Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget: Star Wars CCG

The last major expansion I collected, the fearsome Death
Star II
 set, with the Rebel deck.
So for most folks thoughts of the original trilogy of Star Wars evoke memories of the 1970s or 1980s. And yeah I get all nostalgic and fuzzy about those decades and the Star Wars related joys they create. But for me the biggest peak of Star Wars joy was in the late 90s. It was suddenly cool to like Star Wars again, and with the build up to the Special Editions and finally the prequels it was a fun ride. I wrote a whole blog about it (probably need to revisit that one).

But one of the best combinations of 1990s and Star Wars that I remember from that era was the Star Wars Collectable Card Game. It was created by Decipher during the explosion of CCGs inspired by the success of Magic: The Gathering. Decipher already had success with their Star Trek CCG, and managed to score this space adventure franchise as well. They would continue well into the 2000's with a very fun Lord of the Rings CCG, but I'll save that for another blog.

The Star Wars Collectable Card Game (or just SWCCG to keep things short) had a fairly simple premise. Each player has 60 cards. One player plays the Rebels, the other players plays as the Galactic Empire. The goal is to drain your opponents deck of cards. First person who ends up without any cards in hand or in the reserve deck loses. This was ingenious, because you didn't need to keep score, your Lost Pile told you how well you were doing.

A selection of Galactic Empire cards featuring images
from all three films in the original trilogy.
The cards themselves were all based on images taken from the original trilogy. There were a few that were created digitally (mostly the planetary system cards), and a few that were visually enhanced (increase the contrast so you could see the shadowy alien in the cantina a little clearer). Later in the run they took some of the behind the scenes photos of props and sets and tinkered with those to make them part of the game. So there were plenty of cards from the SWCCG that offered images of the original trilogy that you had never seen before. All the cantina and Jabba the Hutt's palace cards were great. All the obscure aliens were a treat to see up close. So for a full fledged Star Wars nerd, these cards were just cool to have in general.

The cards also had flavor text, and much of it pulled from the films and the expanded universe of the time including Timothy's Zahn's novels, the video games and other supporting material. These days most of that stuff is considered non-canon, but who cares. A lot of it was creative and they way they worked it into the game structure was a blast.

I collected and played the game for a few years, as they went from the Premier set all the way to the final final one from the ending of Return of the Jedi called Death Star II. There were a few supplemental expansions after that that I picked up. But I never got around to collecting the cards for The Phantom Menace. Decipher released another CCG in between featuring images from Episode One. It wasn't a very good game and as I became more and more disenchanted with the latest film I ignored the official CCG releases. I guess I wasn't the only one because SWCCG eventually stopped after a few expansions based on The Phantom Menace.

A selection of Rebellion cards featuring images from all
three films and one all new image.
Two things appealed to me about the SWCCG. The first was the myriad of settings, characters, situations and styles of play turned each game into its own mini-Star Wars adventure. Sure you could recreate the Battle of Hoth if you wanted to. But as the expansions were released you could come up all kinds of stories that didn't even involve the main characters. Sometimes the game would go as you expected, but there were plenty of cards that would throw a wrench into situations.

One of the most memorable is when I had a whole group of Stormtroopers hunting down Princess Leia on Tatooine. My deck was based around superior firepower and overwhelming numbers of Stormtroopers. It was working pretty well too. One of my troopers had a nasty repeating rifle and I had plenty of ammo, so I figured Leia was toast. Well my wife was playing Rebels and had the card Weapon Levitation. Leia was Force sensitive, so she could use that ability. My wife gets a great number on her draw and my repeating blaster flies over to Leia, with the Power Droid attached! Leia turns around and guns down my entire squad with their own gun. She then high tails it to the Falcon and takes off into space with Lando. And believe me, in the SWCCG, once someone is aboard the Falcon, you never can get them. Besides I had to figure out how to rebuild my squadron, or risk losing Tatooine.

