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Top Of The Table – Star Wars: Rebellion

by Matt Miller on Jun 24, 2016 at 10:00 AM

For years, even as board games grew in sophistication and thematic depth, one of the most popular franchises in history was left out of the mix. Star Wars is awash in potential for cool tabletop play, but licensing relationships meant that great Star Wars games were hard to come by. That has all changed in recent years, as Fantasy Flight deployed a host of rewarding adventures in the Star Wars universe, from miniature battle games like X-Wing to story-driven adventures like Imperial Assault. The latest release zooms out to a galactic view, and delivers an ambitious strategic conflict between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Put another way, Star Wars: Rebellion is the vast, hero-driven, classic trilogy-focused experience you probably imagine when you think about what a Star Wars board game could be.

On a physical scale, Rebellion is a big game. Not built for compact tables, the linked double board takes up a lot of real estate, even before you throw in the hundreds of cards, tokens, custom dice, and over 150 beautifully crafted plastic miniatures of Star Destroyers, X-Wings, AT-ATs, and Death Stars. Card and board art is colorful and evocative, and focuses in on the aesthetic and storytelling tone of the original trilogy, rather than branching out into prequel or sequel trilogy territory. While you won’t see any Qui-Gon Jinns or Poe Damerons running around the galaxy, the spotlight on a single era ensures narrative clarity and a unified vision.

The multitude of components can take some time to wrap your head around, especially for newcomers to tabletop gaming. Thankfully, smart and organized rules offer a clearly delineated “first game setup” to help ease you into the action. When placed beside games of similar size and scope, Rebellion is surprisingly accessible. That ease-of-play is thanks to a streamlined turn structure that keeps players on track, even though the two opposing sides are pursuing separate goals for victory. Of the game’s systems, only the nuances of ship and ground combat are likely to take some time to fully grasp. 

Star Wars: Rebellion, Publisher: Fantasy Flight Games, Designer: Corey Konieczka

With its many tiny ships and galactic map board, first glance might suggest that Rebellion is a war simulation game in the vein of familiar titles like Risk or Axis & Allies. While army and fleet combat certainly plays a role, Rebellion distinguishes itself through its focus on heroes that shape the course of the conflict. Darth Vader can venture forth to conquer Corellia. Princess Leia can travel to Mandalore on a mission of diplomacy. Han Solo can fall to the dark side. Like in the movies that inspired the game, overpowering fleets aren’t the deciding factors of the galactic civil war; heroes and villains shape the course of the game, deploying on missions, turning the tide of epic battles, or countering the machinations of the enemy team. 

While my love of Star Wars characters is the chief factor in my enjoyment of Rebellion, it’s the asymmetric nature of the conflict that fascinates from a design perspective. Even as both sides follow an identical turn order, the Empire and Alliance have different paths to victory. For Imperial players, the game demands that you track down the hidden enemy base. Deploying your enemy fleet into planetary systems, gathering probe droid reports, and carefully tracking your opponent’s movements all help to zero in on the prize. All the while, your subjugation of planets like Alderaan and Kashyyyk fuel your conquests, while traitorous systems can be blown away by your fully armed and operational battle stations. 

For the Alliance, it’s all about winning hearts and minds. Your smaller fleet excels at hit-and-run tactics, and missions focus on sabotaging Imperial fleet yards, leading Wookiee uprisings, and proving to the people that the despot can be defeated. Rebel victories shorten the number of turns that the Empire has to track you down. Hold out long enough, and even fear of the Death Star won’t be enough to keep the local systems in line. The intricate balance between competing goals amazes me each time I play.

The highly detailed minis are one of Rebellion's biggest draws

Conflict resolution, whether to determine the success of a mission like Boba Fett’s attempted capture of Obi-Wan Kenobi, or the outcome of a grand space battle over Nal Hutta, is determined through the rolling of custom dice. While dice-rolling introduces an element of randomness, each player can alter the number of dice rolled through smart and strategic use of resources. Different leaders bring their own expertise to each conflict, deployed tactics cards alter results, and each additional combat unit affects the outcome. Keeping track of all the variables takes a little time to learn, but since every conflict that unfolds uses the same mechanic, my experience has suggested that players catch on quickly. 

Beyond the minutia of gameplay interactions, Star Wars: Rebellion succeeds because of the emergent nature of its narrative. The core conceit of the Star Wars conflict is baked into the game, but the way that war unfolds is entirely in response to player choices. Perhaps Alderaan survives, but Bespin isn’t so lucky. And maybe Admiral Ackbar emerges as the defining hero of the Rebel Alliance.  In every game I’ve played, the players concoct their own amusing fictions about the interplay between heroes, ships, and planets. While a single game for two to four players is a full evening’s affair, this richly imagined game gets an awful lot right about its source material; it’s hard for me to imagine a group of Star Wars fans that wouldn’t enjoy this take on that most familiar of far-away galaxies. 

Not quite ready to take the leap into such a grand tabletop adventure? Check out some great options for tabletop games you can play in 30 minutes or less. And for other awesome recent games, don’t miss our selections for the best tabletop games of 2015

Are there other tabletop games or topics you’d like to learn more about? Hit me up via email or Twitter to let me know what you’d like to see in future columns, and I’ll see you in two weeks!