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Designer Diary: Anatomy of a Card-Driven Wargame, or The Development of Robotech: Reconstruction

by Dr. Wictz

Card-driven wargames. There, the name by itself indicates the importance of the cards to the overall gameplay, so I cannot talk about designing Robotech: Reconstruction without talking about the development of the event cards that push forward the narrative and players’ interaction with each other.

Why Drive Narrative through Cardplay?

Cardplay enables players to create their own narrative while preserving key historical moments from the past. I know some of you are saying, “Robotech is a TV show, not a historical event”, but within a mature fictional universe like Robotech, there is a history of events within the series’ canon, similar to real-world historical events. People who follow Robotech are going to treat what happens within the series as an event the same way a historian will study the impact of France’s intervention into the American Revolution.

The Same Events Occur, but the Outcomes Can Differ

Like in GMT’s COIN Series, which uses a card-driven format to incorporate historical events into a possible alternative history if things had played out differently, Robotech: Reconstruction uses its event deck to bring in past events from the show that might have led to a different historical/narrative outcome within the show.

In GMT’s Fire in the Lake, for example, the “Tet Offensive” event card enables a historical event to take place, but the impact strategically of the event can differ due to the board state mixed with luck, enabling Fire in the Lake to explore different potential outcomes that might have happened if things had played out differently in the Vietnam War.

Similarly, the “Final Assault” event card in Robotech: Reconstruction triggers the climatic attack on New Macross City in the Robotech TV series while allowing different outcomes from the original TV series based on the state of the board. Players in Robotech: Reconstruction get to explore alternative narrative, dare I say, historical possibilities within the Robotech universe, seeing that even within the world of fiction, major events might have played out differently.

Event Selection

Fans of fiction, like historians, can have a hard time identifying which events are pivotal and which events could potentially have been pivotal if things had played out differently. I had to decide within a nine-episode span of Robotech which events from the show should be included within the game.

Like a designer of a historical game, I conducted research on what took place without assuming how much a particular event must determine the overall outcome of the game. Specifically, I sat down with my notebook and meticulously wrote down every event across the nine episodes known as the Reconstruction period after the First Robotech War. I did not decide whether the events were important or not; I just noted what took place and included those events within the event deck of the game. By listing all of the events alone, I created 30 of the 34 events within the Robotech: Reconstruction event card deck. To keep the game balanced for the four factions within the game, I made sure to use the remaining four event cards to ensure that every faction had an equal number of events.

That said, the most important thing I did was consciously include all events I could document so that when players later play Robotech: Reconstruction, they can discover which events are pivotal within their own game and which does not have to be the same as the original TV series.

Impact of an Event

Events found, check. Now the events have to result in a real observable action within gameplay. Because the game is designed to be played by people who have never seen an episode of Robotech, I put a high priority on ensuring that the actions triggered by an event card are connected with the title of the event card. Without such obvious cues, there is no way for players unfamiliar with Robotech to understand what is even taking place within the game, let alone develop an understanding of the show by only playing just the board game.

Take the actions of the Zentraedi Rebellion “Protoculture Heist” card, which represents theft of protoculture by moving protoculture to a space with Zentradi Units.

The impact of an event is more than just the direct actions made by the faction undertaking the action, but also by the ability of other factions to react. For me, that shows up in the Faction Reaction Column which determines which player is going next within a round. When an event card is played, players start from the top of the reaction column and work their way down until they find a faction that has yet to take their turn in the current round. The reaction column adds another layer of strategic decision to the event card that alters the impact of the event triggered by the card.

Certain factions are better at countering other factions. Additionally, other factions can be contained by putting them in a situation where they have to prioritize countering an opponent versus prioritizing their faction specific goal.

Event Context

A challenge for any historical game designer is trying to put into context the history behind an event card. That is why a lot of historical wargames include additional material to provide additional context.

For me, part of that context in Robotech: Reconstruction is in the carefully selected quotes at the bottom of the event card. The quotes are direct quotes from Robotech that shed light on either the impact, emotional motivation, or emotional reaction to the event within the TV series. I relied on direct quotes because unlike historians, who can sometimes go back and interview or read the writings of the participants to the past, I have only what the characters say directly within the show. Instead of trying to provide my own interpretation of their words, I elected to provide verbatim what folks said in the show so that players can do their best to interpret the meaning behind them.

Discovering the Unknown

Player interpretation of events goes beyond just comprehending the perspectives of people living through the events; a card-driven wargame pushes you to consider elements you were unaware of that define a historical moment strategically. Minor details that seemed unimportant at first glance turn out to be pivotal once they are experienced in the context of the time.

Despite the physical violence at the forefront of many episodes of Robotech, the Reconstruction period is really a time period about persuading society to embrace competing visions for Earth’s future — and the event cards enable players to explore how all events, including the violent ones, shaped that final outcome.

Dr. Wictz


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