Many board gaming hobbyists have a story of how a rare game just kind of fell in their lap. I know a couple people who found complete copies of Dune in thrift stores. One friend of mine had a copy of Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit literally given to him by someone who found it in their garage. While I’ve never had anything quite that lucky, I did end up with a copy of Star Wars: Epic Duels for a mere $35, which is a far cry from the prices that game commands today. I’m glad I have it too, because it’s a lean, fun action game, exactly what a Star Wars game should be.
Released in 2002 during the merchandising push for Attack of the Clones, Epic Duels kind of a goofy game. Featuring characters from across the franchise up until that point, players can act out duels between pretty much any of them. Want to reenact a battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader? Go for it. Want to see what would happen if Mace Windu got in a fight with Han Solo? It’s here. There’s a kind of preteen logic to the game, where it’s perfectly reasonable to ask Anakin Skywalker to fight a battle against Darth Vader, a giant middle finger to causality. Each character also has support characters, so you are really selecting more of a team than anything else. Darth Maul comes with two battle droids, Emperor Palpatine has Imperial Guards, that kind of thing. Some characters get another major character as their support. Han Solo teams up with Chewbacca, for example.
Each team has a deck of cards, and that’s what the player will use to control them. Each deck has character-specific cards with attack and defense numbers, as well as several special attacks. The combat is extremely simple. A player merely plays an attack card facedown, and the target has the option to play a defensive card if they have one for that character. The defense blocks a certain number of damage, and the rest translates to hit points.This combat dovetails with a very basic movement system, orthogonal movement along a grid where some squares are blocked by obstacles. Even ranged combat is just any number of squares in one of eight directions. If this were all the game was, it would feel very thin indeed.
The special attacks, however, are where the game gives each character a little more detail. Darth Maul is able to attack viciously and then immediately scamper off. Yoda can lift other people in the air using the Force. Greedo (who teams up with Boba Fett) is able to suddenly move anywhere and shoot someone, except if they shot doesn’t kill the target Greedo is killed instead. All of these character flourishes are very well done, and the simple rules makes them easy to internalize as well. It is here that the game manages to create some thematic detail, although perhaps not quite as much as some strategic players might hope.
There are a number of ways to play the game. Each player can just pick a team and duel it out with another in a 1v1 battle. This is actually how I play with my son, who loves this game and is almost always up for a match. That might prove a little thin for advanced gamers though. In that case I recommend each player taking two teams and juggling two different decks. It’s barely more work to play, and it provides just a couple extra decision points to give the game some more teeth. You can also play multiplayer games with lots of players, like a six-player match where everyone fights everyone else. These are fun, but they do underline the inherently silly nature of the whole thing. In that form, Epic Duels is best as a late night game.
The target audience is obviously children, and on that level Epic Duels succeeds unequivocally. It also happens to be quite a bit of fun for Star Wars fans who don’t take the franchise that seriously. It has nowhere near the depth of the modern Fantasy Flight Star Wars titles, but it’s a much more mainstream design, and it is far easier to play. It’s a lot easier to set up a quick best-out-of-three of Epic Duels that to come up with squadrons in X-Wing. Star Wars can handle all different kinds of games, but I sometimes feel that easier mainstream titles like this one are really truest to the spirit of the movies. This is truly a title for anyone with even a passing knowledge of Star Wars, and it plays in roughly 15-20 minutes per round. Unfortunately the game sold poorly while it was in print, and expansions with new characters were never forthcoming.
If you consider the prequels anathema to all things Star Wars, Epic Duels might be frustrating. This is definitely a product of Episode II’s marketing, so Jango Fett gets his own team, and the version of Obi-Wan is Ewan McGregor. (They could have included Jar-Jar, so count your blessings I suppose.) I’m also a little disappointed that the female characters were all relegated to supporting roles for male ones. Leia backs up Luke, and Padme is the support for Anakin. Given the way the game is designed it’s understandable, but it’s still disappointing. Really, in terms of design, the game is kind of thin on content. There are four possible boards, two from the original trilogy and two from Episode II, but the game could really use something in, say, the Mos Eisley Cantina or Jabba’s Palace. More characters would have been nice too, especially now that Star Wars has been resurrected to great effect. Let’s have Rey fighting Emperor Palpatine already, Hasbro.
The good news is that there is an online community that has already created plenty of auxiiliary characters. Crafty types who happen to have some minis on hand can add content to their game with little fuss. Heck, I’m the type who probably wouldn’t bother with something like that, and it’s proven to be a very fun game as well. It’s hardly a deep experience, but what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in immediacy. It’s an elemental game that will appeal instantly to the twelve-year-old in you, the one who liked to make laser sounds crash spaceships. Its appeal is pretty similar to the appeal of the movies, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay to Epic Duels.