Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Fighting A Plague of Droids

During the New Year’s holiday our family played Star Wars The Clone Wars Game – A Pandemic System Game. It combined our enjoyment of Star Wars and games – and my particular admiration of cooperative games – in an immersive experience ridding the galaxy of battle droids, planetary blockades, and iconic prequel-era villains. The rules and procedures took a little while to understand; various elements draw on the Clone Wars themes, sending players across the galaxy pursing different strategies as turn-by-turn the overall tension increases. Designer Alexander Ortloff adapted elements from Matt Leacock’s innovative Pandemic mechanics to produce a suspenseful and immersive game experience evocative of the Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoon epics.

I’d had my eye on this game for much of 2023. The local Target had a few full-price copies, then the lone one went on clearance for a savagely damaged box corner...after which the store stopped stocking it. I kept an eye on its price at various online vendors. But ultimately patience (and luck) won out; I received a copy in a game convention teacup raffle. I took it home, immersed myself in the rules, and gave it a few tries using the solitaire rules. We finally got it to the game table with four players over the New Year’s weekend, where, after stumbling through an initial learning game, we played a second game and ultimately had a blast.

Players control Jedi who travel across the galaxy, fighting droids and blockades on planets, battling villains, and trying to complete missions, all while a threat level increases under certain unfortunate conditions. They have clone army resources to aid their fight, but face formidable challenges in constantly invading droid armies and scheming villains.

The Clone Wars Game incorporates a number of features I admire, especially in their relation to the source material and the mechanics used in Pandemic:

Components: The game normally retails for around $60, quite understandable given the excellent production values in the box. A full-color rules booklet with decent examples and a section addressing specific rules concerns. Plastic miniatures for seven Jedi characters and four villains. Three droid control ships (for blockades) and gobs of smaller battle droid minis. A chonky, custom-marked 12-sided die. Thick plastic counters to track various in-game conditions. A large board with 30 interconnected planets. And numerous cards detailing villain powers, missions, Jedi abilities, planets marked for invasion, and resources for one’s squad. Everything ties into Star Wars: The Clone Wars continuity, from planet names to original artwork.

Jedi Powers: Each of the seven Jedi come with their own plastic miniature and a card detailing their special ability. These offer advantages in using the various rules, such as gaining an extra move, manipulating attack resources, and drawing from the squad deck (the core source of each Jedi’s military power). Some seem underrated in the face of Anakin and Ahsoka’s combat-heavy powers, but players learn how to best use them in the game.

Villains: Asajj Ventress, Darth Maul, General Grievous, and Count Dooku each have their own mini, too, as well as a large-format card and a six-card threat deck. The card indicate their strengths and any turn actions, with the opposite side outlining a final mission to defeat them one Jedi players have completed all other missions. The threat deck reveals a new card each turn, with different actions for each villain; some move villains or potentially increase the threat level, others harm Jedi, others place droids on the map. Each one employs a different strategy that requires players to learn how to counter. One card in each deck indicates an invasion where one planet gets three droids and the previously invaded planet cards get shuffled back into the deck, escalating the war. This event often increases the number of those cards to draw.

Invasion: One deck has a card for each planet on the board, plus ones for the current primary and secondary missions. Players draw these to initially “seed” planets with battle droids during set-up, with two planets each getting three, two, and one droid (the last planet drawn also gets the villain). Each turn after the villain acts players turn over one card and add a battle droid figure to that planet. If the total there would exceed three, place a blockade ship instead and advance the game’s threat level. Jedi must defeat blockades before attacking other enemies at a location or attempting a mission there.

Combat: To remove blockades, droids, and even the villain, Jedi must travel to an occupied planet and engage in combat. Rolling the chonky d12 reveals symbols indicating hits on villains and damage Jedi sustain; they can increase hits by spending squad cards from their hand and can mitigate or suffer damage by “exhausting” specific cards or discarding some. Combat was always a core element of action The Clone Wars cartoons, so this system works nicely to afford some flexibility and suspense.

Missions: Two missions remain active at any given time in the game. The higher the challenge level, the more missions they must complete. Like combat, missions require a roll of the combat die, but the hits required to succeed are often high; missions also indicate what squad cards can contribute hits and how much damage a Jedi sustains. Unlike combat, which a Jedi can only undertake on their turn, any Jedi on a mission planet can contribute squad cards to the success (though the active player is the only one to roll the chonky d12).

Squad Cards: Players can keep up to seven squad card for resources. Assault and Stealth cards bolster combat, Armor negates damage, and Ships allow one additional move per move action. When used players turn them on their side to indicate they’re “exhausted,” and they refresh at the start of that player’s next turn. A few ally cards offer some special benefits. All of them feature illustrations of familiar characters from the series (including a “Bad Batch” card...).

Big Galaxy: The board is large and has edge spaces for the various card decks and discard piles. Hyperlanes connect 30 planets with familiar names from the series, each with a mission card evocative of the location and its role in the cartoon. But getting around can prove difficult. Each turn players can use up to four actions: moving their Jedi one planet, reinforcing with a draw from the squad deck, engaging in combat, or attempting a mission. Using all four actions to move, even with an extra move from a Ship card, might get one halfway across the galaxy...but then their turn is finished. Since villains act after each Jedi turn, spending all those actions moving isn’t always an option.

There’s a lot going on in The Clone Wars Game, and I’ll admit, for beginners, it can all seem somewhat daunting. But after one practice game we’d figured out the mechanics enough for a more fluid second game, during which we ironed out our strategies. Most of the rules fit well with the Clone Wars theme, which helps make them a bit more intuitive.

After muddling through our first game and losing to Asajj Ventress, we tried a second game against General Grievous. During his action he peppered the board with extra battle droids and damaged Jedi. Our four Jedi traversed the galaxy, trying at once to keep the droid count down, kick Grievous off the board, and complete missions. My son, who played Anakin, remained true to character, charging recklessly into combat to clear out droids and engaging in one of the more challenging missions, where, single-handedly, he defeated the Zillo beast (after estimating he had a 50% chance of success on his chonky d12 die roll...). In the final confrontation with Grievous, he undertook several of the mini-missions on his own, though we ultimately needed a few turns to defeat him and win the game just as the threat level hovered on the brink of defeat.

I highly recommend The Clone Wars Game to any fan of the cartoon series, whether or not they like cooperative games or escalation mechanics like those used in Pandemic. Having 30 different missions, with only a few used each game, as well as four different villains and seven Jedi to play, keeps the game fresh on subsequent plays. Although it can accommodate up to five players, it can also run solitaire (using two Jedi), an ideal way to learn the rules and have fun in the Star Wars universe when nobody else can play.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this at the toy store nearly a year ago and strongly considered getting it, but never did. Appreciate the review...might have to pick it up.

    Our latest SW-themed game is the war game "Star Wars Legion" and we've been having a blast with it...although we have paused our game play to paint our minis.


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