clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Force Is Strong With This ‘Star Wars’ Subculture

As ‘Solo’ and subsequent films propel the franchise forward, the tenacious volunteer-led community keeping the ‘Star Wars Customizable Card Game’ alive continues to preserve an important piece of ‘Star Wars’ history—and set an example for fans of other endangered properties

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the weekend after the January weather that exposed the Northeast to new synonyms for “storm,” the external temperatures in New Brunswick, New Jersey, could have killed a tauntaun. Inside the Hyatt Regency hotel, though, Conference Room C was sweltering. From the hallway, the warmth was like a barrier radiating from the 50-plus people packed into the windowless space and ranging in age from their teens to their 60s. Seated at tables, some stayed silent, crouching forward in complete concentration. Others swayed and fidgeted, tapping their feet with anxious energy and calling out inscrutable comments and questions: “15 Attrition against me!” or “How much Force do you have?” Stacked or splayed out in front of every attendee were the talismanic objects that had brought the players to New Brunswick: dozens of cards protected by plastic sleeves.

For anyone who grew up in the 1990s, those see-through sleeves are windows back to a time when the cargo they contained was much in demand. Those black-bordered cards—bearing descriptions, instructions, symbols, stats, and, most eye-catching of all, stills from the Star Wars original trilogy—were the currency that sustained the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, which became a ’90s phenomenon long before The Phantom Menace, let alone the recent string of Disney releases that continues this week with Solo: A Star Wars Story. For a few years following its 1995 debut, Star Wars CCG outsold every game of its kind except Magic: The Gathering, appealing to fans of both Star Wars and strategy. But in 2001, a Lucasfilm licensing crisis orphaned the game from its designer, nearly ending its existence. Though Star Wars CCG is now long past its peak popularity, a tenacious player-led community, organized via the internet and shepherded in part by the denizens of Conference Room C, has helped it outlast its life expectancy, setting an example for fans of other endangered properties who hope to keep the things they care about from dying.

A view of MPC competitors from outside Conference Room C.
Ben Lindbergh

Apart from the smartphones and the PVC-pipe-mounted webcam peering down from a frame above the corner table, streaming selected matches to Twitch, the scene in New Brunswick could have come from 20 years earlier. The 51 participants—all male, reflecting a gender skew that’s plagued the player pool since the beginning—had flocked from all over the country for the 11th annual Match Play Championship, a head-to-head battle of brackets and seeds that differs from the Swiss-system tournaments held at most major and regional SWCCG gatherings. The MPC is one of the highest-profile and best-populated events: In 2017, enough players had attended to fill out a full, 64-person bracket, but weather and timing conspired to keep this year’s group of competitors compact, with the “distance traveled” title going to a competitor from Lompoc, California.

The MPC entrants—a small subset of the 2,000 to 3,000 people whom community organizers estimate are still seriously playing the game in person or online—included a cohort of experienced competitors (and past MPC and other tournament champions) who’ve stuck with the game since its heyday, as well as a contingent of less seasoned participants whom the lifers label “NARPs,” or “new and returning players.” Some NARPs have only recently discovered the game, while others played it decades ago and later let their participation subside before being lured back by resurgent Star Wars fandom or interest in the game’s ongoing evolution.

Unsurprisingly, a field faithful enough to attend a tournament for a 22-year-old game on a single-digit-degree day was also eager to argue for SWCCG’s superiority to other CCGs. Casey Anis, a New York lawyer who got a deck from his dad as a second-grader in 1995 and never stopped playing, now serves as a member of a player-organized SWCCG marketing team. “Magic players love to talk about how Magic is the most complex game,” he says, not needing much prompting to start smack-talking the SWCCG’s old rival (and indirect inspiration). “This makes Magic look like a child’s game.”

Many of the people who play SWCCG were children when they started, but today, they’re old enough to have kids of their own. Now that ’90s kids have aged into peak buying power, everything ’90s is new again: Tamagotchi pets have returned to stores, Power Rangers and Goosebumps are movie material, and the Spice Girls are getting back together—for lunch, at least. But thanks to an all-volunteer team that picked up where the creators left off, Star Wars CCG never went away.

