Sunday, July 7, 2013

Star Wars The Card Game Review

When I purchased X-Wing, it reignited my endless love of Star Wars.  So hot on the heals of playing that to death, I also purchased Star Wars The Card Game.  I was initially very hesitant about it.  The box cover artwork makes it look like they just reused movie stills.  Plus I heard strange rumblings on BoardGameGeek about it being a cooperative game?  Turns out the game used to be cooperative, and underwent a complete redesign.  And I'm quite glad it did!

Star Wars The Card Game is a Living Card Game published by Fantasy Flight Games and designed by Eric M Lang.  There is very little Eric M Lang has designed that I haven't loved.  Including Chaos in the Old World, Quarriors and Warhammer: Invasion.

If you aren't familiar with Living Card Games, they are similar to Collectible Card Games.  Only instead of randomized booster packs, every month or so a non randomized booster pack is released.  They are usually released in cycles of 6 boosters which have thematic and mechanical links.  Every now and again a deluxe booster is also released, adding new factions or mechanics.  It's a system I've enjoyed previously, although I've always felt it fell short of it's potential.

Rule Summary

The rules for Star Wars The Card Game are a bit all over the place, so this is definitely going to be a high level summary.

In Star Wars The Card Game, players have an Affiliation Card, an Objective Deck, and a Command Deck.  The Objective Deck will usually contain 10 objective cards, and the Command Deck will usually contain 50 cards that are a mixture of units, events, enhancements and fate cards.  At the beginning of the game, each player will put out 3 objectives, which their opponent will try to attack.  Objectives are also a player's main supply of resources used to play cards.  A player's Affiliation Card also provides one resource, as well as summarizes the phases of the game and lists a player's Reserve Value, otherwise known as their hand limit.

On a player's turn, first they will check the balance of the force.  The dark side player will advance the Death Star dial 1 tick.  If the force is with them, they get to advance the Death Star dial a second tick.  If the force is with the light side on their turn, they get to place one damage token on a dark side objective.

Next is the refresh phase.  This mostly involves players taking one Focus Token off each card he controls.  But occasionally players will also have to remove shields left over from their last turn, and draw new objectives to replace destroyed ones.  The third phase is the draw phase.  Players have the choice of discarding a card from their hand first.  Then they get to draw up to their hand limit, usually 6.

After all these gamestate maintenance phases, you finally get to the real game.  In the deployment phase, players will play units, actions or enhancements.  They do this by placing focus tokens on resource generating cards in order to pay for what they are deploying.  Once a player has played all the units and enhancements he wishes to, he moves onto the conflict phase.

In the conflict phase, a player can choose one of the 3 enemy objectives to attack.  He then declares his attackers, his opponent declares defenders, and an edge battle occurs.  Players will secretly place cards in their edge stacks until both players pass consecutively.  After that, the cards are revealed and whoever had the most force icons on their cards wins.

Up top is the cost, with the name of unit.
Down the side are the force icons.
Across the middle are the affiliation & combat icons.
Below that are any detailed game effects.
At the bottom is the unit's hit points, and set info.
Edge battles are important for two reasons.  The player who wins gets to strike with a unit first.  Additionally, most units have black and white combat icons.  They only get to use the white combat icons if they won the edge battle.  Fate cards can also be played in edge battles, for extra effects during the conflict.  Sometimes they deal extra damage to an objective or unit.  Other times they cancel the edge battle completely and force you to fight another one.

Once the edge battle is fought, players take turns striking with their units.  Units will deal unit damage, objective damage, or tactical damage.  Unit damage gets applied to a single unit in the engagement.  Objective damage goes to the objective that is engaged.  Tactical damage can go on any unit, even units not engaged.  Only unfocused units can strike however, so if somehow a unit has focus tokens placed on him before he strikes, he misses his chance.  If the attacker destroys all the defending units, he gets a bonus point of objective damage.

Players can choose to attack as many objectives as they want.  However each objective can only be attacked once.  Once a player has decided he doesn't wish to attack anymore, he can commit units to the force.  Units committed to the force contribute their force icons to the force struggle.  Only ready, unfocused units contribute to the force struggle.  Once a unit is committed to the force, they are committed for life.  Whoever has more force icons in the force struggle wins the struggle, flipping the force token to their side.  Although they will need to hold it until their next balance phase to get the benefit.

