The Case for Star Wars Unlimited

So. FFG has announced a new competitive Star Wars card game.

Allow me a brief tangent. The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf was one of my favorite readings during my English literature undergraduate courses.

Heaney begins his translation:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

In the original Old English, the opening word is “hwaet,” which previous translators have translated as “listen” or “hark.” In his introduction, Heaney writes about his choice to open the epic poem with our modern colloquial use of the word “so.”

“… ‘so operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

In other words, and perhaps more on-topic…

It’s not secret that Star Wars Destiny fumbled on multiple occasions. Some of these troubles can be pinned on FFG, while others were certainly out of their control. If we want to break it down to its most basic level, if you played Destiny and you’re considering playing Unlimited, it all boils down to this question: are you able to move beyond your past history with how FFG handled Destiny?

At first, my answer was no. For various reasons, I stopped playing after Destiny’s fifth set. There would be four more sets released (along with an additional announced set that never saw the light of day). From hovering around the community and keeping an eye on developments during the last year and a half of its lifespan, I missed some of the more egregious and controversial missteps.

As part of their initial announcement rollout, FFG has dropped an article and a video presentation to introduce Star Wars Unlimited to both a brand new audience and to potential returning players. Out of curiosity, I checked them out, not expecting to be moved.

To my surprise, I think I’m onboard. Here are eight reasons why.

1. They’re surpisingly upfront about the failings of Destiny

Undoubtedly, FFG anticipated they’d take substantial heat from Destiny players when they announced. As expected, you can find a mountain of sarcasm, skepticism, and spite in the comments for the Facebook posts and Twitter threads about Star Wars Unlimited. The FFG of old would have made some vague statement of recognition about this and then moved on as if it wasn’t happening.

Surprisingly, in both the article and the video presentation, they pretty openly acknowledge what happened with Destiny, both in terms of how FFG handled the game and how unexpected factors also affected it. In my 10+ years of experience with FFG games and community outreach, I haven’t seen them do this.

2. Games seem as if they will be quick

In the video presentation, the FFG representatives mention that 3-5 games can be played in an hour. Three games seems as if it’ll be closer to the norm, with another game or two capable of being squeezed in depending upon the deck being used and the degree of familiarity of the players.

3. It seems as if it’ll be easy to learn, while still having depth to explore

One of the FFG reps mentions being able to teach the game to his children, while still having something for experienced card players to dig their teeth into. The Transformers Trading Card Game hit a similar sweet spot. Between my career and being a parent, I don’t have the cognitive capacity right now to learn the ins and outs of a complicated game, especially if I’m going to be investing time and money to play it at an FLGS on a weekly basis.

4. The focus for chasing cards seems to be based on aesthetics rather than mechanically unique cards

The video reveals that there will be 252 mechanically unique cards in the first set. They also mention that those cards should be easily obtainable, whether through opening packs or buying on the secondary market. They specifically point out that they’re trying to make “blinged out” cards something that collectors chase down because they are rarer, mentioning holofoil, extended art, and alternate art cards as examples of aesthetic rarity. It’s quite possible that there will still be different categories of card rarity in general, but it also seems as if it won’t be too difficult or expensive if you’re just looking to track down a card for the sake of playing it as part of a deck.

5. The general flow of the game involves players alternating single actions

My first forays into competitive tabletop gaming were more of the “I go, you go” variety, where a player takes his entire turn, doing a large number of actions, before switching to the other player who does the same. This often leaves the non-active player waiting passively until it’s their turn again. Most games I’ve played in the years since then are a lot more interactive, often with players only having a limited bank of actions to spend before play swaps again to their opponent.

Marvel Snap is the most recent example of this in a game I’ve played. Each turn, players have a limited amount of energy to be spent to play cards from their hand each turn. Ultimately, it forces each player to simultaneously attempt to challenge their opponent with problems to solve, while also solving the problems that you were just presented by your opponent.

Star Wars Unlimited will boil that down to each player only taking a single action before play switches back to their opponent.

6. To some degree, your character will begin on the board

Even though the vast majority of articles on this site are about card games, I tend to prefer miniatures games. Often times, card games become an abstraction where the character feels lost amid the mechanics of the game. On the other hand, the act of moving your miniature around a board, and even removing it once defeated, feels much more tangible.

One way of remedying this is by having your character in a card game begin play already on the table. Both Destiny and the Transformers TCG took this approach, making it much easier to identify with a tangible character “avatar” in the gamespace.

Unlimited seems to be using the deck building choice of a “Leader” to accomplish a similar goal. They seem as if they’ll begin the game already in play, with supporting characters popping out from your deck/hand over the course of the game.

7. The ground arena/space arena separation

Growing up, I’d often rewatch the last half hour of Return of the Jedi. I always liked the multi-arena battle of the ground forces trying to deactivate the shields on Endor while the spacecraft were dogfighting above as capital ships pound each other in the background, all intermixed with the interpersonal drama between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor.

This is the concept that propelled me from being skeptical to being onboard with giving Unlimited a shot. Although both Destiny and the Star Wars LCG featured ground units and space units, there was relatively little to separate them into different categories, other than giving them different keywords.

It feels very “Star Wars-y” to have two different theaters for conflict. I also really like the idea that you may very well have to decide if you’re going to end up surrendering one theater to focus on the other, or at least dedicate fewer resources in order to stave off a total defeat.

8. FFG seems to be acknowledging the importance of casual play

If you were to give a post-mortem of the Transformers TCG, I think one of its biggest early missteps was to focus organized play around big convention events rather than at a local store level. Sure, it might be flashy to announce that you’re going to be running events with thousands of dollars in prize payouts, but that doesn’t give you someone to play with at weekly events at your local store.

It really does seem as if FFG is professing the idea that the FLGS is the bedrock from which a new game will get a foothold and be able to grow.

Related to that, the fact that easily implemented sealed play and draft were early pillars of design is also very promising. With Destiny, it was fairly difficult to onboard new players with a small collection of cards into an established community with finely tuned decks, and on top of that, sealed and draft play were clunky at best. Baking draft and sealed play into the bones of the design offers an easy on-ramp for local communities to get new players up to speed.

A Note on “the fool me once…” Mindset

Star Wars Destiny outlived the vast majority of TCGs by getting nine different set releases. That also doesn’t take away from the fact that FFG absolutely fumbled the ball when it came to multiple aspects of Destiny during its life cycle.

At the same time, as someone who collects a variety of different tabletop games by a variety of different companies, these complaints, concerns, and issues are not unique to FFG. In fact, it’s been somewhat amusing to watch in online groups as players flock to new gamelines over complaints about old gamelines, then eventually cycle back to making those same complaints about the new game when there is an inevitable misstep along the way.

So, yes, FFG did mess up with Destiny. At some point, they’ll likely mess up with Unlimited.

If you play Magic, you’re already intimately acquainted with how this goes. If you play Flesh and Blood, you know LSS has had some issues along the way. If you’re jumping into Lorcana, Ravensburger will stumble somewhere along the way as well.

If you can’t forgive and forget FFG, there’s nothing wrong with that.

For now, I’m onboard. FFG seems to be making a heavy push for Unlimited, to the point that they seem heavily invested in ensuring it’s successful. They also seem to be turning over a new leaf in how they communicate with their audience.

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