Decades before that recent afternoon in New Brunswick, Star Wars CCG was conceived by Decipher Inc., a gaming company founded by businessman Warren Holland in 1983. In its early years, Decipher made puzzles, party games, and Pente sets, but its business changed soon after a competing company, Wizards of the Coast, released Magic in 1993, starting the customizable/collectible card game craze. CCGs—which exist today in digital form as well as in games featuring physical cards—couple the compulsive appeal of traditional trading cards with the strategy of tabletop games, allowing players to buy booster packs of randomly drawn cards that can be combined into decks and used to battle opposing players.

After Magic quickly caught on, independent designers Tom Braunlich and Rollie Tesh approached Holland with the idea of creating CCGs based on beloved, licensed properties. They’d already come up with the concept for a Star Trek customizable card game, and Holland liked it enough to acquire the Star Trek gaming license from Paramount. The resulting game was a success, which convinced Holland to secure the Star Wars license from Lucasfilm and ask Braunlich and Tesh to design Star Wars CCG. “Our goal was to not copy what Magic: The Gathering was doing, but have a game that really captured the essence of these licenses,” Braunlich says by phone.

Holland helped them do that by purchasing an original print of Star Wars and an expensive editing machine that (Braunlich recalls) carried a $50,000 price tag. Decipher imported the equipment from Hollywood to its headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, and used the machine to capture high-quality images for use on the cards. “That was one of the reasons I always thought it was such a successful game—because the cards were just awesome,” Braunlich says. “Sometimes an image that’s fleeting in the movie, just in the background, we’d want to make a card out of it. And the artists there would do computer magic, and the players really loved that.”

Decipher’s game debuted at the tail end of an extended drought between Star Wars films, when interest in the Expanded Universe was exploding. Decipher could capture an in-focus image of a barely glimpsed alien in the corner of the Cantina and flesh out the franchise’s lore by creating a card out of it, working with Lucasfilm to bestow backstories and names on any character that didn’t already have them. “We also had access to their props department and had high-quality photographs taken of all these little do-dads and props and things that are in the movie,” Braunlich adds. That collaboration lent an air of authenticity to the product that roped in fans who were new to CCGs.

A downward-facing webcam broadcasts two competitors’ cards to an online audience.
Ben Lindbergh

To ensure that Star Wars would be a pervasive gameplay presence, Braunlich and Tesh also crafted a core mechanic based on the Force, orienting the game around expending Force power from a draw deck and regenerating it from a reserve pile in a way that they thought mirrored the movies’ vision of an omnipresent, mystical energy source. The two designers were expert chess players, and they aspired to replicate the ancient game’s elegance, producing something that was easy to learn on a rudimentary level but could take a lifetime to master. “It’s very easy in a game like this to overcomplicate things, and we worked really hard to have a balance between simple rules, but the ramifications of the rules are huge and almost unending,” Braunlich says. Overseeing a large team of testers, they tweaked each card’s attributes until they were confident that the game would be in balance, with no one card or combination of cards from the CCG’s hundreds-deep library lending its owner an unfair advantage.

When they were finished, Braunlich says, he knew that the game would have “a huge amount of repeat-play value,” but even he underestimated its depths. When he attended the first big tournament, he found that the players had far surpassed the creators. “I was just amazed at how good they were,” he says. “I thought I was a pretty good player, and I realized right at that point that I was a total novice compared to these guys, that they were already way beyond what I even realized was in the game. They were talking about strategies that I hadn’t even thought of.”

Braunlich believes that the game he cocreated played a role in bringing about the current golden age of tabletop gaming. In the past, he says, the market was cluttered with “a lot of board games that were just overly complicated and a little bit hackneyed in their design, and they would have a lot of features that didn’t add to the game.” In recent years, though, the trend has been toward “elegant game designs with unique functionalities but simple gameplay that still allows you a lot of strategical options.” In Braunlich’s view, “the Star Trek and the Star Wars—particularly the Star Wars—CCGs were kind of the first, or one of the first, in that trend in the mid- to late ’90s.”

In 2001, Star Wars CCG survived its closest brush with extinction. “We lost the license for reasons that had nothing to do with the popularity of the game,” Braunlich says.

