Interrogation Droid- Josh Derksen, creator of Heroes of the Aturi Cluster

Used under Creative Commons. Copyright mcfarlandomo

Wayne Basta: For those that are not familiar, could you let our readers know a little bit about yourself and explain just what exactly Heroes of the Aturi Cluster is?

Josh Derksen: So, Heroes of the Aturi Cluster is a free, downloadable print-and-play expansion for X-wing Miniatures (published by Fantasy Flight Games). It’s a 15-mission Rebel Campaign, but unlike other fanmade campaigns, it’s fully co-operative. Up to 6 players get to fly as a squadron of Rebel fighter pilots against an Imperial AI. As they battle to free the Aturi Cluster from the Empire, players earn experience to upgrade their pilots and ships, building combos that aren’t possible in the standard game.

I’m Josh Derksen “armoredgear7,” a freelance graphic designer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I’m an avid boardgamer, and I have a history of creating third-party stuff for games, including custom maps for many games (X-wing, Star Wars Miniatures, Heroclix, and many others) under the brand Adventurers’ Atlas (Armored Cartographers, Mighty Maps). I’m also currently doing the artwork for a fantastic spaceship battle game called Momentum, which is slated for a spring Kickstarter campaign.

W: What inspired the creation?

J: Grish Kalashnikov “R2EQ,” who owns dockingbay416.com, had the idea to develop a campaign system for download on his site. He shared a short PDF with myself and a couple others to gauge our feedback. The document fleshed out some basic mechanics for Rebel player progression, and a human Imperial opponent. I immediately saw the seed of what it could become, but that it would need to be a full-blown campaign book with a set of specific scenarios to really get any traction.

Grish also wrote a blog post about the origins of Heroes of the Aturi Cluster, which you can read here.

W: Was this a solo project or a team effort?

J: Almost all of the project was done by me: game design, components, missions, graphic design & layout, FAQ. My local X-wing group (listed in the credits) are a pretty sharp bunch and helped me playtest and balance the missions and power-curve of the player abilities, and often found ways to streamline mechanics I had come up with.

W: How did you develop the AI rules?

J: From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to build a fully-cooperative campaign. This “future-proofs” my large X-wing collection for a day when competitive play dries up and there aren’t as many opponents to play with. This meant I had to develop an AI player.

Back when Wave 2 came out, there was a great website called X-wing Miniatures AI, put together by Ralph Berrett. I remembered reading about it and people’s experiences with it, on Board Game Geek ages ago although I had never tried it. When I had a look at the site’s javascript, I discovered all of the AI logic was keyed off movement direction and then basically a d6 and lookup table – the system was already built for non-computer use! It just needed some graphic design help for presentation.

Anyway, I started playing small skirmish games against the TIE Fighter AI, like 2X vs. 4 TIEs, to see where it was suitable and where it fell short. I didn’t get the impression that Ralph had ever flown a TIE Swarm competitively, and some of the moves were either sub-optimal or caused multiple ships to crash – there was no logic for flying in formation to focus their fire, or avoiding obstacles.

I did a lot of testing early on, both solo and with members of my X-wing group to hone in how TIE swarms are flown by really experienced tournament players and tried to incorporate as much of that as possible into the AI for Heroes of the Aturi Cluster.

Once we started testing other Imperial ships, there was a need to generate random equipment loadouts, and allow for elite TIE pilots with multiple abilities. This began as a series of roll and lookup tables for each equipment slot, but further playtesting revealed that this often generated lame/weak combos, and it was pretty cumbersome. This lead to the Imperial Pilot card system, where we designed 4-6 powerful equipment combos for each ship and streamlined the setup down to just drawing a single card that had tweaked wording to make it clearer how some abilities interacted with AI ships, or how AI ships made decisions regarding those abilities.

W: How long did it take to develop and playtest?

