Originally posted 12-4-2018
Today we’re very excited to bring you the first in an ongoing series of peeks behind the curtain at the many various intricacies of what goes into making the Transformers TCG.
Scott Van Essen, one of our esteemed veteran Game Designers is here to talk about planning the cornerstone systems of the game and what some of the primary aims and goals were when designing what a Transformers Trading Card game should be.
When we started to design the Transformers Trading Card Game, we knew two things. First, it needed to be true to the source material. If it didn’t feel like Transformers, then we would have failed. Second, it needed to be something that supported intergenerational play so that the new fans of today and the lifelong fans of yesterday could both approach and appreciate the game. From these core tenets, we developed four design pillars that were our guideposts in creating the game system:
1) Duality – This is a Transformers game. Both modes of the characters need to be featured and flipping back and forth between them needs to be important.
2) Heft – This is a game about massive hunks of metal smashing into each other. Characters need to feel like they have weight, strength, and durability.
3) Simplicity – This is a game for a wide spectrum of ages. That means that the basic, core rules should be as simple enough for new and younger players to pick up the game and start playing right away.
4) Excitement –Transformers toys and stories are larger than life. Playing the game needs to convey those same visceral emotions, with epic moments and dramatic comebacks.
Let’s talk a little bit more about those pillars and some of the design choices we made to serve them.
This is the first pillar we identified. The core identity of Transformers characters is that they change from one mode to another (and back). We felt that only seeing one “side” of these characters would be both a disservice to the brand and go completely against fan expectations. Our other trading card games have explored multiple different ways to express two aspects of a character on a single piece of cardboard, but the cleanest and most evocative solution are the double-faced cards you see in the game today.
Having arrived at a mechanical solution, we needed a play solution as well. We arrived at a one-flip-per-turn rule because games are about making decisions and having too many options means you don’t have to make any decisions. This paced it out nicely and gave us design space to make cards that grant additional flips like ‘Rapid Conversion’ and ‘Roll Out’. We knew it was important for characters to have a reason to be in each mode, and came up with several different archetypes for how to do that. For example, ‘Bombshell, Insecticon Mind-Controller’ has one mode that is more offensive and one that is more defensive, while ‘Megatron, Living Weapon’ has a flip trigger that encourages you to keep going back and forth. ‘Thundercracker, Mach Warrior’ has an alt-mode ability that is very powerful in some situations but not others, and ‘Autobot Cosmos, Recon & Communication’ has an ability on its alt-mode that gets you to his bot-mode ability faster.
As I mentioned above, we wanted games of Transformers to feel like an epic slug-fest between titanic machines. This meant that characters needed to be able to pound on each other for several turns before knocking each other out, which in turn meant we needed persistent damage. There’s a cost to making persistent damage a part of your game. It means you need to spend play time tracking damage and you need components to actually track the damage. It’s not a decision we made lightly, but as soon as we playtested with it, we knew it was correct. You can really feel the hit when you drop a ton of damage onto one of your opponent’s characters, and you can feel the strength of the big characters when a whole bunch of little ones scratch away at them a point or two at a time.
Our double-faced card solution for duality (mentioned above) also helped here due to some of the realities of card game play. The biggest obstacle to using double-faced cards is that they are awkward to include in your deck. When we chose to use DFCs, we decided to have them be separate from the battle deck, which gave us the freedom to make them as big as we wanted them to be. The oversized character cards have been successful because they give the characters that heft we’re looking for while also giving players a visceral sense of excitement to hold and play with them.
We wanted the game to be accessible to all players, which meant keeping the barrier to entry as low as possible in three areas; rules, deckbuilding, and strategy. That meant taking as much complexity as possible and making it opt-in (you only see it if you want to). So, for example, unlike our other TCGs, there is no resource system (e.g. lands/mana in Magic: the Gathering). We did test a resource system in early versions, but we found that it added complexity and mainly served to slow down getting to the fun part, which is smashing giant robots into each other. Instead, we went with the simplest core rules possible (draw, flip, action, upgrade, attack) and moved concepts like resource development into the cards themselves.
For deckbuilding, one of our goals was that “all decks are playable”. We had to have some restrictions like a deck size of 40 cards and a maximum of 3 copies of any one card, but our general philosophy was that you could pick a handful of cards up off the floor and have a playable deck. It doesn’t have to be amazing, but it should be legal and preferably not embarrassingly bad.
Similarly, with play strategy, we wanted there to be a great deal of depth and nuance for people who wanted to figure out the optimal line of play, but it’s also important that “My Optimus Prime attacks your Megatron because he hates Megatron” is a perfectly valid move (it might not be the best move depending on the circumstances, but it shouldn’t be a terrible one, either).
We achieved these latter goals with a relatively flat power band, high synergy, and a lot of invisible complexity. A flat power band means that most cards (both battle cards and character cards) have roughly the same power level. This means that more of the power is in the interactions between cards and when and how you use them (synergy). When we get this right, it gives us a bottom-heavy power/synergy distribution, which means that the worst possible play (or deck) is still close to the “average”, but if you can find the optimal play it is well above the average. This leads right into invisible complexity.
Invisible complexity taps into an understanding of how players of different experience levels approach games. Imagine the first turn of a game with three characters on a side. To an inexperienced player it’s a pretty simple choice: pick a character and attack someone with it, and maybe check to see if you’d be better off flipping into bot mode. Conversely if you are trying to find the optimal play, you have to choose between 4 flip options (each of your characters or no flip at all), 3 characters that can attack, and 3 targets, for a total of 36 possible moves on turn 1. And you can go even deeper by thinking ahead and considering what your cards will let you do on the next turn or what you opponent’s counterattacks will be. This hiding of complexity lets each player choose exactly how much mental effort they want to invest into the game, and by skewing the rewards more towards rewarding the best play than punishing the worst, you can let the players who do find the optimal play feel engaged without making the people who just want to jam cards and smash faces feel out of their depth.
As I mentioned above, we wanted to make the Transformers Trading Card Game as visceral and exciting as the toys and media are. We did a lot of work giving the combat system the best feel. For example, we used a less common flavor of randomness that you don’t always see in card games. There’s always randomness in card games inherent in the deck. You draw an unknown card every turn and then decide what to do based on that. We call this pre-decision randomness. You experience the random event, then react to it. In addition to this, we have post decision randomness in our combat. You choose where to attack, then (semi-)randomly determine how much damage is done. This makes you build up anticipation for what you expect to happen, followed by either excitement or disappointment as you actually resolve the combat. We accentuated these swings with our pip design. White pips give you an extra moment of elation in the middle of combat, and double-pipped cards amplify the size of the possible swings. Additionally, the fact that Knocking Out a character is a binary proposition, the results of combat are further exaggerated, ramping the impact of each moment.
In future articles we’ll go into a lot more detail on the system and set design processes. For now, if you would like to delve deeper, check out this podcast that I did with Mark Rosewater, the lead designer of Magic, who also helped with Transformers initial system design.