Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Consolation Prize: "Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit"

Back in 2000 many fans were still mired in a delusional honeymoon with The Phantom Menace, mainly because it was the first new Star Wars movie to come down the pike in sixteen freakin' years. I count myself amongst those poor, sad, brainwashed wretches and it took quite some time before I broke through the Stockholm-syndrome-like pall of prequel apology and came to the realization that these newer films really, really sucked.

And I'm not talking "suck" as in "Wow, that Star Wars movie kinda sucked" I mean "sucked" as in the most basic, fundamental meaning of the word. As in "it sucked as a piece of celluloid". As in "it sucked as a series of moving pictures with sound".

Unfortunately, before I came to my senses, I'd amassed a huge collection of prequel-related toys, books games and other detritus, most of which I've managed to pawn off on still-entranced rubes who lurk out there on Kijiji. By the same token, there's still one Phantom Menace-related product that I'll never, ever part with. Something so amazing, so clever and so well-designed that it transcends its crappy origins, becomes something awesome in its own right and almost single-handedly dulls the painful memory of its original raison d'être.

If you actually bother to read this post's title the you already know that I'm talkin' 'bout Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit:

This game was produced just two years after Monarch sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro, a move that likely inspired several old-school grognards to commit ritual seppuku when they realized that their beloved wargame designers had completely gone to the dogs. Since I was indiscriminately buying anything with the words "Star" and "Wars" printed on it at the time, I immediately snapped this up as soon as I saw it on the shelf of my Friendly Local Game Store.

Unlike 99.9% of my prequel-related acquisitions, time would vindicate me on this one.

A few Wednesday nights ago, Matt proposed a game of 7 Wonders. To let him hit that game's sweet spot of four players, Andrew suggested that he and I revisit Queens Gambit instead. Rubber arm twisted, we began the elaborate process of setting up the four-in-one gameboard.

Here's the title crawl for this one courtesy of Board Game Geek:

"Based on the four battles at the end of 
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace
- the battle on the plain between the Gungan forces 
and the droid army; the attempt by Naboo forces, led 
by Queen Amidala, to storm the palace and capture the 
Trade Federation viceroys; the fight between Darth Maul 
and the two Jedi Knights; and the space battle in which Anakin's 
starfighter destroyed the Droid Control Ship.

"The forces are represented by 155 plastic miniatures on three separate 
boards, including a three-level palace. The action is driven by two decks 
of cards for each side. Each turn, each side simultaneously chooses four action 
cards from a hand of ten, and places them in order. The actions are then carried out
one at a time, alternating sides. Combat is resolved using special attack and defense dice."
Looking to review the full saga, I.E. the rules? Well, since the game's out of print, yer kinda outta luck. However, you can hyperdrive over to Headless Hollow and peep-out their wonderful summary of the game right here.  

In a rather slick move presaging his in-game wiliness, Andrew conveniently sat on the "Dark Side" of the board and set up the forces of evil. That left me as the Naboo player, so I diligently began to locate and place Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Padmé, Sade, Panaka, a phalanx of Palace Guards, and a horde of Gungans, including that intergalactic cock-smack Jar-Jar Binks.

I hear a hundred voices suddenly calling out in terror, "Wait, Jar-Jar Binks isn't in this game!"  Oh, yes he is...

"Does this means wesa gonna die?" With any luck, you infantile penis-holster...

Yep, that's right, folks. In all his creative pettiness, Andrew decided to sub one of the original Gungan models out for a figure from the Star Wars Miniatures Game in order to represent the presence of most loathed character in the entire history of creative fiction. Yeah, as if the Dark Side player needed any extra incentive to annihilate this race of CGI-rendered Stepin Fetchit stereotypes. 

Andrew...Dark Side
Me...Light Side

So, after Andrew thoughtfully dispensed with the painful, protracted and imminently fair process of randomly determining who would play what faction, we immediately got down to brass tacks. 

I immediately drew a mitt-full of Jedi cards and promptly began whaling away on Maul. Things started off promisingly enough when Obi-Wan gave that spiky-headed Sith bastard a lightsaber enema for five points of damage.  

"Da-aaaave!" Andrew whinged.  "Sta--ah-ahp it!"

So, being the sporting gentlemen that I am, I proceeded to do exactly what my gracious host had politely asked of me. In other words, that tidy little smack on my first turn pretty much represented the last spate of good fortune I'd exhibit for the rest of the game.

Indeed, every swing I took in the Jedi battle from thereon in was either a complete whiff or a delicate little love-tap that Maul managed to parry or riposte with ease. Things got even worse when my surplus of Generator Core attack cards completely dried up, leaving Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon about as threatening as a pair of Ecstasy-addled Hare Krishna armed only with glow sticks. 

