I'll not dwell on the finer points of the game. There are plenty of glowing reviews of Star Wars LCG to be found littered throughout the galaxy. The mechanics are elegant, the deck building unique, and the quality of components is classic FFG. Nor will I dwell on the negatives leveled against it. The mechanics are sloppy, the deck building needlessly different, and the card stock leaves something to be desired. These have been covered in a thousand blog posts, podcasts, and forums.
What I would love to address is the one criticism I see over and over. It seems to have wormed its way into every gamers vernacular. It has memetically spread itself across the interwebs. I talk to people who have never played the game who sing the woes and gnashings of a thousand gamers who all say…
The GAME doesn't FEEL like STAR WARS…
"If only it weren't a Star Wars game, maybe I could enjoy it more!"
"The mechanics and gameplay are great! But how can a Rancor eat a capital ship?"
Oh the wounds FFG has inflicted upon us with this abomination! They have made an incredible game, that doesn't live up to my interpretation of how a star wars game should FEEL! Or… have they?
On the contrary. I believe that FFG has provided an aesthetic experience that is very close to my experience of Star Wars. So much so, that I've concluded that gamers that level this claim against the game not only miss the aesthetic representation the game provides, but also have a misguided idea of what Star Wars itself is.
The GAME doesn't FEEL like STAR WARS. This is the claim. Let us dissect this claim and figure out what is really being said here.
The GAME -
In this context, what a critic is referring to by saying 'The GAME' is the mechanics, and to some extent the dynamics of the game. We're all big nerdy game critics here, so I can assume you are familiar with the MDA framework.
[geekurl=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDA_framework]MDA Framework on Wikipedia[/geekurl]
Mechanics are the nuts and bolts of the game, and dynamics are the behaviors the mechanics elicits from its players. These are fairly easy to pin down, but it's when we get to the 'A' in MDA where we run into problems.
… doesn't FEEL like STAR WARS
So when a critic of this game plays the game, they dont' FEEL like they are playing playing a Star Wars game. This is a little vague all by itself, but using MDA framework we can come up with a better idea of what is trying to be said here.
"The Mechanics of the Star Wars LCG create a dynamic in game experience that gives me a different emotional response than Star Wars".
Again we run into more vagueness here. What does the critic mean by 'Star Wars'? There are a thousand ways to experience Star Wars. From just watching episode 4, to watching the whole trilogy, to watching Episodes 1-6, to reading the expanded universe… Star Wars is many things to many people.
Since it is clear by the thematic elements of the card game that FFG is mainly targeting the theme of episodes 4-6, we'll revise our statement to say…
"The Mechanics of the Star Wars LCG create a dynamic in game experience that gives me a different emotional response than the original Star Wars trilogy (plus a little bit of expanded universe stuff)".
Here is a claim we can sink our teeth into. It's nice and specific. Now lets try to show why it's utter poppycock.
If you haven't played Star Wars, go watch the FFG how to play video. Go ahead. I'll wait. Good. Welcome back. Now watch the Team Covenant how to play review video thing… Waiting… ok. Thanks. Now you have a pretty decent idea of the ebb and flow of a game, we can dig a little deeper.
There are a number of card types in the game. Units, enhancements, etc. Nothing new to note here except for two little tiny 'insignificant' details.
1. Events - Please notice that they are called 'events'. In another game I've played for quite some time (Legend of the Five Rings CCG (L5R) ), an event is a one-time effect. It's a card that pops up, happens, and goes away. The represent some overarching narrative that effects all of the game state. In Star Wars LCG, an event is mechanically different. It is analogous to actions, sorcery's, or interrupts in other card games. You hold them in your hand and play them at the right time.
I think it's important to note here that these are called events because it really shows what the creators of the game were trying to get across. These cards aren't necessarily actions taken by a specific individual. Nor are they one-time things that are beyond your control.
You, as the player are not just the general of your side's army. You are not the Jedi Master telling your Padawan what to do. You are a storyteller or a god, deciding the events that are occurring in your universe. This is important for understanding the aesthetics that are represented in this game.
2. Objectives - The main resource in Star Wars is points produced by your objectives. There are resource cards in the game, Sith Library, Dagobah Training Ground, various holdings that you would expect to be able to fuel the playing of cards… but why do we have a completely different card type that produces resources, and why are they called 'objectives'.
