), mind you, but the majority of your fleet should adhere to the same basic plan you have for getting damage to "stick."

5) Can I handle common skew fleets?
First, let's define "skew." For our purposes, a "skew fleet" is a fleet that attempts to overload on one element of the game in the hopes of asking a question you don't have a good answer to. We touched on this a little bit earlier when talking about activations, but let's get into it with a bit more detail. In my experience, there are 3 major types of skew fleets:
  • MSU
  • Squadrons
  • Big heavy
MSU (which means "multiple small units" in many wargames) brings lots of cheaper units for some benefit in that game. In the case of Armada, bringing 6 or so activations usually requires bringing a mostly- or all-small-ship fleet. The goal is to control the tempo of the game and avoid the worst enemy attacks by dodging out of the best arcs due to the activation advantage. We covered this a bit already above, but it is important to note that your fleet does need an answer for "what happens if the other fleets has 2 or more activations than I do?" The answer can be certain upgrades (like Gunnery Team on a large ship), superiority in other areas of the game you hope to leverage (such as squadrons), and/or a good anti-swarm objective suite to help you chip away at your opponent's activation advantage.

A heavy squadron approach also asks a hard question, that question being "can you handle 130ish points of squadrons, which is mostly bombers along with squadron support like Intel, before those bombers wreck your fleet?" If your fleet's response is "well I hope so but I'm not really sure" then you likely need to shore up your anti-squadron defenses, usually with some additional fighter coverage. It's important to note that you don't need to invest a ton of points into squadron defense (John covered how to use a smaller investment in fighter squadrons to cause trouble for heavier-squadron builds in an earlier article), but you do need anti-bomber tools that are used in an anti-bomber plan. If you don't have the tools or a plan, you're going to run into big trouble when bombers are destroying your fleet and you just can't do much to stop them.

The final archetype of "big heavy" is a little bit harder to define but it can mostly be summarized as "a fleet with fewer better-defended high-hull ships." A Motti fleet using two ISDs with Electronic Countermeasures or Reinforced Blast Doors (for 17 effective hull points) as well as some fleet support would be a good example. A good Rebel example would be a fleet with a "doom pickle" Assault HMC80 with Reinforced Blast Doors and Electronic Countermeasures and Walex Blissex, etc. It's one tough ship. The question a "big heavy" fleet asks you is "do you have the muscle to actually destroy this ship or these ships in a resource-effective way?" Because Armada's victory point system rewards zero points for an enemy ship that survives the game at 1 hull point, you need to be careful to allocate adequate resources to handle a "big heavy" ship (or ships) in time to destroy it by the end of the game (or just avoid it entirely, which can result in a win but not by a very large margin). Effectively, the big heavy fleet punishes enemy fleets that can't win a war of attrition and/or can't produce enough consistent damage to threaten it. If your fleet is too heavy on support elements at the expense of your damage output, big heavy fleets are going to give you trouble.

I wish to note that not all (or even most) fleets are full-on skew lists, but it's very common to see these basic archetype flavors being mixed together. A fleet with a lot of squadrons with one large well-defended battle carrier flagship is a squadrons+big heavy fleet, for example. Having the tools to handle the more extreme skew builds of these archetypes will also provide you with the tools to handle the same elements in well-rounded fleets, too.
    6) Can I destroy flotillas?
    Flotillas are fairly common in most competitive Armada fleets these days, with most fleets running 1 or 2, but some rare fleets (usually squadron-heavy) running 3 or more (they're very cheap support ships so it's not hard to find room for them). Flotillas are a very "I'm invincible unless I'm really not" kind of ship in that they largely survive by their defense tokens, particularly the scatter. If your fleet has no strategy for destroying enemy flotillas, you're going to have to put a lot more effort into chewing through that scatter token than would normally be considered sane. There are a number of ways to handle flotillas that don't require going out of your way much (if at all, depending) but if you show up with a fleet with zero tools for handling flotillas, you're going to have to spend a lot of resources to destroy a ship that's likely 25 points or less, and that's never a good position to be in.

    7) Does my bid strategy compliment my fleet?
    We touched on this one in the bidding articles, but it's important to realize that bidding (or not!) is a decision and it can affect your fleet design and objective selection.

