Note: As has become the norm for my tabletop reviews, this is a heads up that I’m still a relative beginner to tabletop games at large! However I am a big ol’ Star Wars nerd and a fan of Fantasy Flight’s releases in the past.
This review is based entirely on the core set of Imperial Assault (2014), supplied by Esdevium Games.
The Star Wars universe has heaps of potential to be used for board games, that much is obvious. Unfortunately for tabletop fans, Hasbro historically haven’t used the board game licence for Star Wars for much beyond fast and casual tie-in games, mostly aimed at families. It’s left us Star Wars board game fans who want something deeper feeling a little disappointed. Thankfully Fantasy Flight swooped down late last year with Imperial Assault, a new game based on Descent, which mashes up qualities from miniatures games, RPGs and board games to create a rich experience for fans of a galaxy far, far away…
So firstly, what is Imperial Assault? With an RRP of £79.99, Imperial Assault is a tactical game for 2-5 players and is both competitive and cooperative, depending on how you play. In the game’s campaign mode one player controls all the Imperial units and resembles a GM from tabletop RPGs. This means they guide the overall direction of the game as well as participate themselves as an opponent for the Rebel players. The Imperial player controls mission events, such as reinforcements arriving or doors slamming shut, and has much more control over the game. Meanwhile the remaining 1-4 players control Rebel Alliance heroes, choosing from the set of diverse available characters.
Both the Rebel players and the Imperial player have opposing objectives in each game and will be directly at odds. Regardless of who wins, the story will continue onto the next match, with both players earning rewards which they can use to bolster their resources and equipment. Finally the story will hit a concluding mission and the winner of the campaign will be decided by it. The earlier matches having provided an opportunity to gain a tactical advantage in time for this deciding finale.
You’d be forgiven for expecting that to be the entire game, but as a surprising bonus the game also contains a skirmish mode letting two players go head to head. Although this mode lacks the story progression of the campaign, it makes up for it with the ability for players to build their own armies from the available miniatures. Furthermore armies can be customised further by choosing different command cards, which can be used in combat to alter the game through extra abilities.
What’s in the box?
Imperial Assault comes in a large hefty box with a lot of content inside. There are bags of miniatures, map tiles, multiple manuals, lots of tokens and many, many decks of cards.
Each deck of cards has a different use, some are items or useable abilities while others serve a completely different function such containing character stats or even working to manage available missions. The mission deck for instance helps players track and choose which mission is coming next in the campaign storyline. Most decks are used during the campaign to create a set of resources which will carry over into future games, as such it can make things a little tricky to store as so many things need to be put aside. Thankfully the game’s thick cardboard tokens are much easier to manage, being used to track character damage or just mark important points on the map.
Each Mission is played on a different map and the exact size and composition of it depends on the mission itself and what objectives are involved. These maps are created by using the included tiles to pop the map together like a jigsaw. I was pleasantly surprised by how much variety is included in these pieces. Each map tile is double sided and with over 35 included pieces, you can create plenty of different layouts altogether. Some missions call for tight close quarters maps while others are huge with large interiors containing multiple corridors and entrances. The tiles are all covered with environmental details such as foliage, muddy ground, doorways, computers, etc. all turning the map into an illustrated piece and more than just a set of gridded squares. The maps also come with different environments and in different lighting conditions, meaning altogether there’s a colourful assortment of scenery.
Meanwhile the miniatures themselves are nice and sturdy. They’re unpainted but coloured differently based on faction. They do contain enough detail however to make painting them a worthy task, if you’re feeling up to it yourself. With different poses, at a glance you can absolutely tell the miniatures apart, you’ll never confuse a Stormtrooper for an Royal Guard for instance. However since each miniature of a type is identical, it does create a potential problem with getting mixed up, especially in situations where one squad is squeezing into a corridor while another of the same type has just entered the battle. To deal with this Fantasy Flight have included a set of coloured stickers allowing you to add some colour-coded numbers to the base of each figure, helping you to easily distinguish the squads. This is the solution I went with and I found it worked just fine, but I notice that some other players have chosen to paint their units different colours, which sounds like a more creative solution if you’re willing.
