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Designer Diary: Star Trek: Attack Wing, or How to Overcome Tribbles in Game Design

Andrew Parks
United States
Somerset
New Jersey
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Quixotic Games: www.quixoticgames.com
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Dungeon Alliance Kickstarter - February 2017
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Getting Started

When I was first asked by WizKids Games to design Star Trek: Attack Wing, my mind began to race at Warp Factor 10. This was going to be a gigantic project that involved taking the rules of an existing game and recreating them for the Star Trek universe. A tall order, to be sure!

I had always been a fan of the Original Series as a kid, and I enjoyed the movies and newer series as well. I immediately recruited fellow designer Christopher Guild to help create the game. He and I have been developing games together for fun (and later for publication) since we first became friends 28 years ago. Our first step was to start re-watching the classic episodes and movies at a rapid pace as the game was to be based on all the different television series as well as the first ten movies. The folks at WizKids were just as excited about this game as we were, and they asked us to incorporate elements from every corner of the Trek Universe.

Chris had been a devotee of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, so he would focus on those shows. I began digging into the Original Series as well as Voyager, a show with which I wasn't very familiar, but which I quickly came to admire over the succeeding weeks.

So while our eyes grew bloodshot from watching Netflix 24 hours a day, we began discussing what we needed to do to make the FlightPath system work for Trek. One of our first observations was that the ships would have to feel different than starfighters. We decided that the capital ships in Attack Wing would need to have higher Primary Weapon Values (3-5) and lower Agility Values (1-2) than smaller ships. Also, we knew that simulating different levels of maneuverability was equally important. Therefore, a Klingon Bird-of-Prey would need to be more maneuverable than a Galaxy Class ship, although the Galaxy Class was capable of greater speeds.

Design Concepts from WizKids

WizKids helped us shape the design of the game from the very beginning. For example, the WizKids team developed the idea of making the Captains (i.e., "Pilots") of each ship interchangeable. Each unique Captain would therefore feature his or her Skill Number (as well as a unique special power) on his or her Captain Card. They then advanced the concept further by inserting Captain ID Tokens into each ship base in order to showcase an image of the captain and display his or her Captain Skill in the play area. This added a lot of cool flavor to the game.

The WizKids design concepts included an emphasis on ship customization. Each ship would therefore need a good share of Upgrade Icons; typically four or five Crew, Weapon, and/or Tech Upgrades would be included on each capital ship. The WizKids team also suggested that players be given the freedom to mix and match cards from different factions and even different eras as much as they liked. They envisioned a game in which crew members could be utilized freely on any ship to maximize the level of customization. We later decided to institute faction penalties so that players would have to pay a little extra for an eclectic crew, and this allowed us to reward those who decided to use the "correct" faction on their ships for storyline purposes.


Additional Concept Work

Chris and I began to concentrate on the Shield system, and we toyed with the idea of having shields allocated to particular sides of the ship and keeping track of which side of the ships would become damaged. This was soon dismissed, however, as we realized that for massive engagements, the system would grow tedious and ultimately be impractical.

That said, we did introduce the concept of lowering a ship's shields voluntarily in order to accomplish certain tasks. For example, when using a Cloak Action a player would have to lower all of his ship's shields by flipping all of his Shield Tokens over to their "disabled" sides. While disabled, the Shield Tokens could not be damaged but would be unable to protect the Hull. A ship would also have to lower its shields in order to accomplish certain Crew Actions such as those that simulated boarding actions. For example, if you could damage an opponent's shields sufficiently, you could then lower your own shields and board the enemy ship in order to take out some of its crew members. Engineers like Mr. Scott could disable a set number of his ship's Shields in order to increase the ship's firepower ("All power to weapons!") or reduce the ship's firepower in order to repair Shields. This gave the players a sense of being in control of their ships' vital systems in order to gain tactical advantages during battle.

Another early discussion involved firing arcs. Since the Starter Set included the Enterprise-D, we knew that we could not simply have 90˚ forward firing arcs on every ship. While many ships would have traditional 90˚ forward firing arcs, the Enterprise-D would need to have the ability to fire 360˚ while still remaining a balanced ship, so we gave the ship the option to fire in any direction at a more limited range and with one less attack die. There was also evidence of ships (like the Enterprise-D) firing torpedoes and other weapons out of rear firing arcs, and so we had to be mindful of this when balancing the capabilities of each ship as well. Finally, some ships (like the original Enterprise and some of the Cardassian ships) would feature 180˚ forward firing arcs, and this became an important aspect of these ships.

During our preliminary discussions, we also realized that since WizKids planned to include three different Factions in the Starter Set (Federation, Klingon, and Romulan), the game needed to work well with three players. We therefore planned to start playtesting two- and three-player games right from the very beginning.

First Playtests

And so with all of these initial parameters in mind, Chris and I rapidly prototyped the three ships in the starter set and started playing one-on-one battles right away. One of the first things we noticed was that the room for customization on each ship was very high due to all the Upgrade slots, and this meant that one player's version of a particular ship might be completely different than another's. This was exciting and made us realize that you could actually play the game a lot of different ways right out of the starter box.

