Transcript of our podcast from 24 October 2008

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Popular Culture in Games Part II: Star Wars Games

by Moritz Eggert

I have promised to talk about one of the biggest gaming franchises ever this time - Star Wars. No fantastic universe except perhaps Star Trek has caught the imagination of game designers as much as the Star Wars Universe. There is practically no situation from the films that hasn't been used in a game somehow, and it would actually be impossible to mention ALL boardgames with a Star Wars theme here, the list is too long. Strangely enough the law of diminishing returns doesn't apply as it perhaps does with the movies. Many fans including me felt betrayed by the new Star Wars films a.k.a. Episodes I-III, but the new Star Wars boardgames are actually much better than the games about the old films. This might have to do with the fact that games in general have become much better than in 1977, when the first major Star Wars tie-in game was published by Parker Brothers, the awful "Escape from the Death Star Game" which is basically Chutes and Ladders with a Star Wars theme.

But things got better very soon, namely when budding new game company West End Games took care of the Star Wars licence, where it was well served in the dozen or so games published by this company in the years to come.

Some games stand out from these years: there is "Assault on Hoth" and "Battle for Endor", both games use a similar system and are basically entry level wargames with some card-driven mechanics. Especially "Battle for Endor" is remarkable because it is a purpose-designed solitaire game that actually makes playing the annoying Ewoks kind of fun, even though your victory will mostly be determined by timely dice rolling. "Assault on Hoth" lets you play the imperial invasion of Hoth from the 2nd Star Wars movie and is more tactical as the wits of the two players are competing here.

A mixture between both concepts is "Escape from the Death Star" in which 1-4 players can take over the roles of Han, Leia, Luke or Chewbacca to race across a relatively abstract board while being chased by Storm Troopers. This is a much better offering than the Parker Brothers game, and there is even a computer version made by a fan to be found on the internet nowadays. One should also mention the Star Wars versions of "Ace of Aces", the page flipping World War I aerial combat game, and "Lost Worlds", the page flipping skirmish game, which were called "Starfighter Battle Books" and "Star Wars Lightsaber Duelling Pack" respectively.

But other companies were not idle either. The venerable SPI games actually produced a very detailed Star Wars game that simulates the complete rebellion in a huge universe and features individual battles as well as the conquest of whole planets. The problem was that SPI didn't own the Star Wars licence, so they had to change the names of the individual characters and called the game "Freedom in the Galaxy", but the game screams STAR WARS on every rules page. This is probably the heaviest Star Wars game ever published, up there with ASL and Magic Realm in complexity.

A funny attempt at an unlicensed Star Wars game is "Star Wars: Death Star", a game by Tsukuda Hobby which features recognizable art from Star Wars and the unforgettable line "May the Forth be with you". The latter saved them from a lawsuit apparently, and is in a similar vein as the Turkish Star Wars movie, which illegally used original takes from the film interspersed with incredibly campy scenes filmed in the Turkish Desert.

But along with the successful Star Wars roleplaying game by West End Games these games fulfilled the important role of keeping the Star Wars flame alive during the long lull between episodes IV-VI and I-III.

By the time the "Phantom Menace" rolled on the Star Wars licence was no longer in the possession of West End Games but was back at Hasbro, who had timely acquired the old Avalon Hill at that time. This actually was a blessing when looking only at Star Wars Games, because it meant that probably the best Star Wars game ever was published under the Avalon Hill label, namely "The Queen's Gambit" which is a game so ambitious in scope that it wouldn't have been the same if published as a normal Hasbro game. "The Queen's Gambit" lets two players play three important battles of Episode I at the same time: the raid on the palace of Naboo, the giant robot battle on the plains of Naboo and the laser duel between Darth Maul and the Jedi, and all that without actually having Jar-Jar Binks in it! The game has to be seen to be believed and is full of eye candy featuring a huge three-dimensional board that is ingeniously designed and actually makes sense in the game. But Hasbro had more games up its sleeve - "The Queen's Gambit" was followed by the equally fantastic but lighter "Epic Duels", which uses a very elegant and simple card-driven system that lets you play individual battles with most heroes from the Star Wars universe, even from different films. So if you ever wanted Chewbacca kick the emperor's butt this definitely is the game for you. The great designer of these highly sought-after games, Craig van Ness, also designed a third Star Wars game which is little known and sometimes can be found very cheap at flea markets: "Clash of the Lightsabers". This is a clever little card game which is deeper than one thinks at first and can highly be recommended, even though the theme is thinner and more knizianized than in the other games.

Since then there has been a flood of Star Wars Games in all media - there are not one but 2 CCG's, a miniatures game, a constructible miniatures game, there are countless monopoly editions (may they rest in piece on the bottom of a trash can), quiz games and of course also computer games. But so far none come close to the three master pieces by Craig van Ness.

As Star Wars will become a TV series soon it might also not be over soon with the games, and we can expect many more in the years to come.

I hope you enjoyed this little excursion into the Star Wars universe, next time we will look at the best Star Trek games. May the Kimchi be with you.

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