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Strategy Articles

The Sky's the Limit: Self-ish (Part II)

by Charlie Plaine, The Sky's the Limit Lead Designer

25th April 2013

Yesterday, I introduced the self-controlling mechanic and how it works. If you didn't get a chance to read Part I of my article on the new self-controlling mechanic, then I suggest you take a moment to do so. The rest of this article is going to assume that you know what this new dilemma mechanic is and how it works, so Part I will be valuable reading for you.

Today, I want to talk to you about the origins of this idea and how it evolved through the development of The Sky's the Limit. But the idea of an icon to mark "self-controlling" cards didn't originate with Project Snape or even with me. I did a quick search through my emails and found the first reference to the icon in a February 2011 email from former First Edition Lead Designer Jason Robinette. Jason wanted the icon to "future proof" a proposed errata to Borg Ship that was being tested, hoping to leave it as a hook for future design. And that's where the icon, featuring the maw of the Planet Killer, was born.

As a mechanic, however, self-controlling was just a concept. The icon meant we could reference it later, much like we'd done with the Crime and Punishment icons, but we had no specific concept for what it might do (or how it was going to do it.) In general this is a good strategy that I like to use, because it leaves us, or those that follow us, room to work. While some might not like the idea of "crop dusting" icons like this, it doesn't bother me and I think it's better to have it and not use it, than want to use it and not have it.

Now, rewind a bit further back to the design of Straight and Steady and you'll find the first version of a card based on the Osaarian Pirates from the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Anomaly." This first version bore almost no resemblance to how the card ended up, but represented a card that "lurked around" and caused problems - doubly so in the Delphic Expanse. (For those not in the know, the Delphic Expanse was the "Bermuda Triangle" of space that was the setting for the majority of Season 3 of Star Trek: Enterprise; it is also the home region of the Xindi.)

Spaceborne Entity

In this case, we ended up pulling the card because we didn't know how the Delphic Expanse was going to work. Why would this be any different than the icons? Well, an icon that does nothing on its own (which is most icons) is something passive. It's harmless, other than the fact that if I do make a card that uses it, any card that has it is affected. When you start talking about things that are active mechanics - like a potential region with special rules - you start going from "future proofing" to "hand tying." For example, in the show, the Delphic Expanse was surrounded by a barrier of dangerous nebula clouds - would that be represented mechanically? Also (and spoilers), the Delphic Expanse doesn't really exist in the 24th century versus the 22nd - how would that work, in game? There were (and still are) a lot of ways to go with that concept, and if we made a card back then that referenced it, it would be a big factor when the future designers sat down to make Expanse missions. So we decided to cut the card and leave it around for a rainy day.

Two Great Tastes, Taste Great Together
That brings us up to when we were planning out what would become the new Block system and figuring out how the expansions would fit together. Over the course of time, the idea of a "self-controlling" icon melded with cool ideas for cards like the Osaarian Pirates and the Assimilated Vessel (if you don't follow us on Twitter @TrekCC, you should) and the idea of making a set of "monsters" was born. I thought it would be something cool to fit into the third set of the TNG block, as it would be a cool suite of cards that could go into any deck. So even though it wasn't a fully developed idea, it was slotted to go into Project Snape as a sub-theme.

But we were going to have a lot of obstacles, and once I was tapped to lead Snape, I started really thinking about them and how we might tackle them. To do what we wanted to do, we'd either need a lot of words on the cards (which violated our "don't break the templates unless you have to" rule), or lots of words in the rules (which violated our "don't add to the rules unless it makes things simpler" rule.

Side note: The "don't break the templates unless you have to" rule came about early in our work on First Edition. We'd made quite a lot of cards in "Block 0" that pushed past the standard templates, and decided we didn't like that precedent. Thus was born the "don't break the templates" rule - although we left ourselves room to do so if it was necessary.

It was around that time that the idea for a hybrid template came up - a dilemma that had the attribute boxes of a ship. I thought it was a really intuitive solution (which would become very important as we worked our way through the mechanic) and when I pitched it to the team, they were on board. But there was a problem - this would violate the "no new templates" rule - and that rule has very, very, very little wiggle room. I knew it was the only way we'd be able to get these cards to work (and it was long shot at that), so I reached out to Art Director Johnny Holeva and asked his opinion. Here's a paraphrased version of the email:


There's an idea floating around my head for a new way to implement Borg Ship and cards like Borg Ship. We'd previously made an icon (the maw of the planet killer) to represent a "self-controlling" card; i.e. something that flies around the spaceline and does bad things to people. I'm thinking about expanding this idea for Project Snape and had a thought that might make it easier to write these complex cards. Could we alter the standard dilemma template (3-3) to be a (2-3) template, and add Weapons/Shield boxes to the bottom?

