The creation of the Transformers TCG can be roughly broken down into four major phases. The first was Exploration, where we were creating new systems left and right and rapid prototyping them to find the versions with the most potential. This was an exciting time, as we went through dozens upon dozens of different system designs. Some lasted for weeks and weeks, some had lifetimes measured in hours. The second phase was Integration, as our most successful ideas were combined into a small number of candidate systems and we iterated on their designs through playtesting, brainstorming, and a lot of discussion about what form and feel would best serve the Transformers IP. The third phase was Refinement, where we had settled on a system, and our work was focused on making it the best possible version of itself through tweaks, additions of new rules, and (most importantly) subtractions of unnecessary cruft. Though the systems we worked on in earlier phases were clearly ancestors of the finished product, this was the first phase that you the player could come in and recognize as a proto-version of the Transformers game that you know and love. The final phase was Set Design, where we built the first set with a system that was (mostly) locked.
Our story for today takes place at the beginning of Refinement (phase 3). The very first version of the game in refinement only had two battle icons (offense and defense, later to become orange and blue). Very quickly, we began advocating for a third color. We had several reasons for this:
- Variance – Our first prototype was a mixed deck, and flipping cards for battle was fun and exciting, but we recognized that a lot of that excitement would be lost with battle decks that were skewed towards only one color. We wanted something that would encourage players to inject more variance into their battle decks (see my article <article link>Coming into Focus</article ling> for more on the importance of variance.
- Balance – with our other two battle icons only meaningful on either attack or defense, we wanted one that was relevant on both.
- Design Space – Having more battle icons allows us to design more different cards, which gives you more flexibility to build the deck that you want. One of the metrics we use to evaluate a mechanic is how many cards it lets us make that we couldn’t make otherwise. A “small” mechanic might let us make a dozen more cards. A “large” mechanic might give us a hundred. A new battle icon gives us thousands of cards over the lifetime of the game.
- Pattern Matching – Some of our characters (like Metroplex, Mirage, and the Firecons) have abilities that trigger when they flip the correct pattern of battle icons. An additional color gives us a lot more options for different patterns and to enable different decks.
- Excitement – This is technically part of Variance (above), but is important enough that it warrants its own callout. We wanted battle flips to have an expected effectiveness and then a chance to exceed it. A “critical hit” is a perfect model for this type of mechanic and it fulfills both the creative and gameplay need for an unexpected chance to do a bit more damage.
While the team quickly agreed on the value and importance of the white battle icons, it took a while longer to figure out the best execution. We had a few guidelines on what the icon should do:
- It should be meaningful on both attack and defense
- It should be self-limiting. Beyond a certain point, you should get diminishing returns from adding more white battle icons to your deck, and in most situations, you should not want to have a deck composed entirely of white battle icons.
- It should feel like a critical hit.
I can’t share most of the other ideas we had because they are candidates for future battle icons, but here are two that can show the kinds of things we were thinking about.
- Doubler – One version was as follows “if you flipped at least one white battle icons, double all of your other battle icons”. This hit all of our goals, but it had one teeny tiny problem. As anyone who’s ever swung with a Grimlock with Bold 14 can tell you, the numbers can get a bit crazy. It turns out that doubling was just too unbounded, and at the extremes, one character could generate damage that was comparable to the opposing team’s total health, which is obviously way too much swing.
- Armor bypass – Another idea was that a “critical hit” was all about bypassing your opponent’s defense, so we (briefly) tried a version where every white battle icon negated two of your opponent’s defense, but didn’t add to your offense. The idea was that the first white icon you flipped would be as strong as a double orange, but once you overcame your opponent’s defense, they lost their value. At first glance, this seemed like a great fit, but there were three problems. The first was that it only operated on offense. The second was that it was really mathy and hard to explain to players. The third was that it completely overwhelmed defense. There was no point in even trying to go blue. In the end, pierce and black battle icons* served the same function that this version of white battle icons did and did so in a better way.
There’s one last thing that the white battle icon does that is not at all obvious but is really cool once you see it. The point of diminishing returns is determined by two things, the number of cards that you’re flipping and the composition of your deck. You hit that inflection point when the opportunity cost of hitting a second white card offsets the expected value gain for flipping two additional cards from the first one. The more cards you’re flipping, the more likely you are to hit that second white, but the fewer cards that have the icon you currently care about, the lower your opportunity cost is. The consequence of this is that if you’re running a bold deck with heavy orange and a small amount of blue, your offense might be maximized with 5 white battle icons in your deck while your defense is optimized at over 15. This is a complicated statistical problem with a lot of variables and it is impossible to cover all of the possibilities in this article, but I wanted to give one concrete example to hopefully inspire further explorations in the community.
I ran a simulation with 5000 trials on 19 different decks at three different levels of bold and tough. The deck composition was:
X White Battle Icons
25 – X Orange Battle Icons
6 Double Orange Battle Icons
3 Blue Battle Icons
3 Double Blue Battle Icons
3 Orange Blue Battle Icons
The idea was that it was an orange-heavy deck that was running one playset of a double blue card for defense value, one playset of an Orange Blue card (Roll Out or Matrix of Leadership) for utility, and one playset of a single blue battle card for its primary effect (like a Dino-Chomp).
I ran 19 versions of this deck, swapping out white battle icons for orange ones one-for-one (from 0 to 18 white cards) to show the relative benefit of that white-for-orange swap. The graphs are normalized to the zero white case so that we can compare a relative benefit of swapping for white icons at different bold and tough levels.
There’s a lot going on in these charts, but here’s a few things to highlight. At Bold 0, you maximize your attack in this deck with 8-10 white battle icons, but at Bold 4, the maximum is around 4-5. Meanwhile defense maximizes around 16 white battle icons (not surprising, as we’re swapping in white for orange, so it’s not an apples to apples comparison). Nevertheless, this presents some fascinating implications for deck construction. The short version is this: In a heavy orange deck (depending on your average bold level), you can replace between 5 and 10 orange cards with white cards to get a modest increase in offensive power and a significant increase in defensive power. So, even if you are mostly expecting to be Bold and don’t have any Tough bonuses, you should push a little bit past the point of diminishing returns because the attack payoff is still mostly flat, while the defense payoff continues to rise. Note that this is also true on defense if you invert your deck composition.
I hope this toe dip into number crunching was enjoyable for you, and I look forward to seeing what the community does with this idea. Let me know what you think. If you like, I can go deeper in a future article.
Until then, may you optimize all of your flips.
* To cut off the potential for complaints in the comments; yes, I recognize that the black battle icon is approximately half as powerful as this version of the white battle icon was. To those who feel disappointed that this mechanic is “weaker” than it could have been, I will point out that in game design, having your smallest increment be too big is a problem. Granularity is your friend, as it is much easier to add multiple icons than it is to add fractional icons.