Review: Star Wars – The Card Game
Following in the footsteps of Christian’s Netrunner review, I’d planned to likewise avoid turning this review of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: The Card Game, the latest addition to its family of Living Card Games, into a treatise on the rules. I’ve found, though, that the mechanics side of it will indeed be the focus of the review, because when it comes to me reviewing Star Wars games, there’s a problem: I love Star Wars.
I don’t want you thinking that I believe that everything with the Star Wars IP attached to it is instantly awesome, but I’ll at least be initially disposed to think favorably of it. So, to answer the question that may have popped into your head, will this be an unbiased review of the product? Well… I’ll try.
Read on and I’ll let you decide.
First of all, I should also put out there that I am definitely a fan of the Living Card Game format. You’ll definitely hear me throwing in with this game style if you’ve listened to even one episode of the B&B podcast or Mos Eisley Radio.
I’ve had the pleasure of playing not only Star Wars, but also Game of Thrones, Netrunner, and Lord of the Rings. The only two I haven’t played yet are Warhammer: Invasion and Call of Cthulhu, and if Christian will remember to bring over his copy of Cthulhu sometime, I think we will have played all but one of the current members of the LCG family. There’s one thing, though, that I’ve come to believe is a problem with the format, and unfortunately, I think Star Wars suffers a bit because of it. Whether it’s because it is the youngest child of the family, I’m not sure, but when you have a half-dozen games that share so many similarities in terms of mechanics and the developers seem to feel the need to call the same thing by a different name in each game, things get a little hairy.
One of the things I’ve noticed that we do when playing any of the LCGs is that we have the rules handy at all times just to look up the definitions of certain terms and keywords. Sure, we’ve put up with Islandwalk, First Strike, and Vigilance with Magic: The Gathering for years, but those have been relatively unchanged across the decades (yes… decades; two of them, in fact. We’re the old men, Ace).
One of the pieces of the Star Wars LCG that I think suffers from some nomenclature confusion is the Objective card. The Objective is equivalent to the Agenda card from the Game of Thrones LCG, but rather than representing a goal for which you as the Objective’s owner are striving to achieve, instead it’s really just a resource producing asset, often a location, that is the primary target of your opponent. From a certain point of view, it is an objective for your opponent, but when it is something that is every bit as important to you as it is to the enemy, the name of the card type kind of throws things off at first. Is it splitting hairs? Yes, but when the addition of a word or two drastically change the effect upon the game, then splitting hairs is quite justified. There are a few other instances where names and wording are somewhat questionable, but I don’t want to beleaguer the point.
One of the game’s most interesting features is that the strategic goals of the two opposing sides, the Dark Side and the Light Side, are drastically different, but the tactical goals are essentially the same. This allows for a player to be able to know instantly how each side plays without having to spend as much or more time learning how to play the other side of the board, which is the case with Android: Netrunner. Although, I definitely have to put it out there that the asymmetrical nature of that game is one of its most intriguing aspects.
So, what do I mean by strategic versus tactical? Strategic is the overall goal while tactics are the methods by which the goal of the strategy is achieved. What we have in Star Wars is the Dark Side, represented by the three factions of Sith, Galactic Empire and Scum & Villainy, and the Light Side, shown in the Jedi, Rebel Alliance and Spies & Smugglers. The goal of the Light Side is to destroy three of the Dark Side’s Objective cards, all the while watching the Dark Side’s Death Star countdown timer, numbered one through twelve, work its way to its ultimate conclusion: blowing up the Rebels.
At the beginning of each of the Dark Side’s turns, the Death Star timer will go up one number, but the Dark Side can use whatever means are at their disposal to speed up the timer, which includes destroying the Light Side Objectives by, more or less, the same methods that the Light Side is using to destroy the Dark Side’s own Objectives. Both sides generate resources from their Objectives with which they can pay to deploy characters, vehicles, enhancements and event cards. Both sides also want to get as many units onto the table and begin attacking the opponent’s Objectives as quickly as possible. Every Objective has a damage threshold which function like hit points. When you declare an attack, you’re not directly attacking characters, but the selected Objective. This should be familiar to M:TG players where you typically don’t attack the creatures on the table, but your rival wizard. Both sides have the same types of resources, the same types of deployable cards and the same tactical goal: blow up the Objectives.
