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  • Designer Journal presents the weekly musings and ramblings of GoT developer Nate French.

    Past Weeks' Entries:
    Iron Throne Walkthrough
    By Eric Lang
    Hello again, good readers! It's been a long time, but I'm hijacking the column for this week to take a walk down designer memory lane. Hopefully you'll find something of interest within the next few paragraphs.

    Talking about the Iron Throne block seems almost like a dream. I have already handed in the design file for the second set in the Five Kings block, A Clash of Arms, and am doing preliminary strategic design for the final set, A Time of Ravens. Also since that time I have finished the last round of design/development for the Mutant Chronicles collectible miniatures game core set along with Nate, and have started two other big projects that unfortunately I cannot talk about.

    With all that said, I do my best thinking about a topic while thinking about something else, so let's have a look at the last three sets from the designer's perspective.

    The Big Picture

    I am a compulsive strategist, in life and in games. It is very difficult for me to look at moving parts of any construct under the microscope without examining how they fit into their respective macrocosm (for CCG design this is generally a good thing). Before even thinking about individual card design for a set or block, I like to take some time to plot a rough strategic blueprint. Often that blueprint starts to take shape many months before the set even shows up on the design/development schedule.

    Iron Throne block started off as something completely different than what you have in your booster packs. Originally, I had mapped out a conceptually advanced block that focused on an interesting play dynamic I felt was missing in the game. We tentatively called it [CENSORED] edition, and it was shaping up to be an interesting piece of design indeed. Unfortunately, we were also noting the staggering "complexity creep" that accompanied Winter Edition, and were becoming increasingly hesitant to print another high concept block right on its heels.

    It was around that time that I had a revelation: what if we just didn't do any new "high bandwidth" mechanics for a whole year? Nothing like doomed, jousting, new keywords, or a thematic focus … just a year of doing cool cards like we used to? A radical concept, indeed, as I had gotten rather proficient at crafting vast mechanical landscapes that transport the game into wonderful new unexplored directions year after year. But at the same time, Winter block was not proving as popular as I had anticipated (for many reasons, I believe, all of them complex), and maybe it was time to shake things up.

    That said, we couldn't just "coast" for a year either. A wonderful paradox of human behavior is that we are fearful of - and yet hopelessly addicted to - change. We want "new" in our entertainment, whatever form it may take. "More of the same," no matter how warm and comfortable it may be, just isn't going to cut it.

    Westeros Revisited

    Regardless of how we proceeded, there needed to be some sort of high concept to this block. I took a couple of weeks off from design, an absolute necessity in this profession, and dove blissfully into some development and administration work. On the side, I spent more time on my writing hobby.

    In case I hadn't mentioned it before (and it is relevant to this column), I am an amateur screenwriter in my spare time. From having written independent film and television in collaboration with ex-FFG employee Brian Wood to volunteer story editing for students of the Vancouver Film School, I love indulging in the art and craft of writing for the visual medium … and have no desire to do it full time or professionally. However, I have also studied the business side of Hollywood fairly extensively, as there is a surprising amount of philosophical overlap between tinsel town and the adventure game industry.

    One such overlap influenced the Iron Throne block as it is now. During my downtime, I started thinking about a ritual enacted by TV networks and executive producers to "save" a show that being received poorly during pilot season. Often the executive producers of the show are asked to retool the original story with a few key character or location changes, while keeping the heart of it intact (you can see a hilarious dramatization of this process on HBO's short-lived series "The Comeback").

    This sparked a dangerous line of thought: what if I had the chance to retool AGOT CCG, knowing then what I do now? Sure, it's a principle often haphazardly executed on TV, and seldom well received, but on the other hand the appeal of a CCG is rooted in change and upheaval. "It's what you already know, with a twist." Hollywood mantra applied to commercial game design. Bingo, high concept!

    It was one of the few pitches I ever did for the game that met with absolutely zero resistance at any level in the company; Nate and Luke were quite ecstatic about it, in fact.(Ed. Note: Agghh!!! Where do these thoughts come from? Bad, Eric, bad... Get... Out... of... my... Mind!!) Management and marketing loved it, and we knew that our community was well networked enough that we could "educate" them about this concept quickly and efficiently on our website.

    And there the road to design was paved: we would concentrate on just doing cool cards within the context of retooling the game from the ground up. Established players would enjoy the nostalgia of it all (especially in a "fixed" environment), and new players could experience this new CCG the way we would have loved to do it five years ago.

