Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Fleet building 201: Big Heavy

Vader knows where it's at.
Big Heavy
As mentioned in the header article, Big Heavy is looking to stress the inherent strengths of heavier combat ships (medium and large ships focusing on direct confrontation). Heavy combat ships have high-value activations that can get a lot done. For the amount of space they take up on the table, they can throw an awful lot of dice, and for the most part they can take a lot of punishment, especially if the enemy is unable to gang up on them to overheat their defense tokens. Heavy ships that are only taking one or two attacks each round are in most cases effectively immortal, especially with the right defensive tech; conversely, light combat ships taking one or two attacks each round are going to be destroyed if they can't get out of trouble and soon. A Big Heavy fleet is looking to quickly destroy heavy-hitting opposition that threatens its heavy ships and then hopes to spend the rest of the game casually gobbling up the less-threatening survivors.

Before I get any further I want to make it clear that there will be a lot of generalizations coming up in this and the future Fleet Building 201 articles, which are useful for communicating overall points but there are always exceptions, especially in fleets made by players who know what they're doing inside and out and how to play around what would be a critical problem for a less-experienced player.

Elements to consider when building a Big Heavy fleet:
  • Sufficient threat projection. With fewer activations, you're likely getting outmaneuvered and so keeping your best arcs on target could be difficult. Ships/upgrades with better speed or maneuverability can help rectify this, as can longer-ranged ships, which are more generous with their ability to project threat. Shorter-ranged heavier ships (like ISD-Is, for example) all on their lonesome without support elements or a decent bid for first player are likely to struggle to get much use from their black dice.
    • On a related note, simply bringing more combat ships can help with this as well so your fleet can be in (or at least threaten to be in) more places at once. It's a difficult balancing act to determine what type of ships and how many to bring in addition to how heavily those ships should be upgraded. Points disappear fast with Big Heavy due to the inherent expense and upgrade-hungry nature of the heavier combat ships. 
  • Damage maximization. This includes a number of considerations against both small ships and opposing heavy ships, so the upgrade suite in question will usually be some kind of compromise tilted towards whichever ship threats you consider to be more troublesome for the ships you're using. Big Heavy doesn't generally do very well if it's stuck in protracted slugging matches with other combat ships, especially if they're able to focus-fire on your larger ships. Even an extra average point of damage or two or guaranteed accuracy results can destroy enemy ships a round or two earlier, which can have cascading effects that benefit you (less ships attacking you back, less enemy activations, ability for you to focus fire on new targets without wasting attacks on nearly-dead-but-not-quite targets, etc.).
    • Basically anything that improves your dice reliability through rerolls or flipping to specific sides, adds attack dice, debuffs defense tokens (say for example something like XI7 Turbolasers), etc. You want your attacks to be as reliable and as lethal as possible to wipe out ship threats to you ASAP.
  • Counter-tech. Consider the other two main archetypes and how you expect to handle them. If you skimp on your anti-MSU or anti-Heavy Squadron tech, your weaknesses will be exploited. This is one of the more appealing reasons to minor in a secondary archetype, which is true of every "pure" skew archetype build but for my money is even more important for Big Heavy. MSU and Heavy Squadron can both produce a volume of attacks that can overwhelm heavy ships' defense tokens, which can turn your previously-robust ships into scrap faster than you'd think.
    • One thing I find interesting is pure Big Heavy builds in my experience tend to suffer against pure MSU or pure Heavy Squadron builds due to this weakness, but they tend to be stronger against more mixed builds than their two pure skew cousins, as the mixed attack approaches of more versatile fleet builds can end up lacking the focus necessary to really put the screws to several heavy combat ships in sufficient time.
 Basic usage recommendations:
  • Deploy towards the edge. You will often be out-deployed as you have so many points in relatively few ships. Deploying centrally is a great way to get ganged up on, which you're looking to avoid. Attempt to refuse a flank by deploying towards an edge.
    • This also makes Superior Positions and Solar Corona easy objective choices on occasion when you are first player, as you're usually operating at a deployment disadvantage anyways. Just be careful about the in-game elements of those objectives.
  • Positioning, positioning, positioning. The name of the game is local superiority. In general, every fleet in Armada would love to have all of its combat elements engaging only a portion of the enemy fleet at a time - the advantages are obvious in a unified fleet attacking divided opposition. Big Heavy is the archetype best able to do this because so much of its power is concentrated in so little space. Making that desire a reality requires some very savvy maneuvering, speed control, and reading the enemy fleet.
    • Try to not get in your own way. You want your heavy ships to be close enough to tag-team enemy ships but not so close that they obstruct each other or they end up ramming into one another. Any ships on the outside turning in are going to need to be going a higher speed just to keep up, for example.
    • In general, cranking your speed up early on can help you engage a more thinly-spread enemy fleet before it has an opportunity to navigate all its ships to gang up on you, but be careful of being too reckless and sailing right into a trap.
      • Overall it's better to stay fast against small ships where you can expect to drop them in one or two shots so you can plow through them and move on (or make a quick getaway) and slow down a bit to keep your best arcs on target against enemy heavy ships that might require a few more salvos before they are put down.
    • In short: navigate commands are your friends. I think few would disagree when I say that navigate is quite likely the best default command in Armada and when you have so many points wrapped up in so few ships, having them in the right place at the right time is even more important than usual.
  • Don't be afraid to dine and dash. Evaluate the board state after your initial slugfest and determine if your heavy hitters have enough stamina to trade punches for another round or two against newcomers. This can be a very crucial decision point for a Big Heavy fleet: if you decide to dive back into the fray and end up biting off more than you can chew, your heavy ships can have a hard time disengaging and will give up a lot of points when destroyed. If things go well, however, you can win by very large margins. 
    • When in doubt, it's usually best to make a break for it into the back field or off on the flanks - a heavy ship that's trying to avoid serious combat after the initial dust-up can be very difficult to destroy provided it chooses its flight path intelligently and mixes a few repair commands in there. It may in general be out of the fight but it's still dangerous to lighter ships that dally too long and don't take the threat seriously, so look for opportunities to pick up some easy kills later in the game while preserving your points.
  • Intelligently attack. A pure Big Heavy fleet does not get many individual attacks against enemy ships, so make sure you're sending attacks against appropriate targets. It's better to use one of your two attacks on a weak-arc shot that assists one of your other ships in destroying an enemy ship than to use that attack on your strongest-arc shot against a target that's unlikely to actually get destroyed anytime soon (even though rolling lots of dice is fun, no disagreement from me there). This is another one of those "this is generally good advice for Armada overall" kind of statements, but it's particularly true for Big Heavy given its paucity (look out, fancy $5 word coming through) of attacks.
    • On a related note, flak intelligently. Many heavy combat ships have two-dice flak batteries and when overlapped appropriately and used consistently, they can really add up against squadrons. That being said, don't pull the trigger on flakking instead of making a "real" attack unless that flak will meaningfully contribute to your anti-squadron plan.
      • I guess what I'm getting at here is "I've seen people make generally meaningless attacks when they should have been flakking but I've also seen people flak but not have a plan for actually destroying/hindering squadrons, and both of those extremes should be avoided when you have better options available."
Mixing it up with Big Heavy
Adding elements of the other archetypes to a Big Heavy foundation can provide more options and produce a more well-rounded fleet. The extent to which you add in the other two, what elements of those two, and how much of one or the other (maybe a bit of each, maybe one completely to the exclusion of the other) will vary tremendously. Let's first cover some terms so it's clear what I mean when I reference different amounts of investment:

