Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Imperial squadron review: TIE Fighters

So let's begin with the smallest building blocks in an Armada player's arsenal: squadrons. We'll be moving on to ships as we get there. John tends to love his squadrons the most and there's definitely some meat there for Imperial players as well. I don't intend to focus on only squadrons, but I'd like to start with one particularly key squadron that's frequently misunderstood and underappreciated: the humble TIE Fighter squadron. This is a particular focus of mine, so get comfortable as this article is going to be long. Buckle up, prime your twin ion engines, and let's launch...

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TIE Fighters have a lot going for them:
  • They're extraordinarily cheap at 8 points each. Only the Rebel Z-95 is less expensive (at 7 points) and they suffer many of the same problems as TIE Fighters only with less consistency (particularly against aces) and a higher tendency to get pounced on. You can get a single deployment of two TIE Fighters for Imperials at a mere 16 points, which is better than any ship.
  • Speed 4 is not to be overlooked. That's higher than your average speed of 3 and for a competitive price. Against anything going speed 3 or less (which describes most of the Rebel squadrons), you can reliably get the first punch in, which you really want (more on that later). It's also useful for giving you more leeway in where you get to place your TIEs when attacking an enemy squadron or squadron group.
  • At 3 blue dice against squadrons and Swarm, they punch above their points cost. It's not individually impressive, but when consistently applied it can add up very quickly. Consider that against another squadron without defense tokens (where you want only raw damage), a TIE Fighter triggering Swarm will do an average of 1.94 damage, just slightly below the 2 average damage of an attack from a 4 blue dice squadron. When you consider that a TIE Fighter is much cheaper than the kind of squadrons throwing 4 blue dice (among its Rebel counterparts, that includes X-Wings, E-Wings, and YT-2400s, the cheapest of which is 13 points), that's quite a steal.
  • Speaking of enemy aces, the reroll from Swarm is also quite helpful for fishing for accuracy icons when locking down a scatter is essential. The blue dice assortment can put more damage into scatter aces than they were expecting to receive against chaff squadrons.
Now this isn't to say everything is sunshine and rainbows in TIE Fighter land. Keeping with Imperial squadron design philosophy, the TIE Fighter is an extremely specialized design that's only good at one thing: blowing up enemy fighters. Even then it needs to be treated with care, because it's got some problems:
  • 3 hull. TIE Fighter squadrons are very fragile and this is the biggest flaw that needs to be played around. They can take about two attacks from most enemy fighters. On a lucky roll, they can be completely wiped out in one attack. If anything can soften them up by even one damage first (say, like flak from enemy ships), their odds of getting destroyed in one attack from an enemy squadron go up pretty remarkably. Speaking of flak, they can be reliably killed over time by a modest investment of flak from enemy ships. A dedicated bomber like a TIE Bomber can take quite a bit more punishment from flak, making flak-only defense plans much less reliable. TIE Fighters don't have that luxury.
  • Blue dice against ships. With a single non-Bomber blue dice, you will do on average 0.5 damage to enemy ships with each attack and your crits and accuracy results are completely useless. With their weakness to flak, TIE Fighters really do not want to be pursuing ships unless there's nothing better for them to do, and preferably only if they won't get killed by flak at least on that turn.
  • Swarm is reliant upon friends helping out. A lot of the TIE Fighter's offensive oomph against enemy squadrons comes from the utility of Swarm, giving it a 28% damage buff (equivalent to almost another free dice). The first TIE Fighter running into trouble will not benefit from Swarm and TIE Fighters that get separated from their friends will be less effective.
So what we get is a squadron that does a fantastic job of beating on enemy squadrons when used with friends (often other TIE Fighters!) at a very compelling price point but is fragile and absolutely does not like messing with enemy ships one bit. It is designed to be a pure fighter. How do we get the best use from this combination of merits and demerits? Look no further than the TIE Commandments, a general guide for good fighter usage overall but particularly for TIE Fighters. They are:
  1. Thou shalt not expose thy TIE Fighters to unnecessary flak.
  2. Thou shalt not get alpha struck.
  3. Thou shalt not engage more enemies than necessary with any given TIE Fighter.
  4. Thou shalt focus fire on enemy squadrons to eliminate them before they can fight back.
  5. Thou shalt use squadron commands on TIE Fighters.
  6. Thou shalt disengage if possible with wounded TIEs.
  7. Thou shalt make use of obstruction.
  8. Thou shalt use thy TIEs alongside thy ships.
  9. Thou shalt prioritize using TIEs against squadrons, not ships.
  10. Thou shalt deploy TIEs to delay deploying thy real ships for as long as possible.
Let's go over them one at a time for some more explanation:

1) Thou shalt not expose thy TIE Fighters to unnecessary flak.
When you've only got 3 hull points, every bit of damage counts, and anything that makes TIE Fighters easier to one-shot for enemy squadrons is something you should be avoiding at all costs. Generally this means that you should be reluctant to engage enemy squadrons within the flak range of enemy ships unless those ships have more pressing problems, like your own ships.

