I was looking back through my card collection, and came across the WARS TCG by Decipher Games.
It was released in October 2004, and by May 2005 it was dead.
As I was looking through the cards one thing which struck me was the quality of them. The card templates are top notch, as is the artwork. Many of the artists who worked on the game were highly respected, including famous names like Randy ‘rk’ Post.
Even by modern standards the cards are excellent, and in my opinion compare favourably to even the likes of Android: Netrunner.
Here are some examples:
Besides from the great artwork, the game had other things going for it. The rules were inherited from the Star Wars CCG, which at the time was one of the best game systems around, and was up there with Magic the Gathering and Pokemon in terms of sales.
The rules were a perfect fit for Star Wars. The game made heavy use of locations, vehicles, and characters - which Star Wars has a plentiful supply of. You could build a deck with Luke Skywalker, the Millenium Falcon, Tatooine, or any of your other favourite parts of the Star Wars universe.
When Decipher lost the Star Wars license, they created WARS TCG to takes its place, based on an entirely new IP that they developed in house.
No shortcuts were taken in developing the new IP. From Wikipedia:
Its development involved people of unusual prominence: Michael Stackpole had a hand in the game’s backstory and wrote the first short stories that introduced the background to the public, John Howe conceived the Quay extraterrestrial race, and physicists were consulted to improve the scientific plausibility of the game’s backdrop premises.
The backstory even had samurai warriors who lived on Mars and had giant robots. That’s pretty cool!
We have a good set of rules, and a solid, new IP - so why did it go so wrong?
Star Wars is obviously a tough act to follow.
One thing which players don’t want to do is invest a lot of money in a game, and then have to re-buy a load more stuff later on. People with large Star Wars CCG collections had access to a rich card pool which they were familiar with and enjoyed. Buying a load more cards for a less mature version of the same game would have been a hard sell.
Collectible formats work a lot better for existing IPs. The rare cards are the Darth Vaders and Luke Skywalkers. People have an affinity for these characters, and they are inherently collectible, even for people who aren’t serious about the game.
For a new IP, you’re reliant on people chasing rare cards because of their power level within the game, or people looking to complete a collection. When WARS was released, the collectible format (consisting of booster packs) was the norm. The last few years has seen the rise of non-collectible card games, with the likes of Android: Netrunner. I think WARS would’ve been far more successful in a non-collectible format.
What made the rules excellent for the Star Wars CCG - a game which had lots of different characters, locations, and vehicles, is actually a liability for a new IP.
When you’re trying to build an IP, you need to build a certain amount of depth to the characters. Ideally the game would focus around a small number of characters, and a large number of support cards for those characters which help establish who they are.
With a game like WARS, which requires loads of characters, it’s hard to give them any real depth. Each major release included dozens of new characters.
You see this problem in other games too. Doomtown comes to mind.
For Android: Netrunner, the reverse is true. Each deck only contains a single main character (the ‘runner’ or ‘corp’). Ask any serious Netrunner player and I bet they can name most of the runners and corps from the game.
Decipher had many issues internally, and who knows how much this contributed to the failure of WARS. If they had the finances to release a few more sets, would that have helped? It’s unclear.
Ironically, fans are still playing the Star Wars CCG - 14 years after the game went out of print!
If WARS was re-released today, would it succeed? In a non-collectible format, it would stand a better chance. The lessons that can be taken away from its initial demise are: