Interview with TactDeck’s Eric Etkin
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should we know? I’m a writer above all else. I come into game design from both fiction and technical writing using both a left and right-brained approach… hopefully finding the right balance between them. My appreciation of all things geek (I think) gives me a rather large creative playing field from both a mechanics and theme standpoint.
How did u get into games? I’m foremost a second-generation RPG player, having come in through the old D&D red box. The first non-mainstream boardgame I remember playing was TSR’s The Awful Green Things from Outer Space. I was probably about 10. My dad introduced me to the hobby with that game, even though he wasn’t a huge gamer himself. My parents’ house was (and still is) chock full of minis, spaceships, and terrain. My dad probably should have been a toymaker… My parents went out of their way to provide me with a creatively fertile home environment. As I got older, I became mildly obsessed with generating my own gaming content. Imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, and I’ve always been driven to create things in the hobbies I enjoy – games, books, music, comics.
So tell us a bit about TactDecks. How did the concept come alive? At the time, I thought the concept was unique – Wargaming on cards! AWESOME!!! I hadn’t heard of Battleground, and Summoner Wars wasn’t on the market yet, so I developed TactDecks in a vacuum, thinking I was the only one doing this type of game. It was rather naive thinking on my part, I suppose, but it resulted in my designing something that’s similar to both games in format but executed quite differently. A few people have told me that TactDecks exists in that space between the Battleground and Summoner Wars style of play… That may be true, but it was never my intention. Regardless, I’d like to think there’s something there appealing to everybody.
Why did you decide to go for a card game rather than any other type? I wanted a portable tactical game. A game that gives players the fun of skirmishing without the headache of transporting minis, mats, rulers, notepads, etc. One of the design maxims I followed from square one was that TactDecks had to fit in a pocket-sized box. Something a college student, middle school kid, or adult 9 to 5iver can stick in their pocket and bust out between classes, during a lunch break, or wherever. The card game format lends highly to this, but it also lends very well toward expandability and customization. The card format distills the fun of army building without the transportation headache, price-tag, and mess. TactDecks is also just different enough from a conventional fantasy minis game to offer a distinct experience.
Did it take you long to come up with the mechanics? The base mechanics were hammered out in about a month. All the little extras – the rule tidbits that allow players to do things they might not normally expect in a simple skirmish game – got slowly layered on over the year and a half that followed. The Reserve-based initiative mechanics, obstacle heights, miss options, value balancing – these things came about later through playtesting.
What are the basics? In a nutshell, TactDecks is a fantasy skirmish wargame using cards as the playing pieces. It also incorporates fantasy card-game elements like light drafting, spells, and varying powers. TactDecks focuses on heroics and characters, rather than rank and file troops or constant component fiddling. It’s a highly portable skirmish game that takes place on an imaginary board and can be resolved in about 30-45 minutes. Since it’s just cards, it sets up and cleans up quick, expands easy, and is extremely player-friendly.
The basic version of the game is two-player, with each building their squad and selecting terrain from a common point pool. You choose your characters, set up a forest and/or castle keep, and resolve combat in alternating phases. Combat includes melee attacks, ranged attacks, and spells. The resolution mechanics are a standard attack vs. defense comparison, with hitting success and severity determined by an Event deck, rather than dice. Current expansion boosters also add additional castle-building options and combat strategies like trapsetting and elevated positioning to the gameplay.
What’s the most exciting bit about Tactdecks? Overall, I like the fact that TactDecks is a sandbox system, allowing for player customization while still being rigid enough to prevent too many differing rules interpretations. The basic rules are solid and mostly intuitive if you’ve played other tactical combat games – RPG dungeon-crawl scenarios in particular. Personally, I’m fond of the Reserve mechanics – the interrupt cards that make the attack-defend melees less linear in feel and more thrilling. There’s also the “miss options” in the Event deck… minor secondary effects that an attacker can execute even if they miss an attack. It helps avoid the frustration that a dice-based postitive/negative hit or miss combat system can often bring.
Will more expansion to rules and card come up? What do you have in mind? Each new Character card or Obstacle type will introduce optional rules or play styles into the game. I plan on exploring the TactDecks world more, detailing the actual beings that pull the strings. There’ll be more Unique-type cards coming into the mix as the theme develops – the machine-god OtherOnes themselves will be getting cards, as well as their fallen minions and the Anemetai invaders these minions were originally forged to destroy.
