Review—Star Wars: Imperial Assault

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).

 

Hello Geeklies, and welcome to part two of the tabletop Star Wars GET HYPE GOT HYPE train! (I hope you got hype for Star Wars.) Make sure you check out part one (Star Wars: Armada) if you haven’t already seen it. In this installment, I’ll review Star Wars: Imperial Assault, Fantasy Flight’s tactical miniature combat board game.

What Star Wars: Armada does for your childhood Lego Star Destroyer space battles, Imperial Assault does for your old Kenner action figures: it gives you a ruleset, an playfield, and a variety of missions to bring the dramatic struggles of individual rebel troops to life. It’s a good thing, too, especially if your parents passed on the chance to buy the Death Star playset the one time (the only time) you saw it in that toy store in Edina, and yes, I’m totally over that now, why would you ask?

Imperial Assault can be played in two different modes: a campaign mode, with successive missions that advance a progressive storyline (all covered in the included Campaign Guide, which covers ten missions); and a skirmish mode, in which two players each build their own squads and square off against each other. The two modes use the same basic mechanical rules to govern actions and combat, though each mode has its own twists to provide the appropriate flavor and depth.

Terrain grid tiles, from Fantasy Flight’s promo art

Both modes also use the same terrain tiles to make the maps on which you play. Each tile is divided into one inch squares, which the game uses to measure movement and distance during play. The base game includes over fifty of these tiles, which range from large hangars and open fields to small connecting pieces; both sides of each tile are illustrated, so you can depict a lot of different environments right out of the box. Each scenario gives a list of the required tiles and a picture showing how they are assembled, and I have to be honest, I was surprised at how quickly the whole thing came together:

A skirmish map, assembled.

As nice as the tiles look, mechanically relevant markings on them can be hard to see, particularly the thin red lines which block movements between squares (which are also different from dashed red lines, which block movement, but not line of sight). Some of that can be intuited from the map itself—it makes sense that you can’t run through a spaceship, after all—but some squinting is required.

You also may need to be creative with how you pack the game, as the box doesn’t have any particular space to put map tiles in. (I wound up snapping them back into the punch sheets and stacking the sheets at the top of the box.) A card catalog or drawer (if you keep the game at home) or a caddy case (if you want to travel with it) might help.

Source: Fantasy Flight Games

A tactical minis game isn’t much without minis, and Imperial Assault comes with a variety of nice-looking molded plastic figurines. As with Armada, the level of detail is pretty impressive:

Also included are cardboard tokens to represent doors, equipment crates, consoles, deployment points, and units whose plastic figures aren’t included in the base game.  The components scale well, and altogether they occupy space on the board nicely when the full skirmish or campaign mission is laid out:

 

During actual gameplay, players take turns commanding individual units in their squad, one at a time, until each unit in each player’s squad has had a go. Then the round ends, secondary objectives are checked, and players pass the initiative token, which indicates the player whose squad has the chance to act first in the next round.

Each turn, your unit has the choice of two out of four actions: move, attack, rest (i.e., recover hit points and stress tokens), and interact (a slush category for opening doors, picking up items, and using consoles). Normally you’ll be moving and attacking, but sometimes objectives require you to interact, as well—my skirmish allowed players to score bonus points by picking up crates and carrying them back to their deployment zones.

The combat plays out like you might expect from a grid-based minis game; if you have played Fire Emblem, 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Final Fantasy Tactics, you’ll be familiar with moving your units to positions where they can attack or avoid fire. Even if you’re new to the genre, things are pretty intuitive. Like Dungeons and Dragons, there are a number of rules that govern movement around corners and through difficult terrain or having line of sight to aim a shot. These can get fiddly, but thankfully Fantasy Flight included a well-indexed, illustrated Rules Reference Guide that explains various situations; it never took me more than a minute or two to look up a rule I was unsure of. (And, like Armada, if you’re just playing with friends you can keep things moving by agreeing on a ruling, then looking it up later.

The attacks themselves are resolved with brightly colored dice, and these are among my favorite parts of the game. Each unit has a certain combination of dice specified in their attack pool, and each die has a unique assortment of damage, numbers, or “surge” symbols (the small lightning bolts) on each face. The red die, for example, has lots of damage markers on it, but is generally reserved for heavy artillery or close-quarters weapons. Other dice include “accuracy” numbers that allow attacks to hit from a greater number of squares away.

Players defend with the white or black dice (rarely, both), and again, each one’s a little different: the black die has more triangular “block” icons, which means characters that use it have a greater chance of negating damage; the white die has a greater chance of negating special abilities, but it also has a few blank faces. Of course, it also has a single face, shown below, which represents a “dodge”—all incoming damage is negated.

Pictured: A swing and a miss from Darth Vader, and one lucky Rebel Saboteur.

The small lightning bolt/squiggle symbols are “surges,” which characters can cash in for a variety of effects, depending on their character cards and equipment. I like this mechanic a lot, as it conserves game components while allowing for lots and lots of texture in card and character development. Surge abilities might “pierce” damage, negating some of a defender’s blocks, they might add extra damage to the attack, they might stun the defender, or they might have even crazier abilities. For the player, it allows you to customize tactics on the fly; many characters have several different surge abilities, and you can pick what’s best for a given situation.

