Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Stormtrooper copsI’m walking around Taris, right? I just got done murdering a Sith officer and a couple of faceless troopers for being unpleasant to a jabbering alien guy (an alien guy whom—it must be noted—seemed to have some experience completely vanishing dead bodies). So, like you do after successfully killing intergalactic authority figures, I’m off to the bar to celebrate.

(Wait, sorry. I meant I’m off to the cantina. Because one scene in Star Wars took place in a cantina, the rest of the goddamn universe is robbed of bars, saloons, lounges, taverns, and dives. It’s like there are only two types of eatery licenses available: cantinas, and that Silver Diner Obi Wan went to when he was too lazy to do his own homework.)

I get to the bar (fuck you, Star Wars style guide), and there’s some dude standing around asking if I want to play cards. Only he calls it Pazaak. Sure, okay, like in the old west, right? Well, see, it turns out it’s not so much. It’s a lot like cards. Hell, it’s a lot like blackjack. But someone’s gone and spaced it all up.

Pazaak boardI’m not trying to make 21, I’m trying to make 20.

And I don’t just take whatever the hell I’m dealt. I get to play special cards from my hand, like in hold’em.

But instead of each player being dealt from the same deck, I only get to use cards that you own, like in Magic.

And there are these special cards, see, that allow me to switch up the values of the cards and OH MY GOD I WILL SHOOT YOU IN THE FACE, SPACEMAN.

For the life of me there are two things I will never fully appreciate about modern RPGs:

1) Every RPG developer feels the need to include a gambling mini-game.

2) Every RPG developer feels the need to reinvent gambling games.

KotOR is not the only RPG to do this bullcrappery. Witcher has its dice games. Mass Effect has Quasar. New Vegas. Etc. And each time it ends up annoying me.

Witcher Dice Game

My main problem is this: Pazaak is making the familiar strange—needlessly.

Almost every time a relatively straightforward game is muddied up and overcomplicated for no good reason. To go back to Pazaak, the game is goddamn blackjack. But sure, there’s no blackjack in Star Wars. So target number is changed to 20. Whatever. But there’s a hand to play from. Now it’s self-indulgent. On top of that, there are special wild cards that make it wacky. Now we’re in silly-land.

Why was blackjack so bad? Are there that many GDs with frustrated dreams of being tabletop designers, and this is the only way that their designs see the light of day in a world where physical gaming products are a dying market?

Perry Bible Fellowship Comic

Oh, right.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s a good reason. Mini-games should not be a place to work through creative frustrations and insecurities.

That’s what blogs are for.

Here I give some credit to New Vegas, for sticking to traditional gambling games for the most part. I get slot machines, I get roulette, I get blackjack. Didn’t have to wasteland it all up just for its own sake.

I blame Star Trek’s Tri-D chess for this. If you don’t know, in Star Trek everyone plays three-dimensional chess. It’s like normal chess, but instead of one flat board there are three or four smaller boards in a weird sort of tower. And what are the rules? Spock kicks everyone’s ass until Kirk does something unexpected. That’s fucking it because it doesn’t need real rules. It serves the same damn function as normal chess.

Wikipedia tells me that there are three-dimensional chess variants, but Star Trek didn’t give a shit. It’s a visual gag, pure and simple. So long as it stays Spock Tri-D Chesschess but with a visual gimmick, all’s fine with the world. The instant understanding the special space rules of Tri-D chess become important to following the plot, some writer is going to writer hell. SPACE CHESS, MOTHERFUCKER. SPOCK’S GOOD AT IT. END WORLD BUILD.

It’s the same with mini-games in a larger video game. What’s important is that the space game serves the same narrative role as whatever it’s standing in for. So Pazaak is like poker, right? I’m the goddamn space cowboy, and wandered into the saloon cantina, and I’m gonna win a space ship off of Lando. You remember that part, right? Han won the Millennium Falcon off of Lando in a game of chance. Probably some form a space cards. They don’t tell you what game it was, but you can guess it was probably something cowboyish, given that it was Han. A game of chance that involved skill, but ultimately can go to either player given the right conditions.

You know, like blackjack.

Blue Eyes White DragonYou know what it probably didn’t involve? Han scouring the universe for three hours so he could find the super-ultra-rare Blue Eyed God Fucker for his black deck. But that’s the Pazaak experience. It’s blackjack, but with the random bits of CCG design thrown in to prolong the consequence-less closed-loop experience despite serving no mechanical function and violating the only narrative purposes it had.

Pazaak isn’t about being a space cowboy. It’s about being a space nerd who drops way too much time and money into building my awesome deck, so my deck can be the best in the universe and all the jabbering, cop-killing aliens will stop laughing at me.

Again, going to give props to New Vegas here. Just a classic mix of casino games and cowboy aesthet—OH WHAT THE HELL, CARAVAN.

Fallout Caravan


  1. And what happens if I work way too hard at actually winning money in Pazaak, even to the point of quickloading after a bad streak?

    Also, you win 1000 internet points for "SPACE CHESS, MOTHERFUCKER."

  2. There can be a role for minigames. As I said somewhere in the gibberish, playing a game of space poker fits the Star Wars universe wonderfully. But over complicating it, making it foreign, can work against that tone if taken too far. And the collection metagame you need to play to be competitive removes your actions from the core tone even further.

    I forced my way through Pazaak, but I did it out of a need to buy things and sheer bloody mindedness. I did not do it because it seemed like an appropriate Star Wars thing to do.