According to Holland, Decipher and Lucasfilm had always enjoyed a close working relationship; Decipher, he says via email, was one of only two licensees Lucasfilm allowed to remove the Episode I script from Skywalker Ranch before the film opened. But Holland claims that Lucasfilm didn’t fully understand the bond that Decipher had formed with the Star Wars CCG community or the intricacies of interfacing with fans and maintaining a competitive card game: organizing tournaments, designing new card sets, and adjusting rules, all of which went beyond Lucasfilm’s core business.

After Hasbro bought Wizards of the Coast for $325 million in September 1999, Holland says, his smaller company was slowly muscled out. “Hasbro was a $500 million account, and when they acquired Wizards of the Coast, they put a lot of pressure on Lucas to move the license to Wizards,” Holland recalls. “To their credit, Lucas[film] said no for a long time. … But the internal pressure from their largest licensor eventually became overwhelming.” In 2001, Lucasfilm altered the deal, and Decipher (which, unbeknownst to Holland, was also losing millions of dollars embezzled by his brother-in-law) lost the license. The company had no choice but to cancel an upcoming expansion set and cease production of Star Wars CCG.

That could have—should have—been the end. With no new content, the game would have grown stale, and without a guiding hand to monitor player feedback and make tweaks to the metagame, emerging strategies would have dominated unchecked and upset SWCCG’s precarious competitive balance. But after spending several years as the stewards of the game, Decipher felt attached to its thriving player community. “The fans were like a surrogate family in some respects,” Holland says. “Our entire team of over 100 employees knew many players and collectors from the community. In fact, many of our team had been hired from [the] community. … As best we could, we needed to protect not only the thousands of dollars many of our players had invested, but more importantly, the place Star Wars CCG had in their hearts.”

To keep the game going, Decipher’s leadership decided to start a “Players Committee” led by six of the community’s most respected members. Those Decipher-designated “player advocates” would work with the company to shift responsibility for the game’s administration from Decipher to the fans, setting up communication channels, organizing tournaments, settling rules disputes and, as Holland wrote in January 2002, “keeping Star Wars CCG in the limelight for a long time to come.” It was an unprecedented idea born of a desperate situation. “I’m not aware that anything like this had ever been done before,” Holland says.

Players Committee banners on display at the MPC.
Ben Lindbergh

In addition to lending the Players Committee the legitimacy of being officially sanctioned by Decipher, the company met with the advocates to discuss the details of the handover, shared the names and email addresses of everyone who’d inquired about positions on the Players Committee, helped the committee set up a website, and, most meaningfully, donated $1 million of Star Wars CCG inventory—with royalties to Lucasfilm prepaid—that the committee could distribute as prizes. Some Star Wars CCG players speculate that Decipher’s donation was a means of purchasing players’ loyalty to the brand to juice sales of the company’s now-defunct Star Trek and Lord of the Rings card games, which were then still in print, but Holland denies any ulterior motives. “The players were always part of something bigger than the game itself,” he says. “We felt an obligation to that.”

Decipher’s largesse makes more sense once one witnesses the affection for the game that persists 17 years after the company pulled out and left Star Wars CCG players to govern themselves. Some of that sentiment stems from the game’s Braunlich-orchestrated complexity, which makes SWCCG’s gameplay difficult to describe without relying on jargon that only an MPC player could parse. In non-tournament play, each match, which lasts for an hour unless total victory arrives sooner, requires one player to play with a 60-card Light Side deck while the other deploys a 60-card Dark Side deck, which allows participants to specialize in one side if they wish. “Location” cards, which also lean either light or dark, determine where in the Star Wars universe the action takes place, which may favor one player over the other; players compete for control of those locations by taking turns using cards that represent Star Wars characters, vehicles, and weapons. Each card confers one unit of “Force,” the game’s central resource and SWCCG’s closest analog to “Mana” from Magic. By controlling locations and launching successful assaults, a player can gradually deplete the opponent’s deck, leaving them with less Force and fewer options.

“The most common way you win 99 percent of games is you’re making them lose cards from those piles … and from their hand,” says Greg Zinn, a Long Island programmer who first played the game in 1997 and now serves as a rules expert at the MPC and in the SWCCG forums. “And when those piles are completely empty, they’re dead.” At the MPC, each participant constructs both Light and Dark decks and competitors switch sides after their first face-off, so that no one can depend on only one deck. MPC matches also last an extra 15 minutes each, increasing the odds of one side succumbing completely.