This is the Reserve deck showing how much life you have
left. The cards face up are the Lost Pile. Looks like
the Galactic Empire is losing this game!
That was the other element I loved about the game, the various strategies that you could play. For the Premier set it was a very basic battle game. And you could always play that way if you like. But each new expansion started to introduce new tactics. Since I played Imperials, I know most of their successful ones. For the Dagobah expansion you had the Bounty Hunter tactic, which allowed you to capture rebels and exchange them for lost cards. The bigger the target the more cards you got to retrieve. Of course captured cards could be freed by the rebels, so you had to protect your prisons, but even capturing lowly soldiers or aliens got you a card or two from the Lost pile. For the Cloud City expansion you got the Cloud drain tactic, which was a wicked one. You essentially gain control of Cloud City and hold it. Each turn your opponent loses cards steadily for each site you control, plus wicked bonus losses for each cloud sector you control. In the clouds, starships are weak, and capital ships can't enter. So Cloud Cars and Air Speeders are the best bet. Suddenly those common cards you never used became very powerful.

I could go on and on about tactics and the way you could start a deck to look like you are playing one style but have a sneaky twist part way through (the Rebel decks were really good at doing that). Suffice to say it was a very fun, but complicated game. I remember talking to the gent who owned the hobby store I used to frequent and he kept asking me and my co-worker to come in and play in store so other people could see how much fun it was. But I think he was trying to get us to mentor new players too. We never did that. We usually played after work with a couple beers and 90s alternative rock blasting in the background. Fun times, fun times.

My wife eventually got into playing it, and much of the later expansions I played were against her. She made a very deadly Ewok deck that pretty much handed my ass to me, just like in the film. And the Jabba's Palace deck gave her a ton of great aliens to use in her decks. So I have a lot of fun memories from those days. I still have all my cards (eight binders worth of them!) And I'll pull them out once in a while and look through the images and read some of the text.

Small sample of what the "game board"
of the SWCCG could look like.
Making a deck could take a couple hours with all the cards at your disposal. We would usually decide ahead of time what kind of game we wanted to play so it would narrow down the card selection.  Feeling like a grand space battle, then you can drop most of your ground based cards. Or maybe this time we want to base the whole thing around breaking into or defending the Death Star. But they even came up with sites that could be used with any planet and gave various bonuses to different cards. So it really expanded the playing field. But constructing a deck for the first time was really a task in itself. And usually your first iteration of a deck had issues, so you would want to refine it as you played more and more games.

And playing a SWCCG game could take a couple hours too. It could go longer if you used a larger deck (as we sometimes did, 80 cards opened up a lot of opportunities for tactics). But it was a good time, even if the game would force you into some situations where you might start cursing your luck or the luck of your opponent. Some days you keep drawing jawas and gaffi sticks, but Vader won't show up. Meanwhile Luke, Obi-Wan and Chewbacca are running around Tatooine taking control of each site and draining you for six cards a turn. Maybe the Jawa/Tuskan Raider deck wasn't a good idea after all.

The explosion of Star Wars popularity combined with the explosion of CCGs is certainly a time capsule to the 1990s, and one that always makes me smile.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Movie Music Musings: The Goldsmith Award 2013

Time for another Goldsmith award, where I take a look at a movie that may have bombed, but at least it gave us some good film music. 2013 had its share of poorly reviewed films, and a lot of them had some pretty uninteresting scores to boot. But the biggest money loser when compared to its original budget turned out to be Disney's attempt to reboot The Lone Ranger.

Just like the winner of the 2014 Goldsmith award, I'm not sure who was clamoring for a reboot of this franchise. Last time Hollywood tried this back in the early 1980s the film bombed then too. It is also a Western, a genre that just doesn't pull in the viewers like it used to. But Disney figured that their creative team that managed to rake in the Aztec gold from Pirates of the Caribbean would be able to do it again.

Besides none of us are sick of seeing Johnny Depp in white faced makeup acting oddly, right? Because I'm not sick of that... not. At. ALL!

Anyway, since we had the same creative team at work here, that mean Hans Zimmer and his crew were on hand to provide the music. The Lone Ranger gave Zimmer an opportunity to have some fun with a genre he's never really tackled before. Zimmer is also a huge fan of Ennio Morricone, who scored every other spaghetti western back in the 60s and 70s. So we were all kind of expecting a Zimmer take on that sound.

