(Metagame Archive) Creating a Crisis, Part 2: Culinary Cardboard

Justin Gary

Welcome to Part 2 of my series about the design and development of Infinite Crisis. Last week, I talked about the mechanical philosophy behind the set. This week, I would like to talk about the other end of the design spectrum: thematics.

Lights . . . Camera . . . Action!

At its heart, Vs. System is a game about telling stories. I spent a good part of my childhood reading and collecting comics. I loved to get lost in the tales of my favorite superheroes and imagine my own superpowers and adventures. As I got older, though, I lost interest in comic books and moved on to trading card games. I still enjoyed reading a good comic every now and then, but I became so much more engrossed in the interactive medium of card gaming. When playing a TCG, I get to dictate the action, both via my choices for deck construction and during play. Now, with Vs. System, we finally have a chance to combine the excitement of comic book superhero stories with the control and interactivity of a trading card game.

From Top to Bottom

A major part of the job of lead designer is to make sure that the mechanics and abilities in the set give players the appropriate feel for the teams and characters being represented. This is commonly known as “top down” design (as compared to “bottom up” design, where the focus is on mechanics first and thematics second). This top down process is much harder than it might appear at first. Because each superhero has his or her own unique (or sometimes not so unique) set of powers, the temptation is to give everyone abilities that are custom-tailored to that character’s power set. The problem with this approach is that a team composed of characters designed entirely top down rarely has any cohesion. Each team needs to have its own play style and strategy in order to make it interesting and competitive. If the powers on a team’s characters and plot twists don’t synergize, you end up with a big mess. Balancing the needs of the team versus the needs of individual characters is the core dilemma in thematic design.

Where’s Wally???

Infinite Crisis, as I’ve said before, is the first storyline set for Vs. System. When I began the process of designing Infinite Crisis, I wanted to include everything that was crucial to the current Crisis, including major events from previous Crisis stories. Comic book fans who are reading this know how naïve I was being. The Crisis storylines in DC are as big as any storyline can get—period. The reality is that there is no way to cover all of Infinite Crisis, let alone the entire Crisis history, in one 220-card set. In addition to being restricted on card quantity, we also had to worry about fitting all of the relevant characters onto appropriate teams in the set. Once we had chosen to include four major and two minor teams, space for extra unaffiliated characters and legacy content was limited. We had to make some very difficult cuts when deciding which characters could be included and which ones could not.

Spoiler Alert

In addition to being the first storyline set in Vs. System, Infinite Crisis was also the first time we did a set focused on events that hadn’t happened yet. When we began this process last August, DC was very helpful in giving us top-secret spoiler information. I have to admit that it was really cool knowing the “big secrets” of Infinite Crisis, and it was hard trying to keep those secrets while working on the set. The largest challenge in working on this set, however, was the fact that major parts of the Infinite Crisis storyline hadn’t even been written yet! The timeline for writing and printing a comic is much shorter than that for designing and developing a Vs. set, so while we had all of the broad strokes of the Crisis (and were even able to put some exciting spoiler information into the set), a lot of the specific details were yet to be determined. I had several conversations with DC where they would mention a plot point and then immediately tell me not to use it because it wasn’t guaranteed to play out that way. Because of this, we repeatedly had to go back and redo some of our art descriptions and mechanics during the design process. It’s hard enough to design a set when you know the comics inside and out, but designing one with only sketchy details was a huge challenge. While it was a top priority to include all of the emblematic characters and events in the current Crisis, the worst thing that we could do was include something that wouldn’t end up happening after all.

How did we solve this problem? The same way that comic books do—with a “To Be Continued . . .” The story of the Infinite Crisis is not over. Infinite Crisis covered the opening salvo, but we plan to wrap up this tale in the next DC set, Legion of Super-Heroes. Major characters and plot points not covered in Infinite Crisis, including fan favorite Wally West, the destruction of Blüdhaven, and the ultimate battle between Superboys, are on their way. By using some of the legacy content space in Legion, we were better able to flesh out the teams and themes of Infinite Crisis without worrying about missing key touchstones.

There’s No “I” in Theme

In addition to creating thematically strong characters, a good Vs. set needs to have thematically strong teams. Creating the mechanics to support a team theme is a lot of fun. It’s in this area that the true nexus between mechanics and thematics exists, since a good team mechanic serves both to create an exciting new play experience and to get across the flavor of a team. Villains United was the easiest team to design thematically, as I’d been eager to do the vengeance mechanic for some time. I really like the idea of punishing my opponent for stunning my characters. Vengeance fits perfectly with the mentality of Villains United, since the public reason for the formation of the team was to get revenge for the lobotomy of Dr. Light. But Villains United is more than just a bunch of vengeance-hungry lunatics (although, to be fair, it is a lot of that). The team is also the lynchpin of a secret plot by Alexander Luthor to recreate the multiverse in his image. To represent this, I gave Villains United a “sneaky” theme of returning characters to hand as a resource. This was intended to represent Luthor’s plans working behind the scenes. (You’ll note that none of the Alexander Luthor characters have vengeance themselves.)

I’ll be going into more detail on the mechanics behind each team in future articles, but hopefully, this example gives you some insight into how we bridge the gap between the comics and the cardboard.

Before going, I want to thank you all for the many emails I’ve received in response to my last article and to Infinite Crisis in general. I read every one and try to respond to most of them. Your feedback has a very real impact on this game, and everything you have to say (both good and bad) helps R&D do our job better. So, keep the emails coming to Justin_Gary@upperdeck.com, and come back next week when we’ll cycle through some more content from Infinite Crisis.

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