A customizable card game is often a game of strategy and role-playing, much like Dungeons and Dragons or a video-game RPG. However, instead of pen and paper or a controller, players use cards to interact with each other and with the game world. These cards often represent characters or equipment in specific universe (such as Star Wars or Pokemon), events that take place in said universes, or spells and attacks that have an effect on the game world or players within it. Players attempt to be the first to complete an objective set forth by the rules of the game.
These games were fun and addicting to your average nerd. It set off our love of role-playing and our near obsessive need to collect and horde the items of our interest. It makes for a savagely beautiful thing. You will never find a more desperate bunch than the hardcore customizable card game addicts. I was one, and still am when nobody is around to check on me.
Everybody knows Magic the Gathering and Pokemon, but I’m not here to talk about those. I may get to them eventually, but if you really want to know about those and what that’s like just go to your local comic book store one Friday night. People still play those games, they’re still in print. What I am after is the long gone, the forgotten, the ones that sank back into the deep dark and never came back. I am looking on Ebay, ordering cards from Europe at 4 AM on a Thursday morning. I haven’t slept in a while and don’t plan to. Not yet.
The Boom and the Bust
The first game I am going to look at in this series was one that I held dear for quite a while. The ill-fated Star Wars CCG. Released by Decipher in December of 1995, the game hoped to capitalize on both the massive boom in interest of CCG games thanks to Magic the Gathering, and the inherent lust for all things Star Wars that many of the CCG demographic were so prone to succumbing to. It would go on to be the second most successful card game of the period, second only to the top dog that was Magic. Star Wars the Customizable Card Game was in print from it’s release until Lucasfilm (which was recently sold to Disney which may have to be the subject of a future article) denied Decipher their request to renew their license that would allow them to continue printing the game in the final quarter of 2001.
This game was complex. I cannot stress this fact enough. This game was mind-numbingly complex, to the point that it had nearly driven away its entire player base before the game finally went out of print. I am looking at the final copy of the rule set, it’s 158 pages. It is half the size of a Harry Potter book, and makes even less sense. The rules were updated drastically and new gameplay mechanics were added with nearly every expansion set that came out for the game. There was so much errata to the game that if you started playing on launch and quit for about three years and came back, you would hardly know how to play anymore (memory loss aside and assuming you actually learned the already complex rules from the launch version of the game).
The complexity of the game was only one facet of the decline of this game. Probably even more pressing was the lack of play testing when new mechanics were introduced in the waning years of the game. The most outlandish incident was the inclusion of so called “operative” cards. These cards came in the Special Edition set of the game, released in response to the Special Editions of the Star Wars films. The set came out not long before the 1998 Star Wars CCG World Championship. The set was hardly play tested, as it had been shifted from a 180 card set, to a full 324 card set seemingly on a whim. Needless to say, many players attending the championship that year had no idea what these “operatives” were or that they would be game breaking.
Operative cards basically stack up together and wreck your day. There were no limits to how many of a single card you could have in your deck in Star Wars CCG, as such many of the players who realized quickly that operative cards were much more powerful than one might assume at first glance had up to a third or even as much as half of their total deck consist of these cards. The first day of the tournament, a few players roll in with operative decks and clean house. Players begin confronting the developers of the game, who were in attendance. They ask them what they were planning on doing to stop this menace. The blood pressure rises.
The stirrings in the hotel that weekend became chaotic, frantic…desperate. There were people running up and down the halls of the hotel deep into the second night of the tournament, searching, hustling. People were begging for cards, pleading for operatives. It became a mad rush to obtain the precious resource, the life’s blood of the tournament deck. Anybody who wasn’t in the know as of yet certainly began to catch on at this point. They realized that the only way to win against these cards was to play these cards.
This mad rush for the game winning card is part of what drives the CCG player. The hunt for the competitive edge, the secret tech play that will be so resoundingly unbeatable that the game will no longer be left to chance. Victory assured before the first card is drawn, that’s the real goal of many CCG players. It is something not entirely unique to the game type, but it seems more possible. There tend to be so many more interactions in card games than in video games and even in some of the pen and paper table top games out there. The search for that winning combination or strange game breaking card interaction is an addiction even among the already addicted.
Trust Me : It was Pretty Decent
Despite the hell-scape nightmare that this game could be, it had it’s moments. I remember it being one of my favorite CCGs of all time honestly. The game is massive in scope compared to its contemporaries. Instead of being confined to an imagined battleground, isolated from the rest of the universe, locked in a one on one battle with your opponent, Star Wars allowed for a much more mobile experience. The battles took place over the many iconic locations of the Star Wars universe. The game centered around the battle for control of these locations and the resources and abilities these locations provided. The combat was more diverse than many games, as there were weapons and space craft added on to the normal ground based character skirmishes. Characters could equip blasters and lightsabers, or pilot starships to take the fight into space.
The game was rich in the lore of the Star Wars universe. It goes without saying that a large part of the early success of the game was based on the franchise that it was tied in with. The Star Wars universe gave a rich backdrop to this complex game, and grounded it in something many people were already well versed in.
Decipher had some pretty innovative ideas in the game that have not been popularly paralleled to my knowledge. First was the concept of having cards be faction oriented, the only other game I am even aware of that has such a feature is the World of Warcraft CCG. Cards were affiliated with the light side (the Jedi and the Rebels) or the dark side (the Sith and Empire). Your deck had to contain cards from only one faction to be play legal. This was interesting since both sides played rather differently, with the Empire being able to bring out swarms of cheap low powered units like Tie-Fighters and Stormtroopers, where the Rebels tended to rely more on higher costing but more powerful units like X-Wing fighters and the hero unit Obi-Wan Kenobi. This would lead players to have to develop multiple decks, as you would have to alternate between the light side and the dark side in official tournament play. This made for many more possible interactions in the tournament environment (when an interaction such as the aforementioned operative scenario were absent from the tournament landscape).
The Star Wars game did what a lot of other CCGs couldn’t do for people. It brought them into their favorite universe and gave them the chance to role-play some of their favorite parts of the game. Sure the game eventually became a convoluted dumpster fire of hundred page rule books and broken card combinations, but it took longer than most games and is probably the least offensive of some of the other mid-nineties card games in terms of its eventual tail spin into destruction. People still remember this game, I bet if you go to your local comic book store and ask some dude that looks like he’s 30 and may have some Darth Vader action figures what he was doing on a random Saturday in 1996 other than smoking weed and listening to TLC, he would probably at least know what this game was, and chances are he probably played it.