Posted on Thursday, April 14th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
There’s no need to bury the lede here – designer Corey Konieczka‘s Star Wars: Rebellion is the best Star Wars board game ever made and a complete triumph on every level. It’s rare to find a tabletop experience that is this rich in theme while supplying gamers with genuinely compelling and balanced mechanics that enhance and support that theme every step of the way. Star Wars: Rebellion isn’t just an effective Star Wars simulator. It’s a surprisingly elegant and complex experience where each and every one of your decisions carries weight and feels important. It’s an excellent game beyond its theme. This is a game of desperation and strategy, of giant battles and skillful detective work, of hope and luck.
And it’s also a game where Darth Vader can abduct Mon Mothma and freeze her in carbonite after using the Death Star to blow up Naboo.
Star Wars: Rebellion is the fourth Star Wars game published by Fantasy Flight Games, following X-Wing Minatures Game, Star Wars: Armada, and Star Wars: Imperial Assault, each of which are also excellent. Like those games (and like many other flagship FFG games), it looks intimidating on first glance. The box is huge, the two rule books potentially intimidating, and the $99 price tag steep. Although the game isn’t nearly as rules-complex or brain-burning as other popular games, it’s not an experience you step into lightly. There’s some level of commitment involved here.
But it’s worth it. The appeal of Star Wars: Rebellion is immediately recognizable as soon as you open the box, unfold the two gigantic game boards that you place side-by-side to create a map of the Star Wars universe, and start sorting through the mountain of plastic figures and cards that come with the game. This is the original Star Wars movie trilogy transformed into a sandbox. The elements are familiar – the planets include Coruscant and Tatooine, the characters include Boba Fett and Han Solo – but you’re not beholden to the films in any way. Unless you want to be. This is your chance to rewrite the plot of the original films as you see fit. This is your chance to correct the mistakes that the Rebel Alliance made during their war against the Empire…or your chance to actually crush the rebellion under the Imperial boot and keep the galaxy in line.
Two to four players take control of the Rebels and the Imperials and they go to war, battling for the hearts and minds of their war-torn galaxy. While the game may initially look like a “dudes on a map” war game that’s all about throwing one army at another and decimating your opponent’s units and taking over planets so you can build more armies to toss at your opponent, the actual game couldn’t be more different. The masterstroke of Star Wars: Rebellion is that it’s asymmetric – both sides of the conflict play differently from one another and win the game in completely different ways. While the Imperials have all of the resources in the universe and can build giant armies of unstoppable ships and walkers and troops and even up to two Death Stars, they can only win the game in one way: by finding the secret Rebel base and destroying it. And that is much easier said than done. Meanwhile, the Rebels are on the ropes from turn one, fighting tooth and nail to hold on to every resource, losing every single battle, constantly fleeing and hiding in the shadows and performing quick guerrilla attacks because that is all they’re capable of doing. But as long as they hold on, as long as they last long enough and wait the Empire out, they win the game. All they have to do is survive.
It’s one of the most thrilling games of tug-of-war I’ve ever seen on my table. The Empire player always looks like the clear winner…until they don’t. The Rebel player always looks doomed…until they don’t. Everything else in the game, from the plastic components on the board to the cards in your hand to the cardboard “leaders” who drive each and every one of your actions, backs up this dynamic.
As you’d expect from Fantasy Flight Games, whose work often feels like the board game industry’s equivalent to glossy Hollywood blockbusters, the components that come in Star Wars: Rebellion‘s mammoth box are top-notch. You can feel your guilt for dropping a hundred bucks on a single board game melt away as soon as you start placing your units on the map. Yes, you got what you paid for.
The stars of the show are the tiny plastic X-Wings, TIE Fighters, Mon Calamari Cruisers, Star Destroyers, Airspeeders, AT-AT Walkers and so, so much more that players can field and lead into battle. Although the sculpts aren’t as intricate as what you’ll find in FFG’s X-Wing and Armada, they’re a few steps above most comparable war games. There is no mistaking what any of these pieces are meant to represent and they hold up to scrutiny. They’re perfect for your bird’s eye view of this galactic conflict. Maneuvering a fleet of X-Wings and Y-Wings into battle against a Star Destroyer looks and feels dramatic because the representation of what’s happening is so very clear. The component quality means there’s nothing abstract going on, which means that every movement of your armies and fleets is inherently cinematic and exciting.
The component quality extends to the other aspects of the game as well. The giant board(s) require a sizable table, but it’s worth the effort. This sprawling representation of the Star Wars universe depicts 32 planets, from Geonosis and Mandalore to Alderaan and Bespin. The size of the board gives you a thematic rush (look at the size of the galaxy you get to conquer/liberate!), but it also serves a utilitarian purpose. With plastic components as large and detailed as what you’re given in the box, the amount of space you’re given means your fleets have room to breathe. Unlike so many other war games, the Star Wars: Rebellion map never feels crowded or over-stuffed. It’s just the right size.
Even more valuable than the board and your plastic units are your leaders. These standees (constructed from thick, glossy cardboard) play a major role in every turn you take and you’ll be looking at them a lot. So thankfully, they’re lovely, with each of them depicting a major or minor character from the Star Wars universe. And these aren’t cheap-looking photos, but gorgeous illustrations. The effect is not only pleasing to look at, but thematically satisfying. When you pick up the Admiral Ackbar standee to send him on a secret mission, you aren’t just placing a piece on the board…you’re sending Admiral Ackbar on a secret mission.