Legion’s recently released Battle Forces fail to deliver on their own promise, but there is hope.
I’ll admit to you all that I thought more than you may have expected me to about the above one-line summary and this article as a whole. This is, after all, a website dedicated to coverage of a board game where we put tiny Men, Women, and Robots in a magnetic lunch box so we can pretend to have them fight each other. But damn it, we spent a long time painting those things, and many of us like to dive into the concept of the “theme” we want to display when we take those little minis out of said lunch box. Sometimes the lists we build are meant to be little more than engines of efficiency (hi “Rex Star”, even I don’t miss you), other times we build to pull off crazy combos, create silly situations, or to win with units most consider to be “bad.” But the purest among these very broad archetypes is the concept that served as the inspiration for the subject at hand: “The Theme List.”
Who among us hasn’t experienced the heterogenous mixture of marvel and frustration when a Rogue One themed list infiltrates 5 units so it can grab a middle box and spends all six turns running away from you to seal the win? I feel a strong admiration for players who are willing to put in the time, effort, and (let’s face it) guts that it takes to play a list that was exclusively made to evoke some of the more specific joys of Star Wars. That’s why many of us saw so much promise when introduced to the concept of Battle Forces; here we had an opportunity to reward “themed” play with unique experiences in list-building and gameplay.
Before we move on I want to draw an important distinction here: while the “Shadow Collective” is a Battle Force its place in the game is quite different from the rest. Most of its units were explicitly made for the purpose of that Battle Force, and they were made extremely well! It’s true that the Shadow Collective may have some balance issues with all their free tokens but you’d be hard pressed to find many members of this community who weren’t impressed by its debut; to the point where it de facto became its own entire faction in nearly every respect overnight. The obvious success of Maul’s little gang of ne’er-do-wells only strengthened our communal appetite to experience “old” factions in a brand new context. This article speaks not to those releases, but to the four faction-based forces revealed in-full for the first time last week. In the time that passed between last year’s “Ministravaganza” and last week’s reveals predictions and hopes bounced back and forth constantly in the community, which has been positively hungry to explore a new corner of the game. Would Echo Base feature an extra-badass Leia card? Would 501st give us a reason to build the “normal” unit leaders that came with our strike teams? Unfortunately, a mounting anticipation for a delicious meal sometimes only makes us more disappointed when it arrives under-cooked.
A Smorgasbord of Missed Opportunities
When players got wind of news that the Imperial Battle Force would release with special unit cards for “double heavy” stormtroopers it was only natural to think this concept would extend to other factions as well. The “Heavy Response Unit’s” raison d’être, after all, was that Snowtroopers lacked enough flexibility in heavy weapons to serve as the entire backbone of a functional army. To this I would say “fair enough,” neither of their heavy options are anything I’d want to fight with non-droid troopers at range 3 after all, but one wonders why they didn’t simply create a new version of the Snowtrooper unit card to accommodate this flexibility. This new unit, “Blizzard Force Snowtroopers,” could perhaps take a stormtrooper heavy in its personnel slot, or possess some other modification to the core unit to make it stand out and shine in this Battle Force. What we got instead is definitely intriguing (it IS the only new unit we’re getting from all this, after all) but has nothing to do with the intended theme of the Battle Force itself. We can go even farther by making them a key part of a list like this:
The above example is an intriguing new way to bend the rules of army construction, it is something that could pose a unique new threat on the battlefield when used with the relatively strong Blizzard Force command cards. What it is not is all that much of a “Hoth” list. It would honestly be more at home on Endor.
Blizzard Force‘s divergence from theme in the name of playability would stand out less if not for the stated philosophy behind Battle Forces themselves. Months ago, we were told that these Battle Forces were not meant to be “balanced” against standard armies (a statement that raised many of our eyebrows) and that the primary goal was instead to evoke their respective themes. What we see here, however, is the opposite.
There were no speeder bikes on Hoth, what self respecting scout would even dare take one of these out for a spin on a planet that barely has anything to brazenly crash into? Bikes do, however, provide some much-valued flexibility to a support slot that would otherwise be filled with a bunch of E-Webs (gross) to ensure the list can adapt to multiple opponents more easily. The result is clear: Blizzard Force was designed to sacrifice a piece of its theme for playability.
It is jarring, then, to compare Blizzard Force to the other three Battle Forces in this respect. Echo Base Defenders and 501st especially also use Corps with limited (albeit, generally more reliable) heavy options but they were not offered any new units to improve the internal balance of their “Org Charts.” Invasion Force took yet another tack. This Battle Force was clearly intended to evoke the feelings of the invasion force the Trade Federation used to attack Naboo (by the way, I just realized that I’ve never thought about what Naboo’s primary export was that Nute Gunray blockaded…bougie handbags?), but instead of diving headfirst into this idea with a something like a strengthened version of “Episode 1 Edition Makes-Jedi-Run-Away-In-Fear-Style Droidekas” we instead get Dooku, Grievous, and Magna Guards: more units that add flexibility at the expense of theme. Except this time they’re just a bunch of pieces that are already used all the time. We are left with a Battle Force that is little more than “CIS but you need a tank and Spiders/Kalani are banned.”
No single solution on this spectrum of theme and viability would have pleased everyone, but the inconsistency in execution leaves us wanting for a version of these Battle Forces that more effectively wedded “The Theme” with “The Game.” When only one of these four Battle Forces made a pass at driving independence from standard armies through unique units, the command cards are all that remain and…well…
A House of Command Cards
These things are so discordant that they are even discordant in the way they are discordant.
