Fantasy Flight Games struck Star Wars paydirt in 2011 with X-Wing, and right there at the end of the year the company released its second Lucasfilm-blessed product, a Star Wars-themed Living Card Game. Announced some time ago, it had a somewhat troubled development with the original design hewing by most accounts fairly close to Nate French’s co-op concept for 2010’s Lord of the Rings card game. With Eric Lang billed as the designer, the title is now a rather traditional two player, competitive card game. Fortunately for Star Wars fans and the rehabbed CCG set, it’s a really good one that follows X-Wing’s lead in sticking close to classic source material (with just a smattering of Expanded Universe material).
You probably don’t need much of a high-level description. Player one, Light Side (Jedi or Rebel Alliance). Player two, Dark Side (Sith or Imperial Navy). There are resource and hand management elements. Character and vehicle cards, equipment, and locations from the flims. Said cards fight to blow up the other side’s objective cards. Preconstructed decks are included, but you’re really going to want to build better decks. I shouldn’t have to tell you these things.
However, it does get more interesting than all of the above. The core game may not be particularly innovative, but it is definitely rock solid, well-designed. It’s both comfortable for veterans and accessible for newcomers. But Mr. Lang- whom you may remember from my 2009 Game of the Year pick Chaos in the Old World- has a few tricks up his sleeve that make this game more compelling than it seems at a glance.
First and foremost among the more interesting things that the Star Wars LCG does is to completely rewrite how we build decks. Instead of going through and assembling your deck by meticulously picking each card, you select up to ten of your faction’s objective cards, resource-providing locations that often have a special function. Each objective card comes with a stack of five cards, so you are effectively creating your deck from micro-sets. This is a brilliant idea that makes the deckbuilding much more approachable and definitely quicker. Old-time “Spike” players may chafe at having some of the decision making taken away, but having to select from packets and work out the synergies there is totally satisfying.
Another element that feels fresh is a timing mechanic that keeps the game briskly- or ruthlessly- paced. Since it is a Fantasy Flight Game circa 2013, it has to have a dial of some kind and this time out it’s a Death Star dial. If it hits 12, the Empire wins. It goes up at least one every turn as well as when the Dark Side player takes out a Light Side objective. This creates a great thematic sense- the Dark Side gaining power that will eventually crush the Light Side, and the Light Side scrambling desperately to thwart Vader and company. There is a Light Side/Dark Side Force token representing the current balance of the Force that players contest by committing units to, reducing their battlefield utility. If it’s on the Dark Side, that Death Star dial goes up an extra tick per turn. The Light Side benefit is a damage marker on any Dark Side objective.
Commiting units to the Force struggle is just one example of how Mr. Lang has built in some very, very tough decisions. Deciding whether to pitch a really powerful card like Yoda to use its force icons or to hold on to it to deploy later can be agonizing. As in most CCGs or LCGs, choosing which units to attack and which to leave available for defense or other purposes is a prime strategic concern.
Combat offers a couple of unique concepts. Once attackers and defenders are declared, the game throws an auction at you. Yep. You read that right. The rules call it an “Edge battle”, but it’s really a blind-bid auction for initiative. Players take turns playing face-down cards until both pass. Cards are revealed, and force icons are tallied up to determine who gets to Han Solo and shoot first. What’s more, units may have increased combat abilities if they have the edge. As with any auction of this sort, there’s an element of bluffing. Does your opponent’s single card have one Force icon…or four?
Fate cards can also be played into the Edge stack. These cards might dole out damage tokens to combatants or objectives or do really mean things like restart the edge battle from scratch. Once it’s all sorted out, the edge winner focuses (this game’s version of “tapping”) units to trigger a string of strike icons. A blaster icon shoots a unit for a damage, a Tactics icon puts focus tokens on enemy units (delaying their refresh), and an explosion one deals damage to an objective. A player that loses the edge battle might wind up with their defenders completely destroyed, which results in another objective damage.
So we’re looking at a class act LCG that offers a strong foundation in traditional CCG-style mechanics but with some welcome perversions and of course all of that great Star Wars theme. Belay that bit. The Star Wars Card Game really isn’t any more or less thematic than any other CCG, all of which tend to be fairly high level and abstracted. Regardless, online complainants have already filed grievances about anti-thematic events such as a Rancor punching an X-Wing- as if that’s not awesome. If you’re looking for a highly narrative, canonical game wherein Admiral Ackbar can in no way be captured by Boba Fett, rescued from the Death Star, and then killed by an AT-ST then this may not be the game for you. I get it, the idea is that the objective cards are events or locations wherein the cards involved are meant to be interpreted as part of the larger story tableaux. It’s not intended to literally represent said melee between Rancor and X-wing.
The real issue, and the one worth getting internet upset over, is sadly once again tied directly to Fantasy Flight Games’ product strategy. I think that they’ve made some improvements to the LCG model and they’ve listened to some of the negative criticism, particularly after they willfully excluded cards that should have been in the core set, creating the need for players to buy multiple core sets to have enough cards to effectively build decks and get the most out of the game. The new deckbuilding model alleviates some of that and a single box feels like a reasonably complete and versatile game. But you’re still going to want a second core since you can have two of each objective set in a deck.
But why I am getting cards that reference multiplayer functions, and then being told in the rules that the multiplayer rules will be available in a later expansion…that I’m going to have to buy? Why am I getting “sampler” objectives for the Spies and Smugglers and Scum and Villany factions? Just to get Han Solo and Boba Fett in the box? I think not. I feel like I’ve been teased into buying more. I think it’s unfortunate that FFG hasn’t really worked out a way to sell its serial product lines without disrespectfully providing the customer with games that feel intentionally incomplete from the second you open the box for the first time. I’ve come to really appreciate the LCG model because it keeps games fresh, evolving, and it encourages players to explore but it is what it is, and it’s making the company money so the numbers are going in the right direction. It won’t change any time soon.
I’ll probably fall for the marketing scheme because I do really like this game and even moreso than past LCGs I think expansions are going to really make this game take off for both competitive and casual players. There are hints of larger ideas, like a mission card (Trench Run, of course) that lets the Light Side player attack that Death Star dial for an instant win. It goes without saying that there is plenty of material to work with and as a Star Wars fan it’s also awesome to see all of this new artwork and new interpretations. I’m excited about the multiplayer game, and I can’t wait to see what’s in the upcoming Hoth Force Packs.
Guess I’m a sucker.