Babylon 5 Request

I got a request to do some analysis of the Babylon 5 CCG.

When I think of the game, I mostly think of the things I didn’t like about it.  Whether that says more about how I think of things ***.

Might as well start there.  What bothered me the most about the game?

1. Techno-mages

Really?  Not the ultimate hoser?  Not Drakh?  Not the lack of Walker Smith?

At many points, the CCG would move away from the core elements of the show.  I would include the Psi Corps set, the Non-Aligned faction, and numerous other things.  To varying degrees, they were problematic.  The NA got the best and/or coolest fleets – Combined Fleet, Vree Scouts; they were broken as initially created; rather than encouraging a hodgepodge, encouraged brutal Pak’ma’ra beatdown; threw off how many players are playing at a time.  Psi Corps not only introduced tons of characters for Support of the Mighty but who were contending with each other in some side game, while adding yet more marks to the game (as much as I like marks), and resurrected unrest as something to pay any attention to.

Nightwatch was weird.  Drakh and the ultimate hoser [ISA] caused me to start hating the game, but it is techno-mages where I just felt like the game had no resemblance to anything I watched.

Speaking of watching, one of the things I caught while having some dead time in China was Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.  Maybe it was just catching the end, but it was so shockingly awful that it was hard not to keep watching.  As much as ruminating on exorcising demons is totally what one watches B5 for, it was the extraordinarily stiff … everything … of the final half an hour or whatever that made me feel like I was watching something special.

Crusade Piles are moronic.  Sure, they could be abused.  Sure, they made Gambling Londo less of a gamble.  But, it’s just the idea of adding additional decks to games that should never come to pass.  Either you didn’t have enough decks in your game to begin with or, far more likely, you are just making your game a mechanical disaster.

But, there were some cool things you could do with Crusade Piles, like further abuse Conscription because all right-thinking people love first turn Conscription into 20 minute victories.  Putting techno-mages into play, then using them for anything technomancic was just Drakh levels of pain without having the benefit of Drakh being vaguely something I can see a CCG needing to introduce just to have more things to introduce.

2. The Ultimate Hoser and what it was trying to hose

As horrendous as I thought introducing the Drakh was, they still related to doing things in the game that decks did.  ISA was just “I think that player is winning, let’s form the ISA, Expelled that guy so that he can never win because he’s playing a normal deck, then one of us (three) will win up until the point that we Expelled whoever is next most likely to win.”  Someone dare play military?  Search outside the game for fleets, assuming you don’t just shut them out of the game because they are still running military conflicts that target other players.

Oh, sure, you could be playing Drakh.  You could be playing grossly overpowered individual cards that don’t do anything to help you win against anyone who understands how Drakh decks work (well, they “win” on timeouts because they are ahead on power).

You could also play Alliance of Races because you either have ungodly amounts of power and don’t care that you need an extra amount or you were hosed by something, anyway.  You know, because AoR was such an amazingly fun strategy.

You know what, I was wrong about techno-mages being the worst thing about B5.  The worst thing started from day one:  the hoser mentality.  B5 was just an endless series of trying to hose specific strategies or cards.  Rather than give up on this thinking and move on to trying to enable rather than disable, the game just kept coming up with more hosers until it printed the “we don’t like your deck and, therefore, you lose” card.

3. Unrest??  [Negativity]

Probably not unrest.  Unrest was sort of interesting in the early days, when it pretty much was never going to hurt you and where it enabled one or two plays.  Then, Mass Rioting.  See, it’s not Mass Rioting, just like it’s not lots of other individual cards in every CCG.  It’s what these sorts of cards lead to.  Because of Mass Rioting, people built Mass Rioting decks, which meant that you had to start caring about usually irrelevant stuff except when you didn’t.  Then, even if you did care about terrible mechanics, you still couldn’t stop someone from screwing you over.  In other words, you just randomly lost.

In reality, it was really an incredibly negative attitude B5 had towards things that distracted from enjoying the game.  Not just the hoser mentality.  But, take war.  War wasn’t a legit way to win.  It was only ever a legit way to cause someone to lose, that could produce a win in a very specific situation that I don’t specifically recall ever occurring.

Strife Marks were fun up until the point that someone bombed your characters into hospital come.  The number of times I had to play against Tu’Pari decks was absurd.

The worst thing about Vorlons?  You Are Not Ready.  Little investment – any Delenn deck could do it without caring about Vorlonness.  Absurdly undercosted.  Undermined the core mechanic of the game.

Rather than fix things in a reasonable way, aka banning a bunch of opprobrious cards, just create more hosers.  Vorlons too “good”?  Make Shadows better.  Make power worse.  Make more things that end the Shadow War.  Make Vorlon hosers.  How about just make Vorlons less unfun?  How about You Are Not Ready being once a game (as terrible as once a game is as a mechanic, this card was that bad) and making it cost a reasonable amount, like 7 influence?

