Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit
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This game recreates the ending of the Phantom Menace with four different battles taking place on four different boards. Planning, resource management and tactical positioning are key. Concentrate on the battlefield? The Jedi? Anakin? The Palace? This over-the-top production comes with two large game boards, one three-dimensional three-level cardboard and plastic Palace and over 130 plastic figures. Sure, its an incredible toy box, but the game mechanism rocks, too.
I have no experience with comparable games to compare this to. I bought it because it's 'Star Wars'. I wasn't disappointed. Not only is it faithful to the movie--and playing it is like being in the movie--it's a fun game.
The instructions and the sheer scope of the game were daunting, but once I and my sons (one of whom can't even read, yet) sat down with it, we were able to figure it out. The first time we played, set-up and playing took about 3 hours total. Now, we can set it up and play a full game in under an hour.
All of the games have been close, but so far we have not been able to make the bad guys win. This has become a challenge and when we play now there's almost an argument over who gets to be the bad guys, because that's where the challenge seems to be.
I am not a big Star Wars fan. Never was. I think the first trilogy is ok, I hated Episode I and thought Episode II was a little better...but not much. I bought this game because I am a game addict and I buy every game Avalon Hill puts out. The componants looked so nice that I just had to try the game. I played one game with one of my friends and the rest is history, as they say.
We had so much fun you wouldn't believe it. We played in a store (my friend is the owner) and soon after we had begun, a lot of onlookers gathered and were amazed at the looks of the game. You have to see this one set up to appreciate what I am saying here. Anyways, we just had a blast. Yes it is luck driven and strategy is limited but that is not the point. This is a FUN, and TENSE game. Period. I can't get enough of it.
And guess what? It promted me to rent Episode I and watch it again. Now I did pass over most of the first 2/3 of the movie but was amazed at how the game closely lets you relive the end of the movie.
Get this under the Christmas tree for yourself or someone else. You will not regret it.
This is a great game for all the reasons mentioned in the previous reviews. My wife ( who normally does not enjoy shoot 'em up games) and I played this morning and we had a ball. The tension is constant from the beginning, involving you in every single move.
I know some people have problems with the Anakin game mechanic but I think it fits perfectly with the theme. In the movie, Anakin is pulled along by a tractor beam and it's only by sheer luck that he makes it to the space station at all. Accordingly, luck plays a fairly large role in Anakin's mission but there are deterrents. Starfighter cards really slow Anakin down and make it frustrating to waste a card trying to move Anakin when you could have played a card to wipe out droids with your catapult, thus scoring more bonus cards (essential in winning).
There have been suggestions throughout the web on how to fix the Anakin 'problem', but I really don't see it as such. Perhaps, after a few more games, I'll view things differently, but right now I'm having too much of a BLAST!
It may look impressive on the back of the game box, but only in person can you truly appreciate the absolute glory of the sheer number of pieces in this two-player game from Avalon Hill. 150-plus plastic figures dot the landscape of the three boards, one of which sits three tiers high. It's tempting to leave it set up between playings, partly because it looks so spectacular, but also because it takes both players ten minutes to get all the bits out of the box. Fortunately, the game typically takes two hours to determine a victor, so the assembly time isn't really noticeable in the grand scheme of things. To boot, it's not a bad game either.
This review is necessarily going to give away some of the plot of the movie 'The Phantom Menace', because the game's premise is squarely based on the climactic battle at the end of that film. I don't expect this to be a problem for the people reading this review, though, because I'm certain that the game's intended audience was collectively standing in line to see the movie on its opening day. Besides, the Star Wars universe has so many strange nouns in it that if you haven't seen the movie, the following will seem like a foreign language anyway. (Having said that, the game isn't inaccessible to Star Wars neophytes, because you don't really have to know anything about the movies to play; it just helps set the atmosphere.)
