Super Nova

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 taking action.

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 penalty.

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.

Finishing Touches

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 Economically powerful.

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.

Pretty pictures

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 Clones.

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.

Author's Bio

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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