By Ben Guarino
A long time ago, somebody scrawled out a trilogy about an assassin named Mara Jade who tracked down Luke Skywalker but, in a twist that blew at least one 13-year-old mind, ended up marrying him. Does Disney care? You mean about books? Not a smile's chance in Dismaland. But if you peer around the edges of Star Wars culture, you can find whispers of these characters. For the hopeless Star Wars aficionado -- or the die-hard gaming geek -- there is hope: A trio of Star Wars strategy games have blasted into the gaming scene, ready to whisk you away to a distant galaxy where these sub-plots matter.
Published by Minnesota-based gaming company Fantasy Flight Games, the games do not tread lightly into deep Star Wars canon. Two years after Disney cannibalized the Star Wars universe, Fantasy Flight included Mara Jade in its X-Wing Miniatures game. Bite down, and these nerd credits taste authentic. Still, we proceed with caution. Obscure fan service alone does not a good board game make. And proceed with Fantasy Flight we must, because if you want tabletop Star Wars games, you don't have a choice: This is the company chosen to bring the Force to strategy games, which is to say it snagged the license for Star Wars card, miniature, and role-playing games in 2012. Could Fantasy Flight score a critical hit on our jaded exhaust ports, or did it succumb to the dark side of branding, and call it a day after slapping a familiar face on a half-assed game? We played three of Fantasy Flight's Star Wars tabletop games, Armada, X-Wing Miniatures: Force Awakens, and Imperial Assault. They flew close to the twin suns -- and, to varying degrees, they pulled it off.
Armada is the soberest of the three games, and the most mechanically demanding. You are the commander of an Imperial Star Destroyer or a few, smaller Rebel cruisers, invoking that very first scene in A New Hope. Both sides get a whole bunch of little starships, too -- your X-wings and your TIE fighters -- that flit across the table like gnats. Maybe African driver ants are a better comparison -- a cruiser can squish a single fighter with ease, but a swarm will gnaw the unsuspecting captain in half.
In a turn of Armada, you shoot first, tackle more complex rules later. Should an enemy be within range (a sweep of a cardboard ruler will tell you who's in your sights) the blasts are satisfying salvos of dice. Movement is less elegant. The ponderous capital ships swing across the table with a momentum befitting their plastic bulks. Armada, like X-Wing Miniatures, is a war game without a board; you plan out movements across the table using a thin gray piece of plastic that clicks into place. Your ships must move in a limited window, which the tool offers with all the rigid authority of a DMV driving proctor. But when finally you realize you can ram your Corellian Corvette into a Star Destroyer to deal a winning point of hull damage, shifting your speed dial up a notch to lethal velocity becomes a glorious thing.
If you are steering an Imperial ship or larger Rebel frigate, you will have to give commands for future rounds, as though the cruisers had a nervous system on a delay timer. The net result is a fair bit of tactical hemming and hawing: Will I need to speed up two turns away, or summon a squadron of my gnats? Likewise, defensive combat has its own economy of planning: Do I brace for the attack coming at me now, or wait for a more potentially devastating blow later this turn? At times, the game will slow to a crawl as you plot your navy's movements. There is a satisfaction in Armada's showdowns in the same way an iceberg sighs as it careens into an ocean liner. This is the game for the Star Wars fan who also has a soft spot for Das Boot and fond memories of Milton Bradley's Battleship.
2. 'X-Wing Miniatures'
If Armada is an acclaimed German war epic, X-Wing Miniatures is Top Gun: Less an accomplishment of art, but quicker and sporting a sexy Kilmer sheen. Say you were to learn to play the newly-released Force Awakens version while splitting a six pack (not a bad way to learn any board game). The game might come into focus like so: It's got spiffy New Order TIE fighters! A Poe Dameron X-wing! A BB-8 card that lets you take a barrel roll, which you're not entirely sure what that means yet but it's an adorable droid.
By the end of beer one, you realize you can move in a straight or curved line, and if you have BB-8 attached to your ship you get to pull off a move of distance one to the left or right. Unlike the gray plastic movement tool, distance is measured in slips of cardboard. Suck my exhaust, New Order jackboots.
By the end of beer two, hey, it turns out you're playing deep space chess -- but there are no squares in space so you have to predict your opponent's flight path. If you time it right, your ship flings itself behind the enemy and you get to shoot them down, dice willing, but they can't return fire because they're not even looking at you. Kasparov got nothing on Poe.
By the end of beer three you are Poe Dameron and winning this is literally the most important thing you've got going for yourself right now and -- oh, wait, TIE fighters have this killer maneuver where they fly past you and then pull a 180-degree turn on your tail? Your BB-8 ends up BBQ'd, but that's OK because you're itching to get back in the dogfight.
Between Armada and X-wing, which do you choose? It is picking a favorite among siblings. With Armada's larger scale comes more deliberation, and a longer game is less forgiving to a bad move. X-wing can take a half hour where Armada, depending on how you play, might demand five times that. X-wing sometimes feels more random -- in Armada dice dictate only your attacks, in X-wing death can come thanks to the luck of a poor defense roll, too.
1. 'Imperial Assault'
Imperial Assault, they say, is Fantasy Flight's dungeon crawler Descent with a fresh Star Wars coat of paint. If you've never played Descent, you might have flashbacks instead to dicking around with a bucket full of Lego stormtroopers or Micromachine squads. To keep everyone from devolving into brick-throwing chaos, because we're adults now, the game comes with a slick set of rules and a 30-hour narrative to follow. Imperial Assault is a thing of beauty, a light role-playing game mashed with a war game. It is played on not one board but a variety of boards that snap together in puzzle pieces. If a model AT-ST could be called gorgeous, it is the one in Imperial Assault.
To play a campaign, one player takes the role of the Imperials, controlling faceless waves of Stormtroopers and officers to start. (Adopting that perplexing, Brit-lost-in-space accent is optional but adds a bit of atmosphere.) More familiar faces of bounty hunters and Sith lords appear in later missions. Against you, up to four other players take on Rebel heroes. The early campaign is not one the Imperials will win handily. And that is OK. Winning in the Imperial Assault campaign, is, refreshingly, almost beside the point. Did anyone ever win at Legos? If you are the Imperial, you do not have to worry about if you are behind or ahead. You can simply game for the sheer joy of gaming, reveling in a lucky throw of dice or the shuffle of intricate plastic figures around a board (there will be plenty of both). You'll face the Rebels again in the next mission.
Less persnickety than Armada and X-wing, Imperial Assault is the simplest to pick up. Each figure on the board has two actions, and there's no futzing with cardboard or chintzy plastic rulers, only tiles to move along. That doesn't mean there is an absence of strategy -- you can duck around a corner, for instance, take a potshot at an enemy, and move back, as though you were firing from cover. As the campaign progresses, Imperial Assault expands like an exploding battle station, giving characters upgrades and equipment and upgrades for their equipment. Armada has its smooth engineered lines, X-wing blistering maneuvers and tactical action, and Imperial Assault steals from both while also having a story to tell. Oh, and, should the lack of a stark win-lose dichotomy lose a bit of its luster and you want to get gladiatorial, there's a two-player skirmish mode for you to duke it out. Welcome back to the galaxy.
Photos via Fantasy Flight Games and Angelina X. Liang