    R&D Revisited

    Another key change to card and set design was the design process itself. Until then, I had always been very protective of my design documents, not revealing them to anyone (even internally) until they were "draft one polished." I did my strategizing and blueprinting alone, Locked in the Tower, and very few people except the developer and the upper management would even see the design document before the cards were ready to be developed and playtested.

    This worked quite well for four years, until the realization hit: four years, twelve expansion sets, one designer. That's just nuts! Beginning with the Iron Throne block, this policy would have to change. I wanted to change it already in 2005 when Casey was hired, but at that point we were stretched so thin that it was not an option. With the fully fleshed out R&D department we have now, it is easy for me to "open up" the design process a little bit more.

    So, little by little, I have been making sure Nate and Luke get more involved in design at all stages. This also freed me up to do a lot more strategic thinking about the game (which is my strongest suit), and allowed me to get raw card ideas from more sources than just my own head and ever growing but decreasingly relevant slush file. While I had been using the "design a card" feature on our website for some time, it was difficult for me to fit "complete" designs from there into our sets, and usually only took small parts of raw design here and there. This, in turn, made it difficult to credit an individual designer, which in turn inhibited the usefulness of that particular website feature.

    Have no fear, though: yours truly is still very much involved in the design of the game, and I still design the majority of cards in your booster packs. But the changes made along the way, the additional creative and analytical input from the rest of R&D has improved the process so much that we have released what is in my opinion the best block in the history of the game. I wouldn't have it any other way.

    A House of Thorny Talons

    So far I've discussed a lot about the big picture of this block by looking at it from a few different angles, but not discussed the execution beyond the Iron Throne edition. Let's change that, shall we?

    Continuing with the "back to Westeros" concept of the ITE block, I wanted to mirror the progression of AGOT CCG's first year holistically; not only on the individual cards. What better way to accomplish that than to stylistically follow the sets themselves?

    For those of you who were not around in 2002, we introduced the game to the crowded CCG marketplace with Westeros edition, then added House Greyjoy to the game with A Sea of Storms, followed by House Targaryen in A Flight of Dragons. At the time, we believed that by the end of the block we would have all of our great Houses in place and could continue expanding the game in different ways (the big "Martell" revelation didn't happen until almost nine months later).

    During the strategic planning of the ITE block, I hit on the idea of mirroring the two House introductions fairly quickly. Which two Houses was decided within minutes; it would be the two Houses that "almost" got new templates at certain periods of the game's ongoing development. Tyrell and Arryn were the final pieces of the larger AGOT puzzle, and how fitting that they appear during the year of the fresh start?

    Before we go on, let me take a pause. Yes, both Tyrell and Arryn were considered many times as new great Houses in the game - the decision was extremely complex and probably worthy of its own column. Ultimately, it was decided that we had enough Houses in the game, and for AGOT's continued health, we would carry on as we were.

    I had the very basic idea behind both House of Thorns and Talons around the same time as ITE, even though the names of the two sets changed internally more so than any other pair of expansions in our history. Thorns was simple; I wanted to spring on players the idea that Tyrell was the real intrigue House (anyone doubting the Nedliness of this is free to debate at the next large convention - beer is on me). {Ed. Note - Print out a copy and bring it to Gen Con to ensure redemption.}

    Structurally, I was also charmed by the idea of doing an "intrigue" and a "power" set. With the back to basics feel of ITE, and the refocus on the challenges phase, the stars seemed right. House of Talons is, for me, the set where we see if we can still surprise you with an obvious and easy to anticipate group of themes. Looking through the booster packs, I am pleased that many cards still jumped out at me, screaming "look how cool I am!" … and ultimately, that's what this block is all about.

    Looking Forward

    As pleased with the ITE block as I am, the coming year (and the rotation of VED block) is exciting me even more. The big "mechanics" from ITE - crests and multihouse - are being supported all throughout Five Kings block, and there are some really nifty subtle interactions between this block and the forthcoming one. I am so far in the future with regard to design that when current sets are released, it's like Christmas all over again here.

    Starting in a couple of weeks, Nate is going to start with spoilers for Five Kings edition (already! Wow, where does the time go?). Don't let the impending storm of releases intimidate you; there is some quality stuff coming down the pike, and I hope you enjoy playing with these new cards as much as we did in design and development.

    For those of you that managed to get through these two thousand words, thanks for listening to a tired old designer ramble. I miss this column, even though time simply doesn't permit me to write it on a regular basis.

    Until next time, imagine the story behind your next booster pack.

    Discuss this R&D Corner on the boards here.

    Ed. Note: Whereever I may roam, where I lay my head is home... I'm off to see the wizard.