As I’ve written before, design is at its best when a single design choice solves multiple problems. In today’s article, I’m going to lay out three separate issues we were facing in the Transformers TCG and (spoiler alert) how the new “hybrid icon” technology solved all of them. I might even be magnanimous enough to include a preview card or two.
Issue #1 – Double Battle Icons
We love battle cards with double battle icons (like Handheld Blaster). They let us include niche or lower power primary card effects while still seeing lots of play in decks, and they introduce a ton of excitement and variance into combat. If you’ve ever swung into a seemingly defenseless character and had them flip double blue, white, double blue, double blue; you know what I’m talking about. These heroic saves and epic finishes create stories that live on, retold in jubilation or desolation as someone managed to turn things around in a critical game when their back was up against the wall.
The problem was, they were almost too good. In early wave 1 design, we were much more liberal with double-pip cards and we discovered that there were some decks (especially bold ones) that just played them all, trading away the more efficient main card effects in exchange for consistent flips, taking a very exciting mechanic and making it both dull and frustrating to play against. We pulled back to the limited suite that saw print in Wave 1 (Improvised Shield, Handheld Blaster, Security Checkpoint, and Peace Through Tyranny), and moved forward with an awareness that there was fuzzy but very real limit on the total number of double battle icon cards that can simultaneously exist in our play environment.
This created a design limitation on future cards. Double-pipped cards that could be played in any deck were a non-renewable resource, we needed a way to make cards that were only playable in a subset of decks, to magnify the number that we could print. The introduction of battle cards with star costs in Rise of the Combiners was one way we accomplished this, but we needed more.
If only there was a way to make cards that only had two battle icons on certain teams…….? Hmmm……?
Issue #2 – Thirst for Content
Every new set wants to have something really big and spectacular. Something that the set is focused on and that players can get excited about. In the case of Wave 5, that’s Titan Masters (hint: you can tell because it’s in the name of the set). You also want a couple of less splashy but nevertheless very important design innovations. These can be new keywords, new card types, or new battle icons. Each new innovation creates a whole new swath of cards that can be designed, from novel abilities to variations of staple effects. This is a very good thing because TCG design is a voracious beast.
For Titan Masters Attack, one of these innovations was the stratagem card type, which opens up a bunch of new deck building variations. They don’t serve this larger need completely though because by their nature you usually won’t have more than one or two as part of your deck/team composition.
A new battle icon is a perfect complement to the stratagems because it can go on lots of cards, and is relatively simple. It does have a different long-term challenge that we need to be wary of. We can’t keep adding new battle icons indefinitely. The more there are, the harder they are to learn, and the harder it is to parse your flips. At some point, they become a significant impediment to play. It’s hard to say exactly where the line is, but it is very real nonetheless. That’s what’s so great about the hybrid icons. They’re a layer on top of the existing icon space, so their complexity cost is paid once, but they have a multiplicative effect on the design space of our present and potential future icons.
Issue #3 – Trait Up Now Tell Me
All of the traits on characters (Dinobot, Melee, Plane, etc) are what we on the design team call “Tribal Hooks”. That is, they have no mechanical relevance themselves, but they provide “hooks” for other cards to interact with. The tribal part comes over from Magic: the Gathering (another TCG we make that you might have heard of), and it refers to the mechanical action with creature types (e.g. “Zombies get +1/+1”, “regenerate a Dragon”, etc)
We design a spectrum of cards that care about traits. Some are all-in on those traits, like Swarm!, which asks you to be running nothing but Insecticons. Others like Power sword really only require to play a single matching character (or maybe a second as a backup).
This variation in power scaling creates diversity in battle decks. You can run generically powerful cards in any deck, but with the right team composition, some of the trait-specific cards become more powerful.
Similarly, we want variance in how much swing there is in a trait-specific card when you hit it versus when you don’t. Our first preview card is a perfect example of this.
Nitro Booster is going to be powerful in any small wide black deck that’s looking to get lots of small instances of piercing damage through, but it’s a little bit extra spicy in a Cars deck with its second black battle icon.
This technology lets us make a lot of what we call “Soft-stamped” trait-matters cards. Ones that give you a small bonus for playing the chosen trait, but are often still playable in other decks. Sometimes this lets you target a card at a primary deck, and have it also pop up as a role player in other decks or in certain metagames. Other times, a card like Nitro Boosters slots into one deck because of its strategy and another because of its trait. Perhaps Nitro Boosters will help create both an Off-Road Patrol deck and a Pierce Cars deck. I leave it for you to find the best spot for it.
Wrapping it all up
These hybrid battle icons are a powerful design tool, but there were some people who were disappointed by the initial reveal, which provides me an excellent opportunity to put my design 102 lecturer hat on and…(“what? It’s already on? I guess I should have seen that coming.”)…and share a subtle design insight.
One complaint was that some people were disappointed that it was a mechanic based on a restriction. That is, it was a way to “turn off” battle icons. The answer to that is that while mechanics that are based on a downside might feel like a bummer when you read them, in actuality they’re fantastic. They allow us to pack more power in the cards because we have more control over where that power is deployed, and they allow us to incentivize more texture in deckbuilding, as I’ve discussed above.
A related complaint was that instead of “turning off” a battle icon, some people wished that having the trait gave you an extra icon. This is a perfect example of the difference between how players and designers see game elements. Players love to feel like they’re getting something extra, but not like they’re losing something, which is why they prefer the “bonus” version. Designers, on the other hand, appreciate granularity. Part of this perception was because the first cards spoiled only had a hybrid icon, so it really felt to players like they were losing something if they didn’t have the trait on their team. When making the cards, we can always add extra battle icons if we want to, as we did on Nitro Booster, but if the “always on” icon was built into the mechanic, then we would never have the ability to print a card without an icon, which significantly limits our ability to design and cost the cards. It’s a tradeoff between perception and utility.
As a reward for sitting through that brief design lecture, I have one more preview to share. It’s in the closed-off hangar over here:
Oh wow, it’s really smoky in here. Let’s prop the door open for a minute.
Wow, that’s not much better, let’s see if I can get closer.
OK, that a bit of an improvement, but maybe we should open the big doors and let all these planes out…
Sheesh, when I buy a plane, it’s going to be electric…
Here we go:
Titan Masters Attack releases April 17th. I can’t wait for you to get to play.