Star Wars: Destiny – Hands On Preview

For many Star Wars acolytes, Destiny is the game they secretly hoped would eventually see the light of day. Not because of its mechanics or because it’s collectable, but rather because instead of following the narrative rules that Rebellion and Imperial Assault must adhere to, Destiny is an upending of the toybox onto the carpet. How would Rey fare against Vader? Or Luke in his prime against Kylo Ren?

But I do wonder how much of a genuine difference that will make in the long run. Series fanatics would likely already have a deep-seated interest in the game purely because it is Star Wars, and I’d expect most of them to already have a fairly solid foundation in what this new title from Fantasy Flight Games brings to the table. The key as to whether Destiny achieves its…er…destiny is whether or not there’s enough on offer to convince a passing fan to test the waters.

Of equal relevance is also whether or not FFG are dangerously close to diluting the potency of this franchise – are they introducing midichlorians to the Force mythology? On top of the two FFG titles I mentioned above, there’s also the Star Wars: The Card Game, Star Wars: The RPG, Star Wars: Armada and Star Wars: X-Wing. Sure, they all speak to specific gamer needs, but those are a lot of hungry fish in the pond.

And lastly, there’s the question of the model FFG have settled on for Destiny. Not because I don’t think it’s the right model for the game, because I can’t really see how else they could have packaged it, but it is interesting to see how the publisher that nigh perfected the Living Card Game model, which for many of us was a step in the right direction, are going to handle the inherent volatility of the collectible model.

We were lucky enough late October to get a chance to answer some of these questions as we sat down for a few games, and have had much time to ruminate over the game as we’ve waited for the embargo to drop. If you were hoping for a solid answer, convincing you to run out and grab Destiny this weekend, then you should probably stop reading now. Because the unfortunate truth is that I’m not really any closer to solidifying my opinion. And that might sound like an indictment, after all surely if the game was amazing I’d be the first in line to pick up a copy?

Well, no, not really. With Destiny, I’m not chiefly concerned about whether or not I enjoyed playing the game. That’s a fairly easy question to answer – yes, I did. But unless you’ve already pre-ordered, my counsel would be to wait. Destiny isn’t a Game of Thrones: LCG where you can pick up the core box and probably still get a reasonable amount of enjoyment without picking up any further expansions – if you jump in you’d best make sure your wallet is inflatable.

So just what the heck is in this toybox? First, let’s clear up one thing – Destiny may well count Dice Masters as an influence, but a Dice Masters clone it is not. If anything, Destiny has far more in common with Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, and I’ll come back to that later. But essentially, you have at your disposal 30 points which you can utilise to select characters, as well as a 30 card deck with some fairly basic building rules such as no more than 2 copies of a card. Characters are either heroes or villains, and you can never have both of the same team. So that Luke/Vader combo you’ve been thinking about since you started reading? Not gonna happen.

Each character also possesses a unique set of custom dice, which drive what actions you’ll be able to take. At launch, you’ll be able to pick up a Kylo Ren or Rey starter set as well as Awakenings booster packs. The Rey starter pack includes both Rey and Finn as characters as well as 22 deck cards and nine premium dice, whilst you’ll get Kylo Ren and a First Order Stormtrooper if you choose the Dark Side instead. Booster packs come with 5 randomised cards (3 common, one uncommon and one rare/legendary) and one premium die.

The biggest surprise you’ll get when opening that first starter pack, is the double sided rules brochure. What? You can play Destiny out of the box using a single page of paper? Well, mostly. It’s obviously driven by the need to keep costs and package real estate to a minimum as opposed to ease of play, but it works and that’s what counts. There is a 24 page rules reference which is indicative of both the deeper complexity of the game as well as the anticipation of many clarifications and details explanations that will probably be a mainstay in six months time, but FFG have done an outstanding job in simplifying how quickly you can get up and running.

And that sense of momentum translates to the gameplay too. Pick one action, alternating between you and your opponent, until you can do nothing but pass. Once you’ve both passed, the round ends and the Upkeep phase is performed, then you do it all again. Even the actions themselves are the very essence of brevity – play a card from your hand, activate a character, resolve dice, use a card ability etc. If you’re accustomed to taking multiple actions on a turn or playing multiple cards from hand, the change in pace may take some getting used to.

Destiny also relies on a very basic resource system, starting the game with 2 resource tokens and generating an additional 2 during the Upkeep phase of each round. These are generally how you’ll be able to play cards from your hand, with most cards have a resource cost averaging around 2 but going as high as 6. Three card types feature: Events such as Let The Wookie Win which interfere with the game state, Upgrades such as Jedi Robes which attach to a character and have their own unique die or abilities such as Force Choke, and lastly Support which also add new dice to the playing fields alongside support characters or vehicles such as BB-8 or the Millenium Falcon, but which exist independently.

Victory is achieved by one of two paths – either eliminate all of your opponents characters, or force them to draw a card from an empty deck. The final element of the puzzle are the Battlefield cards. These, as well as characters, are not included in your 30 card deck limit, but you’ll only be able to play one per game. At the start of the game, a roll-off will grant one player the opportunity to choose between either their or their opponents Battlefield, with whichever card is not selected being removed from the game. The remaining Battlefield then becomes available for use one each round for either player, if a player chooses to utilise it. They can only be claimed once per round, and the player who misses out at the start gets 2 shields as compensation.

