I'll go ahead and say this now, Star Wars: Imperial Assault is my favorite game. That being said, it still has some flaws, and I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I love this game and will play it just about every chance I get. I really enjoy the Star Wars universe, and I think this really captures the feel of a Star Wars adventure. I'm going to break this review into a couple sections, so feel free to skip to whatever you want (but you should probably at least read the conclusion). This is cross-posted from my blog The Board Game Reviewer, so if you enjoy this, check that out also.
Anyway, let's get going.
| W Eric Martin
Imperial Assault offers 2 different game types, a story driven campaign game and a 1v1 skirmish game. The campaign game and core mechanics are reimplemented from Descent 2E and tweaked/improved a bit, and the skirmish game was added for IA. They utilize probably around 80% of the same mechanics: the movement around the map, achieving objectives, combat system, etc. is the same. If you've only played one of the game types, you can switch to the other pretty easily.
In the campaign game, up to 4 players will take control of generic Star Wars heroes (jedi, smuggler, wookie etc.) and play in a series of missions against the Imperial player, who also functions as a pseudo GM. The heroes and the Imperial player will both gain new skills, abilities and items as the game progresses, which culminates in a grand final mission. In the skirmish game, 2 players will build a strike force/army, and battle on a map.
Imperial Assault is produced by Fantasy Flight Games, who tend to have excellent production value, and this is no different. The main components are the cardboard map tokens you'll use to create each mission, and the miniatures. Also, there is a TON of content in here; 34 miniatures, 200 cards, 50 map tiles. The price point is a bit steep, but you get what you pay for, it's a great value.
The art on the maps is great, and comes with 4 typical Star Wars environments: desert, forest, Imperial interior and Mercenary interior. They really add a lot to immersing you in the setting, despite most of the tokens being generic corridors and rooms, with usually one big set-piece like an Imperial Hanger or a garbage pit in the middle.
The miniatures are pretty good. Unfortunately they're unpainted, but they're pretty good quality and have a good amount of detail on them. Along with a few door stands, dice and player sheets, the rest of the components are tons of cards, tokens and the like, which can get a little fiddly at times, but the art on all of them is great and they look good. Also there's 4 rulebooks (What?! 4? It's not bad, I'll cover that later), and they're all very well laid out and pretty clear.
Mission in progress
Ah, here we are. The meat of the game! The stuff that actually matters. I'll address the different game types separately, and come back to thoughts about the specific mechanics of the game.
Here's a quick rundown of the mechanics, without getting into the nitty gritties of the rules. The core mechanic of the game is an action-point allowance system. Each card represents a unit, and players take turns activating their units in the order they choose. A unit would be something like either a single character, like Chewbaca, or a group of 3 stormtroopers or 2 Rebel Saboteurs. A unit gets 2 actions, and can use those actions doing a number of things: Move, Attack, Interact, Rest (Campaign only), Special Actions... That's probably it. It's pretty simple since you only get to use 2 actions on your turn, but it works. You always feel like if you had one more action that'd be enough to do what you need. Do I use an action to rest and heal up, or do I just charge ahead and open the door so we can finish out objective? And throughout the campaign you'll gain the ability to do things outside of your actions, like free movement points, cards that let you rest, stuff like that. I think it works really well. The combat is resolved with die, which I will go into more later because I think it deserves more of a look.
Hero sheet and items equipped to Fenn | R2EQ
Campaign Structure: As mentioned before, this pits up to 4 rebel players against the Imperial Player. The campaign will evolve over the course of 12 missions, alternating between the 6 campaign narrative missions and 6 essentially random side missions. Each Hero has the traits of Speed for movement, Health, and Endurance to spend on their special abilities(for example, Fenn pictured on the right can spend 1 Endurance point to use "Havoc Shot"). Over the course of the campaign, the Rebel players will be able to evolve their heroes, gaining XP and credits after each mission. The players gain XP individually on a per player basis and can use it to purchase new skills for their character, while the group as a whole earns the credits and needs to decide who gets what items after each mission. While the heroes have specific playstyles, like the tanky wookie or the stealthy smuggler, they're all pretty well rounded and can complete objectives and deal damage pretty evenly. The Imperial Player also gets to choose new skills, based on the class type he chooses at the beginning. So at the beginning of the campaign, he could decide he play with the Military Might deck and purchase those skills throughout the game, or maybe he wants the Subversive Tactics deck. This is a nice touch, so the Imperial player doesn't feel left out of the RPG element of the campaign. Throughout the campaign, the heroes can earn the ability to bring in allies, such as Han or Luke (for a price), and the Imperial Player can potentially bring in Vader, or purchase missions that the Rebels have to play which will usually benefit the Imperial Player. The winner of the entire campaign is decided by who wins the final mission.
