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Queen's Gambit

Designer: Craig van Ness, Alan Roach
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Players: 2
Time: 150 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

Movie tie-in games don't get a whole lot of respect and with good reason, there are very few that are any good whatsoever. So, I think it's understandable that many might have dismissed The Queen's Gambit out of hand and I think that's a shame. Not because the game is the greatest thing since sliced bread, (it's not) but I do think it's worthy of a try. I'm getting ahead of myself though.

The game recreates the four simultaneous battles that occur at the end of The Phantom Menace: Darth Maul vs. the Jedi, the Palace, the battlefield and the fight in space. The action is card driven and borrows an idea from Battle CryAction card examples each player has a hand of cards but each card can only be used in one of the battles. The big difference here is that you're given a hand of ten cards and must select four of them to play in order. Once both players have made their selections they alternate turns revealing their top card and performing the corresponding action. Possible actions include "Move 2 Battledroid groups" or "Move 3 Palace Guards" or "Draw a Palace card and play it". Most of the cards have several options available on each card.

The game when setup is something to see, lots of interesting bits including a three level place. I won't describe it too much more as you really need to see the picture to get a good idea of what it looks like. (Click on the picture below to get a much larger view.)

Some details about the individual battles:

Battlefield: This is the most lopsided fight. The Trade Federation player will almost certainly clean up here but it is after all, the The Queen's Gambit fully setup gambit of the games title. While it is one sided it does have almost no bearing on the actual outcome of the game, at least not directly. Even if the Trade Federation player destroys every last Gungan it does nothing victory-wise. So why even bother with it? Well, every group of figures that you completely obliterate entitles you to draw one extra card for play on the next turn. By doing well on the battlefield its likely that you'll play 5, 6 or even more cards next turn to your opponents 4, a big advantage.

The Palace: This is the heart of the game and the ultimate object - control of the throne room on its third level. 21 Palace guards, Captain Panaka and two Queens (one is a decoy) must fight through swarms of Battle Droids and Destroyer Droids to capture the two Trade Federation Viceroys. The biggest problem for the Naboo player is that the droids are constantly being reinforced from the Battlefield while their own forces steadily dwindle. Fortunately some action cards allow them to use "window ledge movement" which lets them scurry up to the third floor directly.

Darth Maul vs. the Jedi: This is an all out slugfest pitting the more powerful Darth Maul against both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Winning this battle doesn't mean much but once one side is victorious the winner can then enter the Palace and absolutely clean the place up. The Jedi/Sith are so much better than any other units that they can just devastate their opponents. (I have to admit that this was lots of fun!)

Anakin: This space battle is handled very abstractly—essentially it's a movement track that Anakin progresses along. Space battle detailIf he reaches the final space (representing the Trade Federation control ship) all the droids in the game shut down, essentially winning the game. Each space shows a grid of 11 spaces marked 2-12 with several of them showing an asteroid. When an Anakin card is played the dice are rolled and if the corresponding space is clear he advances. The Trade Federation player can add starfighter cards to any space which require a separate roll to bypass.

The ten cards that make up a players hand will be drawn from two separate decks; the battlefield deck has cards that can be used in the battlefield or space battle, the palace deck has cards for the palace and Jedi/Sith battle. (Each player has their own decks.) This does force a somewhat balanced approach to the game, if you play lots of palace cards your hand will eventually be full of battlefield cards that you'll have no choice but to play. The four cards that a player chooses are critical and this is the one important strategic decision the players must make. Each of the battles is pretty even but if only one side is playing those cards then it can easily turn into a wipeout. If Darth Maul can kill the Jedi he'll easily be able to kill any palace guards remaining. But if Anakin shuts down the control ship the palace guards will capture the Viceroys before he can do so. If I wipe out my opponents on the battlefield I'll get extra actions next turn but I might be losing units in the palace this turn. My primary enjoyment of the game is deciding how to play your cards to best concentrate your forces while minimizing the damage in the battles you're ignoring.

The biggest disappointment I have with the game is that each of your particular moves is rather straightforward. There's really no decisions to be made at all in the Anakin battle, it's simply a matter of rolling dice. Similarly the Jedi/Sith fight is also a dice fest, there's no movement or positioning or anything clever to be done here. Even in the Palace movement is largely irrelevant, simply move the number of pieces and roll attacks for each one. It's quite rare that you won't be able to attack with the full number of pieces indicated on the card. Even the Battlefield lacks any feeling of maneuver. It's a little better than the other three fights but only very occasionally was I able to make a particularly clever move. Even then it owed more to a mistake on my opponents part than anything tactical on mine. This doesn't necessarily mean the game is without skill, but I do think it's limited to your choice of which four cards to play. So, not tragic but the game would have been far superior if there was some scope for intelligent play in the actual battles.

Compounding this problem is the playing time for the game, you're looking at the better part of three hours to complete a game. For an involved, strategic game this is easily acceptable but I think it crosses the line for a simple "dice-fest" which is what The Queen's Gambit is when you come right down to it. Strategic decisions are possible but they're spread too far apart. I'd feel a lot more comfortable recommending the game if it took 90 minutes or less.

Finally, (if that wasn't already enough!) the game is somewhat unstable. This is due to the Anakin space battle which really determines the outcome of the game. If one player does much better here then the game is pretty much over. Since it's really just a series of dice rolls (as few as five) it's not that unusual for it to be lopsided. Again the playing time really exacerbates this, it's no fun to be two hours into a closely fought match when a sudden series of lucky rolls ends it "prematurely".

Battledroid and Gungan figures.So these are some pretty serious problems I have with the game and you'd think after having said all that that I'd hate the game. Oddly, I don't and I'm really not sure why. Certainly the great pieces help, I'm a sucker for nice bits and this has it in spades. I think many gamers have some element of the little boy in them that's just looking for an excuse to play with toy soldiers.

The pieces themselves are very nice. Most of them are cast in a somewhat soft and pliable plastic and at first I was disappointed in this thinking that a more rigid plastic would have been preferable. What changed my mind was the realization that in many ways they're so much more functional and user-friendly. Whereas harder plastic would have been far more likely to break you can roughly grab a handful of freshly killed pieces and toss them into the box without fear of damage. I'm rather anal about broken pieces and so I'm glad not to have to worry about it here.

I'm forced to admit that this game is a guilty pleasure for me. There are some serious flaws that should make me dislike it but, well, I do like it.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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