Tuesday, February 4, 2020

WEG Memoirs: Sabacc Proposal

I was doing some post-holiday tidying when I stumbled upon an old manuscript box with the words “Sabacc Proposal” scrawled in marker on the side. It’s filled with a hodge-podge of cards – two full-color deck for the proposal, one black-and-white deck with card backs I think I printed for later convention games – some credit chits and bills, a few “item” cards with values for when the stakes went high, and some copies of the rules. Kind of a mess, really. It’s a relic from my time working on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game at West End Games in the mid 1990s. My boss Rich Hawran and I had an opportunity – goodness knows how it came about – to present some Star Wars-based game designs to a development team at Hasbro, specifically the card game sabacc and the holo-chess game dejarik. We drafted rules, prototyped components, and did some basic playtesting, but overall we were little more than rank amateurs pitching game ideas with fueled by our fanboy enthusiasm for Star Wars.

The game of sabacc in Star Wars has a long and checkered history. First mentioned in Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, it worked its way into Star Wars lore as the game played in that legendary moment when Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon from Lando (most recently canonized on the silver screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story). A kind of “space poker,” it centered on players collecting and betting on cards trying to get as close to 23 as possible; an electronic randomizer occasionally changed the face of the chip-enhanced cards unless they were placed in an interference field to protect them as part of a winning hand. The game remained a curious footnote in Star Wars continuity in the fallow years after Return of the Jedi when the Star Wars franchise faded from the popular collective consciousness.... Until West End Games revived that interest (with a great deal of help from Timothy Zahn’s New York Times best-selling Star Wars trilogy in the early 1990s).

West End’s earliest roleplaying game adventures each came with additional components, usually some counters for the Star Warriors game, others for use on page-sized setting maps, and a modest poster-sized map of some sort; my favorite by far was Jennel Jacquays’ magnificent double-sided Mos Eisley and Cantina maps from Tatooine Manhunt. But one early adventure skipped the map in favor of something else entirely, one of the rarities of those earliest publications. Part of Crisis on Cloud City’s plot involved the heroes playing a game of sabacc. The adventure included perforated sheets containing a complete set of sabacc cards as well as four pages of rules. Designers Michael Stern, Douglas Kaufman, and Greg Gordon used a dice mechanic to simulate the electronic randomizer changing card values; each turn after players placed the initial bets a d6 result of 1, 2, or 3 forced players to randomly choose one card from the next player’s hand, which was put into a pool and redistributed. For a while Crisis on Cloud City was (and may still be) one of the most sought-after early West End Star Wars products precisely for those sabacc cards. The company never reproduced it like many adventures re-issued for the game’s second edition in the “Classic Adventures” line; even if it had, I expect the cards would have been left out, as most of the great poster inserts were distilled into interior graphics to cut down on production costs.

West End Games' office north of
Honesdale, PA, 1993.
Years passed. I joined West End in 1993 to edit the Star Wars Adventure Journal, contribute to numerous projects, and eventually oversee the editorial department. I can’t recall the circumstances which precipitated us designing sabacc and dejarik to pitch to Hasbro. Maybe we were invited, perhaps someone at Lucasfilm put it in Hasbro’s ear, maybe we simply channeled our enthusiasm into pestering someone for an opportunity. Probably around 1997 Rich and I started designing and prototyping our games. I printed up a new set of cards, including 12 additional “randomizer cards” to slip into the deck; anyone drawing them followed the instructions, usually to swap with another player, discard and draw a new card, things like that. It seemed innovative yet demonstrated some sequencing problems. Rich had a holo-chess board and pieces; I regret I was so wrapped up in sabacc I didn’t have a chance to really immerse myself in his game. We drove out to Hasbro’s headquarters in New England for a meeting with some executives and a development team. I can’t remember any names, but I recall feeling incredibly out of our league. We played through both games, but nothing ever came of our efforts.

My proposal was nixed, supposedly by somebody at Lucasfilm itself, on the premise that “We don’t want to encourage kids to gamble.” I have long suspected this was an excuse to simply reject a game proposal that, frankly, wasn’t well-developed and was probably too much of a hassle for a juggernaut like Hasbro to bother with. Nothing came of Rich’s dejarik game design, either, though I’ll admit the concept had a better chance making it into production than sabacc. I don’t recall the circumstances under which we managed to set-up the game pitches to Hasbro, but I doubt the game design luminaries there looked kindly on a bunch of newcomers seeking to parlay their knowledge and enthusiasm for the Star Wars franchise into successful family games.

I ran the game at a few conventions during my Desperate Freelance Years after West End declared bankruptcy and laid off its staff. While players enjoyed it – and the spare Star Wars Monopoly credit coins I gave away with the credit notes I printed – the game certainly played more like space poker than anything uniquely Star Wars. It also proved the fiddly nature of the card-based randomizer mechanic.

These days, after a few minutes searching the interwebzes, it might seem like everyone has their own interpretation of the game, mostly unofficial (like so many other aspects of our favorite media properties). Most recently a company capitalized on the untrademarked concept and name of sabacc, which descended into a morass of cease and desist orders, court actions, and eventual settlement. The version of sabacc published to coincide with the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story didn’t seem to sell too well; no, I didn’t feel compelled to purchase that version and give the rules a try, even when it was deeply discounted in the clearance bin. While a card game simulating one found in the Star Wars universe sounds neat, I’d rather spend my time running adventures with the roleplaying game. Designing something like that – like creating any content for a widely loved media franchise with hordes of opinionated and easily disappointed fans – is like tap dancing through a minefield; you might please a few people, but it’s more likely to explode in your face.

I don’t know why I keep that old manuscript box with my sabacc proposal. Maybe it helps prove how hopelessly sentimental I’ve become. Maybe I’m just a pack-rat who can’t just let go of these meaningful bits of my past. I think perhaps it’s a reminder of a time in my life – and in the growth of the Star Wars franchise – when fans like me, with a good deal of publishing and game design experience, had opportunities to bring their work to a wider audience, to professionally publish product folks would use and play with, to contribute to a universe that truly inspired them.


  1. Wonderful bit of gaming history there. Please don't ever dispose of the prototype.

    Crisis on Cloud City modules with their sabacc sheets intact sell for ridiculous sums. I have no doubt your prototype set - along with its story - would do well at auction. Even if that doesn't appeal to you, donating the proceeds to charity would be a great outcome as well.


  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Wayne. I'm keeping everything in the box for now; maybe I'll stumble on it again in a few years and find a more fitting home for it. (If I were doing conventions like I used to I'd donate it to a charity auction, but those days are in the past....) And I'll make a mental note to put my pristine, not-even-stamped-with-my-name copy of Crisis on Cloud City (with un-punched cards and counters) in that pile of "Pete's Gaming Rarities" I keep telling myself I should send you.


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