As planned, we started playing three-player versions of the game and were surprised by how easily the game adapted to this environment. Essentially, all we really needed to do was balance the three starting areas, and soon after we were blasting away with no problem whatsoever. While the complexity level does start to ramp up with four or more (non-team) players, the three-player environment flowed quite naturally and presented us with surprisingly few difficulties during our playtests.

A Big Problem

Even though we were off to a smooth start, we did encounter some major troubles early on. Because of this, we decided to stick to the starter set for our first couple of weeks of playtesting. This allowed us to tinker with the system and immediately discover the effects of each change since we had become so familiar with these three ships. This also provided further evidence that you could play a lot with the starter set and still have a great time.

One of our first problems came with the use of our new Cloaking Rules, which allowed players to avoid Target Locks, roll lots of extra defense dice, and shift positions suddenly using the Sensor Echo Action. While these rules seemed to work fine at first, we soon began to feel that something wasn't quite right with the system. In fact, this problem seemed to be much deeper, something inherently wrong with the way we were using the system to create all of these nifty special abilities.

After trying to get a grasp on what was wrong with the game for a few sessions, we finally had a key playtest which revealed the nature of the problem. We played a game with some really skilled Captains and some really unskilled Captains, and started to notice that time and again the weaker Captains were using their abilities more effectively than the stronger Captains. And that's when it hit us! Some of our new special powers, including Cloaking, actually worked better with weaker Captains than with stronger Captains!

The reason for this is that in the FlightPath system, a weak Captain moves and takes his action first during the Activation Phase, and fires last during the Combat Phase. Therefore, a weak Captain could perform the Cloak Action and make himself immune to Target Locks early in the Activation Phase (before the other players had taken their turns), then stay Cloaked until he fires, which is after everyone else has already fired so he didn't care. Conversely, a stronger Captain was Cloaking last (after already getting hit with Target Locks and other special powers), then firing first, thereby losing his Cloak before everyone else fired at him!

We realized then that all of our neat new special powers had not taken these unique timing rules into sufficient account. We puzzled over this problem for a couple of days trying to find a solution. We had been pleased that we had come up with so many cool new Actions for all of our Upgrades, but now we were on the verge of scrapping them all due to this problem. This is one of those moments in game design where you really start to panic. You know you have a giant problem and the solution seems forever out of reach. Your biggest dread is that you will have to undo hours of design work (sort of like ripping out the threads of a tapestry that didn't turn out as intended) and start all over again.

Fortunately, after heavy discussion with all of our developers, the solution started to present itself slowly. We realized that in most cases, the reason this problem happened had to do with the timing of Cloaking and raising Shields. In Attack Wing, if you voluntarily disable your own Shields, you can raise them automatically during the End Phase. However, Cloaking for the first time requires you to take an Action. Since many special powers did not work on a ship that was either Cloaked or had Active Shields, this meant that a Cloaking ship that had lost all of its shields needed to Cloak early in the round to protect itself from all of those powers. Therefore a weaker Captain (who acted first in the Activation Phase) had a big edge.

To solve all these many problems, we came up with the following three solutions:

1) If all of your shields have been lost due to damage, you can no longer use the Cloak Action. This simulated the fact that your ship had taken enough damage to render the Cloaking system inoperable. Now if you still had working shields, it did not matter when you Cloaked. Either you still had your shields raised, or you dropped them to Cloak; in either case, you were immune to powers that simulated boarding and so on. But if you didn't have any shields left, you couldn't protect yourself by Cloaking, so your position in the turn order no longer mattered for these purposes.

2) When you first use the Cloak Action, you now place your Cloak Token on top of your ship base. This indicates that you just Cloaked and that you can still be Target Locked for the rest of that round. Now, the order in which you Cloak no longer matters because you can still be Target Locked. If you remain Cloaked until the next round, you move the Cloak Token off of your ship base and onto the table beside your ship, which indicates that you have been Cloaked for a full round and can no longer be Target Locked.

3) When you fire, you do not immediately lose your Cloak Token. Instead, you flip your Cloak Token over from the green side to the red side, which means you just appeared out of nowhere and still retain the bonus defense dice for the rest of the round. Now, it no longer matters when you fire during the Combat Phase. Firing now means that you will definitely lose your Cloak Token during the End Phase. If you didn't fire and still have your Cloak Token flipped over to the green side, you can choose to remain Cloaked if you like.

These changes resolved 90% of the issues. However, even as we continued developing, we would still occasionally encounter a new special ability that would give an edge to a weaker Captain due to timing issues. But we had become quite sensitive to the issue at this point and learned to recognize and address these problems quickly.


Feedback from Remote Testers

After we had ironed out these initial problems, we started to create some of the early expansion ships and also started to work with remote testers. This is the first game I have ever worked on where remote testers got involved so early in the process, but it ended up being a major boon for the project. Our remote testers were extreme Trek fans and were able to give us significant feedback from a very early stage.