And those are all the phases.  Play continues back and forth until one of several victory conditions are met.  If either player needs to draw a card, and their deck is empty, they lose.  If the Death Star dial gets to 12, the dark side player wins.  The Death Star dial gets advanced each turn during the balance phase, but also when the dark side player destroys objectives.  For the light side, if they destroy 3 objectives, they win.

Timelapse of Play

How accessible is the game to new players?

The Star Wars LCG builds on top of a lot of other card battle games.  It uses the usual card classifications of permanent units, permanent non-units and temporary actions, which are just called units, enhancements and events in this game.  It also adds objectives and fate cards to this mix.  Understanding that these cards all have very different scopes can be difficult for players not familiar with this style of game.  Not all cards are equal.  I've had many people who loved board games, but had never played a card battle game consistently confuse the different types of cards, when they can be played, and if they stick around or not.  It's a standard lexicon of knowledge that is easy to take for granted if you've played this style of game for a long time.

All the different types of cards

What helps a great deal is the fantastic game state diagram included in the back of the manual.  Back when I tried to play Warhammer: Invasion with people, the constant sticking point was when are the action windows?  When is the proper time to play an event to mess up your plans?  It was quite easy to get confused.  But the Star Wars LCG phase diagram lists every phase, every part of every phase, and every player action window in those phases.  It's a huge help, and I always play with it out on display for myself and my opponent.

What could have been done better?

Card combat games are just difficult beast.  Magic The Gathering is 20 years old, and that means there are 2 decades of experimentation and refinement of the genre.  There is also the inherent difficulty of having a wide array of card abilities described in plain English which may have ambiguous interactions in certain edge cases.

I will say, the Star Wars LCG is the clearest card battle game I've played.  When I played Magic back in the 90's and when I played Warhammer: Invasion I felt like I constantly needed to try to find rulings on various cards.  But I've found the terminology and the scope of various cards to be consistently clear in Star Wars.

What was not always clear was the usefulness of certain abilities.  It never occurred to me that I could use tactical damage to prevent a unit from being able to strike during an engagement!  However that is mentioned in the extended combat example in the manual, so that is more my fault than the game's.  I had a lengthy discussion with an opponent over a card that returns a unit you control to your hand.  It was not an interrupt, so it couldn't save someone facing imminent death.  I had to explain to him that it's one of the only cards he has that could remove damage from a card, by returning it to his hand, and then allowing him to play it again fresh.  He just has to have the foresight to use it before the unit actually gets killed.

The rules can also be a bit meandering.  They are broadly split up into a detailed summary of all the different card types, and the parts of a card.  Then a high level summary of the turn structure.  Then a detailed explanation of each phase.  The problem I run into is that certain rules, important rules, are only mentioned in the phase summary, and not in the detailed description of the phase.  For example, when the manual explains edge battles, in the summary is says that if the defender does not field a single unit, the attacker automatically wins the edge battle.  Then, several pages later, in the detailed description of edge battles, all it says about the winner of the edge battle is its whoever played more force symbols, with the defender winning ties.

So, you are the attacker, and the defender abdicated the field to you.  You don't play any edge battle cards.  If all you read was the detailed explanation of edge battles, you might think you lost, because you both played 0 force icons, and the defender wins ties.

This next part is really nit picky.  But I do not care for the term "focus" or "focus token".  In all ways that matter, "exhaustion" makes more sense.  It should have been "exhaustion token".  It's so much more intuitive.  Units exhaust themselves striking, then they are exhausted and can't be used again.  It just feels more common sense than a unit having been focused, and no longer being ready to strike.  But maybe that is just me.

Now, all that being said, these issues are few and far between, and I think this is one of Fantasy Flight Games' better rulebooks.  Especially for a game as complicated as your typical card battle game.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

As in most card battle games, a new player going up against an experienced player is brutal.  The experience advantage during deck construction and play is almost insurmountable.  Card knowledge is an enormous advantage.  The game is all about knowing the best time to play certain cards.  However, the deck construction advantage is restrained some due to the objective system.

This is going to be the hardest thing for new players to deal with

There is one last thing that makes the Star Wars LCG hard on new players.  It has multiple battlegrounds.  Players must balance their resources between edge battles, the force struggle, and deploying cards and attacking objectives with them.  It can be quite difficult to accomplish this as an experienced player, but for a new player, they tend to completely neglect some aspect of the game.  They then proceed to get clobbered by whatever it is they forgot.