Whether the look of the miniatures is a positive or a negative is down to your own tastes. Some players might enjoy the chance to customise the miniatures with their own colours, while others might feel a little disappointed that they don’t come pre-painted. But it is hard to complain when the game already comes with so many pieces without pushing into a triple figure price point.
Imperial Assault is a fairly straightforward game to grasp the basics of, but it’s a bit tricky to master the entire rules. To help the game comes with two different manuals, as well as two separate books for the campaign and skirmish games respectively. The first manual is a gentle step-by-step introduction to the game which pauses twice for you two play two progressively more complicated matches, introducing you to more rules. These both work really well for getting to grips with things. However after that the game’s helping hand floats away and leaves you pick up the rest on your own. As such our first proper game was a bit of a stop and start affair, as we would turn to the second manual for help, a dense alphabetical reference guide of the majority of the game’s rules and terms. It’s not that the game is overly complicated, but it does give you a lot to take in during those early games.
How does it play?
So let’s talk about what it’s like to actually play the game and how the mechanics actually work. I won’t bore you with exact details, but essentially players take turns activating miniatures, going back and forth until everybody has acted. Imperial miniatures often come in squads of multiple units, who all act during the same turn, one at a time. All miniatures, including Rebel heroes, have a corresponding card listing their stats, including how far they can move across the gridded map.
Attacking and defending are handled with coloured 6-sided dice, meaning there’s very little stats or numbers to play with, instead it’s nice and simple. Both range and damage are handled by the dice, with only range using actual numbers, the rest relying on symbols which are added up and sometimes cancelled out depending on if their opposing symbols were rolled too. Altogether this keeps combat rounds snappy and the game moving quickly. Players of Edge of the Empire or X-Wing will be used to this mechanic and some symbols are even shared across the games.
One of the best things about Imperial Assault is that it feels like a Star Wars game. Due to the threat system Imperial players are given a constant flow of resources to send in. This means Stormtroopers and their ilk bust through the doors in waves, getting gunned down by fearless Rebels as they frantically work to finish their objective. It also means the Imperial player does feel like the more powerful opponent of the two, with better resources to draw from, while the Rebels are a plucky eclectic band completely outmatched in terms of numbers. But cleverly the game isn’t unbalanced. Rebel heroes are vastly more powerful than the majority of Imperial units and asymmetrical objectives mean campaign missions are crafted to leave both players feeling like they’re on relatively even footing.
This Star Wars flavour is further enhanced by Fantasy Flight’s exceptionally high production values. I first learnt it back with the Edge of the Empire RPG, but Fantasy Flight cut no corners when it comes to artwork and presentation. Whether it’s the rule book, character cards or even the box art, every piece of art looks phenomenal. It’s also really refreshing how unique a lot of it is. Rather than plaster pictures of Darth Vader everywhere the art often uses original characters who are tied to the game.
Room to expand?
Like other miniature games, Imperial Assault can be enhanced with extra purchasable packs. To demonstrate how these work, two are included: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, two obviously iconic characters. The game can be enjoyed without opening up these packs but there are opportunities to incorporate them into the campaign game if you choose to do so. They do add a nice amount of value to the game, adding not just the miniatures but including new missions and extra cards for using them too.
It’s worth mentioning that there are larger expansion packs available for Imperial Assault too. One focusing on Tatooine (which released earlier this year) and another on Hoth (which is soon to be released), both include a handful of new miniatures, new map tiles and new missions to complete. However I haven’t personally gotten my hands on them so I can’t speak to how much they add in terms of gameplay, but I think it’s important to mention that this game isn’t just a stand-alone product.
