Deciphering the past.

When Magic hit the shelves the gaming industry was turned on its head.

"Gaming", in the days that preceded it, meant you were either a role player (think Dungeons & Dragons) or a miniatures gamer (think Warhammer). All of the sudden there was an entirely new category. Not only did this new game encourage deep financial investment (one of the things that made the other two gaming categories so successful for the industry), but it was a game that changed over time. Rules evolved through card text to keep the game fresh. There was a low barrier of entry - $13.00 got you a copy of the rules, a starter deck and a booster pack - more than enough to start playing. Furthermore, the rules were simple (relative to the other two categories) making it easy for beginners to understand, while card interactions gave brought a deep strategy to invested players that was tough to master.

It didn't take long for other game companies to see the writing on the wall. They too needed a collectible card game like Magic. How hard could it be? Rules were thrown together, art quickly commissioned and games scooted out the door to rake in the profit and establish themselves as a player in the category. Spellfire, Galactic Empires, Dixie, Guardians, On the Edge these are games you have probably never heard of unless you were there in '94-95. They are also all games that sold a ton of product - because Magic was so scarce. They also all fell over on themselves because game play was not up to the standards set by Richard Garfield and his team.

One company saw this new gaming segment as an opportunity, but their passion for quality mandated that they "do it right". With a motto of "The Art of Great Games" this company did indeed live up to their motto, making some of the greatest games ever produced. They were not copycat games and their rule systems were some of the best ever invented. The company was Decipher, and in their heyday their games were as big - and in some cases even bigger - than Magic itself. 

World building.

Decipher decided to differentiate their product by going after big intellectual properties to make their games stand out from the crowd - and boy did they land two big ones - Star Trek and Star Wars. Both games mechanics and game play were designed to bring those universes alive on a gamers' tabletop. Great care was taken with the card design and layout of the cards with stills from the shows and films used in the place of art. At a time where most collectible card game companies were rushing their designs, Decipher's games looked refined, polished and drew gamer's to their purchase with iconic artwork and story. While many games from the mid-nineties look absolutely archaic today, Decipher's product (particularly Star Wars) looks like it could have just been purchased from a store in 2016. It was that good.

With Star Trek, Decipher created the concept of a shared play field called the "space line". Made up of planetary systems and locations that starships traveled across, players built it co-operatively as the game progressed by playing locations to the middle of the table. Crews then raced to the locations with their starships to solve "dilemmas" put in front of them to claim the point value on the location before their opponent. The first player to obtain the agreed upon point total was the winner. In the initial release of the game three factions were represented - the Federation, the Klingons and the Romulans, with future expansions adding additional races and even timelines such as The Original Series

Decipher's next game built off of the success of Star Trek and its game design. For Star Wars, players faced off with one player representing the Dark Side and the other representing the Light Side. The game was won by draining a players "life force" - represented by the very cards in a players deck. This was an unique idea, and one that made the game stand out from Magic and its other competitors.

Elegance in Gaming.

Magic was a brilliant game with a rule set that represented the collectible card game in its purest form. Richard Garfield's "color pie" and "mana system" were (and remain) gaming genius. Magic, however, had the benefit of coming out first. Other companies struggled to deliver games that were collectible while not being direct clones of Magic. 

Of all the rules and mechanics created by companies during the early years of collectible card games, there was no concept better implemented than Decipher's representation of the Force. We have already touched on how Decipher used the player's deck to represent "life force" and the games win condition, but the Force was even more deeply integrated in the fabric of Decipher's game. In fine Star Wars tradition, the Force was the resource that players used to pay the cost of cards and their abilities. It was as unique as Magic's mana system and a brilliant combination of rules with the themes of the Star Wars universe. In the words of a wise old hermit...

"Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together." ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi

Here's how "The Force" worked. Each location in play had force icons on both sides of its card. Icons in red represented the dark force present at the location while blue icons represented the measurement of light force. At the beginning of each player's turn, the total of all the icons of the relevant type (plus one for the representation of their "personal force") determined how many cards they could draw into their "Force Pile". This force pile is what the player used to pay costs and play cards from their hand. As cards in this pile were "activated" they were moved to the player's "used pile". At the end of the turn players could draw any number of the cards remaining in the force pile to their hand - or leave them in the pile to save them for future use. As a final action, the players used pile was placed (not shuffled) onto the bottom of their reserve deck. This "flow" of the force felt organic to the universe and its flexibility created a wide variety of decision points for the player and deep strategic game play. 

You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy...

You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy...

With locations tied to the Force, controlling them became critical to a player's success in game - just like it was crucial to the forces of good and evil in the films. Each character, starship and vehicle had a power rating printed on their card. When one of these cards moved to a location that player was said to have presence there. To control a location, players had to have the most presence there, which was the total of all power printed on their cards located there. When a player controlled a location, they were allowed to "force drain" their opponent. The amount of force drain was determined by the difference of their total power and that of their opponent. So for example, if a player had ten power at a site and the opponent had seven they were able to require a force drain of three for that site. Opponents who were force drained had to discard that number of cards from their hand, used or reserve piles to their lost pile; weakening their life and very connection to The Force. Again, such an elegant representation of the Star Wars universe.

