Or, how I came to publish a game and lose my mind
By: John Montrie
How it all began
The Super Nova project began in January, 1994, while I was at lunch with
Kathleen Nelson, an artist friend of mine. Our conversation turned to Magic's
popularity and the probability that a science fiction card game might do well.
I had already designed a few games and between us we knew several science
fiction artists. The madness had begun.
I envisioned a "Space Opera" game with whole planets at stake and weird
aliens flying around in cool space ships creating vast space empires. You
know, classic Sci Fi. I wanted to make the game unique, not just "Magic in
space." I also wanted to avoid what I view as an inherent flaw of collectable
card games: Rich Kid Syndrome. You should not be able to create a superior
deck just by spending gobs of money.
I began by thinking of science fiction in terms of cards. Planets, ships and
aliens formed the basic cards; other cards modified the basics, and cards such
as Wormholes, Super Novas, Hostile Natives, et cetera, added spice. Since games
thrive on conflict, I made the goal of the game to seize the most territory
(planets). But how to make the cards interact? I thought about all the
traditional ways of acquiring territory. Historically, there have been three
basic methods: militarily; diplomatically; and economically. Super Nova
incorporates all three.
Next, I considered card game mechanics. As players captured planets from
each other, the planet cards would become intermixed, making it difficult to
determine who owned which cards. I decided that Super Nova would use a
communal deck rather than a competitive deck system. All players would draw
from a central deck. This gave the cards freedom to change hands, retained
the game's collectable nature, and eliminated Rich Kid Syndrome.
With the basic building blocks in place -- planets, ships, and aliens -- I focused
on how they would interact. First you need to find planets. To conquer or
colonize planets, you need ships and aliens and a way to use them. I started
with three phases of play: discovering planets; building aliens and ships; and
Initially, the action phase allowed a player to attack or trade. The final
version of the game also allows the player to jettison cards. The different
types of attack yield different results. Military force does the most damage and
yields the least profit, whereas diplomatic success yields the most gain for the
least damage. An economic attack falls between the other two in results, and is
particularly good for targeting a specific objective. As an alternative to
attacking, a player can trade cards with another player, or at least suggest the
possibility of trading to head off a vicious attack. Of course, a verbal promise is
non-binding... This has added a whole different level of interaction and
occasional silliness to the game.
Continuing the science fiction motif, I added a transport phase for physically
moving aliens and ships between planets. To make players think ahead, I
required that each player must discard one card at the end of the turn, or pay a
With the basic framework in place, the hard work began.
All the details
By May, 1994, I had created the first crude play-test deck. I rounded up some
playtesters and we began playing the game. With playtester feedback, the
card themselves started to develop. The Population cards were split into the
main alien races -- Antarians, Koolians, Floaters, Terrans and Tlisk -- and
mercenaries such as ChortÕs Marauders or Nora Lucre. Planet modifier cards
were split into Environment cards (which stick with the planet for the whole
game) and Civilization cards (which are built on the planet and thus
susceptible to attack). Population modifier cards such as Equipment were
dropped for lack of space but will likely appear in the first supplement.
Playtesting showed that the game was fun even with dramatic variation in the
number of cards in the deck. This flexibility in the number of cards was
important, given that I had not yet found a printer and the total number of
cards in a deck depended on how many cards the printer could print on a
sheet. While I always knew that there would be a minimum number of cards
needed to play, the maximum number has changed several times. The first
printer I contacted printed regular playing cards in sheets of fifty-four (fifty-
two cards and two jokers) so I started with a possible 208 cards printed on four
sheets. This total has moved several times before settling at 165.
After eight months of intensive play testing with several dozen friends (and a
few strangers) the system settled into a fun and playable form. A player starts
each turn by drawing until she has ten cards, uses the cards to discover
planets and build them up, and interacts with the other players by either
attacking or trading. Players move resources around to prepare for the next
turn and then discard one card face up.
Each planet has population potential, or the number of population cards it can
hold. A player wins by gaining a population potential total of 13. However, all
planets are not equal: they vary in potential, generally from 1 to 4. This adds
quite a bit of strategy in deciding which planets to protect.
Players must draw from either the main deck or the discard pile, but not from
both. This forces players to decide whether to take the unknown of the main
deck or the certainty of the (face up) discard pile. Picking from the discard
pile ensures getting a specific card, but generally means not getting any
extraordinary cards; they are, after all, discarded cards.