Weak would mean no more than 1/6 of your available points. It's featuring that element in a support role at best, usually to cover weaknesses. This leaves enough room to add a dash of the other archetype if you like or to really strongly focus on the base archetype (in this example, Big Heavy).

Moderate would mean no more than 1/3 of your available points. The element in question is at this point the junior partner in the fleet and starts to more strongly add elements of its archetype to the fleet as an active contributor moreso than a defensive or support element. It should be noted that while each fleet is limited to 1/3 of its points in squadrons, a Heavy Squadron archetype is more than just the squadrons - it is also points invested into carriers and squadron-boosting upgrades. A Moderate investment still leaves open the possibility of a Light investment in the remaining third archetype, but you run the risk of diluting your core archetype if you're not careful.

Strong would mean up to 1/2 of your available points. The element in question becomes a co-partner, usually to the complete exclusion of the third archetype.

Adding MSU elements to Big Heavy provides it cheap activations it desperately wants as well as access to faster, cheaper sources of attacks that can get to specific areas of the board more easily than heavy combat ships can, and can assist your heavier ships in ganging up on tougher targets.

Weak MSU usually means adding a few flotillas to pad your activation count and to provide some fleet support upgrades. It could also be a single cheaper small-based ship to assist with chasing down faster, lighter enemy ships or for lurking behind your main line and finishing off enemy ships that barely survived a run-in with your heavier bruisers.

Moderate MSU can take a few forms, from combining a 1-2 flotillas with a corvette to 2ish small combat ships. If you go heavier on flotillas, you're usually able to activation pad pretty effectively, and can meet or exceed other fleets in terms of activation count. If you go heavier on small combat ships, it usually provides better table coverage, quantity of attacks, and threat projection against arc-dodging enemy ships. Your call.