4. The race

No, not any of the races.  I loved playing Non-Aligned decks, though didn’t as much love playing against them.  B5 started with a fundamental problem, which such heinous cards as Mass Rioting tried to address.  You didn’t need to interact.

B5, unlike other multiplayer CCGs of the sort that I have played more often, was purely a race game.  Look back, sometime, if you can find old B5 decks, pre-Deluxe decks.  Note how often Defense in Depth showed up.  Why?  Because you sat there and played cards that moved you closer to winning, then you switched to some other card to cause you to win, trying your best to not have anyone else be faster at their multiplayer solitaire (or solitaire plus one targeted conflict).

Before Deluxe, the game was bizarre.  There was the “I accumulate a lot of Doom Marks and win by converting them all to Destiny after one successful conflict” Human strategy, the “I have my homeworld and my racial cheese and factionless cheese, like Commerce Raiding, so I will play one conflict and win off of my 5 power agenda” Centauri or Narn strategy, the “I will play huge characters who will win me a couple of conflicts before the turn I don’t turn them” Minbari strategy, the “I will play lots of Shadow Marks” Centauri strategy, AoR, Vorlon Influence for the win (aka, the predominant strategy of the first worlds championship), Shadow Influence for the win (not so good in an environment heavily oriented towards Vorlon Influence).

Yes, there was tech.  There was Power Politics to win through influence in a game where the power decks all neutralized each other.  There was going to war against cheese decks to bomb them into oblivion (possibly).

But, the tournament game was all about the fastest or most metagame favorable way to cheese to victory.

The “I don’t really interact with you, I just pretend I do with my plays” mentality was so pervasive, I used to use the Destined to Be + Disarray combo (later clarified/ruled bombo) to stop players from winning, so that I could delay the cheese one turn.

This was something I would bring up over and over again.  The game reacted … by printing We Are Not Impressed to hose power out of the game, only the thing that threw off people’s math (for those who didn’t bother learning what the cards in the game did) for determining who would win.  When WANI got printed, someone noticed Conscription.  I noticed that someone’s deck.  After various variations on how to try to win a four-player game in 20 minutes in a game where power was meaningless, we … actually, we eventually got a reasonable game when Severed Dreams was the latest published set.  Power was feasible through Secret Strike.  Influence was doable in a number of ways.  People got away from Psi Corps nonsense to a degree.  Interaction happened, though there was still a lot of mechanically undesirable plays like the Trade cheese war.

So, one might be wondering why I ever kept playing this game (or why I was designing for it).  Let’s get somewhat more positive.

1. Theme

As many cards that existed that went against what the show promoted or that fixated on one, annoying aspect of the show (say, Psi Corps), there were so many plays that had some thematic feel.  I don’t just mean Vorlon Rescue on Sheridan.  I mean Vorlon Rescue on Mr. Morden.  I mean Centauri peace and Non-Aligned/Vorlon B5 vote decks.  I mean preying upon Minbari military weakness with your Centauri or Human deck.

There was thematic resonance to many a play.  I may not get that into a lot of games for their intended thematics – V:TES, to me, for instance, doesn’t really have any sort of theme besides Well-Aimed Cars being tossed by those who hunt.  But, there are times that I spoof hard on the IP.

Londo Vorlon deck?  Sure.

As problematic as Order Above All, Forced Evolution, and Alliance of Races were, that was the show.  As outrageously overpowered as it was to have Non-Aligned Captains recurse Combined Fleets, Brakiri were part of the show.

The reason why the post-Severed Dreams, pre-Wheel of Fire environment was the best ever was because it returned the game to being about Londo, Sheridan, G’Kar, Delenn, Vir, Lennier, Sinclair, Londo’s Wives, Refa, Na’Far, Mister Allan.

Let me call out Londo’s Wives.  This.  This is what makes a B5 CCG cool.  I’m not talking about the group by that name, I mean the three characters, though the group … amusingly … creates a non-Londo deck.

It sucked that we had so few images to work with of aliens so that a lot of Narns were just G’Kar in some shot where it wasn’t obvious that it was G’Kar.  But, somehow, I felt the Centauri and Narns as a thing, in the game.  Human faction suffered from too many humans.  Minbari suffered from a bunch of cards that were just some giant character that was too similar to another character.  Non-Aligned were sometimes a thing I could spoof on, like my (Chosen of) Gaim deck.

If you got away from tournament thinking and just played characters you liked from the show and gave them PPG Rifles so that they could nuke other characters, you could feel something.  When you Shadow Marked Garibaldi, you felt something.

Even such mechanics as Babylon 4, as weird as they were for producing game states and victory possibilities, felt like something show related.

