Star Wars Armada: Naval Academy – Fleet Commanders for Newbies

Ladies, gentlemen, theys and gays. Summer wants to talk to you about leadership. This isn’t a workplace seminar. It’s worse. It’s an article about spaceships.

The Hot Seat – “Hold on. This whole operation was your idea.”

Fleet commanders, or Commanders are the leaders of an Armada fleet. Standard games of Armada require exactly one commander in your fleet. The commander upgrade slot is  (opens in a new tab)‘invisible’ in that it’s not on the ship card. Instead, any non-Flotilla ship can hold your Commander. That ship is designated the Flagship and gets a few simple special rules.

Commanders are by far the most expensive upgrades in the game. The cheapest commander cards price out the most expensive upgrades of any other kind. The reason you take one – besides the fact that you have to – is that they come with a powerful special ability. Your commander’s ability will probably define your overall strategy and the ships you take. Your strategy and ship choice will then define loadouts and objective selection. Fleet-building doesn’t have to start with a commander choice, but picking a commander usually happens sooner, rather than later.

Commander abilities are a diverse lot. There isn’t a way to categorise them that won’t leave random exceptions. There are broad orientations like ‘offence’, ‘defence’, and ‘command manipulation,’ but they interact with playstyles and ship loadouts in unexpected ways. Admiral Ackbar and General Romodi are both offence-oriented commanders who add red dice. But their activation requirements are so different that they demand completely different playstyles and ships. Ackbar’s entire fleet should be built on ships with strong broadsides. Romodi isn’t concerned with which sides are shooting, but he calls for a strategy that manipulates terrain and navigates to obstruct his own shots.

Bail Organa looks like a generalist, but he actually plays best with squadron-based fleets. This is because he provides a ready supply of Navigate and Repair dials. Due to the rule that a ship cannot resolve the same Command more than once per round, you want to use him in fleets who spam Concentrate Fire and Squadron commands. Thing is, Concentrate Fire isn’t great. But you know who desperately wants to navigate and repair while spitting out another command? Carriers. Carriers need to fling lots of Squadron commands, but also need repairs and movement. So someone who looked like a generalist suddenly looks like an aviation commander.

Most commanders are a bit more intuitive than that. Darth Vader is fairly simple: fleet-wide dice control for those willing to sacrifice defence. Others have blocks of text that require paragraphs upon paragraph of elaboration. Admiral Konstantine is an acquired taste that basically boils down to mess with the enemy’s speed after meeting numerous prerequisites.

The paramount importance of commander choices and their often-complex nature made me want to write this article. There are great resources on how to fly individual commanders, but people aren’t always out to show new players the basics. When I started out, what I wanted was just a spread of decent commanders for learning the ropes. Armada is a challenging game at the best of times. You deserve leadership who supports you, rather than a commander who ties an anchor to you and hurls you overboard. If you’re looking for that experience, try General Tagge as a newbie.

Credit: Fantasy Flight Games

The Candidates – “Maarva said you were out ruining your health and reputation with friends of low character.”

Alright, my recommendations for Armada’s newbie-friendly commanders.

The Galactic Civil War era of Armada has far more variety, so I picked two each from the Empire and Rebel Alliance.

I don’t always recommend the Republic and Separatists for new players because they’re a bit more complex. Still, nobody can stop you if your heart lies in the Clone Wars. Their rosters are smaller, so I picked one each from the Republic and Separatists.

Admiral Screed

Where to find: Gladiator-class Star Destroyer Expansion Pack; Upgrade Card Collection

Admiral Screed is a dead simple commander who provides fleet-wide dice management. His ability activates once per activation. This can happen during your opponent’s activation if you are making a Salvo attack during their activation. You spend a die from your pool to change any other die to a face with a critical icon. Simple.

The best use for Screed is to take a black-dice heavy fleet and spend blank results to secure hit + crit results. You can fish for black hit + crits because his rule only requires the face to have a critical icon. It says nothing about the other icons. Black and red dice often roll blanks, so you can spend a useless blank for guaranteed damage. Even spending a single hit or critical result to secure a hit + crit is a net gain.

