Category: War Game
Designer: Corey Konieczka
Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games (2016 English edition)
Year Published: 2016
Playing Time: 180-240 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Maybe
Star Wars. This franchise needs no introduction. With 11 feature films, multiple TV series, and countless books, video games, and toys, Star Wars is an omnipresent fixture in modern pop culture. Tabletop games are no exception. Roleplaying games. Miniature-based war games. Thematic re-skins of “classic” family games. And, of course, plenty of titles in the hobby games that I review on this website. Most of these games let you explore different parts of Star Wars’ far, far away galaxy. Star Wars: Rebellion is far more ambitious.
Rebellion puts you in command of the Rebel Alliance or the Empire during the original trilogy’s war. The Empire has control over much of the galaxy, but the growing Rebellion represents a threat that must be crushed as quickly as possible. The Rebels begin with a secret base somewhere in the galaxy, and must find ways to grow enough popular support that the entire galaxy over throws the empire for good.
The meager Rebellion is in danger of being wiped out at any moment, so they have to carefully protect their secret base’s location at all costs. Meanwhile, they have to plan multiple covert missions that expose the Empire's weaknesses, often against overwhelming odds. The Empire grows steadily more frustrated as the game goes on and the Rebel Base remains hidden. The puny Rebel attacks and missions hardly damage their mighty fleets, but the galaxy is so big that searching every system feels like an impossible task. And as the game draws to a close, the tension stays at a fever pitch. With only a few possible systems left for the rebels to hide, the Empire's challenge becomes consolidating enough forces into a strong enough fleet to capture the Rebel Base, which may be half a galaxy away from the main fleets. Meanwhile, the Rebels are pinned down, forced to desperately protect their hidden base while completing the last few missions that will shift the galaxy's support to their side.
It may sound like this is a game about pushing soldiers around a map. And it kind of is, but it uses a much cooler system than simply moving pieces every turn. When you think of the Star Wars trilogy, do you think of Tie Fighter and X-Wing dogfights in the shadow of the Death Star? Or do you think of Luke, Han, and Leia struggling against Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and the Emperor? For me, it's the latter. Star Wars has lovable and inspiring characters, and they are the key to this game's success.
To start the game, both players have access to four leaders. The Alliance starts with Leia, Mon Mothma, Jan Dodonna, and General Rieeken. A who's who of the most popular characters! The Empire begins with Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and General Tagge. Don’t ignore that last one, he's more dangerous than you realize. Both players will use these leaders to take actions during their turn. They have three choices for their leaders: 1) They can be assigned to missions, which are generally important moments from the story depicted in card form, such as building a trade agreement with a system, or firing the Death Star's superlaser. 2) They can be used to activate systems, which allows units in adjacent systems to move to the activated system. 3) They can be held in reserve to oppose the other player's missions, potentially disrupting their plans. Like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Han and Leia go to the Cloud City to get help from Lando Calrissian, only to find Darth Vader waiting for them.
After all of the leaders have taken their actions, the turn marker advances, and then both players draw new mission cards and get to recruit an additional leader. This is where the rest of the cast joins the fight, from popular movie characters like Luke, Obi-Wan, and Boba Fett to more obscure fan favorites like Soonter Fel and Wedge Antilles. Leader recruitment only happens for the first four turns, so you won’t get every character every game. And you don’t just get to pick whichever leader you want. Instead, you draw an action card, and select a leader that corresponds to that action card.
So how do you win? It depends which side you’re on. If the Empire finds the hidden base and successfully defeats all the rebel forces protecting system, they win! Yes, destroying the planet with the Death Star counts, I’m glad you asked! Throughout the game, though, the Rebel player has been drawing “Objective cards.” Each objective card allows the Rebel player to gain influence if they fulfill the condition on the card. The Rebel starts the game with their influence marker on space 14 of the round track, and each complete objective moves the marker down the track. Meanwhile, the round track marker begins on space 1 and advances up every round. If the two markers ever reach the same space, the Rebels win. Thus, the longer the game goes, the fewer objectives the rebels need to complete to win.
On the surface this game sounds like a straightforward, if asymmetric, war game. Each player has a group of leaders that they can use to move troops, engage in missions, or oppose enemy missions. Eventually someone wins. What makes this game special is the “Assignment Phase,” which occurs at the beginning of each round. During the Assignment phase, the Rebel player can assign leaders to the mission cards in their hand. Leaders who are committed to missions cannot move troops or oppose enemy missions that round. This is huge! You have to commit resources in advance, which may mean you don’t have the leaders you need for other actions later. After the Rebel player has made their assignments, the Imperial player does the same. Their spies allow them to see which rebel leaders are going on missions and which are not, but they do not know what sort of mission the leader is attempting, or how important it is to oppose. At first, with just four leaders per side, the assignment phase is quick and easy. But by round 4, each player will have eight leaders to work with, which makes planning far more complex.
