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Pazaak is Better Than Sabacc

Pazaak is Better Than Sabacc

STAR WARS - Knights of the Old Republic (or, KOTOR) has hit its 20th anniversary this year and it remains a beloved classic RPG, remembered for many great things: charismatic characters, stunning twists, and being a gosh darn Star Wars RPG set in a then-unexplored time period, just to name a few. However, what I love most about KOTOR is undoubtedly the pseudo-blackjack card game known as Pazaak. Okay, maybe it’s not the best part of the game, but I absolutely love it all the same, and I am endlessly disappointed that it does not possess nearly the same height of popularity as its sister fictional Star Wars card game, Sabacc.

I mean, I understand why this is the case and do not expect Disney or Lucasfilm to make this (absolutely necessary) change. Sabacc was introduced decades before Pazaak, has roots in an earlier script for The Empire Strikes Back, and has even made major appearances in works like Solo: A Star Wars Story — no wonder it’s the version with real-life physical copies. Pazaak being just a precursor to Sabacc is fine enough as it is. All that being said, Pazaak is, in my eyes, an infinitely more engaging game than Sabacc or any of its variants, and the only reason I can even imagine Sabacc becoming more popular in-universe is because it allows up to eight players where Pazaak is limited it to two.

KOTOR Pazaak Building Side Deck

On the surface, the two games are quite similar in that both are essentially just a form of Blackjack with extra features. As a simple explanation for the uninitiated, Blackjack is a card game typically seen in casinos where players are dealt playing cards from a 52-card deck where each one has a point total associated with it, with the points equalling the number displayed on the card, save for the Ace (which can equal either one point or 11 at the player’s whim) as well as the Jack, Queen, and King (these are known as “face cards” and each equal 10 points). The goal is to achieve a point total as close to 21 without going over that number. Usually, Blackjack is only played between a dealer and the player, without any one player having the ability to “win” against anyone but the dealer, even in situations where multiple people are playing with the same dealer and deck at the same time. Both Pazaak and Sabacc, however, take a different direction, turning the game into an inter-player competition like more typical examples of Poker.

In Pazaak’s case, this difference is a tad muddled by the nature of it remaining a two-player game. Switching from playing versus a dealer to against an equal party only changes two aspects of the game innately: first, since the two playing are on equal ground, tied games cannot automatically go in one player’s favour over another’s and, thereby, something else must happen in the matter of a tie, and second, there is no added complexity from the dealer’s ability to play multiple games at the same time, meaning there is a lesser impact on the total pool of available cards. Beyond these factors, the root of the game is the same and a lot of the basic maths and strategy involved in typical Blackjack can carry over just fine.

In other words, Pazaak remains a stable, playable game, and — as long as its designers don’t change too much from here on in — the finished product should be the same. This is, after all, the point. Pazaak, at least in regard to the nitty gritty design details, is an invention of the people behind KOTOR as a playable mini-game to be enjoyed in its execution, and anything that keeps Pazaak from being enjoyable to play should have been reconsidered before release.

KOTOR Pazaak Ties Dont Count

Pazaak went through a few more changes from there, of course. Easy-discussable modifications include the reduction of the desired score from 21 to an even 20 and the removal of all face cards and the special properties of the Ace, which leaves the remaining main deck 40 cards strong, ranging from 1–10 in value. Another obvious change is in how, rather than having as many rounds as the player can stand, each game of Pazaak is split into individual sets, with the winner being whoever manages to first win three sets over the course of the game. In cases of ties, the set is thrown out and play starts anew, neither player counting that set as a victory. In regards to betting, if any such scandalous activity occurs, it is usually only over who will win each total game.

Lastly, Pazaak also incorporates the use of a side deck of cards: in this case, a set of cards that can further modify a player’s point total, either raising it or lowering it between 1–6 points. Some cards (particularly in Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which included a couple of new additions to the side deck) have additional effects, such as doubling the last card played or allowing a player to win if they tied during that set. However, players must be careful when choosing when to use their side deck, as only four of a player's chosen cards come with them into any given game of Pazaak, and those four are randomly selected as well. Throw in the fact that side decks are not replenished between sets and those four cards become a player’s only lifeline for the entire game — they are to be used wisely. I can say from personal experience, there are few things worse than using up your side deck on a set that ends in failure!

On the whole, I have greatly enjoyed Pazaak whenever I’ve had a chance to play it in KOTOR and its sequel; it may not be the literal “best part” of the classic RPGs, but it is a fantastic inclusion and I applaud the clear work and love that went into making it so darn fun. It keeps an incredibly engaging aspect of Blackjack, where you are desperate to get as close as possible to the goal that you’re ready to risk it all on the chance that you get a card with just the right value, while also incorporating these fascinating new angles for strategising. I can truly believe that Pazaak would work within the world of Star Wars, because I know it works for me outside of it.

