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!

My All Time Favorite TV Show, Still My Favorite

IGN recently released their list of the top 50 greatest Sci-fi shows which can be found here.

My all time favorite TV show is of course one in the sci-fi genre, and it is not surprisingly on this list. I would have liked to have seen it placed slightly higher (it came in 13th) because as TV series go this show had a set goal in mind from the very start, it only ever grew in quality of story and design, and it broke away from the genre stereotypes of the day, that is to say it wasn’t simply a Star Trek rip-off. I am of course talking about Babylon 5, the brainchild of one of my favorite television and comic book writers J. Michael Straczynski. I should first explain that I hate Star Trek, though I suppose hate is a bit much. As an enormous Star Wars fan I am diametrically opposed to Star Trek in all its forms. I can watch the original series for the great cast, and I enjoy catching an odd episode of the Next Generation here and there, but Star Trek has just never gotten it’s hooks in me and I do not at all seek to further investigate the mythos of the Trek.

Babylon 5 however did hook me. When it comes to large projects on either the big or small screens I don’t insist on huge budgets and witty, clever writing. I look for something with some ideals and some heart, which is exactly what Babylon 5 brought to the table, the addition of excellent writing just happened to be a bonus for me. I was introduced to the show when my father told me there was going to be some new made for TV space sci-fi movie on. He couldn’t remember the name of it at the time, but said it looked interesting. Being the angsty teen I was, I thought to myself it would most likely be a terrible, campy, bad effects, TV movie. If my dad thought it looked cool, then it probably wasnt’ cool. Then the title came up and it was Babylon 5: In the Beginning. Then I was really pissed, because of what little I knew about Babylon 5 before this introduction, I assumed it was another Star Trek spin-off series and had simply written it off as nothing more. However I didn’t immediately switch the channel and within the first five minutes I realized Babylon 5 was something all its own, something original set in a unique universe. The movie we watched, In the Beginning, was actually a perfect jumping on point. It was a prequel movie that encapsulated some of the history that would often be alluded to later in the show and introduced me to all of the main characters, if only in brief snippets. The movie was shown on TBS or TNT or something and was of course a cross promotion timed along with the start of Babylon 5 being shown on the channel in reruns from season one.

The original Babylon 5 crew lead by Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

I of course tuned into the show, I started the journey through the series from episode one faithfully following through the shows ups and downs to the end of season five, and beyond to the brief and mostly forgotten spin-off show. I could go on and on about why I love this series. The characters. The politics. The mysteries within mysteries. The idea behind the Babylon project. The galactic United Nations concept. The characterization of the cultures. The full deep history of that universe which was presented in a way that didn’t drown you in details but rather delicately hinted at its fully fleshed out complexities. This show without a doubt had some of the best characters on television, who not only made for great stories but who each had their own story, every character evolved, grew, changed and adapted as the show went on which was one of the major selling points of the series. I have so much love for this show it is difficult not to get carried away in praise of it, I will continue to press this show upon the uninitiated until the day I die. The only problem I can pin on this series is that it relied on the viewer to follow the story, to get to know these characters, and thusly became very dependant on its own continuity. The idea of a TV show doing that today is nothing new, what with DVR, Hulu, and seasons of shows coming out on DVD like clockwork it’s much easier now to catch up on a show. For a long time however that was a major downside to Babylon 5, it was hard to go back and rewatch episodes past. In fact I made it a mission of mine to spread the love for this sci-fi realm to the point that I religiously recorded each episode, edited out the commercials on my rig of two VCRs, and struggled to put them in proper chronological order (remember, such information was not yet as fleshed out on the internet in those days, I had to hope the reruns were aired in the right order and if not I had to try to figure it out from episode to episode.) I showed those tapes to as many friends as possible, and eventually formed a small band of my friends into die-hard B5 fanatics. We had many a long evening where we played the Babylon 5 card game, while eating oven baked appetizers, followed by watching as many episodes as we could before passing out.

The gang from Babylon 5 under the command of Captain John Sheridan

From the start of the Babylon 5 saga creator J. Michael Straczynski had a story arc in mind which would take place over 5 seasons. Mysteries were brought up, histories revealed, characters developed, intrigues lingered, and epic wars were fought. The last season ushered in a new era for the characters and wrapped up the overall story excellently. There were no loose ends, and closure was achieved. There were of course things that crept into the spinoff and with such a huge and well laid out universe there were of course more stories to tell, but Babylon 5 the show, and the station itself, finished it’s tale in a grand style. For the longest time I expected Babylon 5 to be dethroned as my favorite show by the highly awesome LOST (which heavily features Mira Furlan, a Babylon 5 heavy hitter.) I wisely decided to hold back crowning LOST as my favorite until the series ended and wrapped up it’s winding enigmas. Personally I believe LOST failed in its conclusion. That is not to say LOST is not an awesomely terrific show, but the build up, climax, and ending of Babylon 5 will, for me, remain the measure of a well thought-out, smart, and unique television experience. Hopefully one day there is a show that can top Babylon 5, but as for the direct future I do not see any such show on the horizon.

Anyway, believe it or not I was hoping to keep this blog entry brief, so that is all!