Review – Star Wars: Rebellion: Rise of the Empire

quinns' toothy heart, a sad birthday, 8 more complexity
Quinns: Matt, are you ready to review the Rise of the Empire expansion for Star Wars™: Rebellion? To bring everyone up to speed, Rebellion is a grand 2-4 player game set in the Star Wars universe. I reviewed it and said it was fun, but I couldn’t quite recommend it. The review did have a really nice hologram effect, though. You should check it out.

What does the expansion add? Well, let me just quote the press materials: “Rise of the Empire isn’t just inspired by Rogue One; it follows the movie’s example, adding new depth and story to the Rebellion game experience just as seamlessly as Rogue One provided new insight into the Galactic Civil War presented in the original Star Wars trilogy.”

Matt: I just did a big vomit out of a window. In Real-World Terms™ it’s an expansion that adds quite a bunch of stuff: new leader characters, new cards, a whole new combat system, more unit types and plastic figures, and a brand new planet: EWOK-HOTH, HOME OF THE CHILLYBEARS.

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Quinns: That last one’s not true, you cad. Though actually, that troubling brain of yours has hit upon the first thing I found unusual about this expansion (once we’d performed the tedious act of incorporating it into the original game- ignore these old rules, learn these new ones, shuffle these into this deck, remove these cards…). Basically I would have loved to have met a chillybear, or otherwise enjoyed some new colour in this galaxy. Something to laugh about, or talk about, or… look, let me explain, I haven’t developed chillybear madness I promise

So much of the appeal of Star Wars: Rebellion is getting to play out an alternate timeline of the original movies. What if Admiral Ackbar was captured instead of Leia and cracked under interrogation like a steamed crab? What if the climax of the first film was a Rebel raid on the shipyards of Coruscant? But one of my biggest disappointments around the original game were the many cards that were either uninteresting or impersonal. The game’s hoard of components should have felt as rich and delicious as a mound of cheesy hero-nachos. Instead, progressing from scene to scene felt like you were chomping through dry cereal. “R2D2-O’s”, or “Hoth Crunch”.

And while Rise of the Empire does add some of the toppings that I felt were missing – posted bounties, daring heists, the Sarlacc pit, a spooky Interdictor ship that prevents the Rebels from retreating – it adds far more of the dull, wooly cards that I didn’t like in the base set, and to play with this expansion you have to remove a few of the best cards from the original game.

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It’s kind of maddening! One of my biggest complaints in my video on Rebellion was that rather than a tale of heroes, it felt like an unambitious remix of the Star Wars films (containing about 12 deleted scenes where Princess Leia holds press conferences and the Imperials move their Star Destroyers around). Then along comes this expansion which could have added that little extra drama and colour that this game needed… but instead we get a slightly tepid remix of the original game?

Like, c’mon, this game is so nearly great! Let it be great!

Matt: Watching your original review of Rebellion, I think I actually like the original game less than you did – but interestingly, for a set of different reasons. I can totally see why you were so frustrated by the missed opportunity for storytelling. What if the Death Star but two of them isn’t interesting, unless your enjoyment of Star Wars pivots largely on buying and collecting plastic toys. And that isn’t even a sick burn! I love X-Wing! I love tiny plastic spaceships!

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But Star Wars is more than hot beams and cold metal: Romance! Adventure! Friendship! Bumbling robo-friends! The game’s focus on interplanetary loyalty and logistics is cold to the point of being dull – and I agree with you Quinns that there’s honestly just no good excuse for that – but for me the main complaint with Rebellion is that the game has a bunch of cool systems that don’t actually get used very often. This expansion adds new thematic rules, which is great! But it’s frankly just more stuff in a game that has way too much stuff already. This, again – is slightly maddening.

Players spend upwards of an hour looking forward to *that one play* where your side launches a surprise attack, but when it finally arrives it does so in a tumble of admin. The miniatures don’t fit on the board, assigning damage is fiddly, the victor is a foregone conclusion. As exciting as I sometimes find this game, more often than not this comes from the planning and anticipation of moments that often disappoint. There are so many elements here that I love, but – personally – I find it frequently it stirs up the strange, unique sadness of being a child and suddenly realising that you are having a bad birthday.

