"Imperial forces have entered the base…"
I vividly remember watching The Empire Strikes Back a few years ago, with an adult who had never seen any of the Star Wars films. They were genuinely shocked to discover that Darth Vader was Luke's dad. There was a sharp intake of breath, a sudden jolt backwards, and an involuntary: "no way!" I think it's probably easy to forget just how good that story is. And Star Wars: Imperial Forces is the same - pretty awesome.
What Actually Is It?!
Having never played a campaign-style board game before but loving Star Wars, this was a no brainer for me. Star Wars: Imperial Assault isn't cheap to invest in (at full whack it can go for £100). But if you can get your hands on a copy in the sale it's well worth it.
The box says it's a tactical miniatures campaign board game. You play a series of 'missions' and the outcome of each mission determines (sort of) what happens next. Think Godtear or Warhammer, but with a self-contained and overarching story. You play by moving miniatures around a board, taking actions and trying to defeat your opponent.
The campaign element makes it sort of like an RPG. You'll level up Rebel characters whilst the Imperials will get more, and better, reinforcements as the war rages. The map changes each mission by combining tiles to create a board (a tiny bit like legend of Dr'izzit). After a set number of missions, you'll reach the end of a predetermined story. Then you can choose to play skirmish missions (one-off battles). Or you can work through the campaign again by swapping roles, changing characters, or taking a different approach.
Or, you can buy an expansion.
Unboxing The Beast
This is probably the largest game box that sits on my shelf. Opening up the chunky behemoth promises something special, and it doesn't disappoint. There are a bewildering array of bits of cardboard, stickers, bases, board pieces, rules books, cards, and figurines. Skip over everything else and get stuck into the figures - they're going to be the most exciting, and least intimidating, part of setting up. Mostly everything is put together but the real joy is in constructing the AT-ST (mildly unclear instructions aside). It sits next to the rebel forces in a pleasingly menacing way.
After that though, you might find yourself needing a lie down in a darkened room. There are multiple rule books, a skirmish book, tokens, stickers, and a lot to process. Not only that, but you really shouldn't read through the campaign booklet unless you're going to be controlling the Imperial forces. Star Wars: Imperial Assault is a game that can only really be played against someone who is willing to strap in for the long haul. Knowing what will happen in the missions will ruin some of the fun for the Rebels, so you need to avoid this if possible. This does detract from the replayability slightly and means that if you don't have people to play with regularly then it's going to be an uphill struggle. The good news is that there is an app that you can play against - if you like that sort of thing.
How Much Time Do I Need To Play?
Well, each mission can take a different length of time. But combining set-up and set-down you probably need at least 90 minutes per mission. But that doesn't tell the whole tale of commitment.
Case in point: I started the campaign with friends and got through two (perhaps three?) missions before COVID hit. When we finally got to pick up where we'd left off, no one could track down exactly where we were, who had what, or what we needed to do next…
This is a game that takes concentration over a period of time, and you need to wrap your head around the rules to avoid drowning in game pieces. But it's worth it. We found ourselves trying to arrange the next game night well ahead of schedule so that we could carry on. In fact, although coming back to the game took a few minutes of concentration and rule reading, it actually became incredibly straightforward. The rules make sense (even though there are a few of them) and once you grasp them then you'll be good to go. If you've never played a complex CCG or a game that has multiple rules to balance, then grab yourself someone who has. Or prepare for a few minutes of head-scratching and rule checking.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault gives the Imperial player a choice of three ways to play. It ranges from straightforward to dastardly with a midway point somewhere in between. The Rebel player will always control at least two heroes depending on how many people are playing, with scope for a team of four to take on the Imperials. If there are less than three Rebel players then the heroes get a boost to their stats.
Rebels can choose from wookies, smugglers, jedi, snipers, and more. Add-ons, expansions, and other sets add a larger variety. Say you have a favourite jetpack-wearing, armoured bounty hunter that you want in the mix. Just for instance.
There's an introductory mission to help you figure out the basic game mechanics and it's worth playing that. Not to mention some useful tutorial videos that can be found online.
The mission will dictate what the playing board looks like and it will take the Imperial player a little while to set that up. It's made of numbered tiles that need to be slotted together like a jigsaw. Time enough for the Rebels to sort out their upgrades, fetch drinks, or set up some kind of atmospheric background music. The Imperials act as a sort of DM for the campaign so they do need to be on the ball. We also ended up writing down a whole host of notes before we packed away. A way to store things that you need (as opposed to things that you might use, won't use, or are for different missions) are a great idea.
How Does It Play?
