Wizards, Jedi, and Vorlons: The Golden Age of Card Games

So over the past few weeks I’ve undertaken the task of organizing my collection of various card games I currently and formerly played.  A couple of weekends ago I was sorting through my Magic cards and this weekend found me extensively organizing my Babylon 5 cards.  (If those sentences haven’t made me sound like a complete dork then just wait for the next couple.)  As I was going through my B5 cards I remembered how awesome that game was and it also reminded me why I love that show so much, but it got me thinking about a time when collectible card games were king.  A time that has come and gone, when innovation and creativity were the banners held high for such games and their creators.  A day when several giants of the card game industry roamed the earth, unlike today where a single giant lumbers along with a few lesser known shrimps riding its coattails.

I have some experience with tabletop games.  I haven’t ever really successfully played Dungeons & Dragons or anything like that, but board games like Risk and Axis and Allies are a good time, most of the Cranium games are great, and I have discovered a few lesser known games like Zombies!.  Each year my New Years Eve festivities entail alcohol mixed with many board games with my wife and my entire family.  (Good times!)

During my college years I got into HeroClix, the superhero based miniatures game where four players build teams of superheroes from the Marvel and DC universes and then battle it out across a giant game map.  HeroClix is a personal favorite of mine because it is more or less a huge game of chess, but instead of the pieces moving in different ways, the pieces have super powers and they take clicks of damage, and . . . . well, it’s better if you just play it to see what I’m saying.

An example of a HeroClix game piece. Superman is a really good one to have, just FYI.

My first loves of table games however are card games.  I started in middle school with Magic: The Gathering, of course.  When that game was first getting started it spread like wildfire!  Nearly everyone I knew was playing Magic and it really is the game that started it all as far as collectible card games go, but let us fast forward several years to a time that I consider to be the peak years of card games: 1997 – 2001 The Golden Age of Card Games!  It was during these years that my geek culture and gaming interests collided in an epic fashion.

Magic: The Gathering is neither “Magic” nor a “Gathering.” Discuss.

This period saw card games expand in scope and complexity and brought us two more big games which would join Magic at the top of the stack, the Star Wars Collectible Card Game and the Babylon 5 Collectible Card Game.  For me, being a geek and a fan of both those properties, it was a glorious time.  Magic had set up the culture of card games and with the addition of popular franchises into the mix, card games were taken to a whole new level.  Players of the Star Wars CCG could watch the Empire Strikes Back while they defiantly reworked the movie’s plot on the table before them, having the rebels successfully repel the Imperial attack on Hoth.  Babylon 5 fans did not simply follow card text and use strategy to win the games, they had to make alliances and cut deals with their fellow players if they wanted to make any headway because many of the cards in that game relied on voting and political intrigue to succeed, just as you might expect for a card game based on a television show about intergalactic space politics.  For those who remember reading Scrye magazine back in the day, you will remember these three games dominating the covers of that bimonthly publication.  And as if these three games weren’t enough this is also the era that gave us the Pokemon Trading Card Game, the Star Trek CCG, and saw the beginning of the Lord of the Rings card game.

But let’s take a moment and examine what made each of the “Big Three” card games so great.

Magic: the Gathering The King of the card games, the Duke of decks, the sovereign of shuffling . . . . you get the idea.  Magic was and still is the number one card game of all time.  It’s broad fantasy setting and ever expanding library of cards has a wide appeal.  The single pile deck, straight across layout, and simple rules make it easy to learn, understand, and play.  Magic was unleashed onto the world in 1993 and was eagerly taken up by young and old alike.  The deceptively easy rules are offset by the wide variety of cards which a master player can assemble in swift and crushing strategies.  Overall Magic has endured because its original concepts are so brilliant and concise, and because of its general fantasy vibe which can change and evolve unlike games based on various movie and TV franchises.

This is Dr. Steve Brule’s favorite card.