While I don’t want to over-dwell on the raw power level of these command cards, I would like to point out that while “Overwhelming Barrage” is by far the most impressive infinite range attack in the game it has barely been discussed in comparison to the monstrosity that is “Hold at Any Cost.”
Let’s get right to the point, if you use fire supports on the Mk. 2’s, which do not strip their standbys by fire supporting, you can trigger up to 44 black and 8 white surging dice (with four FDs) as a reaction to one single enemy action at or close to the beginning of the round. These attacks can hit anyone that’s in range and in arc. And if that’s not enough (you psychopath…) you will have six free aims on top of the three dodges you get from Defend 1.
Some of the rest of these cards are very powerful in their own right (don’t sleep on a stormtrooper that can do a speed 3 into a 3 Red 3 White surging and suppressive range 4 attack) but “Hold at Any Cost” is truly baffling as a card that ever saw the light of day. While it’s absolutely correct that a list full of emplacements carries its own risks for its owner, the biggest risk it poses is to the ability for a newer player to have fun playing this game.
Legion rightly steered itself away from standby spam when it changed the rules for Clone Trooper the first time around, and until now the only card that gave standbys to multiple units did so for just two units which would get just two aims (if you ordered the Death Troopers anyway). We are barely one week into the release of these Battle Forces and we are already hearing stories of this list terrorizing newer players. It will doubtlessly be changed before too long, maybe to expand to “Corps or Support” but limit the effect to the ordered units which would downgrade the card from “brain melting Elder God” to “disgustingly good,” but in all honesty it should never ever have made it into that PDF.
The 501st cards are puzzling in a different way. For starters, “Lead From The Front” is worded in a way that will probably surprise many of you. Clone players have spent over 2 years becoming accustomed to keeping their clone troopers “at” range 1 but this card requires that units are within range 1 in order to get access to some free tokens. Let’s leave aside the comparison to 6 free aims and 7 free standbys for the moment, this is pretty much the only command I can think of where an effect is triggered by a “within” instead of an “at.” These terms have specific meanings in Legion; within means fully within and is historically reserved almost exclusively for objective cards in the context of deployment zones. That means that in the picture below, the only unit that could gain a free token is the lowly AT-RT.
Anakin is leading a bit too much from the front here for these clones, each with just a couple minis outside the circle, to get any free tokens.
Then there’s “the pips.” 501st you’ll recall is Anakin’s unit, and when it comes to Anakin it’s downright incontrovertible to say that the evolution of his own 2-pip command is what transformed him from mush to muscle after the last RRG. It’s certainly cool that “Lead From the Front” acts like a 1-pip when played, but since both that and “Tactical Planning” take up the 2-pip “slot” then it by definition means that taking any single other 2 pip short changes your ability to use all the command cards for your Battle Force. That means Rex will have to leave his hamstrung version of Take That Clankers behind (boohoo, I know) but more importantly Anakin’s presence in his own Battle Force means that you’re only rewarded for running a force with immense build restrictions with a total of two command cards.
The final 501st card is another that works well enough for Rex but poorly for Anakin. “Leaders of the 501st” is certainly a lovely “Permanent” effect but this competes with Anakin’s own 3-Pip for turn 1 timing which leaves you in a Catch-22. If you play it first then it means you delay token sharing until turn 2; this is fine in many games when the pace is slow at the start but you will regret it when you find yourself in the thick of it during turn 2, when you really want a dodge and Master of the Force. If you decide to play it later in the game, however, you will notice its other issue: it doesn’t issue to commanders. Jedi lists, especially Anakin lists, place tremendous value on giving said characters face-up tokens, and losing that opportunity could prove to be extremely limiting to the flow of the game. Don’t have Rex or Anakin? Well, I suppose you’re back down to using two 501st cards again, because despite the generic Clone Commander being an eligible choice for the army, he would literally be better off playing the Wookiee 3-Pip than this card, at least that can order any trooper!
Rex lists will take all three (since Clankers is still bad) but that’s probably pretty much it
Which brings us all the way back to the question we asked all the way at the top of this little diatribe…
Wherefore the Battle Force?
I have already seen an obvious and legitimate counterpoint to all this criticism: If players don’t like the restrictions these Battle Forces impose, why don’t they just build standard armies instead?
And ooooooooh that’s a bingo!
And therein lies the root of the problem. All of these Battle Forces carry a bevy of restrictions, and the reward for following them which amounts to 2-3 command cards, a chance to play more copies of certain units, and in Blizzard Force’s case access to one “new” unit. This would be less of a hard sell if the Battle Forces either had a greater level of individuality (via unique unit cards or other special rules) or were less restrictive. Put another way, I don’t think the “Deka” super-fan will be all that impressed when they have to take an entire tank in their list in order to give their favorite unit a standby token. I’m not especially worried these Battle Forces will stifle creative players, who won’t have a problem continuing to make creative and finely-painted lists for the enjoyment of both themselves and their opponents. If Atomic Mass took some inspiration from its own work (Blizzard Force is a great start) then it will likely attract a much larger player-base to its ideas than it has to this point.
I hope that those of you who read to the end will not take this as some gigantic “sick burn to the devs” or a slight towards those of you who do enjoy these Battle Forces. If they scratch your itch, I am more than happy for you, but I can say with something approaching certainty that there is a lot of room to grow. If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Battle Forces (Ewoks are next, hopefully they don’t get a free aim for each mini) are going to be a BIG part of the future release strategy for this game we all love, which means that nailing the execution will be all-the-more important.
But uh hey, before we get there…let’s maybe errata that “Hold at Any Cost” before some poor kid flips a table.