Alternately, Andrew's unearthly powers of dice manipulation suddenly activated and that reject from Tattoo Nightmares started beating ass. This culminated in the following brutal roll:

Not only had my offensive efforts dried up, but I also couldn't roll defensively to save my life. Well, Obi-Wan's life, anyway. In a moment of revisionist history, the Jedi apprentice calmly took note of the two-inch wide cauterized hole in his chest and then stretched out on the floor for some permanent meditation.

Things weren't looking particularly good out on the Plains either. A mix of Battle Droids and Destroyers cut into the heart of my formation, giving Andrew a bonus card for every platoon of mine that he managed to bag. Between his unparalleled luck and my complete and total inability to roll a friggin' Shield symbol, he quickly felled one of my Fambaas giving the Trade Federation an opportunity to stream forward completely unhindered. I did my best to hold them off with a withering hail of Catapult fire but my results were scattershot at best. As a result, Andrew took a commanding lead in the race for bonus cards.

Meanwhile, back in the Generator Core, Qui-Gon continued to volunteer for lightsaber acupuncture, the medical benefits of which were immediately called into question when the Jedi Master suddenly came down with a slight case of DEATH.  

About the only place where I had any semblance of luck whatsover was in the Theed Palace. Using Window Ledge Movement, the Red Queen and Captain Panaka led a daring raid on the third floor of the Palace, capturing Viceroy Nute Gunray and his life-partner Rune Haako. After achieving this Throne Room majority all I needed to do now was destroy the Trade Federation Control Ship, a task which was easier said then done.  

As such, I turned my attention to Anakin's involuntary efforts in space. Once again, I experienced some tantalizing early success until Andrew decided to flood Naboo's orbit with a metric shit-ton of Droid Starfighters. When you add in his uncanny ability to block my maneuver rolls, you can well imagine that my progress on this front got gummed up as well.   

Back in the Theed Palace, my worst fears were realized as Darth Maul bombed into the First Floor, cutting Palace Guards down like corn stalks en route to the Throne Room. Before bounding his way up the steps, Maul paused momentarily to shear off the Purple Queen's hair bun. He didn't kill her, mind you, he just couldn't pass by without doing something about that "dreadful" hair style. This leads me to believe that Harry S. Plinkett was right about Maul after all. 

Meanwhile things continued to go from bad to worse on the Plains of Naboo. Even without committing the ATT's and MTT's Andrew's droid army annihilated all but three Catapults, one Fambaa, three devisions of Kaadu cavalry and a single Gungan platoon steadfastly defended by Boss Nass's hand-picked Field Marshall, General Jarsopher J. Binkman. As long as Binky was alive there was still hope!

On my side of the table, a giant heap of scrap metal began to collect. Silently I wondered if Andrew had filled out warranty cards for every one of these metal abortions.

On Andrew's side of the table: an even more prodigious heap of dead, humanoid-shaped hairless rabbits. Honestly, they were starting to stink up the joint. 

When Andrew diverted several squads of Battle Droid away from the Plains battlefield to the first floor of the Palace things became even more dire for the Naboo. It didn't take long before the Palace guards were overwhelmed, swaying the numerical advantage back to the Trade Federation. With Anakin stuck in permanent "spin" mode out in space and the Purple Queen reduced to a briquette, the game became mathematically impossible for me to win.  

Thats when I revealed to Andrew that the Purple Queen was, in fact, the real Amidala! Not that it mattered much, but if he'd just taken the time to decapitate her with Maul, he would have scored a huge windfall of bonus cards!  

(However, with Jar-Jar still standing at game's end, I maintain that we're all losers)


After playing Queen's Gambit again I was remembered that I'd made some notes from a previous session. Here then is my session report from back on February 12'th 2006 (!). 

"I drew Dark Side and immediately began to pound on Qui-Gon with Maul. Initially things went well until Maul was flanked by Obi-Wan and my offense and defense went sour (Sound familiar?). I managed to kill Qui-Gon but was left facing a healthy-looking Obi-Wan.

"Andrew (That joker again?!?) made some very aggressive moves in the Palace, boosting Panaka and some Palace guards up to the top level. On the battlefield, the Gungans did a great job protecting the Fambaas. Anakin also experienced some initial luck, expertly evading the Droid Starfighters on the first maneuver card.

"Then everything changed. I used a card to dump my entire hand, hoping against hope that Maul would survive for another turn. With one Life Point remaining, I managed to block two potential damage with four Shields, heal Maul and then beat Obi-Wan like a red-headed step-child. 

