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.