(Metagame Archive) How To Make a Vs. System Expansion in Nine Easy Steps, Part 4

By Danny Mandel

This week’s entry into the design bible involves determining the core mechanics of our expansion as well as deciding what each team will be like. Before we begin, I’d like to go over something that’s fairly important.
While I’m writing the design bible in sequential increments, the actual process of expansion design is much more free-flowing. What I mean is, while the design bible might make it seem like we finish deciding exactly what we want for set mechanics before moving on to team dynamics, which we then finalize before moving on to card design, in reality we jump around a lot. For example, perhaps after someone comes up with a cool idea for a card, we might decide to add a new theme to a team. The point is, the design bible should only be considered a guide—not a comprehensive walk-through.
Design Bible
Part Six: Set Mechanics
In this part, R&D determines what the expansion’s core concepts and mechanics will be.
Questions on Set Mechanics
What are our goals for this expansion?
What mechanics help us explore the flavor of the intellectual property?
What mechanics help us enhance or shake up gameplay?
What new keyword mechanics do we want to introduce?
What older keyword mechanics do we want to include?
Thoughts on Set Mechanics
First of all, we need to review our goals from “Part Two: Goals.” For example, if one of our goals is to push rush strategies, we think about incorporating mechanics that allow players to speed up the game or punish slower strategies.
Next we should review what we learned from researching the intellectual property. For example, the quickness and agility of Spider-Man and many of his friends pushed us toward the evasion mechanic.
After considering what flavor-driven concepts we want, we should take a look at what mechanics we want to build into the set strictly to enhance or shake up gameplay. For example, the concealed mechanic (and invention of the hidden area) was designed for several reasons, such as allowing characters to have powers that are more important than their stats, giving players a new mechanism for initiative reversals, and speeding up the formation step. While we were able to match the flavor of the hidden area with the characters of the Marvel Knights expansion, the mechanics were designed bottom-up.
The next set of questions involves keywords. A keyword typically does four things of value:
1. It allows us to compress language (usually a phrase or sentence we put on lot of cards) in order to save space in the text box. A good example of this is “Loyalty,” which compresses “Recruit this card only if you control a character that shares at least one team affiliation with this card.”
2. It gives us a referent with which we can explore new design space. A good example of a card that uses a keyword as a referent is Ricochet, who reads, “Characters with evasion you control cannot be the target of plot twist or payment effects an opponent controls.”
3. It collects a mechanical concept into an easy term players can identify and reference. Imagine if each character with evasion instead had the text “Stun this character >>> At the start of the recovery phase this turn, recover this character.” Different groups of players might come up with their own unofficial collective term for the characters that share that mechanic, but by keywording the mechanic we unify the terminology for the Vs. community.
4. It looks cool. When a new set comes out one of the first questions a player asks is “What are the new mechanics?” Funnily enough, they’re really asking what the new keyword mechanics are. Every set has tons of mechanics, including several that are new, but it’s the keyword mechanics that players identify as what makes a new set feel innovative.
Of course, not all keywords provide all four of the above. Loyalty is a fine compression of language, but I don’t think we’ve ever used it as a referent for a power or plot twist. On the other hand, willpower doesn’t really save use that much text box space, but it’s almost entirely designed as a referent.
Generally we try to add at least one new keyword to the Vs. System with every expansion. Therefore, it’s usually a good idea to have a few different keywordable mechanics in mind at this stage of design, so we’ll have room to cut or postpone some of them.
While we’re on the subject of keywords, it’s worth taking a few moments to think about which past major keyword mechanics we might want to include in this set. This is tied to the point that not all keywords are created with the same amount of longevity in mind. For example, boost is a “forever” mechanic, in that it could appear in any set, regardless of that set’s teams or core concepts. On the other hand, cosmic is a “once in a while” mechanic. The current fraternity of cosmic teams numbers four (well, five if you want to count the X-Statix because of Zeitgeist). At some point in the future we might do another cosmic set that would introduce new teams that have lots of synergy with the Man of Steel teams.
At this point, we should have a general idea of what the theme(s) and base mechanics for the expansion are. Over the course of designing and developing the set we might alter, cut, or add to them, but it’s good to have a general direction.
