Since its original 1977 release, the Star Wars movies and the incredible number of spin-off books, specials, and games have beguiled and thrilled us. Everything in the Star Wars universe was super real the ships were heavily detailed and realistic, the planets had strong character, the heroes were superheroes, and of course, the villains were supervillians. By the time I was aware of Star Wars, it had already become iconic in the space-drama genre. I still have drawings from the 2nd grade of X-wings, TIE fighters, and Victory class Star Destroyers. Understandably then, I was extremely excited for another chance to dip my toes into G. Lucas creation with the release of the Star Wars PocketModel TCG.
PocketModels follows in a grand tradition of excellent Star Wars merchandising. Star Wars ships and characters have been produced in virtually every form imaginable, ranging from metal cast x-wings to digitized screen savers. PocketModels are a great addition to this growing library and pay homage to the superb 1970s special effects. The ships evidence an attention to detail, with the high quality printing of delicate features that manage to evoke intricate structural shapes, while utilizing ingenious slide together construction. Most ships are easy to build, with the occasional exception such as the TIE fighter (which is as fragile as its movie counterpart). Finished ships are generally sturdier than one would expect, and they can withstand a good jostling without snapping. The scale of the ships has been chosen to give a sense of size without having radical proportion problems. While an actual TIE fighter isnt 1/6th the length of the Devastator, the perspective of the piece design allows the two pieces to rest comfortably together. Besides, does anyone really want to carry around tie fighters smaller than the dice included in each pack? All in all, the general look and feel of the PocketModel ships is consistent with the movie presentation and easy on the eyes.
Play mechanics and board setup present a departure from earlier Wizkids games without sacrificing the lessons learned from said games. The board is divided into three types of zones. A home zone, an intermediate zone (called the contested zone), and an enemy home zone provide clear tactical and strategic considerations without the messy movement rules and complications found in games such as Pirates. While I personally am a fan of ruler-based movement, the frenetic nature of combat in Star Wars argues against the slowdown ruler based movement and attack would bring. Each turn your actions are limited to moving, attacking other ships, or striking a single objective. A player can choose only one of those options each turn. In addition, the actions available each turn are confined to 5 build stars worth of ships. This tight allotment for moving, attacking, or striking keeps grand fleet-movements to a minimum while giving players reason to carefully consider their deployment strategies. Furthermore, objectives represent a vulnerable spot in a player's home base that needs to be protected. Unfortunately, the current vulnerability of objectives is very high; players can push quickly into enemy territory and take out objectives on their third turns. Hopefully, the coming expansions will introduce new mechanics to make objectives a bit less vulnerable.
There are four primary properties of ships, and this setup allows for a quick and simple method for evaluating a fleet. These properties are attack, defense, damage, and shields. High attack is generally favored in PocketModels due to the generally low defense values on most ships and the average dice rolls that can be expected. By basing combat on the roll of two dice, the average roll of which is seven, a ship with four attack stands a better than average chance of hitting a ship with an eleven defense every attack. Because no ship has a defense higher than eleven, there is a good and reliable counter to virtually any ship. Considerations become more interesting and crucial with ships that have high shield values. Being able to hit a ship is one thing, but can you destroy it? In playing with the four value stat system, I feel that just the right compromise between ship individuality and ease of play has been struck. More stats would only complicate gameplay, while fewer stats would simplify the game into preschool.
In choosing the composition of a fleet, a balance must be struck in terms of build points. Each ship has a number of build points assigned to it, with the number of build points roughly matching the value of the ship in the game. As is suitable for a game designed around building fleets and decks, no one type of ship stands out as utterly superior or necessary over another. The single build star ships are all fragile but do remarkable service as Acceptable Losses or just plain cannon fodder. The two and three star ships provide a more serious backbone for fleets in terms of damage, defense, and special abilities. Four star ships allow for some optimization in movement and provide cheap carrier abilities. Finally, the five star behemoths have the firepower and staying power to make or break battles with careful control. While rare ships are generally better than their peers, the associated imcreased build cost keeps the ships from overwhelming fleets and requiring all players to field only rare ships. The rare ships act as fleet cores, providing direction for building a fleet around them, instead of only with them.
The complexity of building a fleet is aided by the addition of nine icons, seven of which appear on ships in groupings of up to three. With a satisfying array of cards specialized for each type of icon, fleets can be finely tuned to respond and act appropriately for a particular tactic. Only the trooper and droid icons are well represented in the base set, but the inclusion of missile, leader, turbolaser, and carrier icons (as well as the wildcard icons that appear on cards) provide sufficient additional properties to keep the set from being too simplistic. In addition to combat abilities based on icons, every card has a combat bonus (either +1 attack, defense, or damage), and thanks to these ancillary abilities, fleets can be refined further into damage decks, movement decks, survival decks, etc. A healthy ecosystem of deck builds bespeaks careful and successful game design.
The cards themselves are examples of a perfected art. Each card displays its primary bonus value neatly in the top-left corner, using a color coded box, with further information spelled out in detail using a high contrast block of text. Card art consists of stills from the movies of varying quality, though generally good. The cards are neatly identified both by name and by set number, and even note their rarity. In terms of bonuses, the cards arrange themselves neatly into categories of attack, defense, and damage with the occasional card having more than one effect thanks to icon synergy. Thankfully, all three rarities of cards are useful, with a good mix of common, uncommon, and rare cards being necessary for a successful deck. Often in these types of games, rare cards are overpowered to an extent that requires their overuse (the venerable Magic line of cards for instance), but PocketModels has avoided leaning too heavily on the greed inducing power of rare cards. The inclusion of foil cards does introduce a minor element of greed, since the cards have unique properties, but the foil cards are not game-stoppers.
