Star Wars: the LCG

So now that my personal life is ever-so-slightly calming down and I’m working again (at Gannett Digital) I finally picked up a copy of Star Wars: the Card Game, an LCG by Fantasy Flight. Quick takeaway: it’s a lot of fun, good bang:buck ratio, and a fast playing, well-balanced, nicely thematic game.

For those who aren’t familiar, “LCG” is a trademark of FFG which stands for Living Card Game. An LCG is distinguished from a more traditional CCG or TCG (whichever you prefer – I call em CCGs myself) in a couple key ways: first, the starter set for an LCG is designed as a complete package, there’s no need to go out and buy boosters to build playable decks; in fact there are no booster packs available! Second, and most important as far as balanced, fair play is concerned, each box contains the exact same mix of cards, there’s no randomization so everyone is on a level playing field. Back in the early days of Magic, rich kids had all the hot cards and those of us with less resources had to resort to either thievery or getting ridiculously creative, spending days on deck building strategies just to survive a handful of turns. No longer a requirement in LCGs. At first I thought it was more a marketing term than something truly game-changing, but I’m totally sold on the LCG scheme, and SW:TCG is my second after FFG’s reboot of NetRunner. (A review of NetRunner will be forthcoming once I’ve got my cards back out of storage)

Star Wars further simplifies deckbuilding strategy – and hence barrier of entry – by requiring predefined sets of 6 cards, called Objective Sets, to be bundled together when constructing a deck. Generally a player will pick a primary faction (there are 6 as of the Core set), snag all the sets for that faction, and select another set or two either from another faction or unaligned sets. The cards in these sets tend to be thematically linked, and frequently play well as combos.

The factions in Core are as follows: for Light Side (LS)Rebel Alliance, Jedi, and Smugglers and Spies, for Dark Side (DS)Imperial Navy, Sith, and Scum and Villainy. I’ve not yet gotten to dig into the varying playstyles of the factions, but it’s pretty clear there are both thematic and mechanical slants to each group.

Cards are divided into Units (characters, creatures, vehicles), Enhancements (this game’s equivalent to MTG enchantments, which can enhance a single unit or your entire game environment), Events (which can be played after or before certain conditions), and Fate (which is useful only during Edge Battles to see who gets the edge in combat, though they also give special bonuses above and beyond this). There are also Objectives (which give you resources to deploy Units/Enhancements and sometimes additional benefits) and Force cards, but neither of these gets shuffled into the Command deck, a player’s principle deck.

To win, the LS must destroy 3 of the DS’s objectives. The DS wins by getting the Death Star dial all the way to 12. Either side may also win by running the other player out of cards in his draw pile, as in many other card games.

The Dark Side player, naturally, goes first. The force, however, is with the Light Side player. This is a central theme of the game, the constant struggle of wills between light and dark. It first shows its head as the Balance, a two-sided token that confers special benefits depending on who “has the balance”: if the LS player has the balance at the beginning of his turn, he gets to automatically deal damage to one of the DS player’s objectives. If the DS has the balance at the beginning of his turn, he gets to crank the Death Star counter an extra tick.

Turns proceed through 6 phases: Balance (where the above-mentioned benefits occur), Refresh (where focus tokens are cleared away and new objectives played), Draw (where 1 or more cards are drawn to bring the player up to his reserve), Deploy (where Units and Enhancements are played), Conflict (where an opponents Objectives are attacked), Force. (where the Balance is contested by investing Force cards on specific Units, granting sway over the Balance but costing the Unit a great deal of Focus)

The DS does not get to attack on his first turn, and the LS does not get a Refresh on his first turn.

Conflict is the meat of the turn, and proceeds over a series of attacks on the opponent’s Objectives in hopes of destroying them – which leads to direct victory for the LS, and can run the opponent out of cards for the DS. Multiple attacks can occur, so long as the same Objective is not attacked twice. Any number of “ready” Units (those with no Force Focus tokens on them) may join in the attack. Any number of ready enemy Units may participate in the defense.

Before blows are exchanged, an Edge Battle occurs: players alternate playing cards face down, investing (or bluffing investment) in their side’s maneuvering, conspiring, flanking, what-have-you. Once both players pass, these Fate Stacks are revealed and any Fate cards in them are resolved from lowest to highest, incurring any benefits for the player who played them. After all Fate cards have resolved, the Force value (a series of dots along the upper left side of cards that have it) is totaled for each side, and the winner (ties go to the defender) is said to “have the edge” in the ensuing combat. Having the edge usually means your Units are more affective, as many of them have stats that only come into play when you have the edge.

Most Units that I’ve seen have at least one combat stat of the three available, and many characters have all three. Those stats are Unit Damage (which inflicts damage to specific enemy Units), Influence (which focuses an enemy Unit, rendering him exhausted and effectively taking him out of the conflict), and Blast Damage. (which does damage directly to the Objective under attack if you are the attacker and does nothing if you are defending) each player (starting with the player with the edge) takes turns focusing a still-ready Unit from his side of the conflict to strike. Units who are “invested in the Force” (those with Force cards under them) cost an additional Focus token to strike. Striking allows the Unit to inflict all his valid damage (based on whether he’s attacking or defending, has the edge or not) in any order he pleases. Units dealt damage equal to or greater than their damage capacity (a figure in the bottom left of Units and Objectives) are immediately taken out of play and are unable to strike back. Units who become exhausted by Influence or other means are ineligible to strike. If the Objective under attack is destroyed, it goes to the attacker’s victory pile.

That’s the gist of the game, and it plays very quickly with little confusion over what is meant by various cards. There are only a handful of keyword abilities and they’re easy to pick up. The flavor of the game is very powerful, as you actively invest yourself in trying not to lose the Balance or trying to prevent Vader from striking you down by influence. The small number of card types, the Objective Set deckbuilding rules, the conciseness of the rules and the various asymmetric aspects really make this a game I can see myself playing a good bit. The art is typical FFG, with paintings that really capture the spirit of the original movies even when depicting things not explicitly shown in the films.

4.5 out of 5.

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