Here's the premise of the game, the point where the events of the movie leave off and you start playing. Queen Amidala of the planet Naboo, her decoy and a few loyal guards commanded by Captain Panaka are about to attempt to re-take Naboo's Theed palace, where the viceroys of the Trade Federation -- the force that is blockading Naboo -- are standing protected by a number of robotic battle droids. The two Jedi knights Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have encountered the vicious Sith, Darth Maul, and are busy fighting in the power plant. Up in space, Anakin Skywalker is trying to shut down all of the droids on the planet, by taking out the orbiting droid control ship. Out on the plains, a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Gungan army is creating a diversion to draw as much of the Federation's force as possible from the palace, to help Amidala in her mission. These are the four arenas of conflict featured in the three boards of the game (the space battle and the Jedi duel share one of the boards, while the other two theatres occupy a board each). Most impressive is the multiple-storey palace, assembled from three segments stacked vertically with the help of plastic struts, with all three levels participating in the game. The throne room is on the top floor, while Amidala's forces enter on the ground floor with several droids to dodge or destroy on the way up. It's one of the most creative uses of the dimension of height I've seen in a game.
In this two-player game, one player takes control of the Trade Federation, its myriad battle droids and Darth Maul; the other player controls the forces of Naboo: the Queen, her decoy and attack force, the Gungans, the Jedi and Anakin. All pieces are placed on their starting spaces, fortunately marked on the boards so that you don't need to constantly refer to the game's instructions -- tremendously readable though they are. It's fiddly to get the pieces onto the three-level palace arena -- I was always knocking droids rolling whenever my hand strayed and caused a Nabooquake -- but I'm clumsier than most. I usually knock privacy shields over in other games too, so the game is not to blame here.
The game is card-driven in a way reminiscent of Avalon Hill's earlier 'Battle Cry': play a card, then activate the piece or pieces mentioned on it, moving them or possibly attacking with them. Players alternate doing this until they are both out of cards, then repeat with more cards until one of the players has met the game's victory conditions. Along the way there are ways for players to gain bonuses in the form of extra cards, which will doubtless help in subsequent rounds.
The cards are not equal, however. Each player has his or her own deck of cards, which are themed for the Federation or Naboo. The differences are mostly cosmetic, but some are significant, owing to the asymmetry of the two sides' objectives. Each player's deck is further divided into two -- one stack contains cards that almost exclusively focus on the palace (and the Jedi duel), and one stack has cards that affect only the plain and space battles. Each turn, players receive an equal number from each stack, forcing them to roughly split their effort fifty-fifty between the palace nitty-gritty and the big picture unfolding outside on the plain or in orbit. Players secretly choose a set of cards from their hands and stack them up to be played singly, alternately Naboo and Federation. Unselected cards are kept until the next round, when new cards are drawn, and the selection process begins again.
With four mostly independent areas to attend to, you have a number of decisions to make each round. The game's card-drawing mechanism allows you to focus, to an extent, on one area to try to get dominance in that one, but this is risky, because it weakens your hold on the other battles. Likewise, it's unwise to totally ignore an arena, because an enemy breakthrough in any one of the four battles can turn the tide on another theatre in subtle ways. (Besides, the same mechanism that gives you freedom to focus also limits you by requiring you to focus on the neglected areas at a later time, so completely ignoring a theatre isn't realistically an option.)
Each of the four battles behaves in different ways, though the gameplay in three of them is largely the same, integrating most of the game into a seamless whole. I'll describe each of the areas and what each player must do in it.
For all but the space battle, pieces move and attack in a similar way. When a card activates a piece (or a group of pieces on the plain), that piece moves up to a set number of spaces on the board, then may fire once at one enemy. Both sides roll a set number of dice, and the difference in hits rolled by the attacker and shields rolled by the defender amounts to the number of hit points lost by the defender (if it has any at all), or the number of pieces lost (if the target has no hit points). It's all very simple, quite random, and fortunately completely tabulated on reference cards, because each type of piece has its own stats, which can even vary from theatre to theatre.
The simplest of the four battles, and also the least relevant in terms of the game's final objective, is the diversion on the plains. Gungan forces are on what seems like a suicide mission to distract the Trade Federation's droids from the important battle in the palace. However, the plains battle is still quite real and both players can gain from expending energy there: Every time an enemy group is eliminated, the victorious side gets to select a bonus card, from one of its two stacks, to be added sight-unseen to next round's cards. In this way a player is able to get a precious extra action next round.
The plains battle is grand-strategy in nature, and while the pieces look funny, they adopt the universal wargame roles of infantry, cavalry and artillery quite easily. (Indeed, this entire battle -- hex map and all -- is reminiscent of light wargames such as 'Battle Cry'.) Each side has its own advantages: the Federation has more pieces and they are stronger; the Gungans have artillery that doesn't need line-of-sight, and a vast but vulnerable shield to protect its weaker forces from the onslaught of the Federation's assault tanks.
