In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
When I first decided to write about Star Wars board games, I tracked down a copy of 1977’s Star Wars: Escape From Death Star at a Chicago store. The staff had to get their ladder and tallest employee to pull the dust-covered box from a pile on top of a bookcase. They didn’t know the last time it had been played. Made by the now-defunct Kenner Products, which also held the licenses for the original Star Wars action figures, Escape From Death Star is a hideous mix of Candy Land and Sorry. The winner is the first person to maneuver your characters from the trash compactor into space via a spinner and random cards that constantly push you backward.
That was a dark time for America’s board gaming industry. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way. Numerous other companies have gotten hold of the Star Wars license over the years, including West End Games, Wizards Of The Coast, and Decipher. That power currently belongs to Fantasy Flight, which has used it to develop a variety of releases that capitalize on the many different sides of Star Wars, and board games in general, that people love.
Its newest is Star Wars: Armada, which emulates the series’ large-scale space battles. The starter kit pits an Imperial Star Destroyer and supporting TIE fighters against Rebellion crafts and their X-Wing escorts. Players choose the size of their play space, litter it with obstacles like asteroids and beneficial space stations, and then try to blow each other out of the sky over the course of six rounds.
Armada borrows many elements from Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game, which was devoted to dog fights between small ships. Both games involve dials that players secretly set and then reveal on their turns, and both are concerned with the physics of space flight, requiring complicated maneuvers to turn your ship around. In X-Wing, the dials indicate your ship’s movement. Plotting that out without knowing where your opponent’s ships will wind up can create some frustrating issues—from turns spent with crafts zipping just outside one another’s range to ships getting stuck in corners of the map where they can be shot repeatedly with stun attacks that prevent their escape.
Armada makes the dials less punishing. The number of command dials for each ship depends on its size, so the nimble Corellian Corvette has one while the ponderous Star Destroyer has a stack of three. A player piloting the latter has to choose a command—like altering navigation or making repairs—three rounds in advance of when it will actually take effect. They have the best effect if they’re relevant when they finally come into play, but if you don’t wind up in the situation you expected when you committed to the move two or three turns ago, you can instead take a token that offers a lesser version of the command to use at your leisure.
The hardest part of Armada proved to be moving figures around. In an attempt to emulate the openness of space, the game doesn’t take place on a grid and ships can move through one another freely. Unfortunately, the tools used to see where a ship can move or fire require straight lines. Every time we wanted to plot out a turn, we had to delicately remove figures from the map and replace them with tokens to mark where they’d been. The same was true when adjusting the shield dials on the side of a miniature. Even with the token system, the inability to quickly react to changes proved frustrating. A frontal assault by a Star Destroyer severely damaged one of my ships, and I didn’t have the maneuverability necessary to prevent it from drifting into the Imperial craft and blowing up. A turn later, that Star Destroyer faced the same problem and hit the border of the game table, meaning it blew up and unceremoniously ended the game.
Star Wars: Empire Vs. Rebellion is on the opposite end of the fiddly spectrum. It comes in a tiny box and you can get the gist of it in a few minutes. Its two decks have a base of identical cards that are then customized by adding characters from your chosen faction. The Rebellion is better at strengthening itself while the Empire specializes in attacking your opponent. Games play out like blackjack, with players trying to get as close to a number on an objective card as they can without going over.
The complexity comes from cards that let you take special actions, like looking at the next card in your deck or blowing up your opponent’s cards. There are also “strategy cards” that can change your final point total or make it so that the loser wins the match. That last one’s particularly fun since, like shooting the moon in the game hearts, you have to try to conceal what you’re doing until it’s too late for your opponent to make themselves lose. You can easily play a single round if you only have a few minutes or go for the full first-to-seven wins the game suggests. The full version shows off the ways the game tries to help the underdog, such as giving them wins on ties.
Star Wars: The Card Game is a more complicated way to pit Light Side and Dark Side decks against each other. The Light Side wins if it can destroy three of the Dark Side’s objective cards. The Empire has inevitability on its side, winning if its Death Star-shaped counter advances to 12 through a combination of turns ticking by and blowing up Rebel objectives. The starter set comes with four ready-made decks, but you can build your own. But the cards you can include are linked to the objectives, so you’re stuck picking cards six at a time. If you want Darth Vader’s ability to murder your enemy’s heroes, for example, you’re going to have to use the other five cards that come with him.
Games are fast and sometimes feel too unpredictable. In Magic: The Gathering and similar games, most cards can’t do much the first turn they come into play. That means you have time to react to what your opponent plays before it can do too much damage. That’s not the case here, and a good draw can devastate the game state. The same problem is found in “edge battles,” where players use cards from their hand to give advantage in combat. I found that the battle came down to who happened to have the most valuable cards in their hand, not to any sort strategy, and the advantage earned here could turn the course of the entire game.
Looking for something more cooperative? Star Wars: Imperial Assault is effectively a Star Wars themed version of Descent, where one player commands the Galactic Empire while the others, between one and four, have Rebellion characters trying to complete a variety of missions. The game is meant to be played as a campaign, involving multiple play sessions that build on each other. Your characters gain new abilities and their next quests are partially determined by how you did before. It’s got a great mix of tactics as you try to decide the correct order of actions to gain the most advantage, measure risks against rewards when looking for items, and choose when to push your character for an extra edge or rest up to get them in better shape for future turns.
Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars role-playing games take narrative and character building even further. They’ve divided the settings into three groups. Age Of Rebellion represents military-focused characters on the front lines of the battle against the Empire. Edge Of The Empire is devoted to those who live on the fringes of the galaxy. And Force And Destiny, which is scheduled to be released later this year, will give you the chance to play a Jedi. The Edge Of The Empire beginner game provides a nice introduction to the rules, even if the adventure is stuck on rails. It offers a tutorial on personal combat, chase scenes, social-based encounters, and space battles.
The most intriguing aspect in Edge Of The Empire is the way it encourages cooperative storytelling. When you roll dice, instead of just succeeding or failing, you can fail with advantage or succeed with threat, and the players and game master decide on the outcome together. As a result, you might succeed in convincing a guard you’re there to repair a ship only to have him pester you with questions about mechanics. Or you could fail to persuade a fence to let you have an item he’s promised to someone else but convince him to offer you some intel because he likes your moxie. Characters are extremely customizable, as experience points are used to buy or improve individual abilities rather than a earn you a whole set of stuff from leveling up. I’m hoping to play a campaign using the full rules set soon.
Part of what makes Star Wars such a juggernaut is that it can appeal to anyone. Little kids dream of fighting with lightsabers, teens can relate to the desire to leave their boring homes in search of grand adventure, and adults can dig into anything from the workings of alien societies to the operations of a galaxy-spanning navy. Fantasy Flight has succeeded in making the appeal of its Star Wars games just as broad, offering games designed for every sort of fan. It’s a strategy that should serve them well as interest in the series continues to grow leading up to the release of The Force Awakens, which promises to bring a new set of fans and players looking for a way to experience more of the world they love.