Monday, March 29, 2010

Games Past: Star Wars TCG

Okay, everyone, prepare yourselves for a little nerdrage. Because this particular discussion of an old game (card game, in this case) is going to get a little...political. And by "political", I mean nasty. Depending on which camp you're in, you might find yourself working up a little reciprocal nerdrage of your own, in fact. We'll see if the comments section fills up or not.

Because the reason that the Wizards of the Coast Star Wars trading card game went out of print has to do mainly with politics--specifically, fan politics. In case you're not familiar with the history of the Star Wars TCG, it was not the first collectible Star Wars card game to come out. Before WotC got the license, Decipher made a Star Wars CCG.

And there's no nice way to say it: It was a piece of shit. Decipher literally does not know the first thing about designing a collectible card game. And unlike so many people on the Internet, I'm actually using "literally" in its proper sense. The first principle of a collectible card game is that you cannot assume that anyone is using any specific card in his or her deck; a good CCG has a solid framework of rules that can support the ever-increasing complexity of multiple card sets, each one being over a hundred cards, without getting bogged down in minutiae or errata.

Decipher's Star Wars CCG, um...didn't do this. Not only was the basic structure of the rules hideous and complicated in and of itself, but cards made specific reference to other cards. If a card turned out to be overpowered, Decipher would make a "magic bullet" card that specifically canceled the overpowered card; then the game devolved into rock-paper-scissors, as everyone either packed the magic bullet against someone who hadn't bothered putting the overpowered card in their deck because everyone used the magic bullet card now, or else didn't have it when they needed it because they'd stopped putting it in their deck because it was useless unless someone happened to put the specific overpowered card in their deck. And then, they released an expansion set, and had to put in errata explaining that the magic bullet card now also worked against this new card that it should have worked against all along, but that card didn't exist yet when they made the magic bullet card...

Decipher was known for putting out a full page of errata for every single set. This is not good design.

But Decipher still managed to sell a lot of Star Wars cards, for two reasons. One, it's Star Wars, and Star Wars anything sells to a certain percentage of the populace. And two, Decipher's graphic design people are as good as their game design people are bad. The cards looked beautiful, despite the fact that the game was so ugly as to be nigh-unplayable without a complete set and a masochistic attitude towards fun.

Then the prequels came out, and Decipher refused to make sets for them, because it wouldn't make sense to have Luke Skywalker being able to fight Darth Maul. Instead, they made a second, non-compatible game for the prequels...which utterly bombed. So then they backed down, and made expansions for the prequels, but didn't include characters like Anakin because their rules wouldn't allow for it. Then they released yet another CCG, which wasn't compatible with either of the previous two. Then LucasArts got sick of all that, and awarded the license to WotC when it was time to renew.

WotC looked at the original game and saw that after all the expansions and errata, it had devolved from a nigh-unplayable piece of shit into a completely unplayable piece of shit. It went back to the drawing board and got Richard Garfield to design a totally new TCG, with an elegant rules structure that allowed for loads of fun and could accommodate the entire Star Wars universe, and which became better with every single expansion. Seriously, this was an absolute triumph on every level, from the mechanics to the playability to the flexibility to the sheer fun factor of having stormtroopers fighting Krayt Dragons and Jango Fett fighting his own son and getting your very own Death Star to blow up planets. It was a thing of beauty.

But Decipher fans refused to support it, because they couldn't use their old cards and they'd already spent hundreds of dollars on the old game and WotC just didn't get it, man! Instead, they made up "virtual card sets" for the old game, which they could print out and play with the old cards (and which managed to be just as incompetent as the professionally released sets, although that's more the fault of the rules they were working with than the people that were designing the new mock cards.) WotC's game managed to last long enough to cover all six movies, but without the support of the Star Wars gamer community, it was eventually canceled.

Which is immensely frustrating to me. Because sure, I still have all the old WotC cards and I can pull them out any time I want and have a grand old time pitting the Republic and the Rebels against the Separatists and the Empire (with the bounty hunters and smugglers playing both sides against the middle)...and sure, there's a fan group putting out "virtual card sets" for this game, too...but one of the wonderful things about a CCG is the way it evolves with each new set. The game that WotC released with "Attack of the Clones" was playable, even fun. But the game that they had when "Revenge of the Sith", the last official set came out? That was brilliant. WotC has a great design team, and I was really looking forward to what they were going to do next.

And because of some people who were unwilling to walk away from a shit sandwich to feast on filet mignon, I don't get it. Sometimes, there is no justice in the world of great games.


chiasaur11 said...

Got some cards from the first TCG in a giant garage sale lot.

Glad to know the utter impossibility of understanding the rules wasn't my fault.

Unknown said...

Well, since WotC is dropping all its Star Wars licenses, RPG and Minatures both, you'd have lost the CCG this year anyhow.

Unknown said...

For every opinion on the internet there is an equal and opposite opinion.

It's not possible for me to disagree more. I won't get into pedigree, but suffice it to say that I work in the games industry and I've played 9/10ths of every CCG out there at least once.

