"When the screen is rolled up the great sky opens."
– Wu-men kuan
Its May 4th 2004, The United States has been at war in Iraq for over a year now, not to mention that we're still in Afghanistan. Things aren't really that great. Star Wars Episode 3 is coming next year, so that will be exciting, but in the meantime at Decipher games, Star Wars is the problem of the day. A few years ago, Lucasfilm decided to give the license for creating the Star Wars trading card game to Wizards of the Coast, which was a problem because Decipher had been making a profitable Star Wars TCG for years with a huge built in playerbase. Sure, Decipher had other games: the Lord of the Rings Card Game was doing well, and the Star Trek game was moseying along well to, but Star Wars had been the cash cow that had really made the company, and not everybody wanted to switch over to Hobbiton adventures.
What was decided is obvious to you reading this: a new card game would be created, one using the same rules as the old Star Wars CCG, but with a new setting created and owned by Decipher so that they would never lose the rights to it. The plan was ambitious: despite Decipher's extensive CCG experience, all of their most profitable games had been from licensed properties from other companies. They had made their name off of making games from movies and TV shows, and had practically perfected the art of managing to take tiny details in the background of images and creating whole new cards and characters out of them. To make their own game, they would need to create their own art for the game, not to mention create a whole new setting the game could be set in.
One has to wonder if at some point someone working on WARS didn't throw up their hands and wonder if they could just get the rights to Battle Star Galactica and make a card game based on that, or some other Sci-Fi property: just pay the license fee, reuse the rules, move on with life. That probably would have been economical, though also a pretty cheap money grab. Instead, the most creative and daring option was chosen: A new game, a new setting, a new adventure. Out with the old, and in with WARS.
The optimism surrounding WARS at this point was, depending on your point of view: sad, naive, inspiring, or just corporate spin. Getting down on WARS is easy, after all it did fail, and unfortunately there were plenty of people at the time down on WARS for reasons entirely unrelated to the quality of what Decipher was creating at the time. Decipher had a hugely bestselling game with their Star Wars Collectable Card Game, and they continued that with their Lord of the Rings game, but Decipher made some questionable business decisions with its Star Wars Game that tainted the opinions of many players, which we will discuss in more detail later. Essentially, many shop owners were reluctant to carry the WARS Trading Card Game from the moment it was announced, and their reluctance was a hurdle the game never really overcame.
I myself remember going excitedly into my local game store, the former “Bower Street Cards and Games” (now “Realms Games” in a different location) and asking if they were going to carry WARS. The owner just laughed for a moment, and said no. I was crestfallen, but no one was really that interested at the store. No one was interested in pre-ordering boxes of the game, and people seemed more interested in the remaining supply of the old Star Wars Card Game than Decipher's replacement for it, and most of the players had jumped ship straight for the Lord of the Rings Cardgame, myself included.
What this meant was that WARS' announcement wasn't so much an announcement of the continuation of the Star Wars CCG as it was an entirely new endeavor that for all it tried to be like Star Wars, wasn't going to be accepted as just the fill in for Decipher not having the Star Wars license. The announcement needed to pack a punch.
In many ways it did: we learned that John Howe, the famous Lord of the Rings artist would be designing aliens for the setting, and Michael A. Stackpole would be writing stories for it. Those two names alone are pretty impressive credentials: Howe was at his height of being a big name artist, with the popularity of the Lord of the Rings movies and his prominent role in the art and designs for them. Stackpole was a New York Times Bestselling author, and was one of the most beloved authors of the Star Wars novels, having written five novels for the X-Wing Series, the novel “I, Jedi” and two of the most well received entries in the controversial “New Jedi Order” book series. Getting both of them was a big deal, and important in the Public Relations game of selling WARS as being not just relevant, but a successor to Star Wars. Both are very talented artists in their own right, but securing them was as much a victory for the game as the work they would do. You didn't even have to see what they would create as their reputations spoke for themselves quite clearly.
While the names are exciting for fans of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, they aren't particularly well known outside the circles of those fandoms. Neither of them are in the colloquial sense of the term, rock stars. Indeed, it focuses the message clearly: this is a game for the fans we already have. This is what you like? This is what we are giving you! While drawing in the old crowd of a popular game is a pretty good move, we're still left with one big problem: how is Decipher going to draw in people who are not already familiar with the Star Wars CCG?
