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Hindsight: Necessary Evil

by Charlie Plaine, Chairman

12th March 2014

Welcome back to Hindsight, my weekly series where I take a look back at previous expansions for the Star Trek: Customizable Card Games with a fresh eye. My goal is to examine the decisions made in each of these expansions using modern eyes and design sensibilities in order to learn from those decisions. As mentioned in the announcement article, this is not an attempt to create a new game. Instead, I’m looking to better understand the games and how they can be improved in the modern era by studying its history.

I don't think any expansion had a more immediate nor a more dramatic impact on Second Edition than Necessary Evil. The game had started slowly, but had shown a lot of promise after the introduction of the Borg and the Dominion in the previous expansion, and things were looking up going into Christmas 2003. I remember the first preview card - Data (Loyal Brother) - and I knew this expansion would be something special. Necessary Evil was a landmark era for the game, though not one without problems (not the least of which was how rare it would become.)

Party Atmosphere

Necessary Evil (Second Edition)
Released March 17, 2004
180 Cards (60 Common, 60 Uncommon, 60 Rare)

Affiliations and Sub-Affiliations Introduced:

Lessons Learned
1. Discounts need limits or drawbacks.
One of the biggest strengths of Second Edition is the cost system; this system provides a scale by which effects can be measured. Smaller effects (or effects with a shorter duration) can be on cheaper cards, and bigger (or more powerful) effects can have an equivilantly higher cost. The cost system adds a lot of versatility to the game, and Necessary Evil is a place where the design team started playing with different, i.e. alternate, costs on cards. This was most noticeable in the "lose 5 points" mechanic, which first appeared in significant number in this expansion

Designers love to mess with systems like 2E's cost system. This isn't to say that we subvert it; the cost system in use today is the same fundamental system that was designed back in 2002. The actual costs of cards are used mechanically, but design has enjoyed (and will continue to enjoy) finding ways to explore alternative costs. One of the easiest ways to do this is with discounts, i.e. cards that allow themselves, or enable others, to enter play for less than their printed cost. We've done this in all three of our most recent Second Edition expansions, and discounting has been in the game since Second Edition. But in Necessary Evil, it was ratched up to "eleven" on the dial and that's the first big lesson here: discounts need limits.

Party Atmosphere was introduced as a non-unique event, with a cost of 1, that discounted subsequent events played in core by a counter for each headquarters mission your opponent commanded. (Note that this expansion also had a "smack around dual HQ" theme, since it was very popular, and that everyone had to use a headquarters mission - Voyager would not be introduced for several years.) In addition, since it was non-unique, this discount would stack with itself; I could very quickly be playing events for cost -2 or -3 for the rest of the game (and more if my opponent was using multiple HQs.) The problem with this card, and one of the reasons it would eventually be changed to be unique, was that it was a "sword of Damocles" hanging around design's neck. Party Atmosphere put pressure on design to increase the cost of events in order to account for this card being in play. Captain on the Bridge would later be made unique for the same reason, and Hollow Plesantries has been considered for errata as well (although its much more narrow scope has spared the card).

Discounts are great ways for design to encourage deck synergy and support mechanics, and they aren't going anywhere. They just need to either have a natural limit, or have a limited scope. A card like Icheb (Second Officer) does technically provide a "sword" over the head of design, but as he is limited to a very narrow scope - it isn't a threat that is going to be prohibitive. On the other hand, had Party Atmosphere been left non-unique, it risked spelling the end of low cost events.

Goval (Follower of the One)

2. Every effect that can be scaled needs a limit.
This point is the opposite side of the same coin outlined above; every scalable effect must have a limit. Discounts that are unlimited (either in degree or scope) can affect gameplay, but tend to be more of a problem for future design; i.e. design is inflating the cost of events to account for Party Atmosphere. Scalable effects tend to be the opposite, having a bigger and more damaging effect on gameplay, while being a smaller concern for future design. Note that while this lesson is being talked about here, it will keep coming up again and again as we continue to look through Second Edition; hopefully it has been learned.

