A game that changed how I play

This post has taken a really long time to write. It started as a review of Pax Porfiriana (which will be coming soon). Then it was a reflection on the mechanics of my favorite game, the Star Wars Customizable Card Game (SW:CCG). For a while, it was about my taste in games. In the end, it’s bit about mechanics, a bit about what SW:CCG means to me, and a bit of an ode to a great title.

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SW:CCG taught me how to think strategically. It brought out my love for deckbuilding. My passion for innovating. It showed me how head-to-head intellectual competition—something that scares the crap out of me, being an introvert—is more engaging, challenging, and fun than I could have imagined. In no uncertain terms, it helped shape my future.

Because the game was so important to me, and influential in my gaming career, I’m always on the lookout for board or non-collectible card games that channel what I loved about it. But what was it that so affected me? What am I chasing in games today? I spent some time thinking about it, and here’s what I came up with.

Tension between planning and reactivity. There’s a remarkable sense of tension in SW:CCG. Every deck start the game with a plan, and if you stick with it, you’ll maximize your effectiveness. But your opponent will always be trying to disrupt your strategy. Not only that, but you’ll see places where they leave openings, opportunities for you to throw a hydrospanner into their gears.

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When you see that opening, do you divert resources from your original stratagem to take advantage of it? Or do you stick with the plan? When they come after you, how much of your blueprint are you willing to sacrifice to make sure that the rest goes off without a hitch? Can you resist what looks like an easy opportunity? Or will you jump at it?

The opposition between focusing on your objective and reacting to opportunities creates a beautiful tension that results in difficult calculations, wild guesses, and big gambles.

Precarious resource management. Managing resources is a challenge you face daily. But Star Wars has it down to an art. Every location in Star Wars generates Force—the game’s primary resource—for one or both players. Locations that give you more Force to work with also pose a great threat; if your opponent controls a location that generates a lot of Force for you, they can do a great deal of damage. To protect your locations, you need resources . . . and to get resources, you need to play more locations. Finding the optimal balance is always a struggle.

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The other resource in SW:CCG is your deck itself. It serves as your source of cards, your currency, and your health bar. When you’re out of cards in your deck, you lose. So every card you draw brings you one step closer to defeat. And because spending all of your Force leaves you with no cards to draw, you need to carefully weigh how much to commit.

The card cycle (from Reserve Deck to Force Pile to Used Pile and back to Reserve Deck) makes for a fascinating dance of generating just enough resources, spending as much as you can without spending it all, and drawing. If you get the numbers wrong, you’ll be closer to losing without anything to show for it.

Constant surprise. Some games get stale after a dozen plays; Star Wars continues to surprise after hundreds. With thousands of cards available, you never know what you’re going to run into. There are trends, but there are also decks crafted specifically to counter what’s popular, and there’s always a smattering of oddballs. Every tournament is a potpourri of strategic builds. This variety guarantees that there’s always a surprise waiting. Add that to the fact that almost every card is unique, and you have a vastly different experience every time you play.

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This is closely related to the balance between planning and reactivity. When you come up against something you’re not prepared for, will you stick with your plan, or try to adapt it? If you have no idea what someone else might be packing in their deck—which is very often the case—will you play more carefully? Or will you be aggressive to try to draw them out and determine their strategy?

The amount of variety possible in this game is absolutely staggering. Which means there’s always a surprise waiting. Springing those surprises on others is one of the most fun parts of the game—but being surprised by an opponent, even if it results in a crushing defeat, is almost as fun.

The gratification of innovation. Innovators love a game with this much complexity. The staple decks of Star Wars are fairly straightforward. Generally, you either hole up well-defended locations or aggressively go after your opponent with big, powerful main characters. But you can get really creative and still have a good chance of winning—and that’s fun.

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You can play hybrid decks that combine strategies. Or a deck that looks defensive but brings a huge beatdown when your opponent comes after you (this was one of my favorite ways to play). Or a deck focused on Jedi or Sith and their ability to manipulate and disrupt. You can steal your opponent’s cards. Challenge them to a podrace. Place undercover spies among their ranks. Train Leia to become a Jedi. There’s always room for weird, creative, unexpected ways of playing.

The creative challenge is immensely gratifying. Even if you don’t win, having built something that took someone by surprise or managed to pull off something spectacularly crazy is worth all the time and effort you put into it. If you end up winning, it’s even better.

Immersion in a great story. Is there anything better than Star Wars? Obviously this depends on your preferences; but I love it. I love space stories. I love science fiction. Grand good-versus-evil stories get me every time. Star Wars is all of those things and more.

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The awe of seeing a Super Star Destroyer dropping out of hyperspace. The dingy but highly organized scum and villainy of Mos Eisley and Jabba’s palace. The sense of triumph when the Rebels blow up the Death Star. The terrifying precision of droid bounty hunters. It’s all there. And you can become a part of it with this game. No matter what part of Star Wars appeals to you most, you can take part in it.

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Of course, much of the effect Star Wars had on my life was more a reflection of the community than the game. I met a lot of really great people, several of whom I still talk to. I learned how strong a gaming community can be. And I was exposed to a wide variety of play styles, personalities, and interests.

Trying to find a game with exactly the same appeal as my favorite game of all time is, to some degree, a lost cause. The only way to really get the feeling of SW:CCG is to pick it back up again (if you’re on Holotable, let me know and we’ll play). But Star Wars absolutely shaped my taste in games. If a game creates tension, complicates resource management, surprises me regularly, has room for creativity, and is built around an interesting theme, I’m in.

It took me a while to uncover what exactly makes Star Wars so great. But now that I have, I’ll be able to redouble my efforts to find games that channel its greatness.

 

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