How a ‘Star Wars’ Card Game Helped Keep Fandom Alive in the ’90s
My first published piece of film criticism came on May 20, 1999, two weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday. The night before, a group of my friends had spent the entire day camped out in front of the local movie theater waiting to purchase tickets for George Lucas’ long-awaited Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. After the movie ended, a reporter from our local newspaper was there to capture everyone’s first impressions and managed to jot down my breathless praise of the film for posterity’s sake: “I don’t think I can wait two years for the next one,” this naïve young Star Wars fan gushed, noting that the movie “threw open so many doors” and “left us hanging in a big way.” It goes without saying that it took me years to live these words down within my circle of friends.
It’s easy to remember the number of breathless articles written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 and how many fans were excited to finally experience a Star Wars movie on the big screen, but it had only been a decade since Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith hit theaters; for Star Wars fans in 1999, it had been nearly twice as long since Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was released in 1983. I had lived an entire life up to that point without a Star Wars movie to call my own, and looking back, the most formative Star Wars experience of my adolescence wasn’t waiting in line to see the prequels: it was any one of a hundred nights spent with friends playing the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, the strategy collectible series that did more to galvanize my Star Wars fandom than anything else from my childhood.
I’ve written before about the almost-demise of Star Wars as a commercial entity, but it’s a story that bears repeating: in the 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, the franchise was saved from unexpected obsolesce by the success of its licensed spinoffs. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy – the first of which was published in 1991 – reintroduced fans to the Skywalker family years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and suddenly audiences were awash in high-quality books, toys, and games featuring their favorite characters. In 1995 alone, fans were treated to the brand new ‘Star Wars: The Power of the Force’ line of action figures and the landmark Star Wars: Dark Forces PC game; it was this same year that card manufacturer Decipher, Inc. released the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, a follow-up to its successful Star Trek CCG and (arguably) the most influential thing to ever happen to my Star Wars fandom.
Much like Magic: The Gathering, the Star Wars CCG was a card game distributed through a combination of base sets and booster packs. The goal was to simultaneously construct both an Imperial and a Rebel deck, each following an established set of game mechanics. Combat could take place on planets or in space, cards could be played on both players’ turns, and as you progressed through the game, your deck of cards would be slowly diminished as a response to your enemy’s actions. Your Stormtroopers lose a battle against Luke Skywalker? Discard cards from your deck. You allow your opponent to occupy the Tatooine: Cantina location without confronting his characters? He could force you to discard cards based on different numbers of icons at the site. Throughout the game, the locations you owned provided the currency for you to bring out new characters and events, and how well you managed these resources determined who would survive this war of attrition. Draw lucky and you might have Luke Skywalker or Han Solo in your deck; draw poorly and you’d have to settled for a handful of secondary characters from the original film.
It may sound simple enough, but a Star Wars game that didn’t require an expensive computer rig and expanded on the established lore was a godsend for a teenager in those days. Simply put: if Star Wars was my first childhood love, then the Star Wars CCG was my first childhood obsession. Every dollar I could beg, borrow, or earn was immediately spent at the grocery store on my next pack of cards. Countless sleepovers were spent arguing over rules interpretations or possible trades; even better were the monthly tournaments held at my local card shop, where one set of parents would drive a gaggle of over-caffeinated kids downtown for a day’s worth of tournament play. I even remember some of the early websites meant to help you (gasp) trade Star Wars cards over the internet. To this day, my temper still flairs when I think of the eight-year-old who faked the email addresses of his references to fleece me in a deal; the letter he included with his trash cards, written entirely in crayon, read, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” Points for being on-brand, I suppose.
And more importantly, in those heady days before the Star Wars prequels showed us how arbitrary the concept of ‘canon’ truly was, the CCG provided me with a tangible connection to the Star Wars universe. My first email address was firstname.lastname@example.org, a nod to a beloved Star Wars CCG character who could draw a battle destiny without the assistance of any other cards (an extremely valuable thing to be able to do, especially in the earliest iteration of the game). The Star Wars CCG helped me learn the names and backstories of hundreds of secondary Star Wars characters; I even built themed decks entirely for my own amusement, often facing off against Darth Vader and Boba Fett with an army of ill-tempered Jawas. Sure, maybe this meant sending dozens of Jawas to their brutal and untimely death, but thanks to this game, I now know how to spell Het Nkik without having to look it up.
I’d like to say that my Star Wars cards survive to this day, hidden in some dusty corner of my house awaiting a bonding moment between myself and my future children, but the ending is a little bit more bittersweet than that. Despite sinking hundreds into my cards when I was a kid, when my passion for the franchise waned, I quickly got rid of my collection. I sold the bulk of my collection to a friend for only $50; what cards I couldn’t sell I simply threw away during one particularly thorough spring cleaning. And the Star Wars CCG itself didn’t last much longer, with Lucasfilm selling the license to Wizards of the Coast in 1999 and Decipher, Inc. discontinuing its series. Like most gaming subcultures, fans of the Star Wars CCG continue to thrive thanks to the Players Committee, a group of dedicated online fans who continue to build out the game in online settings. But these days, fans of both board games and Star Wars alike have migrated to other games, such as Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: The Card Game or their much-beloved X-Wing miniatures series.
And while those games are a wonderful outlet for Star Wars fans everywhere, they can never recapture a time in Star Wars history where the CCG was the most important collectible in town. With Disney’s hands firmly on the wheel for the foreseeable future, there may never be another decade-plus long gap between Star Wars movies for as long as Hollywood may last, and some young fans will never wonder if they’ll ever get a chance to see a new Star Wars movie in theaters. And while my own fandom may have waned considerably in the past decades, I still look back fondly on those nights spend with a deck of cards and a couple of good friends. That, more than anything else, is the Star Wars I sometimes miss.
The post How a ‘Star Wars’ Card Game Helped Keep Fandom Alive in the ’90s appeared first on /Film.