Imperial Assault is a board game that was released in late 2014. I only got around to playing it over the weekend, and I already count those months between as wasted.
Having made a ton of money off their excellent X-Wing game before moving onto capital ship battles, Imperial Assault is Fantasy Flight’s shot at moving Star Wars into more traditional tabletop territory.
If you’ve ever played HeroQuest, Space Crusade or even XCOM, you’ll be familiar with the basics here: players take control of a character and take turns to move about a grid-based battlefield, using terrain as cover as they battle enemies and complete objectives.
It’s designed for 2-5 players, but shines brighter the closer you get to the latter. A single player — basically the dungeon master — takes control of all Imperial forces, while everyone else selects a single Rebel character, choosing from a stable of RPG class stalwarts (support, sniper, etc).
And then you go at it. There are one-off skirmishes you can play, but the real fun comes in the game’s campaigns, which link missions together as part of a wider story. Victory or defeat determines which mission you play next, or the conditions in which you play it, while there are also side-quests you can take part in where there’s better loot or cash available.
There’s nothing particularly new about any of this. Imperial Assault is basically Fantasy Flight bolting the Star Wars licence onto another of its games, the also-very-good Descent, which itself is basically just a more regimented take on a good Dungeons & Dragon crawl.
Not that this is a problem! I mean, this is a Star Wars game, which for most people will just seem cooler, but it’s also a smart game, one that will feel strangely familiar to veterans of video games as diverse as XCOM and Wing Commander.
The campaign structure I mentioned above is great, as it adds tension to each encounter without being too punitive; it’ll suck if/when you eventually fail a mission, but it doesn’t instantly end your game, and the loot available both in side-missions and the main quest itself mean you can always take a break, branch off and get stronger for the next fight.
Imperial Assault’s battle system has this neat thing where the fate of a battle is placed mostly in the hands of the defender. Attackers roll their dice and are pretty much guaranteed to hit; whether they actually do any damage is up what the defender rolls, as many units can soften blows substantially, while it’s also common to simply negate an attack altogether. I know, the end result is the same as if an attacker rolled a “miss”, but it’s more fun when that dodge comes as a result of a defender’s activity.
Also: it’s fun being the Imperials. You might think you’re missing out by not being part of the team, but I can assure you, the advantages handed to the lone bad guy are worth the isolation. Only Imperials are allowed to build a map, and only the Empire is allowed to know the conditions triggered when the Rebels meet certain objectives. They’re also in control of an army which can spawn at any time, while the Rebels only have the sole unit they chose at the beginning of the game.
Example: in one of the earlier missions I played over the weekend, I was leading the Rebels in an attack on a small Imperial base to steal some computer codes. Having killed the Stormtroopers guarding the front door, I rushed forwards and opened it, ready to race in and do my thing. “Weird”, I thought, “those were some light defences.”
Of course they were. There was a secret condition attached to the mission that only the Imperial player knew about. It meant that as soon as the Rebels entered the base, the Empire could spawn a number of defenders. Including a giant mounted gun emplacement that was pointing straight at me.
What’s so great about this wasn’t just this initial surprise, but the effect it has on the rest of a campaign, because you’re now a little gun-shy, wary of every move you make, every terminal you access and every door you open. Some might lead the way to riches! Others might be the excuse the Empire was waiting for to rain death down upon you. It really has an effect on the strategies you develop at the start of each mission.
The combination of these battle and campaign systems mean that you basically spend the entire game on the edge of your seat. You can’t take a single encounter for granted, as every battle (or action, even against a seemingly-defeated foe) can determine the outcome of a mission, and every mission can determine the outcome of a campaign.
Which can be exhausting (we needed a break after each mission) but most of them only last an hour or two, so it’s not hard breaking a campaign down into more manageable chunks.
The core game, which includes loads of Imperial figures and a nice selection of Rebel heroes, is a pretty good deal. You get enough units and map pieces (they’re reversible) to not just play a campaign, but also skirmish missions as well.
To go along with this, though — and Fantasy Flight veterans will know what’s coming — there are additional expansions and characters. These not only add new missions and mini-campaigns to the game, but also give you plastic units, some of them based on characters like Han Solo and Boba Fett.
The only real complaints we had after a weekend’s playing was that the game’s aiming rules, which determine whether you can shoot at a player or not, can be a bit confusing. Some of the objectives you had to complete as a Rebel also felt a little unfair, based more on luck than ability. But then hey, that’s war I guess (and also not the end of the world, since you can still progress in the campaign even if you fail some missions).
Imperial Assault is a fantastic game that I’d recommend to anyone who’s a fan of either board games and/or strategy video games. And may God have mercy on your soul (and wallet) if you’re either of those things and a big Star Wars fan, because the conveyor belt of expansions and fresh figures will be grinding onwards for years to come...