The holidays came and went and in their jingled wake, new board games have floated ashore and one I highly anticipated was Fantasy Flight’s game of galactic cat and cosmic mouse, Star Wars Rebellion. This game caused much salivation but its price and its sheer size meant that I could not justify adding it to my growing shelf of games. Luckily, the Good Lord in His wisdom and magnanimous nature saw fit to grant us older brothers who, sensing our need, reached out and provided what we could not provide for ourselves.
Needless to say, it was a merry Christmas.
Having cracked open the game now and played it once by myself using this handy website, and once and a half with one of my dad friends (pictured above) I can give it a qualified thumbs up.
The game is devised for two players although it’s designed to be able to handle three or four by dividing up the Rebels and Empire into teams with each player getting specific duties which felt… busy. At heart it feels like and works well as a two-player game although I am not above trying it with more people.
Set up is a bit of a chore but there is a basic set up that works pretty well for quickly getting all the pieces on the board with a more complicated version for when you want to try playing with different starting systems and military force arrangements. The best part of setting up is definitely placing the Death Star on its little stand and plopping it down on the board to really set the tone for the whole affair. Also, if you have access to a Star Wars soundtrack, I do recommend cuing it up. For some reason, my wife had The Attack of the Clones on hand and that worked really well because most of the music is forgettable and non-distracting but still feel Star Wars-y
Then you get to it. It’s a Risk style game of moving armies around and trying to conquer systems but there are many quirks. First, the Empire has one objective: Find the Rebel Base and dispatch any Rebel forces there. That’s it. The Death Star can blow, Darth Vader can be frozen in carbonite, and the whole galaxy can be on fire but if they manage to find and crush that base, they win. The Rebels play a very different game. They have a victory points tracker which ticks down towards the turn marker and if every the twain shall meet, they win. So their job is to hide the Rebel Base long enough to run out the clock while fulfilling various missions and quests that make the clock run faster. If you’ve played Fury of Dracula, you might have decent idea how the asymmetric gameplay feels. These uneven victory requirements really flavour the game and make it incredibly stressful in very different ways. The Empire is running around both trying to send its massive fleets to hunt Rebels while also needing to be able to thwart their nefarious do-goodery while the Rebels have to decide between hunkering the Rebel Base down and preparing for an inevitable show down or keeping it in perpetual movement.
The system control mechanic is really fascinating. Systems not only give you places to fortify and launch attacks from but they give you troops and ships if you can keep them loyal and this building and maintaining loyalty really becomes a fun puzzle for the rest of the game. The Empire can still get some materiel by just occupying with troops but the real gains come from actually building up loyalty, which can be accomplished if needed by Death Starring a planet into space dust. Needless to say, it is very gratifying.
Perhaps the real defining mechanic of the game is the use of Leaders. It essentially grafts a worker placement game onto a war game. To move fleets, carry out missions, or thwart the other side, you need to plop Skywalker and Palpatine and Bobba Fett down on the board and put them in harm’s way. This is where the heart of the game’s strategy lies. At the start of a round, both players simultaneously secretly assign leaders to missions and leave the rest in reserve. This can be frustrating because you can’t change mission cards later on during the actual round when you might want to respond to crises as they play out. It also means you can try to chain missions only to have them fall flat. This can happen with the Empire’s Capture mission which unlocks other missions like Interrogate or Freeze in Carbonite. The stress comes from trying to figure out if it’s worth it to lock in a leader for the whole rest of the round or if it makes more sense to hold on to them to try to stop the other side from carrying out their missions.
Moving the fleets is a different stress. To move the fleet, you plop a leader down in the system you want ships to go to and then you move the ships from any adjacent systems like iron filings sliding towards a magnet. What can really jam things up is that you cannot move fleets from a system that *already* has a leader even if the leader hadn’t moved any fleets prior. So if the Empire sends Palpatine to carry out its Espionage mission into the heart of the Rebel fleet and the Rebels send out Obi-Wan to stop him, the Rebels can’t move the fleet because now, presumably, they are too busy entertaining General Kenobi. The rule makes sense as a way to keep the Empire from darting its fleet around with leader after leader like a sinister game of leap frog, but it can feel a little arbitrary at times.
Of course, the worst part about moving fleets is that they might do what they are meant for and get into combat and if there is one place where this game absolutely drags it is combat. If you were like me and played a lot of the Total War games, you might have had lots of fun scheming and politicking and then as soon as you got into a real fight, clicked Auto-Resolve so hard, your mouse cracked a little. That’s the same feeling I get when I engage in combat. It’s a bizarre mini-game with a lot of finicky, non-intuitive rules and sub-rules and when I say it slows things down, I am not joking. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to use the actual game board to lay out the pieces for the fight and there are so many different types of ships, vehicles, and soldiers that you need to be able to see them to know how to take them out so we will often move the pieces to the box top or some other flat surface to help show damage and remaining force sizes. In our last game, combat also presented us with a moment that almost made the Rebel player flip the board.
The Rebels had been building up their Rebel Base for a while and were trying to keep the Imperial fleet split up enough while drawing a remnant into a trap. The trap sprung but the combat wound up being a disaster for the Rebels and they lost the game all because of one rule: You can only roll five dice at a time. You see, the Rebel player had tons of troops in his base but he could only ever use so many at a time and while the Empire had the same limitations, the Imperial forces are just that much stronger and have more hit points that the limit benefits them more. The combat was still close but really, given the force size difference, it shouldn’t have been.
However, after discussing the game and going over all the frustrations, within about ten minutes we were eager to play again and I think that says something that is very Star Wars. You see, none of the movies are perfect and indeed, they all have gaping plot holes. plodding acting choices, and cheesy effects. However, their is something about any given film as a whole that makes you overlook those flaws so that a Force Awakens feels like a better movie than a Phantom Menace even if you could put both movies side by side and show how they share many similar weaknesses. This game is like that. Yes, there are problems. Yes, there are frustrations. I still enjoy it and still want to get back in there and that, I feel, is the hallmark of a great game.