By Jeff Hannes
It was a dark time for the Rebellion. Their champion Luke Skywalker had fallen at the hands of the Emperor. A rampaging Rancor had already demolished two of their once hidden bases. And the terrible Death Star was nearing completion.
Then a figure emerged from the shadows — small, green, powerful. With a wave of his four-fingered hand, Yoda distracted the Rancor using an old Jedi mind trick, leaving the Imperial headquarters on Courascant open to attack. Yoda led the charge along with with a fellow Jedi who had been in hiding. Just as they were about to reach the base, the Jedi felt his throat tighten. The Dark Lord of the Sith Darth Vader was choking the life out of him, and without his help the mission could not possibly succeed.
But Yoda wasn’t out of tricks yet. With the power of the Force, he was able to deflect Vader’s attention, and the Dark Lord took out his fury on one of his own men instead, killing a TIE Fighter pilot who had let the Jedi slip through their defenses unnoticed. With the path clear, Yoda and his team laid the charges to destroy the Imperial headquarters, bringing the promise of peace to the galaxy once more…
And therein summarizes my first experience playing Star Wars: The Card Game. An eye-opening experience, not just for the story the game told, but for the whole package. Theme, mechanics, interaction… I was impressed across the board. So why are you only seeing this review now, months after the game was released?
My story is a fairly common one. I’m a huge Star Wars fan… like, named my daughter Leia so I could have a little princess huge. Okay, so maybe my story’s not THAT common. But like so many others I was very excited when FFG first announced they were doing a Star Wars LCG, and I salivated over the initial offerings of original artwork. And then came the waiting… and more waiting… and the original project for a co-op was scrapped and the game was redesigned. More waiting… And finally the release. But by then I’d waited so long and things had changed so much that I didn’t jump on the game right away. The initial reviews came in, and one common thread rose above the rest — “The game doesn’t feel like Star Wars.” “The interaction of the cards is downright goofy.” “The theme makes no sense.” “How can you have a Rancor battling the Millennium Falcon” And so on and so on. But then more reviews started to come out touting the gameplay, and so I finally made the leap and bought in. And boy am I glad I did…
To those who eschew the theme, let me quote my review title: “I find your lack of imagination disturbing.” In my first game I had no trouble whatsoever getting into the theme of the game, and I totally agree with those who say it has a strong Star Wars feel. At times you need a little imagination, but to me that just makes the game more fun and thematic, not less so. In my lead-in passage, my opponent played Force Choke which does 1 point of damage to a character, and I responded with Lightsaber Deflection, which redirects a point of damage to a different target. Strictly speaking does that make any sense? No, but from my write-up you can see it wasn’t hard at all to envision another way in which those cards might interact, and to me that kind of creativity is fun.
But theme aside, the most important thing is that the theme doesn’t matter… Because the mechanics are THAT good. In my time as Games Editor for InQuest magazine I played and reviewed probably around 200 trading card games. For whatever that’s worth. (Note: I think it’s worth at least something… if for no other reason than I have a pretty large basis of comparison.) And even after just one play I could tell that Star Wars: The Card Game was a special game.
There are mechanics I haven’t seen before, and that alone is saying something. While I probably played every single CCG known to man created between 1993 and 2003, more recently it’s been mostly boardgames for me. So it’s possible some of these mechanics have appeared in other games in some form. But here’s what was new to *me*:
- The “multiple tapping” effect of putting focus tokens on a card to show it’s been used. In Magic, Richard Garfield pioneered the notion of “tapping” a card and turning it sideways to show it’s been used, and then “untapping” the card at the beginning of your next turn to show it’s available again. It’s a model just about every CCG has used, though we used to joke about just how many terms one could come up with for turning a card sideways. Exhaust. Spend. Engage. Boot… The focus mechanic in Star Wars isn’t just an alternative way to indicate a card has been used; it also can put a delay on when you get to “untap” that card. For example, if you have an objective that can produce 3 resources, that’s all well and good… But using it to produce 3 means you won’t get it back to use again for three turns. Of course, there are card effects to speed things up (such as elite) which only further enhances the mechanic. Devoting a character to the Force struggle means he’s often going to “untap” slower if you use him for anything else… So not only is it a nifty mechanic, but it’s wholly integrated into the game design.
