Thuloid Speaks: Star Wars: Imperial Assault: Attack of the Colons: A Review

Nothing serious is in this box.

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
-Milton, Paradise Lost

There are war games and there are board games; so we have been told. Some gamers use tape measures and push regiments through carefully built farms and woods; others move their men on printed squares. War games are redolent with history; if they must involve the fantastical, then let it be “hard” sci-fi, a military simulation, not pulp silliness from the mind of a toymaker with a camera.

Perhaps I once fancied myself a serious person. I cannot now. O tempora, o mores, when wargamers plummet from lofty heights to fiddle at a board game with the children, and worse, at a Star Wars board game. Since I am bereft of shame, I’ll tell you my filthy secret: this game is fun. Now you can mock poor Thuloid, happily reigning in Hell.

Yes, it’s true–I, Thuloid, sprang for Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Imperial Assault. Having seen the box on the shelf at my FLGS, I attempted to lift it, only to realize it must be filled with slices of bowling balls or a collection of small gravitational anomalies. Such is the way of so many Fantasy Flight products. Then I remembered that Thuloid’s wife had purchased him a gift card to same FLGS, in an amount ($100 American) that would cover the purchase and allow him to see what madness was crammed into that weighty rectangular prism. It was destiny.

This is pretty much all of it. Trust me, it’s more than enough

So, first off, what was in that box? A lot. Cardboard sheets with tiles and tokens to punch out? Oh, many. And cards. So many cards. Seriously, how are there this many different decks of cards involved in a miniatures/board game? I count twelve card decks, and that’s if you collapse all the different character cards into one deck (even though it’s really six different ones). More on that later. Oh, what else? Miniatures. Pre-assembled (aside from the AT-ST), rather nice looking 28mm miniatures. And four(!) rulebooky things. Oh, and because it’s a FFG Star Wars product, strange proprietary dice.

Let’s take a closer look at the contents. There are terrain tiles (heaped up at the bottom of your picture). Lots of them. They are quite thick and the quality is good, though I do wonder about fraying around the connecting edges over time. Is there something I could spray them with to limit that?  You have enough terrain tiles there to make some very large maps–far larger than are used in any of the 30 missions that come in the campaign book.

The four rulebooks make things sound worse than they are. One is called “Learn to Play”, and I’ll get into that one in a moment. One is the campaign guide, which is all missions. One is a rules reference guide–very handy. Simply a rules glossary. The last is a thin booklet, the skirmish guide. This is the counterpart to the campaign guide–it details how to assemble teams and play skirmish games against another player.

There are some stickers for differentiating miniatures from one another (I won’t use mine, as I intend to paint the figures), a good number of counters (though in fact, fewer than in many FFG products–aside from health and stamina tokens, I didn’t feel overwhelmed by them), a turn/threat tracker, and a lot of cards. Let’s look more closely at those cards:
The biggest reason for there being so many cards is that Imperial Assault is, in fact, two different games in one. Some of these cards are only for campaign games, and are used to build up the mission structure. Some cards are only for skirmish games, and are used to build a team and take actions within a skirmish. Some detail the units that will show up in either kind of game. And then you have items, hero upgrades, and other absurdities. It’s a lot to digest, if you’re like me and want to understand the whole game before you begin.

There are six heroes included in the game, though campaign play maxes out at four. They do play quite differently, and each have their own deck of possible upgrades and items. You have an old man general guy with beard, a smuggler, a Bothan (arch enemies of the Eithors, I assume) sniper, a Wookiieeeeiee, a soldier type with a rifle, and a female Jedi with head tentacles who somehow escaped from SinSynn’s dungeon.

In order for these guys to hit enemies (and vice versa), they have to roll dice. The dice system has some traits in common with that of the FFG’s newish Star Wars RPGs, though is simplified. Even so, the dice look like this:

Underneath is my cheat sheet to remember what’s on each kind of die.

Why six kinds of dice? Black and white are defense, either armored or unarmored. Red is pure damage, but contributes little else.  Blue is great for hitting things at range. Yellow triggers special abilities. Green is balanced. Nowhere in the rules is this explained, mind you–you just need to take a close look at which symbols are on which. Different attacks roll dice in different combinations, and so a fair amount of the game’s tactical depth comes from understanding which dice help you in which situations.

Ok, enough about that. I’m assuming you’d like to see the figures. Very well.

Lord Vader and a very handsome wizard square off. Wizard not included. Why is there a plague monk in the picture? Perhaps the End Times really are upon us.

Aside from a mildly flaccid lightsaber (to be corrected in the usual way–just apply heat), you can see that Vader looks pretty good. His cape is very well done. We’re talking similar in scale to 90s Games Workshop guys, thicker than Infinity models, but less chunky than GW.

AT-ST, a Rebel hero, and some very WIP Infinity guys from Icestorm

The AT-ST walker is really quite lovely. It comes unassembled, and snaps together. I may glue it, though it’s hardly necessary. I cleaned the mold lines, but they were easy to handle. The plastic is soft, but still has good detail. One word of warning–the front cannon on my walker required some shaving down to snap into its slot properly. For anyone who is used to minis, this is not much trouble.