I also have issues with the fact that – for a strategic game that’s often glacial in pace, the rules clarity on some of the cards simply isn’t there. It’s a little heartbreaking to find that what you’ve been planning for almost half an hour actually won’t work because you misread a card – which seems to occur with a frequency that seems unfair to solely pin on players. Bold and italics are things, you know?

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Anyway, some things are BETTER with the expansion: one of our main complaints in the original game is that the combat was poor. This expansion does a great job of improving that, giving both players two giant hands of cards (seen above) that you can play at the start of each round for a bonus. The neat trick here is that your hand doesn’t replenish until you’ve played every card, and to get the best bonus on each card you need to have that type of unit in the conflict. It adds an element of strategy and encourages you to build a broader variety of units. Nice!

The tactical aspect of the game is vastly improved, then? Well, no. The expansion also adds a bunch of new units you can build – which also add a new type of dice for combat. More choices are almost always great, up until the point where suddenly they aren’t.

Quinns: Oh my goodness, yes. Let’s talk about the miniatures, which are metaphorically and (when you open the box) literally a mixed bag. They do succeed at making this expansion seem like good value for money. You’re getting 8 new toys! 8 more complexity in this clash of intellects! 8’s a great number! 8!!

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I don’t know if we’d even finished setting up the game (including the additional unit reference, seen above) before I realised that this was a terrible idea. Whatever simplicity the miniatures had before (basically the bigger a unit is, the more scary it is) becomes obfuscated by this new puddle of plastic. What does the Rebel Vanguard card do again? Can you remind me of the three separate features of that new Imperial radar building?

Honestly? The new miniatures felt like an unwelcome gift from Disney’s army of marketers. I mean, obviously that’s true of all licensed board games to some extent. But here it felt like one more mechanic squatting between me and the really cool stuff in Rebellion, namely (a) playing out your own unique Star War and (b) the search for the rebel base.

Matt: What was before a cool but imperfect machine is now just more broadly a bit of a mess. And it feels like a mess that’s very much on-brand? Like, why does this expansion need new plastic sculpts? Did the basic game need so many plastic sculpts? Is expanding the tactical scope of the game something that makes sense in a 2-3 hour game in which you’ll perhaps only have 3 or 4 fights?

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Quinns: Exactly! I’m still thinking about that point you made when we were playing, about how the game would be better if all of the miniatures were simply replaced with stylised poker chips, allowing the design to double down on the stuff that was evocative and electrifying. When you slide a stack of Imperial chips onto Hoth, I can imagine the doomsday tread of the AT-ATs. I don’t need two plastic AT-ATs, not least because I then have to cross-examine their stats with your plastic Snowspeeders. If I wanted that I could go and play Star Wars: Legion.

Matt: Right? But people want miniatures, they literally sell games. But in this case, it makes the game actively worse – demanding that these miniatures are then propped up by a combat system that the game doesn’t really have space or time for.

That’s not to say that silly, huge, multi-system games can’t be brilliant – it’s something that Fantasy Flight Games have nailed so many times over the years, but I honestly get the sense that the core design of Star Wars: Rebellion doesn’t even have its own interests at heart – and the expansion for me simply amplifies that. But I think overall, I like it quite a bit less than you?

Quinns: I want to love it. It’s silly- when this game first came out I was so ready for it to be amazing, and then deflated like a flat tyre over the course of three long evenings with it.

Can you believe that with the release of this expansion I did exactly the same thing? The many toothy sphincters of my sarlacc-like heart opened up, and I was ready to (once again!) enjoy the heck out of a titanic battle with a good buddy. And once again, I didn’t have as much fun as I expected.

Does paying an extra $32 for Rise of the Empire make Rebellion better? Matt and I both believe that it doesn’t, it just makes it slightly different, refreshing the game for anyone who’s played the heck out of their copy. I’m just not sure how many people that really is.