Aiight then, so dig this- Pilot Ranking and the way it interacts with the movement and combat phases is one of the more distinctive elements of Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures. Understanding this topic is integral to becoming a solid player.
So what is Pilot Ranking anyway?
Pilot Ranking (PR), simply put, is that orange number on your pilot cards that represents his place on the starfighter food chain, so to speak. Generally speaking, famous guys you've heard of from the movies have high PRs, while generic nobodies have low PRs.
In Wave 1, Vader and Wedge have the highest Pilot Rankings for the Imperials and Rebels, respectively. Past that, as pilots become cheaper, their PR drops until it bottoms out with Academy Pilot for the Imperials with a PR of 1 and the Rookie Pilot for the Rebels with a PR of 2.
What does it mean and why do I care?
Unlike some miniatures games, X-Wing doesn't use a "you go, now I go" type system for handling movement and combat. While lots of miniatures games separate the movement and combat portions of the game turn, X-Wing not only separates them, but also reverses the order in which they occur. The order in which you move your ships and your opponent moves his depends entirely on those ships PR.
Once movement is complete and the Combat Phase of the game turn begins, PR once again determines what ships fires first, next, last, and everyone else in between. As this mechanic is unlike anything else I've encountered in a miniatures game, it's important to take a closer look to gain some understanding and hopefully insight.
Pilot Ranking and Movement
In the Movement Phase portion of the game turn, after players have assigned movements to all of their ships on their ship dials, the ship with the lowest PR has its movement dial revealed first. The owning player then pulls the appropriate template, and moves the ship (and declares an Action, if appropriate- i.e. he didn't collide with anything, etc.). If there are no other ships with the same PR, then the ship with the next lowest PR has it's dial revealed and is then moved (and declares an Action if appropriate). The process repeats until all the ships have been moved.
So stop and take a look at what's happening here, or perhaps more importantly, what's not happening here. Notice I didn't say one of the players moves all of their ships then the other player moves all of his, nor did I say the lowest PR ship moves, then the other guy moves a ship, then it goes back to the first player, then the second. There's no alternating units for movement in this game- movement is strictly based upon the PR of the ship. If one player had a bunch of Academy Pilots (PR of 1) and his opponent had a squadron consisting of Luke (PR 8), Wedge (PR 9), and Horton Salm (PR 8), every single one of those Academy TIEs would move before any of the Rebels.
Now, you may be thinking, "Hey, that's kind of messed up- why would bad pilots move before good pilots? Isn't that kind of favoring the bad pilots?"
The answer? No.
The reason? Actions are declared immediately after the ship moves. And declaring an Action is ( or should be, anyway) highly contextual.
Moving late in the Movement Phase (which high PR pilots do), allows you to not only see more of everyone's final placement just before the Combat begins, but also which Actions the ships have taken so you're not guessing or hedging your bets nearly as much with a high PR pilot when you select your Action.
(I know, I know, there's people out there who take low PR ships and try to run them into yours to block you and blah, blah, blah, so there's a school of thought that says a high PR is actually a disadvantage. Make like Public Enemy and Don't Believe The Hype. If you're so bad at movement that you're telegraphing your maneuvers to the point where your opponent can do that, it isn't the Pilot Ranking game mechanic's fault- it's yours. It's like being mad at the dice because you can't hit anything. Get a new tactic besides screaming forward in a straight line at max speed after deploying in a pile in the middle of your deployment zone right up against the forward edge, feel me? )
Initiative in the Movement Phase
If two (or more) ships have the same PR, the ship belonging to the faction with Initiative moves before the ship that does not have Initiative. This holds true for the deployment phase of things too. I know- seems a little bass ackwards, but trust me- I just looked it up to be sure.
Also, if a faction possesses multiple ships with the same PR, they may be moved in any order the controlling player wishes to move them. If you're having trouble moving your ships without running into each other and costing yourself actions, try playing a couple of games with ships that all have the same PR value until you get it together. Don't laugh! I did this for two or three games and damn near showed up to the Kessel Run Tournament with 4 Red Squadron X-Wings for this very reason!
Pilot Ranking and Combat
Once the Combat Phase starts, everything reverses order and goes from highest PR to lowest PR. So your Wedges and your Vaders attack first, then your Lukes and your Howlrunners, and so on, again from the ships with the highest PR to the lowest. Now the ace pilots really reap the benefits of their high PR getting to shoot first and ask questions later, or something like that.
Main point here is this- your high PR pilots definitely have the opportunity to take out the lower PR pilots before those cats even get to fire a shot.
As a side note, this is why Swarm Tactics is such a massively useful Elite Pilot Skill- being able to boost up some Rookie or Academy Pilot to a PR of 8 or 9 makes a huge difference in their effectiveness as you'd expect.
Initiative in the Combat Phase
As you probably remember from your rule book, the Imperials have Initiative by default if the players both have rosters of the same size point-wise, but if one player has less, then he has the Initiative.
So what good is Initiative in the Combat Phase?
If two ships have the same PR and shoot each other, their attacks are considered to be occurring simultaneously, even though in real life, you probably aren't actually rolling all the necessary dice at the same time, so it's totally possible both ships blast each other out of the firmament.
The only thing Initiative is good for in the Combat Phase is this- if an attacking ship with initiative inflicts a Critical Hit on the defending ship, the effects of that Crit happen before that ship without initiative rolls its dice to attack. Because of this rule, if two ships with the same PR are attacking each other, the ship belonging to the faction with Initiative should always roll his attack dice first.
Wow, sounds important huh?
Yeah, it really kind of isn't. I'm not saying it's 3,720 to 1 unlikely to happen, but it's pretty close. When you read that, it kind of sounds like a big deal, but the reality is a lot of stuff has to line up in conjunction for the above scenario to play out, so don't get too obsessed over it. If you're stressing over spending your 98th point on Determination (1) so you can come in at 99 and hopefully get Initiative from your buddy who always makes 100 point lists right on the nose or Swarm Tactics (2) and coming in right at 100, for Christ's sake- get Swarm Tactics instead.
PR can be hard to get your head around because the stuff you move first shoots last and vice versa. I don't know about you, but I've never played a game where you effectively have a snake draft when activating your units. It takes awhile to get used to. It really does. I find that mastering how PR works is the first step in going from a total novice beginner to an intermediate player. Take heart in the fact it is something you get better at the more you do it, and once you've got it down, it's totally not a big deal.
As always, shut down the browser and go play!