Star Wars. You’ve grown up with its cast of characters, you believe in a mystical power called the Force, and you’ve fantasised about flying the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy through an asteroid field.
The universe has captured your imagination from childhood. So you turn to it for escape. You play with the action figures, you wave a cardboard tube around, making silly WHOM-WHOM noises, and you wear an oversized dressing gown with the hood up.
And then videogames come along that plonk you in the middle of the action. You fly an X-Wing and blow up a vector graphics Death Star. You sit in the gunner’s seat on the Falcon and light up some TIE Fighters. You craft a lightsaber, and you make decisions that shift the balance of the Force and shape your character’s destiny.
But now you want more. You want to command fleets, invade systems and obliterate the enemy for ever.
Say hello to Star Wars: Rebellion. This is the Star Wars game you’re looking for.
Rebellion takes the core narrative from the original trilogy (Rebels want to overthrow the evil, oppressive Empire, who in turn want to uncover the Rebels’ hidden base and destroy them) and gives you the power to write your own Star Wars stories along the way.
It does all of this through hidden decision-making, exploration and expansion of the Star Wars galaxy, and epic space battles. In fact, the space battles are so epic, that the game comes with no less than 150 plastic miniatures, including three Death Stars. Well, two and a half.
Rebellion has some 4x elements, but it’s not a straight up 4x game. It’s a game of asymmetry: yes, the Imperials set out to hunt down the Rebel base, expand their production, then launch an assault on Rebel systems, but the Rebels don’t have the resources to expand too far. They choose a system to hide their base in at the start of the game, and they turtle and stay hidden . . . until the game forces them to head out on sabotage, diplomacy and intel missions, or mobilise their forces, all the while risking exposing the base’s location.
These missions are carried out by a player’s leaders, and they require different skills, depending on the type of mission. Throughout the course of a game of Rebellion, you might send Mon Mothma to establish trade relations on Naboo, while Han heads to Kashyyyk to recruit Chewie, and Wedge goes on a hit-and-run mission to destroy Imperial units.
To carry out a mission, you assign up to two leaders (who must have the right skill icons) to a face-down mission card. In the command phase, you can reveal that mission card to carry out the mission. Usually, your opponent can send a leader to oppose that mission. If they do, you have to roll dice against each other to see if it’s a success or not.
Some missions, like Seek Yoda or Probe Droid Initiative, automatically succeed. Having a good knowledge of your missions – and your opponents’ – is the key to victory. Over-commit to furthering your own plans, and you can leave yourself vulnerable. But you don’t want to leave leaders lazing around, either.
It’s a fine balance.
The success or failure of missions throughout the game shapes the narrative that unfolds on the board. For instance, in my last game, I sent Vader to capture Leia, who was attempting to gain intel in a key Imperial system. Then Palpatine turned her to the Dark Side, placing her under my control. It was a dastardly ploy that required foresight, a willingness to take a risk, and a cold, black, barely-beating heart.
Rebellion is full of moments like that. It’s a storytelling sandbox, and the game is defined by these story elements, rather than the micro-management of units and resources (but there is a bit of that).
Leaders with tactics values (two numbers at the bottom corners of the chit) can also activate systems, moving units from nearby systems with them. That’s how you initiate battles, in space and on the ground.
Move into a system with enemy units, and a battle will begin (at least, that’s basically how it works – like most Rebellion rules, it’s a little more complex than that).
When a battle starts, each player draws tactics cards (space and ground) equal to the numbers on their leader’s chit. Then the active player makes an attack with all of their space units, using combat abilities on tactics cards if they can. The defending player defends, blocking damage if they can, then attacks with all of their ships.
When they attack, they can also play tactics cards, and the active player can block damage as well, if they have cards to do so. Then there’s a similar step for the ground battle, then either player can retreat. If they didn’t, there’s another round of combat.
Sounds like a grind? It is, a little bit. Especially, the really big battles. Combat in Rebellion’s not necessarily filled with drama and action, nor is it super-tactical and involving, but it’s functional.
Essentially, combat in Rebellion is a somewhat-abstracted numbers game. The Imperials throw everything at the key battles, and generally they win. It means the Rebels need to stretch the Imps as thin as they can across the galaxy, so they don’t leave their key systems exposed.
It’s the most heavily-criticised part of the game, and it’s understandable, but I’ll say this about combat in Rebellion: I don’t mind it. It fits the tone of the game perfectly: send the right leader to a battle and they might turn it in your tide. But send a huge fleet and there’s a lot of tedious book-keeping to be done. That sounds apt to me.
I’ve seen some good suggestions online to revise combat by giving each side tailored and thematic tactics decks. I’d like to see this. Drawing from a shared pile of cards isn’t great, not least because they run out very quickly, and you end up with tactics cards all over the place on an already-crowded board.
The other (very conditional) criticism I’d level at Rebellion is the scope for analysis paralysis during the assignment phase. The game can come to an abrupt halt while the players, in turn, assign leaders to missions. Depending on the game state, these decisions can be critical.
But that’s a sign of a good game. The subterfuge of the Rebels’ hidden base, the risk of leaving yourself exposed, the potential gains of succeeding at a mission . . . you’re left with nothing but difficult decisions.
Each round is full of tension, drama, action. And, at the end of it, you get to build new units, recruit new leaders and deploy more forces. It creates a sweet cycle of endeavour and reward that drives the game along.
There’s very little downtime for either side (as long as AP isn’t an issue), and there’s no suggestion of solitaire play. This game is all about interaction, and the two sides are constantly acting against each other and reacting to each other.
But, at its core, it’s a two-player game. Maybe three, if you split the Imperials in two. Playing Rebellion is a big commitment, and it’s hard to recommend you invest time and money in a game of this size if you’re not getting it to the table frequently. I’d play this game at the drop of a hat, with anyone who cares to play it. But it’s a tough game to schedule, and a tricky game to teach.
The rules are dense, and there are some extremely crunchy ones. It took me two games before I finally understood subjugated systems and unit production, for example. But that’s what you want from a game with this weight: depth, intricacy and purely strategic gameplay.
Is it for you? If you’ve read this far, then yes. Of course it is. You love Star Wars, you love epic board games, and you think nothing of spending four hours moving tiny fighting men round a board (two boards, actually).
So far, I’ve played four games of Rebellion. I hope to play it again in the next couple of weeks. And I’ll play it again soon after that.
But I’m already hoping for some sort of expansion. Nothing extravagant – just a couple of new leaders and action cards for each side, two or three new missions, and maybe some new tactics cards.
The game plays great straight out of the box, and there’s not much room in there for anything else, but there’s certainly scope for a little more. I quite fancy being able to send Darth Maul to Nal Hutta to freeze Wicket the Ewok in carbonite, for example.
I’m joking, of course. Please don’t put any ewoks in this great game, FFG.
But the possibilities are dizzying. The theme is so well-implemented in Rebellion that it’s impossible not to get carried away with it all. Play a game of Rebellion and you will quote the films at your opponent, you will make silly spaceship sounds, and – if you play Imperials in the same way I do – you will gloat loudly over each despicable step towards victory.
As one Reddit user put it: “This is the most Star Wars Star Wars that ever Star Warsed. Love it.”