|Spoilers: it's gonna be a bad time for everything you can see in this picture.|
I find it's best to review the absolute basics for how something works before I proceed on with recommendations on how best to do something within the rules. So how does the fleet deployment step work? From the rules reference guide (page 10):
Starting with the first player, the players take turns deploying their forces into the setup area. A single deployment turn consists of placing one ship or two squadrons.
- Ships must be placed within their player’s deployment zones. When a player places a ship, he must set its speed dial to a speed available on its speed chart.
- Squadrons must be placed within distance 1–2 of a friendly ship and may be placed outside of deployment zones.
- If a player only has one squadron remaining when he must place two, he cannot place it until he has placed all of his ships.
- Ships and squadrons can be placed on top of the setup area markers as long as they remain entirely within the setup area.
- Remember that your squadrons aren't restricted to being inside of your deployment zone like your ships are, but they still need to be inside the setup area (the 3*4 rectangle in the middle of the board, so not within distance 5 of either short edge).
- Because squadrons can only be deployed within distance 1-2 of a ship, the first deployment must always be a ship (because there's no reference point for squadron deployment before your ship is deployed).
- If you have an odd number of squadrons, that means your final deployment will always be one straggler squadron. It helps to bring an even number of squadrons for this reason.
- When you deploy a ship, set its speed at that moment! You don't get to decide later. You don't need to decide beforehand.
- I see some people pre-set their speed dials and then flip them over upon deployment. Don't do this. You may change your mind based on earlier deployment decisions (yours and your opponent's) and staying committed to an earlier decision made based on little to no information can disadvantage you.
- I see some people forget to set their starting speed entirely and then remember to do it later in the deployment phase or at the beginning of turn one. Don't do this! You're cheating!
Use the entirety of your deployment zone
It's not uncommon to see players deploying all of their ships on the deployment line, chomping at the bit to get to the enemy fleet as soon as possible. Don't neglect to use your whole deployment zone, though. Starting ships a bit further back can delay ship-to-ship contact by a turn or a portion of a turn, which can benefit you. You can also use the area behind your aggressively-deployed ships for other ships - usually this is a good place for a support ship (like a flotilla or carrier) that you don't mind activating later on or for a "finisher" combat ship that intends to activate later on to put the final damage into wounded enemy ships.
Angle your ships
Similarly, it's pretty common to see ships deployed pointing straight ahead toward the enemy deployment zone right at the line. Sometimes this is the correct thing to do, but frequently you can benefit from deploying your ship at an angle so its path doesn't take it straight ahead. This can be for numerous reasons: maybe it assists you in flanking the enemy formation, maybe it helps you loop around an obstacle in your flight path, maybe it just fits better with your other ships' trajectories, etc.
This advice goes from "it's helpful sometimes" to "this is often important" when you're deploying broadsides ships like Assault Frigates or Arquitens Light Cruisers. When broadside ships move directly toward the enemy fleet (meaning their only targets are in their front arc), they're prone to getting jammed up by faster ships that deliberately move into their front arc so the broadsides ship cannot move forward any further without ramming and thus prevents them from turning on the crucial turn they were hoping to set up their side arc attacks for the future. If the broadside ship had started its deployment at even a little bit of an angle, it can often have some targets in its side arcs even if it does get jammed early on by a speedy ship.
Consider your starting speed carefully
Barring special circumstances (such as Ozzel, Commander Leia, or a Pelta with Entrapment Formation), your ships can only change their speed by 1 during their first activation, and that's assuming you've issued them a nav command. Similarly they can by default only have changed their speed by 2 by the end of turn 2 (again, there's ways around this to be sure). This makes your starting speed for your ships very important. Ships that set their speed too high can have a hard time slowing down in time before they go smashing into the enemy fleet. Ships that set their speed too low can have a hard time stepping on the gas in time to get to where they're most needed.
So what's a good starting speed? It really depends on a lot of factors, but in general your speed decisions are informing your opponent if you plan to be aggressive (high speed) or cagey (lower speed) and your opponent will be deploying his own ships with your telegraphed intentions in mind, communicating their own intentions. Some basic recommendations to keep in mind about this important decision:
- A ship that bolts from the safety of the rest of its fleet and runs ahead is prone to getting focused on until it explodes spectacularly. Such ships are particularly easy prey for bomber squadrons and long-ranged attrition attacks. Be wary of setting one of your ships at a substantially higher speed than the rest of your nearby ships.
- Similarly, a ship set to a substantially lower speed than the rest of your fleet will lurk behind. This can be useful for support ships like flotillas and carriers or for "finisher" ships designed to snipe down crippled enemy ships, but if done carelessly it can mean your fleet is divided against a united enemy fleet and thus operating at a disadvantage.
