The Great Star Wars Board Game Retrospective
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Join me, and together, we will look back at nearly 40 years of Star Wars Games!
In early October of 2015, I was stricken with excitement. For the first time in a decade, a new Star Wars movie was on the horizon. For the first time in more than thirty years, we would be re-united with the characters of the original trilogy on screen. Han Solo. Luke Skywalker. Leia Organa. I spent my entire childhood surrounded by these characters, buried in these movies and the endless stream of "expanded universe" novels they spawned.
How could I celebrate this return in a way that was my own? Perhaps, I thought, through the hobby that has also given me much joy over the years. I would seek out the best Star Wars board games from throughout the history of the franchise, play them, and review them. In an assessment that was both very optimistic and very foolish, I for some reason thought that I would be able to complete this task I had set myself in the few months leading up to the release of The Force Awakens.
This was not to be. Although I did manage to acquire or borrow all of the games, getting them to the table, photographing everything, and writing all of the reviews proved more challenging. Life, in the form of my health, graduate school, work, etc etc, intervened again and again.
So now, as the release of the second installment of the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi approaches, I figured I would give another shot at completing this, albeit on a more relaxed timeline.
Limitations of this Retrospective
The retrospective is intended to be far-reaching and comprehensive, but at the same time is limited only to the best Star Wars games.
As there are approximately 370 entries in the Star Wars family on BGG I was forced to either set some parameters or spend entirely too much time slogging through the endless variations on Angry Birds Star Wars.
1. Must be rated above 6/10 on BGG, with more than 20 ratings. This prevents me from having to waste time on outright bad games, although (as you'll see) there are still plenty of mediocre ones. The latter condition means I don't have to hunt down utter obscurities or homebrews that the designer rated 10/10.
2. No simple re-themes. Luckily, the first parameter already caught a lot of these. For a pre-existing game with a Star Wars theme applied to it to make it onto this retrospective there have to be significant mechanical differences from the base game. Hence several Risk versions are included on this list, but Loopin' Chewie and Star Wars Labyrinth are not. There are admittedly a few borderline cases (Star Wars Carcassonne).
3. No expansions. I'm not going to review each and every one of the zillion expansions for Imperial Assault or X-Wing
As a fun little thematic touch, I've decided to group these articles into episodes mirroring the films themselves.
Episode I features Freedom in the Galaxy
Episode II deals with West End Games
Episode III features the Star Wars Customizable Card Game (CCG)
Episode IV - The "original trilogy" deals with Hasbro games. This first episode is a comparative review of the greatest of them, The Queen's Gambit, and its relatively recent re-implementation, Star Wars Risk (2015).
Episode V Deals with other standalone Hasbro games, including Epic Duels, several Risk variants, and the Clash of the Lightsabers card game.
Shadows of Miscellany As a nod to the 1996 "all but movie" multimedia event Shadows of the Empire, which was set between episodes V and VI, this is where I;ve thrown everything that didn't fit elsewhere in the retrospective.
Episode VI deals with collectible games put out by Hasbro and their subsidiary Wizards of the Coast: The Star Wars Miniatures game, The Star Wars Trading Card Game (TCG), and the Attacktix Battle Figure Game.
Episode VII The "sequel trilogy" deals with Fantasy Flight Games. This first installment concerns FFG card games - The Star Wars Living Card Game (LCG), Star Wars Destiny, and Empire vs Rebellion.
Episode VIII deals with FFG miniatures games - X-Wing, Armada, and Legion
Episode IX deals with FFG board games - Imperial Assault and Star Wars: Rebellion
And now, without further ado...
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
First up in our retrospective is Freedom in the Galaxy, a 1979 wargame from SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.) Games. After SPI went defunct it was also published by Avalon Hill. Since they were unable to get the license, the designers came up with an off-brand version that, while not Star Wars per se, was still clearly Star Wars-inspired, with one for one character substitutions such as Adam Starlight for Luke Skywalker and Zina Adora for Leia Organa.
So you might be asking yourself, if it's not a true Star Wars game, why even bother looking at Freedom in the Galaxy at all? Well, the answer is simple - because Freedom in the Galaxy attempts something that no Star Wars board game since (until FFG's Star Wars: Rebellion) has attempted - to model the entirety of the galactic conflict in simulation-level detail. Take a look at this map:
Image credit: Jakub Kircun
Soak it in. Look at this mountain of chits, this 31 page rulebook, this 12 pages of backstory...
If it's detail, scope, and theme you want, Freedom in the Galaxy delivers. Unfortunately, this kind of detail comes with a significant rules overhead, as you can see from looking at a sample spread from the rulebook:
- and so, alas, this is not one of the games in this retrospective that I was able to get played. Nor was it for lack of trying! I convinced a friend of mine with whom I'd played such monsters as Virgin Queen and Sword of Rome to sit down and try to learn it with me. Luckily, Freedom in the Galaxy has three scales that beginners can use to gradually learn the rules of the full game - the system game, where you play a single star system, the sector game, where you play several star systems, and the galactic game, where you play the whole board. Sadly, even the system game was beyond us.
There are some great ideas in Freedom in the Galaxy - it's a highly asymmetrical game in which the rebels play a game of characters completing missions while the empire plays more of a traditional wargame, moving large stacks of units around trying to detect and crush the wily rebels. The rebels start only with characters, which they use to complete diplomacy missions in order to foment rebellion and eventually evolve into a military force that can take on the empire, which starts the game controlling all sectors. If you're interested in a more detailed rundown of how the game works, check out this relatively brief article put out by SPI.
Unfortunately, Freedom in the Galaxy is also an example of an older game where its tremendous ideas are bogged down by its now-archaic mechanics. The missions are highly repetitive and their outcomes are very random. If you're playing the galactic game you can expect to roll against the same tables, again and again - for a low estimate of 20 hours. Another common complaint has to do with game balance - it's possible for the rebels to win, but very hard to do it within the round limit of the game.
Ultimately, Freedom in the Galaxy is very much stuck in an older era of tabletop gaming, a fact that was emphasized by the Avalon Hill promotional materials that were still inside the copy I acquired. Together they make up a fascinating picture of the state of the hobby 30+ years ago:
The catalog offers a wide array of war games, a few more family-oriented games such as Acquire...
...and even some early computer games on cassette or diskette for the TRS-80, the Apple II, the PET CBM, and the Atari 400. Only a few of them were noted as having graphics or sound.
A small slip left in the box touts Freedom in the Galaxy's folding, mounted board as the "latest innovation in strategy maps..."
...and a postcard advises you to tell your (male, obviously) friends about Avalon Hill if you think they have "the basic brainpower to comprehend Avalon Hill games."
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Anyway, today we're looking at some of the games put out by West End Games between 1987 and 1991 and supported through the late '90s. The first of these is Star Warriors: Starfighter Combat in the Star Wars Universe, a hex-and-counter style dogfighting wargame.
Star Warriors was published in 1987, the same year as West End's Star Wars D6 RPG, and it's hard to talk about it (and the minis game that I'll get to later in this installment) without discussing the RPG. This is because although they were stand-alone products, they also share many of the RPG's mechanics.
A closer look at the map and chits. The game includes the full range of fighters from the movies, along with asteroids and star destroyers.
Star Warriors was designed for close integration with the RPG - everything you do in the game requires a skill check. Maneuver? Skill check. Attack? Skill check. These checks work much the same way as they do in the RPG. Damage varies wildly based on the outcome of the roll, with every shot having the chance of destroying the target completely.
These tables give the difficulty rating for each maneuver by ship.
More charts and tables. Note that the game provides both basic and advanced rules, with the advanced rules allowing for point facing as well as side facing.
Even more charts and tables. As you've probably guessed by now, this is one of the games I wasn't able to get played, as the rules overhead was simply too great to overcome in the time I had.
The status of each ship is tracked on a control sheet. Each sheet can only track three ships, so if you were playing a larger battle, you'd have to set aside quite a bit of space.
