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Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game could rule the galaxy of 2-player card games

Fantasy Flight Games let one of its brightest designers run wild

Luke and Vader clash sabers before the Emperor’s throne in an illustration of the climactic Return of the Jedi battle from the Fantasy Flight illustration library. The art is a new piece created for the cover of Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game. Image: Fantasy Flight Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Minnesota-based Fantasy Flight Games has done quite a lot with card games over the years, including its signature line of Living Card Games. But even its most recent hit, Marvel Champions, one of the 22 best modern board games, can be a bit daunting for more casual players. That’s why designer Caleb Grace has built Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game to be something very different.

Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game is a small box with 152 cards inside. Players start out with a bland little 10-card deck. Then, in the center of the table — sort of like in a game of Texas Hold ’em — sits the galaxy row, drawn from a shared 90-card galaxy deck. Players take turns purchasing cards from the galaxy row, expanding their own personal deck and then using it to attack each other’s bases. Bring down three of your opponent’s bases and you win. That’s it. That’s the game.

But it’s so much more than that.

“What inspired me to do Star Wars was this idea that I can make a game that just gets to the table really fast,” Grace told Polygon in an interview, “[where] people can get into it and find deep strategy — but there isn’t that high bar for learning.”

What this particular Star Wars game has going in its favor is that everyone sort of knows its story, just like everyone sort of knows the rules of poker. As it’s been described to me, it feels like Grace’s clever design reinforces that story almost perfectly. The rules of the game are the rules of the Star Wars universe, and that should lead to both a satisfying time at the table and a minimum of fuss.

A spread of cards including Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and some iconic rides like Jabba’s Sail Barge. Image: Fantasy Flight Games

In case you need a refresher on the plot of Star Wars — the original trilogy, that is — one player takes on the role of the Empire, and the other player takes on the role of the Rebellion. The Empire hunts the rebels; the Rebellion sabotages the imperials. It’s an asymmetrical struggle of counterinsurgency. But where a comparable board game would contrive multiple convoluted mechanics that pile atop one another into an almost inexplicable ruleset — looking at you, Star Wars: RebellionStar Wars: The Deckbuilding Game puts it all on the table. Reading the card explains the card, as the Magic: The Gathering adage goes. And that’s why a lot of the text in this game is written upside down.

“Every Rebel card, every Empire card has a bottom section, that is actually upside-down to the owner and it faces their opponent,” Grace said. “So while it’s out there in the row — let’s say Grand Moff Tarkin is in the row and I’m the rebel player — I can’t buy Grand Moff Tarkin, but he has a target value on him.

“I can sabotage that,” Grace continued. “Better yet, an AT-ST. I can sabotage an AT-ST. And what that means is instead of attacking your base, I assigned some of my units to attack Grand Moff Tarkin or the AT-ST. If I succeed, then I discard it from the row and you never have the opportunity to buy that card because — I sabotaged it.”

On the Empire side of the table, the mechanic is called “bounty hunting.” What else is so Star Wars?

The quirky upside-down writing feels almost like a magic trick in retrospect. It’s absolutely brilliant, but it also unlocks the joy of the Star Wars universe. Can I use Boba Fett to round up the rebels of my choice? Of course I can, and it feels great. Can I take a Hammerhead Corvette and use it to smash two Imperial Star Destroyers together, sacrificing the cruiser in the process? Of course I can. It’s Star Wars.

“[The space battle in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] was one of the greatest moments in cinema for Caleb Grace,” Grace said, his eyes lighting up on our Zoom call. He seems genuinely excited to have been able to put that love for the franchise literally into the structure of the game itself. There’s a lot more nuance to be sure, including the power of the Force, which enables some special rebellion moves. Fantasy Flight Games will have a more detailed announcement on Thursday. But the broad strokes of Grace’s design are clear from the outset, and that makes me really excited to see this one out in the wild.

The final game — which includes art drawn from FFG’s already massive collection of Star Wars illustrations gleaned from years producing Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game, Star Wars: Legion, Star Wars: Imperial Assault, and more — is expected in March 2023 and will retail for $39.99.

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