Sunday, February 3, 2008

Review: Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit

This review is a version of one that I posted on BGG previously.

Okay, let's get two things out of the way first:

1. I am a Eurogamer. I came into this game not having played any Ameritrash "classics" that I enjoyed. In fact, I hadn't played any Ameritrash games that I really enjoyed - period.

2. I hated Episode I the movie. I found the acting wooden, the dialogue trite, the plot lacking a true emotional tie in (and I'm not even going to start into the whole Jar-Jar issue). Don't get me wrong, I am a Star Wars fan. I've read a lot of Star Wars fiction and I'm a loyal fan of the original trilogy. Perhaps it was because of these things that I found Episode I to be the most disappointing movie I've ever seen - simply because of the anticipation that I, along with many other Star Wars fans, felt leading up to its release.

So, with a general distaste of Ameritrash in my mouth and wearing my Episode I hater cap, I approached "The Queen's Gambit" simply out of curiosity due to the praise I've read about the game. I asked myself, "can a game based on such a lousy movie be any good?" So, what's the answer?

Well, I'm here to tell each and every one of you out there from a certified Eurosnoot that "Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit" is one of the best games I've played in a long time. The game just oozes with theme. Sure there are lots of dice (which are normally a problem for eurogamers) but, with this game, I just didn't care that there was so much dice rolling. The movement of the different characters on the various boards immersed me in the theme of battling Darth Maul, fighting the battle droids on the plains of Naboo, trying to deceive the other player with my two queens, trying to storm the palace and fight my way to the Viceroy, trying to plow through the fleet of ships as Anakin to blow up the Federation control ship, and so forth. I hated the movie, and I expected this game to disappoint me like the movie did, but it wasn't to be. This game is good, really good.

So, why is it so good? It's the details. I'm not about to go into a lengthy discourse on the rules but perhaps a few examples will suffice:

-There are two decks of cards: one for the Theed-Palace area and one for the battlefield / space-battle-above-the-planet area. A player has to play four cards in a round and these four cards are planned out and set in place in terms of which cards and in what sequence before the action begins (so there's some second-guessing and anticipation involved). At the end of each turn, both players draw from each deck (two cards per deck). The result is, if you hammer one area, you will mostly have cards for the other area in your hand - thus providing a natural compulsion to focus on a balanced approach in the game.

-There is an "energy shield" on the plains battle that prevents federation droids from shooting at Gungans from a distance. Droids can walk through the shield (just like in the movie) and can work towards taking out the shield generators so that the rest of the forces can work more effectively. (By the way, "just like in the movie" is a phrase you will hear a lot as you continue reading.)

-The battle between Qui-Gon Ginn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul is set up so that Qui-Gon will take the blunt of the hits at the beginning - thus making it more likely that, if one of the two Jedi die, it will be him - again, just like in the movie. In fact the initial placement of the characters is set up just like in the movie with Qui-Gon having to battle Darth Maul and Obi-Wan stuck having to watch at first.

-Getting Anikan through the federation fleet to blow up the main ship will take some luck. Again, just like in the movie.

-You can ascend the palace through the stairs or on the outside using grapling guns - again, just like in the movie.

-The Gungans will not tend to do well on the battle field as there are three units of gungans per hex while there are four units of droids per hex - thus giving the federation a distinct advantage in combat - again serving as a thematic reflection of the movie.

-In some cases with some characters, you can roll defense dice when attacked. With the Jedi, the possibility of hitting back out of turn when attacked is presented - just like in the movies how Jedi can deflect laser blasts back at their opponents. Also, the destroyer droids (the scorpion looking droids with shields) have defense dice that make them harder to kill. Further, the general luck of hucking a lot of dice fits the idea of a laser gun battle. Sometimes you hit lucky shots. Sometimes you don't.


Now, let's look at one staple of Ameritrash-ism in particular: namely that of bits. I haven't really cared that much about bits in the past. As a Eurogamer, I'm fine with my LWC's (little wooden cubes). However, the bits in this game add a lot to the experience. Trying to imagine this game with abstracted components like cubes just wouldn't work. After a lot of Gungans and droids have bitten the dust, it's pretty cool to watch these bits be set off to the side as a visual body count of the action that's taken place. The way the board is constructed with the three-dimensional aspect to the palace really heightens the thematic feel of the game. It's not just a gimic. It's functional to place the boards as they are because of the ability of the palace guards to use their grapling guns to ascend the outside of the palace to a higher floor.


A complaint that is often layed at the door of the Ameritrash genre is one of balance - namely that the games are often not balanced. This game is not necessarily balanced - but it doesn't matter (at least, it didn't matter to me). There are swings in the momentum of the game due to "bonus cards" that a player earns the right to play when they accomplish something significant. I was getting hosed pretty badly until I finally defeated Darth Maul which not only gave me bonus cards but also allowed me to unleash Obi-Wan on the droid forces. These "swings" in momentum really captured a thematic element that created a rich experience for me. They are also not the kinds of momentum swings that can rob a game of its enjoyment. With 1960 for example, the swings are so drastic from turn to turn that they undermined my enjoyment of the game. With Queen's Gambit, the swings are just as drastic but much farther apart from each other and much fewer in number such that strategy and tactics retain much of their significance.


This game's length clocks in at about two hours and that's about right for what it offers. Both players are involved the entire time. (I'll admit I haven't played this game as a 4-player game but I imagine that it's a stretch to do so. This strikes me as a two player game.)

Audience / Who will like this game?

This is not a game that will work very well for most newbie gamers or those who feel threatened by rules (though it's not a tremendously complex game). If you are looking for a game that is rich in theme then this game is it.


I've personally found, at last, an Ameritrash game that I not only think is good, I actually find the game design to be pretty remarkable in that all of the little details of theme were incorporated so well into the overall flow of the game. I personally feel pretty priviliged to own a copy of this out-of-print classic. If you know someone who owns a copy and would be willing to teach you, it's worth it to take the time to learn this game. It's a keeper.

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