This review was originally posted on the website of the Perfect Information podcast. It has been reposted here for archival purposes.
Today I, Georgios, open with….. Star Wars: Rebellion
The first and lasting impression Star Wars: Rebellion leaves you with is that it’s definitely a game.
That you can play on a table.
Provided it’s large enough.
Its defining feature seems to be that it feels like a long game, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it is a long game. You just happen to feel every minute of it. Arguably it’s the reason why FFG decided to slap the word “epic” on the box, but I think the game’s length is mostly due to some of the fairly clever mind tricks it plays on its players to get them to think along setting-appropriate lines. So the Empire will be an ever-expanding behemoth that doesn’t know which way to turn to squash the annoying gnat that’s constantly nagging at it. Whereas the Rebels will be sweating bullets, trying to stave off despair and hopelessness as the Empire inches closer and closer to their secret base and are getting ready to blow them to bits.
Take the turn number track for example. The Rebels’ marker starts at one end and the “game” starts at the other, pushing forward with each turn. If the turn order marker ever reaches the Rebel marker, the Rebels win. Naturally they can work towards fulfilling objectives, to push their marker further down the track, thus shortening the time it takes for them to win the game. But it’s small, incremental steps and the distance of 14 spaces makes it seem like a long and ultimately pointless struggle. Star Wars: Rebellion wants you to feel like you’re valiantly carrying shopping bags to stop a line of tanks, but it’s more like using a spoon to dig through a mountain. Admittedly, it’s a toffee mountain… but a mountain none the less.
It also doesn’t help that your deck of objectives is stacked to slow the Rebel player(s) down at first, by placing high-risk objectives into your hand, before you even have the resources to attempt them. Completing objectives is the only way to push the Rebel marker down the turn order track. So these become your priority, but actually aligning missions, leaders and the dice in such a way as to actually gain those coveted points is a highly risky endeavor. If the Empire catches wind of what you’re up to, it might not take much to foil your fragile little plans. And in another way in which fidelity to the source material dictates rules design, the death star remains invincible until turn 4-5 when an objective allows you access to the Death Star plans and give you a small chance to blow up that misshapen suppository.
On the other side, the Empire can quickly take control of a system and its resources by simply landing a ground unit on it, while Rebels need to devote a leader and a successful mission to turn a system to their side. This just hammers home the feeling of futility as the Empire gets to quickly and repeatedly churn out new units every other turn and comb through the galaxy, looking for the Rebels’ hideout.
All this does accurately evoke the general feel of the movies. Add in the remixing of certain pivotal moments of the original trilogy (“Han blows up the death star!”, “Leia gets frozen in carbonite!”, etc.), and you’ve got a game that competently evokes a same-but-different Star Wars flavor. Yet the game’s fidelity to its source might just be both its biggest strength and weakness. While it’s remarkable in how it invokes player behavior that matches the films’ two biggest factions; it also focuses on things that the films thankfully skipped over. While it’s fun and exciting to see the Rebels’ last ditch effort to destroy the death star; it’s decidedly less exciting to see those characters first make their way through a dozen side missions that you know are just tiny steps towards a distant climactic battle.
Star Wars: Rebellion is ultimately a game of attrition. Every turn that the Rebels survive gets them closer to victory, while the Empire needs to first spread out to find the base and then come down hard on the revealed hideout to squash the Rebellion once and for all. But the search can feel long and arduous, even if you take short-cuts like a decisive interrogation of a captured Rebel leader. Knowing where the hideout is, only takes you halfway to victory. The Empire still needs to consolidate its military force to overrun said hideout. In our game, the Rebels ended up winning only because the Empire couldn’t get enough troops into the Rebel base in time. It was oddly anti-climactic after evacuating the original base on Ilum, hiding out on Hoth, failing to destroy the death star and a late insurrection at Bespin, that slowed down the Empire’s ground troops. All those were enough to simply delay the Empire enough to win.
Despite the ease with which the Empire can spread out and produce new military units, they still have to struggle to get to their victory condition. They are torn between two conflicting objectives: spread out to find the Rebel base and keep your units huddled together to quickly strike at the Rebel base, once revealed. This also leads to such oddly fitting moments, in which the Empire player(s) will leave Rebel units stranded on some distant planet. They can’t be bothered to split their forces to kill them as they need to move their fleets elsewhere. There are great bits of design ingenuity in this game, that effortlessly make you think and act according to your designated role.
But it’s a long game and it feels like it. Completed missions and projects introduce incremental changes to the board state, which feel like tiny steps towards the end. That is until a stroke of luck, lets things spiral out of control and leaves both parties scrambling to put together a response. In our game, a successful interrogation led to the Empire finding our hideout’s system (i.e. they narrowed it down to 1 of 4 planets), and by the end of the same turn they had eliminated half of those possibilities. In the following turn we evacuated and this alone almost set the game back to zero. I can only imagine the frustration of having an hour’s worth of tactical play get wiped away like that.
We played the 2-vs-2 team variant, which allowed for each side to engage in some tactical discussion and chit-chat at least. I can’t imagine the dreary silence and intense concentration that would characterize a regular two-player game. I doubt I’d have the stamina or the interest to sit down to play this game one-on-one. The team variant splits leaders into two camps that each player gets to control. It also includes a needlessly rigid turn order. In our case, my co-player ended up with notably fewer leaders than I did, so he basically only get to participate in the first 1/3 of each turn. Once his leaders had been assigned, he’d watch me assign my leaders all over the map and twiddle his thumbs while I’d play out the round. The team variant feels unfinished and somewhat tacked on, which is a shame. A more robust team variant could have made the game pop.
I don’t think Star Wars: Rebellion is a bad game. There is a very exciting core to it, in which you need to choose between sending leaders on missions in an attempt to complete objectives, or keeping them on standby to make life harder for whatever it is that your opponent is trying to pull off this turn. But this fun part is mixed with a somewhat dull and archaic dice-chucking, plastic minis battle that’s artificially pumped up with card effects. Design-wise it’s an unwanted throw-back to cheap 80s Ameritrash games, and oddly reminiscent of TI3’s combat, actually. While I love Twilight Imperium, its combat is still a pile of rotten monkey doo doo. It’s dumb, dull and too long. I’d love to know who thought it was a good idea to introduce a game mechanic that already felt stodgy when the movies were first released.
After a total of one play, I can safely, definitively and authoritatively say, that Star Wars Rebellion does its setting justice as far as I can tell or care. The team variant, though, is awkward and unpolished. The whole game is something of a long slog towards the finishing line. If the thought of making your way through a dozen of Star-Wars-like plots to get to the Jedi’s Return (or at least somebody dying) sounds like your idea of a good time, this game is worth your moneys. But if you’re like me and have both a limited time on this Earth and even less time set aside to immerse yourself in Star Wars fanfic lore… you can probably walk past this game at your local game store without regretting it.