This is one of my favorite two-player games. I have always thought that Fantasy Flight is probably the best at intertwining theme and mechanics in such a way that fans of the subject matter are rewarded for investing their time and money. FFG is like the Beethoven of board gaming – it takes a few plays before you fully realize the genius of their work. Empire Vs. Rebellion is another one of those games, with a deceptive depth that lies beneath a simple surface.
The game play sort of feels feels like a combination of the card games War and Blackjack. Each player chooses a side in the epic struggle we’re all familiar with from Episodes IV-VI. Each player gets a deck of cards that is identical in mechanical content (same number of cards and powers) but with different flavor text and photos. On your turn you can only take one of four actions: play a card blindly from the top your deck, use the power on a card you’ve already played, refresh a card’s power by spending an influence token, or pass. Players are trying to win a series of events and battles from the movies until someone gets to seven victory points. Each event/battle indicates the total number of cards players can play, and a target sum that those cards can total without going over. For instance, in “Escape From Tatooine” players are trying to have 11 total points without having more than three cards in their respective play area. Pretty simple concept, but the strategy gets deep, fast.
Each card has a power that can change the tide of battle. Some cards allow you to remove a card from yours or your opponent’s play area. So, when you think you are sitting pretty with 11 total points on the three cards you played and your opponent has three cards and only 8 points showing, your opponent uses a card’s “Military” power and destroys one of your played cards, leaving you with two cards and 7 points. Now what do you do? Your opponent will win if you pass (8-7) so you play a card from your deck, blindly drawing from the top – let’s say it’s a “Diplomacy” card with a numerical power of 5. Now you are at 12 points and over the 11 point target. Now you have three cards in front of you (the max) and will be disqualified if the battle ends because you’re over the limit. Your opponent passes on his turn. He wins? Not so fast. It’s your turn again, and you aren’t passing, you are using Diplomacy’s power, which allows you to discard it or another one of the cards you have already played. You discard a “Force” card worth 2 points, so now you have 2 cards in front of you and 10 total points to your opponent’s 8. Now it’s his turn again, and he’ll have to keep playing if he wants to win. Play continues until both players pass on their turns. Then the player who wins the event/battle gets a number of victory points and possibly some more influence tokens she can spend to refresh card powers in future battles.
This just scratches the surface of the depth of strategy in this game. While there are only a few card powers – Diplomacy, Force, Military, Recon – the interplay between the cards makes for interesting decisions. Add in the fact that each player can secretly shuffle in 4 of 8 possible character cards (each with their own special power) and now you have even more decisions to make. Adding even more depth, each side gets to secretly designate one of their 5 strategy cards (both sides have the same 5 mechanics) which will be revealed at the end of the battle. This can seriously alter the result.