What could have been done better?

The one thing the Star Wars LCG has going for it that is friendly towards new players is the deck building.  It's much harder for experienced played to build unstoppable decks of duplicate hand picked cards.  Deck building works by picking 10 objectives.  Each objective has 5 command cards that go along with it.  Usually if an objective has an outrageously good card, like Luke Skywalker, the rest of the cards won't be so great.  This helps the game maintain a more level playing field from the deck building perspective.

The drawback however, is that in the core set, the deck building opportunities are very limited.  Ideally you want to include 2 copies of 5 different objectives in your deck.  However the core set only has 1 copy of each objective, and mixing different factions can result in some painful issues when it comes to making sure your resources match the faction of card you want to play.

What takes the edge off this limitation is that you always draw up to your hand limit, as opposed to drawing just one or two cards on your turn.  This allows you to rapidly burn through your deck looking for cards you want.  This helps with the streaky nature of playing with just one copy of each objective set.  Although it is quite a shift from other card battle games where your hand of cards is a precious resource, to be judiciously conserved.  In Star Wars, you probably want to dump most of your hand absolutely every turn.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

The Star Wars LCG feels like Star Wars from beginning to end.  Edge battles feel like the "Many Bothans died for this information" scene that happened off camera.  Declaring attackers and defenders feels like the mission briefing from Mon Mothma.  All the cards are extremely thematic.  My favorite pair of cards being "It could be worse" which interrupts and cancels damage and "It's worse!" which interrupts an interrupt, and deals extra damage.  Both cards take place in the trash compactor scene from A New Hope.  You may even recognize the lines.

Each faction has a very different thematically appropriate feel.  Jedi will run circles around an opponent with lots of tactical damage and tying units up.  Sith has some brutal direct damage and control.  Imperial Navy just builds up a huge attack force that can knock out an objective per turn, and earn lots of extra Death Star ticks.  I still haven't figured out the Rebel Alliance.  It looks like they can build up well, and reverse the death star track, or attack and destroy the Death Star directly.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

If you want to enjoy the Star Wars LCG more, have Star Wars on in the background while you play.  Perhaps the game could have come with the Star Wars sound track.

But more seriously, I'm a huge fan of games this complicated coming with a brief strategy primer or player guide.  Trying to play this game feels a lot like being pushed into the deep end of a pool, and it's not the most enjoyable experience.

Another more serious problem is that playing with a single core set and no expansions results in very streaky play.  Its difficult to formulate a strategy, and the card draws are extremely chaotic.  It feels like a total luck fest as to who gets the better cards, or the cards that would facilitate a cohesive strategy.  Almost every game I've played has been an utter blowout where one player dominates another inside of 4 turns.  And it's always the same.  One player is getting simply amazing cards, and the other player gets almost nothing.  I once played a game where the Imperial Navy got only a single unit in 4 turns!  It's the rare game that goes the distance, and could have been anyone's victory.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

I already touched on how players must balance their resources across many different battlegrounds.  The force struggle is constantly going on.  The edge battles force you to discard cards you may want elsewhere.  If you don't discard the card in an edge battle, or commit it to the force, you may finally get to attack with it, at one of three objectives.  This might lead you to think this is a highly strategic game, but it's not.

The rule where you always draw up to your full hand limit forces highly tactical play on you.  So much happens during a single turn.  Large armies can be deployed in a very short span of time.  They can just as quickly be decimated.  One deployment and conflict phase is all it can take to change the tide completely.  It's not uncommon for every turn to play out like that.

I feel this results in very tactical play, more than other card battle games.  It encourages you to burn off less useful cards in edge battles, and play as much as you can to the table.  There are not very many cards that are worth hanging onto until just the right moment.  Plus that moment may never come.  Like I said, most games only last 4 or 5 turns.  Players are very quickly fighting every turn like it's their last.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The dilemmas you face in this card battle game are pretty much what you will be used to.  It's a lot of resource management, and wondering what tricks your opponent might have in his hand.  But for the most part, it follows the usual pattern of card battle games where both opponents have mathed out which battles are worth fighting or not.

