Star Wars: Rebellion – A New Hope?
I am, I think, the perfect age for Star Wars. I was seven when I saw A New Hope for the first time, was confused when The Empire Strikes Back finished without a happy ending, and sensibly hated the Ewoks in Return Of The Jedi. After a three-film trip to The Dark Side and half a lifetime of waiting the Force appears to be back at last, making grown men weep in cinemas around the world in December last year. Young Jedi and Imperialists have had to wait a long, long time to immerse themselves fully in that world, for although many games have captured aspects of the films, none has ever dealt with the entire cinematic scope of the original trilogy. Until now that is…
Even in the introductory game the Rebels start on the back foot – one Death Star is already on the board.
Fantasy Flight games have already produced two space combat games and two card games set in the Star Wars universe, but X-Wing, Armada and The Card Game are all part of FF’s collectible model, meaning that you will have to spend on a regular basis to get the best out of them. The only remaining game, Empire vs. Rebellion, is a retheme of CIA vs. KGB, and I doubt that even the most ardent FF acolyte would call it anything but a light filler. This month however, hovering into view like a Star Destroyer from the top of a cinema screen, comes Star Wars: Rebellion, the game that promises to throw at least two players (up to four at a push) into everything the films have to offer. It has diplomatic and rescue missions and ground and space combat, even encasing Rebels in carbonite to destroying entire systems with your fully armed and operational Death Star…and all in three to four hours.
Air in the system? Boxing (un)clever!
My first reaction on opening the box was not a good introduction to Star Wars: Rebellion. A double depth affair, the box contents consisted mainly of air and the standard FF division of the insert into large troughs around which the components can spill around with pre-Imperial freedom, even if the token cardboard flaps are, I guess, meant to hold things roughly in place. Some dice, a couple of packs of cards, a bag of plastic miniatures, two cardboard sheets with tokens to punch out, and a huge two-section playing board. It seemed barely enough to generate a frisson of excitement, let along a galaxy-wide conflict.
The Rebel player’s troop sheet and Leader pool. Doesn’t look that exciting, but just you wait..!
But with my Death Stars (yes, plural!) and Star Destroyers assembled, and the cards and tokens bagged and sorted (although, as usual where FF is concerned, you will have to provide your own bags), I began to get excited, so much so that I set up a couple of ground and space battles on the table even before putting the miniatures back into the box. I had more than enough ships and troops to spare on both sides. Slowly and surely the word “epic” began to form in the back of my mind.
Even the smallest miniatures are finely detailed.
In suitably, erm, epic style there are two rule books in Star Wars: Rebellion, one for learning to play and the other as a reference. I have seen complaints about these in some reviews, but personally I have found that they complement each other well. The Learning To Play is the standard rule book, while the Reference is an exhaustive resource for definitions and mechanisms – at one point, for example, I was unsure how a “populous system” should be defined, but it took all of ten seconds to look it up. I do strongly advise reading the rules thoroughly before play, as diving straight in could be a massively frustrating experience, and a little bit of homework beforehand makes the turn mechanism at the core of Star Wars: Rebellion that much easier to follow. A thumb down to FF however, for yet again failing to provide reference cards for players with the basic turn order and game choices on them. Baggies and reference sheets at the very least folks, especially in a game this hefty!
How does it play? Set phases to three!
The two sides (Star Wars: Rebellion accommodates team play) have very different objectives in Star Wars: Rebellion. The Empire needs to find and overrun the Rebel base, while the Rebels need to hold on until they gain enough kudos to incite a revolution against the Empire. Stripped to its bare essentials, this is done over a series of turns, each comprising three phases:
- Assign Phase – Leaders are assigned to missions.
- Command Phase – Players activate systems with leaders, initiating conflicts and resolving missions.
- Refresh Phase – Cards are drawn, the Empire sends out probes, and players build units based on the systems they control.
Within these three phases, simple enough on the surface, Star Wars: Rebellion springs brilliantly to life.
If these two tokens meet it’s game over for the Empire.
Phase 1? Assign!
For the Assign Phase each mission has a requirement that must be met for it to succeed, whether Intel, Spec Ops, Diplomacy or Logistics and a leader (or two) with enough matching icons must be assigned to the mission for it to stand a chance of occurring. In the following Command Phase, missions with “Resolve” text and an appropriate leader will automatically occur, such as the one allowing the Rebel base to be moved, while those with “Attempt” text can be opposed, and dice rolling based on the chosen leaders will ultimately decide whether an attempted mission succeeds. Some mission cards have specific characters pictured on them, and using those characters will increase your chance of success and may also offer another bonus. Yoda may be sought out by any Rebel leader, but if Luke Skywalker carries out the mission he is upgraded to Luke Skywalker (Jedi), making him more powerful for the rest of the game – it is a canny way of luring players down thematic pathways.
Find Yoda with Luke and he becomes a Jedi.
Phase 2? Command!
The Command Phase is where the meat of Star Wars: Rebellion takes place. Apart from resolving missions, players can use their remaining leaders to move units across systems (although certain units, such as TIE fighters and ground troops need to be transported in larger ships, reinforcing the theme), triggering combat if they encounter the enemy in the new system. Here the leaders’ Tactic Values for ground and space combat enable players to draw cards that will allow them benefits in the coming battle, while the two different dice colours (red and black) are used for different units. A hit on a red die has to be used against a unit with a red defensive value, and black needs to strike against black, which seems complicated at first, but once you realise that it is a way of differentiating between different classes of unit you will positively purr at how thematic it is. There are direct hits as well, and units can also retreat under certain circumstances. While initially it can all seem complicated, after a couple of rounds of play it becomes second nature, and gloriously thematic too. Have I mentioned yet how thematic it all is?