How important are these Battlefields? To be honest, I’m not quite sure. They are a pretty nifty way of introducing further Star Wars lore into the game with locations such as a Jedi Temple or the Emperor’s Throne Room. And the usefulness of the claim abilities are evident – the Separatist Base forces each opponent to deal 1 unblockable damage to each character – but for me they were the only element that felt tacked on. I’ll freely admit that may be because of how clever the Plot card mechanic in the Game of Thrones LCG is, and it will likely become a far more important element as the game evolves. Possessing the Battlefield does ensure the initiative for the next round, but once you claim it you can take no further actions. Chalk it up to inexperience, but the balance seems off.

There’s a lot to like in Destiny. The dice mechanics work incredibly well and offer a plethora of strategic decisions. Adding new dice to the pool by playing Upgrade cards is not only tremendously satisfying and thematic, but the way in which those dice generate new combos promises great things for the deck building aspect. As with most collectible card games, or any system with an emphasis on rares, Destiny will have to deal with the prickly issue of pay-to-win and giving rise to matchups where one player may have a deck brimming with legendaries. It’s too soon to tell, but I do believe that the multiple methods available in Destiny of manipulating dice should go a fair distance to managing the problem. In the starter sets alone there are dozens of ways for removing dice or manipulating sides from deadly to benign.

And that’s really where FFG have fired up a potentially plodding engine and tuned it for warp speeds. There’s a reason Dice Masters is mainly focused on dice, and most of the bigger CCGs eschew them completely – it’s no easy feat to get cards and dice working together to resemble anything that isn’t the sound of a cats and dogs locked together in a small room. I don’t know what Destiny has pumped into that room, but in their universe cats love dogs and dice love cards and Han and Greedo shot at the same time. Isn’t harmony grand?

A word on perceived value. Booster packs are set to retail between R50 and R60, making them cheaper than MtG boosters. But wait, you might say, they also have less cards than MtG boosters. Which is true, but missing the point entirely. It’s the value of the contents, rather than the quantity that counts, and with Destiny’s far more limited card pool, smaller decks and lower card duplicate restrictions you should get a decent bang for your buck. Taking up Destiny is still going to be expensive, but probably not as expensive as you may have feared.

Characters also have an Elite version (same card but requires two dice) and since if you’re lucky enough to get Darth Vader in a booster he’ll only come with a single die, Destiny’s success will rely very much on what sort of pricing standard the singles market settles on. Fortunately, there are a number of ways of getting around the 2nd die issue, such as repurposing a standard 6-sided die, so if you’re intent on playing the game at a semi-casual level this shouldn’t be much of an obstacle.

Personally? As good as the game is, it’s not one I’m considering taking up, and being the epitome of FFG’s target market, that’s a problem. I love Star Wars. I love CCGs. I love chucking dice. The Star Wars universe is massive and no doubt offers enough content to give Destiny legs, but with the Awakenings card list already including Luke and Darth Vader and Qui-Gon and Han among its 174 cards I am curious to see how they maintain interest. It’s also difficult to invest the kind of time Destiny hopes you will if you’ve already afforded it to X-Wing or Netrunner or MtG. And for me, Ashes has already scratched that very particular itch, and with a wholly original IP to boot.

Massive disclaimer, though. As much as I understand that in such a highly contested market, having the weight of a franchise like Star Wars to throw behind a new product is almost integral to its success, and as excellent a game as Destiny is, I feel a sense of weariness. Perhaps I’ve reached a breaking point of sorts beneath the onslaught of Marvel and DC and Star Wars, and it’s like I’m watching a visually splendid CGI battle from Episode 3 when I’d rather have Return’s throne room show down. As always, if it looks like Destiny may well be the droids you’re looking for, watch some gameplay vids, read loads of opinions and make up your own mind!

Stuart: Yes Commander, there are always elements to fear, and we all know where fear leads – more booster packs. I’d like to force-throw my opinion in here quickly that from initial impressions this is my favourite Star Wars game on the market from FFG. The components are great (those dice are solid and not sticker based plastic cubes as initially feared from pictures) and has my favourite head to head mechanics of dice games played to date. Unlike Paul, I’ve never played Ashes and can’t make the comparison, but the tactics in this game are strong, with players being able to manipulate your own and opponents dice before attacks occur, being able to combine character attacks into devastating combos and the character upgrade elements make this game enthralling. Luck can be mitigated and the better player (if both play identical decks) will win most times. There is also a wealth of Star Wars IP that they can bring into this game extending the longevity for fans. And therein lies my problem with the game, wealth. Not simply having enough money to enjoy the thrill of opening multiple booster packs, but also a wealth of time to give this game the attention it deserves. I think that Destiny should create an amazing competitive scene and that anyone who loves head to head games and Star Wars that isn’t currently investing in a game that has a constant outlay or can afford to put another thruster onto their X-Wing. Sadly, that person isn’t me. (Arkham Horror, I love so much and have already pledged all my savings for all your expansions until Cthulhu devours us all..)

Destiny launches on the 1st of December, but if you’re in Cape Town head out to Quantum Gaming who will be running an official Pre-Launch event with demos of the game and Starter and Booster sets for sale – but only for the duration of the event! Fanaticus is also running a Pre-Launch, so there’s no excuse to avoid sating your curiousity! Still in Cape Town, check out the Battle Bunker in Tygervalley. And if you’re in KZN, get your fix at The Unseen Shoppe. In East London, Galactic Gaming will run theirs on Sunday. Upcountry, you can get your pew-pew fix at Outer Limits in Melville and Pretoria or Battle Wizards in Centurion. the D20 in Alberton and Dragontown in Centurion will also be hosting events.

Many thanks to Etienne from Solarpop Distribution for arranging the preview.