"With the Sith having their revenge, Maul rushed forward towards the Palace. Seeing disaster afoot, Andrew tried his best to secure the area by annihilating all of my Droidekas! 

"Meanwhile, in the field, the anticipated slaughter of the Gungans didn't happen. In fact, they held their ground nicely, earning Andrew a few bonus cards. Mercifully, with the Jedi out of commission, this just meant that I had to sacrifice a few Battle Droids in the Palace and on the Plains in order to make some critical card plays where it really mattered.

"Armed with a slew of bonus cards from killing Obi-Wan and his Master, I created an impenetrable stack of Droid Starfighter cards in order to prevent Anakin from budging. This served me well as Maul hacked his way through the Palace Guards, even killing a few of them with deflected blaster bolts!     

"The ending was a foregone conclusion as the Dark Side proved triumphant!"

I then recorded a solo play five days later:

"Weird game; I though the Light Side was going to run away with this. After Maul killed Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan avenged his Master while barely suffering a scratch. He then proceeded to cut a swath through the Palace. 

"As in my game with Andrew, I practically ignored the Plains Battlefield, concentrating instead on getting Panaka and some Guards to the third floor of the Palace. Anakin stalled despite an early push. This allowed the Darkside to stack the better part of the Droid Starfighter deck on the board. 

"Essentially this clinched things since it gave me a chance to divert tons of Battle Droids back to the Palace. Even Obi-Wan couldn't hold out forever. The Dark Side won again, this time by eliminating everyone except the two Palace Queens!" 

I know that I've played the game since 2006, but that particular session report is likely lost to the ages, locked up within the inert electronic brain of my old, deceased laptop. I'd give anything to read that document again since it contained not only session reports for Queens Gambit but for three whole years worth of gaming. Sadly I'll probably never be able to recover it. *Sigh*  


So after reviewing these older sessions and playing the game recently, here my thoughts:

  • When it comes to board games with incredible components this one's at the top of the list. The graphic design of the three boards is impeccable and the miniatures are fantastic. The player aids and the three floors of the Theed Palace are all made of durable cardboard. Although the plastic Palace pillars (?) are pretty snazzy-looking they also make for a pretty shaky structure. Don't be surprised if a twitchy, hyperactive, coffee-guzzling opponent (Dean, I'm looking in your direction) accidentally grazes the structure while reaching for a second floor Destroyer Droid and then inadvertently reduces the game into a jumble of downed figures. Perhaps the only components that could be improved are the chintzy damage counters and the flimsy cards. 
  • Along with Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones: Second Edition, Aliens and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is one of the most thematically-rich licensed games ever made. It really does play out like the four-pronged climax of The Phantom Menace but without all of the shitty dialogue and rampant, drama-deflating idiocy.     
  • Although there's a ludicrous amount of luck involved here, this also keeps the game tense and fun. Even if you've applied what seems like an obvious strategy, you also need the dice to co-operate with you. 
  • Between the Jedi / Sith battle, Anakin's flight to the Droid Control Ship, the assault on the Palace and the Naboo Plains Battle it really does feel as if you're playing four games in one. 
  • To paraphrase "Hot Pants" Padmé, the Naboo Plains battle is merely a diversion. Having said that, you shouldn't ignore it completely since it's a fantastic source for bonus cards. Chaining together a bunch of extra actions can really tip the balance in any given battle. 
  • The cards really simplify the game and cut down on analysis paralysis.
  • Sorry, but there's something vicariously sadistic about unleashing a Jedi or a Sith loose in the Theed Palace and indiscriminately hacking down Guards or Battle Droids like a more flamboyant Grim Reaper.   
  • I sincerely believe that sensible placement of the dice on the Droid Starfighter Cards skews the game towards the Dark Side. Even if the Jedi make short work of Maul and eradicate all of the droids from the Palace, it's all for nought unless that mop-topped, round-headed, button-nosed l'il space urchin can blow up the falking Control Ship. 
  • Although nothing in the game can be taken for granted because of luck it's super-frustrating to see your early inroads dashed when the dice get a hate-on for you. Note to self: if I ever play this game again with Andrew a dice tower's gonna be at the top of my rider list.  

All told this is still a classic that will forever have a home in my game collection. It's a shame that it's out of print since it actually makes The Phantom Menace seem kinda cool. In fact, if someone hadn't seen the movie and just played the game they might be fooled into thinking that the original source material doesn't suck like a sandcrawler's vacuum tube.  

As such I give the game five pips outta six with a tilt up towards Palpatine's pimped out Coruscant penthouse.


Have you always wanted to commit Gungan genocide? Well, keep dreamin', kiddies, since this mofo's long since out of print!

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