By Danny Mandel
My job is pretty cool. I get to make up cards for my favorite super heroes and villains, I get to travel to all the major comic and gaming conventions, and I get to buy comic books on the company’s tab. But not everything’s all peaches and cream. Occasionally I have to do things I’m not super-happy about (checking and re-checking and re-checking the grid sheets of a new set of cards comes to mind). Alas, today I have to do something worse than anything I’ve ever done before. Yes, even worse than this.
Today I have to give Dave Humpherys a compliment. You see, there’s this hot new mechanic in the Web of Spider-Man set called evasion, and, well, I have to admit . . . it was Hump’s idea.
In an effort to forestall going into all the glorious details of how Humpherys came up with evasion, I need to discuss something else. Usually when I use the word “design”, I’m speaking specifically about designing cards, but there are actually lots of different types of design. There’s engine design, team design, and set design, to name a few. Of course there’s top down and bottom up design as well (though those are more methods of design than actual design tasks). I thought it’d be fun to give a rough sketch of some of the other types of designing we do. Don’t worry¾as always, it’ll all come back to Humpherys.
Get Your Motor Running: Engine Design
Usually, my articles are about how we made up a particular card or how we decided what each team would be good at. Way before any of that fun stuff happens, though, we first have to design the game’s engine (the core of the game itself that exists behind the cards). Rather than go into details on how we did that, I’m just going to mention a few of the questions you might find yourself asking when you set out to make a new game.
What’s the game’s high-concept? (Is it a super-hero smash ’em game? Is it a political intrigue game? Is it a racing game?)
How does the resource system work? (Do you build one resource a turn? Do you spend blood points? Do you generate force?)
How do you divide the cards into factions? (Are there different super-hero teams? Are there Corp and Runner cards? Are there different colors of spells?)
What are the basics of the combat system? (Do your characters attack each other? Do your armies attack provinces? Does your crew fire cannons at your opponent’s?)
How do you resolve combat? (Do you compare ATK to DEF? Do you roll a d20? Do you play a hand of poker?)
What are the victory conditions? (Do you have to reduce everyone else to 0 endurance? Do you have to run through your opponent’s stockpile of cards? Do you need five feng shui sites?)
Of course, after you’ve set-up the core aspects of the game, you have to focus on the details. What are the timing rules? How many cards does a player draw each turn? What are the different classes of cards (like character, plot twist, location, and equipment)? And of course, what word do you use to represent a card turning on its side?
Engine design can be extremely difficult, as components integral to the game can shift on a weekly (or daily) basis. What you see before you is the finished product, but while we were working on the Vs. engine, nothing was set in stone. For example, stuff you guys might take for granted¾like drawing two cards a turn or the “free” recovery¾were hotly debated issues.
Also, in order to test the engine, you have to make up what are essentially placeholder cards (cards deigned specifically to test the basics of the game). This can skew the process because an unbalanced card might mask a hole in the engine, or might make you think there’s a hole when there really isn’t one.
The moral of the story is that there’s a whole design process that occurs before individual sets get created and fine-tuned¾a process that can (and often does) take several months. The bad news is that the engine is the foundation of your game, and without a solid one, the game is doomed to crumble. The good news is that once your engine is completed (with the exception of fitting in new mechanics that might alter some of the engine), you can concentrate on the fun stuff. For example . . .
Shirts and Skins: Picking Teams and Rosters of a New Set
Aside #1: From the beginning, we’ve had in mind a general layout for the first several sets of the Vs. System. While we knew we wanted to touch on all of the major iconic characters and teams of both the DC and Marvel universes, the question was how best to go about it. We started off with “Origins” sets, where we chose a couple of major heroic teams and their accompanying villains. We then moved to a couple of sets that focused on a major character (Spider-Man and Superman). As for the future, let’s just say we’ve got a lot of extremely cool ideas coming down the pike.
Aside #2: There’s a lot of debate, both on the forums and in-house, as to which characters have robust enough casts of supporting characters and enemies to warrant their own teams. For example, we felt that Spider-Man and Superman were two characters qualified enough to have entire sets devoted to them. I’m interested in hearing which major characters you think deserve their own teams.