That description only microscopically scratches the surface of the game; the full rulebook runs 158 pages, and Zinn says that no one—not even him—knows it by heart. When Decipher was still producing the game, the company promoted it with the tagline, “If it’s in your HEAD, it’s in HERE,” an ethos that, if anything, it stayed too true to. “They were really obsessed with, anything you could see or imagine in the movie had to be represented with the cards, even if it was some stupid thing no one would ever really want to do,” Zinn says. One byproduct of SWCCG’s obsessive attention to detail is that even if longtime players can’t remember every rule, they have near-perfect recall of Star Wars minutiae. (“When you’re playing Star Wars Trivial Pursuit with your friends, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to play with you,’” tournament organizer Chris Gogolen says.) Another byproduct, Zinn notes, is that “the rulebook gets extensively complicated because it has to account for all these crazy corner scenarios, even if they don’t come up in most games.”

A 1997 Decipher ad for an expansion set during the Star Wars CCG’s heyday.
Scott Lingrell

That depth can be daunting to NARPs, but experienced players know how to navigate the subtleties of the game. In addition to designing effective decks, players have to remember both their own cards’ complex abilities and their opponents’. “A card might allow you to do something optionally, and you might forget that you have that option and not take it when you need to,” Zinn said. “Forgetting to do something that you wanted to is an extremely common mistake that will happen dozens or hundreds of times today.”

In addition to making fewer mistakes, especially skilled players can predict the contents of an opponent’s hidden deck based on play style or previously played cards. Some even practice a legal kind of card-counting, tracking their own cards as they float face-down from pile to pile. “You might see a card, and then keep track of where it is for like half an hour, and then draw it exactly the right moment that you need it,” Zinn says. “And sometimes, if things are really insane, they might keep track of where a card is in the opponent’s deck, and that’s like the ultimate crazy thing that you can try to do.”

There’s more than one way to the top of an SWCCG tournament. At MPC, where seeding is determined in the days leading up to the tournament by a group of community mainstays familiar with the field, one of the four no. 1 seeds, two-time tournament champion and 2016 Player of the Year Tom Kelly tends to stick with the same light and dark decks, which he plays “over and over and over,” honing his conservative but controlling technique and savoring the small permutations that make each victory distinct. Like a vintage Kenley Jansen cutter, he’s predictable but almost unbeatable.

On the other end of the play-style spectrum, there’s Jonathan Chu, a violist in the St. Louis Symphony who’s widely regarded as the GOAT. A member of the community’s inaugural Hall of Fame class, Chu is a two-time world champion and the reigning Player of the Year. “I try not to play the same thing too many times,” Chu, who didn’t attend this year’s MPC, tells me via email. “That way I don’t get rigid in my play style, learn decks I wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward, and also keep opponents guessing.” Chu, 36, has been playing since 1996, and he believes that the overall level of tournament play has never been higher. “There are no easy games anymore,” he says, adding that “the range has certainly tightened.”

The player who may be the best equipped to quantify the edge legends like Kelly and Chu have over mere mortals is Stephen Cellucci, an MPC participant who’s been playing poker professionally since 2008. “The complexity of Star Wars CCG is orders of magnitude greater than that of poker, and with that complexity comes a much higher skill ceiling,” Cellucci says. “Playing perfect poker is something that computers have started to be able to approximate, and the best humans can at least reasonably begin to imitate, depending on the variant. Producing a perfect Star Wars CCG–playing computer program, were it a priority, would be an unattainable goal today, and I imagine for some time yet.”

Star Wars CCG’s higher skill ceiling and deck customization leave less room for luck. Cellucci says that his experience gives him a 55 to 65 percent chance of winning a given game of poker in which he has a significant skill edge. He estimates that in SWCCG, a player with a comparable skill edge could have an 80 to 90 percent chance of victory. Cellucci also says that while mind games play a role in both poker and SWCCG, opportunities to bluff—or to act on a perceived player “tell”—are much more common in poker.

Upsets aren’t unheard of in Star Wars CCG, but given the edge that skilled players possess, Zinn, among others, expresses skepticism that anyone other than a highly seeded entrant would win the weekend event.

