It was a fortunate accident that I came across Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars Rebellion a couple months ago. I was scouring YouTube for videos of a 1998 computer game by the same name. Rebellion let me fulfill my dream of commanding fleets of star destroyers and squadrons of X-wings across a vast galaxy. The search results I got, however, were mostly for a board game that I had never seen before.
Frustrated at the unwanted results, I decided to investigate what the hell this board game was all about. After a few minutes of the Shut Up & Sit Down video review of Rebellion, I was fascinated. What was described was a two-player strategic war gaming experience that was unlike anything else I’d ever experienced before. The detailed miniatures looked fantastic, the board was beautiful, and the gameplay sounded compelling.
In a time where Xbox One, Playstation 4, and high performance PCs dominate the gaming landscape, the humble board game has become an afterthought for many. The asking price for Rebellion is around $80, so I was very skeptical about investing that kind of money into a board game that nobody else I knew had ever heard of or played before. Over a week went by and I still couldn’t stop thinking about how great the game looked, so I purchased it. I’ve played three times now, and each time it’s incredible.
The game pits the Galactic Empire against the Rebel Alliance during the period of the Galactic Civil War covered by the original Star Wars trilogy. The Empire has one objective: find and destroy the hidden rebel base (chosen by the Rebel player at the start of each game). The Rebel player must survive long enough so that their influence marker meets the round marker.
The board primarily consists of a map of the Star Wars galaxy, with over thirty gorgeous planetary systems from the original and prequel trilogies. These planets can be populous, meaning their loyalty can be earned (or compelled) and feature resource icons indicating the types of units or structures they can contribute to your faction. Others are remote, reflecting their isolation and lack of development—perfect hiding places for a Rebel base. The board also features the aforementioned round and influence markers, a build queue, and placeholders for various cards used during the game.
Each faction features detailed miniatures that represent their forces on the board. The Imperial player deploys and commands stormtroopers, AT-AT and AT-ST walkers, star destroyers, super star destroyers, TIE fighters, and even the Death Star. The Rebel player has their own troopers, speeders, X-wings, Y-wings, transports, Corellian corvettes, and Calamari cruisers.
But the key to playing the game is the smart use of leaders. Leaders are used to move ships around the map, and to perform missions. Players will win or lose the game based on their ability to manage their limited reserve of leaders (which starts at four each and grows to a total of eight over time). Skill icons indicate what missions they are best suited to, and tactics values in the bottom corners of their tokens denote their ability to sway a space or ground battle.
The Imperials and the Rebels each have their own mission cards. The Rebels’ cards focus on building influence and fomenting dissent, sabotaging Imperial production, quickly mobilizing units or their base, and drawing additional and/or favorable Objective Cards. Objective cards allow the Rebel player to speed up the clock by fulfilling their requirements. Objectives include liberating a system subjugated by the Empire, gaining loyalty in a region of the galaxy, destroying a star destroyer or a Death Star, and more.
Imperial missions focus on mitigating Rebel sabotage, compelling loyalty in populous systems, speeding up production, and narrowing down possible Rebel base locations. The Imperials also draw special Project Cards, which enable, among other things, the construction of super weapons and the use of the Death Star’s superlaser to destroy planets. Meanwhile, the Imperial player draws from the Probe Deck, which shows planets where the Rebel base is not located. Players also have access to faction-specific Action Cards that help them recruit new leaders and grant powerful, single-use abilities that can reshape the strategic situation in the galaxy.
All of this comes together in an incredible game of cat and mouse. The Rebels don’t stand a chance coming at the Empire straight on, but they can really slow down the Imperial war machine with guerrilla tactics and subterfuge. Imperial players have to strike a balance between scouring the galaxy for the hidden Rebel base while simultaneously preventing the Rebels from achieving objectives that’ll move them closer to victory. A ton of thought can go into each individual move; that yields great joy when one is successful, and terrible agony when a plan falls apart.
Combat can be a little overwhelming at first. Each unit has health and firepower values, and dice are rolled to determine outcomes. Tactics cards also allow players to block or deal additional damage. It takes a few rounds to get into a rhythm with it, and large battles can take a while to resolve. Still, the chance element created by dice rolls gives the game a more authentic sense of the unpredictability of war than combat in most video games. It’s a refreshing change. The tradeoff, of course, is that you don’t see the lasers or explosions.
Rebellion is usually a long game, with all three matches that I’ve played clocking in between five and six hours. All three have been played against new players (and the longest game was my first, where neither player fully understood the rules and flow), so some of that length can be attributed to explaining the rules and nuances of the game. That said, I can’t see a game going much less than four hours, even with two seasoned veterans playing. It’s perfect for a power outage during a snowstorm, but don’t plan on a “casual” game in between other things to do. For better or worse, you’ll have to schedule playing this game and make sure people are comfortable with the time commitment.
The game comes with two rule booklets, and herein lies its greatest weakness. Neither one is really comprehensive enough, and the first couple times I played, I had to refer to both. The “Learn to Play” booklet does a great job introducing players and setting up a tutorial matchup, while the “Rules Reference” booklet acts as a glossary. The former has useful illustrations and detailed instructions about some game concepts, but lacks some of the information in the latter. This creates some confusion and mistakes in the first couple games, and even video reviewers on YouTube have filmed themselves playing incorrectly because the rules aren’t always very clear. Looking in two booklets isn’t convenient at all.
The game also “supports” up to four players, where one player controls space forces (the admiral) and another commands ground forces (the general). I wouldn’t recommend it. This is a game designed for two players, and it’s at its best when played as such. If you can find three other players with four to six hours of free time, however, you’re in luck.
Rebellion has some disadvantages. It’s a board game in 2017 when electronic alternatives abound. Take into account that there is no artificial intelligence opponent (yet) to compete with you, and it’s possible that this game will be in the box for weeks at a time. I also don’t think this game was marketed much outside of board gaming circles. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but I still only found out about this game by accident. I’ve never played Settlers of Catan or other tabletop strategy games before, and that seems to be the demographic on which Fantasy Flight Games focuses.
Despite that, this is an incredible game. The asymmetrical strengths and weaknesses of the Imperials and the Rebels make for deep strategic decision-making and fascinating outcomes. The two sides play like their counterparts in the movies, and the mission cards create an alternate timeline of events that even the most casual Star Wars fans can enjoy. The game doesn’t require a deep understanding of the movies, though, so anybody who relishes a deep and rewarding strategy game will probably love Rebellion. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest two-player strategy game I’ve ever played. You’d do well to experience it for yourself.