He’s cheap, and plays straight into two things new Armada players love: aggression and Demolisher. New players often view Armada as a game of combat rather than movement. Screed turns this into a strength and encourages getting close for high damage. Demolisher is also beloved by new players because it breaks the fundamental shoot-then-move rule of Armada. It makes lining up your shots vastly easier – something newbies struggle with.

I always recommend Screed to new players who lean toward aggression and want to have explosive fun with Demolisher. Great design.

Moff Jerjerrod

Where to find: Imperial Light Cruiser Expansion Pack (out-of-date card); Upgrade Card Collection

Moff Jerjerrod’s ability mirrors his role in Return of the Jedi, where he promises to, “double our efforts!” to Vader. He squeezes significant manoeuvrability from ships at the cost of dealing a point of damage to the ship. His ability looks rough at first, but he’s awesome. For one, people mistake ‘suffer 1 damage’ to mean ‘lose 1 hull point’. Rules in Armada as read as written. The damage you suffer can go into any hull zone, and usually goes into an inconsequential shield. The Empire leans tanky, with mediocre manoeuvrability. Jerjerrod is great because he leverages the former advantage to shore up a major weakness.

Jerjerrod plays best on ships where the first yaw value of their speed is ‘-‘, AKA nothing. You get partial value out of him on ships where the first yaw value is one click ‘|’, which is most of your roster. He adores the Arquitens that he comes packaged with. He makes the bumbling Victory-class sing at Speed 2. He can push an Imperial-class to perfect manoeuvrability when paired with a Navigate dial. A Jerjerrod-buffed Imperial-class Star Destroyer has similar turning to the nimble CR90. It outmanoeuvres the corvette if there’s a Navigate dial involved. He singlehanded pushes ship manoeuvrability off the charts.

This commander is the only recommendation I make who is manoeuvre-oriented. Others who focus on mobility enforce difficult playstyles or need positional knowledge. Jerjerrod is wonderful because he makes navigation simpler for a reasonable cost. Take 1 HP off your Star Destroyer’s low-priority rear shield and you can turn like a corvette. He is the commander who demonstrates the value of good navigation over firepower by making it happen before your eyes.

Kyrsta Agate

Where to find: Nadiri Starhawk Expansion Pack; Upgrade Card Collection

Commodore Agate is the first of my lots-of-text recommendations. She’s also a two-parter. Her first rule is a one-sentence affair: after deploying her ship, it gets one non-Scatter defence token. Simple. Importantly, this rule doesn’t complicate her second rule because it’s not required to set up her second rule the way Thrawn does. It’s just there to make her ship tougher.

Her second rule can be activated whenever her ship is spending defence tokens, and is not at a dead stop. It allows her ship to discard a defence token to resolve its effect no matter what. This is used to bypass effects that disable your defence tokens, like accuracy icons. The final sentence is just a re-iteration rule that a ship can never stack defence token effects during a single attack. When you break it down like that, her card is much less dense: she gives her ship a non-Scatter defence token at deployment. Then, she can discard a defence token to resolve its effect as long as her ship is not stopped. Just don’t resolve the same effect twice and you’re golden.

Agate is fantastic for new players because she permits flexible fleet-building. She will be on a medium/large ship because they benefit most from her, but her fleet can do anything. She’s powerful, but easy to follow since she only applies to a single ship in the fleet. New players who have small collections benefit from being able to kitchen-sink fit the rest of her fleet. If you’re not trying to hit the top tables at Adepticon, you can’t do wrong by putting Agate in a big ship and just bringing ‘a fleet’. She loves the Starhawk she comes with and I highly recommend using it to dispel mistaken notions that the Rebels deal exclusively in hit-and-run tactics.

Mon Mothma

Where to find: CR90 Corellian Corvette Expansion Pack (out-of-date card); Upgrade Card Collection

Mon Mothma was the first Rebel commander I enjoyed. She’s a defence-oriented commander focused on nimble ships and wolf pack tactics. When any ship in her fleet Evades, it can cancel an extra die at medium range or force an additional re-roll at close range. This nearly doubles the effectiveness of the Evade token, of which the Rebellion has in abundance.