Surprisingly seamlessly. Players take turns to 'activate' a character (although in the Imperial player's case a character can actually be a whole squad). That character can take a series of two basic actions: move, attack, rest, or interact. Movement can be split on either side of another action. Your character determines how far you can move, what kind of attack you can make, or any other special abilities you have. That's for both the Rebels and the Imperials, with the one key difference being that the Imperials can only attack once.
The Rebels can 'rest' (heal) whilst the Imperials can get reinforcements at the end of each round. Turns alternate between Rebel and Imperial players, and the movement/reinforcement aspect of the game makes it feel a little as if you're facing waves of a gigantic, galactic war machine bent on your obliteration. Which you are. Assuming you're the Rebels of course. Otherwise, you're throwing your military might at crushing the scum hellbent on destroying the galactic order. Those resources aren't completely endless - so there's a certain amount of tactical thinking. The Rebels absolutely have to talk to each other. In the meantime, surprise actions (dictated by the mission and unbeknownst to the Rebels) will occur and add an extremely pleasing amount of frenetic pressure to things. Not to mention the various equipment cards you can collect, and the fact that the missions have only a certain number of turns before the Rebels lose.
Star Wars. Really that: crank up a playlist for atmosphere. Watch the Imperial player slap down an AT-ST, or a squad of stormtroopers. Jump your Rebel forces around the game board and enjoy! It's an addictive game, and the chance to replay it but switch roles, change play style or throw in an expansion is fantastic. Once you wrap your head around the initial rules and components you'll be laughing. Or crying - depending on which way your mission is going. But either way, that kind of emotional intensity is great.
A (very) minor one: If you lose all of your missions then this can feel a little depressing. It might seem like the Imperials have a slight advantage: each mission they get stronger and stronger, whether they win or not, in a way that the Rebels don't. Perhaps, at the beginning of the campaign, there's a slight tilt towards the Rebels. But this seems to soon balance out, and then perhaps even begins to tilt the other way. I actually think that adds a great edge to Star Wars: Imperial Assault
, but you might not like that level of fighting against the odds. It isn't unbalanced, but a series of missions that turn out badly might sour your playing slightly. Fantasy Flight
have tried to mitigate this. Even if you lose, you still get credits to spend and experience to level up your characters. But, as you might expect from real life or any other role-playing game, victory does lead to larger rewards for your team.
A major one: The major downside is price. Assuming that you play the campaign three times, you'll end up with around 30 missions worth of gaming. And for £100, if you were to never pick it up again that's quite an expensive investment. As a game that combines miniatures, a board, a campaign, and a specialised theme this is a little bit niche. You might love that or hate it. In truth, I'm not sure how much I'll play it after working through the campaign a couple of times.
How Does The First Mission Play Out?
With the Emperor's throne room score playing in the background (interrupted only with an advert for 'Bodyform Ultra' in a display of google analytics thoroughly misreading the room), I'm happy to report that the Rebels triumphed. There were a few hairy moments, such as when my smuggler charged point-blank at the E-web engineer. They took around 10 points (out of 20) damage in one turn. That nearly resulted in a wounded character sheet, which isn't the end, per se, but your abilities get downgraded. It can even trigger the Imperial win conditions. With squads of stormtroopers closing in from either side there was an amount of buttock clenching nervousness, but we made it through just in time. I don't think the Imperials felt too bad about losing, but if they did they were willing to return and put us in our places. Apparently, (according to the side mission we picked) we'll next be heading to Tatooine to recruit Luke Skywalker. I suspect that we'll be meeting Darth Vader sooner than I'd bargained for.
After the mission, you gain experience points to spend on new abilities, and credits to spend on better weapons. Each character can take two weapons on each mission. You can choose ranged or melee in any combination you prefer - I bought a new blaster rifle. Assuming you have the credits, you'll get to buy better and better equipment as the campaign progresses. And since you won't have enough cash at first, you'll want to play the next mission so that you can afford the next upgrade. It's mildly addictive in a good way.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault is great. But it's not a casual game and requires some people to commit to it or have some serious flexibility. It's expensive, but you're paying for the franchise and that is a big draw. Fantasy Flight make some incredible games and have access to some amazing universes to pick from. If you're up for spending the money and can find people to play with, this certainly doesn't disappoint. It may not be the most replayable game in your collection, but you'll get a lot of games each playthrough even if you only repeat the campaign once or twice. The 'random' side mission deck does make things slightly different each time, and there are expansions for variety.
Would I use Star Wars: Imperial Assault to introduce someone to board games? Only if they really love Star Wars and might be willing to give it a shot. If they already love more involved games, campaigns, miniature games (Godtear is a 'basic' version to get into), or role-playing, then it's certainly worth taking a look at. If you don't love Star Wars then there are other, and cheaper, ways to play campaign games. But they won't be Star Wars.