Color-coded boards display the competitive brackets at the MPC.
Ben Lindbergh

Although no one who traveled to the MPC wanted to wind up in the consolation bracket, the mood was more bonhomie than bloodthirstiness. At its core, a latter-day SWCCG tournament is a social event; as Zinn says, “Some of these people can say, ‘I’ve known that guy since the ’90s.’” During the Decipher era, it was possible for players to find multiple tournaments on one weekend, or even one day; Gogolen recalls times when he would “play in one store from 11-4, drive to the other store and play from there from 5-9, and then grab a slice of pizza somewhere in the middle of that.” Now, tournaments are more akin to class reunions, providing periodic opportunities to reconnect with SWCCG friends one needs an excuse to see in real life. “Those relationships have outlasted most of my other high school and college friendships,” Chu says.

The community’s most indispensable member is Scott Lingrell, a 42-year-old financial planner who started playing SWCCG in 1997. Although the original six player advocates appointed by Decipher have given way to successors and mostly moved on from the game, Lingrell’s involvement in organizing fan efforts dates back almost to the beginning of the post-Decipher period. After first volunteering for the Players Committee in 2002, he joined the committee himself in 2004 and has served as lead advocate—with close to a perfect approval rating, from all accounts at the MPC—since 2006. In most cases, a lifetime achievement award, which Lingrell received from the SWCCG community in 2011, signals that an honoree’s contributions are coming to a close. Since then, though, he’s served almost seven more years, with no end to his term in sight.

Scott Lingrell (right) contemplates an opponent’s cards.
Ben Lindbergh

Lingrell, who earned only a 7-seed in the MPC bracket, isn’t a top player. He keeps coming back, he says, because he knows he can count on seeing “the best friends in the world.” Because the community has been tight-knit and self-policing since its Decipher days, he doesn’t have to be a disciplinarian. Occasionally, players have collectively outed and ostracized cheaters, who place cards that they want at the top of their decks while shuffling, but that behavior is rare. Although one MPC player repeatedly requested that Zinn make victors leave the room after their first match to prevent them from spying on potential upcoming opponents, the players were always polite. “We’ve had some players that have been combative [in the past], that we’ve said, ‘It’s not about that,’” Lingrell says, adding, “We didn’t want to be Magic players, because Magic was really cutthroat.”

The small sums of money at stake in latter-day SWCCG tournaments helps filter out anyone who isn’t in it for fun: While the winner of last year’s Magic world championship took home $100,000, the prize for the MPC champion was only $600. And because Decipher printed so much stock—and because the present-day SWCCG audience is relatively small—there isn’t much money in the secondary SWCCG card market, either, in contrast to Magic, whose rarest, most collectible cards have become a big business. Because the community encourages deck-sharing as a means of making it easier for people to play, it’s not necessary for players to own SWCCG cards at all.

“Given how small the playing community is, anything that we can do to bring one more person, we’ll bend over backwards to do that,” Kelly says. Despite his top-tier track record, Kelly borrows all of his cards from another player who asks only that Kelly give him any cards he acquires as prizes. “People are running around borrowing cards to fill their decks in, from the guys they’re going to be playing against,” Gogolen says. “It’s like, ‘You’re probably gonna eliminate me from this tournament from the cards I just let you borrow.’”

Although Lingrell’s dedication to his hobby appears undiminished—his bio on the SWCCG site says “he is actually the brain of a former Decipher employee suspended in a jar of nutrients, wholly dedicated to keeping the card game alive”—the responsibility of preserving a pastime that means so much to so many weighs heavy on him at times. “In some ways, it can be tough,” he says. “Because literally, if the volunteers stop doing things, this game dies.”

Making sure it doesn’t die depends on two types of additions: new content and new blood. While SWCCG was still in print, Decipher produced 11 full expansion sets that included objects and characters from the original trilogy, Special Edition, and Episode I. In the past 17 years, the Players Committee has produced dozens more “virtual sets,” starting with its first release in March 2002, which benefited from Decipher’s design tips and feedback. Virtual sets are image files that can be printed in full sets or smaller subsets and either physically affixed to old cards or slipped into sleeves in front of them. Some virtual cards change the abilities of existing cards, while others add objects and characters that weren’t already in the game.