2. Marks

I love me marks.  Destiny Marks, Doom Marks, Shadow/Vorlon Marks, Strife Marks, just so cute.  Besides cute little symbols/chits, why were marks cool?  Because they showed a change in the character that aftermaths tried but failed to do and that was so much what the show was about – character arcs.

Aftermaths were really, really a colossal miss on getting the mechanics to meet thematics, where the best aftermath stuff was that goofy lost aftermath deck.  Marks made you, often, better.  Doom Marks usually came from doing productive things and were original cheese of the highest cheesiness, until Martyr got fixed.  Strife Marks were good stuff, where the others interacted with so many cards.

The factions in B5 were not just Centauri, Narn, Minbari, and the ubiquitous.  They were Shadow, Vorlon, “I’m going to wreck/ignore you both”, and marks went a long way to enforcing that.

3. Agenda

Agenda were a huge problem, in that everyone would know exactly what every relevant agenda did that helped someone win.  But, the idea of agenda, the starting agenda that got added in Shadows, the fight over agenda, and the ability of agenda was an axis the game made use of.

I kept trying to think of ways to expand agenda so that players couldn’t just say “that cheesemeister is one conflict and an agenda drop from winning”.  I don’t think it’s possible.  Any competitive player will memorize.  Instead, what I came up with that the game never made use of even though I was designing for the game was temporary influence/power based on aftermaths.  That would have not only thrown off winmath but would have given aftermath play a bit more interest, not that it would have saved many a coaster.

Starting agenda, especially, changed the game for the better.  One tends to forget how tedious the early B5 game was pre-Shadows.  “Hold on, when turn 5 comes around, I’ll do something someone cares about.  Meanwhile, I build.”

As banal as certain agenda were, you still felt like agenda added personality to what your faction was doing.  I loved me my Centauri B5 Influence decks, just as I loved me all B5 Influence decks, except when I played against AoR cheese.  The first tournament I ever won was off of Centauri Peace In Our Time/The Hope of Peace.  Yeah, I started playing tier 3 decks in tournaments a long time ago in a galaxy far, far … wait, I never played Star Wars, Young Jedi, or their ilk competitively.

4. Opening Hands, 3CL, 3 Influence = a card

I love the game within a game of choosing opening hands.  As much as I spent time and effort doing so for Wheel of Time and Tomb Raider (yes, Tomb Raider), I played way, way more B5.  I built a Gambling Londo deck right away because my love of choosing opening hands includes choosing no cards for my opening hand.

Card limits are great.  Really, they are.  And, what’s better than a 4cl?  Yup, 3cl.  3CL is the optimal card limit for deck construction, being wallet friendly, trade friendly, and still giving a choice between 0, 1, 2, and 3 copies in a deck.

Magic players would walk by our B5 games and be flabbergasted at how many cards were in play.  Um, that wasn’t difficult to process.  What was difficult was holding 30 cards in hand.  Still, the idea that I can pay my money to play stuff or pay my money to draw more cards was fly-attracting.

Some mechanics didn’t work so great.  The supporting row versus the inner circle had some issues.  Fleets never felt like more than numbers.  Leadership was weird and problematic.  Psi didn’t really fit the game.  Events that undid stuff (uh, Not Meant to Be) was just really bad for a game that didn’t have a lot of timing issues.  Conflicts weren’t important enough and aftermaths were almost entirely irrelevant.  But, the game had some strong mechanics.

After all, besides the Precedence CCGs, A Game of Thrones and some later CCGs (Cthulhu LCG?) had incredibly similar structures.

5. Events

Some permanents tickled my fancy.  But, mostly, what I liked to do was play lots of events.  There were so many good events in B5, too many after a certain point, but events were all about the play from hand effects that I enjoy most about CCGs.

What would I change/keep?

1. Characters

The game needs to be character driven.

2. Conflicts

Conflicts can work.

3. Marks

Marks are cute.  Aftermaths need some serious rehabilitation, though, to be strong enough to affect who wins to where someone will actually evolve their characters.

4. Shadow/Vorlon/B5

This is the best part of the show.  I so hated the human internal crap, the psi crap.  The racial animosity was good, so that could be pushed a bit more, where tensions should have been something you did more with.  While the Shadow War mechanic has a lot of problems in the game, once you have the benefit of hindsight, you can maybe get it to work better.  And, Beyond the Rim is funny to pull off no matter how ridiculous it is.

5. War

War cannot function like it functioned (I consider the game dead, so past tense).  Military actually had lots of problems, from either wildly unbalanced forces to such massive fleets in play that everyone was afraid.

6. Unrest

I like the idea.  I didn’t like the cards.  I can see internal animosity being more important than it was because that was a big thing on the show.  That Nightwatch was a strong mechanic and unrest was just misery was not optimal.

