2016’s Star Wars: Rebellion was—ahem—a force to be reckoned with. Presenting the original film trilogy within the scope of a three-hour board game is a monumental challenge. But Rebellion succeeded. If the tabletop industry was Yavin IV, Rebellion was the looming Death Star casting its shadow on all competitors.
Now, the definitive Star Wars board game is back with Rise of the Empire. This small-box expansion is all about “more.” More units like the U-Wing and TIE Striker, more leaders like Jyn Erso and Director Krennic, and more missions allowing you to sneak behind enemy lines or hire bounty hunters.
Beefing up existing content is a normal tactic for expansions, but Rise of the Empire does have a new identity of its own: Rogue One. Instead of an assortment of varied effects and disparate characters, we have a coherent narrative supporting player action.
In committing to Rogue One, Rise of the Empire necessarily must adjust its timeline, meaning that the Empire doesn’t begin with a fully operational Death Star anymore. Instead, that little plastic ball of hate is still under construction, and additional starting units are placed in order to protect it. While this story touch is excellent, it does result in less overall usage of the Death Star.
At setup, you’re given the option to completely replace a huge chunk of the original mission deck—the stack of cards that are the lifeblood of Rebellion. The new cards boast a large suite of tricks. Your eyes will turn into saucers the first time you come across the glorious Sarlacc pit, which lets you toss a Rebel prisoner into the creature’s misshapen gullet. Killing off Luke or Han by feeding either one to the beast is wild—a key moment you’ll be recounting over beers for years to come.
There’s also renewed flexibility in recruiting leaders from these cards. For instance, the new “subterfuge” type of mission allows you to assign up to two of your leaders to a card, creating the illusion that they are unavailable for defense. Should you be attacked, however, simply reveal the subterfuge mission and you gain those leaders and a bonus die for the battle to come. This provides a hedge against some of the stronger missions in the game.
Also new is the target marker mechanism, found among the new mission cards and on a handful of Rebel objectives. These markers allow a player to put cardboard targets on the board, sometimes with restrictions such as being allowed only on remote or Imperial systems. One Rebel objective might tell the Imperial player to lay down markers in a couple of remote systems, for instance. If the Rebels can get to those systems and remove the markers, they’ll earn Reputation, increasing their odds of victory. These bonuses reference key moments of the films, such as destroying the bunker on Endor (fortunately, you don’t have to enlist an incompetent group of diminutive teddy bears). Their implementation is a treat.
One of the biggest complaints with Rebellion was its awkward conflict resolution. The game relied on intermittently drawing cards from a shared deck to supplement dice rolls. With the expansion, combats shifts to using a persistent hand of tactics cards. The results are impressive.
Taking inspiration from FFG’s own Forbidden Stars, the new combat system has players simultaneously choosing battle cards each round. These provide new effects centered thematically on each unit in the game. You can play the Superlaser Blast card to deal a massive 5 damage to a Rebel capital ship. Or you might utilize the U-Wing Deployment option to feed some extra ground troops into the surface battle. Each of these cards possesses a stronger effect if you have its associated unit in the battle—and a weaker ability if you don’t.
These asymmetric cards exist in unique decks for each faction, split into space and ground theaters. There’s some overlap in unit support, such as the Imperials having a TIE Striker card in their ground battle set, which represents the new craft’s penchant for atmospheric operations. This thematic integration of representing unique unit properties on the cinematic cards provides ample opportunity to tell a story and manufacture narrative. It does a much stronger job of capturing imagery than the previous system by removing some of the abstraction.
With the expansion, Rebellion gains a newfound sense of strategic depth. When you play those tactic cards from your hand, they head to a discard pile. The only way to grab them back is to exhaust your entire hand (somewhat like the battle structure found in Kemet). Thus, every play must be weighed against plans for future conflict. If you burn your surface bombardment card in this fight, you won’t have it left for the larger struggle brewing at Mon Calamari. This combination of strategic impact with cinematic payoff is wonderful in practice.
The one possible problem with the new system is tactical overload. Players prone to over-analyzing moves could spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating their cards. The majority of participants will have no issue spending a couple of seconds and going with their gut, but the possibility for lengthy delays and pumping the brakes on momentum are definitely there.
Complementing the changes to combat is an assortment of new units. In addition to the Rogue One ships, we have Nebulon-B frigates, assault tanks, Golan defense batteries, and planetary shields to protect the Death Star. Many of these units provide new green dice in combat. Instead of the standard allotment of icons found on both their red and black counterparts, these new six-siders have only two faces showing direct hits—with the rest being blanks. These direct hits, of course, can be applied to armored as well as soft targets, so you’re trading reliable odds for flexibility.
The magic here is that these fickle dice pair beautifully with the adjusted purpose of leaders’ combat values. Under the previous Rebellion system, the tactics value listed on the leader stands allowed you to draw cards at the beginning of battle. Now, the number listed is the number of dice you can re-roll each combat round. This change works perfectly with those green dice. Their few hit faces are balanced by your ability to simply toss them again and flatten the curve of chance.
This linked harmony of the new mechanisms is constantly on display, and players who enjoyed Rebellion are likely to want Rise of the Empire, too. It’s not just about “more” stuff; the real focus of Rise of the Empire is presenting the Rogue One arc while still maintaining player freedom and agency.
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