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.


  1. I've never played that or really any of the card games, but I would imagine they are fun and a fun way to relive the movies with a group of friends. I do have a complete set of a Dr. Who card game, although I've never read the directions on how to play.

    I got a question on Star Wars though. I read a recent article by Leonard Maltin about old VHS tapes. He stated that many of the movies from the VHS/Beta era never made it over to DVD, which I agree. However, he stated that the original Star Wars, the one without any George Lucas tinkering, the one that was originally shown in the theater never made it, so he still owns his tapes copies.

    I disagree, in fact, I've got a two-DVD set which has the original (or so it says) and the updated George Lucas versions with the added CG effects. So is this the same movie that was shown in the movie theater way back when or is there some difference? I would have also thought with the expandable blu-rays that there would be an original version floating around. Do you know? Here's the article:

    1. Yeah the CCG was a lot of fun. The creativity involved in creating the game and the rules really staggers me. And the ability to create your own Star Wars adventures with the cards was impressive as well. There were limits because of the images they were tied to using, but even the ability to create a strategy based around an obscure alien or TIE fighter variant seen for about 10 seconds in Empire Strikes Back is really cool.

      You are right sir. The pre-Special Editions of Star Wars were released on DVD back around 2005 or so. They were considered an extra to the full release of original trilogy at that time. They were not in anamorphic, which I remember people howling about at the time.

      But the really neat thing is that the print of Star Wars from that DVD has the 1977 crawl in the opening that does not include "Episode IV" in it. If memory serves, that is the only time that crawl has been released on any home video version. All the old VHS versions of "Star Wars" I ever saw had "Episode IV" in the crawl.

      Now, there is a version of "Star Wars" that I saw as a kid that I have never seen again. I'm not sure where my father got the VHS of this version, but it didn't have all the characters dubbed with the current voices they have now.

      The version I grew up with on this mysterious tape had Aunt Beru with a British accent! There were also a few supporting Imperials that had British accents in this version. When I finally got the films on their first Widescreen VHS release (yeah that actually happened pre-Laserdisc), I was shocked by all the dubbing with American accents for these characters.

      I've only run into a few other people that have seen a version with different dubbing, and some of them claimed to have seen it in the theater that way as well. I'm not sure if this was work print, or an early release that somehow got out of Fox. I remember we had this VHS around 1979 or so and I think that was before "Star Wars" had an official VHS release. The only way to see any "Star Wars" at home was to watch "The Making of Star Wars" on VHS.

      Anyway, long story short, I still hear the old voices in my mind when I think about those scenes. I can't tell you how many times I watched that VHS version. So it still sounds a bit strange to me to hear Aunt Beru with her American accent.

      So long story short (too late), Mr. Maltin is mistaken. :)

  2. Beats Bridge or Faro any day. Would it be insufficiently virtual for the latest crop high schools or would they find it intriguingly retro?

    I think the first non-standard card deck I encountered as a kid was Bettie Page, but that is another kind of retro.

    1. Actually a lot of these old CCG style games have gone to computer. Magic the Gathering has tournaments virtually now. A CCG spinoff of "World of Warcraft" called "Hearthstone" is very popular.

      All the card mechanics are still in play, but now you don't have to haul around your decks, or cards in physical form. You can buy specific rare cards, and even "open packs" of randomized cards, just like the old days. And now you don't have to hope you can find someone in the neighborhood to play the game with. You just pop on line and find someone waiting for a challenge.

      The old Decipher SWCCG ceased production around 2000 or 2001. Decipher focused on other games including the very fun "Lord of the Rings" CCG. But as time went on the whole CCG industry started to decline as more and more people went to on line gaming. Decipher eventually shut its doors, but there was still a strong fan community for the old SWCCG, and they were making home grown cards and expansions used on the prequels when I checked up on them about 10 years ago or so.

      SWCCG certainly scratched that strategic itch. I loved spending the time crafting a deck and then playing it and seeing if it could stand up to my opponent. And playing with a real person while enjoying a couple beers and alt rock was fun too.

  3. I bet you still had that old VHS tape with the Brit accents in tact. That's a rarity, methinks.

  4. Yo Roman, nice thorough review of a long-forgotten game! Yeah our weekly games at my place were good fun. I still have a lot of my old cards but unfortunately I lost all my viable decks that I used to play with. Maybe a follow-up LOTR review sometime? I actually thought it was a better game both mechanics-wise and narratively (aka the actual movement along the games site path mirroring the journey of the fellowship towards Mordor with the danger increasing with every move).

    1. And here is the man himself! Great to hear from you again! Hope you're doing well!

      It was fun times for sure. So many great memories of the games, and the beers and the music. I remember vividly the first time I deployed the Executor and you grabbed the card with an exclamation somewhere along the lines of "Oh what fresh hell is this?" And I'm gloating about how I'm controlling the space race... and then promptly lost each and every ground battle and the game. The force wasn't working for me that night, not even the dark side.

      You know, I didn't play LOTR CCG too much. I had a bunch of cards from Fellowship and I think a starter deck from Two Towers but it was real tough to find someone to play with at that time. Christy wasn't as into the game as she was for SWCCG - which kind of surprise me. I think LOTR CCG was more straight forward, SWCCG got all kinds of crazy with the rules and various strategies.

      Yeah by the time you got to that final location on LOTR CCG (if you did) you're characters were hurting for sure. It really nailed that narrative flow for sure.