Star Wars Unlimited key asset art on space background with text: "Scratches that faux nostalgia itch"

Star Wars Unlimited Scratches That Faux Nostalgia Itch

By Jamie Greene

If your interests stretch into the realm of gaming at all, you’ve no doubt heard of Star Wars Unlimited, the latest game set in the galaxy far, far away from Fantasy Flight Games. (It launched only a couple months ago.) And if you’re interested in gaming at all, you know that there have been a lot of Star Wars-themed games over the years. Like, a lot. In fact, there have been plenty published by Fantasy Flight Games (FFG).

Star Wars Unlimited is a trading card game (TCG), which… actually, y’know what? I’m just going to assume that nerds visiting a site like Retrofied know what that is without an explanation that will embarrass both of us. So this is not an explainer post.

It’s also not a deep dive into the rules and strategies. Trust me, there are PLENTY of those already online.

What else is it not? A breakdown of card rarities, a ranking of the best cards, or a lament on the current scarcity of product in stores. Again, Google is your friend, and if you’re looking for any of that, you won’t have to look too hard.

So what is this? It’s my humble ode to the… art style, of all things. Yeah, I know. But bear with me.

Grand Moff Tarkin cards for Star Wars Unlimited card game

When the game was first announced last year and cards started getting leaked, there was a lot of online chatter about it, and many were put off by the art style. Oh, who am I kidding? It was downright vitriolic. I know, Star Wars fans complaining online about Star Wars? It’s basically an Olympic sport at this point.

And I’ll admit, the art style in Star Wars Unlimited is… unique. It was certainly a choice FFG made quite deliberately. I’ll also admit that I wasn’t too fond of it at first, either. But you know what? After dozens of games and far too many hours spent thinking about this game, I’m kind of in love with the art. 

General Tagge card from Star Wars Unlimited card game

Rather than continue to use the same tired screenshots and stills from the movies (like Decipher’s legendary Star Wars CCG or even Villainous’s rotoscoped art) or more realistic art (that by now feels like it’s been continually recycled through decades of FFG games, e.g., The Card Game LCG, Deck-building Game, Destiny), Unlimited’s designers opted to take a different approach.

The card art is decidedly comic book-y, and I’m 100% on board. Does it make the game feel targeted to a younger audience? Perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What I love about the art is that it immerses you in a comic book version of the Star Wars universe that never was.

Sure, there are some—ahem—misses in the first set, but overall, it’s a style that makes you wistful for those comics and graphic novels… that never existed. Creating a false sense of nostalgia is a weird approach, but it absolutely works.

The card art doesn’t feel at home in the current Marvel comics or even the Dark Horse (Legends) run from the 90s through the Aughts. No, Star Wars Unlimited feels like a modern take on the classic Marvel comics from the ’70s and ’80s… but without the Bronze Age cheese.

Now that the game has been out in the wild (and almost universally loved, which—as we know—is a rarity among Star Wars fans), we wanted to catch up with FFG’s John Leo (game designer) and Steve Hamilton (art director) to talk more about the art, and the design decisions that got us here.

Aggression action with angry lightsaber-weilding Anakin from Star Wars Unlimited card gameJohn Leo: I hadn’t yet joined the team when we were working out the art direction, but what I can say is that lots of people have come up to me. Prereleases, release events, folks who hadn’t followed the launch closely, they said, “This doesn’t look like other Star Wars games I’ve seen before.” It’s different. It makes people look twice. There’s a value to that, when we can appeal to a person we might not have appealed to in the past. That’s a win.

Steve Hamilton: As a studio, we have had a long track record of Star Wars-related game lines, generally with one unifying visual theme: painterly realism. We love the work that was done on those titles, but we wanted Star Wars Unlimited to be more than “just another Star Wars game” from Fantasy Flight. Our galactic ambitions for this game required a fresh approach, something that would set us apart from what had been done before.

One of the things that makes this game “unlimited” is that it will pull from ALL aspects of the Star Wars universe: movies, shows, live action, animation, comics, novels, video games, and more. The style, obviously, had to allow room to accommodate everything.

SH: The Star Wars universe is growing by leaps and bounds into a variety of media and visual approaches. We wanted to ensure that our style afforded ample space to blend all these distinct sources into one unified, yet diverse look, with enough flexibility to allow for even the outliers of Star Wars material to be represented in the game.  

With a new art style came new challenges, such as finding a new crop of artists who could work in a somewhat consistent style. So how do they go about identifying and working with new artists? (Take note, prospective artists looking to break into the industry!)

Admiral Ackbar card from Star Wars Unlimited card seriesSH: That was a challenge to be sure, especially at the onset of development when we essentially needed to build an entire artist roster from scratch. We had a few artists in our existing game lines that were able to make that transition from realistic into more stylized work, but the majority of our efforts stem from intense scouting via platforms such as artstation, instagram, and other online art communities. We have to examine artists that can work within a specific range: not too exaggerated but not too realistic; not too “comic book,” and not too painterly. Once we find candidates, we then send out solicitations with contract offers for illustrations and go from there. Over time, we built up a brand-new roster of artists, and set by set we are continuously involved with finding new talent to keep the artwork fresh, engaging, diverse, and exciting. For every batch of art development, our team keeps telling ourselves, “This is the best pool of talent we’ve ever had” only to be surpassed by the next one! We cannot wait for the fans to meet the amazing artists who are yet to be revealed in future sets.  

With 252 cards (not counting alt art on promo and premium cards) in Spark of Rebellion, the first set of the game–and even more cards announced for the first expansion, Shadows of the Galaxy (due out in July), there’s a LOT of art in the game. And rumor has it that FFG is currently developing the NINTH expansion for the game (due out in 2027). With that said, this seems like a wonderful opportunity to identify and work with younger artists or artists from historically underrepresented backgrounds, right?

SH: That is an excellent question! Since this game affords such a variety of styles within our parameters, we have recruited many unique artists from all over the world who would normally have had difficulty finding projects that fit their “look.” This has included many artists on the margins of the artistic community, who did not have many venues or commercial options for their work. Thankfully, all that is needed is a good work ethic, an online portfolio, and a team of art directors determined enough to search them out.

Star Wars Unlimited Bounty Hunter card

Set by set, we are continuously involved in this scouting process, pulling in on average 8-10 new artists per set. We have found many younger artists that did not have the most impressive portfolios of work but who were eager for the opportunity to join this project. We have to say, a lot of them have absolutely blown us away and cemented top positions in our roster! We look forward to being able to share their stories when their work is seen for the first time and to talk about the artists whose lives have been changed since joining our roster. It is an amazing pool of talent that makes up this beautiful tapestry of Star Wars Unlimited

So it scratches a fake nostalgic itch, sure. But what about the IRL retro fan?

SH: We have been working on this game for over three and a half years, and we can assure you that we have planned out many future decks with so many characters, locations, vehicles, and events. We are all huge Star Wars fans, each with our own favorite parts of the franchise. We feel confident that fans will see their favorite aspects in the game at some point. For retro fans, we felt we have a duty to incorporate classic parts of the franchise, especially because of how beloved they are, and they will certainly see features from the classics.  

That means Jaxxon, right? We’ll eventually get a Jaxxon card?

SH: You’ll just have to wait and see! Stay tuned.