STAR WARS: REBELLION, Fantasy Flight Games, 2016, 2 players, 14+, 3-4 hours, competitive.
I was talking to a friend once and he mentioned that there was a new game coming out called Star Wars: Rebellion. He couldn’t tell me any details but he was super serious when he said I had to get it. At around $100, though, I wasn’t in a rush. I was busy getting my Star Wars fix from X-Wing Miniatures and when would I have time to play a three-four hour game? An opportunity arose to get the game cheaper than the usual retail price, so based on his recommendation, as well as that of thousands of other people online who say that it’s one of the best ever board games (it scores a whopping 8.5 on Board Game Geek, where it is ranked the 5th best ever board game), I finally caved and bought it.
Opening it was a bit of a Star Wars nerd’s dream…
All the best characters are there, as well as all the ones you really don’t know because it turns out that you’re not as much of a Star Wars nerd as you thought, like Colonel Yularen and Janus Greejatus. There’s a panoply of colour and theme that drips off the cardboard tokens with some excellent artwork. And then there’s the miniatures… X-Wings, Y-Wings, Speeders, Rebel Troopers, Corvettes, AT-ATs, AT-STs, Stormtroopers, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers, Super Star Destroyers and more! Over 150 miniatures, and some of them really are very mini miniatures. But they clearly and excellently represent exactly what you want. The board is big – so big that it needs two boards to be unfolded and put next to each other. This is a game that doesn’t mess around in terms of scale…
This is an asymmetric game of cat and mouse, in which the Imperials needs to create masses of units to help them hunt down the Rebel base, while the Rebels need to disrupt the Imperial war machine and stay alive for as long as possible. The Rebel player first chooses a secret location for their hidden base by taking a card from the locations deck and hiding it under the Rebel Base space. I know, you want to put it on Yavin, because A New Hope. In fact, there are certain locations on the board that really help the Rebel player – the remote locations that will take the Empire longer to reach. The Imperial player slowly eliminates possible locations of the base either by landing troops on a planet or by sending out probe droids. This latter action is done by drawing cards secretly – if the card is in the deck then the Rebel base isn’t there. The Rebel player doesn’t know what information the Imperial player knows, though, so a game of cat-and-mouse develops whereby troops and ships are moved into differing systems either to hunt down the base or to act as a ruse. To win, the Imperial player has to destroy the Rebel base. On the side of the board is a track that marks time and also Rebel influence. They are on differing sides of the track and the two markers head toward each other. When they reach each other, Rebel influence has spread too far across the galaxy, and the Rebels win. This adds a time element to the game that increases pressure on both sides, especially the Imperials. Rebels gain influence by successfully completing missions, such as the one shown here…
So far, so fun. But what about the iconic characters? Many of the mission cards for the Rebels and Imperials have to be performed by characters, so at the beginning of each turn, every player assigns missions secretly to their characters, based on the level of ability of the character. Some characters are better at military missions, others at diplomatic missions. Some missions even have a bonus given to them by specific characters. For example, the Stolen Plans mission is made much easier by Princess Leia. The top left of the card shows that the character attempting this mission, for example, needs two “eyes”, meaning a strong tendency to diplomacy. Princess Leia has an extra icon here because she gets an added bonus to the dice if she attempts the mission.
