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In The Cards: It's About the Text, Volume II

by Michael Shea, Designer

23rd August 2020

This is a continuation of an ongoing series of articles on the design philosophy behind cards, specifically examining the question of how much text on a card is too much. If you want to catch up on what has been written so far, you can read the original article here. Or, you can feel free to pick up the discussion here. But, to briefly recap, it was suggested in an online poll following the release announcement of All Our Yesterdays that cards are better if they're shorter - or that fewer lines of text is always preferable. I call this the Rule of Three. Last week, we tried to recreate Emergency Transport Unit and Code of the Ushaan as three-line cards, with varying degrees of success. This week, I'll be looking at three cards crucial to the classically interactive strategies of battle (specifically engagements) and capture and attempt to design Rule of Three compliant versions of them. These cards are Point Blank Strike, Ensnared, and Stunning Reversal. So, without further delay, let's jump right in.

Point Blank Strike

Point Blank Strike, along with Pierce Their Defenses and Precise Attack, are the core unaffiliated cards designed to facilitate ship-to-ship battle. There are affiliated cards that add the flavor of specific affiliations to this mechanic, like No Peace in Our Time for Treachery Klingons or Provoked Attack for Cardassian capture decks. But, not every affiliation has access to flavor-specific battle cards, so these three cards - Point Blank Strike, Pierce Their Defenses, and Precise Attack provide access to classic interaction for any affiliation with easy access to Leadership personnel. So, let's examine this card. It has six lines of text - a Wall of Text perhaps. The card reads: Maneuver. Plays in your core. Order - Begin an engagement involving your ship with your Leadership personnel aboard. That ship is Weapons +4. If you win, place this event on an opponent's ship involved. Otherwise, destroy this event. Damage - This ship is Weapons -2.

Now, in the interest of intellectual honesty, part of the reason why this card has six lines of text has to do more with 2e design conventions then actual word count. For example, the card uses the Maneuver keyword. The Order text starts on a new line, as does the Damage text. Part of this is to set these words apart so as to make the text that follows them more understandable: Maneuver is a keyword that other cards interact with; Order explains when the ability described in the text following that word can be used; and Damage means that if the order is successfully carried out - if the player using this card wins their engagement - then the opponent's ship literally takes damage. But, let's assume 2e didn't have those spacing conventions and all of the text was run together as if part of one paragraph. Does that make a difference? Not really. When I put this in UP (Utopia Planitia - the design tool for creating drafts of cards) it's now a full five-line paragraph and the "Weapons -2" drops to the sixth line. UP doesn't always provide an exact match to a final card in terms of text-lines (do do differences in fonts and resolution I don't quite understand), but even with those differences accounted for, we know this card will be at least five good lines of text.  So, even without the spacing conventions that make the card easier to read, it's far over our Rule of Three threshold. But, can we make it three lines or less?

Obviously, it's not possible with a card like this and have it be an event. But, we could make it a space dilemma. That card would read something like: Unless this ship has Shields>9, all your personnel are stopped and this dilemma is placed on your ship. Damage - This ship is Weapons -2. Now this is a thought experiment, and if a card like this were ever to be tested, there would be an evaluation of and a discussion about whether the "Shields>9" requirement is overpowered or not, whether the card should stop all personnel or not (maybe it should kill one or two, maybe the crew should go on, etc.), whether the Damage text is appropriate, and how much the dilemma should cost. All that aside, we have just created a Rule of Three compliant card that accomplishes the same result in terms of effect. But, this card is no longer interactive in the classical sense. And, if we did this with all Assault and Maneuver events we would be taking the concept of battle out of the game. Some players would no doubt call this a win. Others would no doubt feel the game had lost a fun and important mechanic. But the card is now three lines of text, so to the text-line fanatic, it's a win, maybe. It really comes down to a question of competing interests: do we as designers want to create classically interactive cards, or do we want cleaner looking cards with fewer lines of text? In this particular case, we can't have both.

Ensnared

Now. let's turn to Ensnared, a staple Cardassian capture card that depicts an important story moment of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Chain of Command, Part I." This card is a six-line Wall of Text with the Capture keyword, and it reads: Capture. To play this event, you must command six [Car] personnel. Name a personnel and choose an opponent to reveal each copy of that personnel he or she commands. You may discard the top five cards of your deck to choose one of those personnel at a non-headquarters mission and place him or her in your brig. Remove this event from the game. There's no spacing convention issues with this card - it's one continuous paragraph. Assuming we don't want to get rid of the Capture keyword (hardly a significant cut if we did), we're left to see if there's any text we can safely eliminate and maintain the spirit and effect of the card. After all, I don't think any designer would argue with the notion that whenever a card can do something in fewer lines of text (and not break anything), then fewer lines should be used. So, let's see if there's any fat we can trim form this card.