- Edge battles. I’m sure there have been other games that had side battles using cards in hand. And certainly the “I play a card face-down, you play a card face-down” is nothing new. But the impact edge battles have… A great number of units have icons that ONLY come into play when your side wins the edge battle. It’s not a sprinkled-in mechanic… it’s a core aspect of the game. Often in card games you play cards to enhance your cards in combat; but how many games are there where you play cards to *prevent* your opponent from enhancing his? That’s the beauty of the edge battles… even if you don’t stand to directly benefit from winning an edge battle, you almost always have a stake in the outcome. So even if YOUR deck doesn’t need to win edge battles to succeed, you still can’t ignore that aspect of the game. Very smart game design.
- The ticking clock end game mechanism. This is much more common in boardgames, and while not entirely unique to card games, I don’t recall seeing it this well-executed elsewhere. Typical CCG design calls for there to be a ramp-up where you start with almost nothing, and then allow the game time to breathe and develop. Magic: The Gathering once got to a point where games would end in turn 2 or 3, but that was never the designers’ intent or hope. It’s rare that a CCG wants to end quickly but ALSO have strategic depth. I love how Star Wars is able to capture both.
- The mix of combat abilities. Each unit has a combination of three… Damage a unit, damage an objective, prevent an enemy unit from acting. Again, not 100% unique, but this kind of nuanced combat — where initiative is especially important and each unit has its own flavor and contribution to the fight — is typically reserved for wargames and tactical miniatures games. To see it so elegantly captured in a trading card game is both atypical and impressive.
- Deck construction. I’ve never seen the “pod” style of deck construction where you must build your deck with sets of cards instead of choosing the individual cards you want. It already makes for an interesting approach to deck-building, and it’s only going to get more intriguing as the card pool expands. Another poster claimed that two copies of “The Killing Cold” is a must-have… Well maybe in his play circle. But while The Desolation of Hoth (transfer 3 damage from one of your Hoth objectives to an enemy unit or Hoth objective) is a very powerful card, it’s not quite as deadly if your opponent isn’t playing any Hoth objectives. And as a whole the set only offers 7 force icons, which isn’t great. Two copies of this objective set will put you at a significant disadvantage against a light side deck that focuses on generating alot of force icons to win edge battles. By itself “The Desolation of Hoth” might be a no-brainer for your deck, but do you really want 4 copies of Icetromper (sacrifice this unit to remove a target attacking non-Vehicle unit from the engagement and deal one damage to it) against an opponent who has focused on an X-Swing/Speeder strategy?Point being, even this early into the game’s development, the meta-game already plays a role.
And I could go on, because there are a lot of other little elements that feel new or different to me, but I think you get the idea. I hadn’t initially realized that Eric Lang was the designer, but it makes a lot of sense. He’s been at this for over a dozen years (I still remember him telling me about his prototype design for the Amber CCG way back when), has designed multiple successful CCGs, and therefore really knows what works and what doesn’t. Like I said, I can’t say enough good things about this game, and when it comes to trading card games I’m not easily impressed.
Beyond the novel use of mechanics, the game’s goals are clear and you can jump right in, and since you start with most of the resource-production you’ll ever need already in play, there’s no slow buildup or “mana screw”. You can hit the ground running, which is no small feat for a balanced and strategic card game.
Rather than rehash the gameplay and rules, which you can easily find elsewhere, let me just touch on the high points:
Edge battles – This concept is hard to understand until you play the game, and then it makes perfect sense and you immediately understand just how important it is to the game. Having the “edge” going into a battle won’t necessarily mean the difference between success and failure, but it can (and often does) have a significant impact. This brings hand management to a whole new level… If you dump your entire hand of cards into play you may have more units at your disposal, but you’ll be at your opponent’s mercy in edge battles, especially during his turn when he gets to draw back up and you’re still sitting on an empty hand.
