I had some time this weekend to test out the system a little bit (even if I didn't have players!), and while it was a lot to take in and keep track of, I think I like how it plays. The biggest stumbling point was simply the fact that I was controlling 4 PCs and several groups of NPCs (I ran the first encounter from Crates of Krayts), and with all of the advantages I needed to spend and rules that needed to be referenced it was hard to keep track of whose turn it was, who had what boosts/setbacks, etc. I ended up having to list the PCs out to note things like "cover," "guarded stance," and "boost" or "upgrade" from various advantages. Obviously these are things that the players would keep track of in a real game. Things certainly seemed to run pretty smoothly on the Order 66 Podcast (which I listened to yesterday to compare my experience with their play session).
My party consisted of Kara Starhopper, a Human Explorer (Scout), Tanawook, a Wookie Technician (Mechanic), Frye Onasi, a Human Hired Gun (Bodyguard), and Zevrash, a Gand Smuggler (Pilot). Frye chose +10 starting obligation for maximum credits, Tanawook chose +5 obligation for an extra 1,000 credits, Kara chose +5 obligation for more starting XP, and Zevrash kept his obligation at the default level, though I did choose to make him a Gand subspecies with lungs, so that was a small XP boost in and of itself. Frye is rocking a Heavy Blaster Rifle (I was never able to get Auto-Fire to go off) and a Vibrosword, and it turned out that the melee weapon was a good idea for this fight. Tanawook uses a Bowcaster, of course, and Kara and Zevrash both stick with regular Blaster Pistols (Zevrash is the only PC who doesn't have a rank in a personal combat skill, though he does have Gunnery).
In making these characters, I devoted as much starting XP as possible to increasing Characteristics. To provide an idea of what kind of array is likely for starting characters, Kara has three Characteristics rated at 3, while the rest remain at the default of 2 (90 XP spent). Frye has a 4 and a 3, but wasn't able to raise anything else (100 XP spent). Tanawook has a 4 in Brawn and Intellect at 3, which equals 70 XP spent (since he started with a racial 3 in Brawn). Zevrash has 3 scores ranked at 3 (Willpower started that high), and the rest at 2 (with Presence raised from 1) for a total of 80 XP spent (granted I could have raised another 2 to a 3 here, but wanted to give him some nifty pilot Talents instead. Ultimately starting an ability at 5 is probably not worth it; for example, it would take a Wookie all of his starting XP to get Brawn up to 5, and a Human would need to spend all of his XP to get up to a 5, but only if he took +10 starting obligation, which is a steep price to pay. I see aiming for as many 3's as possible to be a good strategy for an all-around balanced PC, with increases in skill ranks making you more specialized through play. I wouldn't go higher than 4 for a single ability for someone who wants to be more specialized. Perhaps the exception will be Droid PCs who have more flexibility here, but I didn't make one so I wouldn't know.
The maneuvers were mostly intuitive, and in a dynamic fight I could see players having to make real choices here, namely whether to fight more defensively or offensively. In a straight-up shootout I kept it pretty simple, with characters first moving to cover and then diving behind it, and using the Aim maneuver in subsequent rounds. Note that I counted moving to cover and then getting behind it as 2 maneuvers, assuming that a character has to be engaged with an environmental object before interacting with it, while it seemed like on the Order 66 podcast characters were just spending 1 maneuver to dive behind cover regardless of positioning. Given that drawing a weapon is also a maneuver, perhaps cover as 1 maneuver is the better ruling. All told, the only maneuvers I didn't make use of in this combat were Mount/Dismout, Drop Prone/Stand up from Prone, and Preparation. I can see characters who don't mind being locked in one position dropping prone after getting behind cover to gain extra defense.
One thing that concerned me going in was that Agility, Intellect, and Brawn seemed to be more useful in general than the other abilities. Willpower in particular with its paltry 3 skills (one of which, Discipline, seems to have a lot of thematic overlap with Cool) seemed like a good "dump stat." Now I'm not so sure. The temptation to suffer strain to gain an extra maneuver is greater than I thought, and after actually rolling post-battle Cool/Discipline checks it doesn't recover quite as quickly as I thought (never mind the fact that a high Willpower gives you a higher starting strain, and that often Obligation rolls will reduce your strain threshold). While Presence might be a tad more XP efficient (in that training Cool will net you Initiative and allow you to recover more strain), Willpower also governs a strain recovery skill (Discipline) and an initiative skill (Vigilance), and I can see Vigilance being used more frequently for initiative than Cool.