Why are unlimited effects a problem? Well, it depends on the type of effect, but typically it allows a player to bypass or subvert the core mechanics of the game - attempting missions and facing dilemmas. There are a lot of different types of players, and these players play the game for different reasons; they find different aspects of the game fun. Some of these players enjoy combos, i.e. combinations of cards that aren't always easy or reliable, but result in an interesting effect. One of the earliest versions of this idea was born from Goval (Follower of the One), introduced in Necessary Evil. The idea in a nutshell: play a ship, play a piece of equipment to gain skills (if needed), play Running a Tight Ship (then non-unique), then load your deck full of events and equipment. Draw a hand full of these cards, pitch them all to Goval, and solve your missions with two (2) personnel - often never facing a dilemma. (Note that this deck would get better in later expansions, but the central idea is as outlined.) Some kinds of dilemma avoidance are good for the game, but decks that can win without ever having faced a dilemma are not.

Much like discounts, effects like this need a limit. Any effect that is scalable (attribute gain) or repeatable (skill gain) should be limited, either with an upper bound. with a narrow effect, or with a frequency limitation. For example, consider William T. Riker (Exchange Officer). He has the ability to repeatidly gain a skill, but it's from skills that are present. One could argue that this limit is insufficient, but it does provide a limitation while allowing for players that enjoy the "puzzle solving" playstyle to find ways to circumvent. I think that if we were to make this card today, it would be further limited to once a turn or require a specific type of discard from hand to activate (still allowing for the puzzle solving but not quite the power level.) The exact degree of the limitation can be determined experimentally through testing, but design should never again make a card that does not have a limit.

Good Stuff
1. Make events relevant.
The number of events played in decks prior to Necessary Evil was small, and the number of events that played in core was even less. While I'm sure it varied from play group to play group, there just wasn't a lot of reason to use most events prior to this expansion. Decipher took that as a challenge and made "events in core" a theme of this expansion, and giving events a place in Second Edition. Though they may never be as prevalent as they were in this era, they are a card type that many players enjoy and this expansion was the turning point. From this point on, there would be powerful events at a variety of costs that would be able to affect the game.

2. Keywords with helper text.
Two of the game's "helper keywords," Artifact and Consume, were introduced in Necessary Evil. The idea of a keyword that was followed by text than explained how it worked is a great tool for design. The italicised text suggest to players that it's less important than the surrounding text, and it creates a culture where it can be ignored once it is understood. This means that a card like Ressikan Flute loses almost half its game text for more experienced players, and anything that can be done to simplify in-game complexity is a boon for any game.

The Sword of Kahless

It's my personal belief that we could go further with these keywords. Right now, the italicised text is required to be on the cards in order to enable their function; must that always be the case? If the italicised text were "loaded" into the rulebook, it would give design the option of having cards without this text. So far, it's not been necessary; and maybe it won't ever be. But some day we might turn in a Consume Persistent dilemma and this issue might have to be revisited.

Expansion Stories
I'd like to feature stories from players about Second Edition expansions. If you'd like to submit stores, you can do so via email (cplaine@gmail.com) or private message (to MidnightLich). I'm looking for players to share stories or memories tied into the release (or nearly after) of specific expansions, from stories about finding and opening product, to stories about games played in release tournaments. The next few articles for Second Edition will be on Fractured Time, Reflections 2.0, and Strange New Worlds.

If the previous expansion, Call to Arms, was a summer shower in terms of how much it ramped up the power of Second Edition, then Necessary Evil was a spring downpour. This expansion dramatically altered how the game was played, and features many powerful cards that still appear in decks today. This expansion made dilemmas deadlier, events more powerful, and added key personnel to all of the game's affiliations. It's unfortunate that this expansion's release coincided with so many of Decipher's financial difficulties, and was printed in such short supply. But this powerful expansion was overly aggressive, providing too many cards without limits that would enable a number of the game's most "broken" decks. These are vital lessons to keep in mind as we procceed into Phase II of Second Edition design, so that we can make powerful and game-shaping cards again.

Don't forget to join the discussions that are ongoing on our forums, where players are discussing their favorite (and least favorite) parts of these expansions and sharing memories about these eras of the game. These articles are intentionally limited in scope, and I am eager to read what else people think was done well (or not so well) in Necessary Evil and the other expansions. Keep the comments and feedback coming, and these articles will continue to evolve as time goes on.

Next week, we take a look at the introduction of the Borg in First Edition as we look at the game's expansion beyond The Next Generation. Join me next week as we take a look back at First Contact. Thanks for reading!

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