The latest entry in The Op’s Rising series sees up to four players working together to try and prevent the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, from being built. Players recruit agents and go on missions but must beware the baleful gaze of Darth Vader in this game of teamwork and dice management.
One thing jumps out immediately about Star Wars: Dark Side Rising, and that’s the giant bust of Darth Vader looming over the middle of the table like an asthmatic Pop-Up Pirate. It’s massive. Despite our collective mothers warning us against judging books by their covers, things like this tend to set off something of a warning siren in my head. Like the 50-year-old executive with the Lotus, it makes you wonder what the flashy ostentation is making up for.
This is unfair. Plenty of games out there from Wingspan to Tang Garden have wonderful components and it is legitimate for the quality of the design in a board game to be part of its appeal. I would advise interested parties happening upon Star Wars: Dark Side Rising not to be put off by the flash because there is a very solid, co-operative game underneath.
In Star Wars: Dark Side Rising, each player picks a faction of the Rebel Alliance to control, each with their own leader like Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. In the centre of the board are two main play areas. One represents the Death Star under construction and each turn a die must be rolled to determine which part of the superweapon gets one step closer to completion. There are six components and when each is completed a nasty bonus is unlocked that will make the players’ lives more difficult.
The second main play area is a central ring of three key systems from the Star Wars universe with that imposing bust of Darth Vader sitting at its centre. Each system contains three cards from a deck that consists of rebel agents to recruit and Imperial forces to fight. On their turn, players must choose one of these systems to attempt a mission in and, after that decision has been made, the dreaded Darth Vader die is rolled. This determines which system Vader is in, as indicated by which part of the ring the bust is looking at. Sometimes he won’t move at all and sometimes he moves to the left or right so nowhere is safe.
The effect of Vader’s attention is represented both by direct damage he does to all rebels in that sector (including on the player’s team if that’s where they chose to go) as well as by the Imperial troop cards in that system. Each has a negative effect that can range from healing all other Imperial troops to advancing Death Star Construction to damaging agents in the systems and in the player’s team. There is also the possibility that Vader can activate every Imperial card in all three systems, not just the one he’s looking at; an eventuality that ensures a bad time for everyone.
Each rebel agent has an amount of health and, if they take too much damage, they must be discarded. This can remove potential allies from the game but can also take agents directly out of players’ teams as well, leaving them short-handed and unable to effectively complete missions.
Assuming that the player whose turn it is has any agents left in their team by the time Vader has done his business, it’s time to roll some dice. Star Wars: Dark Side Rising comes with a set of colourful, custom dice that represent the four key areas of the Rebel Alliance (Tactical, Intelligence, Support and Leadership). Each colour of die has a different combination of symbols on with the dice representing different areas being better or worse at different things.
To use these dice, the symbols rolled must be matched to one or more cards in the system the player is active in. Matching all the symbols on a Rebel agent allows the player to recruit that agent while matching all the symbols on an Imperial troop allows the player to damage, and possibly defeat, that troop. Doing the latter also rewards the player with a powerful one-time Alliance token, each of which can be cashed in for a different effect.
Expecting players to match the symbols first time would be unfair and Star Wars: Dark Side Rising allows the player to re-roll the dice as many times as they like, providing that each time they either allocate one or more dice to a card in their system or remove one die from their pool. This is a tidy and simple mechanic that is easy to track but feels pleasingly strategic as players have to choose between committing to one target or splitting their dice up in the hopes of getting lucky.
Adding another layer to this part of the game is that each Rebel agent has its own unique ability. Some of them can heal other agents, some allow you to manipulate the dice in the form of re-rolls or bonus results and some do more esoteric things like removing operations counters from the Death Star. The catch here is that some of these abilities are not free; requiring the player to commit one or more dice from their pool to the agent to activate.
Overall this section of the game is a very satisfying game of risk, reward and resource management. Using your re-rolls, abilities and alliance tokens in the right combinations to make the most efficient use of your turn isn’t easy but sits nicely on that line between mechanically accessible and good strategic depth.
If at any point the Death Star becomes fully operational, ten rebel agents are defeated or one of the players loses all of their agents, everybody loses. On the other hand, if enough Imperial troops can be defeated, everybody wins! There are eleven Imperial troops in the deck that comes with the game and the difficulty can be scaled. The recommended starting requirement is to defeat seven Imperial troops, which seemed fairly easy so if you are a moderately experienced gamer I would suggest starting at eight or nine.
Star Wars: Dark Side Rising is a game that brings a surprising amount to the table. Its rules are simple enough to be presented in a small rulebook and, as a result, it can definitely be played by all of the family. The box suggests ages ten and up can play and I would suggest that it would certainly be possible to play this with children younger than that with some help (and it is a co-operative game after all). Having said that though, older or more experienced players will also find enough to get to grips with here to make the game a very satisfying experience. Playing at higher difficulty will test your ability to make the most of your cards and dice.
The caveat to all of this is that much of the appeal does come from the appeal of the theme. Designers Patrick Marino and Andrew Wolf have done a good job of representing the full Star Wars universe in the game and you will find elements from the original trilogy, the new trilogy and spin-offs and the Clone Wars cartoon present. The latter does lead to an oddly conflicting style occasionally as film characters are done in a different art style to the Clone Wars characters but that is a minor, and understandable, gripe.
Overall I would definitely be able to recommend Star Wars: Dark Side Rising to families or to groups of players with an interest in the Star Wars universe as both the theme and the mechanics are executed well. It’s not the weightiest experience in the world, it plays in about an hour, but there is nothing wrong with that, particularly for more casual or younger gamers.
You can purchase Star Wars: Dark Side Rising on Amazon.