Part Seven: Team Dynamics 

In this part, R&D determines what each team’s themes will be.
Questions on Team Dynamics
How does each team interact with the core concepts and mechanics of the expansion?
How will each team interact with the core angles of the game?
What flavor-driven mechanics will each team have?
What new concepts will each team have?
With what major theme or themes will each team be identified?
Thoughts on Team Dynamics
The first thing to consider is how each of these teams will be tied to the core mechanics of the expansion. For example, in the Web of Spider-Man expansion, one of the core themes was small character strategies. We made the Sinister Syndicate really fast and aggressive, while we gave the Spider-Friends lots of evasion, which helped their small characters survive until the late game.
The next question is, how will each team interact with the core angles of the game? There are many basic concepts in the Vs. System, such as team attacking, reinforcement, KO’ing stunned characters, or causing direct endurance loss. It’s important that we have a good idea of which central angles each team will interact with. Often this is tied to the next issue, which is what flavor-driven mechanics each team will have. For example, in Marvel Origins we wanted the X-Men to have lots of recovery effects because, as any comics fan knows, those mutants never die. Similarly we gave the Crime Lords tons of reinforcement and reinforcement-based effects because once you’re a “made man,” the mob’s got your back.
The next question is what, if any, new mechanics we want to give to a single team. For example, in DC Comics Origins we gave the Arkham Inmates the “punish exhausted characters” mechanic. Often a team’s new mechanic is tied to the new concepts of a set. For example, we made the Revenge Squad good at removing cosmic counters from opposing characters.
Finally we need to figure out the mechanic or mechanics for which a team will forever be known. For example, while they also have a rush strategy, we knew the X-Statix would always be thought of us as the “loner strategy” team.
At this point we should have a good idea of our teams’ concepts. While things can change during design and sometimes even during development, it’s important to have an overall vision in mind.
Next Entry: We’ll talk about designing individual cards.
Green Lantern Design Diary
Part Six: Set Mechanics
When last we left our intrepid heroes, we’d just shipped off a bunch of art requests. Now we’re ready to talk about how we came up with the set’s core mechanics.
Willpower and Constructs
After reading tons of Green Lantern comics, I knew there were two flavor concepts we just had to incorporate into the set: willpower and constructs. The question was how to do it. There was lots of discussion and debate on the subject, a major point being whether or not to connect willpower and constructs or to have them be separate mechanics.
One of my early ideas was to introduce willpower as a new resource system, which allowed players to play constructs. For example, perhaps each turn a player generates willpower points equal to the total willpower among characters he or she controls. The player can then spend these willpower points to play construct cards. While this concept proved far too complicated rules-wise and balance-wise, we ended up doing a riff on it with the construct characters: Light Brigade, Space Bears, and Mouse Trap.
Matt Hyra had a cool idea which involved all construct cards acting as normal plot twists. However, if a character had at least a certain amount of willpower, you could attach the plot twist to the character as though the plot twist were an equipment. This was deemed a bit too narrow a mechanic, but it became the basis for the equipment cards Light Armor, Chopping Block, and Catcher’s Mitt.
Another version of willpower and constructs worked like this. Constructs were extremely efficient cards that anyone could play. However, at the start of the recovery phase, characters you control must have at least as much total willpower as the total cost of your constructs. If they don’t, you must start KO’ing your constructs until they do. Unfortunately this mechanic was not that fun, and like the two above, it was too complicated to be compressed into a pair of keywords.
As you know in the end we decided to separate willpower and constructs (though they are connected in that the Green Lantern team has the most interaction with both mechanics). “Willpower” became a very simple numerical referent, while “Construct” became our first non-character version. 
We chose to make willpower a referent for four reasons:
1. It’s really simple. After coming off of the Marvel Knights expansion with the rules-intense hidden area and concealed mechanic, we wanted to let players’ brains cool off. Since willpower has no inherent rules, it’s the ultimate in simple.
2. It’s open-ended. Since willpower can be referenced in many different ways, it left us lots of room to explore different things. Plus, its open-endedness is pretty flavorful, considering a Green Lantern can theoretically create anything with its power ring.
3. It gives us a break from using cost as a reference number. While most of the time, it’s fine to reference a character’s cost, the problem is that a character’s cost always equals, well, its cost. With willpower, however, we can have characters whose willpower exceeds or falls below their costs.
