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Make it So Lessons #2: Terms and Definitions

by Charlie Plaine, Make it So Host

6th December 2013

In design, and especially in First Edition design, we use a lot of terms. Many of these terms are used internally and externally, and there is some sense of what they mean outside the design discussions. But as Make it So is as much about education as it is the search for a new future designer, it's our goal to help you all learn and understand the terms we use as we use them, and that's what this article is about. Hopefully it will help explain some of the terms we use, why we use them, and help both our MiS contestants and any aspiring designers out there to make better cards.

It's All About Grammar
First Edition has a lot of card types (fifteen, to be exact) but they tend to be grouped into two (2) categories - "nouns" and "verbs." And although it's a rough comparision that doesn't always work, it's a good way to group up the card types. "Verbs" do something and "nouns" are something. But as always, it's more complicated than that.

I Miss This Office

As you would an expect, a "noun" is a card that represents a thing. In design, "nouns" are equipment, personnel, and ships.  Other than equipment, nouns tend to be very limited in what they can do; most of this restriction comes from template issues. From a design point of view, "nouns" don't provide a lot of function or flavor, but they are vital to the game. After all, without personnel you can't have skills and without ships you can't move about the spaceline. There is also a great degree of overlap between the mechanics of "nouns" and the creative space of "nouns."

Some card types that would normally be considered "nouns" (Artifacts, Missions, Time Locations, Tribbles) have such specializes rules and roles that they aren't usually considered "nouns" by design. Even equipment falls more outside of this definition than inside, but it's often close enough to get a mention.

"Verbs" are far more complex than "nouns," as they tend to represent actions and changes instead of things. These card types have incredible mechanical and creative diversity, but they all affect the game in similar ways: by enabling (or disabling) a game function. These tend to be higher level game functions, whereas the "nouns" enable the basic game functions (solving missions).

The typical "verb" card types (Events, Incidents, Interrupts, and Objectives) tend to have a wide variance between their mechanical space and their creative space. For example, events can represent places (Duck Blind), things (Raktajino) or more metaphsyical concepts. The primary differences between the different "verbs" come in their mechanical and creative scope, which is vital to giving each card type a purpose. It's difficult and very, very important to make sure to find the right card type for each "verb" you wish to create.

While the "noun" and "verb" classifications are important, they are very indistinct; they are not hard lines and precise definitions. And these two categories don't cover all of the card types. For example, dilemmas are neither "nouns" nor "verbs" and are almost always considered as part of their own category. Likewise, while missions could be considered "nouns," they are usually considered seperate from the design definition of "noun." 

It's All About Direction
First Edition is a game where Trek Sense is vital to the game's mechanics and implementaion. But it's still a game, and in order for it to be a good game that is fun, interactive, and competitive, sometimes decisions need to be made from a mechanical standpoint instead of a creative one. It's best when a balanced approach can be taken, or when the two aspects of card design overlap, but sometimes one must be given priority over the other. In general, there are two approaches to making a card.

Benjamin Sisko

Bottom Up Design
When you create a card by starting with its mechanic, you are building from the bottom up. A bottom up design priorities function over form. Even in a game like First Edition where flavor is so important, most cards are designed from this point of view. Different people have different skills and preferences, but most designers tend to find bottom up to be an easier methodology. Starting from a mechanical place (a mission specialist with Physics, a dilemma that filters Navigation) allows you to ensure you are hitting the precise notes your card needs.

Top Down Design
The opposite approach is top down, when you start from a creative place and find mechanics to match; in other words, prioritizing form over function (although that is a gross oversimplification). The most common approach for this design paradigm is the desire to capture a specific story moment on a card, and the story gives you a launching off point to find a mechanical implementation. This can be quite difficult, as it's not always easy to find a mechanic that makes sense to capture the story and is acceptible within the design rules. It can also be dangerous when one becomes too dedicated to capturing the story and forgets one is creating a game.

Ultimately the ideal approach is balance - one hopes that their cards will find a compromise between form and function. The two approaches (bottom up and top down) should be more about inspiration and less about implementation, and cards should be good representations of both mechanics and flavor. Prioritizing one over the other can (and does) happen, but they are not mutually exclusive concepts - balance is important no matter which approach is used.

Hopefully this article has helped to define the different "groups" of cards that design works worth, and the different approaches design can take to makign cards. It's always good to consider what type of card one is creating, and what the inspiration is, before sitting down to actually create a card. If flavor is more important than function, one needs to consider all of the elements of flavor before writing any game text. Likewise, if there is a strong mechanical need for your card, that need must be considered before flavor. There are a lot of decisions to be considered before design begins - remember that most of the work of a designer takes place long before any cards are created.

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