There are some cumbersome rules, for instance: if a ship flies off the map, just stop the entire game and spend five minutes shifting each and every chit on the board in that direction. Worst. Rule. Ever.
Rules are included for using Star Warriors for a combat resolution system within the Star Wars RPG itself. It's a great idea, even if Star Warriors is a little clunky by today's standards. As Star Warriors demonstrates, though, it's a bit of a double-edged sword, as it makes it difficult to judge the game on its own merits. As a side note, I'm surprised that Fantasy Flight hasn't done something similar with their current line including no less than three Star Wars RPGs and the X-Wing miniatures game.
A B-Wing from the rulebook, which is amply illustrated. These kind of simple b/w illustrations make me nostalgic for the dog-eared copy of Del Rey's Essential Guide to Vehicles and Vessels I had as a kid.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Next up is Star Wars Miniatures Battles, a squad-level miniatures wargame ruleset put out by West End in 1991.
Now, 1991 was an important year for the Star Wars franchise, as it saw the publication of Timothy Zahn's "Heir to the Empire," the first major successful work of the EU (expanded universe). The success of the Thrawn trilogy (along with the Dark Empire comics, which were released later that year), of which HttE is the first book, is credited with reviving interest in the Star Wars franchise, which had begun to wane nearly a decade after the premiere of Return of the Jedi. To prepare Zahn for the task of writing the novels, Lucasfilm sent him copies of the West End RPG's sourcebooks, which were to be regarded as authoritative - before the novels, they were THE source of expanded universe material. After the publication of the Thrawn trilogy, West End in turn created sourcebooks based on each of the novels, which established a symbiotic relationship between the RPG and the EU novels and comics that would continue throughout the nineties. In this way the West End RPG served as a foundation for much of the EU novels, comics, and video games that were to come.
This was another game I wasn't able to get to the table, so I figured I might as well drop some knowledge instead.
Like Star Warriors, Miniatures Battles is technically a standalone game but is also very much tied to the RPG. The starter set for comes with a handful of pewter minis, which include Luke, Leia, Dengar and Bossk. West End put out a large amount of these minis, including sets for the Thrawn trilogy.
Heroes are very clearly little more than a way to import an RPG character into the game, stat for stat.
Many of the most interesting features of this minis ruleset, such as the rules for hidden movement, unfortunately require a game master - which reinforces the game's identity as a combat resolution system for the RPG.
Some more charts and tables from the game's vehicles rules.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
And now, at long last, we've arrived at a game that I actually DID get to play! The Starfighter Battle Book: X-Wing vs TIE Interceptor was published by West End in 1989 and uses a variation of the Ace of Aces system.
The best way to describe how this game works is that it's sort of a competitive "choose your own adventure" book. One player takes on the role of an X-Wing pilot for the Rebels, while the other other pilots a TIE Interceptor for the Empire. Each player takes the book that corresponds with their ship.
Rules explanation from the front of the book. Each page of the book shows a view from the cockpit of the player's fighter, and the relative position of the opponent's fighter to them. The corresponding page in the opponent's book will show their view from the same position. Each page shows the maneuvers available to the fighter, which differ somewhat between the ships. Every turn, you select a maneuver and tell your opponent the page number beneath it. Your opponent does the same, and you both flip to the page number given your opponent, then from that page (the mid-flight page), go to your final page, which is given under the maneuver you selected on the mid-flight page. The final page for both players should be the same.
A sample page. Note the maneuvers at the bottom of the page and the lock-on indicator. If you have your opponent at close enough range and in your sights, the "lock-on" indicator will be displayed. If you get the lock-on indicator two turns in a row, you have locked on, which means your opponent will have to give you tell you, within one letter, what their next maneuver will be. "STAY ON TARGET."
Page 38 - looking back over his shoulder, the X-Wing pilot sees the other ship bearing down on him, firing. The X-Wing takes 5 damage! Each ship has 12 hit points - destroy your opponent and win the game!
The same page in the other book, and the view from the POV of the Interceptor. The Interceptor scores a hit, for 5 points of damage!
"I HAVE YOU NOW." Flanking your opponent completely can result in a one-hit kill!
Some of the reference material in the fronts of the books.
In sum, I think Star Wars Battle Books is a great little game that is not overly heavy or hard to learn but still is luckless and rewards experience and anticipation. Unlike some other West End games from this period, it's also not in any way dependent on the RPG. Unfortunately It's hard to find now and goes for something like $60 on eBay. If you see it for cheap, definitely give it a go, though.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article in the Assault on Hoth game forum.
These next two games, Assault on Hoth and Battle for Endor, are built upon the same basic system that uses a randomized action-order deck and relatively simple combat mechanics to present an experience that is much more accessible than West End's other Star Wars hex-and-counter game, Star Warriors.
Due to the similar nature of both games, I'll go through the gameplay of both before concluding with a comparative analysis.
Assault on Hoth: Components and Gameplay
Since Assault on Hoth was intended for a wider audience than a rules-heavy games like Star Warriors, West End put a good deal more effort into its components.
Upon opening the box you'll find a molded insert with chunky custom dice and large standees rather than the flat counters you might expect. One especially neat feature is that these standees have different illustrations corresponding to their front and back sides. The production values are quite good overall considering this is a late '80s non mass-market wargame. The main exception to this is the cards, which are far too flimsy, especially considering how many times you have shuffle them over the course of the game.
Here you can get a better look at the (unfortunately un-mounted) board, which shows the desolate snowscape of Hoth with the Rebel Shield Generator on one side and the Imperial landing zone on the other, with several tunnel exits from the Rebel base and patches of rough terrain between them. Around the border of the map are rules references and spaces to track the status and hit points of the larger individual units - AT-ATs and Snowspeeders.
Off to the side of the board you'll put two shuffled decks of cards: Actions and Events. The deck of Action cards determines the order in which units move and fire, essentially providing a means of randomizing initiative. So for example, a card might say, "AT-STs move" or "Snowspeeders fire. The deck is relatively small, so you'll go through it many times over the course of the game - and once during each cycle, two Action cards that tell you to draw an Event card will be drawn. Within the Event deck are five "Transport Away!" cards, and once all five of them are drawn the Rebel player wins, having successfully evacuated. The Imperial player wins if they manage to destroy the Shield Generator before this happens. Event cards can also provide reinforcements or powerful one-time bonuses to either player.
The Imperial player sets up first, putting their AT-ATs and AT-STs in the deployment zone on their edge of the board and loading their Snowtroopers into the AT-ATs for transport. The Rebel player then sets up their troopers and turrets anywhere else on the board, and their Snowspeeders on their edge. You'll notice that the Rebels have placed most of their troops along the ridge of rough terrain, which will provide them with additional defense.
Troopers can also be placed in the Rebel base box, which is a space that connects to all of the tunnel entrances on the board, allowing Rebel troopers to rapidly reposition themselves over the course of the game. Finally, the Rebel player chooses one Snowspeeder to be piloted by Luke Skywalker. This is done secretly by sliding the Luke card under one of the Snowspeeder spaces on the Rebel side of the map, and remains hidden until Luke uses any of his Force points. Luke has ten Force points that he can use to modify rolls made by or against his Speeder over the course of the game.
1. And now that everything's set up, we're ready to play! The first event gave the Imperials an additional AT-AT, which will make this game significantly tougher for the Rebels. Here the brunt of the Imperial forces bears down on the Rebel forward position. One of the AT-ATs disgorges a squad of snowtroopers to take down the small outpost!
Since the first shots are starting to fly, let's talk about how combat works! It's quite simple, really. Each unit has a firepower rating for offense and an armor rating for defense. When a unit fires at a target, it rolls a number of dice equal to its fire rating, reduced by one die for each macrohex (the thick-bordered groups of 7 hexes) away the target is, and by one die if the target is in cover, with the goal of getting a number of successes (a 5 and up on a D6) equal to or greater than the targets armor rating.