I know that this is a lot of work and it's venturing into "new template" territory, but I'm intrigued by the idea. I'm curious what you guys think. There's a LOT of source material we can draw from in the Trek universe, so I'd expect this to appear on quite a few cards.

I remember having no confidence at all that this idea would fly. We have the "no new templates" rule for a reason and, while I really liked the idea behind the mechanic, I didn't know if it was worthy of violating this pretty hard and fast rule. Much to my surprise when Johnny replied with a prototype design, saying: "I can buy into this design because I believe it is how Decipher would have handled a dilemma like this, if they knew then what we know now about specific design cues." Johnny was also the one that suggested adding in the RANGE box to complete the look of the template, and it was a great call. After a few revisions, we ended up with the template that you've seen over the last two days.

Less is More
Once we had the template, we worked with Rules on the initial idea and they were willing to indulge us (even if they were skeptical and laughing at us behind our backs). We were off to the races and started designing cards. We actually kept this mechanic from testers for a few revisions (and remember, we were working on the Remans at this point on Snape) in order to keep them from becoming a distraction. Once we made the decision to can the Remans and refocus the expansion, we rolled out the self-controlling dilemmas for testing while the design team regrouped.

Early reactions were mixed. The play testers got what we were trying to do, but found the execution to be a mess. There were lots of words on the cards, lots of words to add to the rules, and many differing opinions on what was intuitive and what wasn't. They generally appreciated the templates and thought the idea was worthy, but complex. We took that feedback to heart and started trying to streamline and simplify as much as we could, also asking the testers to set aside those concerns and break the cards. And they did, causing us to cut a few, rework a few, and eventually add in the "one per person" rule (although it was different when introduced than how it ended up.)

We worked on these cards, and the rules, and made progress - but we still weren't sure if the complexity we were introducing was worth the game play we were getting. We had serious discussions about nixing the whole mechanic, but I was being stubborn about it. We'd put a lot of work into the self-controlling cards and I really wanted to make them work. It was at this point that I had two conversations that helped me sort things out, and convince the others that we had something worth doing.

I wish I could remember with whom I had the first conversation, because it was key. We were talking about the complexity and how we had a design "rule" about not adding to the rulebook (which the self-controlling cards had to do to work), and this person pointed out to me that we weren't. We were generalizing a specific card's rules into something global. After all, the self-controlling rules were just a generic implementation of the rules for Borg Ship. Thus, we weren't actually adding to the rulebook as much as reducing complexity - which is always a worthy goal.

The second was with one of the play test groups. We were chatting, going over the cards in the file one by one, and I overheard the comment that "there are so many of these cards, it's overwhelming." And it was true. In that particular version, we had six or seven (6-7) different [Self] cards (including one meant for the errata file), as well as another four or five (4-5) support cards that related to the [Self] cards. It was a lot, and it really made them feel more complex than they were.

With those two points in mind, we decided to keep the self-controlling cards in and make them work. We took out all of the support cards, reasoning that they weren't necessary in the initial expansion that introduced the mechanic. We built a standard design pattern for these dilemmas, and cut all of the ones that didn't fit this basic pattern, to keep them simple and similar. Finally, we gutted the rules and made them as simple as we could, eliminating complexity and the special exceptions we'd left in for future design room. We reasoned that we could always add them in later if the mechanic was well-received and after the players became comfortable with them. Once we'd done that, we were left with four (4) dilemmas to add to the game, and we were confident the complexity was going to be worth the fun and exciting gameplay of the new mechanic.

At this point, we handed off our "Designer's Draft" of the rules to the actual Rules Committee, who crafted them into their final form. The testers signed off on the cards, and they were brought to life by the amazing work of the Art and Creative departments. And now we have a fun and new mechanic that removes a card-specific rule and gives Design exciting new space to work in as we move forward. There are a lot of options left for new self-controlling cards, so we expect to see them show up now and again in the future.

The Last Minute Entity
Oh, I almost forgot! Did you take a look at Spaceborne Entity? I'll bet you didn't know that card had a completely different title until almost the last minute. It was a card that had to be cut down and simplified as part of the kinder, gentler self-controlling revisions and some of my peers felt that, while it was a cool card, it no longer fit the original story. With the final revision due within days, we didn't have a lot of time to look for alternatives, and I was preparing to cut the card and replace it when I made a final lap through Memory Alpha for ideas and stumbled upon the jellyfish from "Encounter at Farpoint." I made a quick executive decision and changed the card's story, wrote the lore, and sent the file off to Art to be built. I'm glad of it, too, because it's a fun card... and we'll bring the other one back some day, too.

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