Back in the heady days of 2010 I was enamoured with #Descent 1st Edition and began to wonder what a space version of that might look like, specifically what a Star Wars version might be. I started writing some rules, I even bought a second hand set of Space Hulk 3rd Edition tiles and some resin crates and barrels. Of course, like all of my design projects I eventually abandoned it, little did I know that my idea would eventually appear fully formed, with the license and all.
Back then we dreamed of Star Wars games that weren’t just a retheming of Monopoly, but no one ever thought it would be a reality. Then in 2014 #FantasyFlightGames got the Star Wars licence and we all cheered. In 2020 though we’re all a little Star Wars’ed out. The licence has been milked to death honestly. Not only have we seen a collectible card game and a collectible dice game that have both now run their course, but we have several board games and four different miniatures games, one of which has already gotten a second edition and all of this within just 6 years.
So, with all that said I’m reviewing Imperial Assault a little late to the party. The game is done, with no further content coming for it and likely no chance of a second edition due to complications with the licence as well as directly competing for a market share with it’s own little brother Legion. Still as one of my most played games of all time and my most played campaign style game I feel like I owe it to the game to at least commit some words to pixels. Just know that this review comes from a more jaded place than if I had written it six years ago…
A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away…
The Galactic Empire rules over the galaxy with an iron fist. There is a darkness residing within, a rotten core that our heroes must seek to extract and destroy through acts of heroism in the service of the Rebellion. Each joined the Rebellion for their own ends, perhaps to free their loved ones from slavery, or avenge a family cruelly ripped asunder by the oppressive empirical regime. Regardless of their motivation though they were bonded through their singular focus, to win at all costs.
Rebel Scum! The mighty Galactic Empire is a place of order, a place of power and respect and sometimes, perhaps, a place of fear. Still we cannot allow these rebels to undermine the authority of the Emperor, we cannot fail, we must find their insignificant rebellion and crush it beneath the sole of our imperial jackboots.
Playing Imperial Assault
Imperial Assault can be played two ways, I however have only played the campaign version so cannot comment on the skirmish mode. With the campaign version one player takes on the role of the Imperial Player, they control the villains and environments, they read the story and reveal it to the players as it unfolds. Their role is comparable to that of a game master in your typical roleplaying game, except that unlike in those games you are not a simple facilitator, you are trying to win. You can go soft on the players, allowing them small victories but doing so could easily throw the game balance off further down the road. This game is really designed that the Imperials and the Rebels go at each other with everything they have and see who comes out on top.
The other players take on the role of a single hero, unless playing with just two players in which case you play with two heroes. This hero will earn experience points allowing them to upgrade their special skills and credits to purchase equipment.
The game itself consists of several scenarios which form a campaign. Each scenario can take between one and two hours to play through. The scenario shows which map tiles and enemies to use and presents a series of scenario specific rules and story moments on an adjoining page. At the end of the mission the players are set onto one of several branching paths dependant on how the scenario played out. Between main missions players can embark on side missions, these shorter missions do not impact the main story but do allow the players to achieve additional rewards such as equipment or allies.
Eventually after around 11 plays the campaign will end in a single climactic battle. Whichever player wins the battle is the winner of the campaign.
I both like and dislike the campaigns in Imperial Assault. I like the idea of levelling up and advancing your party of heroes across multiple sessions, it pulls at the heartstrings of the old school RPGer in me. However Imperial Assault rewards you for doing well. If you do well you get rewarded, making you better in the next game,. Typically players earn 50% more experience points for winning. This a compound problem, after mission 1 you could have two additional skills to their one, after mission 3 four skills verses two.
As the Rebel player this takes some of the challenge away, making much easier to complete missions around the middle of the campaign. As the Imperial Player this can make you unassailable. The problem is the scenarios are prewritten, they are not scaling based on how well the players are doing, they are written assuming the rebel players are staying at least slightly ahead of the curve. This means that the Imperial Player gets a bit harder with each scenario regardless but the same is not true of the rebels, especially if you can’t buy or upgrade your equipment. As additional credits are usually earned by taking optional objectives during missions, this is something you are less likely to do if you are under pressure from an overpowered opposition.
However that is not my biggest problem with the format. My biggest problem is that everything comes down to that final scenario. 15-20 hours of gameplay is decided by a single scenario, a scenario that is weighted heavily in favour of the Imperial player. Almost anything would be better than this. A point system perhaps where your previous victories at least count for something. It is possible to lose 10 of the 11 games but still win the campaign as long as you win the finale.
Or if it has to come down to the final scenario, then why not at least give the previous scenarios meaning. For example, if you won scenario 2 you gain Chewbacca as an ally in the finale, if you won scenario 5 you only need to collect 4 objectives not 5, that kind of thing that makes the scenarios not only feel interconnected but also gives you a reason to play them beyond gaining XP.
