Waaaaaaay way back, late in the design of Wave 1, we had locked down all of the core rules of the game that you can see in the released game and we were sorting out what we call “design rules”. These are internal rules that don’t affect the way you play the game, only the way that we design the cards. Design rules are a shorthand that helps us design more efficiently and prevent us from making mistakes.
When there’s a big structural issue we need to decide, or we want to understand the limits on a mechanic or a parameter, we’ll spend a lot of time, both in meetings theorycrafting and in playtests exploring the boundaries of what works and what doesn’t. Setting up these rules saves a lot of mental load because we can go forward knowing that as long as we stay within bounds, we don’t need to think too hard about this stuff. That thinking has already been done and codified in the design rule. It’s also a great communication tool as new designers come on to the team (we’re constantly rotating teams to get new eyes on things and disperse institutional knowledge throughout the company). A design rule serves to make a brand new designer more efficient because they stay out of unproductive space and also serves as an entry point to a greater understanding of the system later on. Knowing where a system breaks is one of the best ways to understand that system.
Design rules aren’t hard and fast. When we make one, we’re not saying “this way is permanently and forever barred”. Rather, it’s a signpost from ‘past us’ saying “Hey ‘future us’, remember how we said this space is dangerous and full of pitfalls? Please make sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t be an idiot or we’ll make fun of you…a lot.”
Back to wave 1. Our earliest explorations had identified a 3-wide team as the sweet spot for complexity, play length, strategic depth, and fun; and we were very happy with the range from 2- to 4-wide teams, but we needed to push on the boundaries. Systems are more likely to break at the extremes than in the middle, so part of the job is to find where the cracks start forming.
The 25-star build system creates some useful breakpoints. For example, it is impossible to have more than one 13-star character, so one of our design rules is that if a card is “weird” and breaking some fundamental rules, to the point that we’re concerned about having multiple versions of that effect on a team and scaling problematically, we make it at least 13 stars. That, in fact, is why Optimus Prime, Battlefield Legend is 13 stars. We recognized that the extra action ability was strong enough, different enough, and hard enough to place bounds on that we didn’t want to have to be constantly tackling the combinatorically increasing challenge of testing him with every future “weird” card we designed.
At the other end of the spectrum, we were asking ourselves how small characters could be and how wide teams could get and still be fun. This was a creative, logistical, and gameplay challenge. From a creative angle, even the smallest of Transformers characters needed to feel big and powerful, and we couldn’t imagine a 1- or 2-star character (that was balanced) feeling like anything other than a paper cup (paper Kup?) getting crushed underneath a 13-star character’s wheels. From a logistical angle, consider the amount of battlefield space you would need just to hold a 10-wide team. We knew we had to stop before we went that far.
From a gameplay and design space, there were a number of problems. We found that beyond four characters, the complexity ratcheted up much faster than the character count increased. Game times also increased well past our target. It gets much harder to design meaningful abilities the smaller a character gets. And anything below 4 or 5 stars had a hard time surviving even one hit form large characters, which created a perverse power curve on the low end. Below that threshold, character health didn’t matter at all. The extreme was a 25-wide team with a heavy orange deck. You don’t care about defense or health at all, each character just absorbed one hit and got KOd, while all of the others swarmed over the opponent like ants. It doesn’t matter if your characters only do one point of damage each if you have 20 of them left. Plus, how many meaningful (or exciting) different variations of 1/0/1 and 0/0/2 character cards can you make?
So, we looked at the character star cost breakpoints again. 5 stars means you could have as many as 5 characters on a team, 4 stars allows six characters, 3 stars allows eight characters, and 2 star characters allow you to play TWELVE of them!! We knew looking ahead that we would be doing combiners in Wave 2, so five-wide needed to be viable. And we really wanted Devastator to be possible, which meant we needed 6-wide and 4-star characters. That seemed like a reasonable upper limit, and by being careful with 4-star designs, we could avoid a proliferation of 6-wide teams, keeping it mostly to 5-wide or less. Thus, our internal rule became “all characters have a minimum cost of 4 stars, but really try to keep it to 5+ unless you have a very specific design reason.” We also instituted a temporary “Wave-1 only” rule which was that we couldn’t have any 4-star characters and we could have a maximum of four 5-star characters. That was to allow us to save the complexity of 5-wide for later in the development game and to make combiners be a more differentiated play experience from Wave 1. This is why the only 5-star characters in Wave 1 are Flamewar, Kickback, and Arcee.
Finally, this brings us to Wave 5, Titan Masters Attack. With the Titan Masters, we finally had characters who creatively made sense as ultra-low-star character cards, and we had a mechanism to limit their numbers and deploy them throughout the game (rather than having a swarm out from the start) that avoided all of the logistical and gameplay pitfalls we had previously identified. I will note that this was not a surprise to the design team. It is very common when carving off space to say (as we did here) “this forbidden space (ultra-small characters) is a great candidate for <future creative conceit> (in our case, Titan Masters) whenever we get to it. We’ll leave that as a problem for ‘future us’ to solve.”
Finding the right level of cost, stats, and abilities for these tiny characters was a surprisingly tough nut to crack. There were several challenges. The first was that simply being a body that can absorb an attack was very powerful. A surprising amount of the card value is locked up in that invisible ability, which is why looking at the stats vs stars, they might seem underwhelming (trust me, they’re quite potent). The second is that the abilities they grant in head mode to their partner bodies don’t scale linearly. It’s amplified by the power (and especially the durability) of their bodies, plus there are many other potential synergies in the over 200 different combinations you can build. We put a lot of constraints on the cost and power ranges of both the heads and the bodies to keep all of the combinations as close as possible to what a mathematician would call “the linear region”, but there are definitely some spicy combinations in there for you to find.
The third challenge was in the shape of the heads when they were in their own bot modes. As Ken mentioned in his article introducing the mechanic, originally they looked more like scaled-down versions of normal characters, which meant that their attack values were miniscule and often irrelevant, while their defense and health values were still not large enough to fend off most attacks. We shifted the majority of them to be much more aggressive, which gave them much more ability to be relevant and have “one last chance at victory”.
Incidentally, one of Ken’s playtesting tricks that I really love is as follows: When one player wins the game, we pretend that they were one short in the damage they needed to deal, so the other player’s last character survives the attack. We play on for one more turn and see if the losing player would have won on the swingback. If they would have, it’s a sign of a close game. I like both the mechanism and the mentality, and that’s exactly the feel that we get when your last character is KOd and its head pops off and says:
“I’m coming for you…”
We at Wizards hope that all of you, your friends, and your families are staying safe and finding comfort during this trying time. We look forward to the time when things get back to normal and you all get to enjoy Titan Masters Attack. Here’s a couple of bonus battle card previews to tide you over: