I think Matt (who you know from the podcast) put it best: Fantasy Fight’s Descent 2nd Edition is a fun game despite itself. Dungeon crawling is just a fun genre. I love having my own character with their individual attributes and skills. I like having the trappings of an RPG without the required commitment. And even though I typically enjoy more heavily strategic games, sometimes it’s fun to throw a bunch of dice around.
I mention Descent because Star Wars Imperial Assault can’t be described as anything other than another game in the Descent series. The system is largely the same, with differences contained to the theme (Star Wars instead of rote fantasy) and a few mechanical changes. Because the games appear to be so similar, a lot of the advice I see regarding them is, “buy the game with the theme you like the best”. I’m going to argue that this advice is absolutely incorrect. Imperial Assault is the better game, and unless you really don’t like Star Wars (in which case you have much larger problems) you should see Imperial Assault as a strict improvement in the formula.
For those who haven’t played any of the games in this line, Imperial Assault is a 1 vs. many dungeon crawl campaign game where one person takes on the role of the Imperials, against 1-4 other players who control individual Rebel heroes. The game progresses through individual scenarios which usually have the Rebels attempting to discreetly acquire some kind of information, only to find themselves confronted by way more Imperial forces than expected.
After each scenario, both sides get rewards to help them level up and acquire new skills. The winners, of course, get additional rewards. The Rebel side gets to use their XP and money to acquire new skills, weapons, armor, and other gadgets, and the Imperial side uses their XP to acquire new cards of doom that can be seriously annoying (I’ve primarily been a Rebel player so far).
Sometimes there is a choice of which mission to do next, though from what I can tell there’s not a lot of branching in the campaign–it’ll always end in the same spot. I do appreciate that you do not get all of the content on the first play-through, and there’s certainly enough expansion content to keep you playing…forever (more on that later). It’s an expensive game, but you get enough plastic and cardboard to make it seem worth it.
The gameplay itself is straightforward, with enough peripheral stuff to make it seem more complex than it is. It’s a Fantasy Flight game through and through. Each turn the Rebels will activate a character and perform two actions–move, attack, activate something, etc. Most of the time that’s going to be moving and attacking, because you’re going to be hit with wave after wave of stormtroopers, officers, probe droids, and other nasty enemies. On top of the standard actions, you’ll unlock new abilities that can buff or modify your violent repertoire. Combat is resolved through custom dice (again, it’s a Fantasy Flight game) in a quick and efficient system. On offense you can roll hits and “surges”, which can be spent for additional bonuses. On defense you can roll counters to both hits and surges. Unlike some games with custom dice combat, the complexity is with what you spend your currency on, not on reading the dice themselves.
In addition to surges, another currency available to the Rebels is strain, which can be spend to activate various character abilities and gain additional movement points. Strain management is the most compelling tactical part of the game from the Rebel perspective. Genuinely difficult decisions have to be made here, because while activating abilities is fun, and there are certainly going to be enough enemies to target, you need to make sure that you’re actually pursuing the goal of the mission.
See, the Imperial player is given a certain amount of “threat” each round which they can spend on replenishing the Imperial forces on the map. This threat income is greater than what the Rebels can consistently kill each turn, so from the Rebel perspective it’s always, ultimately, a losing battle. Compounding this is the fact that usually one of the Imperial side’s win conditions is wounding all of the Rebel forces. Sometimes there’s even a strict time limit. The name of the game is speed and mobility, then. Rebels need to accomplish their goals before they’re inevitably beat down by the Imperials.
The missions are more consistently well-made than with Descent. There’s an imbalanced stinker in there every once in awhile, but most of the missions at least seem attainable by both sides (with 4 heroes; no matter what your player count you should use the full complement of 4 Rebel heroes). The imbalances, of course, come in over the campaign itself because of the built-in snowballing notorious in both this and the Descent games. The winners get stronger between missions by getting more XP and better abilities than the losers.
I just don’t get it. It’s not an inevitable problem with the genre–this has been an issue everyone has recognized with the Descent games and there are a ton of different ways you could get around it. Why continue it here? I understand that you want to reward players for winning–that’s obviously why they do it. But it’s still a major design problem. Pandemic Legacy does the exact opposite by making the game harder when you win. But it can do that because it’s purely co-op, so the challenge is weathered entirely together. What else can you manipulate, then? Types of rewards, of course. Maybe the winner gets more XP but the next mission is harder for them because their side is more confident. Maybe the winner gets more XP but the loser gets stronger, but more variable rewards. Maybe in their desperation they get one-time use abilities, or abilities with consequences if they lose the mission in which they’re activated. There’s so much design space here, but Fantasy Flight found it fitting to stick with the old failed system. Winners get more rewards and easier missions. By this point in the story of modern board games it simply feels outdated and lazy.
