Uh oh. It’s the angry mob picture. That means that I’m about to issue forth with an unpopular opinion.
When I was in second grade, I had an Empire Strikes Back lunchbox. One of the right and proper ones made of metal with embossed images and a plastic thermos. On one side it Yoda and Luke. On the other it had Han, Chewbacca and C-3PO in the Falcon. Around the edges there were scenes from the film- Imperial Walkers, Vader, a Star Destroyer and even an image showing both Boba Fett and Bossk. Yet, contrary to the kind of logic that marketers use to sling licensed products, it never seemed to bring the magic and excitement of Star Wars to my PB&J and chips. There was no magical transmogrification that occurred that made the contained foodstuffs more Star Wars-ish. In the end, as cool as the pictures on it were and as much as they stirred my Star Wars loving heart, it was still just a lunchbox.
And so we come to Fantasy Flight Games’ latest big box release, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, by way of the school cafeteria. I’ll say this up front. This review is absolutely futile on a “pissing in the wind” level. It will not change your mind about this game, and it likely will not make a difference beyond possibly adding a lone, critical voice to the swelling triumph of this game over the hobby marketplace and mindset. The game is already a smash hit and gamers everywhere are lining up to either post the “take my money” Fry meme or to post fawningly on Boardgamegeek.com about how much they love it. I’m writing this by my front window, wondering if I should go outside and lock the front gate to keep the inevitable angry mob out.
Because quite frankly- and I am saying this not only as someone that pretty much fails their saving throw any time “game” and “Star Wars” occurs in the same product description but also as someone who desperately wants to love this game- Imperial Assault is a tremendous disappointment. Now, those of you who have followed this game’s announcements and marketing material will likely say “what did you expect” because it was plainly stated from the get-go that this was effectively a reskin of FFG’s second edition of Descent. The disappointment is that despite all of the great illustration, the obvious time and effort put into content and that plastic AT-ST miniature that had tongues wagging from the first images, this game never really feels like Star Wars. It’s a $100 Star Wars lunchbox containing a PB&J and chips that taste just like Descent.
I, somewhat famously, do not care for Descent. An article I wrote a couple of years ago called “The Descent of Descent” about how I had come to realize how much of a drag I thought it was got noticed by top brass at FFG and I was dropped from their press list. I never played the revised second edition, which by all accounts was a very streamlined and improved experience overall. Wait, I take that back. I have played the revised second edition- the one with the drawings of Luke and Han on it instead of Red Scorpion and Mad Carthag. I also played the game when it was called Doom and wasn’t saddled with a bunch of clutter, filler and a turgid pace.
So out of the gate, if you liked Descent or Descent 2.0, you’re halfway home. If you liked Doom, you’re about a quarter of the way home. If you liked none of the above, then you are at that point relying strictly on the Star Wars livery and that plastic AT-ST miiniature to sell this game to you. The multi-function dice used for combat resolution in Doom and Descent are here, as is the Overlord concept where one player controls the bad guy forces and the players control individual heroes. It is a standard move-and-or-shoot dungeoncrawler, with the map laid out at the beginning of a scenario and then populated by the Imperial player with enemies and surprises as the heroes fight through it.
The on-board action never captures the cavalier, swashbuckling attitude toward action that have made the films so popular. Just like Descent, it feels like a kludgy space-counting affair with a two-corners line of sight system that is way more cumbersome than it ought to be. The maps tend to be small, resulting in battles that feel way too much like close quarters melee even if you are blasting Stormtroopers with a DL44. There is a movement penalty to move through enemies, but no zone of control rules. So it feels a lot of times like everyone is kind of shuffling around tight spaces.
Also brought over from the Descent experience is the kind of card-creep where both the Rebel and Imperial players wind up with a bunch of cards in front of them with various powers, buffs and advantages. There are class cards, items that can be looted from supply crates and things you can buy between missions with whatever credits you earned. Fortunately, it doesn’t bog down nearly as much as Descent did, mainly due to some much cleaner rules for the Imperial player to spawn new units and generate the threat points to do so. It doesn’t take two hours to clear a room, and for that I’m grateful. Most missions can be completed in 60-90 minutes it seems, which is important since this is intended to be played as a campaign.
The campaign game isn’t just emphasized, it’s practically mandatory. There are no one-off scenarios in the rather generous assortment provided in the box and there is a really quite smart system of outcomes paired up with cards to give the players a choice of story missions or side missions to pursue. But there is nothing in the box that says “here’s how you play one mission without devoting your next four game nights to Imperial Assault”. That said, without playing the campaign and having the interstitial phase between missions where everybody levels up and acquires new stuff, you’re kind of missing on this game’s more innovative and interesting aspect.