KOTOR II Pazaak Rules

Sabacc… is a wee bit more complicated. For one thing, reworking Blackjack to support up to eight people can be a little difficult, especially if you don’t want it to come out just looking like a normal Poker game. For another thing, it wasn’t created as a mini-game for real people to play, but as a worldbuilding element and a plot point; it’s far more important to make sure that Sabacc can be read in a meaningful light and be thematically appropriate, or otherwise allow for writers to create interesting scenes, than to ensure that Sabacc is actually, y’know… fun. If you’re not careful to keep that in mind, a fictional game can start to lose all credibility as a functional activity. I’m not saying there aren’t rules or anything, but many of those that exist seem a tad pointless.

Foundationally, Sabacc is quite interesting: it ups the goal from 21 points to 23… as well as -23. Yes, Sabacc doubles the fun by incorporating a wide range of negative cards and asks its players to get as close to 23 as possible, whether the result be a positive 23 or a negative one. To allow for this wider range of play, the deck size is also increased to hold 76 cards, though (at least in traditional Sabacc) only 15 of them actually have a negative value. The remaining cards are split into 15-card suits, ranging from 1–15, and a final one having a value of zero, it being known as The Idiot. All of the negative cards and the highest four of each suit also have names and special designs, though many of these are based more on a traditional Tarot deck than what is ordinarily used for Poker. The Idiot, for instance, is an obvious reference to The Fool, a very important card in Tarot.

Play starts with every player receiving two cards and putting money into two separate “pots”, piles of cash that the winner takes at the end of a given round or game. In this case, one pot — known as the “hand pot” — goes to the winner of each round, whereas the other pot, known as the “Sabacc pot”, goes to the ultimate victor of the entire game. From there, every player calls out their current totals. Following that, every player has the opportunity to draw a card, trade one of their existing cards for an unknown one from the deck, or leave their hand as it is. Once everyone’s had a chance to do so, another betting phase happens; then the player closest to 23 or -23 wins the round, and the cards are either kept or redealt for the next round, depending on the version of Sabacc. What determines the end of the game as a whole changes from time to time, but it usually ends once someone gets one of the best hands: a positive 23, a negative 23, or “The Idiot’s Array”, made by playing The Idiot alongside a two and a three, which beats everything else in the game.

As games go, this works so far. It’s weirdly a lot more difficult to pull together a good negative hand than a positive one — primarily considering that any numerical tie between a high score and its negative inverse will always see the positive score winning; why punish hands that are more difficult to get? — and determining the end of a game by waiting until someone gets a major hand seems like it could lead to both incredibly short and unsatisfying experiences as well as endlessly long and boring ones. Certainly, I prefer the styles of Sabacc that end the game after a set amount of rounds! Additionally, by hiding how the other players’ cards are impacted by their draws and trades until the end, Sabacc loses some of the “chicken” aspect of the original Blackjack. You’re no longer trading turns to see when you want to stop getting closer to the goal; you’ve got basically one or two shots to get closer to that point and then you may as well wait until the next round. Yet, Sabacc here still works as an interesting Blackjack/Poker fusion with Tarot trappings. It doesn’t seem quite as fun as Blackjack, Poker, or Pazaak to me on a personal level, but I can see the appeal at this point, even if some design decisions escape me.

The truly senseless part turns up when you get into the Sabacc Shift. In most cases, this occurs whenever a randomiser or a pair of dice call for it, so it’s meant to be an annoying rarity. The dice, whether literal or robotic, are rolled after every betting phase — in other words, once everyone’s got their final hands for the round. Shifting is really very simple: all of your cards are randomised and turned into other cards. The only thing that stays the same is the amount of cards that you have in your hand. In some cases, there will also be a disruptor field that each player can place one card into to keep that one card safe, but I don’t fully see the point of that outside of trying to build a specific hand, like The Idiot’s Array. Perhaps if a player could put more cards into their disruptor field, then you could think of it as a decision between getting a final chance at a new hand or staying your course to the end, but with only one card in there, predicting what you’ll get out of it is an exercise in futility. This forced reshuffling of cards swings Sabacc towards being a game of luck whenever it occurs, which is simply frustrating. If I wanted to gamble and leave everything up to luck, I’d play slots. It can be really cool in the midst of a story, where the author can decide that a character’s luck will pay off in a given scene and they’ll have their big win, but Sabacc just doesn’t feel like a satisfying game to actually play.

Now, having an annoying luck element that’s meant to be dreaded isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but when that’s combined with the 76-card deck, the use of negative numbers, and the focus on Blackjack’s “closest to a given number” rules which values the bigger cards more as game changers, you get a terrible headache. There is so much complexity in how any given round can play out, but rather than being like Poker, where most hands can reasonably be salvaged if you got just the right cards and there are so many different ways to create value out of card combinations, Sabacc is like Blackjack, where there’s only one goal. By designing Sabacc this way, playing cards becomes a chore.

