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Star Wars: Imperial Assault Review

MT Updated January 30, 2019
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Star Wars: Imperial Assault Review

Game Information

There Will Be Games

The first edition of Warhammer 40k was perhaps the worst thing Games Workshop even made. Although it was stuffed full of interesting tidbits, they unwisely chose to just copy their fantasy battle system into the 41st millennium. Where, as a result, a crossbow had the exact same stat line as a bolt gun, planting a high-explosive round smack into the middle of your suspension of disbelief. Porting fantasy straight to sci-fi is rarely a good idea.

Yet here's FFG, bold as brass, doing exactly that with Imperial Assault. Taking the second edition of Descent and turning it into Star Wars. Bows become blasters. Axes become vibro-axes. Chests become crates.  All the other stuff you know, the annoying interlocking map tiles, the bright multicoloured dice with attacks and dodges and surges are pretty much just as you learned them. It ought not to work. I stayed away from it for months because I was convinced it would not work.

Now watch as a howling Wookie clatters through the plasma fire and into a group of Stormtroopers, felling them like ninepins. See the survivors run for shelter behind a piece of field artillery, pouring more energy weapon fire to cover  their tracks. Hear their leader scream for them to get back into the fray, just before a well placed bolt from a rebel smuggler blows his head off.

This happened in our very first game. And it made me realise an obvious thing about Star Wars that I had never really considered before: Star Wars isn't really sci-fi. With laser swords and mind-wizards and monstrous cavalry, it's really just fantasy in space. That's why Imperial Assault works, in spite of it being pretty much a straight swap.

That first game is a tutorial scenario, intended to walk you through the basics of the game. Which it does, leaving you hungry for more and nothing but a disjointed recipe for haute-cuisine to satisfy your cravings. The rest of the rules, split over the controversial "rules reference" and "quick start" so beloved by FFG right now, are a mess. Lucky for you if you've played Descent before and have a good idea of what's going on.

Part of the reason for this confusion is that Imperial Assault doesn't just give you one game in a box; it gives you two. There's the Descent style campaign you were probably expecting with a number of interesting embellishments. The branching plot line is more interesting, for one, plus there's the possibility to take various side quests where you can play alongside some of the great heroes and villains of the Star Wars cinematic franchise. These see a lot more use in the second play mode, a two player tactical skirmish.

People are going to buy this on the strength of the former, and they'll have a blast with the unfolding story. For me, it's the weakest way to play the game. You don't pick up a big box full of awesome Star Wars toys like this just to watch some rebel wannabees skittle a few Imperials. You want Luke and Vader, Han and Boba, Chewie and IG-88. They're in the campaign, but only as a sideshows, and only as little cardboard discs that look ridiculous next to the fantastic figures that throng the box.

In the campaign game, one player takes the Imperial side and the remainder co-operate running rebel characters. This is one of my favourite set-ups for games and the campaign scenarios make good use of it. They allow the Imperial player to plot, scheme and use their inside knowledge to set up shocks and surprises for the unwitting rebels. They can be romping through the initial stages of a map, secure in their developing skills, while all the while their devious foe is assembling a huge ambush behind a locked door.

For all this inside information, it seems hard for the Imperials to make much of an impact. Unless they can peg back the rebels strongly during the early stages, the increased skills and equipment available to the characters snowball into a force that's difficult to stop. It certainly helps if the Imperial player can focus on stopping the rebels completing objectives and collecting loot rather than actually killing them. But where's the fun in that?

Well okay, there's quite a lot of fun. I think there's more, though, in the skirmish game. Here you can collect Luke and Vader, Han and Boba, Chewie and IG-88, put them all on the same map and fight it off, head to head. It's fantastic, all the charms of the campaign game, the movies and miniature squad building all rolled in to one. Plus you're done in an hour or two, with no thirty mission campaign stretching out before you.

