Friday, 2 December 2016

STAR WARS EPIC DUELS

Star Wars: Epic Duels, MB Games / Hasbro, 2002

8+, 30 minutes, 2-6 players, Competitive







It's the summer of 2002 and I'm in New York. We walk past the most enormous Toys R Us store that I've ever seen and in the window is a stack of Star Wars games virtually being given away. $10 for a Star Wars board game? I consider for a moment buying a whole host of them to sell online later on, but decide against it. Years later, I realise that this decision costs me $1000. We go back to my brother-in-law's place and set up the game. Within five minutes, we're already playing. I've taken Vader and I draw the All Too Easy card. I read the text and laugh because of how awesome it is. I play a few attacks against Luke and whittle down his defence. Luke has a total of 19 health on his board and this card can do 20 damage if undefended. Finally, I play the card, face down as always. My brother-in-law says, "I'll choose to take the damage." I flip the card over. "ALL TOO EASY," I say. And that is what gaming memories are made of. That was 14 years ago and I remember it crystal clear. That is when my gaming life was changed by Epic Duels.

Star Wars Epic Duels is an incredibly simple miniatures game by MB Games, who were later bought out by Hasbro. Like the film The Blues Brothers, it was a total flop on release but gained a cult following as across the world people started to realise that it was, in fact, a classic.

Darth Maul prepares to unleash a wave of
attacks against Yoda. But Yoda is totally
preparing to Force Lift his opponent.
As the box art clearly demonstrates, Epic Duels is a duelling game between famous Star Wars characters, ignoring any semblance of timeline. Thus, Darth Vader can fight Mace Windu, Count Dooku can fight Luke Skywalker, and Anakin Skywalker can even fight Darth Vader. Players choose from 12 main characters, each of whom have a supporter character or troops: Darth Maul with 2 Battle Droids, Jango Fett with Zam Wesell, Luke Skywalker with Princess Leia, Emperor Palpatine with 2 Royal Guards, Obi-Wan Kenobi with 2 Clone Troopers, Han Solo with Chewbacca, Boba Fett with Greedo, Anakin Skywalker with Padme Amidala, Mace Windu with 2 Clone Troopers, Darth Vader with 2 Stormtroopers, Count Dooku with 2 Super Battle Droids, and Yoda with 2 Clone Troopers. Each character is given a card which monitors their health level. In the rules, all a player has to do to beat their opponent is to kill their major character (the one on the top of the card) but this actually leads to an imbalance in character strengths. For example, in the Han / Chewie deck, Chewie is by far the stronger character. Although he has fewer cards (minor characters always have fewer cards than the major characters), Chewie has greater health and much stronger attacks. As a result, the house-rule known as Last Hero Standing (LHS) is widely used by fans of this game around the world, meaning that a player is defeated when all their heroes are destroyed. For Yoda, who is supported by two Clone Troopers, that means just him being killed, but for Luke and Leia, it means that they both must be destroyed. This was clearly the original intent when the game was designed because Leia has a card that says, "If Luke is destroyed..." So, there's a little glitch in the game rules which a quick LHS house-rule addresses nicely.


In some sense, the game is well balanced. Yoda, for example, doesn't have much strength but his cards are insanely strong. He can Force Lift a character which immobilises them unless they discard three cards, for example. Boba Fett carries a Thermal Detonator, which can be brutal against opponents who keep their characters close together. Jango Fett has.... I don't remember, because I never play him because his deck is so bad because he's Jango Fett. And that's where balance is interesting, because it's not entirely balanced so that all characters are equal, it's balanced thematically. So, yes, theoretically Boba Fett and Greedo could kill Emperor Palpatine and his 2 Crimson Guards, but it's not very likely to happen. Fluff-wise this is perfect and this is where the game really shines, including by quoting characters in the films. As I mentioned at the start of this review, nothing feels better than quoting the film as you play a card.
"Never tell me the odds - you take damage and now I'm going to shuffle Chewie's Bowcaster back into the pile"
The card all use images from the films and the miniatures are really not bad. They're pre-painted and they're very clear representations of the film characters. So, you really feel like you're Star Warsing when you play this game. Yes, that is a verb. Another strength of the game is how unbelieveably simple it is. Every deck has an assortment of Combat Cards, Power Combat Cards and Special Cards (except for Darth Maul who doesn't have Special Cards but who instead has a crazy number of powerful Special Combat Cards).