- When it comes to ships that are deployed away from your main line, there are two basic situations to consider:
- If deployed away from your fleet but opposite the enemy fleet, I'd recommend deploying at a lower speed to delay the time until combat. This gives the rest of your fleet time to catch up.
- If deployed away from your fleet but not opposite the enemy fleet, I'd recommend deploying at a high speed to get into the fight as quickly as possible, preferably as a flanker. Be careful with this strategy - I've seen it result in ships that effectively get left out of the game entirely as they try to pick a fight with enemy ships that aren't interested in waiting around for them to catch up.
- Fleets that are more attrition-comfortable (can give and/or take damage over the course of a game better than average) generally should consider higher starting speeds to get the dice flying as soon as possible to maximize the number of turns serious combat can happen.
- Conversely, fleets that are objective- or support-based and have more points invested into tech may not be as keen on getting the fight started earlier than necessary while they harvest their objective points and should consider lower speeds to delay the fighting.
- Burst damage fleets will really depend on if they can expect to maneuver around for another go at it (encouraging higher speeds perhaps) or if they expect to throw damage everywhere and then run for it (encouraging lower starting speeds).
- There's also the matter of the ships themselves and their nav charts. For example, if your fleet includes Raiders, who have their worst maneuverability at speed 3, then you likely aren't going to want to start them at speed 3 (but there are always exceptions).
Don't neglect to consider obstacles
As mentioned in the obstacle deployment article, obstacles have a lot of uses and set up the basic parameters for fleet deployment. Do what you can to make use of the obstacles near you (use them for obstruction in the early game, set up to keep your squadrons safe in them, etc.) and if possible, try to deny your opponent use from his. That's undoubtedly very vague advice, but I've found that the more experience I've gained, the more I use obstacles as assets, compared to my early games where I tried to avoid playing near them at all and saw them only as possible detriments.
They can absolutely be detrimental, though, so make sure when you're deploying close to an obstacle (or obstacles) that you're not set to overlap an asteroid or debris field and that you won't be locked in too much in your maneuvering (the classic example is the VSD that just barely fits between two asteroid fields and has to keep going straight or else it's in for a world of pain).
Deploy close enough to friendlies
Ships in a group do far better than ships that are dispersed all over the place because when a part of your fleet hits the entirety of the enemy fleet, your outnumbered ships are going to have a bad time and then the enemy fleet will move on to gobble up your remaining ships. Therefore, most of your ships should be deployed within reasonable support range of one another so that anyone looking to attack one of them will have to deal with its nearby friends.
How close is that, exactly? It depends (boo, hiss, I know!). Generally I'd recommend within at least medium range of another ship, often closer. You're trying to achieve the perfect balance of table coverage, ability to concentrate fire without being obstructed by your own ships, ability to gang up on enemy ships getting too close, and all while preserving enough space so as to not ram your own ships (...much).
First player deploying first
The first player's initial deployment is the most important decision in a very important setup phase. By setting down the first ship, the first player is beginning to reveal his plans in terms of where he roughly expects to set up the rest of his fleet and how aggressive he intends to be.
Because this first deployment is so important, it behooves the first player to be as flexible and noncommittal with this deployment as he can. The second player will be counter-deploying based on an awful lot more information than the first player had (see: obstacle deployment and that's it, so nearly nothing) and so the first player wants to give the second player as little of an information edge as possible so as to minimize the disadvantage. For this reason, I have a few recommendations for the first player's first deployment:
- Deploy one of your weakest/least important ships first.
- Deploy it at a noncommittal speed, such as 2 or rarely 1 or 3.
- Do not deploy the ship on the flanks. Keep it within a foot of the middle of your deployment zone. Is the first ship going to be on a flank of your battle line? The center? The second player doesn't know. You probably don't yet, either!
Deploy squadrons early
Once you have your first ship on the table, you're able to deploy squadrons. Not only can you deploy squadrons once your first deployment is completed, in most cases you should deploy squadrons. As noted above, each player is looking at his opponent's deployments and trying to figure out exactly what his opponent is up to. Where does he intend to put his heavier combat assets? Where exactly is the enemy fleet's main battle line going to be? The longer you can delay giving your opponent serious information to work with, the better.
This isn't to say squadrons aren't serious assets. They are (either that or John and I wrote an awful lot of articles about nothing). It's that point-for-point, you're usually spending less points on a deployment of two squadrons than you are on the deployment of one ship. Squadrons are also much more forgiving when their deployment is a bit off due to how maneuverable they are. Deploy a ship wrong and you may struggle to get it to maneuver to someplace meaningful before the late game. Deploy a squadron wrong and at worst you're one turn behind where it wanted to be, which is not great but not terrible either.