I’m considering introducing larger campaign-style adaptions, touring the world and showcasing the regions. There’s a separate culture and ethos surrounding the different spheres of influence. Some Anemetai are content to run a feudal-based kingdom, loosely similar to our late middle-ages. Others seek to expand that sphere of influence and rebuild what lifestyle they lost during the great exodus… And of course the OtherOnes will be converging to stop them, preserve the sanctity of the Land. The long-forgotten Technologists may also make an appearance. Overall, there’s somewhat of an environmental protection vs. exploitation theme I’d like to delve into further.
The games world as a business is pretty tough. What difficulties did you find on the way to producing your game? I had a three major challenges. The first was the artwork, which I was originally hoping to have additional hands with. The art snowballed as the card deck grew in size and changed a bit during playtesting. The second challenge was playtesting itself. It can be difficult finding committed testers for a completely new system. I was fortunate to have assistance on this from a few different local gaming groups, as well as my core gaming buddies. For aspiring designers, I’d give the advice of playtest as much as you can, but also try to find as many different playtesters as possible. Check into gaming clubs at your local colleges or FLGS. Sometimes you can catch people interested in trying something outside their comfort zone – especially if you can provide free materials! The third challenge I ran into was actually instituting playtester feedback. As a designer, you may often find that criticism is not uniform. Trying to find a balance between what different players want and also keeping true to your original design intent can be tough.
A card game is pretty heavy on artwork. How did you go about deciding on style and artists? The art was an intentional attempt to revisit that less-cartoony look of old-school fantasy gaming, sort of like what Defenders of the Realm is doing, but without TactDecks copying that old-school style exactly. I have a bit of a George Lucas methodology in art design – I keep my head down and just do my thing, hoping others appreciate it. I like what I like, and hopefully you like it too! Is it a Boba Fett, or is it a Jar Jar? Only you can decide…
I’ve handled all the art myself over the last couple years, tweaking and fine-tuning cards between play-testing and the first printing. Ultimately, I’d like to be sharing these responsibilities with others – I’m sure there’s some great art ideas out there that I’d never think of holed-up in my compound. In TactDecks card design, the art and mechanics both feed off each other.
What do you think are the strengths with this game? Without a doubt: Easy to learn, highly expandable, extremely portable. I’d also say fun, but that seems too obvious an answer…
Blow your own trumpet… why should people buy this game and not another? There’s so many games out there! I get a lot of adults – people that haven’t been into fantasy gaming for awhile – seeing this as a viable option for lunchbreak gaming, or for introducing something more tactical than Yu-Gi-Oh to their older kids. There’s an ease of mechanics here, a subtly scalable system that I think can appeal to many. TactDecks is something that takes a couple plays before you see how the cards interact and start to grasp the possibilities of what you can do with your squad and terrain. It’s an easily-learnable game that takes a few tries to appreciate.
The world is handled in a “de novo-fantasy” fashion, rather than a grungy or anime-inspired way. In the background of TactDecks, there’s no common tropes of fantasy gaming -elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. Instead, it’s a new fantasy world from the ground up, inspired by Tolkien, Dune, and with a little bit of Gaiman influence thrown in for good measure. The TactDecks basic set and Series 1 boosters scratch the surface of this, but the further explorations into the theme I have on tap for upcoming expansions are thrilling and compelling. I hope the game is enough of a success to warrant visiting them!
Where would you like to take this game? What are your goals? To be honest, user-generated content excites me. Growing up reading Dragon or all those fringe fanzines showed me that players know what’s best for their own game. Seeing that information shared can be exhilarating. As a player, I like nothing better than coming across interesting house rules or design variants someone else might be using for their game. It’s like forbidden knowledge, ancient secret kind of stuff! I look at it this way: As a designer, my job is to give you the car – I may offer some interesting factory parts to go along with the base model, but the truly unique vehicle comes when somebody tricks it out and puts all those after-market pieces together.
Games – board, card, RPG, whatever – can be a living, breathing thing. They’re one of the last bastions of a truly group-participatory event. The idea that you have a medium that thrives on group-participation, coupled with an easily-expandable system excites me. I’m interested in seeing what sort of content TactDecks players can generate for themselves – what ideas do they have to feed the game? As the designer, the best thing I can do is encourage this participatory experience. I think there’s a huge open field for design here, something where both official releases and user generated content can thrive.