For instance, lets look at the above photo again and say that the Rebel turret were attacking the AT-ST. The Turret has a firepower of 6, and the AT-ST is 2 macrohexes away. The turret would thus roll 4 dice, with the goal of rolling 2 successes, since the AT-ST has an armor rating of 2.
Sometimes range and cover reduce the firepower of a unit so much that it wouldn't be possible to roll enough hits to breach the targets armor - this is called an impossible shot. For instance, the AT-ST in that photo cannot hit the turret because it has a firepower of 4, the turret is 2 macrohexes away, and the turret is in rough terrain, which has a cover rating of 1. Thus the AT-ST would only be able to roll 1 die, making it impossible to match the turrets armor rating of 2.
2. Moving on, the Imperials easily overwhelm the Rebel forlorn hope, while two Snowspeeders on each side move to flank the larger force (unlike in the movie, these pilots aren't dumb enough to fly head on against an enemy that's slow to turn and can only shoot straight ahead). Reserve rebel troops pour out of the tunnels to reinforce the main line.
3. The imperials press forward indomitably. The forward turret managed to take out an AT-ST before being crushed underfoot by a larger walker - AT-ATs are ponderous, but anything that can't move out of their way gets smushed!
One Snowspeeder is down, but the others have turned completely flanked the main force (all units in this game get 5 movement points when activated, but the Snowspeeders simply have more "move" cards in the deck than any other unit, a simple way of showing their speed without any additional rules overhead).
Meanwhile, Rebel turrets have scored several long-range hits on AT-ATs Nos. 1 and 4. AT-ATs and Snowspeeders are the only units in the game that can take multiple hits - if you hit them, you roll 2d6 and check their damage table to see what part of the craft is damaged. Damage can cause them to lose firepower, movement speed, or even be instantly destroyed with a critical hit!
4. Veers orders the walkers to concentrate on the turrets, and good shots take down three out of four of them as the the Imperials near the Rebel lines. This was a decisive moment for the Imperials, as they were able to do this before the turrets had a chance to fire this round.
5. Walkers crash through the line, crushing Rebel troopers underfoot. On the right, out of shot, No. 4 is the first AT-AT to go down, and AT-AT No. 2 has taken damage.
6. The Imperials have broken through the line completely, but at the cost of AT-AT No. 2! Three remain, with varying degrees of damage. On the left, the power grid is successfully taken down - a side objective for the Imperials that means the shield generator will only have an armor rating of 2, rather than 3.
7. The rebel line re-forms, and timely reinforcements arrive in the form of three more snowspeeders and two heavy troopers!
8. The cards are not in the Rebels' favor, however. Before the newly arrived snowspeeders have a chance to fire, Veers plows ahead and aces a long-range shot on the shield generator, winning the game!
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article in the Battle for Endor game forum.
Battle for Endor: Components and Gameplay
Battle for Endor uses most of the same mechanics as Assault on Hoth. However, it's a solo game only, and this time Rebels, controlled by the player, are racing against time to destroy the shield generator that defends the Death Star. Once five "cruiser destroyed" cards are drawn from the event deck, it becomes clear that the Rebel cruisers above the forest moon can't repel firepower of the Death Star's magnitude and the Rebel fleet retreats, leaving the Empire victorious. If the Rebels breach the secret entrance to the shield generator and blow up the installation before that happens, the Rebel ships above are free to assault the Death Star and emerge the victors.
The player begins by setting up the Rebel heroes and troopers in the macrohex in the center of the map that contains the entrance to the bunker.
Next, the Imperial forces are randomly spawned in the macrohexes surrounding the bunker macrohex by rolling 1d6 for each unit and placing them in the corresponding macrohex.
Finally, the Rebel player deploys the Ewoks and their catapults in the hexes surrounding the Imperials.
The game then proceeds in much the same way as *Assault on Hoth*, with the player drawing action cards for different units to move or fire and resolving them one at a time. There are some differences, though-
Since this is a solo game, whenever Imperials are activated the player consults the Imperial Tactics chart to determine what Rebel units the Imperials will target and move towards. Each space of the chart has a different targeting priority, and over the course of the game the Empire will shift their focus from hunting Ewoks to eliminating the Rebels to protecting the bunker as "change tactics" cards are drawn from the Event deck.
Another difference is in unit stats, which are highly simplified compared to Assault on Hoth, with the exception of combined fire. Combined fire allows Ewoks in the same macrohex as an Ewok leader and Rebel heroes in the same macrohex as each other to roll their dice together against a single target. This makes taking down AT-STs possible, but somewhat a-thematically makes the heroes pretty useless individually.
Now that we know what we're doing and have set up the game, let's do a little run-through:
1. After the first round of actions, the Imperials have taken heavy casualties. All but one of the speeder bikes were destroyed before they had a chance to activate. Since the combatants start so much closer to each other than in Assault on Hoth, the randomly shuffled action deck can be an even more decisive factor in the outcome of Battle for Endor. You'll also note that the Imperial AI that forces them to focus on Ewoks at first protects the Rebel heroes from being immediately shot like the defenseless fish-in-a-barrel that they are. Unfortunately this "plot armor" makes it quite difficult to house-rule Endor into a balanced 2 player game.
2. The southern band of Ewoks retreats to draw away an AT-ST, while Chewbacca pursues the walker, hoping to capture it (a specific event card has to be drawn to allow him to attempt it). The northern bands of Ewoks continue to trade casualties with the Imperials, and in the center, C-3PO and R2-D2 have reached the bunker to assist in breaching the blast doors.
3. Wicket's band of Ewoks in the northwest have been completely suppressed, and while the northern band fares better, the southern band has to face Speeder Bike reinforcements from the south.
4. R2-D2 succeeds in getting the doors partway open, but the southern band of Ewoks has taken more casualties form the Speeder Bikes and two more AT-STs are on approach from the north!
5. After several more rounds, the Blast doors are open, and all remaining Imperials scramble to get into the bunker, abandoning their walkers.
6. Now it's down to a royal rumble in the bunker box! It's not enough to breach the doors - the Rebels must overcome all remaining Imperials in the bunker and succeed a breach check again to successfully destroy the generator!
7. An influx of Ewoks helps turn the tide...
8. ...and Han succeeds at destroying the generator! Despite the Imperials poor luck in combat this game, this game came down to how the action deck was shuffled. I was one "cruiser destroyed" card away from losing.
Assault on Hoth and Battle for Endor: Analysis
The two games do an excellent job of conveying the feeling of these iconic battles; this is especially true of Assault on Hoth. The AT-AT walkers feel utterly unstoppable as they plod toward the Rebel lines, blowing up and trampling everything in their path. Luke manages amazing dodges and precise strikes through the force, and Snowspeeders can attempt to down walkers with grappling cables.
Battle for Endor is still good, but a little less successful in this regard - the heroes feel especially wimpy compared to the superhuman feats Luke accomplishes in Hoth. Han has trouble downing any Stormtrooper that's not standing directly in front of him, and Chewbacca is similarly ineffective unless either of them are combining fire together with each other or Leia.
The combat system is fun and streamlined, while still offering some interesting turn-to-turn decisions. However, this is overshadowed by the very random overall feeling of gameplay. No matter what you do, you can't escape the randomness of the shuffled action and event decks. In many other games, taking out your opponents' units before they can hit you back is a satisfying outcome that is the result of careful planning and clever tactics - but here, you only have the luck of the action deck to thank. This is especially bad in Battle for Endor, where the close starting positions exacerbate the effect of the random action order in the first round.
The event deck can be even worse in some ways - if the fifth "Transport Away!" card ended up on the bottom in your game of Hoth, the Rebels probably aren't winning this session. The Imperials getting a reinforcement AT-AT with the very first event card is another example from the session above - had it arrived just a few turns later, it most likely would have been useless as it would have been unable to catch up with the rest of the assault force.
