Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bonus Review: Star Wars by Fantasy Flight

Most of you would probably recognize this as Edge of the Empire (EotE), but that is only the name of one third of the real game Fantasy Flight (FF) has put out.  I'll admit that when I first saw this game I was incredibly hesitant seeing a Star Wars game without Jedi and using a whole bunch of custom dice, but the fever that is the newest upcoming movie finally hit me and I decided to give the game a test run during my vacation.

Turns out I was in luck on when to give this whole thing a shot two as a quickly found out that what I thought was one game turned out to be three games with the final volume coming just over a month ago.  Apparently EotE was just phase one in what was planned to be a three phase release including Age of Rebellion and Force and Destiny.  Personally I think they made a huge misstep in calling each book their own "game" and only when you have all three do you have everything you need for Star Wars, but as I'll get into more in a bit FF seems to be a master trickling content to make you "need" every book they put out.  They just really suck at letting you know it.

One of the biggest complaints I had heard about EotE from friends and other reviews was that it felt more like Firefly than Star Wars since the game focused on smugglers and fringe settlements with almost no reference to Jedi and the Empire just being a big government super power that the free loving outlaws try to stay a step ahead of. Sure there is a chapter on the Force, but it offered a single character option and a couple powers that all felt optional and honestly tacked on.  Thankfully IF you happen to pick up the other two core books (that's right I don't count any of these as their own game) you have three very well made books that cover ALL the aspects of Star Wars as a setting with Age of Rebellion really making the Empire feel like is should and allowing for your fighters in the Rebel Alliance something to do and Force and Destiny to finally make Jedi and other force users feel like they are part of the setting rather than some add on to a pretty standard scifi game so that it can count as "Star Wars".

On one hand I like the idea of each facet of the setting having it's own expanded book and even the concept of being able to pull up all the core rules from each book so you aren't flipping back and forth as much.  The other hand how ever has "Separate Games" written on it with big black marker. Sure each book can let you run a game without needing the other two (as long as your game only includes characters and themes from 1/3 of the setting), but it also really screws up your branding and risks confusing incoming players.  Calling each book its own game makes people think they have to choose which game to play when really it's all the SAME GAME acting more like Players Handbooks 1, 2, &3 all sharing the same GM section with slightly different lists of bad guys but still recycling most of the same ones (I mean it doesn't matter what aspect of Star Wars you're playing everyone wants to blast Stormtroopers.)  It's a bit brilliant in that what seems like an economical option to get into the game (you only need to pick up the book with what you want) turns out to let FF reprint about 60% of the same material and charge you for it all over again.

I could be mad at getting repeat information, but honestly I'm a person who gets that publishing companies need to turn a profit if we want to keep getting new games so its understandable. Will I buy all 3 books at the full $60 price? Hell no, I'm going to freely admit that I will be hunting for deals left and right in this case.The problem is that at this point they might as well have made a fourth "core" book that should have come out FIRST called something like Star Wars Basic and even if it's a cheaper paper back with streamlined rules (similar to their Beginner Box sets) with even just once character option per tier like a smuggler a star fighter pilot and a jedi in hiding would let everyone know that they will be offering all the parts of Star Wars and they will all work.  Hell that one book will let everyone know that all the other "games" will work together and if you want to lean to one aspect of the setting you can with the basic book giving you just enough for maybe tat one player that wants something else or even just for some flavor.

Another thing to mention before I get into the actual mechanics of the game (yes I actually have more to say about the companies publishing than mechanics this time, but these are actually important aspects to the game as a whole trust me here.) is how they handle "splat books" or all their extra side books that help keep a game funded.  The career (basically a class) source books are great and offer a ton of extra options, but there are problems.  First is that they didn't do one for every career and given that each "tier" of the game counts as a new product line they are now supporting I doubt we will see books for the missing EotE careers now that they are all the way to Force and Destiny.  The other problem is that while this isn't uncommon among table top games it is a bit of a peeve for me and that is adding new rules that you wouldn't know about unless you bought the book.  Sure the occasional side rule or exception happens, but if you want to know the rules for setting and arming explosives you need the Hired Guns career book.  The problem is there is also a career called the Technician that would probably (no definitely) want those rules and there's nothing to tell them that they might want this book.

Their campaigns have a bit of this problem too.  There is a campaign for EotE that while it is a pretty good story holds the real gold of having everything you need to run any adventure in or around Cloud City a pretty icon location in Star Wars and a big deal in smuggler type games.  the problem is the campaign is called the Jewl of Yavin and doesn't give any hint that it takes place on Cloud City let alone let you know this might as well be a location source book unless you happen to open it up and read it.  Now the quality of what you get is great, but again you have a product people would happily buy if the knew that's what they were getting.  Personally after reading through quite a few of the books (Thankfully I have a Star Wars obsessed friend with most of the collection he let me borrow) it seems like FF purposefully sprinkles in somewhat core rules (I'm sorry but I still think setting explosives is a pretty core rule in a scifi war setting) in ALL of their products so really if you want know know all the rules you will need all the books.  Again this concept isn't new in our hobby, but I find it odd in a game that lets you pick which core book you buy without needing the other two.  Hell the Force and Destiny GM kit comes with a GM screen and an adventure, pretty standard stuff until you find out after the adventure is a two page section that is the only place you get the rules for making your own lightsaber (again an iconic portion of the game ESPECIALLY is your playing Jedi which is what Force and Destiny is all about and there is no reason this isn't in the core book except to ransom off the GM Kit.)