Missions: For each mission, the Imperial Player is in control of the flow of the game. The Campaign Guide details the set-up for each mission, such as the map layout, objectives, and enemy placement. Only the Imperial Player has this knowledge! This gives a great feel of exploration and adventure to the rebel heroes. While they'll know the basics of their objective, they won't know that in Round 4 the Imperial Player brings in a AT-ST from the outside, or what's behind the door to the bridge of the Star Destroyer; maybe it's a measly officer! Or maybe it's Vader! Or maybe some stormtroopers pop out of a side room before they even get there! Who knows! The Imperial player knows, that's who. And while he has this script to follow from the book, there's also some flexibility you get in choosing a few units you want to bring in, which is really nice. This discrepancy in knowledge is one of the best parts of the game, and makes it a lot of fun. As far as the actual game play goes, it follows the core mechanics I mentioned above. I think the decision making is a lot more tense in the campaign, since there's more abilities/actions to choose from.
The Skirmish gametype consists of 2 players building up a squad/army/team whatever of their miniatures and duking it out on a map for about an hour. These use the same gameplay mechanics as the campaign, with the exception of the hero's abilities and such; you get skirmish versions of the campaign heroes, where characters like Luke or Vader will play the same. These are usually focused about half on objectives and half on killing, which is really nice compared to the straight deathmatch of something like x-wing. If there were no objectives, all the battles would inevitably turn into clusters in the middle of the map. A lot of people coming for the skirmish will likely have an X-Wing or miniatures background, so I'll compare it that briefly. The squad building, where each player creates their team before the battle, is both simpler and more complex than in X-Wing. It's simple, because you have 40 points instead of 100, and you're not really adding any upgrades or modifications to your units. You're just picking your characters. However, after that, you also need to build a deck of special command cards, and I've seen new players get tripped up here more often than anywhere else. It's just kind of hard to make a deck since you don't really know what the cards do, and even if you do it's just kind of up to the draw when you're playing in the game. I think my biggest complaint about the skirmish mode is that you don't feel like you have as much control over the customization of your squad as you would in X-Wing. That being said it's still a very solid experience and something I really enjoy! It just feels the command card element is a bit lacking.
Dice used for combat
Combat System: I really like all of the gameplay mechanics, and I think the combat system in particular shines. I think it's really well implemented. Some people might instinctively think that since it's dice based its really simple and random, but I think FFG have done a great job at adapting and improving the Descent system, while adding some Star Wars flavor. The use of custom dice instead of generic D6 already makes it a lot more fun for me. There are 4 different types of attack dice, and they help add more flavor to the types of combat. So a wookie would attack with the power die, while an HK assassin droid would use dice that give more range. Once you play enough you start to get a feel for the dice and the results they generate. Red = Powerful, Yellow = Abilities, etc. It simplifies the dice really well. The defense dice work the same; one has lots of blocks for the stronger, slower characters, while another is more elusive and dodgey for Han Solo. While the line of sight system seems fiddly at first, its really pretty simple, and there's enough examples in the book that you can figure it out without too much trouble. On top of the damage you do based on dice roll, each character has abilities you can add during an attack, like stunning or piercing through armor. Since the whole game is based around combat, having a good combat system holds the game together, and I think they're pulled it off really well.
Artwork/Components: This is an A+. Fantasy Flight knocks it out of the park on this one. You get a ton of models, maps, scenarios in the box, and they all look fantastic. The scenery from the maps is really immersive, the models look great, the art on the cards looks wonderful.