Okay, back to design. Once we’ve decided on the thematic basis for the set, we then determine which and how many teams to include. For the Spidey set, we felt that introducing the Spider-Friends and Sinister Syndicate was plenty, especially given how much content the older teams were getting. For the Superman set, well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Once we know the major teams of the set, we have to decide on their respective rosters. We generally try to hit all the appropriate tier one heroes and villains, as well as lots of the secondary and more obscure ones, though sometimes we hold off on a cult favorite or two for a set down the line. We also need to figure out which characters are cool enough (or have had different incarnations) to get multiple versions. (I can’t tell you how many people wrote in to say that Sandman should have gotten another version. Okay, it was one . . . it was one person.)
To keep you apprised of where we currently are, we’ve just finalized the teams and rosters of the sixth Vs. set (code-named “Vs. Set 6”) and have begun working on the team breakdowns for the seventh set (code-named “Vs. Set 7”).
Rotten to the Core (Except not Rotten, Fresh!): Team Dynamics and the Core of a New Set
Once we’ve figured out which teams and characters are going into a new set, we have to figure out exactly how they’ll fit in with the older teams. Because the Vs. System is constantly expanding with new blood, it’s important that we give each new team its own identity. For example, the Spider-Friends are the best team at evasion and the Syndicate is the best at “cloning” (Jackal, Fisk Towers, and Mysterio all allow you to put characters directly into play, getting around the uniqueness rule). Of course, many types of powers or themes will bleed across teams, though often in different ways or at different power levels. Like the X-Men, the Syndicate has excellent low drops, but while the X-Men excel at keeping their characters alive, the Syndicate is more concerned with smashing face. Another thing the X-Men and Syndicate have in common is discard, but while the X-Men have a lot of efficient ways to attack an opponent’s hand, the Syndicate just got a taste of that ability.
After settling on the basics of what a team should or shouldn’t be able to do, we then lay the groundwork of the set as a whole. Often the overall theme of the set is tied into what the teams within are all about. We felt that both the Spider-Friends and Syndicate should have solid weenies, so it was a short jump to making small characters a focus of the set. Of course this also meant putting counter-measures to the set’s strong suite, which is why it includes cards such as Firestar and Sunfire*. Sometimes a set’s focus is built around a new element we want to introduce into the game, though filtered through how the teams in that set relate to that element. (Of course you haven’t seen a set like that. Yet . . .) Sometimes there is no over-arching theme to a set, as was the case with the two Origins sets whose primary focus was to introduce players to the game.
Here’s Where I Don’t Talk About Designing Specific Cards
Pretty much because that’s what I usually do. I’m also not going to talk about the differences between top down and bottom up design, but I will point you to the article where that was the subject, using this cute emoticon as the link J
What I will talk about is . . .
Monkeys Banging on Typewriters: When Developers Design Cards
Usually we (the designers) try to hand over a fairly complete file of cards to the developers so they can start testing things and getting a sense of what the set’s all about: its parameters and themes and how its teams are broken down. But often, new cards are designed and added to the file throughout the entire development process. Sometimes this is because we think of some cool new way to do something in the set. Sometimes it’s because we have to fill holes left by cards that got cut. And sometimes, every once in a while, it’s because . . . shudder . . .
. . . A developer designs a card.
I know, I know, it sounds crazy . . . horrifying . . . The idea of a developer, that brutish, foul-smelling breed of game-maker entering the precious—nay, sacred!—world of design . . . Well, it turns my stomach, too, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, though I’m ashamed to admit it, sometimes it’s for the best.
You’re probably wondering how it all goes down. Well, near as I can tell (and I try not to get too close), developers claim to have ideas about what would be “good for the game”. Hanging out near their pen, I’ve heard phrases like “a card like that will strengthen [insert archetype name here] decks” or “a card like that will help keep a check on the format”. I don’t know, I’m sure it makes sense to them . . .
Without fail, a developer-designed card will be created bottom-up. (That is, mechanics first, without much if any thought given to the thematics behind the card.) This is because developers are stupid and boring. Take Humpherys, for example. I mean, he’s so stupid and boring, he once did something really stupid and everyone got bored. Also, he throws feces.
But enough about Humpherys. Let’s talk about Humpherys!