What really makes the game work for me, though, is the looming threat of the Death Star timer. It’s nothing more than a small cardboard snap-together disc that you spin beneath another disc, but when you play as the Rebels or Jedi and you see that dial turning way more times per your opponent’s turn than you’d like, you start to sweat. Actually, if nobody did anything, the Dark Side would win in twelve rounds anyways, so the pressure is truly on the good guys from the get-go. You really begin to feel like the Rebels/Jedi are starting at a disadvantage compared to the Sith/Empire, who always go first, but with good strategy and good draws that disadvantage begins to even out.
The two parts of the system that are truly unique to the game were, admittedly, the two hardest parts to understand at first.
One of these is the Edge Battle. The Edge Battle is meant to simulate all the spying, sabotage and other activities that happen before a straight-up battle. This battle is conducted by the attacking player placing cards from his hand into a specific stack on the table one at a time, alternating with the opposing player. Once both players decide to pass, they then flip their piles and count the total number of Force icons at the upper left corner of the played cards.
This has been one of the more contentious features at our game table, as it’s meant to be somewhat of a betting period in the game, but without a measure like poker chips to facilitate the bluffing between players, there’s little to keep a player from using his entire hand to defeat his opponent. The one time this becomes stressful is when you may need to win either as attacker or defender, but you find a Darth Vader in your hand, who, of course, is a magnificent card to have on the table instead of being discarded after an Edge Battle.
Powerful characters like Vader or Luke have some of the highest Force point values of any of the cards in the game, so they can tip the scales in your favor if you’re willing to send them to the discard pile immediately following the resolution of the Edge Battle. The effects of winning the Edge Battle may be well worth it, as certain characters are only effective if you have won the Edge, including striking first in the engagement resolution.
A wrinkle they added to create tension and hidden rewards in the middle of an Edge battle are cards called Fate cards. These are only playable during this point of conflict and have Force points the same as the other cards, but may alter an engagement’s outcome regardless of which player actually won. At this time, there are too few of these to see how much they can truly impact the game, but every advantage is needed to secure victory and these have come in handy more than once.
The other part that was kind of odd until after we’d played was the concept of committing characters to the force in another meta-struggle you and your opponent will engage in. This mechanic revolves around exerting your faction’s influence over a small tile, which represents the balance of the Force, that goes with the Death Star dial. If the Dark Side has the greater total of Force point icons from among those characters of theirs that are on the table who have been committed (signified by placing one of their three Force cards under a unit) and are not exhausted, then at the beginning of the DS player’s turn, when they’d normally rotate the dial only one number closer to twelve, having the Force on their side will grant the DS player an additional +1 to their dial that turn. Instead of moving from 1 to 2, it would move from 1 to 3. Likewise, the LS player will want to commit its members to Force so that when they begin their turn, they’ll automatically deal one point of damage to the enemy Objective of their choice. One point may not seem like much, but it can really add up and, again, you need every advantage you can get in this game.
A common complaint that I’d heard when the game first launched was that there was no separation between ground fighting forces (Stormtroopers, Jedi, etc.) and vehicles or starships. So, in an engagement, you could theoretically have the Devastator Star Destroyer, Emperor Palpatine, a Rebel Scout and Yoda attacking each other. This may sound very off-putting at first, but one way to get by it is to simply say, “It’s a game. Move on.” Also, you could go the roleplayer’s route and make the argument that it’s not meant to be taken literally, as if a Stormtrooper is going to shoot at a Mon Cal cruiser. I say, think of Return of the Jedi. How many smaller fights were happening that were all a part of the bigger Battle of Endor? There was Han and Leia’s mission to blow up the shield generator, Wedge and Lando were fighting the navy and Luke was engaged with Vader and the Emperor. In essence, all those different characters and vehicles were engaged at the same battle.
This sentiment of the battles not being literal head-to-head army fights is very acutely felt by people who had played the customizable card game produced by Decipher in the late 90’s. That game was so thick with rules it was almost as if they’d tried to convert miniatures combat into a card game. You had locations for both ground units and space units, there were all different types of items and weapons you could place on a unit and then the units not only fought, but the players had to figure out attrition damage based on the ability of the characters. This secondary type of damage would be meted out to the victor, even if they managed to win the primary battle. By the time the game was into reprinting, revising and re-releasing old sets, there were so many rules additions and so much errata that you would need page after page of printed off websites to follow everything, but then that’s how serious that game’s players took it.
