There’s dearth of Star Wars board games, and dearth of good ones available, too. Your odds of finding something good are even worse if you are not a hardcore gamer. I would like to talk about one exception that has proved itself over time, despite its fairly unimaginative (and perhaps misleading) name: Imperial Assault.
Star Wars: Imperial Assault is something between – wait, let me start again: it can be used as a board game, a simple role-playing game or a war-game (the likes of Warhammer). Its versatility is the first thing that makes it remarkable. IA can satisfy hardcore wargamers, generic boardgamers, or serve as introduction to the basics of tabletop RPGing by providing a simple roleplaying campaign.
It’s Rather About Rebel Assault
So what does it look like in practice? In the basic mode, IA is a game for two to five players, one of whom plays the Imperials (and is a “gamemaster” of sorts at the same time) and the rest each take one Rebel hero character each (out of six included in the starter set, from a vibroaxe-wielding Wookiee to a “she-Han Solo”). They go on quests, which usually mean quickly infiltrating an Imperial base, stealing some data or freeing prisoners and retreating before the Imperials overwhelm them. The Imperial player commands ranks of stormtroopers and other fine enemies (from Trandoshan hunters to Darth Vader) that can “respawn” over time.
Each scenario can be played separately or (ideally) as a campaign, which is described in detail in the game manual. The heroes accumulate experience, items and abilities after completing a mission – but so does, in a sense, the Imperial player, which allows them to progress special Imperial agendas and use of more powerful enemies or tricks.
Every game is played on a board created out of millions (so it seems) of tiles that come in the game box. The campaign maps are described in a synoptic way in the campaign manual. You can also make your own maps and play skirmishes however you want. The tiles provide yet more variability and if you are playing just for fun with friends, the possibilities are limitless.
The starting box of the game comes also with 35 figures, including a full-size AT-ST (plus a Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figures as bonus packages), a set of special dice, six Hero cards, and many more other cards including enemies, items, missions or Command cards for the skirmish game. What is no less important are several manuals, very helpfully sorted. There is a concise and well-written “Learn to Play” manual showing a tutorial scenario that will teach even complete newbies how to play very easily. The comprehensive Rules manual, on the other hand, covers all aspects of the game in detail. The Skirmish manual describes the wargaming mode of the game while the Campaign manual (for the Imperial player’s eyes only) contains the maps and structure of the included scenario.
Even the basic campaign can provide entertainment for multiple evenings. If you play one game every evening, the campaign would take you over a week. At the same time, the scenarios are not very long and everything is very fresh and fast-paced.
Gameplay and Star Wars Feel
The game is also well-balanced. Combat and other tasks operate with several values described on the cards. Generally, if you are attacking, you roll one to three dice of the type described on your character card (or Stormtrooper card, or what have you). For instance, blue dice gives better results for long-range attacks (you are more likely to roll a number that shows if your shot went far enough), while red dice rolls more damage in close combat. The defender also rolls a die: black for the heavy-armoured units (that can negate some of the damage) and white for the nimble ones (that lets damage through, but can prevent some special attacks or also, on a rare “6”, dodge the attack entirely).
The combat system is very realistic and evocative of what actually happens, and that goes for the rest of the game as well. You are going to run into situations that look straight out of the films. Even though the campaign is set between the films (the starting one right after Episode IV), it operates with themes familiar from the saga. Optional missions give the heroes the chance to gain the favour of Chewie, Han or Luke and fight alongside them in future missions.
From Beginners to Hardcore Gamers
As a long-time roleplayer, I have to stop at the “D&D”-esque aspects of the game. To anyone familiar with these games and their combat system, the rules of movement, cover etc. will seem instantly familiar (at least to a degree). At the same time, IA can serve as a first step, or introduction to RPGs for people who have never played them and are more into board games (or no games at all). Obviously, the actual role-playing aspect in IA is minimal (this is still a board game), but IA has a story, the focus on one’s own character and “leveling up” and similar mechanics. If you want to test the waters with someone before committing them to an actual RPG, IA might be a good option for that.
From the perspective of a Star Wars fan, IA also offers a trip into the Star Wars universe with all the important characters of the Rebellion era making an appearance. The game has nowadays multiple expansions, including new environments and campaigns set on Hoth or Coruscant, and newly also Lothal from the Rebels series. Each big expansion comes with new playable characters that by now cover all possible species from Mon Calamari snipers to old clone troopers.
The only disadvantage on first sight might be relatively high price (the base set is still available nowadays at around 100€, and you need it for playing; on the other hand, it includes everything you actually need and it offers enough gameplay variants to last you a lifetime). Compared to the price/value of most board games nowadays, however, Imperial Assault is definitely worth it. Like I said above, it is essentially two or three or maybe even more games in one, and is certainly worth more than three mediocre games you could get for the same price. If you are a Star Wars fan and looking for a board game, your choice is basically made.