Playtesting also revealed that a player's hand could become locked if she didn't
have the right cards to play. To fix this, I added the option of jettisoning cards
rather than attacking or trading during the action phase. IÕm just hitting the
high points here. The rules are more detailed than what I have just described.
We found lots of interesting but unanticipated card uses and combinations,
which required that adjustments to the card mix and abilities be made. For
example, the Super Nova card blows up an entire planetary system, ships and
all, and originally could be played at any time. To reduce this card's
overwhelming power, it now consumes a player's entire action phase.
I made a few changes to this system to make things more interesting. For
instance, each alien race was originally represented by one unique card. Now,
there are half a dozen different cards for each race, each with its own art and
special abilities. Also, ships now come in classes, such as Long Range ships
that can survive without planetary support, or Mercantile ships that are
Also, I thought that Super Nova would be a fairly simple game strategically,
but as playtesting continued, players began using more involved strategies.
For example, the card Binary Star combines two planets together into one
super-tough planetary unit. I had originally thought that playing a Binary
Star would be a good defensive strategy. However, one enterprising playtester
got the idea to play Binary Star on someone else's star (a legal move) making
her opponent's star system a tempting target for a natural disaster card. What
started out as a defensive card has become a possible weapon.
In most collectable card games, individual deck owners compete to create
"killer" decks. In Super Nova, the fun comes from creating a deck that is
enjoyable for the entire group. Players can change the card mix to change
the character of the game. For example, they can make the game more or less
militaristic, more or less deterministic, etc., depending on which cards they
put in the deck. They can also play with as many or as few cards, within
reason, as they like. Finally, if they vary the population potential needed to
win, they can easily change how long it takes to play Super Nova.
One idea that was suggested to me early on was that the game should be a
highly complex strategy game like Civilization. What I have done is produce a
simpler game that can later be used as the framework for a more complex
game. In the future, I hope to put out an advanced Super Nova with new rules
and cards that can still use the basic Super Nova deck.
While play testing progressed, I began lining up artists to illustrate the game.
Currently, there are two dozen artists working in just about every medium,
from oils, to pen and ink, to computer graphics. I must confess that when I
started I didn't think much about computer generated art -- but now I'm
convinced. Over half of Super Nova's art is electronic. There are always in-
jokes. One artist's wife appears on two different cards, my nephews are the
Terran Brats, and my friends known as the Evil Clones are, of course, the Evil
In January, 1995, Heartbreaker Hobbies decided to publish the game. I
officially formed my own company, Buccaneer Games, and we started getting
everything ready to publish. At first we had considered just putting out a 100
card boxed set to keep the costs down. Later, we decided to go ahead and make
Super Nova a collectable game. The initial edition has 165 different cards.
Once we had finally decided that Super Nova would be collectable, we needed to
determine how common each card should be. By playing the game over and
over (play testing continues to this day) we were able to determine which
cards would be rare, uncommon, and common. This allowed fine tuning. Some
cards were a bit too powerful but lots of fun (e.g., the Super Nova card);
keeping the card in the deck as a rare card gives the game balance.
Trials and Tribulations
Not all was perfect. Kathleen dropped out to pursue her own projects (though
some of her art is in the game). My friend Dave Choat is a truly gifted
computer artist who has rendered invaluable technical assistance and
contributed many pieces of art. Immediately after Heartbreaker agreed to
publish Super Nova, and started imposing lots of deadlines, Dave went to Haiti
for a three month hitch.
Shortly after Dave vanished, my 1 gig hard drive -- holding all the art --
crashed big time. It took the shop over a month to fix, and then it died again.
It's like driving a car you can't trust. Fortunately, all the art was backed up on
disk, but that makes for slow processing. Backing up the art was originally a
chore; now, it's a religion.
Finally, we had a really hard time deciding on a good name. We started with
the working title of Star Cards. The game was Star Builders for the longest
time. As you've probably guessed by now, we settled on Super Nova. I hope
you all enjoy it.
John Montrie, known to his friends as "Chort," has been designing his own
games for the amusement of his friends and himself for the last twenty years.
He has a BA in history and is an avid historical reenactor. In gaming he has
done everything from board games to live action role-playing. His favorite
pastime is miniature wargaming and he has painted over 7000 figures as part
of his miniatures collection. He has done both miniature painting and play
testing for Grenadier and Heartbreaker Hobbies over the last six years and is
currently employed as a disgruntled postal worker.
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