4. It gives us a new Sealed Pack play pattern. In addition to all the usual concepts a player considers while building a sealed deck or drafting, we now have willpower. Should you try to draft willpower enablers and cards that reference willpower? Or should you forgo willpower and draft a more standard archetype?
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this article, often the design process is full of jumping around and doubling back. While we had decided what willpower would mean before we started designing individual cards, we didn’t come up with the construct-as-version idea until we were partway into card design.
We were happy with how willpower was playing and the set’s overall feel, but there were a couple of problems. One, there weren’t any constructs in the set. I mean, there were plenty of cards that pictured energy constructs, but we had no mechanical way to represent the idea of a construct. Two, the Green Lantern team needed another mechanic. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but someone suggested we use constructs as a version that we’d reference in the set. We then decided that only the Green Lanterns would reference constructs, thus giving them the additional mechanic they needed.
While it’s not a core concept of the set, concealed—optional is the other new keyword in the set. The Marvel Knights set introduced the concealed mechanic, and we knew we wanted to expand upon it in the Green Lantern set. I made a list of several mechanics tied to interactions with the hidden area. Some of the minor ones made it into the set. For example, Qwardians demonstrates a mechanic where a character starts out hidden, but becomes visible once a certain condition is met.
But easily the most versatile, intuitive, and game-play beneficial was the concept of characters that could come into play in either the hidden or visible area. Versatile because we could create characters that had different advantages or disadvantages depending on which area they’re in. Intuitive because once you understand how concealed works, concealed—optional is a no-brainer. Game-play beneficial because two of our goals with regards to the Vs. engine are to make the formation step easier and to make the recruit step more interesting. While the concealed mechanic helps with the former, concealed—optional helps with the latter.
Part Seven: Team Dynamics
Starting out, I had this rough picture of the four teams: The Green Lanterns would be the willpower team, with every single character having at least willpower 1. The Emerald Enemies would be the mean, violent team (though I didn’t really have any core mechanics in mind for them). Anti-Matter would be the hidden area team. And the Manhunters would be an Army team—however, I wanted to really differentiate them from the Sentinels.
As I said, that was what I started with. After some discussion and initial card designs we started fleshing them out more dramatically. Below I’ll go over the evolution of each team.
Green Lantern
While we knew the Emerald Enemies and Anti-Matter teams would have plenty of willpower characters, we wanted the Lanterns to be thought of as the premier willpower team. They would be the best team at gaining willpower and utilizing it. The tricky part is that since willpower by definition is open-ended, we’d have to decide exactly how the team could use it.
Because the GLs were the only good guy team of the four, we decided to give them some of the standard “good guy powers.” We gave them endurance gain, reinforcement, super-protection (Tomar Tu and Kyle 4-drop), and recovery effects.
One of the early issues we ran into with the Green Lanterns was flight and range. Since every Green Lantern can fly and fire energy beams through the use of their power rings, we had two choices:
1. Give everyone flight and range, and run the risk of this making the team too powerful and making formations meaningless in sealed play.
2. Give no one flight and range with the justification that without their rings they can’t fly or shoot.
Both options had good and bad points. In the end I felt that the argument that they can’t really fly without their rings was kind of ridiculous, given that without their rings they’re not really super-heroes. I wasn’t really worried about so much flight and range making the team too powerful since one of our goals was to aim the teams a little higher anyway. As for sealed play, just as we put extra ways for characters to gain flight in expansions full of ground-based teams, in the GL set we would make sure to include lots of ways to effectively remove flight from characters.
Finally, as I mentioned before, partway through design we added the construct-referencing mechanics to the Lanterns.
Emerald Enemies
We wanted the Enemies to be violent and destructive, but we weren’t exactly sure how. We started off by giving them the typical aggressive bad guy stuff, like KO’ing characters (both stunned and non-stunned), removing reinforcement, and a lot of ATK pumping, but we had nothing that really unified the team’s identity.
Then Ben Rubin, known primarily for his skills as a Vs. developer and his inexplicable knowledge of Pandas, had the idea of pushing the team towards self-resource destruction. Essentially expanding The New Brotherhood mechanic into a whole team. Suddenly we had the team identity we were looking for.
