Monday, September 19, 2016

Lucas Land, Part 1: First Contact

My first “real” job, not yet quite out of college, was that of web writer for starwars.com.
I would go on to live through many adventures during my two-year tenure at Skywalker Ranch—starting with actually getting there.

Back in 1996, a game company called Decipher Inc. decided, for the first time, to run a world championship event for their planetary hit, the Star Wars Customizable Card Game.  Stripped down to its underwear, Star Wars CCG involved players assembling a collection out of random packs of cards, then using said collection to construct a deck of their own invention, before sitting down in front of an opponent armed with his own deck, and finally pitting both contraptions against each other. Players would draw card after card from their decks, deploying to the table a whole roster of characters from the movies, launching them in starships and vehicles on a myriad worlds, and have them attack left, right and center until one player ran out of cards and was forced to bow out of the match. The game sported the very best images culled from Star Wars movies that I’ve ever seen grace any product, with a wickedly addictive game growling underneath it all. No wonder players from every corner of the world flocked to it. And in the summer of ’96, Decipher decided to invite them all to a big fight.

Decipher’s plan called for “regional qualifiers” to be held all over the world, with the intent of flying regional winners over to the US where the final confrontation would take place. As an already established organizer of local tournaments in Montreal, I got a call from Decipher one morning, asking if I’d agree to run one of Canada’s two regional qualifiers. Of course, that meant forfeiting my own opportunity to participate, which gave me—and no doubt most of the other regional organizers—pause. But Decipher knew how to soften the blow: when the world champion received his ultimate prize (which had not yet been announced at that time), the organizer who had run the regional qualifier whence the world champion came would receive the exact same recompense. I hesitated a moment before caving in and agreeing to organize my end of the bargain.

My regional qualifier was a big success, with a sizeable turnout and few logistical problems—and inevitably one guy emerged victorious after a gruelling series of hard-fought cardboard battles. That man then went on to compete in the final tournament and, wouldn’t you know it, ended up winning the first title of Star Wars CCG World Champion. And so it was that the morning after the final showdown, while I was barely out of bed, Decipher rang me up with the big news. (This was 1996, remember: it was rather complicated—if at all possible—to look up the results on the web.) We had a short, polite conversation, and I remember being happy, most of all, that a Montrealer had walked away wearing the crown. Then the Decipher guy on the phone reminded me that because I had “produced” the eventual world champion through my regional qualifier, I was entitled to the same grand prize as the winner himself: an all-expenses-paid trip to Tunisia, to visit the actual shooting locations used in the making of A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie.
Words failed me.
For a Star Wars fan of my ilk, this was the Holy Grail.
(And speaking of the Holy Grail—well, I guess that’s a story for another day.)
That very unorthodox tour was to be led by archaeologist David West Reynolds—as close to a real-life Indiana Jones as you’ll ever meet—who had himself rediscovered most of the 1976 locations during a recent expedition to North Africa. (It’s worth mentioning that Lucasfilm itself had lost track of most of the now iconic shooting spots; back then, almost nobody thought the movie would amount to anything worth chronicling.) Nowadays, with the help of a few articles written on the subject—including one of my own—fans can (and many, indeed, already have) retrace George Lucas’ steps from one Tunisian sand dune to the next. But back in 1996, that hallowed trail didn’t exist: we were about to blaze it.

And so it was that about six months later, I found myself landing in Tunis, not far from the remains of ancient Carthage. I’ll have to see if I can dig up that old piece of mine, written back in the day for the now-defunct Scrye Magazine. As I recall, it was a fun and effervescent account of the whole trip, including many references to the card game that had made such folly possible. (Scrye was a gaming publication, after all.)  But for now, suffice it to say that the more time I spent with Reynolds, our intrepid, bullwhip-carrying guide (I kid you not), the more I discovered that we had a whole universe of personal traits in common, in addition to a shared obsession with Star Wars. We were getting along splendidly and I soon reached a tipping point where I felt as if I had just unearthed a long-lost brother (on what amounted to an archaeological dig, no less!). Reynolds soon expressed similar feelings, and we found ourselves looking warily at our eroding schedule, wondering where and when we’d find an opportunity to get together again once the expedition was over. It was “friendship at first sight,” an instant connection we couldn’t simply abandon.

And then, one evening towards the end of our trip, Reynolds—who had been hired as web editor by Lucasfilm just a few months prior—let out a handful of words that changed my life: “You know, you’re exactly the kind of guy I’d need at the Ranch.”

It would be almost two years before I got The Call.
But what a call.


You can read Part 2 here.



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