Aeronautica Imperialis vs. X-Wing : an in-depth comparison
When you feel like having your miniature space ships shoot at each other, which system will you take off the shelf?
Instead of breaking down how to play the game, which was already covered nicely here by Mathew W., I wanted to offer a more in-depth comparison against the long-running overlord of ship-to-ship combat miniature games, Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing. The comparison seems inevitable, so I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that at least some of GW’s motivation in re-releasing Aeronautica Imperialis is to capitalize on X-Wing’s popularity and hope to siphon away some of those customers. The systems are similar, both being somewhat derivative of Wings of Glory, but why should you choose to play one game over the other?
First, I’ll give you my overall opinion of the game itself and a recommendation as to whether or not it’s a game for you. Then I’ll get into the weeds a little bit with both systems, and offer a side by side comparison of their differences. I’m intending for readers of this article to have some experience and familiarity playing the X-Wing system, but it’s not a requirement.
The overall takeaway I have from playing Aeronautica Imperialis is that it is, at this current time, an incomplete game system. The range is still very limited (just Orks and Astra Militarum), and several of the rules in the books are still under-utilized and might never come up in your current games. As of now, this is still just a skeleton of a system that needs to be expanded upon. If GW keeps supporting the game, I do think it has a lot of promise to offer something fun and different from X-wing, set in the 40K universe.
It’s important to keep that caveat in mind when making an overall judgment right now comparing it to X-Wing, which is in its second edition and has had years and a large dedicated fanbase to help refine its system and fully flesh out the game with hundreds of pilots, upgrades, ships, weapons, etc. So while an overall comparison of the current full game experiences would thus be unfair, I’m going to mostly concentrate instead on what is fair to look at: the structure of the system itself.
I’ll outline what I see as the biggest differences between the two systems, and I will group these loosely into categories of what I feel are PROS of Imperialis, CONS of Imperialis, or NEUTRAL differences. However, my preferences may be very different from yours, so you may see some of the CONS as a positive or vice versa. That’s great! I am coming at this as someone who has played a lot of X-Wing, and I feel that it’s one of the tightest and best sets of rules out there – I am a fan. It has its issues, like any game, but I think there are good reasons it’s so popular. So, the fact that I’ve already found so many PROS with AI is a promising outlook for its future.
- First, the obvious one: the quality of the models. Like with most GW games, the detail is unsurpassed. They’re fantastic, there’s nothing else to say about them. However, this is only a PRO if you’re a hobby or painting enthusiast – I have several gaming buddies who don’t care about miniatures at all, and prefer the pre-painted play-out-of-the-box X-Wing models. If you’re reading this article on Frontline Gaming though, my guess is you like miniatures!
- The HEX grid map. This one is a bit more polarizing, as I’ve read some complaints about it elsewhere. However, in my group’s test games, everyone agreed this was preferable for a variety of reasons. In X-Wing, even in casual games, the slight nudge here or there of your miniature’s placement could very much impact the game. Our group uses a laser pointer at times in order to determine arc of fire, and there’s still judgment calls at times. Literal millimeters of space could decide if your ship hit an asteroid or got into a perfect firing position. Setting down templates and accidentally touching your base could meaningfully change the trajectory of your movement. ALL of that is gone in AI, which is great – especially for the less dextrous players among us.A more neutral aspect of the HEX grid is the players’ ability to pre-plan movement, firing range, and turning arcs. I could go either way on that. X-Wing gives an advantage to experienced players with practiced eyes that can judge distances and movement templates and firing arcs well, the HEX grid removes the need for much of that. So while imprecise and occasional mistaken guesses in X-Wing can be fun, the physical gameplay benefits of the HEX is more than enough to make this a PRO in my book.
- Less Counters & Bookkeeping. Like most Fantasy Flight games, X-Wing has a LOT of counters and cards, both on and off the playing area. Focus, Evade, Stress, Weapon Disabled, Force effects, Shield markers, Damage markers, damage cards, maneuver dials, ID numbers, Pilot cards and upgrade cards, a variety of weapon effects and ammo and tractor beams and on and on and on. It is not a light bookkeeping game. In its current form, AI is pretty clean by comparison. There’s a marker for wounds you’ve taken, and a marker to reveal with maneuver each ship has chosen – that’s it. The Pilot cards are optional and not necessary. This could change as the game expands, but right now it’s a positive.