Oh wait, there is. There is a tacked-on, card-driven “skirmish” mode for two players that was, to be honest, the main reason I wanted the game. I liked what I read from the rules early on, but I was disappointed that- just like with the campaign game- the Descent mechanics struggle to tell a Star Wars story. It isn’t seamlessly incorporated into the package, using some of the same components with some keywords and abilities ruled out and some other components that have no function in the campaign game. It feels like a dry,very ordinary tactical miniatures game but nowhere near as interesting or fun as the old Wizards of the Coast Star Wars miniature game was, or any of the other PVP-focused “dudes in a hall” games out on the market today including some of which that are published by Fantasy Flight Games. I played the skirmish game with two different people who- without prior collusion- both said that they’d rather play Star Wars: Epic Duels than the Imperial Assault skirmish. It says a lot that a mass market, silly kid’s game where you can have Mace Windu fight Darth Vader somehow captures more of the Star Wars magic than this labored, propped up hobby game.
It isn’t so much that the game isn’t specifically about canonical Star Wars events or characters. I think it’s smart that the player characters are “new”, and you’re not just playing Han, Luke, or Leia. I actually really like that they pop in the campaign in supporting roles, and I really like that when Vader shows up in a mission it’s an EVENT of the magnitude that his appearance warrants. But if you changed all the names and left the missions as-is- maybe it’s just some kind of combat mech instead of specifically an AT-ST and maybe that Chewbacca stand-in is just some kind of gorilla alien- and you’re left with the exact same game with no loss. And that game is a traditional dungeoncrawler with melee-focused combat and an emphasis on clearing rooms, completing perfunctory switch-flipping objectives and picking up some loot.
What I keep coming back to with this game- having played skirmishes and ? of a full campaign as the Imperial player and then some puttering around solo- is that the whole thing is just deceptive and lazy. It’s the kind of game founded on the notion that “theme” is the pictures and proper names, not the meaning of the actions or the narrative concepts they generate. It’s all a fa?ade, and it is clear that any time spent on developing this product was focused mainly on the missions and making it look like Star Wars. From a product design level, it succeeds. On the table, it does only if you are very forgiving about some of the dissonant points when it feels like that medieval dungeoncrawl that is this game’s chassis. Or if you get confused as to the difference between “theme” and “setting”. A plastic AT-ST and a card that has a lightsaber on it does not make a game thematic. Nor do they by default generate a sense of setting.
It’s disappointing that Fantasy Flight, having one of the most sought-after licenses in gaming, couldn’t do something more innovative, groundbreaking or compelling than slap the Star Wars logo on Descent. What a letdown this game is after the great work they’ve done with X-Wing (which was itself functionally a redevelopment of Wings of War) and the Star Wars LCG. Even the Star Wars microgame re-theme of Cold War: CIA vs. KGB feels more thematic and appropriate to the setting. However, there are apparently some restrictions regarding their license and how it intersects with Hasbro’s right to publish Star Wars board games, so it could very well be that this “adventure game” and “miniatures skirmish game” skirts around certain prohibitions- it being an existing design, and with the expansions sold in individual miniatures packs to coyly emphasis that this is miniatures game and not a board game.
I find myself almost wishing that Fantasy Flight had just done this game without the license, maybe even set in the Twilight Imperium setting or something. Or that they had chosen the excellent (and much more innovative) Gears of War to festoon with the Star Wars stickers. Hell, I think they could have made a more Star Wars-feeling game out of Nexus Ops, if they still have the license for it. At the end of the day, this game feels a whole lot like jerry-rigging the Game of Thrones license onto an existing light wargame design that does not capture any of the intrigue, melodrama or interpersonal affairs that have made that property so successful. But they’ve already done that, too.
Despite all of the above, I have to admit that I’m still playing Imperial Assault and I’m not looking to trade or sell it any time soon. It doesn’t feel like Star Wars which is the most important function of a Star Wars game, but it does have a kind of PB&J-and-chips appeal. It’s fairly bland, but anyone can digest it and fill up on it. It gets the job done if you want to play a vaguely sci-fi dungeoncrawler with decent mechanics (the Doom dice system is still great, regardless), and the campaign mechanics do help to increase the stakes of each mission even when the handful of paragraphs the Imperial player reads at key points don’t really add any tension or drama. And you won’t have trouble finding someone to play because everybody but me apparently loves this game.