Comparing this new game with that older version is nearly impossible. They are so drastically different that the only thing they have in common is the Star Wars brand. Outside of how well that brand is represented in the LCG, I’d say any comparisons to the old one should be left at the door. It’s not worth trying to make the old one relevant to the conversation, because if you want that same experience, you won’t get it.
The last great divide between this card game and nearly every other one on the market is the deckbuilding. For whatever reason, the developers decided that rather than letting players build 60-card decks from whichever combinations they so chose, they’d made a system by which your Objective cards are tied to five other cards including units, enhancements and events which make up Objective sets that cannot be broken during deckbuilding. At the start of play, they are shuffled normally, but if you have a particular Objective in your Objective deck, you MUST have the accompanying five cards. This has lead to some chagrin from veterans of other systems, but having been on the market for such a short amount of time and with no expansions released yet, the community has not really had much of a chance to begin experimenting with deck design that isn’t straight out of the box.
So, as a lover of many things Star Wars, my ultimate question would be: how well does this game capture the flavor of the universe? Is it a great system that leaves you wondering if they could have done it without the SW name? Do they try too hard to make you see just how Star Wars-y it is?
In my own opinion, what they managed to create a product that speaks to fans. The Star Wars LCG is definitely easier to grasp than a complicated game like Netrunner, but you could easily say that it plays more like a traditional trading card game like Magic. Ease of play is definitely a determining factor for a lot of people. Even though you don’t have to spend nearly as much money on these box sets as you would for an equivalent full set of M:TG cards, they’re still very much an investment and making it easier to access is a smart move. We’d even discussed just the night previous that they might have made this game with fewer moving parts because FFG knew there’d be people who are Star Wars fans first and card game fans second, if at all, and offering them an experience like this with fewer bars to entry would be a good thing.
So, does it feel like Star Wars? Yes, it very strongly evokes the spirit of the movies and books. What’s especially great is that every SW product that Fantasy Flight has produced since they acquired the license has been set either in or near the timeline of the original movies, which means that nearly all of the things about the Prequel Trilogy that everyone hated are thankfully absent.
Of the physical presentation, the quality is, as I expected, top-notch. One thing I like is that some art assets seem to have been shared across all three of their product lines; the cards, minis and roleplaying game. I don’t mind this at all. I don’t think it’s a sign of cheapness by any means, but rather, since all the art is original, not stills from the movies, they are very unique and very distinctive of their art department. I applaud them for going this direction as it should allow for more non-movie fan favorites to show up in all these products.
All in all, I think this game is fantastic. I know my comrades do not share my optimistic appraisal of the game and its future, particularly when compared to the esoteric intricacies of Netrunner, but I see a bright future for this incarnation of the Star Wars card game. I think once more cards are available and the deckbuilding can grow outside the confines of the single box set that we have to work with, its depth and excitement will become more evident.
I’ll leave you with a small taste of the excitement we’ve already had with it. Out of two games played one night, I won one and Zach won the other. In the first game, I had a dominating victory. In the second game, however, it literally came down to the difference of one point. I’d been neglecting the Force struggle and Zach had managed to put together a powerful card combination that allowed him to destroy an Objective of mine in nearly a single blow. At the end of the game, Zach had his Death Star timer at 11 and all he needed was to survive my turn, and the timer would tick one more time and the game would be his. I’d destroyed two of his Objectives and only needed one more.
Since Zach was defenseless following his attack, I had a clear path. The problem was that I didn’t have enough units on the field. I attacked anyways, scoring four points of damage on an Objective with five hit points. I then played You’re My Only Hope, which lets me take the top two cards off my reserve deck, look at them, keep one and discard the other. I was hoping for a card that would deal just one more point of damage directly to his Objective. It turned out I was two draws away from pulling the card I needed, but during those seconds that stretched into minutes, the tension was palpable, and it really felt like a scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, where the last desperate attempt at victory would succeed for the Rebels! But, in this case, it was not meant to be.
Even in a loss, though, the level of fun that was had was so great that I will definitely be investing in this game from here on out. I know the others would not agree that it’s worthy of a Critical Hit, but everything about it speaks to me. It gives me everything I could want from a new Star Wars card game. If you love Star Wars you need to get this game. We’ll simply call this a “Play,” but personally it’s a Critical Hit.