In other light wargames, such as Commands & Colors: Ancients, the random elements to some degree fall away with repeated plays as you discover how to mitigate them and set up successful offenses. The more you play Hoth and Endor, however, the more they feel like they play themselves. This is exacerbated by the static terrain layout of the board - there are only so many starting deployments, and eventually you’ll find one that’s close to ideal.
Both thematically and mechanically, Assault on Hoth is the better game. It's genuinely tense and full of fun thematic elements. If you like Star Wars I'd definitely recommend giving it a go once or twice - but unfortunately that's all the plays it has in it. Endor I would pass on altogether.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article in the Queen's Gambit game forum.
The Queen's Gambit: Gameplay
Today we're looking at The Queen's Gambit, a 2000 game published by Hasbro, and Risk: Star Wars Edition, a 2015 re-imagining of the former game.
As an aside, you'll note in the top right corner of the cover that this is an "Avalon Hill" game. When we last saw Avalon Hill back in the Freedom in the Galaxy episode, they were the leading company in the hobby. By the turn of the millennium, however, the venerable game publisher had been bought out and was little more than a brand that Hasbro occasionally slapped on their more complex games.
The Queen's Gambit, which allows the combatants to fight through the climactic moments of The Phantom Menace, is now a "grail game" for many collectors and players, and regularly goes for upwards of $300 on eBay.
Here you can see why - The Queen's Gambit is a lavish production of a sort seldom seen nowadays, a true extravaganza. A three-part, three-story board filled to the brim with 155 plastic miniatures. Setting up and playing this game is a life event, a celebration of the one redeeming sequence of Episode I.
But the appeal doesn't end with the looks. The gameplay is solid and engaging too.
The game is made up of 4 sub-games, each of them representing one aspect of the Battle of Naboo. Theed Palace is the center of the conflict- in order to win, the Queen's forces have to detain the Trade Federation viceroys by having a majority of figures in the throne room on the top floor. The Trade Federation, on the other hand, has to kill all but two of the Queen's figures in the palace to win.
Image credit: Vincent de Wildt
Each player has a hand of order cards, which are drawn in any combination from two decks, each of which focuses on different combination of the sub-games. Each round, you choose 4 cards from your hand and arrange them in a stack in front of you. Then, you and the other player will take turns flipping over the top card of your stack and executing one of the orders on it. Each card gives you two choices of which sub games you will take actions in, allowing players a degree of tactical flexibility with which to respond to the other player's moves during the round. For instance, one of the Trade Federation player's cards might say, "Attack with Darth Maul OR Attack with 3 Battle Droids in the Palace." Killing various important units or characters can give you bonus orders, which are free extra cards to play that you draw off the top of either deck and set aside for the next round.
The board on my right contains two other sub games - the Jedi duel and Anakin's attack on the control ship.
Image credit: Chris Traini
The Jedi duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Darth Maul provides the opportunity to get bonus order cards for killing opponents. Also, once one side has been completely wiped out, the survivor(s) of the duel is free to enter Theed Palace and assist in the assault on the throne room!
Image credit: Todd Sweet
The other sub-game on this side of the board is Anakin's attack on the control ship. Anakin has to dodge five waves of vulture droids in order to get to the control ship, with each subsequent wave being harder to dodge. You do this by rolling 2d6, taking the sum of the dice, and comparing that number to the table of the wave in front of you. If that number doesn't show a vulture droid, Anakin passes through the wave. Otherwise he stays where he is.
The Naboo player MUST destroy the control ship in order to win. When the control ship is destroyed, all droid figures are removed from the other theaters of battle.
The Trade Federation player can impede his progress by playing additional wave cards on top of the current wave. If this happens then Anakin has to pass through all of the wave cards in front of him before he can move on to the next spot on the track.
The final sub-game is the Battle of Grassy Plains, a simplified war game that plays similarly to the Commands & Colors series.
This is mostly a way to earn bonus order cards by eliminating enemy units, but the Trade Federation player can also use certain order cards to move figures from the battlefield into Theed Palace - something that is easier to do when he's winning on the battlefield.
Image credit: Chris Traini
The Gungan Shield is critical to this battle. Only Battle droids can move through the shield, but once one of the shield generator beasts is taken down, the shield goes with it, and the Trade Federation's artillery is free to mow down the Gungans.
In the one session I played, the battle against Darth Maul ended canonically, and now Obi-Wan is free to enter the fray in the palace. This is one of the things that's so cool about The Queen's Gambit - the different theaters of action are very well enmeshed with each other, and the outcome of one can turn the tide in another. Once one of the force users gets into the palace, they can absolutely wreck the opposition. They move 12 spaces and can split their three dice across multiple attacks over the course of their movement, potentially killing 3 enemies in a single activation.
Our game was a close match, but Obi-Wan swung the game in favor of the Queen's forces. As you can see on the left I did manage to exterminate most of the Gungans, though, which is a win in my book.
Perhaps this summary of the game has been a little too mechanical and matter-of-fact, but I'll get a bit more analytical when I look at it in comparison to the next game, which is...
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article on the Risk: Star Wars Edition Game Forum
Risk: Star Wars Edition - Gameplay and Comparative Analysis with The Queen's Gambit
Risk: Star Wars Edition is a late-2015 re-imagining of The Queen's Gambit that changes the setting to the Battle of Endor. There are two versions of the game that were put out with different price points - more on that later. For now, just remember that all of the photos you see during the gameplay rundown are of the Black Series edition.
Here you see the Black Series Edition set up and ready to play. The game uses the same core mechanics as The Queens Gambit - You have multiple theaters of battle, and you create a stack of cards that allow you to take actions in those different theaters. However, in Risk: Star Wars Edition there are only three theaters, rather than four. The storming of Theed Palace has no equivalent here, but the the central battlefield is the equivalent of the Grassy Plains battle in QG, the assault on the shield generator is the equivalent of Anakin's run on the control ship, and the Jedi duel is, obviously enough, the equivalent of the Jedi duel.
You might be saying to yourself, "This doesn't sound like Risk...?" - and you're right, it's not Risk at all. Presumably they stuck the brand on it to capitalize on name recognition. It has about as much to do with Risk as Kylo Ren on the cover has to do with Endor.
The space battle is the central part of this game. In order for the Empire to win, they have to wipe out ALL of the Rebel forces in space. To win as the Rebels, on the other hand, all you have to do is destroy the Death Star.
The empire's 3 orders are TIE fighters, Executor, and Death Star. The TIE Fighter order can be used to move a group of TIEs then attack an adjacent sector. Alternatively, you an use a TIE order to deploy 4 TIEs in the same space as the Executor and then attack with them immediately. The Executor order is used to move the Executor and attack with it. TIES can only deploy from the Executor, meaning that if it goes down no more ties can be deployed - this makes it the priority target for the Rebels in the early game.
"Oh, I'm afraid the deflector shield will be quite operational when your friends arrive."
The Death Star order, obviously enough, fires the Death Star, giving you a chance to obliterate something. At first, the Death Star can only target Rebel fleet markers, which carry much of the Rebel fleet at the start of the game. However, once the Rebel fleet markers are all gone, the Death Star can target sectors on the board, destroying all ships within them.
A Y-Wing squadron makes its attack run.
The Rebels' 4 orders for the space battle each correspond to a type of fighter or the Millenium Falcon, allowing those ships to move or attack. The stats vary slightly by ship - and here the Falcon is of particular note. As awesome as the Falcon is in the movies, it's sadly pretty useless here. The sectors are so generously large that being able to move 2 is only very situationally useful, and 2 dice is just puny. In fact, it's worse than useless, it's a liability, since your opponent gets 2 bonus cards for destroying it. In general, Risk: Star Wars Edition fails at the little thematic touches - it feels perfunctory and mechanical in many places, where most of the chrome in The Queen's Gambit hits home (ie. the hidden deployment of the queen).