For now though, they are focused on the old guard, and the enhancements to the old game seem downright delectable. A streamlining of the often overcomplicated rules of the original game? A single card-back instead of the two card backs that the old Star Wars Game had? Yes please! The press release also cites a figure from Warren Holland, Decipher's CEO, stating that they had received tens of thousands of emails asking them to continue the mechanics from the Star Wars CCG, and that this new game would allow them to control the destiny of the game for its players.
Which leads us back to an annoying point: this game wouldn't exist if Decipher hadn't lost the Star Wars license, and its creators seem more than a little miffed that they did. For a game that is continuing the legacy of an older game, and courting its player base, one can't help but sense a bit of underlying anger, real or imagined, that Lucasfilm left them high and dry. While everyone involved seems very excited and happy to be working on something with no chain and no master, if the game fails Decipher is going to be in some serious trouble.
Yet, despite all the 20/20 Hindsight and previous doomsaying, its hard to say that the decision to make WARS wasn't a sound one from a business perspective. Decipher had a devoted following from the Star Wars CCG, and its players had given huge lipservice to wanting to continue playing with the mechanics of that game. Decipher could reap all the profits from the game if it was successful, without having to pay a large license fee to Lucasfilm. Decipher could finally have its own game that could run forever like Magic the Gathering, unrestrained by how many movies there were to make into cards, and unhindered by how long its license for the game would last. Let me stress: this was a gamble worth taking, and it was one that while costly if a failure, Decipher could afford to take barring some huge unforeseen misfortune that I am not foreshadowing at all whatsoever.
What shape WARS will even take at this point is still unclear as well. The press release quotes an ancient book of Buddhist Proverbs, which is technically the first words anyone reads about WARS. It says its in our distant future, and concerns aliens invading through “the Mumon Rift.” Whatever this universe is, we really have no point of reference to it. After all, its not like there is a movie we've watched about this setting or anything.
Which takes us to a shift in topic: The name “WARS” for the game. The first mention of WARS has it called “The Mumon Rip Wars”, which sounds a bit silly. Luckily some fans suggest the word “Rift” rather than “Rip” and a much better name is born. “The Mumon Rift Wars” Card Game it is! Unfortunately that wasn't to last however, as there was another game being made called “Rifts” that was rather unhappy there was another game using the word “Rift” in its title. To belay any controversy or legal action, Decipher changed the name to just WARS. Out of all of the decisions about WARS, this one might be the worst. While I'll be picking through and over-analyzing every WARS release ever over the next few weeks, and slowly talking about my analysis of why things did or didn't work, its hard to put off the very name of the game itself. Lets just be clear about this: I love WARS more than any other Sci-Fi Universe ever, its my favorite game, and my favorite setting, but WARS is a godawful name for it.
Try Googling WARS. What comes up? Its not this game, that’s for sure, and it wasn't even 10 years ago. In order to get to WARS you have to put in other keywords like “Mumon Rift”, “Decipher”, “Grail Quest Books”, etc. The name literally cannot stand by itself.
WARS is clearly meant to associate the property with Star Wars, but it also ties it to Star Wars so intently it cannot really break free of it. Trying to explain the name WARS can result in this comical exchange I've had several times:
“WARS, and its Sci-Fi?”
“So like, WARS in space, like some sort of... Star Wars?”
WARS could definitely use a better title, even to this day. While the branding of WARS is slowly latching people onto the name WARS, if the name was changed to something like say... “The Mumon WARS” it would be a lot easier for most people to remember, search for on the internet, and talk about. A plus side to the name is its short and easy to spell and remember if you do care about the property, but I don't think that outweighs the name's many downsides. If a better name had been chosen from the beginning, one that was more individual and distinct, maybe WARS would have stuck in people's memories better and the game would have survived on for far longer than it did. Maybe. Its all just shrugs and guesswork on that front. We can't know the alternative future from that for certain, but it does seem like the name is a sticking point even to this day.
But it is what it is, and the game was announced. Decipher had built a dream, and the dream was spreading out into reality, taking its form. Now we just had to wait for our first real taste of the setting, but before that, Decipher had one innovation with WARS that is really quite remarkable, and dare I say it, far ahead