Those of you who read the first three Flying Solo articles (An Intro to Solo Play, Man vs Machine, and Machine vs Machine) are by now well-familiar with the fan-made Heroes of the Aturi Cluster (HotAC) campaign. The rules hinge on brilliantly elegant “analog artificial intelligence,” with players rolling dice to determine the moves of enemy ships. This allows an abominable AI to take the role of opponent, bringing cooperative or single-player options to the game.
HotAC has had roughly half a million downloads since it was first hosted online in 2015, and continues to thrive today in the form of an active online community (the Facebook page being foremost among online discussion venues). The fact that a fan-made supplement for an outdated edition of a niche miniature game is still thriving a half-decade after its release is absolutely incredible, and testament to its quality.
With the physical distancing of COVID-19 making solo gaming more relevant than ever, HotAC is extremely topical. In addition to solo play, the option of cooperative play makes a fun hook to draw in family members, romantic partners, and other quarantine co-inhabitants who wouldn’t be interested in the standard competitive X-Wing format. Between COVID and Fantasy Flight Games’s own attempt at solo play rules, now is the perfect time to discuss HotAC and spread it to a new generation of gamers.
On that note, Josh Derksen – the creator of HotAC – has generously agreed to an interview with Goonhammer. We hope this is an exciting look into his background, what went into the creation of HotAC, and what the future might hold for it. Josh also runs a weekly designer live stream, which is a great way for people to get in touch and ask game design questions. Be sure to check out “Josh’s Game Grit” on Fridays at 4pm EST. You can also go straight to the collection of past episodes on YouTube and listen to them as you go about your hobby business.
On to the interview!
All of the photos throughout this article are from Josh’s Flickr account, and all credit for them goes to him. It’s worth looking through if you like painted miniatures and LEGO, and let’s be real. What sort of soulless monster doesn’t like both of those things?
Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do professionally, and does that work have any connection to the skills used in creating HotAC?
I’m a designer from Toronto, Ontario. Most of my professional career has been in graphic design and software development, but as of September 2019, I have switched to full time game development at a company I helped build: Lynnvander Studios.
I have always been interested in systems – visual, technical, games. HotAC’s setting drew upon my extensive knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (now “Legends”) from decades of reading Star Wars stuff. HotAC’s presentation drew upon my graphic design education and my experience with lots of miniatures games.
When did you start playing X-Wing?
I started playing X-wing right when it came out. A good friend of mine, R5Don4, from the days of playing Star Wars Miniatures by Wizards of the Coast, was running an introductory X-wing tournament at a Hammercon 2012. He lent me a squad to participate. I ended up winning the event, and I was hooked. It was tough to find X-wing in those early days, FFG underestimated how much of a hit they had.
What do you love most about it? Theme, game mechanics, local player base…?
X-wing is one of those games that has the perfect storm – an awesome beloved intellectual property, unique game mechanics that really feel like the theme, huge variety in viable squads (especially now in 2.0), and I have always enjoyed the positivity of the community.
When you started playing X-Wing, did you play in tournaments or casual friendly games? In those experiences, what inspired you to tackle the idea of HotAC?
I played competitive X-wing pretty heavily in the early days of the first edition, probably until around Wave 7. I was also a playtester during much of that time – from Imperial Aces to around the time of the Force Awakens core set.
Having played many other collectible/expandable miniatures games, I realized one day that the sun would set on X-wing (though it hasn’t yet!) and conceived of HotAC as an investment in future-proofing my X-wing collection. I wanted to always be able to play it, regardless of who else was still interested in the game.
What were your initial thoughts on Second Edition? Have they changed at all since release?
When it was announced, I was no longer playing X-wing competitively or playtesting it for FFG. It had even been awhile since I had played HotAC. I was a bit skeptical that FFG could pull it off and release an improved system, especially with the reduced card pool. At the same time, I was still in touch with a bunch of local players who were telling me about how the 1.0 competitive scene had come undone, and the focus had moved from skilled flying to combo-heavy list building.