J: The project was started in November 2014, just after X-wing Canadian Nationals. By the end of November, we did a first alpha playtest at my FLGS with five players and continued every Friday night until August 2015 when I publicly released the campaign in Beta v0.6. At the end of September 2015, I added the FAQ and incorporated a lot of player feedback into the v0.7 release.

Ultimately though, it’s an ongoing process. There are a few missions and mechanics I’m not quite satisfied with before I’m ready to call it v1.0 and move on.

Copyright Josh Derksen
Copyright Josh Derksen

W: Who did the artwork?

J: Most of the artwork in the rulebook and the cards in the corresponding mission deck, came from three places:
-Assets from LFL including film stills from the original Star Wars trilogy and some of the amazing matte paintings by LFL artists Frank Ordaz and Michael Pangrazio.
-Card art from X-wing, other Star Wars card games, and FFG’s Edge of the Empire.
-A few are fan art found on the all over the internet, and Deviant Art.

The cover and all of the card templates, graphic design, and terrain tiles (nebula, station, emplacements, etc) are original artwork by me.

W: Do you have plans to expand to include epic ships and scum as opponents? Are there plans to develop an Imperial or Scum campaign?

J: Eventually perhaps. I’m set on polishing this project into a very tight v1.0 before exploring translations, expansion content, or other campaigns. I still have a few missions that got cut from the initial public release because they didn’t fit into any of the story arcs that would be nice to put into an expansion.

W: You mentioned a few missions that got cut. What else do you have on your “To Do” list to bring it up to version 1.0?

J: When the campaign was initially released as Beta v0.6, I knew there were things that would probably need to be clarified, just based on a larger playtester base. At the moment, I’m confident that v0.7 and the FAQ address all of the easy-to-spot issues, so my remaining concerns are about progression and overall experience. There are a couple of things I know will be updated:

  • Squad Leader will get a custom reference card, and modified text that affects allies of the same or lower pilot skill. From talking with a number of playgroups, the official Squad Leader EPT is kind of a waste because everyone levels up at roughly the same rate, and then the Squad Leader never ends up actually using that action because it doesn’t apply to most of the squadron.
  • Quick-reference Index on the back cover of the book.
  • Minor balance/scaling tweaks for some of the part-3 missions, and possibly Capture Officer. Some missions aren’t scaling well with the Pilot Skill level of squadrons, and I’m also currently testing a streamlined Assists suggestion from FFG user TheRulesLawyer, which seems to have potential. The Assist mechanic was added late in alpha testing to encourage players to equip more synergistic abilities and it could use some tightening.
  • Many of the cheap single-use Elite Pilot Talents are also being overlooked by players because ships are limited to four Elite slots, and those slots compete against much more powerful Elite abilities such as Push the Limit, Predator, as well as all of the great Rebel Pilot abilities. I’m experimenting with ways to make abilities like Crackshot, Adrenaline Rush, and Lightning Reflexes more appealing.
  • I’ve also had a number of players ask about translating the campaign book into other languages, especially German. There’s a huge demand for that and I’ve had several offers for assistance, but it’s not something I want to do until I’m satisfied I won’t be making any further changes to the book and release the 1.0.
  • Rather than delaying the release of v0.6, I decided to cut several standalone missions, either because they didn’t receive as much playtesting as I’d like, or because they didn’t fit nicely into the story arc format. It’s likely these missions will be fleshed out into 3-part story arcs and released in an expansion, post-1.0. As an example, a few players were surprised the Decimator had such a well-defined AI card but was only used in a limited capacity in one mission. That’s because the other missions involving it were among those that got cut. Overall, I think things are very playable in their current state and I don’t see changing much else before a 1.0 release.

W: Any plans to bring your system to FFG’s attention?

J: Oh, they know about it. I’ve previously done some playtesting for X-wing and I had a bit of a discussion with Alex Davy about it, who has been the design lead for many of the recent X-wing products. I strongly doubt anything official will ever come of it, but I’m OK with that.

W: I’ve read nothing but praise for Aturi. Has the response been surprising to you?