As an example, the testers suggested quickly that discarding upgrades like Photon Torpedoes after using them one time didn't seem to make sense for a giant capital ship. After all, was a warship like the Klingon Negh'Var heading off to war with only a single torpedo? So we started to develop rules for "disabling Upgrades", which works differently than disabling Shields. Essentially, when an Upgrade instructs you to "disable" it, it means you put a Disabled Upgrade Token on the card. This means that the card's text is unusable until you spend an Action to remove that Disabled Upgrade Token. Conceptually, it represents something like "reloading the torpedoes" or allowing a crew member to recover after performing a particularly difficult task.

This also allowed us to balance really powerful abilities by forcing players to discard (rather then disable) those abilities. For example, after using Kirk's famous "Corbomite Maneuver" (an Elite Talent Upgrade which stops all ships from attacking you for one round), you have to discard that Upgrade. Most enemies are not going to fall for that trick twice!

Fun with Tribbles

Throughout the design process, we encountered some really interesting situations that called for more than just a simple Upgrade Card. For example, the Breen Energy Dissipator's full effect required some explanation, so we included a Reference Card in the Gor Portas expansion that explained how it worked.

We really had fun with the Gr'oth expansion, which includes the infamous Cyrano Jones and his Tribbles. As explained on the Tribble Token Reference Card, Cyrano Jones starts you off with a single Tribble, and you add another one each turn. Towards the beginning of the game, these furry critters actually help you out (as long as you're not Klingon!) as they increase the morale of your crew. However, they eventually get out of hand and start hurting the performance of your ship. Fortunately, if you've had some success in knocking out your opponent's shields, you might have the opportunity to beam some of the little guys aboard your opponent's engine room to wreak their own brand of havoc.

One of my favorite playtests featured Khan on the Reliant starting the game off with a Tribble strategy. I imagined him simmering with wrath and quoting lines from Moby Dick as he artfully petted a cooing Tribble. Later in the playtest, Khan acquired too many Tribbles and started beaming them aboard the damaged Enterprise. We could almost hear Kirk scream "KHAN!" in angst-filled rage as he stood buried up to his neck in fuzzy invaders.


A Focus on Missions

Star Trek as a franchise focuses on a lot more than space combat, and WizKids was eager for us to include missions as an integral part of the design. They knew that fans of the game would want the opportunity to play lots of interesting missions that had a real feel for the Trek universe. They therefore decided that every expansion would come with a custom mission. These missions still had to involve battles, of course, but they also had to ask players to accomplish other tasks as well, like beaming down to planets to acquire resources or reaching specific points in space to scan for information.

Because of the importance of missions, WizKids included many Mission and Objective Tokens in the starter set, as well as a giant Planet Token with its own special set of rules (and double-sided with a Class M planet on one side and a barren world on the other). Moreover, many of the expansion missions introduce new types of Mission Tokens which allows players to use them to create missions of their own.

We made sure that there was a variety of two- and three-player missions for players to explore. And for something completely different, we created a three-player co-op mission in the Valdore expansion called "Destroy the Scimitar". We also created a solo mission in the Voyager expansion called "Endgame", which pits the Voyager loaded with future technology against the might of the Borg.

One of our favorite missions comes in the Enterprise expansion and allows players to experience the Kobayashi Maru scenario from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This mission is purposefully harder for the Federation side than the Klingons, but that is part of its charm. During the mission, the Federation must approach the wounded vessel and beam aboard survivors three times (lowering its shields each time), and then try to escape back into Federation space. It's an incredible challenge each and every time you play!

Another favorite mission of ours is "The Defector" from the Vo Expansion. In this mission, one player represents the Romulan Empire and the other represents Alidar Jarok, a Romulan admiral seeking to defect to the Federation. The interesting part of this mission is that, like the Next Generation episode it's modeled after, the Romulan Empire has given Jarok false information and actually wants Jarok to escape, but if the escape is too easy, Jarok will grow suspicious and realize he's been duped. Therefore, the Romulan Empire must pursue the Romulan Defector and try to make the pursuit look convincing without actually destroying the ship. We had to playtest this mission many times to make sure that both players had an equal chance to win, even if they both knew the mission really well!


Conclusion

As the months progressed, we created many expansions for Attack Wing, carrying us all the way through to March 2014 in the release schedule. This has allowed us to mix and match expansions ranging from the first Gen Con release all the way out to Wave 4, which allowed us to look for broken combinations throughout the release arc. This has also allowed us to test all 27 ships against one another in the Organized Play Program which pits players against each other in Mission-based scenarios. The OP program has already been created and tested through its first six months.

After seven straight months of development, we are very excited about the game's upcoming release at Gen Con. We're especially eager to see the types of fleets that creative players will assemble as they attempt to master the challenges of the final frontier!

Andrew Parks

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