- Less setup time. Starting a game of AI is fast and easy (I am not counting time to assemble your models and paint them). Force building is choosing a couple of ships, and add some upgrades to fill out your points, and that’s it. X-Wing has hundreds of different pilots to choose from and even more upgrades. X-Wing is more akin to full-blown 40K in a big part of the game is building your force (and the time it requires to do so). While that can be a fun aspect of the game for many players, it’s refreshing to sit down without any pre-planning and say “let’s play AI” and actually start within minutes. With so many games to choose from on your shelf, this can be an important and underrated factor!
- Overall game length. Even though my group has dozens and dozens of X-Wing games under our belts, it still takes a solid 3+ hours for us to set up and play a standard game; sometimes stretching to 4 or more. I’ve heard of “average” X-Wing games going for 90 minutes or less, but I’ve never come close to that personally. I’d say maybe we’re just slow players, but the games of Aeronautica Imperialis so far have been very quick. Outside of our learning test, our games have been averaging a little over an hour – our last game was just over 45 minutes! To me this is a positive, as it allows you to get in multiple games in one session, immediately capitalizing on what you learned from the last game. This is not to say that short games are always better than long games – I don’t think X-Wing games have much wasted time at all – but the ability to complete a satisfying game of AI in less than half the time of an X-Wing game to me is a plus.
- The Tailing phase. Aeronautica Imperialis includes an important rule called the Tailing phase. This might be the single best rule in AI. I think it’s great abstraction of dogfighting aircraft and the importance of not letting an enemy get behind you. Essentially, you determine at the end of the round if any of your ships are Tailing an enemy ship, by being directly behind them. If so, you get a full free attack to begin the following round (and if your ship is a bomber with a turret in the tail, you get to retaliate as well!) which could be huge. This quickly became a focused goal for our plane movements – how to end up behind the enemy, and just as importantly, how to move in order to prevent your enemy from Tailing you. While X-Wing might simulate a chase sequence a little better, there’s no inherent advantage for tailing an enemy (outside of certain upgrade/pilot card effects).
- Missions. By and large the X-wing missions and scenarios are, in a word, terrible. Perhaps your experiences are different, but we always end up playing a straight-up dogfight. One of the reasons for this is logistics; to play a lot of the X-Wing missions, you need a specialized force to build beforehand or unbalanced sides or introduce special rules you’ve never played before. Conversely, the AI missions (there are 6 in the Rynn’s World campaign book) utilize rules and aircraft stats that are part of the core game for that specific purpose. Bombs, landing and takeoff rules, transport capacity, anti-aircraft guns, all come into play in the missions. Even further, I’d argue core rules like Altitude levels, Stalls and Breaking Up make much more sense in a mission that has ground components. The AI system looks like it was built to accommodate a wide variety of aircraft types and missions and game styles, where X-Wing is really just built for the dogfight.
- Card Combos. X-wing really thrives in its diversity of pilots and upgrade cards. While this is great for the breadth of the game itself and leads to a lot of replayability, it does have a double-edged sword of relying too much on wham-bam combo effects. This was part of the reason X-Wing needed a rules overhaul for 2nd edition – the core system remained basically the same, but all the cards had gotten out of control and needed to be pared down again. At this time, Aeronautica Imperialis has nothing like this. With the Rynn’s world expansion, there’s a handful of optional upgrades available to you – a lot of which are one use only or minor effects. There are no Magic the Gathering style card chain combos or game-breaking effects to look out for. The reason I put this in the Neutral category is that I realize this diversity of force building is a huge draw, and AI is so barebones at the moment that it probably needs to be expanded upon… just don’t go overboard, GW!
- Less to Remember / Forget. Similar to above, AI simply has fewer special rules to remember (and forget) right now. While X-Wing thrives on those combos of pilots and upgrades and so forth, it is a lot to remember for each ship on each turn, and some bonuses and abilities will inevitably be skipped by accident, expecially by casual fans. Some players like this, and I totally understand that knowing your ship is part of the game. We noted that it was a nice change – especially while learning – to just concentrate on the pieces on the board rather than remembering all the printed card abilities.