J: I had a pretty good idea that I was onto something special when players in my local X-wing gaming group got excited about it.

One of my long-time gaming buddies, Don “R5Don4,” is one of the most hardcore X-wing tournament players I know, and he was into Wizards’ Star Wars Miniatures before that. When I was working on the campaign back in 2014, I was excitedly telling him about it after one of our events. He had some good feedback but I wasn’t sure this co-op campaign would be his thing – he wasn’t excited. Then something funny happened. He came into the FLGS where we were playing our usual Friday night X-wing, when I mentioned I brought the campaign along. Four or five players who had given it a try previously were “freaking out about it” (his words) and immediately jumped into a co-op mission with me. When I asked Don about the co-op campaign months later, he said that “anything that gets people that excited is worth a rethink – maybe there’s something to this.” Since then, he’s been one of its biggest supporters, and is taking his campaign book and components to this year’s X-wing World Championships to promote it.

I think your assessment is correct though; the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I see variations or add-on components for the campaign on a pretty regular basis. It seems to have re-energized casual players, and people have really taken to making it their own, which is awesome.

W: Which campaign mission is your personal favorite?

J: That’s tough, but I think it’s probably “Needle in a Haystack.” When I came up with the idea for the players to escort a YT-1300 into a nebula looking for an escape pod, it really opened up what was going to be possible with the campaign, complexity-wise, and resulted in a new type of terrain as well.

W: Nice, that was actually the first full campaign mission we played. The time limit combined with the hunt for the pod and the secondary objective generated a lot of fun strategic decisions that the players need to make. This cooperative element is something that regular X-wing lacks due to it’s competitive nature. Were there any co-operative games in particular that offered you any inspiration?

J: Myth, actually. I backed it on Kickstarter and while it’s been plagued by a number of rules issues, I have enjoyed it overall. However, I always felt the quest chain mechanic in that game never quite lived up to its potential and my take on it became the basis for the Mission Deck in Heroes of the Aturi Cluster. It came to my attention later that the result ended up a bit like Imperial Assault’s mission progression, which is cool.

W: What’s the most broken combo you’ve created with the XP system?

J: My own ships have been pretty tame actually. During alpha testing I always ended up with the highest pilot skill, so I ran an X-wing built around being the ultimate squad leader. A couple extremely powerful combos were also identified and nerfed in alpha testing, such as Lt. Blount + Ion Cannon Turret/Ion Torpedoes on a Y-wing.

My favorite combo though is from one of my regular players. “Purp-7” is a PS7 B-wing that absolutely exploits the 5pt Autoblaster that nobody plays in skirmish:
-Push the Limit
-Keyan Farlander (Pilot)
-Jake Farrell (Pilot)
-Advanced Sensors
-Autoblaster
-Kyle Katarn (Crew via B-wing/E2)
-Engine Upgrade

He uses Advanced Sensors + Push the Limit before moving to Target Lock and Boost or Barrel Roll.
Then he reveals a green maneuver to remove the stress from Push, gaining a Focus from Kyle Katarn, which also allows him to reposition again with Jake’s ability.
This almost always gets him into Range 1 of a TIE Fighter, where he can fire his Autoblaster with Target Lock and Focus, and has a 70% chance of instantly killing a regular TIE. On one of the recent missions we played, he soloed a formation of 4 TIEs with ease – very impressive for a B-wing.

—-
Visit dockingbay416.com/campaign to download the campaign, get updates and see the FAQ. Josh has a number of pictures of his personal campaign set and custom painted ships at flickr.com/armoredgear7/sets.

Donations for the campaign can be made at paypal.me/joshderksen
Josh also does freelance graphic design, game cartography, and illustration, and can be contacted at josh.derksen@gmail.com

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Wayne Basta

Wayne Basta

Editor-in-Chief at d20 Radio
Wayne is the managing editor of d20 Radio's Gaming Blog. He also occasionally writes books.
Wayne Basta

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