Objective sets – Perhaps the biggest innovation in Star Wars: The Card Game is the deck construction system, where you build your deck with 6-card pods instead of just picking any individual cards you want. Not only does this make it easier for those new to deck construction to tool around with different deck ideas, but it also addresses one of the biggest issues with trading card games in the most unique and effective way I’ve seen… Almost every trading card game suffers at least a little from the inevitability that some cards are simply more powerful than others; some are so powerful that you almost have to include them in your deck. Well because of the Objective set system it’s not so simple. You may decide that a specific card is a MUST HAVE in your deck, but then will you be willing to bring in the other 5 cards that come with it? As more and more expansions are released, the objective set deck construction rules are going to force experienced deck builders to rethink they way they going about coming up with deck concepts.
Balance of the Force – I love that the game is just a little bit assymetric. Both sides play mechancially the exact same way, but the goals are slightly different. The Dark Side is a ticking clock, the Light Side is racing against that clock. This definitely gives both sides a different feel without having radically different card types (as in Netrunner) which makes both sides equally accessible to newer players. And then there’s the balance of the force mechanic, where the balance can either be on the Light Side or Dark Side. Again, it won’t make or break the game, but neither side can afford to completely ignore which side the balance is on. And the effects are slightly different; if the balance is in favor of the Dark Side, the clock ticks faster; if it’s in the Light Side’s favor you can accomplish your goals (destroy enemy objectives) a little faster, but though the effects are similar, the two have a distinctly different feel.
Card versatility – Just about any card can be used in one of two ways (and some units can instead be attached to other units, giving them three distinct uses). Other than Fate cards (which can only be played in Edge battles), every card can be played for its card text, or used in an Edge battle for its force icons, to help you win that battle. Yoda is a tremendous character that you want to get into play, but you might find yourself in an Edge battle that is so important that you instead use Yoda for his 5 force icons. Of course, even then your opponent may find a way to thwart you, like by playing the Twist of Fate card which forces you to redo the Edge battle (and causing you to waste that powerful card). There’s alot of cat and mouse which really adds to the interactivity of the game.
Limited game length – The game starts with a ticking clock (the Death Star) and it’s GOING to end, and fairly quickly at that. Other card games can drag on forever, with a huge sprawl of cards covering the table. That won’t be the case in Star Wars. One way or the other, the game is going to end in 12 turns maximum (barring a few effects that can potentially slow the clock), and often a lot faster than that. But since you hit the ground running and draw back up to your hand size at the start of your turn, every turn is going to be a full experience.
The Star Wars theme. When the game was first announced I was excited at the prospect of another cooperative LCG, but in retrospect FFG absolutely made the right choice in ditching the initial design. Star Wars IS the Light Side versus the Dark Side — moves and countermoves, and you really can’t capture that in a co-op environment. This competitive incarnation completely captures the struggle between the two sides, and what’s more, every game tells a story. You say Darth Vader attacking Yavin IV with a Wampa and an Ugnaught is ridiculous? I say the wilder the story the game tells, the better. I mean, have you read any of the Expanded Universe novels?
I can’t say enough good things about this game. I’m thoroughly impressed. I love the theme, I love the stories the battles tell, and I love the mechanics. I’m a 20-year veteran of Magic: The Gathering. I loved Netrunner when it wasn’t the Hotness. I’ve dove headlong into dozens of trading card games and I’ve at least tried every Star Wars card game, from Decipher’s original Star Wars CCG to the simplistic Young Jedi to Epic Duels. The LCG is a keeper, and easily my favorite of the lot.
One play was all it took for me to order a second Core set and the three force packs available so far. I was as skeptical as anyone when the game first came out, and I resisted at first for fear of the words of the neigh sayers. But I’m glad I looked past the initial negative opinions and decided to try it for myself. I’m in, hook line and sinker, and if you’ve been on the fence, I urge you to give this amazing game a try.
Once you learn the rules (I highly recommend watching the [thread= http://boardgamegeek.com/video/24209]Team Convenant video[/thread] and then reading through the rulebook as I did), the game flows smoothly and easily.