Strong MSU generally goes heavier on the small combat ships (although you'll still see a flotilla or two, usually), with the end result often being a rush across the table, trying to overwhelm the enemy with lots of combat ships converging on select targets. It's tough to fit squadrons in this kind of build, so these fleets often use none at all, hoping to simply annihilate the carriers before the squadrons do too much damage.

Heavy Squadron
Adding Heavy Squadron elements to Big Heavy helps cover their weaknesses against bombers, but as the investment increases it further strengthens Big Heavy's activation economy, allowing for some extremely powerful individual activations. This comes at the expense of quantity of activations, however.

Weak Heavy Squadron is something of a misnomer - this level of investment is usually appropriate for Small Fighter Coverage and not much more. Small Fighter Coverage helps address one of the biggest weaknesses of Big Heavy, and that is getting nibbled to death by bombers that you often don't have a sufficient counter to. Getting some fighters on the table keeps the opposing bombers honest, and should give you a lot more breathing room. They also provide a cheap source of deployments, which helps with your typical deployment disadvantage.

Moderate Heavy Squadron will usually take one of two forms: if your heavy ships inherently have high Squadrons values and you're willing to commit to commanding those squadrons frequently, then you can go all-in on a Large Fighter Coverage squadron group. We'll talk more about that under Strong Heavy Squadrons. The second, more common, option is to invest the points into a Medium Fighter Coverage group and a ship (or ships, if you're going with flotillas) to command them.

Strong Heavy Squadron is the tech and ships to boss around a Large Fighter Coverage group, although in some cases it may be a bit pared down compared to a "full" Heavy Squadron archetype. You may also need one or two of your heavy combat ships to help with squadron commands, particularly earlier on. A Heavy Squadron/Big Heavy partnership offers a number of advantages, primarily in two areas:
  1. Squadrons are the most mobile units in the game and can be extremely useful for putting damage into targets on an as-needed basis. This can be extremely helpful for going after fast ships that evade the best arcs of your heavy combat ships and for finishing off targets that got savaged earlier but need a little bit of help shuffling off the mortal coil.
  2. When combined with a heavy combat ship with a decent to high Squadrons value (like an ISD-I or -II), you can get some extremely strong individual activations with this pairing. Commanding a large number of squadrons and then getting in two heavy ship attacks does a substantial amount of damage in a single activation, which can quickly overwhelm enemies that were hoping for a less explosive burst of damage all at once.
The main downside of a Heavy Squadron/Big Heavy partnership is you're frequently light on activations unless you invested heavily into flotillas, in which case it can be difficult to fit more than one large combat ship, or potentially two medium ships.

A quick note on flotillas
Because flotillas are both cheap activations and cost-effective (if individually mediocre) squadron-pushers, you can really group them under both MSU and Heavy Squadron archetypes. It depends on the way those flotillas will be used, but they effectively count for both/either.


  1. Debating a 3 ISD-I build as a way to use Tarkin and Fleet Commands, but I'm not sure about it because 1) these builds are traditionally viewed as a d**k move and 2) it has zero squads.

    Basically Tark's on an ISD-I with Sovereign and Boarding Vader. The Cymoon has Intensify Firepower(!) and Strategic Adviser and the Kuat has Chimaera and Shields to Maximum(!).

    Each turn, Tarkin sends a Squadron token to every ship (keeps his for Vader) or a Nav token, then taps Sovereign so the other two can change it to the token that triggers their Fleet Command, and everyone's free to Navigate or Engineer all the time.

    A dedicated bomber wing usually shreds ISD-only builds, but I wonder if StM(!) and the freedom to Engineer whenever they want would keep them alive long enough to get the win. Thoughts?

    1. It's basically a jank fleet. If your opponent jousts straight at you, he'll lose, but if he can peel away one of the side ISDs and jet away, there's not much you can do about it. Plus you'll find that losing out on clutch versus upgrades (like Pryce or Intel Officer or the like) and a squadron screen can result in some bad matchups. Avenger Boarding Troopers, for example, will cause you a lot of trouble.

      The general consensus is 2 ISD builds can be workable but you give up too much to do 3.

    2. True, even with three ISDs you're still at the mercy of the "if you lose a single ISD you've likely lost the battle" rule.

      Thanks for the comment. I like Tarkin and Fleet Commands, so I might move him and Sovereign to the Cymoon, dump the plain ISD and find smaller ships that can take advantage of his token spam. Maybe work Wulff and Aresko into the mix.