My relationship to the Star Wars franchise is complicated these days. On one hand I came-of-age with the original trilogy of Star Wars movies, and on the other hand came to hate what the franchise turned into after the first three movies. This complicated relationship tends to carry over into any gaming that involves the franchise; I like games that I can relate to the original trilogy but others I tend to sour on. Thus, Star Wars: Rebellion (Fantasy Flight Games, 2016) should be solidly in my wheelhouse…and it is. Being a few years old and based on a very popular IP, plenty has been said about the game. Even so, it is actually new to me this month. Here is my attempt at a reluctant Star Wars fanboy look at the game.
What is Star Wars: Rebellion?
Star Wars: Rebellion is two games in one. In one game, the Galactic Empire player must track down and destroy the Rebel Alliance by finding and destroying its secret base. This is accomplished through area control and intelligence. At the same time, the Imperial player builds a massive military to control the various systems, even developing and deploying superweapons like the Death Star. The Rebel Alliance player must play a cat & mouse(droid?) game to keep their Reputation ahead of time. If the Game Turn Marker ever reaches the Reputation Marker the game ends – and only if the Secret Rebel Base has not been found the Rebel Alliance wins.
Making a Rebellion
On one level, Star Wars: Rebellion is a super Axis & Allies-type of game. Both sides manage an economy to build forces that is financed by different systems they control through Loyalty or Subjugation. But that game, one of fancy weapons and grunt soldiers, is actually secondary to the real game.
The real story in Star Wars: Rebellion, like the original trilogy it is based on, is the actions of Leaders. Both sides have leaders with different abilities who every turn can be sent on Missions to enhance your cause. Every leader has a set of skills and tactical abilities. From Mon Mothma with 1x Logistics, 3x Diplomacy skills but no Tactical Abilities at all to Emperor Palapatine with 2x Intel, 3x Diplomacy skills and Space Tactics 3 / Ground Tactics 2 Tactical Abilities, each Leader is different and brings their unique collection of powers to their cause. Players use their Leaders to execute Missions that can either advance their cause or “complicate” their opponent’s plans. Sometimes, player don’t want to send Leaders on Missions, instead holding them back to use to move forces (Activate a System) or to oppose other Leaders.
It’s a Big Galaxy
The interaction of the economy and Leaders in Star Wars: Rebellion is both it’s thematic strength and game play weakness. Thematically it is brilliant; Leaders and forces (including superweapons) move across the board seeding or stamping out rebellion, play whack-a-mole with rebel bases, and try to turn opponents to their side. The Rebel Alliance tries to build Loyalty to their cause amongst planets, while the Empire also builds loyalty, or simply subjugates a planet and rapes its resources. The broad sweep of rebellion, from small beginnings to galaxy-wide, can be played out on the board.
The broad sweep of rebellion is also the weakness of Star Wars: Rebellion. Players initially start out with only a few planets and Leaders. The few forces and Leaders can only do so much. The game starts out manageable, but like a real rebellion as it grows chaos imposes itself on the system. In this case, more planets leads to more economy leading to more units and planning. More Leaders leads to potentially many more missions or activated systems. It is quite easy to reach game turn 10 and have eight (or more) Leaders and five building cycles of forces on the board. At this point the time required for each turn becomes long as players have many more factors to account for in the Assignment Phase (alternating assignment of Leaders), more interactions in the Command Phase (execute Missions or Activating Systems opposed by Leaders or fighting combat as necessary) and a Refresh Phase that adds even more forces. At this point Star Wars: Rebellion becomes less Saturday Morning Serial and more Tom Clancy at his worst – too many viewpoint characters and too many gadgets.
The physical size of the game is also good/bad. One can never accuse Fantasy Flight Games of not making a good-looking game. Beyond the obvious access to the IP for artwork, the game really looks like Star Wars. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘toy factor.” The small (and I do mean small) figures for forces are really nice. One part this is not small is the game footprint. In keeping with a game that covers a galaxy far, far away the need closer to home is a large gaming table. The game can be played on a 3’x5’ table but its a really tight squeeze if you do it. This is a game that demands the dining room table for longer hours.
There’s No “I” in Team – But There are Officers
In the RockyMountainNavy household we occasionally struggle on game night to find a title that works with three players – our usual player count. Star Wars: Rebellion has rules for a Team Game that can handle up to four players. In the Team Game each side is divided into two “commands;” the Admiral and the General. Both commands operate as a separate player following the usual Assign/Command/Refresh sequence of play but each also has different responsibilities in play. The Admiral handles recruiting, space battles, and building and deploying units. The General controls the hand of Mission Cards and has final say on assignment of Leaders to Missions. The General also fights ground battles and handles the Probes searching for the Secret Rebel Base. For the Rebel Alliance the General also handles the Objective Cards to keep the Alliance Reputation ahead of the Empire.
The Team Game is a nice split of duties, but it also adds more time to the game as decisions are now divided amongst players who must collaborate (or not). I do like the Communication rule which allows players on the same side to share information, but it must all be done in the presence of their opponents. It can be done in code or whispers, but they cannot leave the room!
Rebellion: A Star Wars Story
In the end, I have to admit that the tightly woven theme of Star Wars: Rebellion executed with this collection of game mechanics (as ponderous as they can become) actually works. Playing a game of Star Wars: Rebellion is like writing our own Star Wars saga. In one early game, Princess Leia led a mission to Incite Rebellion in a subjugated system. Grand Moff Tarkin moved to oppose her and defeated the uprising. At this point Darth Vader swept in to try and Capture Rebel Operative. Although the dice off was 4x Empire versus 2x Rebel dice, Princess Leia succeeded in avoiding capture. These dramatic moments make every game of Star Wars: Rebellion a unique story.
If only the pace of the plot moved along a bit quicker.
Feature image courtesy Fantasy Flight Games