Here's how the importance of the Characteristics breaks down: Brawn governs only 4 skills, but 2 of these are combat skills and a high score here also boosts your Wound Threshold and your Soak value, making it an extremely important combat score. Agility is the base characteristic for the second highest number of skills (7), 3 of which are combat skills and 2 of which are piloting skills. These will all come up very often in-play. In particular, the most common skill rolls for most PCs will probably be a Ranged - Light or Ranged - Heavy roll. Intellect is impressive for the sheer number of skills based off of it - 11. This means that nearly a third of all skills are Intellect-based, and I can see Astrogation, Computers, Mechanics, and Medicine all being extremely important for most adventuring parties. Cunning might seem like an ideal dump stat now with only 5 associated skills and no other derived benefits, but if Perception is considered the best skill in D&D 4E then it can't be too shabby here, and given the fringer theme of most campaigns Deceit and Skulduggery will likely be important, and perhaps Streetwise as well. Willpower has been discussed above; despite governing only 3 skills it has the biggest impact on your strain threshold and recovery, and is important for initiative. Presence is the "face" Characteristic, with initiative tacked on as well. Overall I actually find it very interesting that EotE moved initiative away from and obvious pairing with Agility and split it between the two personality/charisma Characteristics.
This is turning into a longer post than I anticipated, so I'll move on to what might be the most important lesson I learned from my first solo playtest: keeping track of things is...different. I'm sure it seems like there's a lot to track because I don't know the system very well yet, and hopefully time will smooth that out. Here are a few ideas that I have, in brief:
• Tracking Destiny Points - while the suggestions in the book for counters or tokens is nice and probably works well, I'd rather not clutter up my gaming space with that stuff. I simply took a white d6 (light side) and a dark green d6 (dark side) and had the number of destiny points for either side face-up. For larger groups a larger die size might be necessary (or one could simply use multiple d6's).
• Tracking Initiative - For D&D what I do is cut out strips of index cards with the PCs names written on them, as well as generic monster groups (Mx, My, Mz). This allows me to arrange the cards quickly into the initiative order instead of writing everything down every time, and can quickly account for delaying and whatnot. For EotE I can simplify this even further with green cards (PC slots) and red cards (GM slots). This will save even more time setting up the initiative order because I won't have to search a pile of cards for a specific name, but rather just grab the right color.
• Determining Initiative - For this first time, it took a whole lot longer to compare success/advantages than it would have if initiative were a straight d20 roll. This was compounded by the fact that I was rolling for (and recording results from) every combatant on the field. In play I think the quickest way to tally initiative would be to call out everyone who got 0 successes, and then if needed compare their advantages. Then move on to 1 success, and so on, therefore building the initiative order from the bottom up.
• Tracking Strain - Constantly modifying current strain on the character sheet will get messy really fast. After all, losing or regaining strain is perhaps the simplest method for employing threats and advantages. As a GM, I'd rather just say "you lose 2 strain" than "this enemy gets a boost against you next turn," because I'll risk forgetting about the boost since it's yet another thing for me to keep track of. This will ultimately be up to the player, but tracking strain on scrap paper, adding/removing counters from a pool, or adjusting dice faces are probably all good ways of keeping up with strain.
• Maps - A rough, hand-drawn map with dots representing each enemy can keep positioning straight in a more narrative, theater-of-the-mind combat system. Or minis on the tabletop, no grid necessary. Rough relative positions can determine range bands, or you can just wing it. Most action is going to take place in the Short and Medium Range bands anyways, with Long range mostly being relegated to a tactical "sniper" range (since the prevalent blaster pistols won't fire that far).
• The GM's scrap paper - Yeah, regardless of the game system this will always be needed, though different systems will require a different setup. I think a simple list of enemies (or groups of enemies) will do, with a current wound total in one column and any other notes in another column (in cover, gets boost/setback next round, status effects, etc.).