Star Wars CCG– The loss of this card game still brings me down.  After its release in 1995 the Star Wars CCG was a solid second place in terms of sales behind Magic.  A smooth well crafted game that effectively captured the excitement and mythology of the Star Wars movies.  Somewhat more complicated then Magic, Star Wars still pitted two players against one another in a familiar linear layout but added the brilliant touch of having the deck itself be the “life” of each player.  In Magic each player starts with 20 life points and through battling that total is whittled away.  In the Star Wars CCG however each deck must have no more than 60 cards, which are then depleted through gameplay and damage from the opponent.  The main decks were cycled through three piles on each player’s side that would ebb and flow every turn like the Force.  This game mechanic was a practical solution to the problem of the “bad shuffle.”  The crisp, clean look of this game and the exquisite attention to detail made this card game not only fun, but a true homage to the Star Wars movies.  This game at one time held such great sway with Lucas that it was allowed to name and flesh out the history of several previously unnamed characters they depicted on their cards which have gone on to have some prominence in the Star Wars EU, which I suppose is the real legacy of this game.

C-3PO was included in the initial limited edition of the Star Wars CCG

Babylon 5 CCG-The Babylon 5 CCG had the smallest audience without a doubt, but surprisingly held onto the number three spot for popular card games for quite some time during this period.  Introduced in 1997 the Babylon 5 card game did not have the highest production value.  Whereas the Star Wars card images were heavily cleaned up and digitally enhanced, the B5 game often lacked such finery and was decorated with several fuzzy and grainy images from the television show.  This however was made up for by the intricate gameplay.  It wasn’t necessarily true to say that the Babylon 5 game was complex, because the mechanics were pretty straightforward, I would instead describe it as involved and strategically demanding.  Also Babylon 5 by far had the most accoutrement accompanying the game.  To play Magic and Star Wars all you needed were the cards, but to play B5 there were a few accessories.  I suppose you could play without some of these accessories, but they helped clarify a few things.  In the game each player represented an alien ambassador from the show who was representing their species aboard the Babylon 5 station, ala a UN in space.  During the game you had to keep track of political tensions between the races which could lead to peace or war.  You had to track your factions influence and the influence of the Babylon 5 station and other races that were not playable but which could affect the game and individual factions.  It all sounds very difficult and for a first time player or someone who knows nothing about the Babylon 5 show it doubtlessly was difficult.  However this was a unique game in that it was meant to be played by more than two players, it of course could function with only two players but then things would be rather dull.  This game did a good job of keeping their card mechanics in check, unlike Magic and Star Wars which seemed to introduce some new rule or card ability with each expansion.  Babylon 5 kept true to its original game concepts while continually encouraging action through the players and their own politicizing.

The Narn were one of the more adaptable factions to play as in the B5 card game.

In 2001 this personal golden age of card games came to a screeching halt.  In 1999 Hasbro bought up Wizards of the Coast, the makers of Magic: The Gathering which was a big deal at the time.  Hasbro is also the manufacturer of Star Wars toys and collectibles and is the long time holder of those production rights.  In 2001 Lucasfilm decided to consolidate their merchandizing, and did not renew their contract with Decipher, the producer of the Star Wars CCG.  Instead they handed the gaming rights over to Hasbro to produce a new series of games with their newly acquired Wizards of the Coast.  None of those games however matched the level of detail and quality of the Decipher game, or matched the success of Wizards of the Coast other big seller, Magic.

Later in 2001 Warner Bros. did not renew the Babylon 5 rights with Precedence, the card games developer.  Most likely this was due to a waning lack of interest, the namesake show had reached the end of its five season story arc and the cancellation of the spinoff series, Crusade, which was unable to match the tone and scope of Babylon 5 meant there was little in the way of future expansions for the card game.  The Babylon 5 CCG slowly winked out of existence like a dying star in the night sky.

Magic is still going strong and constantly making new innovative changes to the design of the game.  The Star Wars CCG though no longer in print, still has a large fan following, typical of Star Wars fans, and boasts a sizable online player community who still produce online “virtual cards” for the game and hold tournaments.  Babylon 5 however, like the show itself, has unfortunately gradually slipped further and further away from the public eye.  Immediately after the game was cancelled there was an online fanbase that took up a movement similar to that of the Star Wars CCG, but it lacked the numbers and the momentum of that game and is, as far as I can tell, all but dead now on the web.

That’s not to say that it’s too late for a resurgence of these games!  I still play Magic occasionally, but if anyone has any interest in playing some Star Wars or Babylon 5 let me know, I’m game!  Ha!

That is all!

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