The Rulebooks: Yeah, the 4 manuals are a big plus for me. It's broken down into a Learn to Play, Rules Reference Guide, Skirmish guide, and Campaign Guide. The Skirmish Guide just covers how to set up a skirmish game, and the Campaign Guide is actually the missions you'll play in a campaign, so that's not even a rules book. So essentially, instead of teaching you how to play in 40-odd pages, Fantasy Flight stripped down the game to it's most basic and made a 10 page Learn to Play guide. This let's you just jump right in and get started with the game, and learn some of the details as needed. You don't need to learn about all the rules to get started, such as the effect of a bleed condition, so why force you to read them all at once? Instead, once you encounter something you're unfamiliar with, such as the aforementioned bleed condition, you can look it up in the index of the Rules Reference Guide, figure it out, and keep playing. The caveat here is you might miss a few rules because of this, but it's really not a big deal. After you're played a game or 2 and feel like you have a handle on things, check out a Rules Commonly Missed thread and double check some things. I know this might seem like something small to talk about so much, but this structure makes this game way more accessible to new players, and that's a great thing.
Campaign: The campaign is a blast to play. It really feels like a Star Wars adventure, and that's what it's supposed to be. The missions are mostly well designed, and leveling your character and unlocking new skills is a lot of fun. The skills add depth to both the game and your character, and are well implemented. While the narrative in the missions isn't amazing, it's good enough. Its about in the middle between flavor text and a really compelling story. Most of the fun from the story comes from the unexpected things that happen during the mission that I mentioned earlier. It really creates a good sense of discovery and adventure.
Skirmish: Though skirmish does have some drawbacks, like the limits of squad building and command cards that I mentioned earlier, it's still a solid inclusion. It's fun to just assemble a strike team of Luke, Han, and Chewie and battle it out against 20 stormtroopers, and you can do that here. I think the campaign is definitely the highlight of Imperial Assault, but I still love Skirmish mode and play in tournaments when I can.
Balance: This game has some balance issues in the campaign mode, and this is definitely the biggest weakness. There were several missions that were incredibly one sided, either towards the heroes or the Imperials, and that just kind of sucks. This mainly comes from the side missions, since they can appear either in the beginning of the campaign or the end, and if the Rebels draw a really difficult side mission early, they can get stomped. The game attempts to balance this by limiting the resources of the Imperials early in the campaign, and it kind of works, though not completely.
The solution to this is something that isn't written in the manual, but it probably should be. The Imperial player also has to function as the Game Master, essentially. Since they have the Campaign book with the story, and stormtrooper spawn points, they know there's a turret in the next room, it's easier to kind of manage the game as you go to make sure it's balanced for everyone. Maybe don't spend all of your reinforcement points if you know Boba Fett is about to pop out of the closet, you know? Stuff like that. And it's okay to just pummel the Rebels sometimes! That's fun too. But when that happens game after game and the heroes feel crippled, then that's not really fun for anyone. It's kind of a bummer that everyone can't go all out all the time since it's a strategic game, but it's also a story-based fantasy adventure game. And the Imperial player won't have to micro manage the game all the time, but it's something to be aware of.
Mission Repetition/Character Development: I'm lumping these together because they both deal with the story/character development aspect.
For each chapter of the campaign, there are 2 possible options for which mission will be played. So for example, if you played Escape from Tatooine (fake mission name) as the 2nd story mission, when you play through the campaign again there's a 50% chance you'll have that same story mission to play at that point. This limits reaplayability considerably, since for me half the fun is not knowing what happens in each mission. Personally, my group utilized some house rules for our second campaign, and just chose to play the alternate story missions each time they came up, regardless of what the book says. The side missions that are mixed into the campaign are totally random and help with replayability. Additionally, there's already 3 box expansions with more campaign missions, so if you're looking for more, there you go. You just won't be able to play the base campaign over and over without getting tired of it.
The character development of the hero you play is also limited. I've heard this as a complaint by some people who expected more depth in this area. As far as the development goes, there are 8 skills for each character to choose from throughout a campaign, and weapons you can buy, and that's about it. You don't have a ton of freedom in how you shape a character; for example, you can't decide you'd like to spend an XP point to increase the Wookie's speed, or the endurance of the Bothan. You have to choose one of the predefined skills. This wasn't a big deal for me, because that's just what the game is, and I still felt attached to my character and like I was growing him. You just need to know what to expect in this area.