On a similar note, the games uses a timeline system with its cards indicating what set that individual series of cards can be used with. This does make me wonder specifically if Force Awakens content could be coming, especially since X-Wing has recently received a Force Awakens core set. Since a lot of the map tiles aren’t overly specific about time period they could easily be combined and re-used.
I mention all of this because I want to stress that Imperial Assault is a purchase that is likely to be continually supported in future. It seems to have been built with that in mind, that although this is a complete package it’s also a starting point. The good news is it means the game is a fairly safe purchase if you’re after something that’s going to have some longevity to it.
If you’re worried about having to purchase additional packs just to enjoy the game I can put your mind at ease. Imperial Assault contains hours and hours of entertainment without having to spend anything extra. Even without repeating any content whatsoever, there is dozens of hours between all of the campaign missions and the 2-player skirmish mode. We haven’t found ourselves getting bored and swapping the player roles just adds even more replay value as Imperial and Rebels play vastly different to each other.
Does the fun last?
Since each game requires quite a bit of set up; utilising a bunch of miniatures, map-tiles, lots of different cards, the campaign guide (if you’re playing one) and dice, it meant we never played more than one match in a row. This is a bit of a double-sided point, on one hand we felt that getting everything set-up was sometimes a bit faffy, especially when the box doesn’t come with any slots of bags to store its many pieces. On the other hand, we always felt like we’d played a fun, full match that was well worth the effort and were sated until the next day when it was time to play again. Again this makes me think back to longevity. This isn’t really a game you sit and binge-play for a couple of days then put away. It’s something that you’ll want to bring into your rotation of games and pop out regularly, maybe continuing an ongoing campaign for a few weeks at a time.
This longevity is also helped by the fact that missions are never as straightforward as they seem, thanks to triggered events. These events are actions that the Imperial player can choose to implement, usually from a list of two very different outcomes. Sometimes events are unknowingly tripped by Rebel players and other times they happen at the end of a set round. What this mean is even if you’re playing the exact same mission that you’ve played in the past, you still don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, as certain turns can have radically different twists. For instance, while defending a base from waves of enemies on an early mission, the Rebels have no idea if the Imperial player is about to choose between sending an AT-ST(!) to approach from outside, or spawn a squad of Imperial troops right inside the base. Meaning even if the players have memorised this event from earlier games they still don’t know which part of the base is about to need defending.
True to the box, matches last around an hour or two, assuming you’re taking your time to plan your moves, kicking back and having fun, which is something Imperial Assault lends itself well to. Since the game mimics cinematic Star Wars action so well, I found myself encouraged to play in kind. By this I mean that as the Imperial player I often chose to do actions which felt the most dramatic rather than the most tactically sound. I wanted the Rebels to have a tough time but I also wanted to make sure the game was immersive and fun. Although the game doesn’t call out this element in particular, you can see shades of it in the campaign missions, with triggered events leading to a very “Oh crap!” moment for the Rebels without actuality unbalancing the game. As the Imperial player you have the power to make the Rebels feel like they’re up against unwinnable odds, just like the movies did, without actually putting them in something they can’t get out of. I think it’s the sign of good game design that I was more interested in creating dramatic and fun moments, playing up that Star Wars atmosphere, rather than just focusing on finding victory.
Imperial Assault is a great game; it’s well balanced, has plenty of depth and with so much replay value it’ll keep you going for months. For Star Wars fans it’s even better, the gameplay imitates the feel of the films perfectly and Fantasy Flight’s mesmerising attention to detail ensures the whole game is loaded with fan service. However, the game can be a little tricky to master so it does take a bit of a time investment before things really start to roll smoothly. Also keeping everything together from your campaign can get a bit messy as there’s a lot to keep track of between all the different card decks and pieces. But these are very minor complaints in the face of what’s clearly a very enjoyable game.
Interested in picking up Imperial Assault? You can use this store locator to find your nearest hobby shop.