Both sides' objectives on the plains are the same -- fight to get bonus cards. The Naboo player really doesn't have a chance here, so the Gungans must simply fight to stay alive as long as possible, and keep the Federation's droids occupied. If a few droids get taken out along the way, so much the better. For the Federation player, it's a slayfest that you can't possibly lose, especially once you take out the Gungan shield generators. But you can't ignore the battle, because you'll deprive yourself of bonus cards if you do. Additionally, you'll be needing to transfer the droids from here to the palace later on in the game to reinforce your by now dwindling palace defence force, and you can't do that if you are still having to fight off the Gungans. This is also the only place that you can bring new droids into the game by deploying them from your troop transports onto the plain.
Speaking of the palace, this is probably the most entertaining part of the game. Here a force of twenty-odd palace guards, Queen Amidala and her lookalike decoy are attempting to get into the throne room on the top level, where they can intimidate the cowardly Federation viceroys into submission. They must fight through several droids to reach the throne room, either the slow way by climbing the stairs, or (much more effectively) by scaling the outside walls and entering through the upstairs windows. Unlike the strategy of the plains, this is a tactical battle where both sides are jockeying for the best position.
The Naboo player has the Federation at a disadvantage here in the palace; with the ability to scale the outside of the building and effectively skip the intervening droids, it is not difficult to get a superior force into the throne room. Once inside, the throne room is easy to defend because there is only one entrance. Additionally, the Naboo player has a decoy Queen who acts and moves just like the real thing, but if she is killed the player suffers no ill effects. (At the start of the game, the Naboo player secretly assigns a "real Queen" token to either the red or purple queen figures.) This uncertainty makes the job of the Federation player that much harder, as he or she must spend actions on trying to eliminate what is possibly an insignificant character.
The Federation player must protect the throne room at all costs, and take out as many of the guards as possible -- even better, the (real) Queen, for there is a serious morale penalty for the Naboo player should she die. This is made especially difficult by the guards' ability to scale the walls and bypass your defences. You can bring in extra droids from the plain -- provided you can spare them there -- but they may arrive too late to save you.
Below the palace in the power plant, the evil Sith Darth Maul is locked in combat with the Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. This duel is a miniature version of the free-for-all that is going on up in the palace, except that the participants are stronger and harder to kill. And kill is what must be done, for the victor here receives a veritable wad of bonus cards for vanquishing the enemy. On top of that, when one side has won this battle, the survivor(s) can head on out into the palace to greatly affect the outcome of the struggle in the palace. As masters of the Force, they even have additional strengths in hand-to-hand combat, such as the ability to intersperse attacking and moving freely. Jedi can slice up battle droids as effortlessly as they do in the movie.
Like the battle on the plain, the Jedi duel doesn't directly feature in the victory conditions of the game, but the bonus cards that can be earned there, and the edge that a Jedi can provide in the palace battle, can make all the difference.
The fourth area, up in orbit around Naboo where Anakin Skywalker is trying to destroy the droid control ship, is in my opinion the weakest part of the game, in that it doesn't share the same mechanisms as the rest of the game and that it doesn't fit the theme of the film -- for instance, the other starfighters of the Naboo fleet aren't represented at all. Not only that, but Anakin is invulnerable to damage and his progress is entirely governed by luck. (Actually, this last point is probably true to the movie in some deep mystical Force-ish way.) The Naboo player simply rolls the dice, and if the sum corresponds to empty space on a table printed on the board, Anakin advances a space. When he reaches the sixth space, all droids on the plain and in the palace are instantly rendered inactive -- leaving the Federation player with only Darth Maul, provided he hasn't already been bested by the Jedi. This sudden-death ending is a requirement for Naboo victory, and the only thing that the Trade Federation can do to prevent it is to spend actions to place extra stages between Anakin and his destination. This only delays the inevitable, however, as those extra stages are limited in number and Anakin will eventually get through. The Federation must take the time to deploy all of these extra stages, or the Naboo side will get away with a quick and relatively bloodless coup for the victory.