Even a Stopped Clock is Right Twice a Day: How Humpherys Designed Evasion
He started off by rolling a d10 and consulting his tables. No wait, that’s Hyra . . .
First of all, here’s the definition of evasion, from rule 707.6 of the comprehensive rules:
Evasion is a keyword that represents a payment power on a character that has the text “Stun this character >>> At the start of the recovery phase this turn, recover this character.”
Okay, rather than trying to explain Humpherys’s thought process, I think it would make sense to turn things over to the man himself:
Hi, everyone. My name’s Dave Humpherys. I’m a developer at UDE. I work on the Vs. System and I write a weekly column about development. No, really I do. Just because nobody reads it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Anyway, before I tell you about how I came up with evasion, I first wanted to mention that Danny is awesome and that everything he says is true. For example, I am boring and stupid.
A lot of the time, combat in the Vs. System is pretty lopsided. Sure, the player without initiative gets to set up his or her formation in order to best soak up the opponent’s attacks, but other than some defensive plot twists, board position often simply comes down to how effectively the initiative player can take down opposing characters.
I decided I wanted to shake things up a bit. I thought it would be cool to come up with a power that allowed a player to trade endurance for board presence. The idea would be to have a character jump out of the way of an attack, forcing the attacker to take on somebody else. This effect would be nice for several reasons:
- It protects characters from auto-stun effects, especially Flame Trap.
- It allows a player to “hide” a smaller character if it becomes a juicy target during the endgame.
- It lets a player “funnel” his or her opponent’s attacks into the defenders you really want in combat (usually the bigger ones).
4. It combats breakthrough silliness¾a player would be less likely to throw a bunch of Savage Beatdowns into a combat where the defender would just disappear(essentially resetting the attacker).
At its heart, evasion allows a player to trade endurance for board presence. As you can tell, evasion is often at its most powerful on smaller characters. Not only is the endurance toll lower when you stun one of your little guys, you often need your bigger guys to suck up some of the harder attacks your opponent’s characters are going to send your way.
Here are a few interesting tidbits about evasion:
Evasion’s Twin Sister
When I first came up with evasion, I also had another mechanic in mind. The team liked the other one so much it went on to become the core mechanic of the fifth Vs. set. I hope Danny lets me guest-write in his article again when that set comes out. Danny is so awesome!
The templating for evasion actually went through a lot of changes from conception to final product. For example, at one point the design team wanted it to work like this:
Pay endurance equal to this character’s cost >>> Put this character in the stunned position. At the start of the recovery phase this turn, recover this character.
Yeesh. Ugly, huh? Their reasoning was that a character stunning itself sure didn’t feel like it was “evading”. Also, this templating wouldn’t trigger things that looked to see if the character got stunned (like Destiny or Total Anarchy).
Fortunately, the rules team (which at the time consisted of Alex Charsky) convinced them that having “put this character in the stunned position” be functionally different that “stun this character” would add too much confusion. In the end, the shorter templating prevailed. Though a character does have to stun itself in order to evade, it bounces right back, so it’s not too much of a suspension of thematics. Then again, I’m just a developer¾what do I know about that stuff?
Speaking of the rules team, it would probably be a good idea to go over the interaction between an attacker and an evading defender.
If a defender evades during an attack, it will remove itself from the attack (a stunned character cannot be a defender.) Since there is no longer a defender when the attack resolves, all attackers ready.
The above holds true for any case where there is no defender when an attack resolves. It’s just that with evasion, is happens a lot more than usual.
Okay, that’s all I have to say about evasion. Remember, my name’s Dave Humpherys, and I throw feces.
Hi guys. I hope you enjoyed today’s little jaunt through the various types of design we do, and the glimpse inside Humpherys’s sick mind. (Thank goodness no one reads his articles . . . ) Tune in next week for a closer look at some of the cards in the Web of Spider-Man expansion.
Send bran muffins topped with whipped cream to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*I can’t wait until we do Firestorm¾then we’ll have Firestorm, Firestar, Starfire, Sunfire, and Blackfire. I’m throwing down the gauntlet, DC and Marvel; we need a character named Stormfire. And maybe one named Firesun . . . or Fireblack . . .
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