Objectives represent the current mission, or focus of your faction. Sometimes they are seemingly narrative in nature (journey to dagobah). Sometimes they are just locations (decoy at dantooine). They always represent some mission that your faction has some stake in. As a Jedi player, it's fairly important that Luke trains with Yoda at Dagobah. As a Rebel Alliance player, if you can get the pesky empire to fall for your ruse at Dantooine, he is shooting himself in the foot.
The object of the game (moreso for the light side player), is to 'destroy' another players objective. This is easy to interpret when a light side player destroys 'Kuat Reinforcements'. Its pretty much a straight up military narrative. What does this mean when you, as a dark side player, destroy something like "Fleeing the Empire". That's where you need to go back to the word "objective". You haven't 'destroyed' a thing, you've destroyed an objective. Meaning you've foiled their plans in some devastating manner. In this scenario, the outcome of the engagement was that the leaders of the Rebellion were unable to flee to the outskirts of the Empire. You've cornered them and added one to the dark side dial. One more step closer to crushing the rebellion.
3. The Force - In Star Wars you commit units to the force in order to win force battles. Winning the force battle means your side controls the force and gains major in-game benefits. For the Dark Side player, you tick the dial faster. For the Light Side player you 'damage' an enemy objective.
First is committing a unit to the force. This makes sense when Yoda or the Emperor do it, but what about a tie fighter or Rancor? From the rulebook.
"A committed unit is acting or being used by its side away from the front lines in order to further the cause of the light or dark side of the Force. Meditation, study, training, recruitment, and transportation of key figures are some examples of the functions a committed unit may be serving."
When you commit your Storm Troopers to the force, they could be on a mission to destroy an ancient Jedi relic. When you commit your Rancor to the force, he could be guarding a sith stronghold.
Second, when you control the force, you get an in-game benefit. For the dark side player it's pretty straight forward. We are emulating episodes 4-6 here. The empire is in control, and if the force is all black and dark and cloudy, yoda has no clue whats going on. You get closer to total annihilation of the rebel alliance.
For the light side player it seems less thematic at first glance. "What? I damage something? Just shooting stuff for controlling the force? That doesn't make sense". Au contraire padawan, remember, we are 'damaging' an objective, not a star ship. When yoda is committed to the force and it is controlled by the light side, he sees the machinations of the dark side. He knows what the Empire is up to. Their plans are ruined without so much as an engagement happening. This is the power of the force…
4. Engagements - Another important word swap here, the game uses 'engagements' instead of 'battles'. Recall the battle of Endor, where Ewoks and the Rebels took down walkers and the death star. Or the Battle at Hoth where Luke single handedly downed a walker as they evacuated. Or even recall storm troopers chasing luke, han, obi-wan, and chewie off of Tatooine. Leia helping take down a Jabba's barge. Darth Vader hiding out in the cloud city after strong-arming Lando. Storm troopers leveling Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Every scene I listed could not have happened without key characters, vehicles, weapons, and a series of well planned events. Star Wars is not just a space battle movie. It is a Space Opera. Even while the battle of Endor raged on, the Emperor and Luke sparred with words and willpower. Action, adventure, and conflict are rampant, but the movies always hang on a few key decisions, lucky guesses, and risky gambits. Star Wars is drama, not blaster pistols.
5. Edge Battles - Star Wars is rife with these dynamic engagements where key players and events turn the tide of the larger narrative arc. In this framework, we can understand where the edge battle comes in. The edge battle is the struggle for supremacy that takes place off camera. It is the Bothan Spies delivering the plans for the death star. It Darth Vader holding Lando to the fire. It is Jabba being tipped off to Leia's ruse. It is the station being fully operational all along.
When you put it all together you see how the game perfectly emulates the narrative arc of the movies. Blast damage just becomes how easy it is for a character to complete, or disrupt missions. Blaster symbols can be taken quite literally, or even as a characters ability to remove another from the conflict in any way. Throwing around focus tokens represents Vader's tie advanced spinning out of control away from the exploding Death Star.
I think saying the game doesn't feel like star wars is unfair, and shows a very shallow understanding of the Star Wars experience. Star Wars is the most important modern incarnation of the heroes journey. It's a narrative, a story, a drama, a space opera. When someone complains that Yoda shouldn't be able to disable a capitol ship with his one focus token, you should weep for their lack of imagination.
Many card games have you acting as a general, or plainswalker, summoner of creatures, leader of clans. You command forces and make important decisions for someone in that role.
Star Wars is different. Once you understand it as a game where you control the events, and the motivations of the characters themselves, Star Wars lets you and your opponent be storytellers.