The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe. ~ Grand Moff Tarkin

The trouble with Tribbles (and Ewoks).

So if Decipher's games were so great why aren't they still around? There are of course many reasons a product line or a game is no longer financially profitable  - but for Decipher, it came down to two - licensing and rules baggage.

What the licencor's giveth they taketh away. Re-negotiating the Star Wars license proved impossible for Decipher. Amidst accusations publicly thrown by both Decipher and Lucasfilm in the press, the result was Decipher lost the license to Wizards of the Coast.

As crippling as their licensing woes were, Decipher was also contending with rule sets that were increasing in complexity and undermining their mass marketability. It was the early days of the collectible card game - companies were struggling to support them in their increasing popularity (even the geniuses at Wizards of the Coast) and that included making the games accessible to an ever widening audience while keeping them new and exciting for their existing player base. Here Decipher made a critical error with their games. While Magic chose to do this through card mechanics, Decipher accomplished this goal by creating large amounts of new card rules and card types for each new card set. These complex additions to their core rules represented specific events in their licensed universes, like "blowing up the Death Star" or "freezing Han in Carbonite". This created such a complexity issue that most booster boxes contained a one page rule supplement to explain them. We're talking 8 point font, single spaced - a lot of new stuff for a player to absorb. While this was tenable for the first two or three expansions, it became unwieldy over time and an almost insurmountable barrier of entry for new players. The rules became so confusing that they overshadowed their games original elegant designs and drove many casual players from the game. In the end this was Decipher's undoing.

The definition of insanity.

The definition of insanity.

Decipher did "fix" the rule problems for Star Trek - simplifying and streamlining the game as a 2.0 edition, and I'm sure that if they had renewed the Star Wars license they would have done the same for that game. Unfortunately, the changes to Star Trek were so sweeping that it alienated its player base, since the changes made many of the existing cards no longer compatible with the game. Even though the game was better for it, Star Trek 2.0 never sold as well and became unprofitable.

Decipher as a company had grown too fast and too large. Supporting three separate Star Wars games, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings was a huge operation - and when they lost four of their five games the wheels fell off.  Decipher is still around as a game company. They managed to survive and reinvent themselves and still publish the popular "How to Host a Murder" tabletop game. (I get no money for that link - You're welcome!)

The Energizer bunny. 

The great news for gaming fans is that in 2016, these games are still pretty easy to obtain and can be played on many levels. Both the Star Trek and Star Wars games were distributed in two player introductory sets through Parker Brothers. The sets came with two sealed decks, a booster pack, and a glossy rule booklet. Trek came in "Federation" and "Klingon" sets while Star Wars came in boxes based on Episodes IV and V. All these can be found on eBay (and sometimes Amazon) still in shrink wrap for about forty bucks. As a standalone "tabletop" game, these are a lot of fun for two people and avoid the rules baggage of later editions. I feel like the Star Wars ones are stronger "out of the box", since they included "main characters" from the films.

You can even still play these games competitively. When both games shut down Decipher created "Continuing Committees" from the player community. These committees still release virtual expansions and hold tournaments right up to Nationals and Worlds. Links to both groups are at the bottom. If you want to play at a competitive level, eBay is again your friend. Sealed product is generally scarce and expensive, so for the most part you will be buying singles. However... if you want to jump start a collection, try and find some of the "Reflections" boxes. These are boxes of surplus product that were repackaged by Decipher to clear out overstock and are still easy to find. They are about as expensive as a box of Magic cards. One box will give you a lot of value and enough cards to easily brew a couple of decks. 

About 100 bucks gets you a lot of this game, in 2016.

About 100 bucks gets you a lot of this game, in 2016.

I personally love both these games - in case you are interested, here is how I "retooled" them for 2016. I bought one of the two player introductory sets of each game. For Star Trek I chose the "Federation" box and for Star Wars the "black box" based on Episode IV. Playing just with the rules contained in the box, I augmented the decks, swapping out "lesser known" character cards with main characters, their vehicles and locations. It makes for a fun and flavor filled experience that is easy to teach to friends that love tabletop gaming but shy away from the collectible stuff. Cards in both these sets are of the "white border" (reprint) variety and this is a blessing in disguise. Given the fact you are dealing with reprints, you avoid competing with collectors of the franchises, so purchasing additional white border cards will rarely cost more than a dollar or two. If you give this a shot let me know how it goes - and if you are in Portland we should play!

Sales figures for card games in the mid nineties are sketchy at best, but at its peak sales of Star Wars easily rivaled those of Magic. With that being only one of their successful properties Decipher was considered a very real competitor to Wizards of the Coast. One of my few regrets of this time period for this genre of gaming is that Magic (and Wizards respectfully) did their job so well that most of the other games are left to the dustbin of history. With the licensing entanglements there is no chance we will ever see these games again - licencors tend to just hand off to the "next company" for a "fresh take". The result is that some of these elegant mechanics will never be seen again. 

Until next week, take some time to explore gaming's rich past! 

Star Wars Player's Committee

Star Trek Continuing Committee

Star Wars - Board Game Geek

Star Trek - Board Game Geek

Boosters and Life Force (starwars.com)

Star Wars Customizable Card Game - Beginner's rules