The opposing player may want to try to stop that mission from being successful, though, so they might send one of their unassigned characters to try. And suddenly the strategy really starts to come out. Do you assign a mission to Darth Vader or do you wait and use him to stop a Rebel mission? Or, to add another layer, are you going to use him to move some ships from one system to another? Suddenly, a simple cat-and-mouse game has significantly increased complexity and strategy involved. Do you let the Empire succeed at one mission because you think your mission will ultimately bring about a greater reward for the Rebellion? And who should you send anyway? Is Han Solo likely to be more successful in blocking the Empire at that mission than Admiral Ackbar? Or is it a trap? (If you didn’t see what I did there, kindly leave now). And while it’s wonderful to talk about strategy, what cannot be understated is the joy of moments like this…
What’s happened here? That’s right – Boba Fett and Darth Vader have tried to capture Han Solo to put him into carbonite. It wasn’t on Bespin, I get that. But seriously, if that’s your issue, bite me. Princess Leia stealing plans, Ben Kenobi sacrificing himself for the greater good, Boba Fett capturing Rebel scum…. this is the stuff Star Wars gamers dream of. And there’s more! What about all those minis? Well, you have to manage your troops and ships at the same time as performing all these missions. On some turns, each player gets to create more units and as these pour onto the map, you’re truly in the war room trying to manage an entire galactic conflict. And there’s simply no other Star Wars game that achieves anything like this. You have to choose when to amass troops in certain areas and when to fight, just like in the picture below…
In fact, this picture is a very good example of the game. Did I do this because (a) I was using this fleet to block the Empire from getting to my Rebel base, (b) because it was a ruse and in fact my Rebel base was the other side of the table or (c) because the nerd factor in achieving this was off the scale? (The answer was (a) and (c) in this case!). True, as you can see, the board does start to get cluttered because the minis aren’t on stands although some players have gone above and beyond to make their game more attractive using selective painting and also stands for the minis…
That said, it really isn’t essential to go this far, although the number of miniatures and pieces will necessitate some kind of insert for the box. I very rarely use inserts/organizers, but after only a few plays of this game, I was tired of rummaging around in the box for the exact mini that I needed. Lots of people use Feldherr, but I far prefer the Zen Bins insert…
So, on top of the strategy of finding/hiding the base, on top of the strategy of who performs which missions and on top of the strategy of where to put your ships and ground troops, you also have the added strategy of combat. I’ve seen an online review that said this was the dullest part of the game and that it’s basically a dice-fest, but I totally disagree. Differing characters have differing strengths in battle on the ground or in space, determined by a number on the bottom of their character card. Orange is ground strength, blue is space. When a character leads a force into combat, they draw combat cards which can then be used to modify dice. So it’s quite simply not a dice-fest because you have to work out when to best modify the dice, as well as which ships to attack. Look at the Rebel board below…
Each X-Wing in combat will roll one black die and will be destroyed with one hit on a black die. Each Y-Wing rolls one red die and will also be destroyed with one hit on a black die. The Rebel Transport doesn’t fire and can only be destroyed by two damage on red dice. But it can carry up to 4 ground units, so as the Imperial player even though it’s not shooting at you, you might want to destroy it before the Rebels escape and drop off their units elsewhere. Let’s say you bring 3 X-Wings, 2 Y-Wings and a Rebel Transport into combat. They’ll be rolling 3 black and 2 red dice in attack. Now let’s look at the Imperial Board…
Imagine that this battle has 3 TIE-Fighters and an Assault Carrier. The X-Wings obviously attack the TIE-Fighters, since they can only be damaged on black dice, and the Y-Wings obviously attack the Assault Carrier since it can only be destroyed on red dice, right? Well, not so easy, because on the dice there are symbols that can be used for the differing colour. So the X-Wings might want to try an attack run on the Assault Carrier knowing that there’s a small chance they’ll destroy it. Moreover, one of the signs on the dice means you can draw more Strategy Cards, so that keeps the game flowing and the combat strategy deeper. So, much more strategy.
But wait…. what’s that on the Imperial board….is that a ….. Death Star?!?
Yes, that’s right, my friends, there’s a Death Star and even a Death Star under construction (see above picture). And guess what they can do? That’s right. They can destroy entire systems…
You see what’s happening here? The Rebel base was on Nal Hutta. Tarkin and Palpatine were in the Death Star while Luke was on Nal Hutta, and we used the Death Star to blow up the system and win the entire game. I didn’t have to blow up the system at all because I had an enormous fleet of ships and ground troops ready to invade. But I did because I could because it’s awesome because what other game has you be the Death Star blowing up planets?!?
But back to combat. The criticism that it’s a dice-fest just isn’t borne out by my experience. Your choice of which hero to send into combat affects the number of Strategy Cards you can pull which affects your dice which affects your combat.