The game system itself pulls heavily from Descent 2.0 with so many similarities that I often forget the changes between the games. I like that system and I really like some of the changes they added.
One change I am still unsure about is the character levelling up system. In Descent heroes brought a single power to the table and were then coupled with a class deck to create further customisation. In Imperial Assault the hero is always associated with their deck meaning there is really only one way to play that hero. The positives here are that the heroes each feel more unique but you lose that sense of endless customisation. This is especially true with the expansions as if you want to try out new abilities you can’t use your favourite hero from the base set but with a new class deck.
The Imperial Player replaces the Overlord from Descent and there have been improvements here too. Threat is tracked on a dial and is generally used for spawning. The amount of threat you receive is directly related to the stage of the campaign. You can reinforce a group on the table for less threat than bringing a new group on, making it advantageous for the heroes to completely defeat a group of enemies instead of attacking all groups equally. The Imperial Player also has a class deck, like the heroes allowing you to create different play styles.
At the beginning of a campaign the Imperial Player builds an influence deck made up of 6 different agenda sets from his collection. Each of these usually has a card that allows him to potentially get a villain ally, think of these like guest stars that once earned can show up in any part of the story. Largely I dislike the Influence Deck. In most campaigns Influence is thin on the ground. It is comparable to credits the heroes use to gain equipment but usually earned at a slower place and the cards that can be bought are usually one use. When a hero buys a blaster or some armour they have it for the rest of the game and can use it round after round, but when the Imperial Player spends his influence on a card it gives him a small benefit and then the card is discarded never to be used again.
One of the most interesting additions, for campaign play, is the introduction of Side Missions. Descent did this a little but it was wonky due to them not being part of the original format, here they are baked right in. Side Missions are selected at the start of the campaign allowing players to choose which allies or bonuses they would like to accrue across the campaign. Each Hero also comes with own personal side mission which furthers their own story arc.
Influence can also be spent to put into play Side Missions or Forced Mission. These are missions which only reward the Imperial Player. If the heroes choose to ignore these missions then the imperial player will likely receive a reward. However the lack of benefit to playing them makes them feel a little redundant. Playing a forced mission is not optional, but playing a side mission means you are swapping the chance to gain a benefit for yourself to prevent the Imperial Player getting one. And even if you play the mission you might not win and the imperial player gets the benefit anyway.
I like Imperial Assault, I own almost everything for it, although that is largely due to an enthusiastic partner in gaming who probably likes it even more than me. I like the game system, I always have, even since Descent 1.0. I think it does a good job of presenting a rpg-lite Star Wars experience that is adjacent to the cinematic universe, without directly recreating the events we see in the movies.
I think the game bogs down towards the end of the campaign as players level up and have access to more abilities and thus more time is spent deciding on what to do of a turn. But a shorter campaign is also not the answer as it robs you of that sense of levelling up and achievement. The heroes are more complex overall in Imperial Assault, by the last mission of a campaign you could have half a dozen cards with abilities, several weapons and pieces of equipment, it can be a lot to track. This gets worse in the two player game as you are controlling double the number of heroes.
There are balance issues in some of the scenarios, they were clearly built with four heroes in mind, for example there's a mission where you need to control objective points, but with fewer heroes the Imperial Player has an easy time of it. A lot of scenarios have the win condition for the Imperial Player be “When all heroes are wounded” this leads to the imperial player concentrating all attacks on one hero, wounding it, then going after the next one and so on. I would have preferred to see more missions where the Imperials were trying to achieve an objective rather than just murder the opposition.
Expandability is not an issue. Although the game is now considered complete there is a ton of content out there for it. Integrating new content is easy too, add the cards to the various decks and you are ready to play. The best content, as always, are the main expansions, which add new campaigns and side missions, along with new enemy types. The figure packs vary in mileage. The rebel ones add new allies which can be won through side missions. The mercenary ones largely add new units you can bring to any battle, such as the jawa and bantha riders. The Imperial ones usually replace the cardboard tokens for unique enemies. However outside of their campaigns you are unlikely to see these models get any use.
Imperial Assault offers any Star Wars fan the opportunity to roleplay their way through the galaxy dispatching stormtroopers and even facing the might of Darth Vader himself. There’s hours of play in the core box, with six different heroes to choose from and several paths through the campaign to discover. The game can also be played as a competitive skirmish game or as a fully co-op experience via the Legends of the Alliance app. Playing the game as a campaign adds to the fun but also adds to the complexity and the game length, although both ramp up as the campaign unfolds. It is not without its faults but if you enjoy it there’s a whole galaxy of content to explore.
Recommended for people who like Star Wars, mid-weight miniatures games and dungeon crawls.