On a turn, players always roll the d6 and it tells them whether some of all of their characters can move that turn. Then, the active player chooses to perform two actions from three possible choices - draw a card, play a card or heal a character. If they play a card, they usually do it to attack, which they do by placing the card face down. Then, the opponent chooses to defend or not. The attack value of the card minus the defence value of the opposite player equals the amount of damage caused in the attack. To heal a major character one health point, the player discards a card from a destroyed minor character. And that's it. Seriously. That's the game in its entirety. And that is the total beauty of this game.... it's wondrous simplicity.

"Your lightsaber is flacid."
"It happens with age."
"Never happened to me."
"I'm going to throw you down a ventilation shaft now."
Yes, there are issues. The largest issue is movement. Having your move determined by a die roll can be immensely frustrating when you want to close the gap to engage in melee combat and you roll far less. This is an issue that later Star Wars miniatures games like Imperial Assault addressed very easily. The second issue is with the boards, which some fans feel are too small (although I have played on a table-sized print-out map, I actually find the boards fine). In the box are two double-sided game boards - the Carbon-Freezing Chamber, the Emperor's Throne Room, the Kamino Platform and the Geonosis Arena. They're not bad boards, to be honest, but after a while you come to realise that certain characters really benefit from certain boards. For example, if Palpatine has nowhere to hide (such as behind the pillar on the Geonosis Arena or behind the Firespray on the Kamino Platform), then he is far more likely to be killed quickly. If he can hide, however, his character can be devastating ("You will die!"). So, luck can play two factors - in movement and in board selection - and that can be annoying for seasoned gamers. But this isn't really a game for seasoned gamers, it's an introductory miniatures game for Star Wars fans. It's light and full of fluff and it's fun as hell as a result. However, where it suffers is replayability. There's only so many times you can play Luke and Leia versus Darth Maul before you realise that the player with Luke and Leia is almost certainly never going to win. When you have a card called "I Won't Fight You" it seems totally counter-intuitive in a combat game, and while the mechanic of the card fits that quotation perfectly, it just doesn't work. There are only so many times that you can have Darth Vader faces off against Boba Fett and Greedo and have Vader Force Choke Greedo to death in a heartbeat before you decide to never again play the Fett/Greedo deck. In a game with only twelve decks, that poses a problem.

Jango Fett and Obi-Wan face off on the Kamino Platform.
*prequels shudder*

Some of the many possible fan-made decks (most of those
pictured were created by me)
So, this is where the online community stepped in. At the Epic Duels Wiki (http://epicduels.pbworks.com/), fans from all round the world created new characters sheets and cards and even new maps. They then used miniatures from the Wizards of the Coast 2004 Star Wars Miniatures game, and instantly breathed new life into this game... more than it had before! Now you could relive your favourite moments from the Star Wars films, by bringing in characters like the Rancor, or the Wampa, or Lando, or even R2-D2 and C-3PO! And this is where I fell into a life of gaming. I always played board games, but this made me new. I became The Tusken Raider, a prolific Epic Duels character deck designer (http://epicduels.pbworks.com/w/page/41432852/The%20Tusken%20Raider). I especially created the mechanic of Reinforcement, which allowed the creation of decks such as the Tusken Raiders, the Gamorrean Boars, the Ewoks and the Jawas. These decks bring a totally different sense of play to the game, as you kill one and another pops up if the player draws and uses the Reinforcements cards at the right time. Across the wiki, players created a plethora of extremely exciting decks.

It may be prequels, but who cares? It's Padme and Anakin
fighting Acklay and Nexu, and it looks AMAZING!

The original game was best with two players. The fan-expanded game is great with two but even better with four because of the huge assortment of characters available. And with the new characters and decks, replayability issues totally disappear. I can attest to that personally, having played over 500 games of Epic Duels in my life. I have never played a game as much as I have Star Wars Epic Duels. Yes, you have to spend lots of money on miniatures for it, but that's no different to any other miniatures game that you might play today.