- Terrain / Asteroids. X-Wing is a two-dimensional game. It’s a game about flying that moves more like a naval game on the surface of the space-ocean. While this is “unrealistic”, it also allows for the use of terrain – asteroids and debris clouds to smash into or block line of sight; X-Wing also has a system for ships bumping into each other or even ramming. Currently, there’s none of that in Aeronautica. AI has a system of Altitude levels to represent a 3D flying environment. This does allow you to interact with the ground level and at least pays lip service to the abstraction of flying. However, terrain elements are a classic component in any wargame, and their exclusion is noticeable.
- Inherent Theme. Both games struggle with this a little bit, to be honest. Aeronautica Imperialis is very much a World War 2 airplane game. It happens to be set in the 40K universe, which really doesn’t show itself anywhere. The futuristic weapon systems are just missiles, bombs, and machine guns. The rules for Stalling, Spins, and Breaking Up seem totally out of place in the far future – have advancements in aeronautic technology not improved in 38,000 years? (OK, maybe Orks I can see still relying on a smoky gasoline combustion engines). They have rules for paratroopers and anti-aircraft flak. Even the aircraft themselves clearly look like airplanes, not spaceships. X-Wing does only slightly better with this; its theme is stretched due to the aforementioned issue of 2D movement. Most of the theme is in the meta, not the system – the models do look like Star Wars spacecraft, and the upgrades and pilots are known from the space battles we’ve seen in movies.
- Defense Dice. Largely a matter of taste here, as this is another system difference that could go either way. X-Wing’s combat system is very much a contested affair, with each pilot’s abilities and upgrades affecting their Attack dice vs their enemy’s Defense dice. Both players are engaged in the roll and the outcome. In Aeronautica Imperialis, the combat phase is almost 100% the attacker rolling dice. The attacker rolls to hit, the attacker rolls to wound, the defender sits back and removes their pieces. There are a couple of optional costed upgrades that allow the defender a nominal saving throw of 6+, but that’s about it. The combat math may very well work out the same in both systems, that’s not something I’m interested in calculating, but the lack of defensive player involvement is something we noticed.
- Altitude. This isn’t a comparison of AI’s altitude system to X-Wing’s – since X-Wing does not have one at all – but rather a note on the current clunkiness of AI’s system. Much is made of the Altitude levels in the rulebook and on the aircraft statistics, and indeed the altitude dial on the base is set each turn for every ship. However, outside of one edge case*, it seems much ado about nothing. It was probably the biggest head-scratcher component of the system that we had – not so much in how it worked, but when and why you would choose to change your altitude level in a dogfight when it doesn’t really do much. In other missions, like bombing runs etc, altitude level is a central component. Since it is so easy for anyone to adjust their altitude level as a reaction to yours, it’s not reliable as a pre-emptive defensive tactic. We could have left out Altitude completely and the games would have been the same. However, with more playing experience and more diversity in ships & upgrades, I could see (and hope for!) tactics involving Altitude as a bigger part of a dogfight, something that X-Wing couldn’t match. As of right now, though, it’s a shrug.* Edge case: The Imperial ships have a max altitude of 5, and the Orks a 4. If an Imperial ended its move by climbing to altitude 5 as a defensive precaution, it would force any Ork ship who wanted to fire at it without a negative to also climb to 5, risking a stall on a 4+. While OK in theory, this came up zero times in our games, as most of the action was in altitude 2-4.
There’s one major area where the X-Wing system is better than Aeronautica Imperialis system, and that could encompass the entire article by itself. So, I’ve listed it at the end of this section. I’ll first describe the other minor notes where AI falls short compared to X-Wing:
- The map area is too small. This is especially true for the Wings of Vengeance starter kit map, but the slightly bigger Rynn’s World map board expansion also feels crowded. On either map, it is hard for the Orks to not reach Short Range on the very first turn. You start deployed within 3 hexes from your side, Orks can move 8 hexes in a turn, and short range is 4 hexes…. that’s a threat range of 15 hexes. The starter map board is only 14 hexes across, the Rynn’s world map is 18. The scale-to-movement rates just feel a little off. Now, there isn’t a default area of engagement size for the scenarios, so there’s nothing stopping you from chaining multiple map boards together – except not wanting to pay to have to do that, of course.