Her fleet-building priority is small ships in large numbers. Her ability has no upper limit on the number of times it activates. Which means you get better value-for-money by activating it as often as possible. Her stand-out ship is the MC30c which can stack her ability with the extraordinary Foresight title. She plays wonderfully with the iconic CR90, and can work with any of the other small Rebel hulls. You can make Assault Frigates work with her, but then you’re losing out on points that could go toward more small ships.

New players love her because she bolsters defences across an entire fleet in an accessible way. She fits well into Rebel collections that have an abundance of small ships, and she can protect newbies from their own aggression.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Where to find: Galactic Republic Fleet Starter

General Kenobi makes me a happy, happy girl. I’ll refrain from elaborating on that line of thought out of a desire to keep my job at Goonhammer.

Kenobi arrives in the fantastic Galactic Republic Fleet Starter and is one of the most intuitive Clone Wars-era commanders. See, by the time the designers got to the Clone Wars, they’d already used up the simple ideas for commanders. Basic, sensible stuff like ‘add HP‘, ‘add dice‘, ‘add dice but weird‘, ‘make dice good‘ and ‘stop exploding, you cowards‘ had all been done. So the designers got creative. This has resulted in a roster of painful-to-read, but interesting commanders for Clone Wars factions. Obi-Wan breaks that pattern with a simple, legible ability.

This guy’s great. I’ve adored him since Trainspotting, but he really comes into his own in a dispersed middleweight fleet. He lets you spend your readied (green) Redirects as a damage reduction ability. It’s ‘only’ one damage, but evaporating one damage out of existence can mean a lot if it shaves half the impact from an attack, or if you have no shields left to redirect. Obi-Wan fleets pair naturally with Expert Shield Tech, because their abilities stack. The classic example of this pairing in action is if you’re suffering 4 damage, you can Brace it in half to 2, and spend a green Redirect to trigger both of them to remove the remaining 2 damage. That’s a 4 damage attack converted into nothing. For reference, an unshielded Acclamator has 7 HP total. So there.

Kenobi’s a great intro to the Republic because he comes with the Fleet Starter and sets players down gently with a consistent, useful ability. He also ages beautifully with any Republic player’s collection. To date, every Republic ship has a Redirect. Which means every Republic ship works with him. Sure, his ability goes further with larger numbers of ships, but he won’t go out of fashion when the collection inevitably expands with a Venator or Pelta.

And he’ll never go out of fashion in this girl’s heart.

Mar Tuuk

Where to find: Recusant-class Destroyer Expansion Pack

Mar Tuuk hails from a long lineage of smug weirdos in the Separatist Alliance. And look, it was a tough one. Of all the factions with multi-paragraph, convoluted special rules, the Separatists are the worst about it. Besides Kraken (who requires a sizable collection for effect), none of the others met my criteria for newbie-friendly. But go off, I guess. This ugly bastard has a long-winded card that comes down to:

Friendly ship shooty the mean enemy ship? Okay.

If the target hull zone has shields, yay add one red die 🙂

If no shields on targeted hull zone but has shields elsewhere, nothing happens 😐

If target has no shields at all, cancel a die from your pool. 🙁

That’s it.

You shoot where the target has shields and get a bonus die. Or not much else happens. His downside is negligible, because it’s uncommon to hit a ship with absolutely no shields. Even if you do, you just cancel your worst result. Which is often a blank. So nothing happens anyway. Upon the first reading, he looks complicated and it sounds like he has a brutal downside. In reality, he’s got three variations of his activation condition and you almost never hit the worst version of it.

As far as ‘newbie-friendly’ goes, he’s a pain, but not as bad as Dooku. He’s obtained through a large ship expansion, but that won’t give you the stuff to build a fleet or play the game like a Separatist Fleet Starter. But his ability is good, and consistent. It plays great with the Recusant he comes with because it often gets a front and side arc on a target so it can attack twice in one round. His ability can be used once per attack, so there’s benefit to getting more hits in. He goes great with the Fleet Starter because that pack adds many more ships. More ships means more attacks for Mar Tuuk. He’s like Obi-Wan in that respect – his ability is universal enough that it won’t go out of style if your collection expands.

