Saturday, May 07, 2011

Freedom in the Galaxy

I don't own a lot of what are known as "epic games."  These are games like The Third World War, which took 8 hours to play maybe three turns; Rise and Decline of the  Third Reich, which just intimidates me to no end; and Barbarossa to Berlin.  The only game that I own that rises to the level of complexity and time commitment of games such as these is Freedom in the Galaxy.  Originally published by SPI, the version that I have was published by Avalon Hill Games in the early '80s.  I you have ever seen the original Star Wars trilogy, then you know what this game is about.  The game is for two players, with one starting with an entire galactic empire of 51 key planets, lots of ground and space forces, Imperial Knights to lead said ground forces, planetary defense bases, and on and on.  The other player starts with 14 rebel characters, four spaceships, and smattering of other potentially useful items, and then spends the entire game trying to take down the empire through the flames of rebellion.  This game is just epic, and scratches all the right itches for me: sci-fi, character-driven adventures, and it feels a lot like Star Wars.

There are two downsides to the game, though.  First, the game is very complex.  There are actually three "levels" of rules that you can play with.  The first restricts you to a single solar system of three planets, and is really only good for learning the basic rules.  The second expands the game to an entire sector.  Again, this is really just to teach you the rules.  The third level is what you really want, where you play with the entire game universe of five sectors and 51 planets, planet secrets, etc.  But there is a A LOT to keep track of when playing the full game, and it can get quite tedious.  The second downside is the fact that the game can be very, very long.  The Rebel player gets victory by putting enough planets into rebellion to score 26 points by end of turn 20.  sector capitals and the Imperial throne world are worth bonus points, so you don't have to get 26 planets into rebellion, but you will need close to half the game board.  And good luck making that happen quickly.  The rulebook suggests that you will need 20 hours to play the full game all the way through to the end of the 20th turn, and my experience has been that this isn't far from the truth, even if both players know the rules well and don't have to spend a lot of time looking things up.

Another downside, though not as significant as the others mentioned above, is that the game can get tedious.  You will spend a lot of time running missions with your characters, which consists of drawing a series of cards from the Action card deck.  You then look to see if your mission code is on the card, indicating a successful mission.  Events on the cards can interrupt the mission, though, from getting attacked by creatures or security droids to inadvertently causing a civil war.  It just takes a while to work through all of the missions every turn.  I do have a computer program that helps a lot with this by automating the action cards, but it can still be a chore to run through a bunch of missions each turn.

That said, the true genius of this game is in the stories that emerge from gameplay.  Because both players have specific characters to lead their armies and go on missions, it isn't just random cardboard counters doing things, it is Imperial general Barca leading his elite forces against his rebel foes, or Adam Starlight and Zina Adora stealing secret information from an Imperial army base, or Ly Mantok and Boccanegra sabotaging an Imperial army brigade, or Imperial Knight Els Taroff assassinating a pesky rebel diplomat.  You can get really attached to your characters, and it can hurt when they die or, even worse, get captured and interrogated.  Of course, if someone has been captured you can attempt to free them with your other characters, which is only genre appropriate.

So this is not a good game for casual play.  I would need to find a friend willing to give up an entire weekend, at least, to get this thing on the table, and even then it can be a chore to get through all of it.  But the stories that come from the game just might make it all worth it.