Which brings us to an important point. Star Wars: Rebellion is complicated! Each player has several decks of cards, a dozen potential leaders, and dozens of sculpted miniatures representing the most iconic ships and units from the movies, from Y-Wings to AT-ATs. Recently, Fantasy Flight has been publishing games with two rules books included. The first is a “learn to play” guide, helping players navigate through their first game with a simplified setup and glossing over the more unique interactions. The more comprehensive but less accessible index of rules by topic comes in a second book, the rules reference. And even with all of that, there are another ten pages of FAQs you can download from their website to clarify the weird corner cases the often crop up in a game as complex as this one.
I mention this because learning this game takes a lot of energy. The box states that the game is 3-4 hours, but if you’re learning expect to spend closer to 5 or 6 if you don’t have an experienced teacher. Once you can get a few games in, you’ll find that the basic structure of the game becomes second nature pretty easily. But those first few games are tough. Speaking of the box, it claims that this is a 2-4 player game. That’s only technically true. You can play this game with 3 or 4 players by putting two players on a team that shares a side. The game’s responsibilities are arbitrarily divided between the two players who control roughly half the leaders each, but they share the same objective. I’ve found that this is a fine way to learn the game, as it lets each player focus on a subsection of the game rather than trying to absorb the entirety. But once you know the game, it becomes annoying to have to consult and coordinate your strategy with another player. The game is good with 3 or 4 players, but it shines with two.
Rebellion is a war game, so naturally combat is an important part of the game. Before combat starts, each player draws ground and space tactics cards based on which leaders are present at the battlefield. Then the attacking player counts up how many dice they roll for their ships and rolls. Certain results let them draw more tactics cards, while others will deal damage to opposing ships. Both players can play tactics cards to modify the results, then the defending players rolls, and both players can play tactics cards again. Destroyed ships are removed from the board. Then any ground units present on the surface engage, and you repeat the same process of rolling attack dice, playing tactics cards, rolling defense dice, and playing more tactics cards. After the ground battle is finished, both players can decide to retreat to an adjacent system if they have surviving ships. If they don’t retreat, a second round of combat commences starting with the space theater. The tactics cards add a little but of control to the high variance dice rolls, but in the end it really is about dice. Blowout victories do happen.
Personally, I’m fine with this combat system. It’s fast and offers a few minor decision points without requiring too much time pondering outcomes. Since combat is so risky, experienced players minimize the number of large-scale battles. Small-scale fights between two or three units are common, and usually resolve very quickly. But most games only have one or two large-scale fights between major fleets. Still, one of the game’s common criticisms is that combat is too random.
In 2017, Fantasy Flight released an expansion: Rise of the Empire. This expansion includes several new units for each side, some new dice, a few new leaders from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” and an entirely new set of missions for each side. The overall rules for the new game are largely unchanged, except for a major overhaul to combat. Instead of both players drawing from a generic “tactics deck,” each player holds a hand of specific space and ground tactics cards from the beginning of the game. During each round of combat, they can choose to play one of the cards from their hand. The card has a weak effect that can be used in any combat situation, or a stronger effect if a specific unit or ship is in the battle. Once used, the card is set aside and cannot be used again until all the tactics cards for that theater have been used.
This version of combat is much more strategic. Unit composition in your fleets is critical, and every combat requires players to decide if they want to commit a limited resource in addition to their troops. Full disclosure: I don’t own the expansion, and I’ve only played it once. I found this new combat system to be fine, but not a substantial improvement over the original. If you want more decisions in an already complex game, then go for it. But I prefer the version of the game where the critical decision-making happens during the Assignment Phase, while combat is just a matter of probability.
Any good two-player should leave both players on the verge of both victory and defeat as the game draws to a climax, and Star Wars: Rebellion is a perfect example. With a dozen or so games under my belt, this game has become much faster. Most of my games last about 90-120 minutes, with the occasional epic extending to three hours. But like I said above, getting to that point means slogging through a slew of 3, 4, or even 5 hour marathons. No other game makes me feel like I’m right there in the movies like this one.
Ultimately, that’s what makes Star Wars: Rebellion so great. The game’s mechanics not only present interesting decisions, they also create an emotional reaction. When Princess Leia infiltrates Mustafar and finds the Death Star Plans objective, the Rebel player’s eyes light up because they finally have a way to destroy the invincible battle station. But then Darth Vader shows up and captures Leia, and now the Rebel player has one fewer leader, forcing them to not only re-evaluate their plans but also start trying to figure out how they can rescue her. And then the Emperor himself arrives on Mustafar and successfully convinces Leia to renounce the Rebellion and join the Dark Side, permanently giving the Empire an extra leader! There is no feeling more crushing for the Rebel player than losing one of your strongest leaders to the Empire.
Star Wars: Rebellion is a big, heavy, expensive, and complicated game. I have friends who have patiently learned the game, played it once, and said afterwards “that was really cool, but I never want to play this again.” And I get it. It’s a massive time and energy investment. If you are a hardcore Star Wars fan, or if you just like exploring complex game systems, Star Wars: Rebellion is the game for you. I think you should play this game, but I completely understand if you don’t.
What do you think about Star Wars: Rebellion? Share your thoughts in the comments, or message me on one of the social media accounts linked on the home page. This game review was selected by my Twitter followers in a poll earlier this week. If you'd like a say in what game I review next, follow me @OrNotToPlay so you can vote as well!