However, I followed along and liked what I saw. I have actually converted my entire collection to 2.0 and while I’ve probably only played 15 games with the new system, I found it to be a breath of fresh air – it really felt like those early days of 1.0 where maneuvering was so foundational, and the intricate combos of upgrades didn’t exist yet.
What games are you playing these days? Does X-Wing still make regular appearances?
I still play the occasional game of X-wing, but it’s not that common. Working full time as a game developer actually scratches a lot of the itch, as I am constantly designing, testing, and tweaking new games. At Lynnvander, we work with a pretty wide range of publishers and games, so there’s always something interesting (but usually NDA’d) going on.
I do still buy and play a wide range of board games, but now I view that more as research than as a hobby unto itself.
You’re a skilled artist and graphic designer. Do you ever paint miniatures? Perhaps own a squad matching the cover of HotAC?
Thanks! Funny you should mention it – I got into the hobby through metal minis wargaming as a kid, and I’ve continued to paint minis for years.
The A-, Y-, and B-wings belonged to several of the other original testers, but the X-wing on the HotAC cover art is in fact the model I painted and flew during the first run through of developing the campaign:
I have since painted an A/B/X/Y set all in that two-tone blue stripe design, which have been my personal craft whenever I play HotAC. I don’t use them in other formats – ha!
Most of my other painted models (and lego creations) can also be found on my Flickr account.
Heroes of the Aturi Cluster
Do you have a dedicated (or favorite) HotAC pilot character? Callsign, ship type, upgrades…?
My original X-wing was the ultimate squad leader; generate tons of actions and tokens, and give them away. I’ve tried a few others though, and during one of my more recent playthroughs of HotAC (1.0), I ended up building a Y-wing fully loaded with proton bombs and various maneuvering upgrades including Sabine’s pilot ability. It was fragile, but extremely overpowered and a lot of fun.
How long was the process of making HotAC?
I started on it in November 2014 just after judging the Canadian nationals that year. HotAC v0.6 was the first public release in August 2015. I took a lot of community feedback right after that release and posted v0.7 about a month later, so about 10 months to take it from first concept to the current release.
After finishing and publishing HotAC, did you play much yourself? Or were you burnt out on it from all the playtesting?
I did a fair bit of testing on HotAC, and I had two main playtest loops while developing it. I would design a scenario, play it by myself with a 3-ship squad as a sanity test to see if the timing of enemies was right, and if the overall flow of the mission worked. Basically, a sanity test to see if there were glaring issues. Then, I would take the new scenario on Friday nights to Meeplemart in Toronto, where I was playing regularly with a group of about 8-12 people. After a few competitive games, a bunch of us would play the 6-player HotAC mission I brought that week. A few missions were overhauled, but most were pretty good at this stage, and once I had a pretty big set of missions, I grouped them into arcs and built out the campaign.
I have played it a fair bit of HotAC with friends since v0.7 released, but I don’t play it solo anymore. I know all of the scenarios too well.
HotAC has been tweaked for second edition by other fans. How did it feel watching other people alter “your baby”? Did you ever get involved in updating HotAC, or assisting with the AI apps based on HotAC’s foundation?
It’s funny, but I’ve never thought of HotAC as “my baby”. It was my way of homebrewing the game into something else, and I feel like that’s a core part of its DNA. I love seeing what other people do with the system, and I have been following along with the various adaptations, AIs, and additional campaigns.
The official hosting site of HotAC still features the original first edition version. Everything that’s built on your work for second edition is scattered around the internet, sometimes hidden in private Facebook groups. Have you ever considered updating your official page with links to resources made by others? Would make it much easier for new people to get involved in HotAC.
At one time, I thought about trying to consolidate everything for HotAC in one place, or to guide the community more directly. Ultimately though, I decided that it was best to just let players organize and use the system however they wanted – essentially, the roleplaying game system model that heavily emphasizes homebrew. After all, that’s how it started.
These days, I find the Facebook group to be an excellent resource for the community, and I just point new players there.