"I'm gonna chomp you, little Jedi..."
And this is where we have to make a comparison with Fantasy Flight's game Imperial Assault, a game we have not yet reviewed but will do in the future. Both games are fluff-heavy. The miniatures for Imperial Assault are unpainted but are clearly more detailed. Movement issues are resolved very nicely by Imperial Assault, although luck features heavily in that game in another way (in rolling attack and defence dice). Both games also rely on luck-of-the-draw - there have been many games of Epic Duels where I've been dying for a card to reach my hand, and Imperial Assault's Skirmish relies on luck of Command Cards being drawn at a good time. Good players know how to use the cards in their hand, though, while waiting for their ideal cards to come. Imperial Assault has an entire campaign to it and the maps are larger, even if you do have to jigsaw them together. But it is also clearly more complicated than Epic Duels, whose rulebook can be read and explained in five minutes. In terms of Star Wars combat game design, its simplicity is its key. Star Wars fans with children will find this game far easier to introduce to their kids than Imperial Assault's Skirmish rules.

How exactly did a Bantha get inside the carbon-freezing chamber on Bespin?
Who bloody cares? What's wrong with you?!? 
What is interesting is how many of the fan-made card effects in Epic Duels were replicated by Imperial Assault. Maybe I should write off to FFG and ask for royalties for the Bantha Trample. Maybe not.


What's so great about the fan-made element is not just how it opens up the game but also how much of yourself you can put into the game. If you don't like the original game's Darth Vader deck (because it's actually way too weak in the LHS game), then you can go and create your own. If you want to see Han and Leia in a deck together, you can make that. And I did. The fan-made decks are almost all based on the LHS rule, which means that each game lasts longer, which in turn makes for a more enjoyable gaming experience. Yes, there are very rare exceptions. I once played as Boba Fett against the Jawas, I had the initiative so I went first, I lobbed a Thermal Detonator into the Jawas who were packed together, blew them all to smithereens and won the game on literally the first action. But such games are ridiculously rare (I've only ever done that once in over 500 games!). The opposite was a Mace Windu vs Acklay/Nexu game that went through the card decks three times, as a brutal and totally memorable duel in the Geonosis Arena. These are the things that gaming memories are made of. I remember having fun with lots of differing board games, but I remember specific duels from this game a decade on. That speaks volumes about this game.

So, overall, what do we think?

WE LIKEY
  • Excellent fluff-factor
  • Lovely card art
  • Miniatures
  • Extremely simple mechanics
  • Fan expansions

WE NO LIKEY
  • Roll to move
  • Limiting boards
  • Very high game cost today
  • Fluff-based imbalance of decks
Accessibility: 5/5 - The simplest miniatures game rules that I know.
Design: 4/5 - Oozing with fluff with a mixture of ranged and melee characters from the first six films.
Depth: 2/5 - Although seasoned players could find depth in strategic choices based on card texts, the extreme simplicity of the rules means there's little substantive depth at all. However, that was clearly never the aim of the game in the first place.
Replayability (core set): 2/5 - The twelve characters are lots of fun, but only for a while until you realise how stratified their abilities are.
Replayability (fan expansions): 5/5 - Just look at this webpage - http://epicduels.pbworks.com/w/page/9779390/Characters. Enough said.
Availability: 2/5 - To buy the core set online now, you're looking around $100. If someone buys this for you, they really, really like you. If you're adding fan-based decks with miniatures, you're going to be spending decent money on this game.

Summary: There's a reason this became a community classic, because it's absolutely a classic game. Not like Monopoly is a classic game, but it's a beautifully simple access into Star Wars individualised combat. When you watch Darth Vader face off against Luke in the films, you want to re-enact that. Sometimes you want more than the films provided, such as a real duel between Boba Fett and Han Solo. With this game, you can achieve that (actually, that would make for an interesting LHS match-up, which Han/Chewie would probably win but which might be well balanced with Han/Leia). Imperial Assault is an excellent game, and this is in some sense that game ten years earlier and far, far simpler. Roll to move can on occasion be frustrating, but who cares when Yoda Force Lifts you or when Darth Vader Throws Debris at you in the middle of the game? This game is really what board games are about - it creates an exciting framework to transport you somewhere you love, in this case, into the the middle of the best action in the Star Wars films.

Final Score: This has to be two scores - one for the core set and one including fan-made expansions. While they're both the same game, the unofficial expansions totally transform the game in a way I've not seen with any other game. So, we gladly give the core set 79%. Recognising the enormously positive effect of the fan-based expansions on the game, though, we award that our highest rating so far - a galaxy-filling and truly exciting 88%.

2 comments:

  1. Great review. We played this a ton with friends and still have it. We always found Chewie's bowcaster to be the "winning card."It was a good precursor to WOTC minis, as there are similarities between the games.

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