Review – Star Wars: Rebellion & Rise of the Empire
Impressive... Most impressive.
|Publisher||Fantasy Flight Games|
|Release Date||2016, 2017|
|Player Count||2-4 (but really 2)|
The Galactic Empire and upstart Rebellion clash in a galaxy-wide civil war. Does Star Wars Rebellion provide players an awesome sandbox to experience their favorite faction, or does it fail to keep gameplay interesting over its 2-3 hour playtime?
Star Wars: Rebellion Review
One player will control the Empire, whose winning objective is to find the Rebel base and eliminate all Rebel ground troops on the base, while the other player will control the Rebellion, whose winning objective is to outlast the Empire (the Rebel player can shorten the game by completing missions). Rebellion is fully asymmetric and strives to capture the feel of the Empire via vast military resources, probe droid cards, and secret projects that allow for the construction of super star destroyers, death stars (yes, you can have up to 2 out at a time), and, of course, firing the death star so as to destroy planets. Rebellion captures the feel of the Rebellion through necessitating guerrilla tactics, providing powerful leaders, and keeping the Rebel base hidden.
The game is played over a max of 13 (most games last between 6-10) rounds, which each consist of 3 phases: command phase, action phase, and reset phase. In the command phase, players will assign leaders to missions (cards) until both players have passed. In the action phase, players will execute missions via assigned leaders and oppose missions or move troops via the leaders still left in their pool (read: the leaders not assigned to missions). In the reset phase, players will retrieve all their leaders, draw 2 new mission cards, recruit a new leader (during the first 4 rounds), build units according to what planets are loyal to them (every even round), and the Imperial player will draw 2 probe droid cards (thus confirming that the Rebel base is not on either of those planets) while the Rebel player will draw a new objective card (these help the Rebel player gain reputation, which can end the game sooner).
So, leaders are used for moving troops, challenging your opponent’s missions, and performing your own missions. Each player will have specific mission cards available to them with specific conditions. Mission cards allow players to capture enemy leaders, gain loyalty in systems (which leads to more production), launch surprise attacks, blow up a planet with the Death Star, and many other things. Mission cards are one of my favorite parts about Star Wars Rebellion because they’re straightforward and thematic. Once you’ve assigned a leader to the mission in the command phase, all you do to attempt a mission in the action phase is say what the mission is, what system you’re attempting the mission in, and wait to see if your opponent sends a leader to challenge the mission. Some missions aren’t attempted, in which case they will be automatically resolved.
Here’s an example: the Rebel player wants to gain loyalty in Mon Calamari, so she sends Mon Mothma on that mission. The Imperial player challenges this with Emperor Palpatine. Because the mission is challenged, both players will count up the applicable mission icons on their leaders and roll that many dice. Each leader has 3 yellow icons, so each player rolls 3 dice. The Rebel player rolls a total of 4 successes, and the Imperial player rolls a total of 2. The mission succeeds! The Rebel player places a loyalty marker in Mon Calamari, and it’s now the Imperial player’s turn.
That action system is great! It’s fun, it’s tantalizing decision-making as far as when to attempt each mission, what leaders to send to challenge the opponent’s missions, and what leaders to save for moving your troops around. Sure, if a mission is challenged it’s somewhat luck-based on if you succeed or not, but assigning the right leader to the right mission can help mitigate the luck. While your options are limited based on what mission cards you have in your hand (you can hold up to 10), you will always have access to at least 4 missions (when these missions are attempted they go back in your hand), so there is some consistency. Moreover, the constraint of only have at most 10 missions in your hand helps narrow your focus. Sometimes, in large games, analysis paralysis sets in because there’s so many things a player could choose to do. Rebellion hits that happy medium by offering players a good number of choices while also not leaving so wide-open as to be daunting.
Simplistically, Rebellion makes for an excellent game of cat-and-mouse, and there’s usually many good options for what you should do on your turn. It’s all about executing a good strategy. As the Imperial, you could focus on building up your forces and stomping around the galaxy, or you could focus on projects and special cards that let you capture and interrogate Rebel leaders, thus leading you to the Rebel base cloak-and-dagger like. As the Rebels, you could focus on gaining loyalty in every system you can get your hands on, which allows you to build a force to be reckoned with, or you could focus on subversive tactics like sabotages and uprisings.
Something any successful Rebel player will need to do is keep the Empire guessing as to where the Rebel base is. Large-scale cat-and-mouse works incredibly well for the theme of this game. Assigning the leaders to missions and moving troops around the board is mechanically exciting and smooth, but the beautiful fact that it’s all in the name of a simple objective makes it incredibly appealing and an excellent manifestation of the Galactic Civil War. Designer Corey Konieczka absolutely crushed it.
Of course, eventually the Rebellion and Empire will need to actually fight and not just send leaders on missions. Combat works, even if it’s a bit too clunky and long for my tastes. After someone moves units into a system that contains enemy units (and the defender assigns a leader, if applicable, to the battle), combat takes place over rounds. A space round of combat happens first, then a ground combat round. First, players draw combat cards according to their leaders’ combat number (combat cards can provide special effects like extra hits or remove hits). During each combat round, the attacking player will gather the dice pertinent to their units (each unit provides a specific dice) and roll them. After seeing the hits available to them, they’ll assign hits to their opponent’s units (but no units are destroyed yet). The defender then rolls the dice and assigns hits as well, and the defender also has the option of removing hits from their units (if able). After the round, any units with damage on them equal to their health are destroyed, and damage remains on any units who are not yet destroyed. This cycle is repeated until someone retreats or all of a faction’s units in ground or space combat are removed.