These dice will determine your destiny, although you can always tilt the odds in your favour.
Phase 3? Refresh!
In the Refresh Phase the Empire will draw two cards from the Probe deck, narrowing down the possibilities of where the Rebel base is hidden, although the Rebels can undertake missions to interfere with this process, and each side gets to place new units on their production queue according to the systems that are loyal to them. In all the hustle and bustle of missions and battle, players will also need to make sure that systems remain on their side, or they will find themselves fatally short on resources.
If the Rebels fulfil the conditions on these cards they come closer to winning the game.
There are many, many more nuances than this to the play of Star Wars: Rebellion, and it may sound terribly complicated, but the core of it all is economical and lean, and I am deeply impressed with how cleanly the game progresses and how brilliantly those choices bring the game to life – the leaders and the mission cards really are the heartbeat of the story here, and the massive board genuinely made me feel like a Rebel general with an overview of the entire galaxy, giving orders to my heroic and outnumbered troops.
It’s difficult not to feel like a general with this massive double board in front of you.
Clean and lean and oozing with theme!
Helpfully the Learning To Play book has some information directed to be read aloud before the first game which acts as a useful guide to strategy, as the choices could be utterly overwhelming for players going in cold, but the play is impressively clean and elegant and after a couple of turns it feels entirely natural. Players will forget about card timings and phases, so often the bane of FF games, and instead find themselves immersed in the atmosphere of Star Wars: Rebellion in a very short time indeed – at this point the cogs and gears of the game disappear and players are able to become totally integrated in the theme. For a Star Wars devotee this represents sheer bliss after years and years of waiting, while even neophytes can find themselves engrossed in the evolving story, and that is some achievement.
These rings are a brilliant way of indicating key elements of the story.
Star Wars: Rebellion is the kind of game I would not have played had it been about zombies, orcs or Cthulhu, more fool me, but it is a seriously impressive piece of work, absolutely the summation of FF’s other games which explore other areas of the Star Wars universe. While those other games represent segments of Lucas’s vision, whether ground or space battles or card-based manoeuvering, Star Wars: Rebellion embraces the cinematic sweep of it all in a totally immersive, intensely thematic and utterly thrilling way.
Are there any negatives? It’s cinematic in length, too!
Under Imperial torture, I would have to admit that Star Wars: Rebellion is not without its flaws, small though they be. Strip away all the theme and all the miniatures and Star Wars: Rebellion is, at heart, a deduction game, a souped-up version of Letters From Whitechapel or even Mr. Jack on steroids, where one side chases the other down while the chasee has to survive until the end of the game. This is the much bigger brother of those two games, with a play time of around four hours and a huge array of components. The rules can also be tricky to understand at first, and I wholeheartedly recommend that prospective new players become fully conversant with what is going on before they start setting up – having important information in sidebars or right at the end of the manual is not the most helpful option, but at least the Rules Reference is clear.
Using Leia to find the Stolen Plans automatically raises your chances of success.
I also think that for a game this size and price not having player reference cards is a terrible omission, although this does seem to be a policy of FF in their games, even if it remains a nagging disappointment. Both sides have a sheet that details their units, their attack values and so on, but passing the rule book around to remember what happens next is like a Vader choke hold. It may be that FF needs to keep costs down (do player aids really cost so much?) but half-decent inserts and reference sheets should be standard by now, and there really is no excuse for not having them in a game of this scope by a publisher this big.
A widescreen experience!
Where Star Wars: Rebellion really shines is in the theme, a brilliant conjunction of leaders and missions that allows a Wookie Uprising to take down a Star Destroyer, or means that a Diplomatic Mission that would otherwise have failed ultimately succeeds because you have C3PO with you, or that a Rebel leader can give information about the hidden base under torture but be rescued, and even more. It is a strange and wondrous thing where each game plays out with an entirely different story, but all of those stories are feasible within the Star Wars universe. This, I think, is by far the most impressive feat of Star Wars: Rebellion, and Corey Konieczka, the designer, deserves a sustained and enthusiastic round of applause for the brilliance of this design.
Missions like these will help to generate the story of Star Wars: Rebellion.
Whether Star Wars: Rebellion is for you is a different matter. It is expensive, hefty both in terms of number of components and intricacy of rules (although the core of it all is impressively lean), and will take an entire evening to play. It also devours table space. At some point, of course, some brilliant minds will come up with a shorter play variant and possibly even a set of solo rules, making Star Wars: Rebellion irresistible across the whole Galaxy, but for now, harbour no illusions of being able to sweep through this in an hour and a half.
The conclusion? Prospective Jedi apply here!
If you have ever wanted to reenact the whole vast sweep of the first three films, begin them from scratch and see a new story emerge each and every time, then you will be as happy as Jabba’s little puppet friend. You will need to invest money, time and thought into this, and the large box will sit on your game shelf like a Death Star in orbit around your game collection, but Star Wars: Rebellion will be an experience that may just stay with you the way those films did all those years ago. This is an epic and extraordinary achievement and while not quite perfect (like the films), deserves to have huge success. Now let’s sit back and wait for the inevitable expansions…
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.