That’s the basics of gameplay. As I mentioned earlier, there are really two different game modes available: skirmish mode (PvP squad combat) and campaign mode. It’s worth briefly running down the differences.

In skirmish mode, players assemble their own squads of several units to do battle against their opponents. “Units” can be individual fighters, prominent characters from the Star Wars universe, or squads of several weak troopers (i.e., three Stormtroopers: each moves and acts independently, but they all take their turn at the same time). Each unit has a point cost, and players build their squads to a pre-agreed total—usually 40 points, at least for the skirmishes in the base game. To add to the customizability, several units have “elite” versions which cost more, but come with better stats or more abilities. You can also use unit points to buy cards that affect your whole team or give you certain bonuses.

Pictured: my skirmish squad. Below the art on each card is the unit’s static abilities and the surge abilities it can activate when it attacks. Note that because the “Rebel Saboteurs” card has two bars in the upper left corner, it represents two individual figures.

In addition, each player assembles a “command deck” of fifteen command cards that they can use to influence the course of battle. These cards might give a specific unit better abilities, or they might just add a bonus to attack or defense. As with Armada, there’s a lot of customization to be done here, and experimenting with different combinations (or doing your best to pick the perfect squad for a particular skirmish mission) could take two players quite a while. Additional unit booster packs (“Ally Packs” or “Villain Packs”) come with additional command cards, if you so desire. They also include molded plastic figures for units that only have cardboard tokens in the base game and extra missions for the skirmish mode and campaign mode.

In the campaign mode, each player takes control of an individual Rebel hero, and a team of several players faces off against a single player who controls the Imperial forces and the mission rules—essentially, a DM. The player characters have a little more nuance than the units from the skirmish mode:

Here, my character, Jyn Odan, has a special blaster equipped, which gives her surge abilities to use when she attacks; that blaster, in turn, has a scope equipped that gives her attacks a permanent +2 accuracy bonus, which allows her to attack more reliably from further away. She also has a stress ability (at the upper right of her character card) which she can use at the cost of suffering stress tokens. Characters can have stress tokens equal to their endurance, but when they take the rest action to heal, stress is healed before damage is.

Other characters have different abilities, stat values, and equipment. The characters from the base game fall pretty neatly into established D&D roles (melee fighter, melee striker, ranged support, shifty rogue), though that’s more an implicit connection than anything that’s directly stated. But D&D is a pretty reasonable analogy for how the campaign missions play out: each player takes turns taking actions, and the team works together to try to complete a mission before they are all injured, or before a set number of turns expire. The Imperial player controls the enemies, explains twists in the mission caused by character actions, and deploys new foes according to the “threat level” counter, which increases over the course of the mission.

Whereas a game like D&D would include skill sets, lots of out-of-combat exploration, and some more open-ended options for problem solving, Imperial Assault eschews most of that, keeping the focus more squarely on combat. This has pros and cons: newer players will have an easier time learning the game (with fewer options), and the streamlined system makes choices easier, so the action keeps moving forward. On the other hand, at one point I was disappointed that I wanted to try to hack a locked door, rather than break it down (being a rogue and all), and was told, “you can’t.”

Fantasy Flight did take care to include the best part of an ongoing role-playing game campaign, though—leveling and experience. At the end of our campaign mission, our team was awarded credits to buy equipment, and each character got experience to purchase permanent new abilities. As you can see, they give you plenty of choices:

I picked the “Get Cocky” upgrade, and my team pooled money so that I could get a more damaging blaster. My hope is that I’ll be able to use Jyn’s “Quick Draw” ability to take out enemies—especially weaker troops—and then immediately refresh the strain she suffers. The larger point is that, again, there are lots of exciting options and lots of ways to build a character that suits your playstyle.

Personally, I like this “D&D Lite” approach, as I had an enjoyable time with several friends who I doubt would ever have tried a role-playing campaign on their own. It did seem a bit complex for some—I had to remind a few teammates of abilities they had—but most enjoyed their experience and seemed to participate fully. Depending on the playgroup, the Imperial player/DM could take a more collaborative or a more antagonistic stance (i.e., they could actively try to “win,” or just help the players enjoy their adventure). With ten missions in the base game, and more in the expansion sets and character packs, a group could keep a weekly campaign going for a good long while before getting bored—at which point, I assume, they’d start creating their own missions. It’s a little thinner than D&D—you don’t get the hilarious situations that arise from trying to negotiate with the local authorities, say—but you also don’t have the aimless wandering that can sometimes happen.


 

Imperial Assault makes both miniature combat games and ongoing role-play campaigns simpler and more accessible to a wider audience. Plus, in a sense, you get two games in one: if you can see your playgroup enjoying either the skirmish mode or the campaign mode on a regular basis, you can consider the other mode a “bonus” that adds value, when you happen to bust it out. It does run the risk of not being able to please everyone, all of the time—it’s not the most sophisticated combat system out there, nor the deepest role-playing—but it strikes a good balance that many players will like.

Pros: An accessible miniatures combat game; Star Wars IP and flavor; quality plastic miniatures and map tiles; good dice/combat mechanics; deep customizability; two play modes in the same game

Cons: Some may find the mechanics too complex, others too simple—one size may not fit all; component storage a concern; higher than average initial cost

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