7. Drakh

Just go away.  Shadow servants that are far more powerful than any other characters?  Please.  I also hated Londo’s fate because it smacked of character stupidity just to create a nonsensical plot.

8. Techno-mages

Elric, Galen, no way there’s an actual techno-mage deck.

9. Alternate Mains

So, this.  This and more this.  Keep doing alternate versions of the main characters.  Navy Mollari.  Half-Gaim Delenn.  Walker effin’ Smith.

10. Fleet Enhancements

These need to be better.  I don’t know if it’s because they were green or because I embraced military so strongly, but I just loved me my coasterish fleet enhancements.

11. Winning

Winning needs to be more interactive, more surprising, and more fun.  I think the key to this is combo plays.  Rise to Power is an awesome card.  Yeah, it’s clunky.  But, clunky in a thematic driven game can be okay.  Rise to Power is exactly the sort of aftermath that the game needs variations on to cause decks to do multiple different things while also being unpredictable in where they live for winning.

The conflicts that cause one player to get closer to victory at the cost of another player, those largely suck in a multiplayer game.  Even ones that did work as intended some of the time, like Prey on the Weak, often didn’t work.  There needs to be something either tied to conflicts or related to conflicts that affects winning more than just the acquisition of influence/power.

12. Influence

Influence is a big problem in that what makes you stronger makes you win.  Power being distinct from influence is huge, but maybe they need even further separation to where power doesn’t even key off of influence.  So, you start at 10 power and your power rises and falls based on card play/resolution.  Influence, then, becomes just money.

Also, the early game in B5 was crap and still pretty crappy even with starting agenda.  Sure, there were amusing Great Machine openings and numbers manipulations you could do, but those existed because you were so insanely constrained in what you could do in the early game.  I don’t like starting with a bunch of stuff in play, but maybe the costing system needs to be reworked so that you can quickly drop cheap fleets and build some sort of character infrastructure that doesn’t get out of hand.

13. Stealing Characters

A major unfun thing that could happen is someone playing your faction’s characters.  Uniqueness is a constant problem in CCGs, though B5 had less of a problem with it because it was often prohibitively expensive to bother with other factions’ characters.  Much of the flavor in B5 was felt through playing cards on specific named characters.  That kind of doesn’t work if someone can snatch, though your ambassador and assistant were safe, so it wasn’t like there were a ton of characters you were going to build around that you couldn’t have.

14. Hosers

Get rid of them.  Just get rid of them.  If the game is broken, then fix the game.  Make Shadow/Vorlon decks less powerful.  Don’t print Conscription.  Don’t lose your mind and start hosing ambassador assistants because you think they are undercosted when:  1, they are major characters in the show; 2, so I’m safer playing a Centauri Captain than I am Vir??; 3, they weren’t actually that strong and often weren’t played at all.  The amount of stupidity you had to jump into to keep your Ivanova deck safe from “you killed Ivanova, I can’t play a bunch of cards” in terms of timing your actions was unreal.

15. Draal

Don’t give Draal first strike.  If you want to have an enhancement or conflict or aftermath(!) that gives a character some first strike ability, that’s interesting.  Having Draal tool up with a PPG Rifle and start gunning down diplomats because that’s supereasy to do is not the thematic spoofing I’m looking for.

16. Psi

Okay, it can exist, I guess.  Maybe, it’s just a tag.  Maybe you have three levels of the tag to differentiate Bester from random Non-Aligned interpreter.  But, the more it becomes part of the game, the less meaningful ambassadors become.

17. Tags

Use them more.  Warleader.  Senator.  These are interesting, in theory.  Way too few cards key off of them.  B5 could really be a fleetless, all character game, as fleets are pretty flavorless and unrelated to characters in so many ways.  Military action could be handled with some other mechanic.  But, I’m also okay with fleets existing as B5 did actually work.  Mechanically, not an “A” game, but it was a functional game.  But, take advantage of the personality characters have by having their tags actually matter.

After all, we all want Ranger Mollari to team up with Ranger Refa to beat down some Shadow Marked Neroon.

While I could probably go on, I think that’s enough for the moment.

Babylon 5 was probably the CCG I was most invested in!!  Seriously.  Ultimate Combat! is my favorite because it’s the most fun.  V:TES is the one I have played the most and the longest.  Shadowfist is the one I spend the most time thinking about, now, because I’m in a learning mode.  Wheel of Time was the one I did the most designer stuff for.  But, there’s a reason I eventually was doing design for B5.  I complain about it a lot because it had tons of problems.  But, it was a very respectable use of the IP and a completely reasonable CCG.  A lot of terrible cards got made, but there were a bunch of very appealing cards, as well.

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