Ok with all that out of the way onto the game itself and honestly with all those cash grab tactics this will need to be a great game for me to put up with it all.  Sadly for my wallet it actually IS a great game.  The custom dice actually allow for much MUCH more complicated math on probability than normal dice would allow and while I'm not going to go into that math it actually makes the game far more dynamic than anything else I've ever played.  If you trust my ability to run all these numbers it actually comes up to the game almost always swinging in the players favor which for something like Star Wars is something I think should happen as just failing and possibly slowing down the game is honestly boring.  The real trick is the game rarely boils down to just passing or failing. With the cocept of Advantage and Threat (Both symbols on the dice that aren't actually success of failure) players can succeed, but something goes wrong, fail, but they still get something out of it, super succeed and get mroe than expected, or fail while bringing more problems to the situation.  If you look at just the possible outcomes (not even counting the probability for success) three out of four of those involve the players moving forwards in some and and the fourth outcome is those instances that you fail so bad the story completely changes but still doesn't just stop.  The odds of just failing at something and nothing interesting happening is so slim that it and of itself is it's own even as the players are waiting for things to get worse since they aren't getting better.

Another odd part of the game is that the Beginner Sets come with pogs and maps, but distance and movement is 100% abstract. It's something you have to get used to if you only play with minis and a grid (I've been running exclusively grid-less for over a year now so the transition wasn't to bad for me), but it opens up creative thinking in your players and really speeds up turns.  For those that might have read how they handle distance and are still scratch your heads or those that are just curious it basically boils down to being Engaged (melee range), short, medium, long, and extreme ranges.  How do you knwo how far you are? Just ask how long it would take to get within punching distance.  IF you can do it in a single movement you are in short range.  IF you would have to run that is medium range.  If you would have to run this turn, but could get there next turn either through normal movement or running again that is long range.  Everything further is extreme.  This is actually how I tend to think of distance if I'm not counting feet already so I might be biased, but for me this actually made combat go very fast and in a single word let a player know everything they needed to know.  IF they wanted to get into specifics for exact number of feet I would left them it doesn't matter, but if they really want to know I just made up a number that felt right like a few feet away if they were in short range up to about 100ft if they were long.  I'll admit some people need those hard numbers, but as GMs we know that this is all imaginary and thus no number is really THAT hard.

There's a couple other mechanics that stand out but I'm going to limb them up together because they actually do a good job at describing what I realized about this game as I dug deeper into it and that this is what D&D 4th Edition wanted to be but didn't know it.  As much as people love or hate D&D 4th Edition the fact remains that it was designed to feel like a video game so they could bring in those palyers.  The problem is they brought in some elements of video games that don't work on a table top and threw out some things that make table top gaming special.  The distance mechanics I already talked about is one of those kinds of things allowing for free form thinking and abstracts that you can only do in a game that runs in your brain.  With that said what this game took out of MMO type games is the idea of skill trees.  You career in Star Wars is basically what your class would be in D&D.  Now on top of that within your career you also get a specialization which brings in the idea of sub-classes and allowing for things like two technicians being completely different which is nice and opens up a LOT more character options, but that's not what I'm trying to get to here.  What I'm talking about is HOW the sub-classes work and that would be that each one is a "Talent Tree".  The entire subclass and everything you can get fits onto a single page "tree" that you fill up with XP.  Now the deeper down the tree you go the more expensive those talents are, but you have banching paths and as long as you have a path to it you can always go and buy up the cheep talents and save up for the big bottom level ones.  This is VERY "video-gamey", but its an aspect that translates well to table top and is something MMO gamers could wrap their heads around quickly while not sacrificing that makes table top gaming special.  Now you can also go into other trees and an extra cost and all that, but multiclassing isn't something new or special I just figured I'd throw that info out there for anyone that thinks the trees are limiting.  I'll admit they are a bit, but any class based system will have limiting factors and this is possibly the most free version of "classes" I've ever seen.

The other mechanic (I did there were two) that feels like what D&D 4th edition wanted only better is how they handle minions.  If Tuesdays article didn't already tell you I actually really like minions.  I like filling fights up with loads of lesser enemies that adds a challenge to a scene without steamrolling your players.  Now D&D 4th had minions, but they had a big problem. It takes a long time to perform the actions and roll for each and every one of them.  Star Wars fixed this by having the same type of minon all act on a single action (yes I stole this for the 5th Edition minions article).  Basically minions don't have ranks in a skill by themselves.  Instead they have skills that if they are in a group they get ranks based on how many there are.  This also adds up to why in Star Wars you can have a four or so Storm Troopers firing and maybe one hits someone, but you have a dozen or more they are a threat.  Still only one person might get hit, but he's really likely to be hit and probably hit hard meaning thematically he might be hit three or four times to account for the damage.

It's a simple system that allows for big fights that are fast.  Hell I've run the game for four sessions and one thing I can safely say is this game is fast.  Combat rarely takes more than three or four rounds and those rounds go quick.  Outside of combat things run smooth and fluid.  Craziness is always a possabiliy and above all else it is FUN.  The books are expensive, but luckily the Beginner Sets are only aobut $20 each. Yes there is one per core book, but that also means for $60 total you could have a dozen premade characters (usually aobut 4 characters per set) with a wide range of options, four decent adventures that each one holds your hands through the rules. (Ok that means afte rthe first you would probably want to mod the other two so it doesn't feel as hand holdy, but they stories still work) three sets of dice (they're $15 each anyways so thats a deal) and between all three sets a fair ammount of enemies.  Now Honestly I wouldn't suggest getting all three starter sets.  Instead I would say pick one try it out and if you like it pick up a core book, but maybe one of thsoe other cores to give you some extra variety.

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