This is a fantastic piece of writing, but you should really read Part 1 before going any further. And yes, this is about Star Wars. What do you mean, “confusing header image”?
Descent is essentially a board game translation of D&D that gets as close as possible to being an RPG without truly being an RPG. I was still in the midst of my gaming hiatus when first edition Descent was having its heyday, and I never got a chance to play it. I picked up the second edition at a discount about two years after its initial release. My wife and I played a few scenarios, but the experience ultimately left us feeling unsatisfied, and I eventually sold it.
Occupying a hybrid space is a delicate balancing act. Descent is an engaging boardgame with tons of components and mechanics, including campaign play, that reaches the furthest boundaries of what can still be called a board game. It cleaves very close to being an RPG without including all of the rules and mechanics that would allow it to really be classified as an RPG. It’s certainly an impressive package, with great miniatures, sturdy map tiles, and cards upon cards and more cards (and did I mention cards?). But after taking all of it in, and then taking a step back to reflect on how much work is required to set up, organize, and play, it begs the question: with all of the effort required to play a boardgame version of D&D that doesn’t offer the advantages of actually playing D&D (collaborative storytelling, more freedom of choice and player agency outside of what’s pre-written into the scenario), why not just play D&D? (Or Pathfinder? Or 13th Age? Or Savage Worlds? Or any of the other myriad RPGs that exist?)
Descent has its fans and detractors, and I think the game can serve as a boardgame equivalent of a Rorschach: how you respond to it depends on what you bring to the table, as it were. For those who are more comfortable sticking with the board game milieu instead of taking the leap over to full-fledged RPGs, or for veteran RPG players who just want something different, Descent fills those niches quite well. For the record, as much as I really didn’t care for the game, I don’t consider myself a detractor; I’d certainly be willing to join a group of experienced players looking for another adventurer to join their party. I just don’t want to invest the time to learn the game well enough to teach it to other people, and if I were going be an Overlord, I’d much rather be a Dungeon Master instead.
So, it should be abundantly clear by now that this post is about Star Wars. [/extreme dry sarcasm] When Fantasy Flight announced another Star Wars game in the summer of 2014, my interest was certainly piqued. I’m not quite at the rabid fanboy level of either FFG or Star Wars, but I am definitely a fan and I enjoy both of them, both individually and from their collaborative efforts in the form of X-Wing Miniatures and Armada, so I was eager to see what this new game would be like. There was certainly the potential for it to be a lot of fun, and of course it included all of the borderline decadent components that have become FFG’s trademark. However, I had been curious about Descent 2.0 since its release, and when I learned that Imperial Assault was going to be using a slightly modified version of the Descent 2.0 rules, a decision needed to be made over which of which of these games to get. For some people, the obvious solution would be to circumvent the decision and get both, but I try to keep my boardgame collection at a manageable level, and it’s hard for me to justify owning what is basically two versions of the same game. In terms of IP, I’ll choose Star Wars almost every time over FFG’s fairly generic fantasy setting, but a Black Friday sale on Descent 2.0 a few months later decided it for me.
Fast forward to several months after selling Descent 2.0: this time, there was a big sale on Imperial Assault, so I picked up a copy. Although there are officially two different ways to play the game, the one that seems to be get the most attention is the campaign mode, so despite my lackluster experience with Descent 2.0, this is what I was focused on. I thought that perhaps the Star Wars setting might make the pseudo-RPG gameplay more appealing. It didn’t really help, but I didn’t sell the game this time either.
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more focus on skirmish play. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized what was sitting on my shelf: a possible way to recreate the fun and excitement that I had experienced with Epic Duels all those years ago! And this time, there were more characters to choose from, deeper and more refined gameplay mechanics, higher-quality components, and I could even choose the units I wanted to use! I might eventually go back and play the campaign mode at some point, but right now, when it comes to Imperial Assault, skirmish is where my attention is.
Is Imperial Assault the spiritual successor to Epic Duels? I don’t know if I can really answer that question – at least not on a subjective level, which is the more interesting one. You can compare the two games objectively, looking at how they’re both essentially skirmish-level miniatures games in board game trappings, comparing physical components, mechanics and so forth.
Skirmish mode of Imperial Assault certainly fills a similar niche to Epic Duels, and they share several similar aspects — the big one being the theme of taking characters from that universe (both named ones as well as anonymous mooks) and pitting them in battles against one another. Movement is conducted using a grid rather than a tape measure, characters have their own distinct stats and abilities, and players use cards for added tactical flexibility. However, even in their similarities, their differences set them miles apart. At the time of Epic Duel’s release, Episode II was still in theaters. Characters were drawn exclusively from the five movies that had been released up to that point. Imperial Assault reaches deeper into the Expanded Universe, but doesn’t go back farther than the original movie. Epic Duels contained everything in one box and felt like a board game. Characters and supporting units came bundled with a set deck of cards, allowing for no customization. Imperial Assault feels more like a true miniatures game, with tons of expansions available and the ability to customize your force. The cards are the driving mechanic in Epic Duels. In Imperial Assault, as in a true miniatures game, customizing your force to create unit synergies and to mitigate the randomness of the dice is how you win.
So in an objective sense, yes, I think Imperial Assault could validly be considered a worthy spiritual successor of Epic Duels: a different game, but one that captures the essence of the original and improves on it in significant ways. But determining the status of “spiritual successor” is more than a cold, detached examination of empirical evidence; it’s about the experience you have when playing the game, a question that requires you, in the words of an infamous Sith Lord, to “search your feelings” in order to truly answer.
On the subjective level, I really don’t know. Based on what I can remember of playing Epic Duels, I think I would say that it is, but I can’t be certain. The reason I don’t know is that the last time I played Epic Duels was a long time ago in a place far, far away from where I am now, both in a literal sense and in who I am as a person. I wasn’t as deep into tabletop gaming back then as I am now, but even beyond that, I’ve gone through several significant life experiences since then: getting married, having a daughter, suffering the loss of two miscarriages, and in just a little over the past year alone, losing my father, launching a business, and buying a house (experts say you should always definitely do those last two at the same time, by the way). All of these things change a person, and if I were to play Epic Duels today, the way that I would experience it now would be different than how I did in 2002. Would it really make sense to try to compare my experience of Imperial Assault now to my experience of Epic Duels back then?
Maybe the best answer is to let them each be their own game, their own experience. I’ll always have fond memories of Epic Duels, but like a relationship that comes to an end for one reason or another, it’s probably best to leave it in the past; I probably won’t spend much more time trying to chase down a copy of Epic Duels or comparing the two games. Epic Duels was a good game. I’m playing Imperial Assault now, and it’s good too.
Oh yeah, and I eventually got back together with that girl that I mentioned earlier and married her, so it’s all good!