What keeps this game interesting, are the edge battles.  The bluffing that goes on during an edge battle is hair raising.  Much can ride on the outcome of an edge battle.  It's the difference between leveraging the full might of your units, or showing up with barely half your strength.  When you see your opponent attack an objective with units that mostly have white combat icons, you know they are going to try to win the edge battle at all costs.  The edge battles do a fantastic job of keeping combat somewhat nondeterministic, without involving dice.

There are two things I especially like about the edge battles.  The fact that all your best cards have the most force icons, and the card Twist of Fate which cancels the current edge battle.  The first factor puts you in really tough spots where you may desperately need to win an edge battle, but you don't want to have to throw away Darth Vader to do it!  The other really raises the stakes of the bluffing game.  Many times I've tried to read my opponent's body language, trying to gauge whether they've played a Twist of Fate.  It results in some incredible bluffs and counter-bluffs.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

I keep coming back to this.  However, the deck building in the core set is pretty awkward.  It's more or less pointless to try with just a single core set, and that's a whole world of dilemmas you are missing out on.  I really would have liked to see fewer objective sets, with more copies of each objective.  Perhaps more neutral objective sets could have helped as well.  Instead of having 18 objectives for Light Side and 18 for Dark Side, with 7 for each affiliation, 3 neutral and 1 for the unreleased factions, I would have liked to see 4 objectives for each affiliation, in duplicate, with a single duplicate neutral that can be shared.  I know FFG prefers to offer variety over playability in their LCG core sets.  But I feel Star Wars especially suffers in a way that other LCGs do not from it.

Physical component design and limitations?

The card artwork is fantastic.  My original fears about the game using mostly film stills turned out to be entirely unfounded.  Much of it is very inspired by the films, even redoing various scenes from the films.  The cards are a little busy though.  There can be a lot going on.  The font that is used to tell you which objective set the cards are a part of is incredibly tiny.  You may go to read it and discover you need to get your vision prescription updated.  As with most Fantasy Flight Games, the insert is utterly useless.  I'll likely be tossing my box entirely, and picking up some long card boxes.

What could have been better?

It's less than 2 mm tall!
The easiest possible fix is just the tiny font for the objective set designation.  Each card only needs 2 pieces of information.  The objective set number, and which card of 6 it is.  Instead they always cram in that the objective set has 6 cards as well.  So instead of each card saying 17/1 for Objective 17, Card 1, the cards always say 17/1 of 6.  It may seem obsessive, but when you spend so long squinting at the cards, trying to get them sorted back out, it will matter.

Long term prospects?

At first I thought the core set contained a lot of replayability.  Then I noticed how streaky play became with just a single copy of each objective set.  This is a game you will want to be competitive with, and that is hard to do when the outcome of each game is so random, and you feel so powerless to change that.  I know a second core set would fix these issues.  But I refuse to purchase two core sets on principle.  So, I'm really not sure what long term prospects just a single core set of Star Wars The Card Game are.

If all you want to purchase is a single core set of Star Wars The Card Game, I wouldn't recommend it.  I really enjoy the game because it's Star Wars, and it has some very creative mechanics.  But my opponents tend not to because of how luck driven and streaky the card draws are.  If you are willing to purchase two core sets, it seems like it becomes a better system.  I've been keeping on top of the monthly expansions as well, and look forward to trying them, since they all come with duplicate copies of every card.  I'll likely be reviewing the Hoth Cycle in the future as a complete set.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to review this. I've been interested in this game and have been trying to decide between this and Netrunner. My fear is that Netrunner might be a bit much for some, and people will probably be a little more interested in this, simply becuase it's star wars.

    My group is currently stuck on Lord of the Rings (the LCG), but after playing with four people it's been hard to go back to two. If you haven't played that yet I highly reccomend it!

    1. I've actually been playing a lot of the Lord of the Rings LCG lately with a friend of mine who invested in it. I'm really enjoying it too! One thing that really impresses me is how much better it is out of the box than the Star Wars LCG.

  2. I wonder if you could possibly help settle an argument for me. Me and my mate were throwing down the other night, it was my attack phase, I had Jabba's sail barge on the field, my mate had shifty lookout as a named defender. I won the edge and engaged the objective, exhausting the unit. My question is; can he still attack with his my barge with his one hit wonder? Or is the Attack negated because there is no longer a target. Please help!