Creating virtual cards is the province of a design committee led by design advocate Matthew Carulli, who oversees a six-pronged staff. The process starts with designers, who create the cards’ text, mechanics, and stats. The designers hand off to the developers, a group of accomplished players (including Chu) who make sure that the cards are balanced and won’t break the game. A playtesting team then incorporates the cards into matches to make sure that they play well in practice; finally, proofers and graphical artists polish the wording and look of the cards. Streamlining production has required a major commitment from Carulli, who declined to estimate how many hours a week he spends on SWCCG. “I don’t want to say that on the record,” he says, laughing. (He didn’t say it off the record, either.)

The impetus for creating new cards comes from an urge to add new nuances to the gameplay, the importance of addressing occasional strategic imbalances, and the need to keep pace with Disney, which pumps out a new film every year. “It’s nice to be able to go back and do something about Luke, maybe, but at the same time, we want to push the envelope and play the new stuff because people really enjoy that,” Lingrell says. After every new film release, SWCCG fans want to play with the locations and characters they just saw on screen, but they can’t simply screenshot Kylo Ren and add him to a deck. The community can use only fan-created art, which means either asking permission from cosplayers or model-makers to use their likenesses or creations on a card or adapting an old card with a reasonably similar image. Similarly, the Players Committee can’t allow cards to cross over into fan fiction, lest it cause confusion about what is and isn’t canon. “We’re not allowed to create any kind of new material,” Carulli says. “We can’t write that lore anymore.”

The community is careful not to overstep its mandate, knowing that a cease-and-desist is always one misstep away. About eight years ago, the Players Committee wrote a letter to Lucasfilm expressing interest in reclaiming the license and offering to handle design of the game if Lucasfilm would manage the manufacturing. Lucasfilm declined, citing a lack of infrastructure and a preference for outsourcing production to an outside entity. But the company did set up a meeting with SWCCG community representatives at New York Comic Con, where Lucasfilm listened as the players described their work. “They said, ‘Oh, this is good. We’re glad you guys are doing it,’” Lingrell recalls, continuing, “It’s been cool to kind of be in their graces.” But the Players Committee is still conscientious about not straining the relationship. “We’ve kind of done things a certain way to make sure that we don’t lose that trust,” Lingrell says. “Because the minute we lose it, our site’s gone.”

Thus far, the community has steered clear of copyright infringement, but continued creation eventually led to a different problem: an unmanageable number of cards. In 2014—the same year that Disney decanonized the expanded universe that predated its purchase of the Star Wars franchise—the Players Committee decided to “reset” its library of virtual cards, which had ballooned to roughly 1,100 and included some early creations that weren’t as well-implemented as later additions. “It was painting the design team into a corner,” says Gogolen, who along with a few other community members spent five months deciding which virtual cards to cut. “And then it was also a barrier for entry, because anybody new or wanting to come back into the game, it’s like, ‘I have all my Decipher cards—Oh, but there’s these other [1,100] that I gotta go cut out all the slips and figure out what they do.’”

That effort temporarily trimmed the virtual-card count to 200—enough to make the game feel substantially different from its 2002 incarnation, but not enough to be overwhelming. “It stressed everybody out,” Lingrell recalls. “But it worked out for the best. That reset was probably the best thing we could have ever done.”

The reset, coupled with the renewed interest in Star Wars that’s accompanied the wave of new movies, has helped generate the new recruits that the PC needs to keep the community from dying. Lingrell estimates that the average age of a current SWCCG player is in the “early 30s,” making the typical player old enough to have been a teenager during the Decipher era. Another crucial development in the pursuit of new players has been the advent and refinement of online play. Although the SWCCG site hosts a “player locator” subforum, it’s not always easy to arrange local games between tournaments. Holotable, which launched in late 2004, provided the first way to play online, but it’s essentially a sandbox, supplying the tools to play but relying on the players to drive the action and understand the rules. A newer, more advanced platform called GEMP—whose name, fittingly, refers to a coming-of-age ceremony—requires less expertise. “It’s basically guiding you through the game; it’s only letting you do things that are legal,” Zinn says.

GEMP is a labor of love by Troy Biesterfeld, a software engineer who estimates that he’s sunk about 3,000 hours into the project over the past four years (an average of more than 14 hours per week). “A game with less complexity of mechanics/rules (i.e., any other card game), and no new cards/rules still actively being added, would have been completely implemented in much less time,” Biesterfeld explains via email. Although Biesterfeld says he’s picked up a number of valuable programming skills while working on GEMP, his motives—like those of seemingly everyone else who supports the SWCCG—are mostly selfless. “I believe it is something worth doing,” he says. “Stewarding an out-of-print card game without using the right digital resources is not sustainable. Giving players easy access to the cards and opponents to play against, while easing the rules learning curve, needs to be there.” Also, he says, he “was confident nobody else on the planet was going to volunteer to build it.”