2) Thou shalt not get alpha struck.
TIE Fighters do not like taking the first punch whatsoever given it exacerbates the problem of their quite vulnerable hull 3 and often results in a few being destroyed before they can get to use their good anti-squadron firepower. It can be useful leaving a few combat air patrol (CAP) guardians minding the flanks of your threatened ships so as to not let bombers walk right in, but in general I'd recommend keeping your TIEs near to slightly behind your ships ready to pounce. Due to your speed 4, enemy bombers and their fighter escorts need to get within pounce range to set up their bombing run, so let them spend their time coming to you.

In short, sometimes it's okay to use one or two squadrons huddled close to the front of your ships as speed bumps for enemy squadron groups, but generally you should be okay with your own ships taking a bit of heat so your TIE Fighters can then pounce on the over-extended attackers.

3) Thou shalt not engage more enemies than necessary with any given TIE Fighter.
The temptation is always there to throw TIEs deep into enemy squadron formations because it allows you to trigger Swarm with your follow-up TIEs easily against numerous foes should you be particularly successful. I encourage you to fight this temptation as best you can. Keep in mind the average damage of a Swarm-aided TIE Fighter (a bit under 2, as I noted earlier) and budget your TIEs appropriately with that in mind, only trying to engage as many foes as you have a good chance of destroying with your activated TIE Fighters. The reason I encourage this is that a TIE Fighter that is engaged by more than one enemy squadron stands a good chance of getting destroyed, so engaging more enemies than you need to is effectively throwing TIE Fighters away. If your opponent wants to come after your TIE Fighter squadrons, force him to commit to a squadron command to make it happen and get him to come a bit closer to your own flak assets.

4) Thou shalt focus fire on enemy squadrons to eliminate them before they can fight back.
TIE Fighters have great attacking power for their cost but poor durability. The best way to keep them ticking is for their enemies to be dead. This is actually pretty common-sense advice overall for fighter squadrons but for good TIE Fighter usage it is absolutely essential. Given the necessity of getting good use from Swarm, TIE Fighters are encouraged to gang up on enemy squadrons in such a fashion moreso than other fighter squadrons.

For a quick example of the points we've covered so far, take a look at this:
We've got 3 TIE Fighters within striking distance (4+1 for engagement) of 2 X-Wings. We know that TIE Fighters without Swarm do an average of 1.5 damage and Swarming TIE Fighters do a bit under 2. With 5 hull, that means we're going to need 3 TIE Fighters to gang up on one X-Wing to have a shot at destroying it in one go. There's no benefit at all to engaging the other X-Wing in this circumstance (we're not even 100% sure we can tackle one X-Wing with these three, much less two X-Wings), so when we command the TIE Fighters, they should be going in like so:
The unengaged X-Wing is stuck with nobody in engagement range and the ganged-up-on X-Wing is hopefully done for or at the very least on death's doorstep. If the unengaged X-Wing wants to do something beyond walk into the punch grinder this turn during the Squadron Phase, he's going to need a squadron command. Make him work for it, don't serve him up any easy targets! Speaking of squadron commands...

5)Thou shalt use squadron commands on TIE Fighters.
TIE Fighters do substantially better when activated by squadron commands from friendly ships rather than activating in the Squadron Phase. There are numerous benefits to this approach:
  •  By activating your TIE Fighters prior to the Squadrons Phase, they get their punches in as early as possible. As discussed already, TIE Fighters' strengths lie mostly on the attack and avoiding retribution by ganging up and destroying defenders as quickly as possible; getting in the first punch(es) as frequently as possible allows them to play to their strengths.
  • By being able to move and attack, you open up a lot of positional play which is also to the TIE Fighters' advantage due to their speed 4. Bring in unengaged TIEs to start a new Swarm-aided boot party (by moving+attacking) or destroy your target and then reposition elsewhere (by attacking+moving), either by moving to engage a new target, setting up Swarm for the next TIE activations, or withdrawing a bit (more on that with Commandment 6).
It should be noted that TIEs do not always require squadron commands - they're primarily necessary for the hottest rounds of dogfighting, usually rounds 2 through 4 or so and on an as-needed basis. TIEs perform very badly when just moved during the Squadrons Phase into engagement with an enemy squadron and then left alone until they get to attack in the next Squadron Phase - they get less total attacks against enemy squadrons this way (as simply moving into engagement in the Squadron Phase could have been move+attack had they been commanded) and they're effectively hanging there with 3 hull just waiting to get destroyed. They need squadron commands to utilize this potential.

6) Thou shalt disengage if possible with wounded TIEs.
As mentioned before, TIE Fighters with any damage on them are at a much higher risk of getting eliminated a single attack from enemy fighters. When a wounded TIE is no longer engaged, it behooves you to withdraw it some distance from the fight if you have the option - preferably to somewhere it can launch an attack next turn (with a squadron command to move+attack) at speed 4 where enemies cannot reach it easily. This gives the TIE a measure of safety simply due to space between it and danger and allows you a realistic chance of getting at least one more use from it rather than giving your opponent an easy kill by continuing to drive it into trouble.

