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INTERVIEW: Battle of Helm’s Deep

February 19, 2003 at 9:50 am by Flinch  - 

Hey gang…Lao of Gondor here with a major exclusive!

Have you ever been curious to learn exactly how things evolve in a trading card game? Are you interested about the future plans of our beloved Lord of the Rings TCG? Well then, here’s your chance to sneak an exclusive peek behind the curtains at Decipher and see why their slogan “The Art of Great Games?” fits as nicely as a Hobbit in a Hobbit-hole.

I recently had the great opportunity to pick the brains of senior Lord of the Rings TCG designers Tom Lischke and Joe with a host of questions regarding the soon to be released Battle of Helm’s Deep expansion (and more).

Here’s what they had to say:

Lao: During the design stage of Battle of Helm’s Deep, how would you describe a typical day on the job? Who would you meet with and what would be the goals of the day?

Joe: Depends on the day. Some were spent on our own, figuring out a minor mechanic or getting an individual card to work. Other days involved meeting with other designers in order to pass some roadblock we’ve come across. Other days we could be spending much of our time with our lead playtesters listening to their feedback on cards.

Tom: Or playing a few games with those playtesters.

Lao: What was the most difficult obstacle to overcome designing Battle of Helm’s Deep? Do you find it difficult to keep ideas fresh and exciting to avoid certain design pitfalls and redundancies?

Tom: Definitely Gollum. We probably tried six or seven different approaches on him. Normally, there will be incremental improvements on a given issue, but with Gollum, we were back at the drawing board several times. Frustrating, but it all turned out ok.

Joe: Yeah, it?s safe to say that Gollum was the big obstacle for the set. I wouldn’t describe him as difficult though. It’s more of a challenge that I enjoy working on everyday. Whenever something new comes along, I enjoy trying to create something new and fresh for it.

Tom: I?m glad someone enjoyed it, ha ha.

Lao: Is it important for you to work closely with the actual graphic designers in order to achieve a successful synergy between mechanical design and artistic design?

Joe: We don’t communicate with them on a daily basis, but when the time comes around for image selections, we do tend to be in contact with them a lot.

Tom: We also did a fair amount of work with them on the Gollum templates. That is actually when we have most of our contact with them, when it is time to come up with a new template.

Lao: Was there a significant amount of unused material from The Two Towers premiere set and did any of those extra resources spill over into designing Helm’s Deep?

Joe: Absolutely – most of the Sauron Orc cards from the set were originally designed for The Two Towers premiere set. There were other cards that got pushed forward here and there, but the entire Sauron culture was the major block of cards that got pushed forward.

Tom: We also pushed some of the effects-heavy shots, as we didn?t see them until very late in the design process for Towers. Those will be sprinkled all over Battle of Helm?s Deep and Ents of Fangorn.

Lao: Do you feel that there is more at stake now in designing expansions sets like this; trying to anticipate the players’ demands?

Joe: I don’t really see it as ‘more’ at stake. I feel a lot is at stake every time we put out a set. We want players to be excited about the cards and it’s our job to make that happen.

Tom: I?d agree with that. Every set we try to get a little better with how we do things, give players good gameplay.

Lao: How often do you use direct examples from either the books or the films as inspiration and direction for card design?

Tom: It is pretty unavoidable. At the most basic level, every card has to have a picture on it, and the gameplay can?t be completely unrelated to that image. That being said, it is usually really fun to do cards that are based off of my favorite moments from the book or movies.

Joe: I’m not sure I can give an actual percentage. I do know there are times when I want to try and capture a certain story element in a card, and other times cards are created solely for mechanical reasons. It does happen though, quite a lot in the sets I help design.

Lao: Where do you draw inspiration for the creation of mechanics such as DAMAGE +1, VALIANT, FIERCE, AMBUSH, SITE CONTROL and other such dynamics?

Tom: We try to separate out the different cultures in the story. Each of them needs to have their own feel and these keywords are one of the tools to accomplish this.