Let's start with the play requirements: To play this event, you must command six [Car] personnel. If we eliminate this text, this card can conceivably come into play on the Cardassian player's turn one, assuming they go second and the opponent gets out on their turn one - turn two if they go first. Now, it's true that if a player builds their deck right and is extremely lucky in their opening hand, they could get this going on turn two as written, but that's fairly unlikely. Also, if we eliminated the "six [Car] personnel" requirement, it's almost certain the cost of the event would go up because it's now powerful. But, let's put aside power considerations for the moment and just see what happens when we cut this text. This saves a line and we're now at five lines of text. Now, we can't eliminate the next sentence, or else the card does nothing. However, we could possibly eliminate the discard text - especially since it's been argued that discard for Cardassians isn't a cost anyway. This saves us another line and we're now at four lines of text. And, we could eliminate the non-headquarters mission proviso and change the "remove from game" text to more standard "destroy" text and now this capture card is a first or second turn guaranteed play and an auto include in possibly every deck looking to deny an opponent the use of key personnel. It's like Holding Cell on steroids and human growth hormone all at once. And, while it still violates the Rule of Three, it just barely does. So, the card now reads: Capture. Name a personnel and choose an opponent to reveal each copy of that personnel he or she commands. Choose one of those personnel and place him or her in your brig. Destroy this event.

Here, we've been much more successful than with the battle events at preserving the spirit and effect of the card while also preserving its interaction-adjacent flavor (it's not strictly interactive in that no one's cards "touch" but it does support a game mechanic generally agreed-upon to be interactive). But, it's certainly an open question about whether or not this card is now too powerful. Maybe it would be a cost 7 event, who knows. And, if so, how would it interact with cards like Basso Tromac, Smug Subordinate (who himself violates the Rule of Three)? And, we've just taken a powerful mechanic out of Cardassian hands and made it available to all affiliations and factions. So, we have just accomplished our design goal of creating a clean card with as few lines of text as possible, but we've probably created many more problems for ourselves than we've solved by shortening the text on the card. As a designer, I actually doubt a card like this would get through testing, and even if it did (assuming I designed it) I'd probably be flayed alive at the next in-person event I attended. But, at least I would be keeping the Errata Team busy. So, I think it's safe to say this hypothetical, slimmed-down version of Ensnared is not a design win.

Stunning Reversal

Finally, let's look at Stunning Reversal. Let's assume we're still playing in a version of 2e that still has battle interaction intact and hasn't converted all Assault and Maneuver events to dilemmas in the interest of creating only short cards. This card also clocks in at five lines of text, and while the Order spacing convention also applies, it doesn't make much difference here as the line of text that precedes it is full. The card as designed reads: Assault. Maneuver. When you win combat or an engagement you did not begin, you may choose one: the loser loses 10 points; the loser randomly selects three of their personnel involved to be killed; or score 20 points. Order - Stop your Leadership personnel to draw two cards. What fat can we trim from this card to get it down to our desired size?

We could eliminate both keywords - that would start to save some room but it would mean that card would no longer interact with other cards that specifically look for cards with those keywords. But, let's pretend we don't care. We could also eliminate the Order text altogether, in the name of design simplicity (cards shouldn't do more than one thing). But, this makes the card much less useful - it's now far more similar in flavor to Render Assistance - a card which does conform to our Rule of Three but which is so highly situational that it hardly ever sees play, except perhaps in Sealed deck events or in metas where Klingon warriors and TOS battle fleets wreak their havoc. If we make these cuts, we're now at four lines of text in UP. We could also take away the choice and simply pick one option - score 20 points let's say. Doing that actually saves us so much room we could add the keywords and the Order text back in, and the card is now one word over three lines of text, and I suspect we'd get that line back once the card was properly templated. So now our Rule of Three compliant card reads: Assault. Maneuver. When you win combat or an engagement you did not begin, score 20 points. Order - Stop your Leadership personnel to draw two cards. Obviously, we could have chosen any of the effects, but I chose the one with the fewest words to try to conform to our text-line limitations. This card is simple, clean, it looks good and it preserves most of the design intent of the card. And it conforms to our Rule of Three. But, is it better? You may be the judge of that; it's certainly possible to argue either way.

What have I demonstrated here? Well, I hope I have demonstrated that designers have multiple priorities to consider when designing a card, and text limits are only one of those. For every Tozara'Kesh zero-lines-of-text phenom, there's a Bridge Officer's Test or a Finding Our Way or a Tacking Into the Wind or an Adopted Authority that unquestionably add value or flavor or character to the game. Now, I am not arguing that every card with five or six lines of text is good, anymore than I would argue that all cards should be zero lines of text - either position would be foolish. Simply put, when evaluating whether or not a card has "too many" lines of text, one should attempt to ascertain what designers were trying to accomplish with the card and see if it could have been done well in fewer lines, as well whether or not the card is adding something fun and flavorful to the game as written.

I'll close this installment of "In The Cards: It's About the Text" with an admission. I do think designers should strive for fewer lines of text whenever possible. I think it's a good thought experiment to engage in during the brainstorming process to see if a card can be made with fewer words. In fact, I am working on a project now in which our design team as making "fewer lines of text" a priority consideration and I really like the results that project has yielded so far. And, as I have become a more experienced designer, I've become more sensitive to the consideration of simplicity in design. In the next installment of this series, I'll highlight some cards I think were particularly elegantly and cleanly designed, including: At What Cost?, Provoke Interstellar Incident, Timescape, and an interaction-themed card Kargan, Rash Captain. In the meantime, if you're one of those players reading this who wants lines of text to be among our highest priority of concerns - especially if you honestly feel that no card over three or four lines should even be designed - keep holding designers accountable. Keep putting pressure on us to make simpler, cleaner cards. I genuinely and sincerely mean that. But, while you're holding our feet to the fire, also take some time to consider whether the fact that a card is five lines of text makes a card a bad card by default.

Live Long and Prosper!


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