The components are excellent, which is on-par with Fantasy Flight Games. The miniatures of the ships are so fun to look at and move around the board, the art on the cards is well-done (even if Fantasy Flight Games reuses some art pieces for their other Star Wars games), and the board is epic, well-marked, and clean. However, there aren’t enough dice, which is also unfortunately on-par with Fantasy Flight Games. The lack of dice makes combat even more clunky as players are having to take turns rolling in bigger battles instead of being able to each have their own dice to gather from. Even though extra dice aren’t technically necessary, this feels like a miss.
Star Wars: Rebellion could start to feel old for some around the 2-hour mark (what long game doesn’t run that risk?). Some tabletop games deserve that long of a playtime… To me, this is one of them, but if you’re not a big Star Wars fan, it may not be one to you. What’s particularly unfortunate is that the very mechanics that keep Rebellion exciting for 2 hours (secret missions, opposing said missions, and the Empire searching for the Rebel base) give way to clunky combat near the end.
The Achilles’ Heel of Rebellion is combat. Combat is fun the first few times, but it becomes a high-maintenance slugfest near the end of the game. The end of our games were essentially the Empire positioning troops around the galaxy so it could attack the Rebel base, while also setting itself up to attack new planets, should the Rebel base successfully move. When the end game is essentially moving troops around and fighting each other, the combat needs to either be interesting or quick. In the endgame, when 2 fully-realized factions are going at it, it’s neither. Rebellion is at its best when the threat of combat is ever-present, but the actual fighting of combat is kept to a minimum (thus the clunkiness is kept to a minimum).
Designer Corey Konieczka tried to make combat interesting by adding combat cards to the mix, but often they only add a luck element to combat; rarely are there interesting decisions to make with those cards. Moreover, sometimes dice allow you to draw new combat cards mid-battle, which can slow the battle down even more. If combat isn’t going to be interesting, it needs to be a quick resolution like the mission cards are, and perhaps that’s why combat feels so clunky because of how clean and fun the mission card resolution is.
Despite the clunky combat, Rebellion is the most mechanically-sound Star Wars game out there. It’s the best Star Wars grand strategy game, and it’s my favorite 2-player grand strategy game. In short, Rebellion is a great game that suffers (only slightly) from clunky combat. Were I reviewing it alone, I would give it a 9/10… however, I am not reviewing it alone, so you’ll have to keep reading (or just lightspeed-skip to the end of the article for my final score).
Star Wars: Rebellion – Rise of the Empire Expansion Review
Rise of the Empire adds a few new heroes, mainly from Rogue One (although Jabba the Hutt is graciously included as well). New leaders means more of a pool to choose from, and some leaders have minor skills, which allow them to roll a green dice instead of a normal dice. Rise of the Empire also adds some new units (Imperial tanks, TIE Strikers, U-Wings, etc.) and a new type of combat dice that the new units use. The new dice is a green dice that has a ⅓ chance of rolling a wild hit, which is a nice versatile tool for your army, even if it pays for its versatility with minimized effectiveness.
Rise of the Empire adds new mission and objective cards as well. The new mission cards offer some exciting gameplay mechanics, though nothing too crazy as to be unfamiliar. The same can be said for the new objective cards. The main benefit of these new cards is that players have more of a say as to what cards are in their mission decks at the beginning of the game (players can choose to use the ones from Rise of the Empire and the leader-specific mission cards from the base game or all the cards from the base game). Moreover, more Rebel objective cards means less predictability from game to game, which can make for some exciting bluffs for experienced players.
Rise of the Empire also adds “cinematic combat,” which helps mitigate some luck from the base game. Cinematic combat replaces tactic cards with faction-specific cards that each player has full access to. The catch is that you can only play each card once. When all the cinematic combat cards have been played, that player will get them all back into their hands. This creates exciting, back-and-forth, secretive card play similar to what you see in Ankh (review here) or Unmatched as players secretly choose which bonus they will get for the upcoming battle.
Is Star Wars: Rebellion a good game without this expansion? No. It’s a great game without this expansion. However, the combat isn’t as good as it could be. Rise of the Empire makes Rebellion a superb game because it makes combat more interesting and adds further customized ways to play (letting players have more of a say as to which mission and objective cards will show up in their decks).
If your mind can grapple with the advanced rules, if your wallet can handle the payout for both the base game and ideally the expansion, and if your cheeks can suffer through the 2-3 hour playtime, you will be rewarded with the greatest Star Wars experience on tabletop. I think I like Outer Rim and Rebellion about the same, and Imperial Assault holds a special place in my heart, but I haven’t played a Star Wars game that’s mechanically better than Rebellion, nor have I played a Star Wars game that captures the intergalactic struggles between the Empire and the Rebellion better than Rebellion. Credit designer Corey Konieczka with a masterpiece that even non-Star Wars fans can enjoy.
Fantasy Flight Games (Asmodee North America) kindly provided review copies.
The Bottom Line
If you like Star Wars and your wallet can handle it (and you have someone to play it with), Rebellion is a no-brainer.