Hello all and welcome back to 2020. I want to apologize for the delay of this article. We were intending to start up the content pipeline last week, but our schedules were completely ravaged by SNOWPOCALYPSE 2020.
You can see the aftermath below.
I can hear you snickering, but believe me, the combination of big hills and minimal snow removal infrastructure means that even the lightest dusting makes our beautiful city very unfriendly to Autobots.
In the spirit of the new year—that progression from a frenetic closing out of the previous year, a relaxing holiday, and then a return to work, refreshed—I want to share a fun design story from the creation of the core Transformers TCG system. The birth and evolution of tapping, attacking, and untapping.
If you enjoy this type of article, I encourage you to go back and read my first article on the system design which I wrote over a year ago (has it really been so long?). It will give you valuable context, and there is a lot of overlap in the topics I covered then and now.
Game system design is not by any means a linear process. It’s a charging cable and a set of headphones that you’re trying to untangle in your pocket while riding a bicycle. There are false starts, dead ends, and abandoned ideas that spring back to life. You’re pushing in seven different directions and solving hundreds of problems with dozens of interwoven solutions. There is some ability to isolate one part of the process and work independently, but in the end, everything needs to work in harmony and a single wrong note will ruin the symphony.
In the article I linked above, we had identified four core pillars of the game.
- Duality – The game had to be able to represent both modes of our Transformers Characters
- Heft – The characters needed to feel like they had weight, power, and durability.
- Simplicity – The game had to be easy to learn and play while also being deep and rewarding.
- Excitement – The game needed to inspire the same visceral excitement that we got when we were playing with the toys when we all were kids (or adults, if we’re being honest).
These pillars helped us choose our path through the dozens upon dozens of different systems we explored and the dozens of iterations and refinements of the systems we chose. I’m going to talk about how we got to the combat system you can see in the game today with a focus on choosing your target, tapping, and untapping, and the mechanics that got us here. Be warned that this article will be much more orderly and understandable than the actual process was, as we had many people and often multiple mini-teams working on a plethora of different designs in the exploratory process and then on all the different interacting subsystems when we were in refinement. I also am simplifying a great deal for the purposes of brevity and clarity. We looked at far more than I can possibly describe in a single article.
Early on we tested numerous versions of the game with very different structures. There was one where you mobilized characters from your base and you could attack either your opponent’s base or one of their characters. This one bore some resemblance to one of our other games that you might have heard of, Magic: the Gathering.
Another was less about fighting and more about completing missions and interfering with your opponent while they attempted to complete their missions.
Yet another played a little like a territory control RTS. You got resources and victory points for holding valuable locations.
We learned innumerable lessons from these and other explorations. We found that mana systems added more complexity than we wanted in the game and they delayed the “fun part” for several turns when we were really wanting to get straight to the action. Speaking of the fun part, we found that bots punching bots was both the most satisfying part and the part that stayed true to the broadest portion of our fan base, from youngsters smashing their toys together and arguing over who was stronger to the consumers of decades of cartoons, movies, and comics. In service of that, we also found that we needed characters to stick around through multiple hits. We needed to see characters stagger back under massive blows, then turn around and swing right back.
Having learned a lot from our wide exploration, we settled in on a character focused design where both the primary action and the victory condition revolved around our main stars.
One of our first attempts in this space bore some superficial familiarity to the final game but still had significant differences. Each team was composed of exactly three characters. They lined up facing each other and took turns down the line with each character attacking the one across from them.
Among other issues, this one didn’t give players enough agency to make it to print, but it served as a proving ground for the first versions of our attack/defense/health battle resolution with flips off the top of the deck. It also highlighted an issue that would become defining for most of the remainder of the process.
The “line up and fight” version (which I’ve taken to calling that version) only really worked when all the characters had the same aggregate power. That’s fine when Megatron and Optimus Prime are facing off, but it breaks down when you have Ravage nipping at Omega Supreme’s heels (treads?). We needed a system that would work well with one giant character, with many small characters, and everything in between. We also knew that in future sets we would be developing iconic Transformers mechanics like Combiners, Deployers, and <REDACTED>, and the system needed to gracefully adapt to those.
Using star costs and a maximum team size to implement this was a good start, but we had also learned from “line up and fight” that the game was both more fun and more balanced when you went back and forth one attack at a time rather than all the characters one side attacking and then all the (remaining) characters on the other side hitting back. The problem with this is that if you don’t have the same number of characters, either the person with the extra characters gets to take extra turns, which means we need to make small characters MUCH weaker, or the person with the taller team just cycles through their team faster, which creates some weird scaling problems in both star value and the relative values of attack vs defense. You know how we solved this problem in the end, but there were a few interesting stops along the way.
One attempt to both add player agency and help with the team size issue was what I’ll call the “tag-in” system. In this system, each player had one character “in front” and the rest “on the bench”. Only the characters in front battled at any given time. The characters in the back could use supporting abilities or could tag-in when the character in front was KOd or so damaged that it needed to repair. This version was not as dynamic as we wanted, but we liked the “front row/back row” idea.
Our next evolution of “line up and fight” was “tap to attack”. You could choose any of your characters and tap it to attack any of your opponent’s characters. (You can see we’re nudging closer to the final version here.) This was very successful and was our baseline for quite some time. We used it to test other aspect of the game, and other combat systems were compared back to “tap to attack”. The biggest issue with “tap to attack” was a tendency towards piling all of your damage onto a single character to knock it out as fast as possible. This was nearly always the correct strategy and was often unsatisfying, since you couldn’t protect your key characters.