Is there any content that, with unlimited time and resources, you’d like to add to HotAC? Is there any chance of that happening someday, or are you totally done with it?
That’s a tough one. I’ve spent 5 years designing games since HotAC, and I’ve learned a lot. At this point, there’s so much I would change with HotAC, and as much as I love Star Wars and X-wing, I decided a couple years ago that it makes more sense to put that knowledge in a new game. I’ve done some of that with Star Trek Alliance – essentially a HotAC 2p starter box for Star Trek Attack Wing, but eventually I’d like to build a brand new game for an original setting.
These days, I see myself as more of a force ghost in the HotAC community – observing and occasionally offering advice or input, but mostly trying to stay out of the way because I don’t have the time to be able to be truly involved at the level I’d want to be.
X-Wing: Ground Assault was released a few months after Aturi Cluster. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly. Did you ever communicate with the creator, or consider working some of those rules into a “ground assault mission arc” for HotAC? The modular nature of HotAC’s mission cards means that adding new arcs should be simple, and new cards could simply be shuffled into an ongoing campaign deck at any time.
I’ve seen Ground Assault, and read the rule set, but have never played it nor spoken with its creator. HotAC’s mission system was designed to be modular though, and I’d love to see what people come up with to marry the two.
Did you ever have any discussion with FFG about HotAC? If so, how did it go?
I released v0.7 back when I was still a playtester at FFG, and I remember sharing it with Alex Davy. He was impressed, but not sure what to make of it overall. I’ve since heard that various other FFG employees have played the campaign, but I was never expecting any kind of official acknowledgement.
FFG’s Solo Play
What was your first thought upon seeing the Solo announcement?
I was not surprised; it took them long enough!
What are the major things that distinguish Solo from HotAC? Is there room for both to fill different player needs?
The AI I developed for Heroes was always conceived within the context of the campaign; the upgrades and feel of each ship type, and the positioning within a scenario, and the quantities of models the campaign assumes you own to make it work. While it’s possible to use HotAC’s AI to control opponent ships in standard competitive play, I never felt like that format worked well enough to be worth it, and it certainly wasn’t very approachable for new players to X-wing without existing collections.
On the other hand, FFG’s Solo system seems to be focused on competitive play; or at the very least, as a companion to the competitive scenarios in their Epic Battles expansion. Making a generic ruleset that can operate any ship with any upgrades, tying it into the quick build cards and core set components is an excellent goal as a product designer. I fully expect that FFG’s access to Asmodee Digital means we’ll eventually see this as a full app when the system gets good enough.
So, yeah. I think they have different goals.
As someone with a ton of experience in designing AI for X-Wing ships, what advice do you have for revising the alpha rules to make Solo as good as possible?
I downloaded and read through the alpha rules, but could tell right away where the AI would be weak in terms of having fewer arcs and ignoring range. As someone who does a ton of development work on games, specifically focusing on user experience, it also looked like a tedious process to operate the AI. I want to play the game, not to help the game play me! As a result, I didn’t feel compelled to play it yet.
A generic “one-size-fits-all” AI like Solo will never be as precise and elegant as the individual HotAC ship AI cards, but it opens up a broad scope of play. What additional materials or guidance do you think FFG can provide to make a viable “Solo play sandbox” environment for fans?
To be honest, I think they’re already there with the quick-build cards, and by building a one-AI-fits all system. I’ll continue to watch its progress, as I am very interested to see where it goes.
Have you played the new Epic Battle missions? How might that style of play work with Solo?
I have! My friends were joking that FFG’s graphic designers took some notes on the mission presentation in HotAC when they put together the Epic Battles booklet.
I especially like how huge ships are handled in 2.0, and that the scenarios really make use of them. That is one of the biggest improvements. I fully expect to see the Solo system get integrated into an epic battles type product in the future, and even now, there’s nothing that really stops you from using it in that context.
When FFG releases the beta version of their Solo Play rules, be sure to check back here on Goonhammer for more content. And as always, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note at in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.