Anti-Matter Universe
For me one of the coolest things about the hidden are is that it can represent so many different things flavor-wise. In the Marvel Knights set alone it represented vigilantes and ninjas fighting in the shadows, mentors and crime bosses operating from behind the scenes and demons scheming from the underworld. I thought it would be cool if, in the Green Lantern set, the hidden area would represent the Anti-Matter Universe. Further, while in the Marvel Knights set each team had some access to the hidden area, I thought it would be really different the Green Lantern set had one team that just dominated the hidden area.
My initial plan for the Anti-Matter team was for every single character to have concealed or concealed—optional. While this didn’t end up being the case, enough characters had the black border that the team would definitely be thought off as the hidden area team.
Similar to how the Green Lanterns can do a lot of different things provided they have enough willpower, the Anti-Matter team has lots of different powers, but they’re usually connected to being hidden or moving from one area to another. That said, during design we gave them a few more specific concepts such as the anti-DEF mechanic on cards like Qward or Kiman. We also decided that they would have a ton of direct endurance loss, representing their ability to strike indirectly at the Matter Universe.
We knew the Manhunters were going to be DC’s answer to the Sentinels. The trick was, we didn’t want them to feel the same, so we needed to infuse them with some different core concepts while still giving them that “Army feel.” At the time, Wild Vomit was the Sentinel deck of choice (how things change!), and it was built around 1-drops and 4-drops—Wild Sentinels and Sentinel Mark IVs. This led us to try to focus the team around the other drop points on the curve.
I’d recently tried out a non-collectible card game Darwin Kastle (a Vs. contractor at the time we were working on GL) had made, and it had this neat mechanic called “swarm.” In his game, you could only play one unit a turn. However, you could play two units in a turn if they both had swarm. This got me thinking about what a mechanic like swarm would mean in the Vs. System.
I worked on a few iterations on the concept before I settled on what would eventually be called Manhunter Guardsman and Manhunter Soldier. This in turn sent me in the direction of making alternate recruiting one of the Manhunter’s core themes. I felt that mechanically it was a pretty cool riff on the Sentinel’s Underground Sentinel Base, and it appropriately captured the flavor that the Manhunters are all around us, waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
Another theme we wanted to give the Manhunters was some KO’d pile manipulation. The idea here was that even when you think they’re gone, the Manhunters keep coming back. This concept led to our giving the Manhunters ways to toss cards from your deck into your discard pile. In testing it turned out that the self-deck destruction wasn’t cool enough, so we made it so you could dump either player’s deck into his or her KO’d pile. This also made Matt Hyra extremely happy since he loves Emperor Joker more than is probably healthy.
Okay, that’s all I got for now on the set’s core mechanics and team dynamics. Next week I’ll get into individual card’s design stories.
Okay, this has been a super-long article, so I’m only going to post one question. It’s from Brian. I snipped the first part where he makes fun of Humpherys because, hey, that’s my specialty.
A question: The characters in GLC, taken as a whole, deviate from the standard curve stats we’ve come to expect (6 buys you 12 ATK/12 DEF, etc.), with cards like Katma Tui, Legion, Alan Scott, Ganthet, Malvolio, Sturmer, and Mouse Trap all boasting unusual stats.

Was this an experiment, or is it a sign that we can expect more unusually shaped heroes from now on?


Here’s what I wrote back to Brian:
Well, it was sort of an experiment, but one that went pretty well I think. The stat line has an important role in the game, not just in telling you how much damage a character can take or dish out, but by acting as a differentiator between characters at different cost points on the curve. That said, I think “unusually shaped heroes” can help really shake things up.
I’d like to add to that, that one of the concepts I tried to incorporate into the set, was characters with super-high DEF relative to their ATK. This was partly to shake things up, and partly because one of our goals for the expansion was to give stall decks stat-based ways to get to the late game as opposed to or in addition to the usual exhaustion method.
Waitaminute, it occurs to me now that I haven’t made fun of Humpherys. Um . . . okay . . . uh . . .
How many Dave Humpheryses does it take to change a lightbulb?
Tune in next week for the answer. And check out the live chat on vsrealms.com this Thursday. I know I will . . .
Send questions or comments to dmandel@metagame.com.

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