However you choose to play, Imperial Assault rests on some fine tactical foundations. There's plenty of dice to rattle round, falling between the cracks of careful board positioning and sensible action choices. The increased focus on ranged attacks over Descent pays off surprisingly well, demanding players take more notice of scenery and lines of sight to succeed. Be prepared for an equally increased number of arguments over what is or isn't in line of sight as a result.

To my surprise I ended up finding a third way to play the game. I got it to play with my kids after they went Star Wars mad in the face of The Force Awakens. Their enthusiasm for the wonderful box of plastic treasures that duly arrived was quickly evaporated by the clunky and chunky rules booklets. Undeterred we got all the figures and character cards out, set up a mission and madly rolled dice and made blaster noises at each other. The Rebels won, of course, in spite of fierce resistance from an angry probe droid. There was zero thinking involved, and it was fantastic.

It was still fantastic played in a more considered manner with my grown-up friends. Fantastic enough and pretty enough to set me off down the long road of picking up extra blister packs of figures. There are cardboard counters to swap in the base game but, as we all know, they look idiotic on the board next to finely sculpted miniatures. You'll want the figures for both campaign and Skirmish and Fantasy Flight know it. It's a trap, of course, but one with particularly succulent bait.

Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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Feelitmon's Avatar
Feelitmon replied the topic: #225822 13 Apr 2016 20:18
I'm in the middle of a three-player campaign of this game, and so far we really like it. It's fun, the villains and heroes feel distinctive and powerful, each session has produced memorable moments, and the mechanics are easy to learn and fast to play with. I do indeed have a big but though.

BUT ... too many of the campaign scenarios are so carefully tuned that the heroes will fail if they spend any time at all trading shots with the baddies. My fellow Rebel player and I got our clocks cleaned in a couple of scenarios early on, and finally realized what the designers want us to do:

1. At the beginning of the scenario you need to count how many spaces away the objectives are from your starting area and figure out how many actions that will take you to get there. Then add in a certain number of actions for dealing with suddenly-closing doors, slicing consoles, etc. Take that action total and subtract it from the total number of actions that the time limit of the scenario will allow for. That is how many actions at best that you can use for healing and fighting. You need to figure this out in advance or else you will be late to the objective and lose. Unfortunately this is not fun. I never want to treat this type of run-and-gun, shoot-some-stormtroopers ameritrash game so clinically.

2. Rebel players need to ignore enemies as much as possible. If it's a choice between a move-and-attack or a double-move then the objective probably requires the latter. This means that many scenarios boil down to the Imperial player getting to take lots of shots at the heroes with his evergreen supply of troops while the heroes just move and/or heal their wounds. This must be a lot of fun for the Imperial player but it is not fun as a Rebel player. I want to achieve objectives, sure, but I also want to mix it up a bit.

3. Hope the Imperial player makes mistakes, at least on the first time through a campaign. Many scenarios involve plot twists and unforeseeable complications for the heroes. After a while you sort of get used to that as a Rebel player, but you just can't always predict what the twist will be. If your Imperial player is ruthless then they can use their knowledge advantage to crush you in certain scenarios. This is where a game publisher's QA process can really make or break a game, especially whether they use blind playtesting or not. This game feels like one where they had the same playtesters for the entire QA phase. The game itself is admirably tuned, but I get the strong sense that a number of the campaign missions were more evenly balanced for FFG's veteran playtesters than they are for new Rebel players.

I will say that the rich-get-richer aspect to it is not too brutal. We're nearing the end of the campaign and the Rebels are having problems, but if we can win that last mission then we'll win the campaign! The Imperial player has gotten some great upgrades, but so have we. And speaking of the campaign, I really like how it's structured. Certain missions are mandatory, but some are essentially chosen by the Rebels and some by the Imperial. Pretty neat.

We have yet to play a skirmish, but it sounds like that's the mode that will satisfy my desire to just blow some stuff up. In the meantime we're having a blast with the campaign and are looking forward to the expansions and even another main campaign play-through. It's a fun game, and since none of us has played Descent it's all new to us!
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #225823 13 Apr 2016 21:04
#1 & #2 That's a common complaint also with Descent, the game feel more like race. During playtesting I felt that it's somewhat worse in IA, since IA often have a hardcoded timer (the game has a freakin turn track). However, the ability to move through enemies does help a little. Or may be not, since it's because of this also they can put a much more precise time limit.