I mentioned before "all" the Rebels have to do is roll a single 6 against the Death Star. Before you can even attempt to do that, however...
...the shield generator down on the moon has to be taken care of first. To do this, the Rebel player can play an Endor order and roll 5 dice. Each space has a target number on it, and each die that at least meets that number can be spent to move into that space.
The Empire, however, can play their own Endor order to impede the Rebel strike team's progress. When he does so, he puts Stormtrooper minis on the three closest unoccupied spaces in front of the Rebels. When a Stormtrooper is on a space, it increases that space's target value by one.
So, in the example shown here, the Rebels could spend the 4 and the 5 they rolled to move ahead two spaces, removing those Stormtroopers. The other dice are not usable.
The Imperial strategy here is usually to wait until your opponent gets up into the 3+ spaces before you start dropping Stormtroopers - it's just not worth it to do it earlier. The higher up the track you go, the greater the percentage of potential successes that are blocked by the +1 modifier.
Like the Anakin sub-game in The Queen's Gambit, the Endor track is my least favorite part of the game. Neither sub-game is particularly interesting, nor do they have much player agency, but both of them are mandatory for one side to win. You can employ tactics as cleverly as you like in the center board, but if you roll poorly on this track you are simply not going to win.
Note that the Luke and Vader minis shown here are Micromachines minis I added to the game. The game comes with tokens for them.
The third and final sub-game of Risk: Star Wars Edition is the duel between Luke and Darth Vader. In this sub-game, you're basically rolling four dice against your opponent's life total, hitting on 4+. The spatial aspect of The Queen's Gambit's Jedi duel is dropped here.
There are three possible outcomes to the duel. The first is that Vader kills Luke, in which case the Empire gets 4 bonus cards.
The second is that Luke kills Vader. The Rebels get 3 bonus cards for this, but there's a twist - the Emperor is still alive, and can still deal damage to Luke (potentially killing him for the bonus) with force lightning, which just deals a straight 2 damage rather than rolling dice.
The third outcome, and the ideal one for the Rebels, is that Luke redeems Vader by getting him down to 3 health or below and playing the special "Vader Redeemed" order. Vader then chucks the Emperor down a conveniently located bottomless shaft and the Rebels get 5 bonus cards.
Now, there's a problem here. This sub-game is completely ignorable. Why? Let's get technical -
Vader has 12 health, and when you spend a card to have Luke attack him you are spending a card to roll 4d6, hitting on 4 and up. Now, even if you roll ideally, you will still have to spend three cards to deal enough damage to get him below the redemption threshold and another card to redeem him. In that IDEAL case, you're spending 4 cards to get 5 bonus cards. However, since the most LIKELY outcome is two hits per attack, on average you're going to have to spend 6 cards to get 5 cards back. On the other side, Luke has 13 health, so for the Empire, ideal rolls will have you spending 5 cards to get 4 cards back.
Sure, there's something to be said for getting uninterrupted turns, but your opponent is essentially getting two uninterrupted turns whenever you waste a card on this distraction. So essentially, this sub-game is completely extraneous, and if your opponent puts cards into it there's nothing to worry about. I suppose if you and your opponent both put cards into the duel the net card gain could be greater, as winning the duel is zero sum - but that net gain only really exists if your opponent actually tries to win it as well - so again, the solution here is to ignore it .
In The Queen's Gambit both the Jedi duel and the Battle of Grassy Plains are also technically ignorable as you could hypothetically win the game while never putting a card into them - but their outcomes swing the situation in the palace so drastically that you realistically can't afford to ignore them. If Naboo loses the ground battle then the Trade Federation can disgorge a near endless stream of battle droids into the palace - and if you lose the Jedi duel then you have to deal with an insanely powerful unit (or two!) running amok in the palace. With the exception of the Anakin sub-game, all of the sub-games of The Queen's Gambit feel equally well-developed and interesting. These two factors, the interconnectedness and equal weight of the sub-games, are what make The Queen's Gambit such a great game, especially in contrast to Risk: Star Wars Edition.
So to sum up the game's mechanisms, Risk: Star Wars Edition has at its heart a fairly neat and fun little light wargame that is wedged between two minigames, one tedious but mandatory, the other extraneous, and neither of which are connected to the core of the game very well.
While we're on the topic of criticism, let's take a look at the rulebook. Some parts, like this general outline of gameplay, are straightforward enough, but other parts are maddeningly vague. Does the Empire get bonus cards from blowing up Rebel fleet markers with the Death Star? Does the Empire get bonus cards from clearing sectors with the Death Star? Can Rebel fleet markers be attacked with TIE fighters or the Executor? Can TIE fighters attack immediately after deploying? None of the answers can be found in the rulebook.
These questions were posed to Hasbro, and one set of answers was given, but later, the questions were posed to one of the designers, and a completely different set of answers were given!
Really, this would have never flown coming from a smaller publisher- but Hasbro is big enough to get away with having a "we don't care, we don't have to" phone company attitude.
While the game balance was called into question early after release, with the Rebels winning the vast majority of games, the latter set of rule clarifications mentioned above have buffed the Empire to the point where the game feels pretty well balanced.
Despite all of this criticism, Risk: Star Wars Edition is a fun enough way to spend an hour. Most people I've introduced it to have enjoyed fairly well for what it is, and there's a lot to be said for that moment of tension when you finally make your attack run on the Death Star. But ultimately, it's fun enough. It's hard not to feel like it's an experience that I'm settling for because The Queen's Gambit costs literally ten times what it does. It's an entertaining distraction, not an epic experience in the same way The Queen's Gambit is.
Postscript: The Black Series Edition vs The Standard Edition
Now let's take a look at edition differences. Hasbro put out two versions of Risk: Star Wars edition - the standard edition, whose cover you saw at the beginning of this section, and the Black Series edition, which you see here.
Opening the box, we find that the lid opens on a cardboard hinge at the back, which is already torn and sure to break off eventually.
There's a foam insert to hold the center board and Rebel Fleet markers.
Lifting the foam layer reveals the rest of the insert. The foam layer also serves to prevent the cards and bits from getting strewn out of place, which it does very effectively.
Here's a look at the standard edition and the Black Series edition side by side. The Black Series has: better card stock and better cardboard quality, with glossy highlights and embossing in places; translucent dice; a better box insert; and finally, miniatures, rather than cardboard tokens, for the Falcon, the Executor, Stormtroopers, and the Death Star .
My only real complaint about the Black Series version is that the Rebel Fleet markers are even smaller than those in the regular version. It's difficult to fit 5 X-Wings on one of these markers even in the regular version, but with the Black Series it's pretty much impossible.
Here's another, closer look at the component differences. The starfighter miniatures are one of the few constants between the editions.
Here's a look at card back differences...
...and front. Note the glossy highlights and embossed textures on the Black Series edition.
Finally, let's look at the main boards from both versions. Note that the Black series version has one fold as opposed to four, and has warped considerably less due to its thicker, better quality cardboard. It also features less prominent branding.
You can really see the reflective sheen and embossing on the Black Series edition's board in this shot.
Overall, the Black Series version has a dramatically improved box and components - but also retails at $50 to the standard version's $30. In practice however the Black Series goes for about $25 on Amazon and the standard version for $15. At those prices I would choose the Black Series any day of the week. While the other touches are nice, the board is the main draw for me as it makes the difference in playability. While the standard edition's cheap cardboard and four folds mean that it warps and buckles easily, the Black Series edition sits flat every time.
Thanks again for reading everyone!
The Standard Edition of Risk: Star Wars Edition that I bought for the purposes of comparison with the Black Series edition has since been donated to Cincinnati's Play Library, where it continues to be enjoyed by kids today. The Play Library is a great little nonprofit where your old games and toys can find new life. Consider thinking about them this holiday season.