Another baffling design decision held over from the Descent games is the idea that the winner of the final mission is the winner of the whole campaign, no matter what happened in any of the other missions. How is that satisfying for either side? In my first run-through of the campaign, the Rebel side lost nearly all of the missions, but almost pulled out the win in the last mission. I felt bad. I didn’t even want to win. It wasn’t fair. Again, the solution is fairly straightforward. It wouldn’t be hard to create some kind of system of mission branching and result-calculation to lead to a closing paragraph explaining what your success and failures meant for the Rebels and the Imperials.
These two issues frustrate me so much precisely because the game is fun. I mean, Descent was fun, despite even more issues, simply because it provided a canvas on which the players could role-play, chuck some dice, and make silly jokes. It’s a lighthearted system with a too-serious story, and all kinds of twists and turns through copious dice rolling. Imperial Assault is the same kind of thing, but with some fantastic changes from Descent.
First, line of sight has been clarified and simplified, and it largely makes sense to how you think it should be. That’s always important with line of sight rules. They should both be simple and intuitive, or everyone’s going to be scratching their heads with the logic of it all.
The second improvement is with movement. No longer can movement be blocked by stacking people and creatures idiotically in a hallway. No longer can giant monsters squeeze through particularly small spaces through feats of non-euclidian physics. In short, all of the dumb tricks you could use in Descent to ruin the immersion of the game are gone. Large creatures (and machines, like the giant, awesome AT-ST included in the base box) move more or less rationally, and moving through an enemy comes at a penalty. It works well now.
Most significantly, turns are alternated on a character-by-character basis (or squadron-by-squadron for the Imperials). Descent was frequently annoying in that each side played all of their characters and creatures before the other side got a turn. When trying to simulate movement in a space that, presumably, should be happening simultaneously, that’s an odd way to go. Fortunately, Imperial Assault has one character or one Imperial enemy group (which can range from a couple of stormtroopers to a single probe droid) go before the other side gets a turn. This adds another layer of strategy, as the order in which you activate your characters can be very significant. As the Rebels, you also have to take into consideration the fact that, if you eliminate an entire squadron before they can take a turn, you’ve given yourself extra time at the end of the round to take reaction-free actions.
These changes are monumentally important. Overall, there’s simply more to think about in Imperial Assault than in Descent. I feel like my decisions matter so muh more. It’s still a dice-chucking, lighthearted experience, but choice is what matters in board games, even if there’s a lot of randomness, and there are certainly more choices that feel like they matter here.
And I can’t stress enough just how fun it is to blast around in the Star Wars universe. This is sentimental, but I love this universe–I have since I was a kid. There’s no other fictional universe that has stimulated my imagination so much throughout the years. This game feels like the scenes in Star Wars where Luke, Leia, and Han are running around, blasting stormtroopers. There’s something about this system that lends itself to imagining the story of the mission as it plays out. It’s like being a kid again.
That creates a sort of contradiction, though. I want a lighthearted adventure, but I also want to make tactical and strategic choices. I want to roll a bunch of dice, but I also want to analyze the grid my characters are on like a chess board. Imperial Assault does a good job at providing both experiences. Plus it has a “skirmish” game mode for those who want to play a one-off fight rather than a campaign.
But how do I begin to rate it? I have serious problems with the game, which make the campaign underwhelming. But I also have a fun time playing it. When I’m immersed in the individual missions I forget about the problems I have with the overall structure. Some have argued that the person playing the Imperial side needs to take the role of an RPG DM, holding back on occasion when it would benefit the overall experience of the game. Maybe this makes the game better, but that’s not what is advertised. This is supposed to be a tactical battle of wills. Being able to overlook the meta-structure of the campaign to enjoy the individual missions is key.
Imperial Assault also has another issue of, frankly, being massive. There are dozens of small character expansions and a few larger ones. This is a completionist’s nightmare. I’m not the kind of person to criticize business models like this if the base game is enjoyable by itself (I’ll just ignore the extras), but even I think this is excessive. It feels like microtransactions in board gaming.
At the end of the day I have to give a high score because every time I play the game I have fun. It’s somehow captured the freewheeling spirit of the movies (ignoring the overwhelming and annoying too-seriousness from internet “fans”) without sacrificing too much strategic depth. The minis are great, and maybe 80% of the time the mission feels pretty balanced. Is this too low of a bar? Am I being too forgiving because it’s Star Wars? Probably. But if I want to play a deep, brilliantly designed hero story, I’ll pull out Mage Knight. If I want to blast some stormtroopers in the face and laugh, I’ll play Imperial Assault, despite its flaws.
+Minis and production are excellent
+Significantly more tactical and better than Descent
-Major snowballing issues
-Some missions will feel very imbalanced