Joe: This actually somewhat connects to the previous question. Site control had a strong story feel behind it. We wanted to capture the feeling of minions ‘swallowing’ Rohan. On the other side of the spectrum you have something like ambush which is more mechanical-based. The cultural strength of Raiders revolves more around pool adding, and ambush is one of the ways they accomplish this.

Lao: How many different creative teams are involved in creating a card set either as large as the 365 card Two Towers premiere set or the smaller 128 card Battle of Helm’s Deep expansion?

Joe: Let’s see, we have a team designing the cards, a team playtesting the cards, a team creating titles and lore for the cards, and a team working on the images for the cards. That makes 4. Tom did I miss any?

Tom: No, I think that covers it.

Lao: What was the most outrageous card ever designed for Battle of Helm’s Deep? In other words – what was the one card which at the concept stage seemed like a great idea, but over the course of the development became far too powerful?

Joe: Others may recall things more outrageous, but for me I had a companion that said, ‘Each time you assign this companion to a wounded minion, you may heal him.’ This basically read that this companion took no damage from minions with zero damage bonuses! The lifespan of this card was less than 48 hours.

Tom: I liked the bomb that exerts every character. Oh wait, that made it into the set.

Lao: When you’re not designing cards, how do you like to spend your free time?

Tom: I?m a devout fan of the Packers, Brewers (mourn for me) and the St. Louis Blues. I?ll also muck around with the occasional computer game.

Joe: Playing cards, whether it be TCGs or Poker, and the occasional night out with friends.

Lao: Did you choose to release the WARGS and WARG-RIDERS in Battle of Helm’s Deep as opposed to The Two Towers premiere set, or was this a decision made by New Line Cinema in order keep certain elements secret until the film’s release?

Joe: Pretty sure it was New Line’s call on this one.

Tom: Even if we had wanted to do it for The Two Towers, the effects shots just weren?t in our hands in time. Not a big deal, as there were plenty of other things to show.

Lao: Do the card images supplied by New Line Cinema play a large part in the overall concept behind the card? Or are the images you choose for the card complimentary in spirit rather than in function?

Joe: Depends. Most of the time image selection comes after we design a card, but sometimes we’ll see an image and gain an idea from it, in which case image selection comes first.

Tom: Yeah, it really does depend on the situation. A general rule is that if we do a mechanic that involves there or four cards, we?ll do the card first, and match the images later. If we have a picture of just one important character, we sometimes design a card around that picture.

Lao: What was your inspiration behind creating the dynamic among Frodo (Master of the Precious), Sam (Nice Sensible Hobbit) and Smeagol (Slinker)?

Tom: Uh, sure. We wanted to give players the tools to put together a Frodo/Sam/Sméagol deck. We didn?t want to spoon-feed them a strategy, but just let them consider the strategy. This really dictated that the functions on them had to be at least somewhat compatible.

Lao: With Battle of Helm’s Deep, there are now a significant number of cards that enhance the corruption strategy. Was there a consensus among the designers to elevate burden-building and why?

Joe: I think burdens took a back seat in the Two Towers premiere set, so I know I personally wanted to bring it out more as a theme in this set.

Lao: Victory through corruption has never been hailed as a “winning” deck archetype compared to throughout the Tournament circuit. Do you think that corruption is now powerful enough to compete in the tournament scene?

Joe: While it’s definitely possible, I think you’ll see more people using burdens as a trigger for other powerful cards, such as Gollum.

Tom: The thing about corruption and burdens is that it doesn?t have to be a game ender by itself. It is enough that it slows an opponent down and denies them tactical options by attaching a burden cost to them.

Lao: The Easterlings from The Two Towers premiere set and now Gollum: Stinker from Battle of Helm’s Deep truly enhance the corruption strategy more than ever before. Was this a conscious design decision on you part – in order to emulate how the ring weighs even heavier on Frodo in The Two Towers.

Tom: I?ll let Joe talk about this, as he is the Easterling guy.