Also, special thanks to Chad Brozik, who let me play and photograph his copy of The Queen's Gambit for this review.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article on the Star Wars: Epic Duels Game Forum
Star Wars: Epic Duels
Epic Duels is a simple miniatures game where you pick a team of characters from the Star Wars universe and then have them duke it out with your opponents team.
With 12 teams to pick from, each with their own playstyle and unique actions, the main strength of Epic Duels is the variety it offers.
Each team consists of a major character and one or two supporting characters. Clockwise starting from the top left, we have: Count Dooku and super battle droids; Emperor Palpatine and Royal Guards; Darth Maul and battle droids; Darth Vader and stormtroopers; Boba Fett and Greedo; Jango Fett and Zam Wessel; Mace Windu and Clone troopers; Han Solo and Chewbacca; Luke and Leia; Obi-Wan and Clone Troopers; Yoda and Clone Troopers; and finally Anakin and Padme.
On their turn, the player will move their character or characters, then take two actions, which can be any combination of the following: Draw a card from their character deck, play a card from your hand (either an attack or a special), or heal a character. You can do the same action twice should you so choose. You win by defeating your opponents main character.
Now let's examine that in more detail:
"On a turn, the player will move their character..."
Here, right at the start, we come to perhaps the most divisive aspect of Epic Duels. Yes, it uses the much-despised "roll to move" mechanic - but it's not as bad as it might seem. The movement die determines how many of your characters can move, and how far. Depending on how you roll, you can move one character 3, 4, or 5 spaces - or ALL of your characters 2, 3, or 4 spaces. Movement is orthogonal only.
It's not as bad as it seems because random movement performs two roles in this game: it helps balance melee characters- who typically deal higher and more consistent damage- with ranged characters, and it introduces an element of uncertainty and drama that might otherwise be lacking. Also, many characters will have movement effects on their cards that allow them to mitigate the movement roll.
Attacking is how you actually damage your opponent's character and hopefully win the game. Here Obi-Wan has one of his troopers pop off a shot at Count Dooku. Obi-Wan is a melee character, while the Clones are ranged characters. There is no maximum range for ranged characters, but an odd quirk of this game is that diagonal lines of sight can only be traced at 45 degree angles from the grid. So the Clone Trooper has LoS to Count Dooku, but not to the Battle Droid on Dooku's left.
When a character has two secondary characters, like the clones, those characters are typically very weak. However, they mitigate the limitations of the movement die for melee characters by still allowing their team to make low-value ranged attacks such as this one.
Most combat cards also have a defense value on them. Here, Obi-Wan chooses to play a card in defense against Dooku's attack. The attack card is played face down, then once the defender has had a chance to play a card in defense, the attack card is flipped face up. Subtracting the 3 defense value of his combat card from Dooku's 7 attack, Obi-Wan takes 4 damage and Dooku draws back up from the effect on his card.
Having to choose whether to play a defense card before seeing your opoponents attack brings a welcome element of mind games to Epic Duels - did your opponent just play his best card straight away, or is he baiting out defense cards with low value attacks before delivering the final blow?
Another use for weak secondary characters such as the clones is to block opponents' movement.
If all of your secondary characters die, you can still use their cards by spending an action and discarding one in order to heal your main character for one point of damage.
Characters and Variety
With 12 different characters and 4 different maps to fight it out on, the greatest strength of Epic Duels is variety. With that in mind, I'm going to take a brief look at a few example duels that showcase the range of characters.
Mace Windu's Battlemind cards make him a versatile fighter who can defend well against large single strikes, but Darth Maul's frenzy of free attacks threatens to break his composure!
"Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."
Much of Han and Chewie's deck revolves around getting Chewie's Bowcaster attack- the most powerful in the game- into play and re-using it. There's only a single copy of the card, but after it's used you can play "Never tell me the odds" to shuffle it back into the deck, then "Wookie Instincts" to tutor it back into your hand.
They're going to have a hard time pulling that off though, because Emperor Palpatine thrives on disruption. His typical game plan is to hide behind his Royal Guards while gradually building up card advantage and zapping his opponent with unblockable Force Lightning. Oh, did you discard your Bowcaster Attack? Too bad.
"I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further."
Nothing stops you from playing two characters of the same affiliation against each other, except perhaps unfavorable starting positions for ranged characters.
Will Vader's telekinetic attacks, which don't care about range and can't be blocked, be enough to overcome the mobility, action denial, and ranged damage that Boba Fett's arsenal of gadgets grants him? Vader can score a one-hit KO with "All Too Easy"... but he has to get close enough to do it.
Will Anakin manage to defeat Jango Fett in the Geonosis arena before his fear of sand overcomes him?
Like his son, Jango Fett also has Rocket Retreats and Wrist Cables, but he also has free mobility from his jet pack and ways to escape being cornered in the form of his flamethrower.
Anakin, on the other hand, has powerful Anger and Calm cards representing his internal conflict. They're especially effective if used in quick succession - Anger makes him discard down to one, then Calm moves him 8 spaces and has him draw back up to five!
"The Force is strong in my family..."
As their opponent, attacking Luke and Leia presents a dilemma: you can attack Leia first to avoid having to deal with her powerful latent force abilities and keep her from healing Luke, but if you do succeed in taking her out, it drastically boosts the power of Luke's Justice attack cards.
Yoda, however, is well-suited for this fight as a control character. He has the best defensive cards in the game, and cards like Force Lift to neutralize his opponents defenses or Force Push to control spacing.
As I said, Epic Duels has tons of variety - 12 different characters, and they all play very differently.
On the flip side, yes, Epic Duels has 12 different characters - but it's a Hasbro game from 2002 - how well do you think they playtested those characters for balance?
In the years since it's been released, fans of the game have analyzed characters based on hundreds of sessions and found that there are definitely over-powered and under-powered characters. You can see one such analysis here - there's a rough tier list in the comments on that post, too.
For instance, Obi-Wan here wins nearly 80% of his matches. One factor in his success is the free movement on his cards, which can be very powerful. Both Force Control and Jedi Attack can be used to attack, then put 6 spaces of distance between between him and his opponent. Think about it - the highest number the movement die can roll is 5, so Obi-Wan has the power to deal large amounts of damage to other melee characters without getting hit back. But the heart of the problem is that his numbers are ridiculous. He's the second-best blocker in the game, after Yoda, but has much better attack values than Yoda does.
There are bits of clumsy design here and there, too - There's no functional difference between blocking for 12 and blocking for 15, and there's only one card in the game (Chewbacca's Bowcaster attack) where the difference between blocking for 12 and blocking for 10 matters, and even then only by one point of damage.
Between melee characters without many movement effects, duels on maps with obstacles can degenerate into a drawn-out game of keep-away. The hand limit of 10, combined with how the game only goes to time once one deck cycles twice, can encourage running away, hoarding cards, and healing in situations like this.
But it's not all bad news- there's a lot to recommend about Epic Duels. Team play, for instance, is one aspect where the game really shines.
Team games can mitigate the lopsided tier list since, you can relegate low-defense characters like Vader to the back of the field. The crowded board also prevents excessive stalling. In team games you win when you defeat all of the opposing teams main characters, but players are not eliminated when their main character is defeated: they can fight on with their secondary characters and use their main character cards to heal the secondaries.
Are there parts of Epic Duels that feel clunky and outdated? Certainly. It's not the deepest of games but it's fun as all hell and has charm to spare, and a session usually doesn’t last long enough for its flaws to catch up with it. I have to emphasize though that "fun" is meant in a specific way - if you come expecting some intense, brain-burning luckless card-driven duel à la BattleCon you will be disappointed. However, if having some drinks and laughs with friends while seeing if Mace Windu could beat Vader is what you're looking for, I think Epic Duels will leave you satisfied.
So despite its flaws, I love this game - but unfortunately, Hasbro didn't feel the same way. Above is the only glimpse we ever got of Hasbro's planned 2009 re-implementation, The Clone Wars Epic Duels. Somehow it died in development and never was published. It seems incredible that they got as far as package design and miniatures... and then it just disappeared. Hasbro is content to garbage out endless variations of Risk and Monopoly while failing to support any of their actually good games.
