Terror is not an emotion normally associated with board games. But when there’s a Death Star floating in orbit above the base you’ve tucked away in the galactic map’s corner — and all the Empire has to do to win is touch down on the surface of Endor — emotions set in. ‘Star Wars Rebellion’ is all about creating these moments, which mean it is a far from stress-free endeavor. The major achievement here is the diminished distance between victory and defeat. The secondary achievement is the accurate representation of a great space operatic franchise in plastic and cardboard.
In ‘Rebellion,’ the latest in the consistently stellar Fantasy Flight Star Wars games, you’re either the Imperials or the Rebels, hunter or hunted. From the very start, before the first move, the Rebels have a choice — where do you place your base? If the Imps stumble upon this last redoubt of hope and justice, the jig’s up. All the Empire has to do is roll a few dice to wipe your troops off the map. And with its superior firepower, the odds aint in your favor, kid. So do you hide your base in some trashy backwater planet, the way Voldemort should have just chucked his Horcrux into a landfill, or do you stick it right under the Empire’s nostrils and hope that you’ll be overlooked in a fatal moment of Imperial overconfidence? Even before the first turn begins, you’ll have to channel your tabletop Sun Tzu.
But all the swanky space fascist couture and beefy AT-ATs in the universe can’t stop time. The Imperials are on a clock — dawdle too long, and you’ll find that the Rebel Alliance has turned the galaxy against you. As neither the Imperial or the Rebel side seems overpowered, ‘Star Wars Rebellion’’s asymmetry plays out in exemplary modern game design. This is sandwiched between the vibes of old-school games like Stratego’s imperfect information and Risk’s fistfuls of wee soldiers. (The sculpted ground and space miniatures — of which there are 153 — are worthy of Star Wars’ plastic merch legacy.)
Over the course of the game, you’ll go on excursions with your leaders (and yes, all the Skywalkers you’d expect appear, along with some deep dives into Moffs and generals). In the half dozen first playthroughs, dashing off to liberate a planet or encase an opposing leader in carbonite felt exciting. In repeated games, however, the freshness might wear off. Plus, familiarity with the other player’s cards can give you a competitive, mission-cracking edge. If you’re the Imperial player and happen to know that Yoda lives on Dagobah, for instance, you can preemptively nuke the swamp planet, along with Luke’s hopes of Jedi training and a very specific card in the Rebel deck.
When Fantasy Flight announced ‘Rebellion’ in November, the publisher trumpeted the cinematic aspect of the game. There’s just one stumbling block: ‘Rebellion’ offers no real sense of narrative. Because you’re playing with a deck of cards, not a script, the sense of story feels as though someone printed out high-quality Lucasfilm fanfic and shoved it through a shredder. This is more of a quibble than a fatal flaw, but don’t go into a game of ‘Rebellion’ expecting anyone could make a neat Kurt Vonnegut diagram of your 3 hours at the table.
Perhaps the least mind-melting aspect of the game is the combat itself, which comes down to who gets better throws of the dice. There are ways to mitigate your luck, namely, combat cards plus the number of units in the fracas. ‘Rebellion’ comes with all the pros and cons of rolling bones: On the one hand, that scrappy holdout Y-wing might just be able to take down a Super Star Destroyer, if you push your luck; on the other, some of the giant battles — particularly when the Imperials are closing in on the Rebel base — start to drag out as you go through the Yahtzee motions.
But ‘Rebellion’ makes it very easy to look past these imperfections — you’ll spend the vast majority of your time trying to be clever, by sabotaging a critical Star Destroyer facility on Corellia or springing Darth Vader on your opponent’s unsuspecting Mon Mothma. It’s all tremendously fun. Just have that Rebel poker face ready when the Death Star comes cruising by.