- A large section of AI rules are devoted to events that are unlikely to take place, or at least would only occur very rarely in the current version of the game. The system of Climbing, Stalling, going into a spin, and recovering is detailed on several pages, as are Diving, Breaking Up, and Crashing. Every ship has a Handling stat for just these negative situations. However, they occurred exactly ZERO times in any of our games. Perhaps these systems will be explored more in the future, with Ace Pilot abilities or weapon systems and such. As of right now, the only way any of these events can occur is by player choice (or accident – see below) and are entirely avoidable, and thus felt unnecessary.
- AI has multiple rules that are written seemingly for no other reason than to punish players who forget about them. The rulebook specifically states in several spots that the event will occur at any applicable time “including due to player error”. Their use of bolding, not mine. It’s one thing for a rule to say that if you forget to do X, you can’t do Y. Sure, makes sense. However, it’s another thing to say that if you forget to do X, then not only can’t you do Y, this new rule Z happens to you in addition just because you forgot. The emphasis on gotcha-rules seems odd and unnecessary.
- The Biggest Difference – Maneuver dial / initiative order / movement phase
One of the best parts of the X-Wing system is the hidden maneuver dial leading to simultaneous movement. It’s the core component that sets it apart from other games, it’s the game within the game. So much of the gameplay revolves around the maneuver dial planning – not only what you choose to do and in what order, but also predicting where your opponent could move and countering it. Each ship has a unique set of moves that it can make and making the right choice is crucial, especially combined with the pre-set order of initiative (pilot skill). The “reveal your maneuver” phases can be the most dramatic events in the game!
Not surprisingly, Aeronautica Imperialis wanted to use a similar mechanism in its system. For a variety of reasons, though, its implementation falls flat. This left us asking “why does it matter if it’s hidden or not”? The whole mechanic felt unnecessarily weighty without a good payoff, especially when compared to X-Wing. Here’s why:
* Freedom of Movement. In X-Wing, you choose a single maneuver for your ship. The maneuver includes a single direction, speed, and angle. For all intents and purposes (not counting pilot abilities and barrel rolls, etc), you can plan on where all of your ships will end up before movement begins. In AI however, the maneuvers you’re able to choose from give you quite a few options that you don’t need to pre-plan. Additionally, you are free to either increase or decrease your speed before you start your maneuver, and choose an altitude after your movement. This gives you tremendous flexibility on where your ship can move when you activate it (using alternate activation initiative – more on that below). This means that when you activate one of your ships to move, you can then choose (after seeing where other ships have finished moving) your speed, your direction, and when to do the maneuver within your movement. When you can combine change of speed and change of direction to the maneuver you planned, the possible ending positions are quite numerous.
To better visualize this, take a look at the graphic below. An Imperial Thunderbolt going an average speed of 4 plans a basic maneuver of “swoop”. All ships in the game have this maneuver. When it’s activated, it can increase or decrease its speed by 2, giving it possible speeds of 2-6. Additionally, the swoop can go either left or right, and can occur at any point during your move. This means that from its starting position, the player can choose to end the Thunderbolt in any of those shaded areas in a variety of facings.
As you can see, you have a lot of choices to make when you activate a ship. Keep in mind also that the hex graphic in the example is roughly the same size as the starter map, so it covers most of the play area! Also, that’s just with a speed of 2-6; Orks can go up to 8! That’s just one of the basic maneuvers, others offer more complex movement with different facings. This makes it not only challenging to visualize how to plan anything for your own ships, but makes it virtually impossible to predict where your enemy could end up in relation.
