Solo: A Star Wars Story reveals the underbelly of the galaxy far, far away. With that comes high-stakes gamblers and card sharps like Lando Calrissian, from whom Han infamously won the Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc. The card game sabacc is one of the most well-known elements of the Star Wars underworld, featured in books and games throughout the history of the franchise.
The movie brings sabacc to the forefront of its story and promotional materials, but the game has a much longer history than Solo, though. In fact, the rules for sabacc in the film are not quite the same as those established for the Expanded Universe, but the basic mechanic of subtracting and adding numbered cards is the same. Here’s a history of sabacc and how it has been played throughout the years.
Originally introduced in the novel Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu by L. Neil Smith, the game has had several iterations with varying likelihood of playability in the real world. And Lucasfilm does want you to be able to play in real life: one of the niftier tie-in products for Solo is a sabacc deck. The official Star Wars Twitter account set up a playable sabacc thread on May 15, where players who navigated successfully could reveal new posters for the movie. The goal of the card game on Twitter was to reach a sum of zero by drawing and playing positive and negative cards.
But the lucky number isn’t zero in the Expanded Universe. In the EU, the person who is closest to reaching either 23 or -23 without going higher than 23 would win the game (sort of like a twisted version of blackjack). Players draw from positive and negative values as well as from face cards, with fanciful names such as the the Demise and the Queen of Air and Darkness. Each suit includes four face cards: Commander, Mistress, Master, and Ace, and two sets of special cards with their own numerical values: The Queen of Air and Darkness, the Idiot, Balance, Endurance, Moderation, the Evil One, Demise, and the Star.
Each deck contains 76 cards in four suits. Several house or regional variants change the game slightly, but the goal is always to reach positive or negative 23. One other win condition also exists: the Idiot’s Array, a hand including the Idiot, a two of any suit, and a three of any suit. Different casinos and bars from all over the galaxy have their own local variations of the game, such as “Corellian Spike,” played with dice and a slightly different deck.
Under the classic version of the game, which was re-canonized in the novel A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, players are dealt two cards and can then decide to stay their hands, draw another card, or trade one of their cards for one from the deck. They can also place one card in a device known as the interference field or randomization field, which digitally shuffles the value. The randomization adds an increased level of chance to the proceedings and gives card game scenes in the book additional suspense, since players will never be able to know for sure whether the cards they have will retain the same value. This is the most difficult aspect to replicate in the real world, although an unofficial sabacc app available on mobile devices has made this version a little easier to play.
Sabacc has been played in many canon Star Wars novels, as well as in Rebels and Solo. A toy deck available from Hasbro and marketed as a “Han Solo Card Game” is also available as a tie-in product for the movie. The toy cards don’t bear the name sabacc because of some legal maneuvering by the makers of the app. Lucasfilm never filed for a trademark on the word “sabacc,” which means that mobile developer Ren Ventures was able to grab a U.S. trademark for the term and use it for their unofficial phone version.
In December 2017, Lucasfilm filed a trademark lawsuit against Ren Ventures, leading to an ongoing legal battle and the generic name on the official tie-in card game. Nevertheless, Denny’s also used the game as a tie-in for Solo, offering collectible cards.
The game also has a mystical aspect in the Expanded Universe. Some characters uses the face cards like a tarot deck, deriving meanings from the face cards and using them to extrapolate the future or untangle moral or emotional quandaries. In the non-canon New Jedi Order series, Han’s friend Droma uses the cards to help Han through his grief after the death of Chewbacca. In typical Han fashion, the smuggler is skeptical, but listens to Droma’s explanation of the cards’ meanings.
Sabacc might be easily confused with the card game mini-game in Knights of the Old Republic, but that card game is pazaak, an older game with the goal of reaching 20. Pazaak was also re-canonized in the canon universe as a game played in Maz Kanata’s castle and at the Canto Casino in Canto Bight.
With its elements of both chance and skill, sabacc fits Han Solo’s personality perfectly. The randomizer field means wins depend as much on luck as on skill, adding an element of surprise. Han and Lando’s friendship and rivalry are both built around their love for games of chance and the ship they played for, the Millennium Falcon. Just as the dice on the Falcon tie Han to the ideas of luck and chance, sabacc shows the nature of the underworld in which gamblers thrive.