Decipher's Star Wars CCG was revolutionary for its time and extremely fun to play. In terms of rules, it's no more or less cumbersome than the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game rules, which is an excellent CCG and extremely popular as sales figures show. When I say "rules", I mean the true CCG rules when you lift the hood and see how tournament players had to make clarifications and errata. With very few exceptions, most of the large CCGs are pretty similar in having voluminous rules.

And while we're on the topic of sales figures, it sold incredibly well. You may be thinking "it's Star Wars, it always sells well". Not so, plenty of Star Wars plush toys, board games, figurines, PC games, etc. bombed in their relevant product lines. Decipher's SWCCG showed strong life over the course of several years and several product line extensions.

Your notion of the WotC SWCCG fading into the ether because the SWCCG crowd couldn't get into it presumes a lot. You're neglecting the fact that the Decipher SWCCG had a very significant player base that may have actually liked the game, and didn't want to move away from it because they found it fulfilling.

Another interesting point you touched on is that Decipher experience design issues with the prequels and objected to many uses of them. Rightly so, the Decipher SWCCG crowd clearly enjoyed themed game play. That is to say, they wanted to see the Empire use an AT-AT to take out the rebel shield generators on Hoth with General Veers and stormtroopers. They wanted it so much that the game designers created game elements like "Objectives" that allowed you to seed so many good starting items that you can actually make a theme deck.

So yes, while I agree some Star Wars fans want to see Jar Jar go up against an AT-AT, far more want to try and recreate the battle of Hoth. They banked on it, and clearly it paid of in interest and sales.

No slight against you, but in seeing the evolution of both these games I'm going to give credit where credit's due to Decipher.

Viagra Online said...

I don't know there's some things that is better stays as it are, for example this, I don't like the idea of play with Leia or Han Solo, well with Chewbaca maybe jajajaja.

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Anonymous said...

true is that Decipher lost licence to WOTC because it is/was connected to Hasbro and Lucas wanted to make more money.
and greed sucks.

Anonymous said...

This is the most... wrong blog entry I have ever read.

Decipher's SWCCG is the chess of CCGs. It can come across as more complicated than, say, Yhatzee- oh, I mean, WotC's SWCCG, but what is truly worth noting about it are the mechanics of the game. We are talking true brilliance here. You don't need ANY dice or counters to keep track of numbers or life totals, etc. You ONLY need your 60 card deck. The way that you use face down cards from the top of your deck as resources, then when you use them to pay costs for cards, the face down cards recirculate back under your deck and mimic the flow of life (after all, your deck is your life force and if it fully depletes you lose) is just so beautifully designed that one can get hooked on the game after playing a few beginner matches even without any appreciation for Star Wars.

Decipher's SWCCG IS the filet mignon. WotC's SWCCG is a joke in comparison, though I do enjoy it if I want to play a game where I don't have to think.

I literally find it hard to believe you could be of such an arrogantly wrong opinion. I am actually using "literally" in it's proper sense. I have the feeling that if we were to ever cross paths in person at, say, a hobby shop where people are playing games, you would be that vulgar, snarky guy who tries to one-up everything people say about stuff they like by bashing it instead. Is rolling dice while drooling all over the table your favorite thing to do?

darth bob said...

wow, if the wotc game is your level (a kids game for under 12's)it must be hard in your every day life as an adult?????

You can not compair sakes and ladders to chess!!! thats the difference between the games! but ah if the bright colours and simple step by step rules are u thing, u hang in there man one day they may even have a my little pony cch tcg or lcg. I willing to bet that would get u going.

"Decipher was known for putting out a full page of errata for every single set. This is not good design."

they must of been hidden as i played the game since 95 and never seen a page of errata never mind one for every set.

If you are going to make comments about a game at least first get your facts right so you dont sound like a complet dum ass!!!!!!!]

Anonymous said...

I think this article is simply a joke - look at the deliberate misuse of the word "literally". Do you really think he is serious?
Of course swccg is one of the most enjoyable ccgs ever made, along with middle earth. I still treasure my collection. Jedi knights, swtcg and young Jedi - I bought them all and found them really disappointing. Compare the prices of these games on eBay with swccg. They are all Star Wars but swccg is the only one people really want to still buy and play.

moot said...

You were right when you said this post would be political - the spin was incredibly dizzying and clearly showed your uninformed bias. If by "full page of errata for every single set" you mean "7 cards received errata over the years and expansions that Decipher had the license", then I will not argue with you on that point. Name one other CCG that has been in print for so long and with so many expansions that has recieved so few errata and never banned any cards from tournament play. To clarify your inaccurate propaganda: the full page with each expansion was actually additions to rules and mechanics to expand the game experience and allow players to recreate iconic movie moments. Granted, this made it difficult for a new player who came late to the game to learn ALL the rules quickly. But my experience has been that this is not only a surmountable "barrier", but can actually be a blast to hike over...and you meet some great people along the way.