We tried to solve this problem with individual card designs. For example, we had a weapon called “Spikey mace” that was a +1 attack but got an extra +2 against tapped characters, or there was a Decepticon that got a bonus when attacking undamaged characters. This wasn’t enough to solve the problem, but the rest of this version was solid enough that we could work to solve the tall vs wide team issue.
“Tap to attack” leant itself well to a play pattern of tapping one character each turn until you have tapped your whole team, then untapping them all. Unfortunately, whichever way we did it, it was problematic. Specifically, what did we do when one player was tapped out but the other one still had characters available to attack. If the wider team gets to keep taking turns until they’re also tapped out, then a lot of the power of small characters isn’t in their stats and abilities, it’s in the extra cards you draw and the extra action and upgrade plays you have. This means the characters need to be even weaker to compensate, and it’s suddenly a bad creative match as well as being unfun to play those characters. They’re not doing anything, just becoming value engines until they’re KOd. On the other hand, if each player independently untaps their team after they’ve tapped out, then you get (as I mentioned before) “weird scaling”. As just one example, imagine a strong character (like Optimus Prime) in a two-tall team, and then that same character in a three-wide team. Being in the three-wide team significantly decreases Prime’s attack power because it’s diluted to every three attacks instead of every two attacks.
We needed a solution that preserved the power of large characters, but also maintained the value of wide teams and their ability to dogpile an opponent. We tried a new variant of “tap to attack”. There was no automatic untap. Whenever you wanted, you could untap your whole team. You didn’t need to be tapped out. But, the cost of doing that was skipping your attack. If you were a two-tall team, a typical play pattern would be attack-attack-untap. A five-wide would be attack-attack-attack-attack-attack-untap. The value of a wider team was that you had fewer lost attacks. Further, you didn’t need to limit yourself. If you wanted to (like if you had one strong or very “suited up” character) you could go attack-untap-attack-untap, getting one attack with your best character every two turns instead of one great attack and one OK attack every three turns. It worked! It was Balanced! It was Inspired!! It was my idea!! It was Nuanced!!! It was Elegant!!!! It was…MISERABLE. For all the things it did right, every turn that you had to skip your attack in order to untap was just a kick in the gut. It’s a valuable design lesson and a tribute to the importance of playtesting. No matter how clever a solution is, no matter how many problems it solves. If it’s not fun, it’s got to go. Fortunately, that was the last step before we got to “attacking out”. By not having complete extra turns and instead just repeating your attack step, we found the balance we needed.
Having solved the team size problem, we were back to our last major structural problem. We wanted a way to spread out damage, ideally coupled with a mechanic that introduced a bit more of a of a sense of tactics and agency to players. We did consider a “blocking” mechanic, allowing the defender to change an attack on one character to another one. We rejected that because we wanted to minimize the number of off-turn actions in the game. Every off-turn action interrupts the flow of the turn and slows the game down, so they come at a high cost, especially in a fast-paced game like the Transformers TCG. We also developed Brave and Stealth, but while they were obviously destined for success in the game, they didn’t solve this problem well. On their own, they just redirect the target of damage, they don’t spread it out.
Since we like the “front row/back row” part of the “tag-in” system, we broadened it to incorporate “tap to attack”. In this system, each character on your team was in the front row or the back row. Moving from one row to the other was a game action like flipping. Melee characters could only attack from the front row and could only attack the opponent’s front row. Ranged characters could attack from anywhere and to anywhere. Specialists didn’t really exist at this point, we had maneuver attackers that could attack from the back row by moving into the front row. Card effects could also move characters (both yours and your opponent’s). If you ever didn’t have a front row, then your back row became the front row.
“Front row/back row” did a great job of spreading out damage, and it had a great creative-mechanical tie-in. That is, the gameplay felt like it was directly modeling the tactics that were taking place in the “story of the game”. There were several problems, all of which can be captured by the design maxim that “interesting is not the same as fun”. We had determined that the sweet spot for the complexity of the game was around 3 characters per side (with a range from 1-5). This mechanic really didn’t shine until it got to a higher character count, which dramatically increased the board complexity. It started to feel more like a miniatures war game than a TCG. And, as characters were KOd, it did not degrade gracefully. Very quickly, it stopped mattering and/or became less dynamic. Even without increasing the character count, it added complexity, as there was one more status for each character to track and optimize. On top of all that, there were actual physical constraints. The depth you needed to play comfortably (with four rows of large character cards plus upgrades plus space to flip and play actions) was actually larger than the available table space in many game stores.
While “front row/back row” was way too much, it did show the value of giving players agency over how their opponents can attack. Matt Smith remembered that we had briefly tested an “attack tapped characters if able” mechanic much earlier, and he was the champion that fought for us to bring it back to test now that the other mechanics had evolved. The rule that we ended up with is a testament to the value of emulation over simulation in games. With a single simply stated rule you have an understandable mechanic with a creative hook (“this character attacked, so now they’re vulnerable”) which eases learning and comprehension, and nods to a much more complicated system. When playtesting with “attack tapped”, we still felt in our heads like we were playing “front row/back row”. Often in game design, the correct move is not to find a rule to represent everything, it’s to find the one rule that lets you imagine everything else.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this excavation through the archives of design and the depths of my memory. Furthermore, I hope you have started this year fully untapped and refreshed. I’m glad to be back and glad to be sharing once more the joy I had in helping make this game. We’re not too far from yet another preview season, where I get to do my favorite thing, watching you all react to spoilers.
Happy New Gear Autobots, Decepticons, and Mercenaries.