    8) Am I using good objectives?
    This is the final consideration and we largely touched on this in the objectives starter article. In short, you want your objectives to be rock-solid for your fleet. They should either give you a considerable advantage when you are second player or, if you have a problematic match-up against other types of fleets, help you get a leg up when normally you'd be at a disadvantage. "Just cuz" objectives weaken your fleet, so try to avoid them and use objectives that are stronger for you.

    Final thoughtsThat's a lot to consider all at once! If you're new and trying to build a fleet and trying to add those 8 elements to your fleet design considerations it can feel a bit overwhelming. No need to worry, though! You can always choose a few to focus on and then slowly but surely build out your considerations from there as you become more adept at fleet-building. Good luck!


    1. Hi Eric,

      you're saying that a 400 points fleet with 4 activations (so 4 ships ranging from flotillas to the beefier ISDs and H1MC80s) is light on activations. So I'm guessing your sweet spot to be at 5 to 6 activations in a fleet, right?

      I'd be curious if you could post some of your fleets (or if John could post some, since I'm working on my rebel fleet atm)? I struggle to build a list with more than 5 activations, I always feel it lacks a certain oomph! And as soon as I include my H1MC80, I struggle to reach 4 activations and that's with only an SFC token force of fighters.

      1. 4-5 activations is very much normal. 6 is high. I suppose you could say 4 is on the light end, but it's not too bad. 3 is nerve-wrackingly light and I don't really recommend it unless you have a strong plan to deal with being out-activated.

        If you're going for 6 activations, it's very difficult to fit a heavier ship in. It can be done, but it usually means going very light on your remaining ships (mostly corvettes and flotillas). 5 can run into similar but less drastic problems of the same type. I wouldn't feel too nervous about 4 activations, just have some kind of plan for how you'd handle 5 or 6.

        If you wanted some example fleets, I posted a few up in the bidding examples article:

        All of those fleets are 5-6 activations but you'll notice that they're relatively light on heavier ships (barring the Ackbar fleet which is an oddity to me to some extent still given it's leaning so hard on two combat ships)

      2. Throwing my 2 cents in, and piggybacking off Eric's article, what's the core idea you're going for? THEN worry about the activations and all i think. The H1MC80 isn't really a "throw in" in my opinion, I'd lean towards it being the core idea (or part of the core idea's foundation). So are you thinking Defiance or H1 or Independence? Then use that to fuel your core idea. Considering it's 100+ points of your list (without your Commander even!) that's a good basis of a starting point, IMO.

      3. Thanks for the replies. I get what you're saying John, the H1MC80 not being a "throw in". My initial idea is a core of one H1MC80 and one Assault Frigate forming a rebel firing line, supported by a swarm of X-Wing squadrons (btw kudos on your fighter articles, those really helped a lot). Both capital ships are sort of hybridized, so they can push the X-Wing cloud if need be but can provide some serious fire power as well.

        So going with the MFC 90 points X-Wing cloud plus Jan Ors and Biggs Darklighter on top of an H1MC80 and an Assault Frigate plus the Commander, I have around 350 points.

        On top of that I really dislike the flotilla activation spam. I'll happily include one flotilla into my fleet, since it provides a palpable benefit (and the cheap activation). But I got into Armada to commandeer capital ships, not some glorified transports.

        I know that I want to have the cake and eat it as well (I want to have a large and a medium ship in my fleet and not resort to flotilla spam to inflate my activations).

        As a sort of crutch I've downgraded the H1MC80 to another assault frigate, so I can form a firing line out of the two frigates, the fleet is complemented by a corvette and a flotilla (on top of the aforementioned 90 points of X-Wings) for four activations. Nevertheless I'm still not that happy with the fleet. It's got a meh number of activations at four and I didn't get to include my Space Gherkin.

        Guess I have to keep on tweaking (or wait for the points limit to be raised to 500 points).

    2. I'd think your core idea and not wanting flotillaS (plural) is at odds really. I wouldn't think of it as "glorified transports." Think of it as a fleet of a Warshipotato and a Space Sandwich guarding a base transfer (with 2 flotillas) on their way to Jakku or Coruscant or Placeholdersville. If they get attacked by Imperials, they have the muscle to take on almost ANYTHING, squadrons or ships

      Or cut the fighters down to an SFC with Biggs and fit another ship in there. 4 ships is fine, I swear!