“What do you like about Imperial Assault?”
This was a question posed to me by my friend recently during one of those rare occasions where I actually leave the house and drink a couple of pints. While said friend has been dutifully playing through the campaign with me and another, he’s made it clear that it’s not his favourite system to play.
At the time, the best answer I could come up with (when thrust into the nightmare situation of being put on the spot in a semi-inebriated state) was;
“Because it’s Star Wars; duh.”
Of course, I know I’m capable of providing a far better-worded, more insightful answer than that, and over the past few days I’ve had time to think a little deeper about what exactly is it that I like about Imperial Assault – a game which, strangely for me, I pretty much ignored when it was first released back in late 2014.
1) It’s a board game
Being a board game means it’s a self-contained experience, and there’s an end-point to the collection. (A slight caveat here: Imperial Assault is produced by Fantasy Flight Games, and their current business model for it means there’s no end-point in sight just yet – ‘end-point’ being the point at which you stop collecting because you’ve bought absolutely everything to do with that game).
In recent years I’ve found that I’m liking board games more and more because they’re self-contained experiences – everything you need to play this game is in the box that you buy – you don’t need to buy tape measures, terrain, dice, templates, army books etc on top of the game itself. In terms of additional cost, they’re (barring the aforementioned expansions) a ‘one and done’ purchase.
Now, Imperial Assault manages to render my first point moot almost immediately because of the multiple boxed expansions and figure packs that have been released for it in its near 3-year lifespan. The core set was pretty much all I had to begin with and technically everything is in there to play the campaign, although you do end up using cardboard tokens to represent some characters. Of course, regular readers will know I hate using the tokens to represent iconic Star Wars heroes and villains, and that’s where the figure expansions come in.
hoarder collector in me doesn’t mind this one bit – it’s nice buying the odd extra figure for my collection. They don’t cost a huge amount as far as miniatures go, and as well as replacing a token from the box, they also come with additional Missions, Command Cards and such for both the Campaign and Skirmish part of the game. (We can have a separate discussion on whether I’m “what’s wrong with the gaming industry by enabling this kind of business model to thrive” another time!).
2) The miniatures
Imperial Assault’s miniatures are actually very well detailed for what are essentially board-game pieces. They paint up really nicely, as evidenced by many wonderful examples out there on the internet, and the humble attempts I have here on this blog.
While they’re nowhere near the level of the incredible sculpts produced by the likes of Corvus Belli, Mierce Miniatures or those seen in Kingdom Death, they’re still of a very good quality. The slightly more cartoonish style that the sculpts have also fits well with the artwork on the tiles and cards, which means there’s little sense of detachment between the look of the playing pieces and the board art.
Seemingly out of character for myself as a keen miniature painter, I was initially hesitant to paint up the miniatures when I first got the box. “What sort of fool paints board game pieces?” I thought to myself. Then, after a bit of soul/Google searching, I figured that the look of the game just wasn’t complete without a lick of paint on them. After all, who can resist painting up some 28mm scale Star Wars figures? Well, er, me, apparently (at least to begin with)!
The fact that I’ve been able to tolerate painting so many of them up in a short space of time is testament to how good the sculpts are – I’ve slogged my way through plenty of poorly-sculpted figures in my time, and I’ve not experienced a single second of ennui while painting these. At the time of writing, I’ve painted 78 of them since buying the game last September, with another 19 ready to start!
With a coat of paint on the models, the look of the game is most certainly ‘complete’ (feel free to insert a Palpatine-style voiceover for that bit. And check me out, quoting myself in my own blog post). It really brings the whole experience to life – the gorgeous, colourful artwork on the board sits nicely alongside well-detailed figures who are all now equally as colourful! This brings me nicely on to point number 3:
3) The Immersion
“Our heroes, hopelessly outnumbered, fight their way through seemingly endless ranks of enemies, cutting them down with relative ease (because; Plot Armour) as they make their way to their (presumably) extremely important objective. All of a sudden, a villain appears from the shadows to stop our plucky heroes in their tracks.”
Sounds familiar, right? This is, for the most part, what a game of Imperial Assault captures on the table. While it’s not perfect (and no game truly is), it really does ‘feel’ like a Star Wars adventure, be it from one of the movies, the games or the books. This, for me, is the biggest reason for my love of tabletop gaming – being part of a fantastic story played out on the tabletop which will be remembered by the players for years to come.
4) The accessibility
Because it’s a board game at heart, the ‘light’ nature of the rules set is another big plus point for me. Granted, it’s not the simplest set of rules out there, but it’s nothing like a wargame in terms of complexity. The thickness (or rather, thinness) of rulebooks themselves are the clearest example – compare this to the thickness of any wargame rulebook and it’s far less daunting to learn how to play Imperial Assault. As I get older, I’m finding myself with less and less time to sit and pore over rulebooks, so a lighter rules-set is something I crave more and more.
Added to this, the setting of the game in the Star Wars universe means it has been far easier for me to entice ‘non-gamers’ to give it a try. It worked for me with X-Wing, as shown by the (still-ongoing) Heroes of the Aturi Cluster campaign I’m running, as well as the huge collections purchased by two of my friends who aren’t full-on gamers like myself. This same group have been introduced to Imperial Assault and are interested in playing more, once we’ve finished making our way through the X-Wing campaign.
5) It’s got a second way to play
While Skirmish may be many people’s primary mode of play for Imperial Assault, it’s most definitely a secondary mode for me. I already play several wargaming systems with my gaming group, and so I just don’t have room to take on another one with any seriousness. While it does look to be pretty interesting to play, there’s a lack of other players in my area, so I’d likely struggle to find a game of Skirmish if I actually wanted one.
That being said, what Imperial Assault Skirmish does allow me to do is set up more cinematic games between my friends. Where else can we can re-fight iconic movie scenes like Luke, Han, Chewie and Leia’s shootout in the cell-bay on the Death Star, or the daring escape from Bespin by Leia, Chewie and Lando? While I’m not likely to ever follow the competitive ‘meta’ and go to a tournament, the fact that I can create thematic lists and play both the predetermined Skirmish missions or create my own is a goldmine of gaming content for me and my friends to explore.
Of course, the game is not without its flaws; there are minor niggles here and there such as a ‘snowball effect’ when one side wins more games than the other, or the campaign storyline feeling a little disjointed with side-missions seemingly being carried out at random and having no direct links to the main story, but these issues can both be mitigated by playing the game narratively and by letting the Imperial Player have some fun weaving their own tale for the Rebel players. I’m already working on a more cohesive experience for my non-gamer friends, starting by Photoshopping up a map to plot their course around the galaxy to show them when and where their games are taking place.
At the end of the day, I feel that Imperial Assault does a perfectly good job of bringing characterful and cinematic battles in the Star Wars Galaxy to the tabletop without being too complicated yet still having some depth to it. There’s a reason it’s one of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 games.
And because it’s Star Wars; duh.