In this space battle, for example, Han’s Corvette and X-Wing go up against Tarkin’s Star Destroyer and three TIE Fighters (the Mon Calamari Cruiser pictured above is in the adjacent system and therefore not in that combat). Both Han and Tarkin draw two space Combat cards. Han is very unlikely to win this battle but nothing is a foregone conclusion. And maybe he’s just fighting this battle because he wants to lure the Empire to this system thinking the base is nearby. You don’t know as the Imperial Player! And as the Rebel player you don’t know if the Imperial player already knows that the Rebel base is nowhere near. So it’s all very exciting!
I recognise that there are some people who don’t like the whole cat-and-mouse thing and who see this game as basically a more complicated version of Risk. Those people are wrong. Sorry, but that’s how it is. They’re as wrong as Jar Jar Binks existing. Sure, there’s a massive nerd factor with this game, but even if it weren’t Star Wars it would still be fun to play. It’s just that it being Star Wars makes it REALLY fun to play. Risk is about controlling territory and simple dice-rolling combat. This is about missions and characters and seeking out a specific base and ground combat and space combat and so much more.
Fantasy Flight Games (aka FFG) provide their usual rule book with reference guide, and there’s no question that if you want to learn how to play the game, you do so by first looking at an online video before then reading the rules. And from time to time, you’ll definitely find yourself referring to one of the books during the game. As frustrating as this might be, though, it’s not so significant as to really detract from the joy of the game.
FFG say that this could be a team game but I don’t think that would be much fun because you need to hold all the strategy in your mind at one time. It’s firmly a two-player game. And it is a long game – the box says you should expect 3-4 hours, and that’s fair, although I’ve seen games go longer, though. That makes it a gamer’s game. It’s not just a simple Sunday afternoon family sit round the table kind of game. This is an ask the partner to give the kids dinner and put them to bed while you play through until midnight kind of game.
Are there issue with the game? Of course there are. The rules aren’t brilliant for one and the board also gets cluttered easily, as I’ve already mentioned. The strategy for the Imperials is very simple – produce as many units as possible in the early game so you can spread your forces around the galaxy, and try to capture some Rebel heroes if you can. The Rebels’ mission is to stop that. Some players find that a bit dull. There are also certain planets where Rebel control is rather essential, because of the type of units they can create. It’s certainly possible to win a game without them but it’s hard. In my last game, although Mon Calamari is a super-helpful system for the Rebels, the Death Star blew it up on turn two, and I still won the game, albeit only just. Another criticism – nerd alert – is that X-Wing aren’t just for space, but should be able to be used to support ground troops…. but that’s a very minor concern. These concerns are mitigated by the nerd factor, though, which I’ve kept emphasizing throughout this review. I lost one game as the Imperials in the final turn. My Death Star had found the Rebel base and was about to destroy it. Instead, they flew Wedge into combat and he rolled well and destroyed my Death Star, thus freeing the galaxy from Imperial dominance. I lost and loved it because how can you not love a game ending like that?