Epic Duels itself was never reprinted, and now regularly goes for $70 or more on eBay.
Luckily, the fans of Epic Duels - and there are many - have taken good care of the game despite Hasbro's lack of support. There are several active or semi-active online play groups still running, and dozens upon dozens of fan-made fighters based on characters from the films and the expanded universe. A good place to start with Epic Duels fan content is the 10 year anniversary edition, which includes 12 well-playtested new fighters, two new maps, and balance patches for characters from the original game. It makes a good game even better, and it and the fan base that made it possible are testaments to the enduring appeal of Epic Duels.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Click here to read this article on the Clash of the Lightsabers Game Forum
Star Wars: Episode I - Clash of the Lightsabers
Let's go back to 1999 for a minute to take a brief look at a small card game Hasbro put out as part of the glut of Episode I merchandizing- Clash of the Lightsabers.
Of course, since this is the '90s we're talking about, the miniatures that come with it aren't just any pewter figures- oh no, they're EXCLUSIVE, COLLECTIBLE pewter figures. They're pretty nice actually, even though the game doesn't really justify them. They're nothing more than glorified victory point trackers.
The rules are very simple: Each round, you're going to fight three battles, one after the other, by playing cards into them in an attempt to beat your opponents total card value. At the start of the round, you draw seven cards and assign three of them to be your starting cards for the battles. Whenever a player is behind in a battle, they have the option to play a card or concede the battle. Once a battle is won, you move on to the next battle until all three battles are done and the round is concluded. Any cards that you didn't play in the round get carried over to the next one, and you draw 7 more cards. Then the player who won the round gets 1 point if they won 2 out of 3, or 2 points if they won all 3. First to 5 points wins the game.
A more detailed gameplay example follows:
The starting cards for the first battle of the round have been flipped over, and, being behind, Darth Maul is on the play. He can choose to either play a card or concede the battle.
Having looked at the cards in his hand, he chooses to play Sith Lord, which adds the top card of his deck to the battle stack. It's Darth Sidious, who doubles the total of all other cards in the stack.
Since he was still behind with a total of 2, Darth Maul played a 3, bringing his total to 8. The play then passes to Qui-Gon Jinn, who plays his Jedi Knight card. This does the same thing as Maul's Sith Lord card, flipping the top card of his deck into the stack.
The card he flips is Obi-Wan, which doubles his total. His total is now 8, the same as Darth Maul's- however, he only has 3 cards in the stack, as opposed to Maul's 4, so Maul is still winning the battle.
Qui-Gon then plays the retreat card, which allows him to take all of his other played cards back into his hand at the cost of conceding the battle.
Retreat works especially well with Cards like Jedi Knight, since it allows you to gain two cards from it - one drawn the first time it was played, and the other the second.
Darth Maul wins the first battle, and now we move on to the second. The flip reveals a 2 for Qui-Gon and a 1 for Maul, so Maul is on the play. Maul plays another Darth Sidious, so that he ties Qui-Gon's 2 and is now winning the battle based on the number of cards in his stack.
Play passes to Qui-Gon, who plays a Jedi Knight, which flips a 1 onto his stack. Then back to Maul, who uses his last remaining card, a block, to negate Qui-Gon's 2.
Qui Gon plays a 3 onto the stack, and as Maul has no more cards, he must concede the battle.
You might have wondered why Maul used his block card rather than just conceding the last battle and saving it, especially with Qui-Gon's card advantage after the first-battle retreat. Now we see why - he planned Final Attack as his last card, which forces him to discard his hand (without drawing back up - that's a misprint on the card). He had hoped that this would be enough to win it.
But Qui-Gon has this one in the bag. He plays a 3, followed by Obi-Wan for a total of 8, winning the battle and the round. Since he won two out of three, he moves his miniature ahead one space on the Final Duel track, putting him one point closer to winning. He saves the 4 for the next round.
You can see even from this single-round example that Retreat is a game-defining card. It always has to be kept in mind when playing, and provides massive advantages in a battle. It combos with Jedi Knight / Sith Lord and Use the Force (draw two cards) to provide ridiculous card advantage.
As we saw with Risk: Star Wars Edition last episode, Hasbro has a problem with writing sloppy rules for games that should otherwise be very simple affairs. Clash of the Lightsabers has not just the fairly significant misprint you see here, but also too many ambiguous, “choose your own adventure" rules: Is the discard from life drain random or picked? If you play two 2x cards into the same battle, does it quadruple the value of your other cards, or do these effects not stack? The official FAQ pretty much just says, "do whichever." It also offers a variant to tone down Retreat in which that card only allows you to take your normal number cards back into hand - definitely the way I would play it.
Between the paper-thin theme and the elementary-school-math-flash-cards gameplay, Clash of the Lightsabers feels like a game that Reiner Knizia would crank out on a bad day. Indeed, there are more than a few mechanical parallels to be drawn between it and Battle Line or Blue Moon, beside which it pales in comparison.
How many times can we re-use the same still?
But perhaps that's too harsh. Clash of the Lightsabers may be an uninspired game but it's not an objectively terrible one. The bluffing and mind games are there, and for a 15 minute long two player game you could certainly do worse. It can easily be found on eBay for about $3-$5, which is worth it for the pewter minis alone. Let's just say that for better or worse, it's an appropriately priced $3-$5 game.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Clone Wars Risk - Gameplay
Image credit: Filip W.
The next game we're going to be looking at is Risk: Star Wars - The Clone Wars Edition (henceforth Clone Wars Risk), from 2004.
Unlike 2015's Risk: Star Wars Edition, which I looked at in the last episode, Clone Wars Risk is actually a Risk game. Since I assume most of the people reading this probably know how to play Risk, I'm not going to talk at length about the core mechanics of this game, as they're the same as baseline Risk. However, there are a number of thematic touches that set the game apart from from the baseline version, improving the formula and making it more interesting to play.
The two factions each have a deck of cards with various actions they can play that lend them some personality. The cards can be used in one of three ways: as in traditional Risk, they can be turned in in sets for additional reinforcements; they can be turned in to build one of three classes of ship; and finally, they can be played for their special abilities.
Ships are another one of the tweaks that enhance this version. While not counting as armies themselves, they move along with armies and confer bonuses based on what type of ship they are. Fighters allow you to re-roll 1s, Corvettes add 1 to your highest die result, and Capital ships let you replace one D6 with a D8. At the start of your turn, you can turn in a single card to build one ship of the corresponding type.
However, the most game-changing addition to Clone Wars Risk is the Order 66 track. At the beginning of each Separatist player's turn, Palpatine moves one step up the Order 66 track.
They also draw a Separatist leader token, look at it, and place it face-down on one of their planets. These separatist leaders are liabilities that provide the Republic with 1 to 3 bonus card draws if captured.
At the end of their turn, once per game, one of the Separatist players can call Order 66. When they do, an 8-sided die is rolled for each Republic-controlled planet in turn. If the number rolled is within the target numbers for the space of the track that Palpatine is on, the planet changes sides and each army on it is replaced with a Separatist army.
However, launching Order 66 gives the Separatists a massive Achilles' Heel: in enacting the order, Palpatine must emerge from the shadows and reveal himself as Darth Sidious. His figure is removed from the track and placed on any one planet that the Separatists control. From then on, the Republic players no longer have to eliminate all Separatist armies to win- they need only capture Palpatine.
Usually the separatist player wants to wait on Order 66 until they get to the end of the track, but there is some incentive for the separatists to call Order 66 early even if they're not on the verge of losing. First off, once it's called they remove all separatist leaders from the map and no longer have to place them. They also prevent the Republic from using the effects on Anakin cards. However, most Separatist players seem to prefer waiting the 5.5 rounds it takes to get to the end of the track for almost certain victory.
