Tuesday 15 May 2012

Review - Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
Published by Decipher
Designed by someone strong with the Dark Side of the Force
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Have I ever mentioned I don't like the original Star Wars trilogy? Well, I have now. I don't hate it. I've watched all the movies more times than I care to count; but I just think they are dopey, badly acted, and full of plot holes. I can see how they were game-changers in the world of cinema, and you have to respect Lucas for what he accomplished, but they aren't really for me. I find the extended canon of books, shows, and computer games even less appealing; and as for the trilogy of prequel movies... I won't comment.

However, any game is worth a shot, even if it has a theme that has no appeal to me whatsoever; so when I saw a copy of Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game  in a local charity shop, I was more than happy to pay my £1.50, thinking it might be a moderately distracting pastime, and a worthy addition to The Vault.

Sadly, I was wrong on both counts.

Playing this game is almost as painful as sitting through any of the movie scenes that feature Jar Jar Binks.

Rather surprisingly for a second-hand card game, the copy I picked up was 100% complete, containing all four of the 40-card play decks (two Dark Side, two Light Side) and the instructions booklet. The cards have a smooth finish, shuffle well, and are quite sturdy; the rulebook is brief yet well laid out. It's all very workmanlike, but not particularly impressive.

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game rules
Oh good, Jar Jar Binks is in the game.
It would have been a shame if they left him out.

Before I talk about how the game plays, I want to draw your attention to that word "customizable." This is not a collectable card game, and neither is it one of those new-fangled living card games (yeah, grandad). This is merely a customizable card game. There is no expanding the game beyond what comes in this box, there are just some simple rules for mixing together the cards you already have to make new decks. The level of customisation is extremely limited because of the way the cards interact with each other, and because all characters and starships basically work in the same way with no special rules, there seems very little incentive to customise for any reason other than to create decks that don't feature Jar Jar Binks. You can customise thematically (so your favourite Jedis can team up), but the deck you end up with will still play in exactly the same way as any other deck.

But enough about that, let's talk rules...

The game can accommodate up to four players, but here I will just give a brief overview of the way it works for two players. One player picks one of the Dark Side decks, and one player picks a Light Side deck. Each deck contains three locations cards, which are laid out in front of the player (the three locations are the same for each player, and there seems to be no real reason why each player needs his own set). Each player also gets to play a starting character (the character you get to play is specified in the rules, really adding to that feeling of a truly customisable experience). Remaining cards are shuffled and then four are drawn to form a starting hand. The game starts with the Dark Side player taking his turn.

On a turn, you must either draw one card from your deck, or play one card from your hand to the table. You can never do both, and neither can you pass.

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
Some of the thrilling cards at the disposal of the good guys.

The basic card types are characters, starships, and attacks (erroneously referred to as battles in the rules book). You play a character to a specific location, while starships allow you to move characters already in play from one location to a different location.

Attacks cards show a character at a location; if you have that character at that location, then you can play the attack card. Each character has a "leader" value, representing the strength of his or her attack, and to add an element of chance, the attacker also draws the top card from his deck and looks at the number in the top right corner. He adds that number to the "leader" value for the character. The defender also gets to draw a single card, the value of which represents his total defence against the attack.

With that done, you compare the scores, and deduct the lowest score from the highest score. The remaining value is the number of cards that the loser must discard from the top of his draw deck. A player loses as soon as his last card is drawn or discarded.

That's pretty much how the whole game plays out, but there are two other types of card which do change things up slightly.

Trap cards show a picture of a character. If a defender has that particular character at the location where an attack card is played, then he can play the trap card to double his defence score (almost always resulting in the defending player winning that fight).

Finally, encounter cards have a picture of two opposing characters; if those characters are in the same location, the card can be played for a special effect (often removing the opposing character from play).

Star Wars Episode I Customizable Card Game
You will notice a recurring theme in the artwork.

As I have been writing these rules, I have been struck with quite how dull and random this game is, and also how easy it is to "read" the game strategies. For example:

Player A has a character in play that matches an attack card in his hand, but the character is in the wrong location. Player A cannot attack with that character, so instead he plays a starship to move the character to the correct location. Player B is going to immediately guess what player A is up to (although whether or not he can do anything about it is entirely down to luck of the draw).

Using your deck of cards as your health is also a pain, because if you get hit for a large amount early on, you could end up discarding all of your characters before you have had a chance to get them into play. If you lose too many characters in this way, then all the starships, attacks, traps, and encounter cards you have left are utterly worthless. Characters (combined with the right location) power almost all of your card actions, so if you have lost your characters, then you will usually find there is very little for you to do on your turn.

A similar problem can occur if you randomly lose a lot of starships (or bad luck in the draw means you never end up with any starships in hand): You can have characters in play, but they will probably be in the wrong locations, and you will have no way to reposition them.

In fact, even before you start discarding cards due to attacks, you will find that on a large number of your turns, all you can do is draw a card because you simply have no cards in your hand that you can play.

The game feels entirely luck driven. If you are lucky enough to have the right character in the right location with the right trap or attack card at the right time, you can play that card and probably severely injure your opponent. You have no way of knowing in advance what you should do or where you should go - you can't prepare strategies - you can only react to what the cards deal you.

It actually becomes apparent rather quickly that this is not much of a game at all; it is actually a big promotion for the collectable card game Young Jedi, which was made by the same company (and for which there is a large advertisement on the back page of the rules). This is like a taster set: A bridge for younger players to lead them into the full collectable game.


I suppose, for very young children, this would be mildly distracting, and I suspect it did encourage some players to try out the deeper, better card games advertised in the rule book; but for me, it's just a waste of cardboard.

And it certainly hasn't done anything to improve my opinion of Star Wars.

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