Let’s look again at that walker, and get a better sense of its size:

Oh, hello there Mr. Abomination. You are not included in the Star Wars: Empire vs. Rats expansion.

Quite tall, and I think an impressive centerpiece for the game. I honestly didn’t expect a figure this good. Some more figures? Sure.

Farm boy Luke, dear old Dad, a space Nazi and a lizard with a shotgun.

The detail on these guys is fairly crisp. Luke looks softer in this picture than I think he is–the sandy-colored plastic makes it harder to see. The Trandoshan and the stormtrooper look very nice. Again, there are mold lines, but easily correctable. A quick google search will show how nicely they paint up.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the figures. The sculpts are good, the posing is mostly nice, and there is a fair range of models in the starter box. 36 in total, including probe droids, Imperial officers and more.

That’s enough on box contents–how does this thing play?

First off, as you may have noticed, the game has a lot in common with Descent. That is not a bad thing. Descent with Star Wars guys would be (is, in fact), a fun game. Imperial Assault, in campaign mode, details the adventures of a small group of Rebel operatives on Yavin IV immediately following the destruction of the Death Star. Heroes grow through a basic experience system (there is also a parallel system for the Imperial player) and exercise some control in the missions they take on. Interestingly, game units are limited to a specific time period, designated by a number, which I assume means we can eventually expect expansions into different parts of the timeline.

The good news is that the rules are not terribly complicated, but still give some depth. The bad news is that setup can be a little slower than you’d like. Setting up the board properly can be mildly tedious, as every tile has a number on it, but it’s printed small and in the corner. Even a simple map like this can take a few minutes to get right.

IG-88 is in this mission, but the box only has a counter for him. Luckily, FFG will sell you an IG-88 expansion pack.

It wasn’t too much trouble for me to get the first mission going with a random group (my wife and two guys I’ve never gamed with before) at the FLGS one night. “Not too much” meaning that I almost pulled my hair out looking for the “Legendary” upgrade cards. The rules state that if fewer than 4 heroes, each hero gets a “Legendary” upgrade card. I took that to mean they selected a card out of the deck of Legendary upgrades, which I assumed to exist since there appeared to be multiple tiers of item upgrades. No, it turns out there’s a specific upgrade called “Legendary,” which it took me 10 minutes of thumbing through cards to realize. Also, if there are 3 players, it’s not a “Legendary” upgrade, but a “Heroic” one. So I’m a dumbass.

The mission played well–I don’t think we made too many mistakes. Most questions were resolved quickly. It was a lot of fun for everyone involved. The intro mission was just the right challenge for the group–it requires attention to the mission objectives rather than mindlessly gunning down stormtroopers, and can legitimately be won by the Imperial player (a result which is not catastrophic to the campaign, merely different and fun). Our rebel heroes blew up the last communications console (their objectives) on their last move of the final turn. Then things started to go sideways.We had enough time left to try one more mission, we thought. A full campaign will run anywhere from 10-14 missions in total, out of 30 in the box (plus two from the Vader and Luke “expansions, also in the starter box), which means that successive campaigns are unlikely to look very much alike. If you purchase further expansions (they start at about $10), more missions still.

So I attempted to piece together how to get from Mission 1 to whichever mission follows it–and I hit a wall. The system of constructing a mission deck and what have you was just too much for my brain to process at the same time as learning to GM a (simple) new system. The Learn to Play book gets you from opening the box to playing with figures pretty well. It does not give you the same help in getting from just starting to moving through a campaign. Those rules are present, and clear enough once you devote time to them, but I do feel this portion of the rules could have been organized much better.

Why is it called Imperial Assault, when the Rebels are doing much of the assaulting? Because back in 1993, this rail shooter was the awesome.

So, failing to run a second campaign mission, we decided to give skirmish mode a try. In this mode, two players battle against each other on a pre-set map. Skirmish games have missions, team upgrades and other wrinkles to put into play (and again, more of these are provided in every expansion), and there is a significant list-building component, but at bottom it’s about killing your opponent. Obviously there are only so many list options in the starter box, but there are three factions, not two, as the bounty hunters are open for play. The Learn to Play book suggests a pair of starting forces, which we used.

Skirmish mode was also a lot of fun, but it required much more from a starting player than the campaign. I’m glad we tried it second. My team had Vader on it, and he’s a murder machine whom my opponents didn’t figure out how to counter until too late. In the end, every model but Vader died, as he force choked the smuggler off the table. The two game modes were very different, and I think appeal to slightly different crowds. I am curious to see if FFG puts out enough material for skirmish mode that it can take off in its own right.

With two distinct play modes, nice miniatures and a big pile of cardboard, Imperial Assault has a lot to offer for the price. It isn’t a real war game, it isn’t a real RPG, but it’s potentially hundreds of hours of fun in that box. The proof was in that night with randoms (and the wife, who doesn’t do this kind of gaming, but is a Star Wars fan) at the store. Everyone was sold on the game. Find someone who has a copy and give it a try.

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