Set-up/Fiddly Bits: This takes a long time to get on the table. There's tons of cards and tokens to keep in order, and it takes a long time to assemble the maps when you have to hunt for all the tiles that make up the map. However, that allows for tons of different ways to construct missions, and set-up doesn't actually affect gameplay, so I don't really mind that much. Also, keeping track of damage is a bit clunky, especially for generic units where you really just have to push a pile of damage tokens along with your stormtrooper. It can be easy to get who has what health confused, or which unit is stunned.
Who is this not for?
People who hate Star Wars: If you don't like Star Wars, you're not really going to like this game. I mean you might because the mechanics are solid, but if that's the case, you might as well pick up Descent 2nd Edition. This game is dripping with Star Wars theme, which for me makes it a big plus.
People who enjoy streamlined, well balanced play with tight mechanics and decision making: Obviously, this isn't a Euro. There's miniatures, dice, great theme, stories and character progression. If that's not your cup of tea, then this game obviously isn't for you. This seems obvious, but there you go.
Families/People without a consistent gaming group: If you don't have a consistent gaming group that is willing to meet regularly to play this, don't get this. This is not a game you just decide to pull out at a get together, playing this game is a big investment. For most groups, a campaign is going to look like one meeting a week and one mission, which means it'll take around 3 months to do a campaign. My group was able to do a mission a day and finished in 2-3 weeks, but that's pretty rare. I say not for families because, well, it's not a family game (caveat: see below). It's more complex than your standard family game like 7 Wonders or Sheriff of Nottingham, and again requires consistent playing for a campaign.
This is the number one reason not to get this game: the time commitment. This is my favorite game, and it hasn't hit the table in a few months, just because I haven't had the chance to. Which makes me sad. Maybe I need more friends. Maybe I need BETTER friends. Are my friends sub-par because they won't commit to an Imperial Assault campaign? Do I just have the wrong friends? I like my friends. Who am I to define friendship?
Who is this game for?
Star Wars fans! Get this.
People who like campaigns / character development: If the idea of crafting your own Star Wars character in a Star Wars setting over the course of a campaign sounds fun, get this. It's fun, it's rich, it's a joy.
Families/Couples/People with a gaming partner: Remember when I said this isn't a good family game? It's also a GREAT family game. As far as consistent gaming groups go, what's more consistent than a family? This would be a great choice for, say, a dad and some older kids/teens who want to play a campaign over a couple days. It really is a fun, unique experience. Also, the skirmish game mode is a great 1 v 1 game, which makes it great for couples or you and your normal gaming partner. It's also possible to play the campaign with 2 players, but I'd suggest against that. Also, if you're interested in a tactical Star Wars miniatures skirmish game, this is great.
By now, I've provided an overview of the game and listed it's perceived strength's and weaknesses. "Good theme, fun campaign, good combat system, still has balance flaws." Since a rating is how good a game is minus it's faults, you'd probably expect me to give a rating of 8.5 or so out of 10. But here's the thing: I've given this game a perfect 10/10. How can that be? imperial Assault clearly has flaws, it's obviously not a perfect game. And that's true. But I think there's more to it than that. There's more that matters than game mechanics, strengths and weaknesses. It's about the experience.
There was a moment during my second campaign in Imperial Assault where I turned to one of my friends I was playing with and said, "This is the best gaming experience I've ever had." I was invested in my character, our team of heroes had developed strategies on how to work together in missions, the looming threat of the Empire was there, the combat system gave me what I wanted, everything just... worked. I love what Imperial Assault offers so much, that I'm willing to forgive it it's faults. I don't mind the set-up when the game's this fun to actually play. I don't mind the balance issues when the campaign gives me the fun, soaring Star Wars adventure I was hoping it would be. Star Wars: Imperial Assault is an imperfect game, and it isn't for everyone. But it is for me.
New South Wales
When you walk ...through a Storm...hold your head up high!
A nice balanced write up Caleb - thanks for taking the time.
Great review. It is also my favorite game. The return to Hoth expansion is very much worth getting if you haven't yet. The campaign is just as long as the original and the rebel and imperial players added are great.
Neil Thomson wrote:
A nice balanced write up Caleb - thanks for taking the time.
Thank's Neil. I was inspired by your Memoir '44 review and wanted to provide something like that for IA. I appreciate the feedback.
Have you tried the descent app?..what do you think your opinion of the game will be with the app in play?..