Although there has been some dispute about whether online matches—in which there’s no way to tell whether a player is seeking assistance from a friend or a rulebook—should count toward yearly competitive points totals, the PC’s tournament organizers just began offering an online championship series, reflecting online play’s importance and popularity. Lowering the learning curve and having 20 to 30 potential opponents online at any one time has removed two of the greatest obstacles to SWCCG’s sustainability. “You prefer to be in person because of the externalities of attending the event, the people that you see,” Kelly says. “But in terms of killing time when you’re at home … it’s a perfectly fine replacement.”

GEMP notwithstanding, the key to the community’s longevity may be Mark Walseth, a social studies teacher at Rosemount Middle School in Rosemount, Minnesota. Walseth has been running an afterschool enrichment program centered on SWCCG since 2000, and his former pupils are increasingly competitive at tournaments. (One Walseth alum, Bryan Mischke, was the second-place finisher at MPC.) For Walseth, SWCCG is a teaching tool that conveys valuable lessons in the guise of a game. “The game itself requires algebra skills, comprehension skills, memorization skills, creative skills (deck-building), learning from mistakes, and predictive skills much like chess would,” Walseth says via email. “That being said, I actually believe it’s not the literal skills that the game teaches you that are the most important. I think it’s the byproduct of the game where the truly important life lessons are learned.” Walseth cites leadership, kindness, cooperation, and a sense of community and belonging as qualities that the card game instills.

The next generation of SWCCG: Rosemount Middle School’s latest eighth-grade players.
Mark Walseth

A few years ago, the Players Committee got Walseth’s work classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization; last year, Lingrell’s employer donated $10,000 to the charity, which will cover Walseth’s expenses for years to come, ensuring both that his afterschool program can carry on and that the SWCCG community will continue to see a steady influx of young converts. Thanks to that prolific pipeline, Kelly calls Walseth “one of the most important reasons the game is still continuing.” More than 220 kids have passed through Walseth’s program, which the Players Committee is planning to document via video and export to other schools.

Like the crowds at Star Wars screenings, the field at SWCCG events is becoming more and more multigenerational. “It’s cool to see people come and go,” Lingrell says. “People are showing their kids how to play now. So there’s not as many people back from ’02, but there’s [still] more than you would think there would be.” Gogolen mentioned a matchup at last year’s world championship between Vince Hutchins—son of veteran player Grady Hutchins—and Matt Sokol, who won the 2000 world championship, the last one administered by Decipher. “I’m like, ‘Matt, this is going to make you feel old, but Vince wasn’t alive when you won your world championship.’ And he’s like, ‘Thanks, thanks, I really appreciate that.’” The generational learning works the other way, too: 59-year-old Chris Westergard, an environmental compliance inspector for the state of Maryland, was introduced to the game in the ’90s through his son. This year, he attended the MPC even though his son couldn’t come. “It keeps you thinking,” Westergard says. “It keeps you young.”

An MPC “command card” keeps track of a player’s results for tabulation after the tournament.
Ben Lindbergh

Other Star Wars card games have come and gone in the years since Decipher lost the license, including Wizards of the Coast’s successor, Star Wars: The Trading Card Game (designed by Magic creator Richard Garfield), which was in print for only three years, as well as the comparatively simplistic Star Wars: The Card Game and Star Wars: Destiny, from Fantasy Flight Games. None of them has exploded the way Decipher’s game did in the ’90s, or inspired the same kind of community dedication. “You realize when you play other games just how much better the mechanics of this one are, and just how much more enjoyable it is to feel like you have more control over it,” Gogolen says. Zinn acknowledges that among the Decipher faithful, “there are definitely people who at least try out the new games,” but he says that “in the end, I don’t think it pulls too many players away from this game. I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s said, ‘I like the new games better, I’m done with this.’”

