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Looking Back on 2002

A Designer's Diary

The end of 2002 is here, and we're all a year older. And our Star Wars TCG has just past the seven month mark, its first half-year of life. Of course, to those of us on the development team, the game is a little older, seems more like an old friend than the new kid on the block. Yet already the kid has grown up and changed since we brought it into the world. The game is evolving in ways none of us predicted. It's getting more complex, and I'm finding more tactical decisions on every turn, whichever side I'm fighting for.

So it's interesting now to take a look back with you at our recent release and how it came to be. Since this is the first time I’ve had the chance to talk to you about how the Star Wars design and development works, I'll do my best to give you a pretty broad overview. Later I'll hope to come back and revisit individual topics, stages of development, individual cards, and concerns.

Back in time we go. It was just over six months ago when the development team went to work on the A New Hope expansion. The core game had just been released, we were out promoting at conventions, watching the movie twice a week at the theaters, and geeking out big time. Meanwhile, back in the office Sith Rising had just been finished, and the development team was looking forward to getting started again on the new set. A New Hope would be our third expansion.

So you'd figure things were starting to get down to a pretty good system, right? Well, in some ways you'd be right. With A New Hope, we no longer had to worry about the basic elements of the game. They were in place, and we were pretty happy about how they were moving along. (Okay, we were a little too afraid of a certain discard deck, but we can discuss the Rebel Blockade Runner another time.) A New Hope had another advantage too. We were working with film content now that we had readily available. No more stressing about getting the images or whether a certain scene, starship, or piece of dialogue would be cut from the film. In other words, we wouldn't have that pesky "When did Tyranus wield two lightsabers in the movie?" question pop up. Or the even more pesky "Hey, by the way, don't use that character. We cut him from the film." Ah yes, it would be easier to work on the first Star Wars movie, already out for 26 years.

At the same time, Mike Elliot, as expansion set designer, and I, as lead developer, had a lot of work out for us. First and most obviously, we though the first expansion, Sith Rising, set had came off pretty well, and so we felt we had a standard to live up to - and exceed. We wanted to continue to appeal to the average Star Wars fan who plays casually, but we also wanted to elevate the strategic options for the hardcore player. The further we get from the mass market film release, the more and more that is possible.

Meanwhile, of course, we had to be true to the film itself. There are a lot of issues that need to be balanced against one other. One development concern related to film consistency would be that while we increased the depth of gameplay, the average build cost (and absolute, though not relative power level) of constructed units was going to fall. Put simply, Luke and Leia shouldn't be going toe-to-toe with Darth Tyranus and Mace Windu. Even Vader would start off in the mid-cost range, as we wanted to give him room to grow large in the Battle of Yavin and Empire Strikes Back, when he can really dominate the field.

With this in mind, A New Hope would mean more new mechanics, including one that was really a new card type - more unique abilities - and different ways to orchestrate a victory. That's where we started. From those ideas, a wealth of individual cards would be born, be played, change, and even die over the course of the development months. But first we had to start with what those magic new keywords would be.

So what about those mechanics? Accuracy was the easiest to design and for some of you to analyze (see Mike's article), you're right to believe. It didn't always look like this though. Another option that we discussed was the "reroll 1s" concept. So whenever a unit with this mutant Accuracy attacked, it would get a single chance to reroll any of its "1s". In the end, the math looked a little too funky, and the bell curve a little too odd for that too work. We were looking for a little less randomness, not more. So while that mechanic ultimately lost to the one you know, it made for some interesting playtests for a while. Accuracy, in its final form, is also a happy mechanic that fit seamlessly into the TCG. It stacks with itself, uses the existing rules, and ever since the base set introduced Critical Hit (natural sixes only!) we had foreseen the possibility and handled it.

Then came Piloting. Much harder to balance and develop. What versions didn't you see? Well, there were the pilots that simply became a part of their ship's stack, increasing Speed, Power, and Health by 1. Then there were Pilots that followed the Anakin Skywalker (B) school of thought, tapping to give a bonus to one of your units that they could logically pilot. Maybe even they could do that while in the build area (hmmm…). Both of those ideas had merits, but our ultimate decision about Piloting lies around the fact that, at first, Piloting is something we wanted to do more for capturing the feel of Star Wars rather than as strict gameplay. So Pilot cards were going to lie "on top" of the units they Piloted. And to open more possibilities for both gameplay and flavor, we would allow them any number of different abilities to grant.

As is often the case, some Pilots are better than others, and in some ways we were pretty conservative about just how good these special Characters would be. We didn't want to see the standard deck become Pilots + Ground units and/or Space units, so there had to be a price paid in the build cost of Pilots. In the next couple sets, I think I'll push the envelope a little further.

Then there was Intercept. In contrast to the others, Intercept was a card mechanic designed almost exclusively to support strategic game options, not to illustrate any aspects of the Star Wars universe. Since the introduction of the first set, we witnessed that fewer of the "utility" units that we had hoped to see play were actually seeing play. Cards such as Assassin Droid ASN-121 (A), Jedi Patrol, and Bail Organa (A). One of the big reasons that they weren't seeing play was simply that they died before they could have much of an effect on the game. Intercept gives players a means of protecting some of those special units. So more card combos would be possible. Again, more strategic depth is what we're after. We're seeing more of that in the world at large.

Then there's the fourth new mechanic. What, you ask? You don't see the Dodge mechanic written on to 10 or so of your cards? Well, no, you don't. Dodge was a mechanic that "almost" made it. The short version on Dodge? When a unit with Dodge was attacked, it automatically had 1-in-6 chance to negate the attack. Dodge was part of some of early designs, but ultimately we decided that 3 was enough. For some of the same reasons we steered away from the version of Accuracy I described, Dodge was shelved; and we thought Evade, Deflect, and Shields give enough defensive options. For now.

So in the the end we had three new abilities that had survived for all of you to play with, and hopefully will take some time to digest. Meanwhile, it's time for me to get back to work on designing cards for next year. As for you, next time I'll pick out some cards from A New Hope and talk about how they were designed, evolved, and became what you have now.