A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was Star Wars: Rebellion. Or Star Wars: Supremacy, if you were British like me. While the Star Wars IP has never really leant itself to the Serious Business of waging war, here was a game that represented the closest many of us would ever get within our favourite sci-fi IP.
Picture if you will the Death Star has just been destroyed, the Galaxy has divided itself between those declaring for the Alliance, those still loyal to the Empire, and the neutral worlds who are opting to wait and see. The Rebellion cowers on Yavin 4, unsure whether to hang-on to their now infamous base or disperse amongst the stars. The Empire, reeling from such a sudden blow, still manages to maintain order through deft diplomacy and when called for sheer military might.
The stage is set. It’s time for Star Wars to enter the age of Total War.
** Warning: Mild Spoilers for The Last Jedi **
The main thing that bugged me about the latest Star Wars movie, if you’ll forgive the random segue into current events, is that half the plot is based on the fact that no-one seems to know how to fight a war anymore. Suicide runs that destroy your entire bomber fleet gets top trumped by the blinding decision to chase after a smaller, faster ship in an era where you literally can hyperjump anywhere. Including, say, right in front of the thing you’re trying to chase. And let’s not even with that last stand inside a base that doesn’t have an exit (except it did, but they didn’t know).
Not to turn this into another rant, but I find that as my tastes have developed within the wargaming realm, my tolerance for bad decision-making (as a plot driver, at least) gets lower. If you’ve ever seen the anime film Evangelion 3.3 You Can (Not) Undo, rest assured I feel exactly the same way about that. Also, the good guys should not have won the climactic battle in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
But what does total war look like in the Star Wars universe? Newer films, games and EU media have tried to give us glimpses or slices. Star Wars: Rebellion, by a company called Coolhand Interactive (who seemed to have only done this and then vanished,) is an attempt to show how the wider battle for the fate of the galaxy might have been waged. It was originally released nearly 20 years ago on February 28th, 1998 and occupied the unique position of being both ahead of, and behind the times.
Officially listed as part of the ‘4X’ sub-genre, you could easily describe it as a real-time grand-strategy wargame similar to Hearts of Iron 1. It’s funny to think that Rebellion pre-dates even the first Europa Universalis by a couple of years, with the first Hearts of Iron not turning up for another 4 or 5. You either played as the Rebellion, or the Empire itself, and your goal was to maintain and expand your control of the galaxy while crushing your opponent.
As the Rebels, this meant you had to abduct Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vadar, and then capture Coruscant. As the Empire, you had to capture Mon Mothma and Luke Skywalker and then find and destroy the mobile Rebel Base (represented by a floating city icon that looks like Bespin).
There was a very bare-bones economic model to support your war effort: Mines were used to collect raw material, and every planet only had a limited amount of slots. Refineries converted that raw material into Maintenance Points, which you’d then use to buy ships or personnel. You could build as many mines, planetary defences and infrastructure (like Shipyards to build ships, etc ) as the planet’s energy grid could support. In all the time I’ve played this game though, I don’t think I’ve ever run out of points to maintain stuff. The economy just seemed to always work, so concepts like ‘economic warfare’ really only applied to blowing up buildings.
Rebellion gave off the impression of asymmetrical play and the modern table-top game of the same name is well known for this style of gameplay. The Empire starts off in a stronger military position, and generally have access to better ships and hardware. The Rebels need to build up their power in secret preferably in the Outer-Rim and use agents and subterfuge to keep the Empire on the back foot until they are strong enough. But eventually, the two sides will meet in the middle, as they both wind up doing the exact same thing.
The Empire will end up employing more soft tactics like subterfuge and diplomacy, in order to avoid expensive occupations, while even the Rebellion will shift into fighting a war of out-right conquest.
Fighting the Good Fight
So, the war. There were two key dimensions the hearts and minds of the planets you were fighting over, and then the actual nitty gritty ground & space wars.
Ground combat was abstracted away to a number-crunching resolution that you’ll have seen in Paradox Grand-Strategy games. You take the troops you’re attacking with, put them against the defending troops, add in any other influencing factors, like General stats, defences, etc, and then the game will tell you how things went. Taking over a planet by force will cause the planet itself to hate you, which will also have a knock-on effect with planets in the rest of the sector.
Space battles could work the same way, but the team put some effort into making a 3D combat engine where you could fight them out in real-time. I mean yeah, looking at it now they’re kind of horrific. I thought it was revolutionary back in the day, but then I was fairly ignorant as to when exactly the game released and what the standards were at the time. It’d certainly been the first time I’d seen a 3D battle engine showing space combat.
Nevertheless, it was a rudimentary entry into three dimensional tactics. Ships gave out differing amounts of firepower depending on which side was facing the enemy. Ships had stats ranging from shields and hull, to engines and the hyperdrive. You could give flanking move orders that took into account up, down left and right. Fighters squadrons buzzed around you, although you could only give orders to an entire type of fighter.
If you can get past the very ugly graphics (which aren’t helped by the game’s poor scaling on modern monitors), these engagements could be quite fun. It’s hardly Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, or the more cerebral Battlestar Galactica Deadlock, but it works.
In terms of “hearts and minds”, you can maintain control of a planet that hates you provided you have enough troops. The game will tell you the minimum amount you need. Fall below this number and the planet falls into unrest, which stops you being able to use any of its infrastructure. You can use agents to spark unrest on planets, although realistically this is very hard to achieve. Neutral planets can be won over to your side via diplomacy, and you can also use diplomat agents to both subdue uprisings and win them over to your side fully, which lessens the need for a military garrison.
Coming back to it after all these years, it’s funny how quickly it all falls back into place. The benefit of a career professional reviewing strategy games has also instilled some innate sense of skill, in the sense that things I used to struggle with in the game seem to make sense now. I’m genuinely worried that I’ll get to a point where I’ll optimise this game past the point of credibility, but hey, it was fun while it lasted.
I personally look back on Rebellion as one of the best Star War strategy games in existence. There was nothing like this game at the time, and few since, although Petroglyph’s spiritual successor in Empire at War runs a close second. It’s easy to see why this game may have not done well it certainly wasn’t well received by the press of the day. Graphically, it wasn’t keeping pace with the 3D revolution that was sweeping the industry at the time, and if we’re being honest the UI could do some serious quality of life improvements.
I mainly went back and played Rebellion for this article because I could being unavailable for many years (and I lost my own copy), it’s now appeared on both GOG.com as well as Steam. You should also listen to this excellent episode of the 3MA Podcast where Rob, Rich & Nick reminisce about this highly unique game. Warts and all, this occupies a pretty special place in my heart and within the pantheon of Star Wars titles; there are worst ways to spend an evening than waging total war in a galaxy far, far away