The packaging of PocketModels is at once superb and unsettling. The generic booster packs are brightly colored, easy to open, and contain neatly wrapped ships, cards, dice, and instructions. The first few packs are a treat as you build up more dice, but eventually the instruction booklets in every single pack get to be annoying and seem wasteful. Personally, I cannot think of a better way to distribute the instructions, but the waste of so many instruction booklets bothers me. Not to mention, with two dice in every pack, who wants 50 tiny dice? Booster packs provide a superb way to bolster a collection with a guaranteed 6 cards and an average of 4-8 ships in every pack. The Imperial Power-up Pack, while not considered a required starter by Wizkids, provides the only method for getting the Star Destroyer known as The Devastator. The Devastator is by far the best five star ship in terms of damage and shields, and the included 30 card deck allows new players to jump right into the fight.
Actual games of PocketModels can be quite short. As a huge fan of TIE Fighter, I understand how quick actual space battles can be and appreciate that PocketModels captures this fast pace. A typical game can last from ten minutes to half an hour with little to no pausing for lengthy considerations. Card mechanics encourage burning through the deck, side-stepping the hand-hoarding issues of other card games, while the little ships give a focus and interest that gives the game a wonderful visceral touch. The rules are fairly straightforward allowing players to absorb them in a game or two. Errata is also light, with only a few confusing cards (such as the Death Star Exhaust Port) giving any real trouble.
Reviewing the base set itself is difficult to divorce from reviewing the game in general as this is the launch set. Since the cards and ships of this set are an introduction to the game mechanics, they cannot be reviewed separately. What can be evaluated is the choice of what got into the set in terms of intellectual property. Episodes IV-VI did particularly well in the realm of cards with most of the major heroes present and accounted for. In terms of ships, Episodes I-III are heavily represented, with highlights such as the Jedi Starfighters, while Episodes IV-VI receive a great deal of rare-ship love in the form of numerous Darth Vader ships, the Millennium Falcon, and Lukes X-wing. Stats are well balanced with respect to build stars with no ships being so over- or under-costed as to be consider broken.
While this introductory set is good overall, there are a few specific issues that have cropped up. The vulnerability of objectives has already been discussed, but there are several other issues that bothered me as well. Randomization of cards has been quite good, but the randomization of ships (at least in my experience) needs work. I have bought twelve packs, and of these twelve packs three of them had Guarlaras, three of them had Razors, and two of them had Redemptions. Of these, the Guarlaras and the Razors had identical commons associated with them. This is all the more troubling because I bought my packs from three different sources; online, a local comic shop, and at Meijers. I would be less annoyed if I had received three Millennium Falcons or three Luke's X-wings, but Ill leave it at that.
Overall I am also unhappy with the treatment of capital ships. For four and five build stars I can understand the need to balance powers, but the whole point of a capital ship is to outclass a fighter-craft in every way. Only the Devastator seems to have an adequate shielding and damage output in my opinion. The four star ships tend to be overly vulnerable to two and three star ships without having much beyond turbolasers and carrier abilities to warrant their inclusion in a fleet. The carrier ability is itself somewhat suspect as it requires an entire turn to activate. Considering the relative frailty of these expensive ships, a turn of inaction often results in destruction. A simple increase in shielding of one or two points on most of the ships would have gone a long way to alleviate my concerns.
Finally, the size of the various ships makes for some unique issues with storage and transport. Most experienced players of miniatures games will probably have tackle boxes and other such storage devices lying around the house, but newcomers will find themselves at somewhat of a loss for how to transport the piles of irregularly sized ships to and from games. Some of the pieces are quite tall (Lambda class shuttles), some are quite long (Devastator), and some have fragile parts (How many Venator-class ships have been broken thanks to that tiny little front piece?). This is a concern that affects all games involving miniatures so I do not consider it show-stopping.
In closing, PocketModels provides a visually appealing experience with relatively straightforward rules that still manage to promote some deep and critical thought. The overall gameplay and setup is easy to pick up for those with some experience with these types of games, and not too challenging for newcomers. A fair number of packs have to be bought in order to put together a competitive fleet but only a few packs are necessary to play. As with all games, there are some issues present with this initial release, but I expect they will be ironed out in the future expansions.
Art The artwork continues the realistic, gritty, lived-in feel of the movies. The 3D ships provide a wonderful connection to the fight while the cards neatly and clearly direct the player in their use.
Gameplay Chaotic at times, fleet building requires a great deal of forethought, but once that is over the actual fighting is quick and fun. Rules are simple, the board is straightforward, and victory is satisfying.
Balance In some cases balancing may have been taken too far, but overall most ships are worth the points.
Production Quality The low amount of errata, clear printing design, and cheerful packaging combine to make this game a winner.
Greed Rare ships and cards are worth owning but a subset of each provides ample play opportunities and capability.
Overall I give this game five build stars and I would put it in my fleet. But only if someone else took my Devastator first.