The absolute best-case way to do this feels extremely satisfying: a wounded TIE activated with a squadron command attacks and destroys the enemy squadron engaging it and then withdraws to the space station, heals 1 hull point, and gains obstruction prior to being used again next turn.

7) Thou shalt make use of obstruction.
By keeping obstacles between TIE Fighters and things that want to kill them at the right moments, killing them becomes more difficult. Obstruction is deceptively powerful when it comes to keeping squadrons alive. When an attack between the attacker and defender is obstructed, it does two things that are very beneficial for TIE Fighters:
  1. It forces the attacker to remove one of their attack dice prior to rolling. Anything that decreases the potency of attacks against TIE Fighters is obviously good. In particular, this has a very large effect on enemy flak, which is often a single die and thus with obstruction becomes no dice at all.
  2.  Enemy squadrons that are obstructed to you may still attack (at the -1 die) but do not count as engaged. This means that not only will you receive less average damage but your TIEs are then free to go elsewhere when they are activated later. This can be very helpful for jumping over a fighter group to attack juicier less capable targets.
Please be aware, however, that Swarm also requires engagement so an obstructed TIE Fighter doesn't count as engaging the enemy back to trigger Swarm for his friends. You can still benefit from it on an obstructed attack of your own (with the -1 die for obstruction, of course), provided another friendly squadron is properly engaging your target, though.

Obstacles thus make great staging points for launching TIE Fighters into enemies and they also make great places for your damaged TIES to retreat to later on. Deploy obstacles with this in mind.

8) Thou shalt use thy TIEs alongside thy ships.
This is something of an inversion of the first commandment plus a ramification of the 5th, but it bears mentioning: dogfighting near friendly ships allows your ships to contribute flak support towards destroying enemy squadrons. It also allows for your ships to more easily provide your TIEs with squadron commands. TIEs kept near your ships can wait for enemy bombers to commit, which can put them outside the squadron command range of enemy ships or forces those ships to get closer to your ships than they would like. Either way, it's a net win.

Just make sure the ships in question can actually make that flak contribution a reality. Specifically, close-ranged black dice flak (like that of a Raider or Gozanti) can be difficult to deliver to enemy squadrons engaging your TIE Fighters unless those TIE Fighters are pretty dang close to the ship in question. A smart opponent will engage as far away as possible while still barely at distance 1 on the edge away from your ships to try to avoid flak when possible.

9) Thou shalt prioritize using TIEs against squadrons, not ships.
TIE Fighters are miserable against ships, as I detailed above (the single non-bomber blue dice anti-ship attack plus 3 hull makes them very poor bombers). Unless there is nothing else for them to do, focusing on dealing with squadrons is the correct choice to get your points' worth out of them. Sending them after enemy ships should be done only when the situation merits it - the enemy ship is nearly destroyed and a one or two extra damage to shields or hull could make a crucial difference, for example. Simply chasing after an enemy ship that is in no serious danger of being destroyed is wasting your potential and likely also giving your opponent points from the TIEs that get picked off by flak for no meaningful gain.

If you reach a game state where you destroyed all enemy squadrons and there are no good candidates for your surviving TIEs to chase after, I recommend withdrawing them to the station where they can heal, keep their points investment intact, and enjoy being obstructed. If that's not feasible, then withdrawing to any obstacle to await an opportunity would get my vote.

10)Thou shalt deploy TIEs to delay deploying thy real ships for as long as possible.
TIEs are astoundingly cheap and make for great deployment fodder. What makes them even better at this task beyond being merely cheap is their speed 4 allows for some additional shenanigans. With a single ship deployed as your first deployment and TIEs (amongst other squadrons) for your subsequent deployments until they run out, you buy time to see the early outline of your opponent's formation. You can then deploy your remaining ships at a reasonable distance from your original "scout" deployment in response to your opponent. The speed 4 of the TIE Fighters allows them to catch up to the main fleet without too much trouble (just don't deploy all the way across the board from that first ship!) by the second turn, right when they're needed.

So what types of fleets should consider using TIE Fighters?
I find they're usually best when you've got some squadron command wiggle room to spare. They're not very cost-effective per squadron command point (for example, activating 3 ace squadrons gets more done than activating 3 generic TIE Fighters, but the cost of the aces is also much higher) but if you want to keep your fighter investment moderate to small and primarily focused on squadron defense, they do well in those types of groups. By the time you get to large fighter coverage groups, they're mostly useful only to pad your squadron group with an extra cheap fighter squadron or two as you'll be using most of your points on more elite squadrons and aces at that point.

I'd also be remiss to not point out Reserve Hangar Decks, which are an offensive retrofit designed to respawn your generic Swarm squadrons, just like TIE Fighters. You can do all right with TIE Fighters without RHDs (which is why they don't get their own commandment), but it sure is easier when you include them, and that can open up some builds that TIE Fighters might not have otherwise been as appealing in. Getting a two-use TIE Fighter for 11 points is a pretty good deal.

1 comment:

  1. Great read. Thanks for sharing!

    With all the buzz around the new aces from this wave it is good to be reminded that the humble TIE Fighter might still have a place on the table.