#3 This is very correct. While there seems plenty of dice rolling and randomness, it's actually a very skill-dependent, resource management game.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #225824 13 Apr 2016 21:44
I'd just like to point out, even though I'm sure you're aware, that Descent is in fact the scifi game DOOM with fantasy trappings added. So a shotgun became a fireball or whatever. If anything FFG has brought the design full circle back to its scifi roots that were always better anyways. This is why I think the Star Wars settings particular blend of scifi and fantasy works so good here. The game system was already a blend of the two genres as well.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #225860 14 Apr 2016 14:39
We found IA to be a slaughter for the Rebels when having a good gamer playing Imperial, OK maybe he is very good as he does quite well as the Overlord in Descent as well. But the bottomline is halfway through a campaign the imperials are just uber strong and the other two of us are cannon fodder.
We have decided to give it a miss, plenty of other games for us to get into.
Varys's Avatar
Varys replied the topic: #225867 14 Apr 2016 15:56
I played a whole campaign of IA and I did enjoy it, however, it was much harder for us (the Rebels). It's a good thing our Overlord had a bit of a brain fart and sort of forgot about some of his cards and abilities the last couple of missions. Otherwise, I think it was definitely going to become a runaway leader type of problem in the campaign. It's even worse when the runaway leader is the Overlord because then only one person is having fun. We ended up having 4 characters, but everyone didn't always come to the sessions. I wonder if things would have been different if it was going better for the Rebels. I was also fortunate enough to have played a copy of a friend who did buy several of the additional character packs. I think some of the character packs are pretty good and they do add some nice extra side missions. That would drive the price of the game up quite a bit though.

Overall, I don't think I'd get it. I think it plays best with 4 Rebel characters despite what they claim about it being balanced with lower counts. That means you need 5 people to play it every time and that's not always easy to do.
ChristopherMD's Avatar
ChristopherMD replied the topic: #225870 14 Apr 2016 16:11
I must really suck because I haven't been winning at all as the IA player. Rebels get stronger and stronger items while I get a card that lets me move a guy if I manage to wound one of the super-rebels.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #225871 14 Apr 2016 16:16
I do find it really annoying when you can't feel like exploring in a dungeon crawl because if you hesitate for one second, you'll run out of time. You should get to search through dank dungeons, not always feeling like Indy's giant boulder is behind you.
Sevej's Avatar
Sevej replied the topic: #226020 17 Apr 2016 20:55

Varys wrote: Overall, I don't think I'd get it. I think it plays best with 4 Rebel characters despite what they claim about it being balanced with lower counts. That means you need 5 people to play it every time and that's not always easy to do.

Not quite true. There is nothing stopping you from controlling 4 characters by yourself. That's what I did on all my Descent & IA playthroughs. And getting 2 people together to finish a campaign is infinitely easier than if it was with more people.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #226136 20 Apr 2016 10:42
I really like Imperial Assault for the most part. It's true that as a dungeon crawl it's not really much to look at, but I don't really think of it that way. It's much more tactical than that, and I really like the fast-paced nature of it. I mean it's not like Luke and Han could just kill everyone on the Deathstar, right?

I'm a lousy Imperial player too, because we're five missions into our campaign and I've only won the most recent one. This is against two rebel players.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #226137 20 Apr 2016 10:51

Sevej wrote:

Varys wrote: Overall, I don't think I'd get it. I think it plays best with 4 Rebel characters despite what they claim about it being balanced with lower counts. That means you need 5 people to play it every time and that's not always easy to do.

Not quite true. There is nothing stopping you from controlling 4 characters by yourself. That's what I did on all my Descent & IA playthroughs. And getting 2 people together to finish a campaign is infinitely easier than if it was with more people.

I've played it exclusively with three players, two Rebel players handling two characters each, and it's worked just fine.