But….. but…. there is one problem with the game, and that is dependency on luck. The last game I played was an excellent example of this. At the start of the game, you draw cards for which systems start Rebel and which start Imperial. The Imperials had a perfect draw, with systems spread perfectly all across the galaxy, including one right next to Mon Calamari so they could destroy it almost immediately. As the Rebel player I decided to take a risk and spread most of my forces around the galaxy leaving the hidden Rebel base unprotected. I had forgotten that there is a mission card that allows the Imperials to land ground forces on any system. Had they drawn that once they knew where my base was, I would have lost. So, in essence, I won that game only because I was lucky that my opponent didn’t draw one card. And then there’s combat. If you decide to add a hero who draws combat cards, you can use them to change dice and so on. But only if you draw helpful cards. Once again, I was really lucky that almost every time my opponent draw combat cards, he sighed because they weren’t the ones he needed. And, of course, there’s dice rolling, which is totally luck. Yes, you can use cards to mitigate against bad dice, but only if you get the right cards in the first place! You can also strategically place characters in different locations to mitigate against luck, such as below…
In this pic, which is a whole level of awesomeness in and of itself, Luke had been captured by Boba Fett. Princess Leia tried to rescue him but Darth Vader intervened and she failed. Then Palpatine tried to turn him to the Dark Side and Lando tried to stop him. Now, if you’re a Star Wars fan, everything about those last two sentences was awesome. But, how did the Emperor try to turn Luke to the Dark Side? He played a card which enabled him to roll dice. Then he rolled according to the number of skill icons his characters in that system had (he had three characters each with five, making fifteen dice), plus an extra immediate two successes because it was Palpatine trying (as per the card), versus the number of skill icons I had (two characters with five and one with four). So, fifteen dice with an extra plus two successes versus fourteen dice. I lost, and Luke turned to the Dark Side. In some sense, that’s totally luck based, but in some sense there was sensible risk-taking based on strategy. Nonetheless, the combination of luck of starting character cards, starting system locations, combat card draws, mission card draws, objective card draws and also dice means that there is actually quite a heavy element of luck in this game. You can control it to a point, but only to a point. Drawing mission cards that don’t help you is immensely frustrating, for example, drawing a mission card that allows the Wookiees on Kashyyyk to stage an uprising isn’t helpful when you already control Kashyyyk!), or drawing a mission card that says you gain one reputation point when you destroy a Star Destroyer at the end of the turn when you’ve just destroyed a Star Destroyer and probably won’t be able to again for the rest of the game. Both of these happened in my last game and it’s frustrating.
So, if you’re thinking of buying this game, you need to seriously ask yourself if you can ignore the luck swing because of the pure nerd-enjoyment of the narrative you create. I can, just. But I appreciate that for some people spending four hours playing a game to lose on a final card draw, or dice roll, can be immensely frustrating. Again, I’m okay with it because it’s an immersive Star Wars narrative experience, but I can see why others might not.
One of the ways to mitigate against luck, though, is to become proficient in the game. For example, had I as the Rebel player remembered that the Empire has a card that allows them to basically land ground troops at my Rebel base once they’ve worked out where it was, I would have left more troops there and wouldn’t have been subjected to the bad luck of that card being drawn. Had I remembered that Palpatine could turn Luke to the Dark Side, I might have put Luke elsewhere. So, the more the players know the cards, the less the luck-swing is. Therefore, there is something to be said for this game getting better (and in some sense more difficult) the more it is played.
Time for a summary…
- Good component quality
- Over 100 miniatures
- Lovely use of iconic characters
- Differing levels of strategy as an asymmetric game
- It’s bloody Star Wars!
WE NO LIKEY
- Cost (but, you know what? You get what you pay for)
- Need for an insert/organizer
- Board sometimes getting cluttered
- Rules aren’t always clear
- Games often decided by luck
- The Empire has some weird characters who most people don’t know
And now for some scores….
Given that I am such a Star Wars fan, I can’t say anything other than I think that this game is wonderfully immersive. Most games involve a luck element and there’s no question that this has stronger luck swing than, say, Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures where the luck is only in the dice, and not also in cards drawn. But it has a narrative like no other Star Wars game and, unlike X-Wing, Armada and Imperial Assault, it deals not just with ships and characters in a single location, but with an entire galaxy-wide conflict of ships and characters. FFG have just started advertising a Rogue One expansion although I’m not sure how much I want that – the idea of Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor being stopped by Boba Fett just doesn’t sit well for me (if you don’t know what I mean, go and watch the film). Nonetheless, it does remind me how much I enjoy this game. This is a game of galactic conflict and narrative, not just pew pew. It’s luck-based but it’s an experience. It is Star Wars. Were it not for the luck element, I would probably award this top marks, but because there are times in every game when a player can get frustrated because they don’t have the right cards in their hand, I have to mark it down somewhat. Despite that, though, it creates a Star Wars narrative unlike any other game I know. With all this in mind, then, I award it 83%.