Joe: I never thought of it on that level, but like many things in LotR TCG we try to emulate certain story aspects. Since Easterlings and Gollum were two separate ‘burdensome’ scenarios to Frodo in the movie, you now have these two themes coming together to simulate the greater burden Frodo now bears in this movie.

Lao: Are you concerned about how powerful certain Fellowship of the Ring expansion cards like Ulaire Enquea, and Enduring Evil have now become due to the new enhancements created for burden-building strategies?

Joe: Not really, in fact we’re excited that these cards will get a second look due to new burden strategies in this set.

Tom: It is fine if new cards give some new and different dimension to past cards. It just makes deck building more fun.

Lao: Why were Legolas and Eowyn chosen to represent the pre-constructed Starter Decks for the Battle of Helm’s Deep expansion?

Joe: We wanted a Rohan and an Elven companion for the starters this set, since it has a Helm’s Deep feel to it. Legolas then became an obvious choice. We had already used Théoden and Éomer was slated to be in Ents of Fangorn, so that left Éowyn.

Lao: Beginning with Battle of Helms Deep, Starter Decks will now come with three FIXED Alternate Image rare cards as opposed to the 3 randomly inserted rare cards. Why was this decision made?

Joe: We wanted to have more control over the starters. When new players were buying starters they’d get rare cards that would be little to no help to them at that point in their LotR TCG life. Now those new players will receive rares that not only help them, but will be a whole lot of fun to play with!

Tom: One thing to keep in mind is that the primary role for the starters is to help new players take a jump into the game. It is nice if old players buy a copy or two to get the AI cards or the premiums, but we really need to focus those for new players. Also, the $10 purchase level is a big deal, and this is the only way we could reach that.

Lao: This is Orlando’s (Bloom) second time gracing the cover of the coveted Starter Deck box. Is it safe to say that Decipher is aware of Legolas’ appeal to the youth?specifically female youth?market?

Joe: Actually I don’t think this has anything to do with that. I’m sure you’ll see everyone getting their fair share of starter deck fame in the future.

Tom: That being said, if someone is going to appear more than their fair share, why wouldn’t it be Orlando?

Lao: Several ROHAN Companion cards with the Keyword VALIANT have the ability to play possessions after the Fellowship Phase. Does Valiant somehow relate directly to this ability and will this be revealed in Battle of Helm’s Deep?

Joe: It’s somewhat related, but not directly. It’s a very loose relationship.

Lao: What are the more prevalent criticisms about the card game up to this point and what steps have you taken in order to fix them for the current and future expansions?

Joe: I feel the biggest issue we have at the moment is a tournament environment without enough different deck types. Players are frustrated at having to play the same decks over and over again. Since we want players to be excited about tournaments and other events, we are looking into ways to create this excitement.

Tom: That is really the big one. We are dealing with a Free Peoples half decks where players just play the best cards from each culture. We have to undo that a little bit (have a look at Gríma).

Lao: If somebody asked you, “What’s the hardest thing about learning how to play this game?” – what would you tell them?

Tom: Hard to say. I don?t think there is any one thing that really sticks out in my mind.

Joe: Understanding the adventure path. The path isn’t even that complex to begin with, but from what I’ve heard it’s the thing people are having to think twice about when learning the game.

Lao: After Battle of Helm’s Deep comes Ents of Fangorn. What can we expect to see in that expansion?

Tom: Fell Beasts.

Joe: Cave Trolls, a Balrog and other large minions.

Lao: Have you started the process of designing Return of the King and its subsequent expansions or is that still too far down the line?

Joe: In my head it’s already begun, but nothings on paper yet.

Tom: We?ll pick that up right after Ents wraps up at the end of February.

Lao: Tom, Joe…thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I know that all of the loyal readers on TOR.n’s Gaming Havens will truly appreciate this opportunity to really understand how dedicated The Lord of the Rings TCG design team truly is. It is comforting to know that Professor Tolkien’s literary work and Peter Jackson’s visionary film are in such respectful and trustworthy hands. Keep up the great work. We can’t wait to see what’s next!

Tom/Joe: My pleasure!

Posted in Old Special Reports on February 19, 2003 by

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