All told the score is entertaining, but really the best track is Finale (William Tell Overture) which is an modern film score take on the classical piece with all of Zimmer's trademark synth overlays and aggressiveness added to the music. Its really a great show stopping track and one of the best of 2013. So crank this one up and enjoy Zimmer and his team unleash some bullet ballet from The Lone Ranger.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Movie Musing: Genre Wars – Revenge of the Myth

Wizard with lightning attack. This is "Lord of the
Star Hobbits" right?
It has come up before and it is sure to come up again. Which genre do I pick when I categorize my blogs about Star Wars. They are science fiction, right? You see space ships, robots, laser guns and technology we don’t have yet. But then you’ve got The Force, which is clearly some kind of magical power. Also people are fighting with swords and most of the conflict is on a grand high fantasy level. So are they fantasy films? No, because you have WAR in the title. Much of the conflict in the series revolves around armies clashing for different ideals. These are war films. But then you have the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks and BB-8. Those are all such juvenile characters appealing to a very young crowd. These are kid flicks.

George, George, George, you didn’t make it easy for us.

"Obi Watanabe? Are you nuts?"
But that was by design. Lucas was making something that crossed multiple genres. It had elements of various familiar movies and stories. By mixing them together you get something that is new and yet familiar at the same time. Star Wars has been around so long, it is hard to remember when it was fresh. In 1977 people hadn’t seen anything really like it, and yet it reminded them of the old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There were elements of the John Carter novels in there. Obi-Wan was very much like a samurai from a Kurosawa film (and Lucas reportedly wanted famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune for the role). Darth Vader was a black knight of Arthurian legend and Princess Leia the damsel in distress (with the 70s twist of her being a lot tougher than she appeared). And then you have the music with John Williams creating a Golden Age flashback with his full orchestral bombast. During this time it was rare to hear scores that weren’t jazzy or rock influenced, fully electronic or comprised of mostly songs.

As the series expanded over the decades, each film added to different genre elements. Empire Strikes Back expanded the war storyline, as well as building on the powers of the Jedi and giving us more sci-fi goodies to watch. Return of the Jedi brought out even more silly aliens for the kids, a climactic resolution to the war and hero storylines and even more robots and strange new worlds. You get the idea.

Hiring a gunslinger at the local bar? Where's Luke's
white ten gallon hat?
The Star Wars franchise embraced its identity as a cross genre work that doesn’t’ fit snugly into any one role, but manages to do all of them with a solid degree of ability. Its success with the public and the impact on pop culture inspired others to give the same approach a try. Why do a straight up Western when you can do a Space Western like Outland or Firefly. How about set up a noir detective story in a grimy future like Blade Runner. Or maybe a soap opera inserted into a uncanny horror film. Welcome to Twin Peaks. And don’t get me started on anime. It seems like they’ve been doing this for as long as Lucas (and maybe even before). You want romance, and knights and giant robots all mixed into one story, Vision of Escaflowne may be what you’re looking for.

These days it seems like standard genre films just don’t cut the mustard any more. In most cases they’ve been done so many times there aren’t any new stories to tell. Sure you can shake up how you tell them, and with a director with a strong vision can make something fresh and exciting like Tarantino did with Django Unchained. But most films opt for combining a couple of genres together to add another unfamiliar element to the whole thing. I think we can thank (or curse if it annoys you) Star Wars for making that more acceptable.

Where will her
journey take her?
To me, Star Wars is a fantasy saga clothed in science fiction trappings. The core of the stories (especially the first six) is the rise and fall of a hero. It is classic mythic storytelling. Anakin represents the tragic part of the cycle in the first three films. Luke Skywalker represents the heroic part of the cycle in the second set of three. We’ll see if Rey matches one of these two cycles or if she forges her own path.

The characters and their evolution is what Star Wars is all about. It tells stories that are based on very old tales and links them together to create a new set of mythology. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but to me it is an important thing.

In my mind, science fiction is about humanity in a general sense. It always asks questions at its core, and these are questions about all of us. How will we survive on other worlds: The Martian. Is technology our gateway or hindrance to the next stage of evolution: 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ghostin the Shell or The Matrix. What are the perils of controlling evolution and life: Jurassic Park or Star Trek II and III.