What I will say about the space battle is that, because Anakin's march to the droid control ship is so inexorable, it does effectively put a ceiling on the length of the game, preventing long bogged-down endings from turning the game into an anticlimax. It has also apparently been playtested to within an inch of its life, because two of the three times I have played the game, it came down to rolls in the space battle. It ended up going a different way each time. There's a little more to the space battle than I mention here, giving the Federation a smidgen more control than I imply, but once you understand elementary probability theory, it's just rolling of dice. All the same, it's still fun and heart-stopping to see if a die roll has ended the game or not.
So how does the game end? Well, the Naboo player has to succeed in both destroying all droids on the board (which means shutting down the droid control ship, because the Gungans are not going to win on the plains), and getting more pieces into the throne room than the Federation (who gets two to start with, thanks to the inanimate, indestructible viceroys, who just stand about the throne looking ominous). The Federation player needs to render Naboo's victory conditions impossible somehow, which means that -- owing to the fact that Anakin Can't Be Stopped Because He's In The Sequels -- all but two of Naboo's characters in the palace (the guards, Queens and Jedi) need to be wiped out before the droids are terminated from orbit. It's an interesting asymmetry, but the game must have been playtested well because it's still anyone's game, sometimes right up to the end. None of the games I played were one-sided.
That's a lot of rules and mechanisms for one game. But because things work pretty much the same way across the different arenas of conflict, you're actually underway quite quickly. I was on top of the rules about ten minutes into the game, and from then on needed only to refer to the rulebook for obscure rules, of which there are mercifully few. Not that the rulebook is a problem. In sixteen colour pages, it covers setup in great detail, explains all four battles and even suggests some strategies for each side, and includes a blow-by-blow example of one complete round. This is a rulebook that other publishers should read and learn from. It's a far cry from the opaque efforts of the old Avalon Hill.
My one complaint -- other than the sheer lack of control in the space battle -- is that near the end of the game, you may not have any useful cards to play. For instance, the Naboo player often has no Gungans left near the end, but still must play plains battle cards because they're all that the player has left in his or her hand. This is somewhat alleviated by the game's design in a few ways: one is that if a card is useless to you, the corresponding card is probably also useless to your opponent, so you both end up wasting a turn and no one gets ahead. Another way is that most of the cards have more than one way of being used, so that a card that can't move the Jedi because they're both dead has a backup behaviour, resulting in the movement of palace guards instead. Finally, while individual cards may become useless, the decks themselves will never be. The plains/space stack is useful for the plains battle early on, and the space battle towards the end of the game, while the palace/Jedi stack is most helpful for the palace towards the end, once the Jedi battle has been decided. This clever feature means that even at the end of the game, when most of the pieces are eliminated, both players still have enough things to do to keep them in the game.
While this game appeals to me, and I'm sure to any Star Wars fan (the rulebook suggests that players as young as ten can play), I imagine that it won't be for everyone. First off, the game is longish, coming in at about two hours for experienced players. Second, there's an awful lot of dice-rolling, enough that the Central Limit Theorem kicks in and averages out the fortune or misfortune of a single roll. But there are still extremities on the bell curve, and I can imagine that losing ten straight rolls can be demoralizing, especially halfway through a two-hour game. This is not in the same league as no-luck games like 'Diplomacy' or 'Civilization'. The game is also only for two players; three cannot play, and although there is a four-player partners variant (which I admit I haven't tried), it doesn't look very different from the two-player game, and downtime could become a factor. As this isn't a cheap game -- especially if you have to pay to have the heavy box shipped somewhere -- I'd recommend borrowing a copy to try out first, if you are likely to be put off by some factor or mechanism in the game.
In this seventh game released under Avalon Hill's new banner, Hasbro has demonstrated once again that it is determined to provide only the best quality in games, with both the gameplay and components. (In my copy, they've even provided some spare pieces, to replace the ones that -- with over 150 of them in the game -- will inevitably become damaged or lost. A friend, however, didn't get these spare pieces, so perhaps I was just lucky.) At two hours per game, it isn't likely to come out every evening, but it captures the essence of the movie so beautifully that it's almost better than watching the film, which is about as long. Plus, the ending isn't always the same, and playing the game I don't have to wince whenever Jar Jar speaks. That's got to be a plus.