I hate hidden movement games. Me and a friend stranded on a desert island with nothing but a copy of Scotland Yard? My worst nightmare. Plaid Hat’s Specter Ops sprinkles a bit more gameplay and a splash of theme into its Scotland Yardness, but hidden movement is hidden movement. You’re still playing a fluid (i.e. drawn-out) version of Battleship. B4? Miss. C4? Miss. B3? Hit! You caught my specter op! Not even Fury of Dracula, spattered with its ropey entrails of viscous gameplay substitute — it’s offal, really — can obscure the fact that it’s just Scotland Yard stretched into an insufferable too-many-hour guessing game, pencil and paper not included.
So it came as a bit of shock when I realized Star Wars: Rebellion, a game I really like, is also a hidden movement game.
After the jump, movement: hidden and loving it
Like die rolls, card draws, counters on tracks, chits on hexes, and placed workers, hidden movement is a viable component of a game design. My problem is when it’s the exclusive focus of the design, as is the case with Scotland Yard, Specter Ops, and Fury of Dracula. Consider that the antecedent for these games is Battleship, which should be an evolutionary dead-end. Guessing where somebody put something is to games what “What’s in my pocket?” is to riddles. It’s the same with games based on rolling a die and moving on a board, which is an artifact of Monopoly. There’s a reason Talisman is a terrible game, and it’s pretty much the same reason Scotland Yard is a terrible game: boardgaming has moved on.
Ironically, Star Wars: Rebellion is truer to its Battleship roots because it minimizes the “movement” part of hidden movement. One player has positioned a fixed piece on the board. The other player tries to find it by ruling out one space at a time. Yavin? Miss. Dantooine? Miss. Bespin? Hit! You found my Rebel base! That’s the skeletal structure of Star Wars: Rebellion. But since this fixed piece represents a base that Dunkirked itself off Hoth, it can move if it wants. This is distinct from constantly moving. It’s slippery, not itinerant. So the Empire’s job isn’t just finding the Rebel base, but controlling enough of the galaxy so that even though the Rebel base can run, it can’t hide.
There are two reasons this works for me, a guy who hates hidden movement games. The first is that it’s not the exclusive focus of the game. Even with all of Fury of Dracula’s frilly complications, with its little card combat game, with its hideouts and ambushes, with its dramatic “I’m on a boat!” setbacks, it’s always about figuring out where Dracula went and then pinning him down before he goes somewhere else. He’s slippery and itinerant, which mostly accounts for the game’s too-many-hour running time. Pointless co-op for the vampire hunter team accounts for the rest of it.
But more than the Rebel base Dunkirking off Hoth, Star Wars: Rebellion is about the Empire seizing the galaxy. Talk about thematic. There are elements of conquest and rulership, with a fair bit of whack-a-moling Rebel flare-ups. The Empire player has a lot more to do besides endure the smug grin of the other player while deciding whether to guess B3 or B4. Finding the Rebel base is the goal. Subjugating the galaxy is the gameplay.
This gets at the second reason that Star Wars: Rebellion works as well as it does. It’s a master class in asymmetry. Not just hide and seek asymmetry, which got old for most of us somewhere around age six. Not just different pieces for each player asymmetry. That’s a great start, but it’s really just a start. Star Wars: Rebellion sees it through with asymmetric gameplay, asymmetric experiences, and asymmetric feelings.
One of Fantasy Flight’s best games — before their rapacious business model compromised it — was Netrunner. Their upgrade of the Richard Garfield 1996 post-Magic collectible card game is a joyous exercise in themed asymmetry, for two players only because that’s the best way to focus an experience. One player is the corporation, trying to execute an agenda by hiding it on heavily defended servers; the other player is the runner, a hacker trying to expose the agenda. They’re each chasing the classic McGuffin in gameplay form, interacting with it in distinct ways.
A lot of the genius of Netrunner isn’t just how different each side plays, but how different each player feels. The corporation is literally holding all the cards. He builds the gameboard. He sets traps. He cannot be killed, but he has to cultivate and execute the agendas. It’s on him to set up a victory, to sneak or dash across the finish line. He has both the secret knowledge and the power. The runner, on the other hand, is the scrappy underdog. He has complete control over when and where to strike, but he must strike, and when he does, he’s vulnerable to being literally killed. The corporation might set up the game, but the runner plays it. The onus is on him to guess what the corporation is doing, to guess what’s a bluff and what’s not, to push forward or pull back. The runner decides when, where, and what.
That’s how Star Wars: Rebellion works. Each side is a different gameplay experience. The Empire is powerful, but ponderous. Subjugating the galaxy isn’t easy because you’re slow and it’s big. You have to do a lot of scutwork. It takes a bloated bureaucracy to pay for all those Star Destroyers. It also takes paperwork. Worksheets aren’t included with the game, but I can’t imagine playing without something like this to pinpoint the Rebel base:
The hardest lesson for an Empire player to learn is that you can’t do something fun every turn. Sometimes Darth Vader is just going to move the Death Star one space, which is still three turns from where it’s trying to get. Sometimes Tarkin is just going to fix a busted factory, which the Rebels are probably going to sabotage again next turn. Sometimes Boba Fett is just going to sit at home to see if the Rebels do anything he can react to. Oh, they didn’t. However, when a battle finally rolls around, you sure are going to shoot down a lot of X-Wings. And when the Death Star gets where it’s going? Hoo boy!
The Rebellion is nimble, but brittle. Your moves are riskier, because they’re more readily challenged by the other player. Your heroes get to do the more dramatic things, but they’re rarely guaranteed to succeed. You’re constantly on the ropes. You will constantly lose battles, planets, and heroes. You will constantly fail missions. You will feel like you’re losing because you are. The discovery and destruction of your base is inevitable, given enough turns. You just have to make sure the Empire isn’t given enough turns. You have to run out the clock by slowing down the Empire and accomplishing secret missions that hasten the end of the game. You have to bluff, misdirect, and gamble. You get to wear a smug grin when he’s deciding whether to guess Dantooine or Yavin.
The hidden placement/movement is a gameplay goal, not gameplay itself and certainly not the central part of the experience. The gameplay is territory control, guerilla warfare, heroes captured and rescued, fleet and army production, pitched battles, and uniquely themed game-breaking “gotchas!” All of it independent of the hidden base’s location.
Star Wars: Rebellion is a big game. It’s a long game. It’s a messy game. The board is littered with tiny plastic spaceships and soldiers, most of which will never matter. This is classic Ameritrash. With the Star Wars license. Hence the hefty price tag. If this were about, say, Vikings or orcs, it would probably cost no more than $40. Parts of the design are oddly clumsy, as if they were jammed in at the last minute. You can’t have classic Star Wars without R2-D2, C-3PO, the Millennium Falcon, and Yoda, right? Oops. Seems the game almost forgot, because here they’re chintzy cardboard rings that you stick to a character’s plastic stand. If you look closely, you’ll see a mushed graphic of R2-D2, C-3PO, the Millennium Falcon, or Yoda. What do they do? Not much. I guess Yoda can be a real life saver during some close calls. But mostly they’re the typical detritus of Ameritrash. Or opportunities for Fantasy Flight’s rapacious business model. It can’t be long before the $25 Yoda mini-expansion, followed by the $45 Millennium Falcon add-on with a Kessel Run sideboard. But for the time being, while Star Wars: Rebellion is in the early days of Fantasy Flight’s inevitable cash grab, it’s a unique way for two people to spend several hours. In a vividly themed game about the asymmetry of frustrated power pitted against triumphant desperation, we all win.