I think he’s one of the best Separatist commanders because his design harkens back to a simpler time in Armada. When commanders mostly killed things, went fast, or stayed alive. A simple, consistent ability with just enough downside to make you cautious. That’s a great commander.

I just don’t like his face.

Credit: Darren Tan via Fantasy Flight Games

Qualities of a Newbie Friendly Commander – “These are the moments we strive for, when the hope of victory becomes real.”

My articles aren’t just about lists and descriptions. They also encourage players to approach familiar topics in different ways. This one’s no different.

Besides suggesting newbie-friendly fleet commanders, I want to elaborate on the characteristics that make a particular commander welcoming to new players. That knowledge will better position people to evaluate other commanders in accordance with their level of experience and playstyle.

Here are the qualities I look for in a newbie-friendly commander. They’re what I want when I hand a pre-made fleet to a new player for a learning game.

Digestible rules

Armada has a lot going for it, including rules penned in rules-as-written style. Some of the cards drag on forever, but they tend to be detailed and appropriately laid out. Cards invariably specify timing windows for activation (down to specific steps in an action), necessary prerequisites, and their effects. Most card abilities are tied into an existing mechanic with clear errata. Games Workshop took a stunningly long time to learn how to organise their rules, and they’re still making basic errors.

The problem comes when the rules aren’t digestible. Commanders can affect an entire fleet, so their rules need to be interesting and airtight. Commanders like Admiral Sloane have multi-part rules full of symbols and conditions that aren’t immediately intuitive. I don’t think those ones are great for new players. Rules with more conditions and prerequisite game knowledge leave room for error and missed steps.

Instead, I always look to commanders whose rules can be roughly understood on the first reading of a card. Mon Mothma is a good example. If a player knows what an Evade is, they’ll know exactly what Mon Mothma does and how she does it. Compare this to Sloane, where understanding her rules require a working knowledge of squadrons, dice manipulation, dice probability, and spending enemy defence tokens.

Credit: Tiziano Baracchi via Fantasy Flight Games

Consistent and effective ability

New players are prone to making errors. It’s normal, but frustrating. The simplest way to shore up their lack of experience is to give them powerful tools that they can use repeatedly. Abilities that trigger consistently reduce the damage caused by errors. Abilities that are strong ‘feel’ good and keep players in the game.

Garm Bel Iblis is a poster child for a commander who is inconsistent in a new player’s hands. His ability activates twice per game, and requires strong predictive ability on the player’s part. He doesn’t do anything until the first time his effect kicks in and he showers the player in command tokens. Experienced players can quickly recognise the value of a commander who fills their pockets this way. Command tokens fuel powerful upgrades, improve ship flexibility, and enable fleet support. But this is not intuitive to a newbie. New players using Garm often feel like they’re overloaded with tokens they can’t use and it’s not helping them kill the enemy.

Commanders who activate frequently like Admiral Screed ‘feel’ impactful and keep the fun rolling. Especially for new players who often feel like they’re on the back foot and need an advantage. Once you explain to a newbie that Screed lets you fish for the ruthless hit + crit result on black dice, their eyes light up and they’re in.

Intuitive timing windows

All abilities have a window for their activation. These timing windows can vary in complexity and effect, but new players should lean toward intuitive timing windows. That means timing windows that are easy to remember and preferably have a single step.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is rightfully beloved, but he behaves like his book counterpart. Thrawn rewards superb predictive abilities, planning, and flexibility on the player’s side. He has three timings to track. First, his ability is set up ‘after deploying fleets’. His ability can be activated ‘at the start of each Ship Phase’. If that happens, his effect occurs ‘when each friendly ship activates’. This is not intuitive to a new player. This is even challenging for experienced players.

Instead, look to Mar Tuuk for a super simple timing. He has simple dice-addition ability. It activates ‘While a friendly ship is attacking.’ If you want to get more in-depth about timing, his ability fires in the Modify Dice step of the attack sequence. Simple. Intuitive.

