Fantasy Flight’s living card game system has proven quite popular and commercially lucrative since they first introduced A Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu in 2008. To date, five titles have employed the model, two of which have been updated within the last two years. All of these share some similarities, chief of which is a deck-building or card-drafting element, because the concept itself is based on the collectible card game format like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh and the popularly evergreen stalwart Magic: The Gathering.
The drawback to CCG’s is money. You need tons of it to stay competitive, buying innumerable booster packs and cases as new sets are regularly released. Many gamers don’t have the disposable income to sink constantly into a game in which they can seemingly never catch up to. Enter the living card game model. Instead of hoarding hundreds of random booster packs in which you end up with dozens of worthless duplicates, LCG’s offer a core set to get you off the ground and then fuels the game with expansions packs – both at affordable prices. The beauty is, you know exactly what you’re getting when you buy these sets and in most cases they provide all you need to play. Now, given time you will likely spend a healthy chunk of change to complete your set, but at least the supply of cards is neither limitless nor inexhaustible. However, the depth, replayability and strategic reach nearly are.
Considering that a completionist mindset in any of Fantasy Flight’s LCG’s will require an investment, you may only wish to dive into one of them. If so, here are the reasons why I believe Star Wars: The Card Game to be unique enough as to stand above the others as the Ultimate Power in the LCG Universe.
#1. “The circle is now complete.”
Pod deck-building. Decks are comprised of “pods” consisting of 1 objective card and 5 companions – units, events and/or enhancements. Instead of sifting through dozens or hundreds of disparate piles to construct your deck card by card, you build it pod by pod choosing your favorite objectives or cards and taking their corresponding mates. This means you must take the weaker offerings in order to grab the good ones, creating a greater tactical challenge as you try to figure out what to do with them. Lackluster cards aren’t all that bad, though, since in addition to general combat there are two other arenas you can employ them. The pod method also makes for quicker deck construction and easier accessibility for newcomers.
#2. “I suggest a new strategy.”
Edge battles. When committing to battle, cards lend combat icons which potentially deal damage or exhaust enemy cards. However, some icons only trigger if you win the Edge battle – an opening act before the main event. In this mini episode players lay cards face-down until both are satisfied, at which point they’re revealed. Whoever has the most cumulative force points wins, granting them initiative and the use of their edge-triggered combat icons in the real affair. Some edge cards also grant other benefits. The catch is that cards committed this way are then discarded. The whole affair is fraught with tense choices and bluffs. If you use a good card to gain the edge, you won’t benefit from its icons and special traits. On the other hand, cards generally less useful could prove otherwise here.
#3. “Trust your feelings.”
The force struggle. You can also commit cards, up to a maximum of three, to the force. At the end of each player’s turn, whoever has the most force icons from assigned, non-exhausted cards wins the force struggle, a significant power play. If the Dark Side has the Force, the Death Star dial ticks faster. If with the Light Side, they may deal extra damage to objectives. Cards committed to the force may still participate in battles, but suffer more exhaustion and may not lend support to the force struggle until refreshed.
#4. “Stay on target!”
Objectives. The goal of the game is to take out enemy objectives. The Light side wins by destroying three on the Dark side. The Dark side can achieve victory quicker with each Light side objective it eliminates. So every card you play is with that purpose in mind – as well as defending your own. But these aren’t generic targets nonchalantly rotated in and out as they’re destroyed. Each is unique, providing resources to put cards into play and special abilities you can trigger while they’re active. So it’s not just a matter of affecting strategy. It completely informs it by generating interestingly tense dilemmas. This tight focus also creates a nice pace and the variety is great for replayability and meta-game deck building.
#5. “You are unwise to lower your defenses.”
Deploying cards. As you play units and enhancements to your tableau, they are available to assault enemy objectives. However, as units take the offensive they become exhausted, not refreshing again until the beginning of your next turn. In the meantime, exhausted units cannot defend your own objectives during your opponent’s play. So that’s the tense dilemma – what do you exert now to cripple your foe while not leaving yourself totally defenseless? On top of that, you must reserve cards to commit to the edge battle and the force struggle. This myriad web is rich, tense and difficult to balance – in a good way.
#6. “That’s no moon.”
The Death Star dial. This timer seems particularly apropos given the “living card game” designation. The dial gives the game a palpable pulse-beating life. Essentially a game clock, it ticks from 1 to 12, advancing relentlessly each turn for the Dark side and pulling opponents in like a tractor beam. When it hits 12, the Dark side wins. The Light side feels that pressure acutely as they race towards their own victory condition: destroy 3 objectives before all their efforts go the way of Alderaan. The strain is no less tangible for the Dark side as they scramble to meet the onslaught while mustering their own attacks. With it, games may even be brisk affairs and will certainly never drag on longer than they should.
#7. “It’s a trap!”
Tapping resources. The game’s economy also helps to control the pace of play and adds yet another layer of tense decision-making. Some objectives and cards provide more than one resource, but tapping them presents a similar quandary as with exhausting units. Every time you expend a card’s resource, you place a spent token on it. As with refreshing units, you’ll only remove one spent token from cards each turn. So if you use both of a card’s resources, it’ll be unavailable next round. Also, when paying to put a card into play, at least one of the resources has to be generated by a card of the matching faction – either Jedi, Rebel Alliance, Smugglers, Sith, Imperial Navy, or Scum and Villains. For the most part, you’ll construct your deck from pods of the same faction in order to avoid complications in meeting the required source. Still, managing your resources properly – deciding when to conserve versus knowing when to go all out – is significant in attaining victory.
#8. “You’ll find I’m full of surprises.”
Artwork. Simply put, it’s superb. Every card immediately evokes the films. Depictions of beloved characters and familiar events are appropriate, tasteful and realistic. Meanwhile, illustrations of minor story elements and expanded universe material are vibrantly creative, while still absolutely in line with the original trilogy’s mood and milieu. It all recreates the stories we love and brings the game’s setting to life.
#9. “The force is strong with this one.”
Cinematic feel. Through the mechanical elements and the artwork, Star Wars: The Card Game does a wonderful job capturing the movies’ sense of epic adventure, though that’s a tall order for any board game. You can create thematically incongruous match-ups that make purists scratch their heads – like Princess Leia damaging the Devastator or an AT-ST taking out Rebel frigates. However, the design is more cinematic in scope, abstracting both straight-up firefights and behind-the-scenes espionage allowing players to orchestrate a sweeping conflict, as opposed to specific engagements, and filling in the details. Thankfully, the immersive artwork, flavor text and logical card abilities facilitate tying up thematically loose ends, if you must.
#10. “Remember…the force will always be with you.”
Finally, it’s Star Wars. Let’s face it. Of all of Fantasy Flight’s LCG’s, Star Wars is hands-down the best intellectual property using the model, easily rating an 11 on a 10-point scale. Lord of the Rings hovers around 8, sitting at a not too shabby second place. But Warhammer? Maybe a 3. I’m not really sure what the Netrunner universe is. And Cthulhu is probably a -9 on the same scale. What, you don’t agree? Well, just wait until December…