So in short, squadrons are less vulnerable to bad deployments than ships and are usually a less expensive deployment than ships, which means you're revealing less of your total force early on and you're better able to recover if subsequent deployments change the battle lines a bit more than you were expecting. You may want to deploy a second ship so you have an additional squadron deployment "node" prior to deploying all of your squadrons, but in general it's rare that I'd recommend going past ship deployment #2 before deploying all of your available squadrons.
Deploy ships in order from least to most important
Just an elaboration of the developing theme of "don't give your opponent important information about your deployment before you have to," your ships should be deployed from least to most important. By the end of fleet deployment, it's pretty clear where most (and sometimes all) of your opponent's ships are. This is the perfect opportunity to drop your most important ships (like your big face-smashing battleship HMC80 or ISD, or your burst-damage torpedo boats like a Demolisher Gladiator or Admonition MC30).
Your most important ships are looking to do two basic things to really pay off:
1) Hunt down enemy models they're good at destroying and do that.
2) Avoid enemies who are trying to do that thing right back to them.
To be fair, this is what everything in Armada is trying to do, but it's extremely important that your big points investments do this or else you're going to have a bad time. The later you deploy your big investments, the more you know what to expect: you're better able to set up opposite ideal "prey" and/or avoid "predators" or, at the very least, "traps" that your big important model would have fallen into otherwise (say, like the ISD trying to roll down the middle of the table only to find the entire enemy fleet gangs up on it and it's dead in a turn or two).
The only other thing I want to stress about this point before moving on is to make sure you've got space for your crucial model(s) that deploy later. It won't do your LMC80 much good to deploy last only to find that it won't fit where you want to put it.
There's understandably a bit of cat-and-mouse going on with the alternating fleet deployments. How do you respond to what you know about your opponent's formation so far? If he deploys in a flank do you deploy across from him to directly oppose him? Do you instead deploy centrally to try to flank him? Do you deploy in the completely opposite corner to threaten a game where combat happens very late unless one of you fails at "deployment chicken" and starts deploying closer to the other fleet, abandoning the assets you've already deployed to possible irrelevance?
There's a lot to think about and it's extremely difficult to give any straightforward advice here because it's very dependent on the specific circumstances of you and your opponent's fleet deployment choices at that point in the game. The core of successful counter-deploying comes down to answering a very simple question, however: "if everything on the table right now proceeded forward more or less how you'd expect, what would the outcome be?" If you don't like the answer to that question, then change the outcome with your next deployment.
The best "don't do this" example is a very common new player mistake: your opponent sets up an ISD-II across the table from your ships and you respond by deploying more light ships in its front arc heading right into it, which is then countered by your opponent putting another asset nearby until the game is a straight-ahead joust which the player with durable straight-ahead jousters (the example Imperial player) is going to win. The example game was largely lost during deployment. The original situation in our example was "continuing straight ahead right now is going to result in a ship or two being destroyed because the ISD has a very strong front arc" and the incorrect conclusion was drawn of "I need more ships here." A more constructive alternative solution would be "I need to deploy some ships outside of its front arc but close enough to flank it and gang up on it later, that way it can't focus its best attacks on more than one or two things at a time."
In short, try to resist deploying something "just because." If your opponent's current formation presents a very obvious threat, then you need to prioritize counter-deploying to put that threat in check or focusing your forces in someplace more productive rather than just giving your opponent more easy targets. Try to anticipate your opponent doing the same to you as well!
The final thing I want to talk about is deployment advantage. Specifically, what happens when one player has more deployments than another. Someone will always have the last deployment, of course, but if one player has 2 or more uninterrupted deployments at the end, it can allow them to wait out their opponent's entire formation before committing their most vital pieces. The advantage of doing so is obvious and the method of doing so was basically already covered above. So what should you do if you're on the receiving end of being out-deployed?
In general, it pays to be more conservative and compact if you're substantially out-deployed. Ships you deploy too aggressively (too fast and/or too close to the deployment line) can suddenly find themselves ganged up on by the last few enemy deployments once the game begins and they won't have much time to save themselves due to how quickly they're going to get into combat. By keeping your fleet closer together and slower at the beginning of the game, it's much harder for your opponent's fleet to find an outside straggler to pick off easily; instead, they'll need to get within range of a portion of your whole fleet to start attacking. By starting off slower, you're also giving your fleet more time (primarily through navigate commands) to respond to the uncontested deployments: this can help a flank that's about to get overwhelmed the ability to get in its attacks and then jet away, or for the rest of your fleet to speed up and pivot toward the overwhelmed flank so your whole fleet can be present when the fighting starts.
This is a big subject and there's room to go even deeper with examples and counter-examples and other more specialized principles, but I hope I've been successful at laying down some basic parameters for successful fleet deployment. Let me know if you had any questions or wanted any further elaboration on anything!