Theory: Dividing Cards by Narrative Instead of In-Universe Rules

About a decade ago Decipher—at the time an important player in CCGs—launched the second edition of its Star Trek game. When it did, its designers made two critical design decisions. One was superb; the other tended to undermine the first. Today we’re going to talk about the good decision: separating factions by narrative rules rather than in-universe ones.

In both of its editions the Star Trek CCG featured cards representing people from the Star Trek universe. Players assembled a crew by playing cards, and then flew about the galaxy completing missions. Each mission was worth points, and the first player to 100 points won.

The Star Trek CCG’s first edition (“1E”) divided its personnel according to Star Trek’s fiction. Romulans could only work with other Romulans as a rule; Cardassians were found in crews with other Cardassians; the Dominion kept to itself, running fully Dominion-staffed vessels. Federation citizens, including most of the main cast of the Star Trek TV shows, were happy to team up—Captain Kirk and Mr. Tuvok were both members of Starfleet, after all—but generally speaking the game prevented them from teaming up with non-Federation citizens, like Klingons or the Bajorans.

Looking at this from an in-character perspective, it all makes sense. The average Romulan might well never even meet a non-Romulan, so it’s perfectly reasonable for him or her only to be found on Romulan starships. Most Klingons in space are members of the Klingon military, which is presented as all-Klingon on the show; a player taking the part of the Klingon Empire might therefore reasonably have an all-Klingon crew. The Dominion is an insular society which does not welcome outsiders aboard its spacecraft. As for the Federation personnel, there’s no in-universe reason why Captain Sisko wouldn’t team up with Captain Picard or Captain Janeway, but there’s probably some Starfleet regulation about giving a Kazon the run of the ship.

However, the in-character approach had three critical problems. First, it did a lousy job of imitating the shows. The Next Generation had citizens of other interstellar nations appear as allies as often as they appeared as enemies, if not more; at various points its major characters worked with the Klingons, the Romulans, the Cardassians, the Bajorans, and even a Borg. Deep Space Nine doubled down on that idea, putting its Federation crew in constant contact with the Bajorans, the Ferengi, and later the Klingons and Romulans. Captain Sisko and his faithful team even worked with the deadly Dominion from time to time. By restricting characters’ ability to work together, 1E created a Balkanization that had nothing to do with the source material.

These two characters not only worked together every day, the character on the left viewed the one on the right as the messiah of her religion. Nevertheless, in 1E they could not normally be part of the same crew.
These two characters not only worked together every day, the character on the left viewed the one on the right as the messiah of her religion. Nevertheless, in 1E they could not normally be part of the same crew.

The second problem grows out of the first: 1E lost touch with the themes of Star Trek. Any given episode of Trek will involve a sci-fi problem—a moon that has to be put back in its orbit, computerized tools attaining sentience, etc.—but the point is always a human lesson: one about learning to work with people from other cultures, or how we might confront real-world issues.

Separating the characters into political affiliations and then enforcing that separation made it difficult to address those themes. The game couldn’t say much about finding common ground because it prevented groups from interacting!

Third and finally, 1E tended to elide the differences between shows. Since nothing in-universe would stop the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine crews from mixing and matching, nothing in the game did either. Nor was it particularly difficult to get luminaries from the original series and Voyager into the mix. Ultimately this led both to thematic weirdness (“Captain Sisko doesn’t seem like he’d approach this mission based on a Next Generation episode the way Captain Picard did, but the cards don’t allow for that”) and gameplay problems (the Federation could create high-powered crews, and so other factions had to be given similar power in other areas, creating difficult-to-balance asymmetries).

With the second edition of the game (“2E”) Decipher took a different tack: it replaced in-universe political affiliation with out-of-character narrative grouping as the arbiter of who could work together. Thus, rather than being a “Federation player,” one might be a “Deep Space Nine” player, able to play all of the characters who were a part of that show’s main cast or who were regular guest-stars no matter what planet they came from or what government they worked for.

2E fixes the problem with the "DS9" icons to the left of the text box; since both characters have the icon, they can easily be played in the same deck even though they work for different in-universe governments.
2E fixes the problem with the “DS9” icons to the left of the text box; since both characters have the icon, they can easily be played in the same deck even though they work for different in-universe governments.

Although it might seem simple in retrospect, that single move did much to resolve 1E’s problems. The constant cultural intermingling seen on the shows was easily incorporated, so the game became a better simulation. People who didn’t seem to have much in common could team up again, restoring some much-needed thematic power. Finally, the Federation got some reasonable sub-divisions, which took pressure off of the designers.

2E began with a single, brilliant idea: a game about TV shows could be based, not on the fictional universe’s rules, but on the audience’s experience as they watch. Running with that concept helped 2E resolve many of the issues which had plagued the previous edition. Unfortunately, it did not avoid every land mine—as we’ll discuss on Wednesday.

3 thoughts on “Theory: Dividing Cards by Narrative Instead of In-Universe Rules

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s