Low-overhead costs

Commander abilities never exist in a vacuum. They require setup like Thrawn’s command dial selection and Konstantine’s blockade tactics. These setup conditions make commanders more difficult to use because they’re finicky. But one of the most insidious set-up and overhead costs incurred by commanders happens in fleet-building. New players are often playing with pre-made fleets from friends, or scrabbling from a minimal collection. Some commanders require extensive fleet-building knowledge and sizable collections for effective use.

I’m going to single out TF-1726 for roasting. This clanking devil leans on the Raid token mechanic, which allows you to disrupt enemy ship commands. TF-1726’s ability increases the power of Raid tokens by allowing you to add powerful black dice to attacks against raided ships. To an inexperienced player, this looks like an awesome fire support commander who boosts damage. The problem with TF-1726 is that its battles are won during fleet-building. TF-1726 comes from the Recusant Expansion Pack. To maximise your access to Raid tokens, you need Jedi Hostage from the Invisible Hand Expansion Pack. These two expansions will give you 3 copies of B2 Rocket Troopers, but don’t be surprised if you need more. The fleet needs a way to deliver those raid tokens, so TF-1726 fleets depend on large numbers of ships. That means one, possibly two Separatist Alliance Fleet Starters for the ships. The fleet desperately needs the Surprise Attack objective because it’s one of the only objectives that supports raiding. That means buying Rebellion in the Rim as well.

That’s a lot of setup, expense and knowledge to throw some extra black dice. A casual setting will allow people to do print-and-play for cards they don’t yet own, or to substitute cards in. I’ve seen people hand-write cards on paper to experiment. But you can’t get around the fact that you need lots of ships to set TF-1726 up. And yes, it’s possible to field him with fewer upgrades than those listed, but each missed part puts a dent in the fleet’s effectiveness. In a new player’s hands, a slightly-less effective fleet can mean defeat after miserable defeat, and frustration that they don’t have the ‘right’ ships and cards. Unfortunately, not all commanders are plug-and-play.

This is why I select commanders for new players with few activation costs and low setup. It cuts down on so much unneeded complexity. Look at Moff Jerjerrod. The main overhead for him is ‘a friendly ship’. Did you bring ships to the spaceship Star Wars game? Great. Moff Jerjerrod can help you.

Credit: Darren Tan via Fantasy Flight Games

Optional qualities of newbie-friendly commanders

In addition to the above essential qualities I look for, I also consider some other factors.

Low squadron dependence

Squadrons are a whole branch of the game, and it’s not necessary to dive super deep as a learner. Commanders who depend on squadrons require an appropriate investment into their aviation arm. This drastically increases the number of moving parts, rules, and abilities on the table. Commanding squadrons well also requires a good knowledge of positioning, navigation, and tempo. I avoid picking squadron commanders for new players because it adds so much stuff. Squadron-heavy lists also throw off game balance when played under the 400 point standard. Playing undersized games with new players is standard for learning, and while waiting for collections to grow, so it really doesn’t help to upset the balance further.

Defensive/offence orientation

Not everyone ‘gets’ wargames, but any gamer should quickly grasp kill and don’t die. Commanders who manipulate ship commands or encourage positional play require more background knowledge to field effectively. Instead, opt for old-fashioned leaders who make killing simpler, or make dying less likely. This keeps players focused on the heart of the game: blowing up spaceships. It’s simple, but easy to miss.

Conclusion – “You came in here, but didn’t you have a plan for getting out?”

So there. Summer’s picks for newbie-friendly commanders, and how to figure out if a commander will be easy to work with or not. This article’s been on my mind for a hot minute. Commander selection is one of the most fun parts of Armada, but it can be super daunting with the large selection of candidates and rules. Keep in mind that these are just my recommendations. If your heart is dead set on starting a complex faction or diving into aviation gameplay, then I’m sure you’ll be able to handle the adventure ahead. I just wanted to simplify this for new players.

Yes, even the ones who wanted to start with Separatists.

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