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“Top Down” Design in SWTCG


Hi. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Henry Stern and I am the R&D lead here at Wizards of the Coast for the Star Wars TCG. I saw A New Hope the day it opened (I was 10 years old at the time) and my life has not been the same since. I saw that movie over 20 times in the theater that summer, and must have seen it over 100 times on my uncle's bootlegged videotape copy. While I acknowledge that The Empire Strikes Back is probably the best of the Star Wars films, I will always like A New Hope best. And please, I am talking about the original A New Hope here. While there are some elements of the special edition that are cool, the original version is the better film to me. I even *gasp* liked The Phantom Menace. While it is obviously nowhere near as good as the original films, I feel it is much better than people have given it credit for. Also, much of the extended universe material (especially the Dark Horse comics) that have been based in that time period are very good.

In addition to Star Wars, I spend the rest of my time here at WotC working on Magic: the Gathering, and on other soon to be released Trading Card Games. In the coming months I will be writing articles about Star Wars TCG design and development here on the SWTCG web site, sharing with you stories about how (and why) cards come to be.

Top Down Design for Empire Strikes Back

For trading card games, there are generally 2 ways of designing cards: "Mechanics Driven” and “Top Down”. Mechanics Driven are just that, the designer comes up with a cool game mechanic and says, ”Hrmmm, who in the Star Wars universe does this fit?” For example, the Battle card High-Force Dodge from Attack of the Clones was a mechanics driven card. We knew we wanted to have a good, if expensive, damage prevention card in the set. Once we figured out the basic mechanics of the card, we needed to figure out how this mechanic could fit into the Attack of the Clones world. Eventually we settled on the scene where Obi-Wan is busy evading Jango’s attack in the Slave I. The mechanics and art all fit together pretty well, but as you can see, this card was designed from the “bottom up” as it were. Often, when a designer comes up with a cycle of cards, such as the “Fogs” in Attack of the Clones (Peace on Naboo, Lull in the Fighting, and Lost in the Asteroids) they wind up as a Mechanics Driven cycle.

An example of a Mechanics Driven design.

For the Empire Strikes Back design, I wanted as much as possible to use “Top Down” design. Where “Mechanics Driven” starts from the mechanics, and then figures out how to fit it into the Star Wars universe. “Top Down” starts with the Star Wars universe, and then figures out what mechanics match this aspect of the universe. So, where to begin? With the movie, of course! The Design Team: myself, Michael Elliott, and David Eckelberry, sat down and watched The Empire Strikes Back a few times (have I mentioned that I love my job?), taking notes to mark down all of the cool potential unit, mission, battle, and location cards. Then, we spent the next 3 months attaching mechanics to those cards. Usually, it would work something like this, I would assign the team to work on a specific arena, say Space. Then in a meeting we would all bring in our space units, and we would argue about which ones we liked best, which ones captured the feeling of the movies best, and which ones would be the best for the environment. Often at these meetings we merged 2 peoples' cards into one, or even decided to create extra versions of a card if we really liked some of the designs.

Top Down is especially interesting for character units, because it allows you to explore different versions of that characters personality. For example, take a look at all of the different versions of Darth Vader we created in design:

  • Darth Vader #1 (Merciless Commander)
  • Darth Vader #2 (Don of Bespin)
  • Darth Vader #3 (Master Strategist)
  • Darth Vader #4 (Humble Servant of the Emperor)

Heheh, in R&D we like to joke around with our playtest names. Anyways, here are the designs we came up with for these Vaders that inspired the names:

Darth Vader #1 (Merciless Commander): All your units gain +2 Power. If any unit other than this one fails to score at least 1 hit against the target it is attacking, destroy that unit.

This felt like it captured Darth Vaders “do not fail me” attitude pretty well. Keep in mind this is the text as we created it in design, this is NOT the final text, in fact, this text has a serious error in it, can you tell what is wrong? *(answer below)

Darth Vader #2 (Don of Bespin): At the start of battle, you may pay 2 Force and gain control of any Neutral unit for that turn.

We loved how Vader came to Bespin and just took control of the place. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” Awesome! Eventually, we cut this card, as the next set has more of a “Neutral set” feel.

Darth Vader #3 (Master Strategist): At the start of your build step you may pay 2 Force and search your deck for a Dark battle card and put it in your hand

This one seemed to capture the “strategist” flavor pretty well.

Darth Vader #4 (Humble Servant of the Emperor): ……

We had trouble coming up with a nice top down design for this aspect of Vader. But because we needed a “simpler” Vader to use at common, we made this a “simple” Vader that uses one the set's new Mechanic.

By the way, there are 2 other Darth Vaders in the set. But I don’t want to give away there mechanics just yet.

The next step was assigning Build costs, Speed, Power, and Health to these Vaders. Also, since Vader is a Jedi, he also received force evade and/or deflect ability. At this point the cards get passed on to development, who, with the help of our playtesters, have the job of balancing out all the cards.

At the end of the day, here is how the above Vaders wound up.

Darth #1: -Card #15 in ESB-

Darth #2: -Cut-

Darth #3: -Card #16 in ESB-

Darth #4: -Card # 157 in ESB-

Well, I hope you enjoyed this peek into some of the Empire Strikes Back development. Join me next month when I will talk more about the new mechanics in Empire Strikes Back.

*Answer to the question about Darth #1 above. This wording doesn’t work because it does not specify that it only effects YOUR units. Don’t worry, as you'll see on the card, this was fixed during templating.