If anything, the game’s reach seems to be spreading. In February, the community held its first-ever European MPC in Hannover, Germany, drawing enough players to fill out a 32-person bracket. SWCCG is even making minor inroads in Africa, courtesy of Captain (soon to be major) Grady Hutchins, a U.S. Army Sub-Saharan Africa foreign area officer who’s been stationed in Mozambique since last summer. Although the English-language cards make it challenging to explain the game to the Portuguese-speaking locals, Hutchins has had some success among other expats. He’s also hoping to connect with another player who works as a missionary in Ghana. “Logistically, it may be tough (Ghana is nearly 3,500 miles away), but I’m trying to plan a trip to visit him this year sometime so we can play a few games against each and vie for the title of best player in Africa,” Hutchins says via email. In the long run, he may end up stationed at AFRICOM in Germany or U.S. Army Africa in Italy, which would make playing in person easier. “I’m really hoping to get assigned to one of those in the future so I can spend more time playing with the Euro community,” he says.

Having fought entropy to a standstill for 17 years, SWCGG seems set to live on indefinitely, preserving an important piece of Star Wars history even as Solo and subsequent films propel the franchise forward. “This game has been the biggest constant in my life since I’ve started it,” Carulli says. “There’s no other thing that I’ve been doing for so long.” The escalating demands of Carulli’s full-time job as a project manager at a translations company are forcing him to cede some of his design responsibilities, but he remains almost awestruck about being a guardian of a game he got into at age 11. “A lot of people are like, ‘I’ve been dreaming of being a baseball player my entire life, and it’s a dream come true,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘I’m in that position.’ That’s how I feel about it. It’s so much fun, and this game has meant so much to me.”

Even after its last hand is dealt, SWCCG’s legacy will linger through emotional milestones like the game’s tribute to Shawn Valdez, a 13-year-old boy from Florida who died of leukemia the day after attending an SWCCG tournament in 1996. Tournament organizer Gregg Keefer successfully lobbied Lucasfilm and Decipher to memorialize Valdez with a card and a canonized character name, posthumously fulfilling his dream of making a mark on the game. Not long after Valdez’s death, Keefer met his future wife, Christel, at an SWCCG tournament. They got married in 2000 and had a daughter in 2008; her middle name is Padmé. “We owe everything in our lives to Star Wars and to the Star Wars CCG,” Keefer says today.

Days after this year’s MPC, champion (and no. 2 seed) Reid Smith revealed via email that before the event, he’d privately dedicated his performance to John Anderson, a fellow member of the design team who’s been battling acute myeloid leukemia. Anderson had picked him in a pre-tournament fantasy bracket, which Smith says he used as motivation to win on his behalf. “His pick this year meant more than any, ever,” Smith says. “I definitely thought about it throughout the weekend and any time I felt like I was in trouble in a match.”

Anderson, who says via email that he has achieved remission, adds that he finds Smith’s gesture “gratifying and touching,” but also somewhat surprising, because he and Smith have had only limited interactions in person. “Maybe that says even more about the nature of our community, though, that he would make that kind of statement and dedication about someone he’s not close personal friends with,” Anderson says. “Even though we’re a bunch of smaller local playgroups joining together, we’re still connected.”

Other fans of discontinued card games, including Star Wars: The Trading Card Game and Decipher’s Star Trek CCG, have modeled their own volunteer communities on SWCCG’s, but none has propped up a product as enthusiastically or as long. That’s probably because no other licensed CCG was so solidly built to be boredom-proof. “You can play a matchup 100 times and they’ll all be different,” Chu says. “You can get a completely terrible opening hand and still come back. It’s really a beautiful game.” Neither SWCCG nor its supporters look the same as they did during the ’90s; the game has grown with them, and they’ve grown with the game. “When a design gets out in the world and then evolves into something on its own and keeps going, that’s what we really loved about it, and I’m glad to hear that they’re still doing that,” says Braunlich, SWCCG’s cocreator, who’s hoping to attend a tournament soon. Thanks to the players and subculture compatriots who picked up the mantle a long time ago, there will be plenty to pick from.

Star Wars

‘Visions’ Brings ‘Star Wars’ Full Circle

The Ringer-Verse

‘Star Wars: Visions’ Analysis and Awards

Star Wars

‘Visions’ Is a Fresh Look Into the ‘Star Wars’ Galaxy

View all stories in Star Wars