KOTOR Pazaak Victory

Blackjack works because all of your cards are stuck on the table and can’t be removed, only added to. It’s a game of chicken: how close can you get? Both Pazaak and Sabacc looked at Blackjack and thought, “Hey, what if the player had more control over their score?” Pazaak simplified the core rules and added a side deck that gave the players a limited amount of impact they could have on the game, incentivising strategy and thought. Sabacc complicated the core rules, added a few Poker elements, and threw in mid-round card shuffling for good measure, giving its players little recourse but to pray that the Force be with them. Which would you rather play?

Erin McAllister

Erin McAllister

Staff Writer

Erin is a massive fan of mustard, writes articles that are too long, and is a little bit sorry about the second thing.


JaseTay - 06:47pm, 18th July 2023

I love playing Pazaak, though I do recall there is one NPC on Taris that cheats!

Erinsfrustrated - 11:14pm, 18th July 2023 Author

Oh my goodness! How (Gel)rood of them! (Thank you for the comment! I really do enjoy Pazaak a lot as well.)

JaseTay - 03:12am, 19th July 2023

lol great pun :) can always count on you Erin for a good laugh. 

@SabaccScoundrel - 10:50pm, 18th July 2023

Hi Erin! This was such a fun read! I love seeing these Star Wars in-universe games getting attention. Thanks for writing!

It sounds like you may have played more pazaak than sabacc, so I would like to invite you to play some sabacc online to see if your opinion holds. I'm with the Outer Rim Sabacc League (you can find us on Facebook), and we host both in-person local games and online games using tabletop simulator. Let me know if you would like to join us sometime.

Erinsfrustrated - 11:33pm, 18th July 2023 Author

Hey there, SabaccScoundrel! I'm glad you enjoyed the read — I've tended to find that these sorts of in-universe details don't get enough love and I absolutely want to give them more exposure, even if my biases wind up coming into the scene with them. (And thank you for the comment!) You've definitely caught me on playing more of Pazaak, though. I have absolutely fallen in love with that game over the years, but I've only really played the Corellian Spike variant of Sabacc (an earlier draft of this article actually featured a long tangent specifically about that version since I'd really struggled to have a good time with it after picking up a copy, but I wound up rethinking that inclusion since I felt it made the Sabacc half of the article more unfocused). From taking an — admittedly brief — look at the ORSL website, it appears this is also the version y'all focus on! I know I've had my own issues with Corellian Spike, but as a big board/card game fan, I am keenly aware that most games deserve a second chance, as playing something for the first time with fellow newbies and playing something with more experienced players can offer distinctly different deals! I would love to play with y'all! (Of course, I also do not really use Facebook, so that could be an issue... Still, to get a chance to experience a lovely card gaming community, I can take on that there Book of Faces!)

@sabaccscoundrel - 03:18pm, 19th July 2023

Are you free Thursday night, 8-10 Mountain Time? I may be able to get you in on a traditional sabacc game on Tabletop Sim. It'll be a good opportunity to learn and play (and if you win there's a prize).

In-universe immersive experiences are so fun! I love that you've brought more attention to both of these games. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

The ORSL admins do prefer Corellian Spike, but the community plays all variants. I'm a member of the Nashville club and we actually most often play the version of the game that was developed for the Galactic Starcruiser at Disney World. It's called Coruscant Shift, and we find that it's the most approachable version of the game and is still fun.

Erinsfrustrated - 08:35pm, 19th July 2023 Author

I should be free then (assuming that's tomorrow) and I'd love to give it a shot over Tabletop Sim! I doubt my ability to win that there prize as a first-timer, but just getting to learn more through playing the game proper would be prize enough for me. 

Agreed on that! if I could have my way, both Pazaak and every version of Sabacc would have official releases available everywhere and would be easily accessible. Thankfully, Tabletop Simulator exists. 

That note on all variants is a big relief to hear! And I also just did a wee bit of searching on Coruscant Shift: it does sound like a lot of fun! The target number and target suit dice sound like they add a nice element of randomness that doesn't diminish any of the planning involved and the revised Sabacc Shift seems like everything I'd want out of it (and much more reminiscent of Yahtzee or Farkle, two beloved games of mine).  Assuming this first Tabletop Sim game goes well, I'd love to give this version a shot as well at some point.

@sabaccscoundrel - 01:02am, 20th July 2023

Yes, tomorrow (or today, if you don't check in tonight).

What's the best way to offline this conversation so we can talk about details? My Instagram is @sabaccscoundrel, if you want to message me there.

Erinsfrustrated - 01:57am, 20th July 2023 Author

Oh, don't worry. For once, I'm checking in for more than a single comment! :D I'm usually much more active on Discord, but in the interest of talking to you faster, I've gone ahead and made an Instagram account. If all has gone well, I should have just messaged you.