I must begin this review with a brief programming note. This is a review of Star Wars: Rebellion when played using the Rogue One-themed Rise of the Empire expansion set. My original Rebellion review can be found in our Rise of Skywalker (so much rising!) issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. I highly recommend you pick up a copy, but I can tell you now my review is extremely positive. In fact, it is currently my favorite board game, period, though it is not suited for casual gaming nights as it’s limited to two players and takes about four (fun-filled) hours to play.
For all its complications, the game’s central idea is simple. One player represents the Empire; the other gets to be the Rebellion. As the Empire, you will have a ton of firepower at your disposal, including up to two Death Stars for complete planet annihilation. The Rebels don’t have it quite so good, relying on little more than luck, sabotage, and a plucky attitude to survive. They also have secrecy. The Rebels’ base is hidden on one of the game’s many planets. All the Empire has to do is discover the planet and destroy its forces. All the Rebels have to do is stay alive long enough to inspire the galaxy to fight back.
At the time I reviewed Rebellion, I was not yet familiar with Rise of the Empire or what it had to offer. I’m honestly not all that big on expansions in general, as most good games seem fine enough as they are without bringing another purchase into things. Some just add new elements, which can be fun. Some amend less than stellar mechanics from the original, which can be vital. Rise of the Empire does both.
I was already a big Rebellion fan before I got the expansion. But now that I have it, I can’t go back to playing it the old way. I wouldn’t say Rise of the Empire is absolutely necessary, just very close. If you like Rebellion, you are eventually going to want to pick this up.
It’s all about combat. Rebellion doesn’t call for fighting often but when it does, you can expect some groaning. For all its elegance, this part of the game is a mess of mini-cards and literal handfuls of dice and hits negated by blocks and re-rolls and on and on and on. It offers a very clear point of failure in terms of game design.
I was willing to let this go as you usually don’t fight all that much and the rest of the game is worth the trouble. Rise of the Empire fixes a lot of this, however. There are still a million dice to throw (more of them, in fact), but now the pesky battle card system has been simplified significantly so battles no longer become endless, painful back and forth stalemates.
Rebellion’s greatest strength is how much it really feels like you are playing your own Star Wars movie. The cards that aid your combat play deeper into Star Wars thematics. Meanwhile, the fights are shorter and their dynamics and flow easier to comprehend, making these confrontations feel appropriately epic and important, rather than letting them get bogged down in the minutia of those darn mini-cards and endless re-rolls. For this alone, Rise of the Empire is worth the price of admission. It goes a long way toward fixing the original game’s major fault.
Naturally, the expansion offers much more than that. Its additional features, however, are much less vital.
Rise of the Empire offers a bunch of new characters. Most, but not all, are themed around Rogue One. If you hate Rogue One, that’s probably not very exciting. I adore it, so it made me very happy to fight as Chirrut Îmwe, for instance. As with the original, these are not just arbitrary board game pieces. They are all calibrated to make you feel like you are actually playing with these characters.
And with the characters comes a whole new set of mission cards. You can replace your old ones or ignore them. Up to you. Both are great, so it’s really a question of variety, though I think I prefer the newer missions. Some cards must replace older counterparts to allow for new mechanics. I find these are all for the better. It’s not as drastic as changing the combat system, but the minor refinements are welcome.
Some additions are more arbitrary. An expansion of a game already overflowing with little plastic pieces must of course add some more little plastic pieces. So the Rebels and Empire have some new ships and structures. The structures in particular add some nice wrinkles, but overall I prefer the game without all this stuff. Most of the new ships utilize additional green dice, which have a way lower success rate than the game’s normal black and red dice. These additions add more complications to an already complicated game with little noticeable benefit to gameplay. It’s just busier.
The expansion comes with a brief manual that helps you fold all these new elements into your regular Rebellion setup. I recommend giving it a couple full tries before amending it with house rules of your own. For instance, I love the new characters, missions, and combat rules, but now I leave all the new ships and green dice business behind. Well, not all the way behind. New characters utilize the green dice to give them a minor edge on stats, hits that are extreme long shots and help raise tension in tricky situations. Those can stay.
Like I said above, I’m not usually much for expansions. I had to make an exception for Rise of the Empire. Not for all the pretty bells and whistles it provides (though I like those too) but solely because it manages to make an already great game even better by revising its one main weakness. Those fights are still pretty messy, but they are a ton better than they were before Rise of the Empire fixed it.