* Adding to the above is the random initiative order and alternate activations for ships. Initiative order is far more determinative in AI than it is in X-Wing – that is to say, that because you have such freedom of movement on your activation, it’s much easier to counter the movements of your enemy that have already occurred in the turn. Put into practice, the ship that activates first in the turn will probably not have many targets to shoot at when the firing phase comes around. If I move my ship to this hex here, you are likely not going to move any of your ships to be in firing arc or altitude of that ship. Repeat over and over until all ships have moved into their optimal final placements.
The bottom line is that X-Wing’s hidden maneuvers force the player to commit each ship to a final position, and they can use this to predict their enemy’s choices in a well-balanced back and forth. AI’s movement phase is set up more like a classic wargame, where one player moves, then the other reacts to that move, and so on. Which works fine – but it isn’t really impacted at all by “hidden” maneuver reveals, and in no way feels simultaneous. Players flip their dials, but then take plenty of time to plot out where they want to move next and all of their optimal outcomes; they aren’t really locked into anything. So, why all the fuss with the hidden maneuver step? The added baggage required by the hidden dials and the complexity of the individual maneuvers doesn’t feel justified here.
Personally, I think the movement in AI would be much more compelling if the maneuver itself had to be performed at the beginning or end of your move (not your choice of anywhere in between), or you had to commit to a direction, or you couldn’t change speeds until the end of the turn, or similar. As it stands now, there are too many movement options for each plane on their activation, and it feels like the hidden maneuver mechanic was thrown on top as an homage to X-Wing (I realize the original ForgeWorld AI had hidden maneuver cards also, but I think it’s telling that you had to do them first before you moved – the original designers were onto something). The end result is a more calculated rather than dramatic movement sequence, and a higher importance on a lucky dice roll for initiative.
The Aeronautica Imperialis starter set, Wings of Vengeance, has gotten a lukewarm reception and some criticism since it hit the shelves over the Fall. I would say those criticisms are justified, as I think the Wings of Vengeance is maybe the oddest product release from GW I’ve seen in a long time – and that has nothing to do with the quality of the game itself! I would recommend not buying the starter set – especially if you think you will like Aeronautica Imperialis! The central problem with the Wings of Vengeance starter kit is that it comes with components that are already obsolete and that don’t do a great job of showing off the full game. It has a cheap paper map that is too small and will slide around on the tabletop. It comes with a rulebook that doesn’t cover all of the rules. If you’re like me and you enjoy the game and will keep playing, you will end up wanting to buy the Rynn’s World Area of Engagement map, and the Rynn’s world expanded rulebook (also, optionally, the Ace Pilot Cards, Ground Defense models, and other supplements that are sold separately) regardless. After buying those better supplements, my starter kit map and rulebook now sit unused – this has the effect of feeling like GW pulled one over on me.
The models themselves are fantastic, but there’s no savings in buying them in the starter kit rather than buying them separately (you get more of each plane when buying the individual boxes). If you are someone who’s only interest in AI at the moment is holding out hope that the models will be used in future Adeptus Titanicus releases or even the full-blown Epic re-release (fingers crossed) – again, just buy the planes separately. I’d only recommend buying the Wings of Vengeance starter kit if you just wanted to paint the 9 ships included, and not spend much time playing the game. However, I can certainly recommend playing the game of Aeronautica Imperialis!
My recommendation is that if you’re interested in playing Aeronautica Imperialis right now, pass on the starter kit and instead get the Rynn’s World Campaign Book, the Rynn’s World Area of Engagement map, and the individual boxes of aircraft. Salt and pepper to taste with Ground Assets and Ace Pilot Cards as desired.
So which system is better?
Ultimately, which system is better is up to you of course! All in all we really enjoyed this game and have plans to play again soon. I’m having a good time painting up the starter set and will post a guide for that shortly. I hope that GW continues to support the game and releases ships for all factions, and continues to evolve the game into the areas that set it apart from X-Wing. The core AI system definitely flexes more of its muscles when you play the missions, which is something X-Wing cannot match. For a straight-up dogfight, X-Wing’s refined and balanced system is still superior. Given continued playtesting, fanbase feedback, and expansions, though, I’d be excited to revisit how Aeronautica Imperialis stacks up to X-Wing at a later date.
I hope you found this article useful and it helped your decision in some way on whether or not to take the plunge into Aeronautica Imperialis.
And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!