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Star Wars: Rebellion, and the Trials and Tribulations of Learning a New Board Game
“I like firsts. Good or bad, they’re always memorable.” - Ahsoka Tano
This past weekend, I finally got the chance to play Star Wars: Rebellion, which is a board game reenactment of the conflict between the Empire and Rebellion during the original Star Wars trilogy (duh). Rebellion is currently ranked #8 on BoardGameGeek, and is widely regarded as one of the best modern two-player board games available. It also happens to be based on one of my favorite properties of all time.
Truthfully, I don’t know if I ever expected to actually play this game, and I’m sure I won’t play it again for many months. This is because Rebellion is a complex, rules-heavy game, that requires a higher than average level of commitment (at least 3-4 hours of play, not including setup and learning the rules). I kind of just bought it because I really, really wanted it on my shelf. Let’s call it an “aspirational purchase”.
Lucky for me, the star(war)s aligned, and the opportunity arose to play at long last! The dream has been fulfilled. Now, I’d like to talk about how my first game of Star Wars: Rebellion went, and beyond that, what the experience of learning it together with another player was like.
To give a very brief rundown of the game’s structure: One player controls the Empire, while the other controls the Rebellion. The Rebel player secretly chooses a planet to hide their base on, then the Empire spends the game trying to hunt them down. If the Empire manages to locate the base and defeat all Rebels there, they win the game. Meanwhile, the Rebels are attempting to complete objectives on cards in order to score enough points to win before they’re discovered. Along the way there’s lots of ship building, space combat, iconic characters, and wacky, non-canon, Star Warsy goings-on.
Diving into it, we had one big advantage, and that was that I had previously created my own tutorial video for Star Wars: Rebellion for Roll For Crit. This meant that while I hadn’t played the game in full, I had run through some mock turns and read through the rules thoroughly in order to recreate them for easier digestion in video form. Of course, board games like this (especially ones made by publisher Fantasy Flight) tend to introduce obscure and confusing rules conflicts that you won’t discover until you’re actually playing in earnest. That said, my tutorial video was still pretty good (if I do say so myself) and got us more or less up and running within fifteen minutes.
I was randomly assigned to play as the Empire, and after the first few rounds, I seemed to be in a pretty strong position. In the span of a single turn, I managed to capture Princess Leia, narrowed down the possible locations of the Rebel Base to a great degree, then turned Leia to the Dark Side, completely robbing the Rebels of her skills. I won’t get into the nitty gritty of how this all happened mechanically, but it involved me getting some lucky early card draws and winning some close dice rolls.
This felt like a huge blow to the Rebellion. At this point I knew that their base had to be on one of three planets, and it was fairly easy for me to eliminate two of them after another round. Naturally, a battle then ensued at their base on that planet (Ryloth, homeworld of the Twi’leks, in case you were wondering), but unfortunately for me, I was unable to defeat all of the units there in a single round. In anticipation of this, the Rebel player had played a card which allowed him to relocate their base to a brand new planet (albeit from a much more limited selection).
The second half of the game was largely a drawn out loss for me, as I began to lose more and more ground to the Rebels. Though I did manage to construct a second Death Star (two Death Stars is a lot better than one), my troops were too spread out, and I couldn’t relocate them fast enough to make use of my superior firepower. Finding the base a second time proved much more difficult than the first, and I wasn’t able to seal the deal before the Rebel player could complete more of his objectives and end the game in a victory.
Now, the real reason I’m writing this recap isn’t to outline the exciting ups and downs of our space battles, but to analyze my experience learning Star Wars: Rebellion vs. my opponent’s. Throughout the first half of the game, the Rebel player felt like he was doing something wrong, and was struggling greatly to understand what that was. My units vastly outnumbered his, I managed to corner him very quickly, and he wasn’t fully grasping the usefulness of many of his cards. Meanwhile, I felt pretty confident, having turned Leia to the Dark Side and having located the Rebel base so easily. I was even starting to feel guilty about how successfully I was thwarting his plans; The last thing I wanted was for the Rebels to have a poor experience just because of some beginner’s luck (after all, I have to convince them to play with me again some time).
But then, our situations and fortunes were totally reversed. After relocating his base (something I was unaware, or forgot, that he could even do), the Rebel player was suddenly no longer under my oppressive, gloved thumb. He had the freedom to attempt his objectives with little interruption. Meanwhile, I felt helpless as I was forced to return to poking around in the dark. My rookie mistake of not spreading far enough throughout the galaxy was really hurting me, as I just couldn’t get my ships together to make a significant move.
What interests me most about this though isn’t the balance of the game (perceived or actual), but the perspective of the players in regard to the learning experience. In a post-game analysis, I learned that the Rebel player wasn’t dismayed because he felt he was losing, but rather because he couldn’t understand why he was losing. Or to put it a different way, he didn’t understand how he was supposed to win. He knew what his end goal was, but not what steps he was meant to take to get there. He wished there were an impartial third party present throughout the game, a Star Wars: Rebellion expert who could explain rules and strategy and better ease us into things.
He also expressed the desire to have looked through all of his cards beforehand, and therefore have a better idea of what his overall game plan should’ve been. Personally, I love nothing more than the joy of discovering a board game for the first time; slowly coming to terms with what my cards can do, being surprised at what’s in store for my opponent and myself, and gradually feeling new grooves in my brain forming as I begin to comprehend exactly how it all works. I’ll be able to play better on future games with more intimate knowledge of the cards and mechanics, but I only get one chance to go in fresh, and that’s an experience I treasure.
I’ve got another advantage in this area, in that I’ve been having regular game nights for the past decade or so, while the Rebel player is not such an avid gamer. More importantly, my game nights tend to involve the learning and playing of at least one or more brand new games. Oh, and I’ve also made dozens of tutorial videos which required me to be able to explain board games quickly and as painlessly as possible. Because of this, learning and absorbing rules is something I’m very familiar with.
To be clear, I’m not trying to tell you that I’m really good at board games. I’m not even trying to tell you that I’m really good at learning rules. What I’m trying to tell you is that I have made peace with the fact that I’m not going to fully understand a game the first time that I play it. In fact, I’m pretty slow. I probably won’t really grasp a game until my third or fourth session. For my friend, who isn’t used to diving into something as complicated as Star Wars: Rebellion, this period of confusion was discouraging. For me, it was par for the course. Even though lack of knowledge hurt me just as much or more than it did him, it didn’t cause me quite as much turmoil because how I expected things to play out.
Then, there’s also the fact that I’m… not really very good at strategy games. Long-term planning is absolutely not my strong suit. I tend to do best in games that allow me to pivot and make new choices whenever something goes wrong, and have difficulty visualizing and executing successful grand plans. Therefore, it didn’t surprise or upset me when I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in Star Wars: Rebellion. That’s my secret, Cap - I never know what I’m supposed to be doing.
There are no incorrect methods here. Everyone goes about the process of learning new games differently, and everyone enjoys different aspects of it. The important thing is that we both ended up having fun with Star Wars: Rebellion overall, in spite of some turbulent moments. I’m looking forward to playing as the Rebels in my next game, and once again having no idea what I’m doing.
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