Star Wars comes close to asking some of these questions. In the original trilogy you could argue that there is an anti-technology message. The Empire has all this impressive technology at their disposal, but they never win completely. They are constantly thwarted by rebels who have less resources, and outdated technology. Luke destroys the first Death Star without any technological aid, just The Force as his guide. Yoda is a Jedi Master who lives in the middle of nowhere with not a single sign of any technology, and yet he is one of the most powerful characters in the saga. The Ewoks literally use sticks and stones to bring down the Empires best legion of troopers.

But the films never really ask the question, are humans better off without technology. Because all the characters are surrounded by technology at all times, and would be at a loss without it. Even though R2-D2 is unable to help Luke destroy the Death Star, they would have been dead earlier in the film if R2-D2 didn’t save them in the trash compactor.

"No seriously kid, no Jedi says Whoopee!"
So is the message a confused mess? I don’t think so. I think Lucas is not telling us that technology is evil or saying that humans are better off without technology. It is not a question of technology at all, but a question of instinct. Ben Kenobi (and later Qui Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace) ask their pupils to focus zen-like on now. “Stretch out with your feelings.” “Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.” “Your eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them.” The message here is that technology is a fine too, but it is only a tool. The human instrument is just as critical. This message is about the person, not the scope of humanity.

The other time Star Wars comes close to commenting on technology is with the clones. But again, it becomes a question of use. How you use the clones is more important than any moral or ethical questions on their creation. I think science fiction stories dealing with clones almost always struggle with that moral dilemma. But Star Wars doesn’t even question it. It just happens. In many ways they are treated like droids are in the Star Wars saga. It is an interesting approach (and one of the things I really liked aboutthe prequels). But they are in service to the story, not an element meant for us to ask questions about.

Good vs. Evil in visual metaphor.
All this means that Star Wars sits firmly in the realm of fantasy for me. I find it easier to view it through that lens, especially from a thematic and narrative point of view. Star Trek is much more of a science fiction series, even though it often focuses on the characters stories and lives, and will dive into war and fantasy elements. In the end Star Trek offers us questions about humanity’s journey. Star Wars offers us questions about our personal and spiritual journey.

No, you want a series that is a true amalgam of science fiction and fantasy in almost equal parts – The Matrix has you covered there.

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

And Then This Happened... Star Wars: The New Hope

One of the things that everyone remembers from Star Wars: A New Hope is the cantina scene. Back in 1977 no one had seen that many different aliens in one film before. And for a fan of strange and bizarre aliens this was a dream come true. They were all practical effects, a mix of puppets, costumes and make up. Well until 1997 when Mr. Lucas added a few CG characters into the mix. I guess he didn't like his wolf man creatures.

But fear not, some of us didn't forget. And some of us still have the original version on DVD. So go ahead and give a caption for this scene missing from the current version of the film.

And then this happened...

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Score Sample: Rogue One - A Star Wars Story (2016)

So last year I posted a Score Sample about French composer Alexandre Desplat slated to compose the score for Rogue One, and how I was interested in hearing it. Well production woes hit Rogue One in a big way and Desplat was unable to work on the film. Instead Disney turned to one of their go to composers and one of my favorite composers working today: Michael Giacchino.

Thing is, Giacchino only had four weeks to composer a full blown score to a Star Wars film. Not an easy task for anyone. Giacchino was up to the task and crafted a score that not only provides brand new themes for the characters and situations in the film, but also references themes and style from John Williams score for Star Wars: A New Hope. And we aren't talking about the more famous thematic moments here, we are talking about the less known motifs, such the one used for the Death Star and one used for Stormtroopers and Darth Vader before Williams crafted the well known imperial march for The Empire Strikes Back.

All told Giacchino's score works very well in the film and for all his references to the older scores, I enjoy his new material a lot. His theme for the fearless Jyn Erso may be the best of the new material. Here is a suite version of her theme followed by his Hope theme, which makes a good solid nod to William's main Star Wars theme. Enjoy.