Ace in the Hole

The rush of taking down the repugnant Alliance in World of Warcraft is something hard to replicate. Knitting a sweater really doesn’t cut it in contrast to discovering a lone Paladin out of mana in Stranglethorn Vale, separated from his group. The joy of unleashing the glorious Frost Shock/Earthbind Totem combo and asking your party, “Where is his god now?” as you laugh about the recently departed; it’s almost too much fun. Could you imagine trying to recapture that action and transform it into a completely different medium? How hard would that be?

To find out, I spoke to two men, Brian Kibler and Danny Mandell. They’re the Lead Developer and Lead Designer (respectively) of the group responsible for distilling all of WoW into a collectible card game (CCG). The game, called the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, is being published by Upper Deck and aims to bring the persistent, massively-multiplayer experience of WoW offline, pitting two friends against each other in heated battles. Of course, you don’t just sit down one day and say, “Hey, let’s make a card game of this really successful MMOG.” It requires a lot of work.

According to Kibler, the hardest part is figuring out “how you make a game of a game. One of the pitfalls is trying to include too much of the game. If you do that, it’s gonna fail. You could imagine that you start the game at level one and you’re fighting mobs and your opponents, but the problem is if you go really wide, it’s hard to go deep, and then it’s hard for a lot of new players to process. … You want it to be accessible.”

Mandell added, “We want to make sure you can play your character that you have in the game.”

“We had a big whiteboard, and we basically went about asking ourselves what our goals were for the game,” Kibler said. “We were like, ‘We want the games to be 20 to 30 minutes, so you could get three to four games done in an hour.’ So we had to pick a pretty specific scale. We asked, ‘What’s the game really about?’ – the combat. Yes, exploring the regions is cool, and the flavor on the cards in the deck adds that to the game. So, we ultimately chose combat to set it up for the PvP experience.

“There are seven card types [and] 16 different heroes – one for every class on the Horde and Alliance side. The hero does several things. The object of the game is to kill the other player’s hero. … A hero usually needs a weapon to deal damage. Casters deal from the hand with spells, like Fireball. Though, there are no racial abilities in the first set.”

“Deck building is pretty open-ended,” Mandell said. “There’s gear, which is tons of armor. Abilities are cards played from your hand that are sweet spell effects like Fireball, and some of these remain in play. There are the allies, which are your party members. You can have one in combat at a time, and the damage they take remains on them. It’s a thematic perspective, so that you could have healing play a factor like it would online. There are weapon and armor cards that you’ll equip to the hero. You pay the strike cost to add their damage to attacks. Rogues, Paladins and Warriors armor [have] a defensive value, and you can exhaust your armor to absorb damage. There’s items, and they’re standard play.

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“And while a lot of the game is based [on] combat, players will instantly see things they recognize. Weapon cards, armor cards, quest cards. When you see a Mortal Strike card, you immediately have a connection to the game. There’s a lot things that are meta-flavor connections in the game. For example, the Leeroy Jenkins card would be one of those.”

Sounds like the makings of a pretty solid game, but Kibler’s words regarding the quest cards really made it sound special. “Then, there are the quest cards. Once per turn, you can play a card face down as a resource. It stays face down, and it’s pretty much gone for the [rest of the] game. Quest cards are played face up, and [each] has an objective and a reward. There are fortune ones that you, say, pay three resources to complete the quest, and you draw a card. There are also quests [from the game], like … ‘Tooga’s Quest,’ where you have to protect this turtle, Tooga. … We have it where you put a Tooga token into play, and if you can protect it for a turn, you can draw two cards.”

“Everything is drawn directly from the game,” Mandell said. “All the allies are recognizable and have made up names. Additionally, each class has about 15 abilities, with about 10 being straight from the game. The others are ones we generated. … For example, there’s Smite, which deals Holy damage, but we decided to not do ranks (as characters level, their spells get stronger, rather than just getting newer spells). A, it’s boring; and B, it’s weird. It seems unattractive. That’s why we have a card called Chastise – a baby Smite in addition to the named one.”

Of course, as they said, they’re trying to appeal to everyone who plays WoW. They wouldn’t be able to do that without emulating the raid content that has countless players scheduling their weekends around their guild calendars. “The second release is the Raid deck. We’re also planning on doing these three or four times a year,” Kibler said. “The PvE version – well, the first one – is versus Onyxia and it’s for three or four or five players, with one of the players controlling Onyxia.

“It’s sort of weird. We had to look at the constraints first. We had to balance it so players could play through the game in an hour. You could use any deck you want, but there’s a little bit of a puzzle solving aspect to it. The first time you do it, you’re going to get wrecked. You’ll lose, but it will be fine. Then, you’ll figure it out and you’ll be tuning your decks as a team. You’ll do stuff like in the game, having a mage handle the whelps with some AOE (area of effect).”

“It’s a 3 vs. 1 or 4 vs. 1 setup, and Onyixa has special rules,” Mandell said. “It takes place in three stages. She draws more cards as the game goes on, so it gets harder as you progress through the stages. The Raid deck also comes with a treasure pack, with gear that mostly drops off Onyxia. Future Raid decks will mirror the progress that players actually experience in the game, though raid content in the [online] game comes out a lot faster. We’re following up with the second Raid deck being Molten Core with Ragnaros. It’ll get shaken up a little bit after that.”

The CCG will also take WoW‘s first expansion, The Burning Crusade, into account in future installments. “We don’t want to forget about everything that came before [the expansion],” Kibler said. “Set Two is our bridge set between the existing and new content. We work pretty closely with Blizzard. A couple of Blizzard guys come to the office every few weeks to tell us what’s going on. “

And the game will also pay off in the MMOG, with special cards known as Loop cards. Mandell elaborated, “The Loop rares are cards in the set that are alternative versions of cards in the set with codes redeemable for cosmetic upgrades in the [MMOG]. Stuff that looks cool, akin to the Murloc pet from BlizzCon. There are three in the first set, and there will be additional ones in future sets through our online redemption program.”

When the CCG releases on October 25th, players will have a chance to take a crack at the game themselves. Who knows, maybe some of that secret sauce Blizzard is cooking made its way over to the folks at Upper Deck. If Kibler and Mandell’s take on WoW kindles the same fire in the player base that the original game did, maybe they’ll take over the card game industry like WoW did the MMOG field. I’ll have my eyes on my local hobby shop to find out.

Dan Dormer is a videogame freelancer who keeps a poorly updated blog
at his personal
. He’s also afraid of seeing scary movies. True story.

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