The Republic did well in this example, forcing an early and largely ineffective Order 66. Here Republic forces prepare to mount their assault on the Emperor's final stronghold. The armies defending Palpatine automatically roll D8s, so the Republic has brought Venators to even the odds.
While this overview has been focused on mechanics so far, I'll get into analysis a bit more once I've laid out the gameplay of both games.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Original Trilogy Risk - Gameplay
On to the other game! In 2006, Hasbro put out Risk: Star Wars Original Trilogy Edition (henceforth Original Trilogy Risk) to coincide with the first release of the un-altered original films on DVD.
Like Clone Wars Risk, Original Trilogy Risk offers a number of tweaks to the basic Risk formula in order to capture the theme of the movies. As opposed to Clone Wars Risk, where up to four players can play as members of two faction teams, Original Trilogy Risk allows up to five players to play as members of three teams: the Empire, the Rebels, and the Hutts.
To win, the Empire simply has to eliminate the Rebels.
The Rebel goal, however, is slightly less straightforward. At the beginning of each of their turns, the Imperial players will draw an Imperial base token, look at the bottom of it, and put it down on a world they control. One of these "undisclosed locations" will hold the Emperor. The Rebels have to find and and take over that location in order to win the game. This is easier said than done, since Imperial bases defend with D8s!
The Hutt goal... well, we'll get to that in a moment.
In the looks department, Original Trilogy Risk is a vast improvement on the Clone Wars version. Gone are the monotonous yellowish-green backgrounds and tiny, uniform planets in favor of a sprawling, colorful starscape.
The Balance of the Force Meter plays a significant role in the game. It starts in favor of the Empire, but can be see-sawed in either direction by events on the board (Death Star destroying a planet, Rebels taking over an Imperial base, etc) and by card play. Having the Force in your favor confers card draw bonuses to players and also modifiers to assaulting the Death Star.
Just as in Clone Wars Risk, each faction has a deck of cards that they can draw from with unique effects, lending them their own unique play styles. The Hutt cards are especially fun, as they can steal armies from opponents, bribe commanders to cancel invasions, profiteer from Rebel-Imperial battles, and all kinds of other dastardly deeds.
So much for the Truce... the Death Star vaporizes Bakura. By the way, Bakura is not in the Ison Corridor, but it's no longer a canon planet either so whatever. While there are parts of the EU that make me mourn its de-canonization, "The Truce at Bakura" isn't one of them. Good riddance to soul-enslaving dinosaurs.
The Death Star begins the game on an Imperial-controlled world and can be moved a D6 roll of spaces by the Imperial players on each of their turns. If it ends up on a planet, the Empire can play a Death Star card from their hand to destroy the planet, reducing it to an asteroid field of tumbling rubble. The asteroid field makes the space almost completely impassable, and so can be used to seal off sector-to-sector connections.
There are only three Death Star ignition cards in the Imperial deck, and each of them can only be used in a certain set of sectors, which prevents the Death Star from being too overpowered.
While the Death Star can be used offensively, its defensive qualities are just as useful - the sector it is in cannot be invaded without attacking the Death Star first. To destroy the Death Star, the attackers have to roll a sum of 18. If they fail this roll, all attacking troops are destroyed. While this sounds very luck-driven, there are quite a few cards the Rebels can play to help their chances or even flat out ensure success, and the balance of the Force meter also provides modifiers.
This added defense often entices the Empire to leave the Death Star to defend Palpatine- and so the assault on the Death Star is often part of the game's climax despite its destruction not being a rebel victory condition in and of itself.
While the Empire has to completely eliminate the Rebels and the Rebels have to kill the Emperor, the Hutts win by controlling 10 resource planets, which are the ones highlighted in green. Having conquered the Mid Rim and broken through into Core Worlds, the Hutt player here prepares to exploit a Rebel weak spot and mount a final offensive for victory. If his forces manage to make it through Sullust -> Sluis Van -> Omwat -> Elom, he will win instantly.
Clone Wars Risk and Original Trilogy Risk: Analysis
All in all, Original Trilogy Risk and Clone Wars Risk are actually fairly decent games despite being Risk variants. They implement their theme quite well, and they - especially Original Trilogy Risk - are almost good enough to make you forget you're playing Risk. Almost.
While they're good games in their own right, the more important question is this: in the middle of a board game renaissance where we never want for choices, is it still worthwhile to play these games for any reason other than their Star Wars theme?
In the case of Clone Wars Risk, I would argue no. Although it is probably the best 1v1 Risk experience and the only 2v2 one, for the former it has to compete with an innumerable number of other games and for the latter I would rather play 1775: Rebellion or one of the other games that uses the same system.
My other problem with Clone Wars Risk is that the Order 66 mechanic brings both good and bad to the game, but mostly bad. The one good thing about Order 66 is that it speeds up the game, making Clone Wars Risk one of the fastest Risk variants I've played. One way or the other, it never lasts more than 90 minutes to 2 hours at the very most.
The bad thing is that Order 66 makes Clone Wars Risk a bit of a coin toss. It grants a distinct advantage to whichever side comes out with an early lead. One of two things happens - either the Republic does well and consistently wins battles early on, forcing an early and less effective Order 66 out of desperation on the part of the Separatists, or the Republic does poorly early on, allowing the Separatists to launch Order 66 when the time is right and take over nearly all Republic systems, then mop up the remainder. If Order 66 was done in desperation, Palpatine being placed on the board merely speeds up the Separatists' demise; if it was launched in the fullness of time it rarely matters either, since in that case the Separatists merely put him as far from the front lines as possible.
But while Clone Wars Risk falls short, Original Trilogy Risk is a different matter.
The three-faction gameplay is one of the best and most distinctive elements of Original Trilogy Risk.
A good three-player wargame or dudes-on-a-map game is hard to find, since in most game systems what results often follows this pattern: players A and B get locked in a war with each other, while player C is free to accomplish his goals and coasts to victory. The common alternative scenario, in which players A and B gang up on player C and then square off afterward, is just as unfortunate and frustrating to play.
Yet in Original Trilogy Risk the third wheel of the Hutts is well-implemented and for the most part avoids either of those scenarios. Neither the Empire nor the Rebels needs to defeat the Hutts to win, but if they leave the Hutts entirely alone, the Hutts can easily win. Nor do the Hutts need to ally with one faction or another, since the resource planets they need will be split between different factions. This prevents a long-term ganging-up on one player, since the Hutts constantly have to go after both factions. The game also encourages you to split your attention between the two other factions rather than ganging on up on one, since it allows you to draw more cards at the end of the turn if you do so.
So while more modern games have long since replaced baseline Risk and most Risk variants for me, Original Trilogy Risk's implementation of a 3-player free-for-all is successful enough for it to stand on its own among them. And so, by attempting to solve a genre-wide problem with a good degree of success, I can happily say that it has earned a place on my shelf.
Paul Klee, "Tod und Feuer" (1940)
Thanks for reading! Episodes IV and V are about 95% done, only needing to be re-formatted for BGG.
However, Episode III, which deals with the Star Wars CCG, is only about 70% done. During the original retrospective, which was posted to reddit's /r/boardgames forum, the SW CCG proved a huge sticking point. A lot of people love the game, but my view of it was very negative. People would comment things like, "I can't wait to see your take on the SW CCG, I love that game!" And so I was conflicted over this as this entire exercise was mostly supposed to be a celebration of Star Wars and gaming. I'm going to give it another shot, however.
New episodes will be posted here as soon as they are completed.
As a grad student who also has a job I'm shooting for about one per month, though I may be able to get more than one done over Christmas break. As I have managed to play all of the games going forward, the upcoming episodes will be long, more like the Assault on Hoth / Battle for Endor review than the quick overviews of Freedom in the Galaxy and Star Warriors
If you'd like to be notified when new episodes come out, just subscribe to this Geeklist.
Thanks again and Happy Holidays / Star Wars season!