How Epic Duels Made Me Into a Game Designer

Cage Match! The MMA Fight Game should be available on Amazon next week, and since it’s Amazon, you can have it in your hands just days after ordering.  It will be on sale for $20 and I’d greatly appreciate the support.  I’ve created free Epic Duels and now Unmatched materials for years, and sales of Cage Match! would be very encouraging towards continuing with all of my board game endeavors, which I’m about to elaborate upon.

You might not realize this but if you’ve ever created a deck for Epic Duels, then you’re a game designer.  You’ve essentially worked with another game designer to create something original.  For sure, Sophist, who has created a Game of Thrones set and Darth Wolverine, who created a Marvel set, are game designers, among other Epic Duelers.  But, in my opinion, if you’ve so much as tweaked someone else’s deck, you’re a game designer.  Being a game designer doesn’t require to invent something from scratch, but some Epic Duels deck designers, like Rich Pizann, Mike Maloney and Corey Andalora, have gone on to do exactly that.  The Epic Duels community is a community of game designers who often collaborate.

In my case, designing Epic Duels decks is only part of the story.  I’ve been thinking about what took me so long to design something original and I think it comes down to, I just didn’t know anyone who was doing it.  I didn’t know it was a thing one could do outside of a tiny group of people employed by Hasbro.  I’ve also been in some fairly intense careers that would have frowned upon any sort of serious secondary endeavor like game design.  Designing decks for Epic Duels was light enough to not be a “serious secondary endeavor” whereas, setting up a company and designing and publishing Cage Match is pretty darn involved.  I switched to a lighter career about 2 years ago, making this possible.  My current coworkers actually think it’s cool what I’m doing and have been very supportive.  I can’t see past coworkers doing the same.

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Even as a child playing with toys, I’d think of ways to “game-ify” the interaction of toys, setting up rules to resolve conflicts.  When I was around 9 or 10 years old, I designed a game around Transformers toys, where you battled by using the stats on the backs of the boxes and throwing dice.  It was a hit, and kids from around brought over their toys to do battle.  During middle school, my friends and I would spend our afternoons playing in a park that had a large tornado slide.  I invented a sport of sorts called “Chutes & Ladders,” the goal being to climb up the slide while the other team would slide down it and try to take you with them.

Years later, our group got into the game Buck Rodgers: Battle for the 25th Century, a great but under-the-radar strategy game.  It’s in the vein of Axis & Allies and Fortress America, but I think Buck Rodgers is the best of them.  I liked it so much I bought a second set and created an entire expansion to include the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, adding to the original game’s battle for the inner planets.  When I was a teenager, when role playing games were big, I soft-published a role playing game based on the Saint Seiya anime and manga, and it became the only game my playing group played for a time.  So, I’ve kind of been at this game design thing for a while now.

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Then in undergrad, I got into Magic The Gathering.  I also met the guys who would later form the Geektopia group, CageyBB and Ian.  We started out with poker, where we invented many of our own card games.  Then, we started playing Monopoly, and later, Illuminati.  Two years after undergrad, I left my corporate job to have a go at a Hollywood career.  I don’t recommend it.  Hollywood runs on the backs of assistants and interns.  It’s a 24/7 lifestyle that pays squat.  There was no time for board games or anything other than Hollywood.  Still, my friends and I would meet around the holidays to play games.  Then, in 2002, Ian said, “my aunt and uncle game me this Star Wars Epic Duels game for Christmas, let’s try it out.”  I remarked that I had seen it but it didn’t look great, but let’s try it anyways.  After one game, we were all very impressed.  By the end of the week, we were all hooked.  Epic Duels, and it ended up being the gateway game for me, both into game playing and game design.

Within months, I joined the Yahoo! group (adios) one of the first, and certainly liveliest, of online forums I had ever joined, and we were already talking about creating add-on materials.  I was a heavy participant in creating the Bounty Hunters decks, a mix-and-match set that included IG-88, Bossk, Dengar, 4-LOM and Zuckuss.  Eventually I met Rich Pizann, since we both lived in the L.A. area.  Rich created the original .PSD templates for original SWED decks, which the entire community relied upon before Corey Andalora’s Deck Designer.  Rich also had experience modding and painting figures, and showed me the ropes.  Together, we put together the classic Luminara & Barriss deck and created figures for by modding Leia and Zam Wessell figures.  This started me on my deck design journey.  I also became a leader in our community of game designers, and still lead that community to this day.  That’s why this blog exists.

Designing decks had already helped me develop some key skills & knowledge.  I learned to use Google images to find the imagery I needed.  I learned to use Adobe InDesign to layout my decks, another necessity before Deck Designer.  I learned of my preference to use 110lb. card stock with color printers, which I use to this day for prototype components.  Maybe 5 years after Epic Duels, and through Epic Duels, I met the 1670 group and we dove into Star Wars Miniatures and started going to Gen Con.  I also discovered and played a ton of Stone Age, Race for the Galaxy, and Puerto Rico.  I got into modding and painting figures, which came in handy when I got into Last Night on Earth and Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game.

With Luminara as an exception, my early decks were more like collections of interesting cards that coherent decks.  Then we had a breakthrough of sorts when Ian came up with a concept for a deck but needed the right character to apply it to, which ended up being Quinlan Vos.  This was the beginning of what I’ve sometimes called instilling each deck with the ability to “do something”.  I now call it the “fun heart of the deck”.  This was really a key change:  You can choose your favorite SW character and give him a set of cards that reflects some things he can do with fun quotes, and have a decent deck.  But, in order to have a really good deck, the deck has to do something unique and interesting.  Quinlan Vos is a clear example of doing something unique and interesting, as are most of the decks that followed.  I can come up with a set of 12 cards at any time, but it got to a point where, if I couldn’t find something unique and interesting for the deck to do, I wouldn’t bother making one.  We talked about a Cin Drallig deck with 7 lightsaber forms for years but I didn’t pursue it until I came up with the idea that he’d train his padawans — now that is fun, unique and interesting.  I had ideas for Ponda Baba & Dr. Evazan for years, but I didn’t pursue it until I had the idea to put them with Greedo for a unique and interesting, 3-personality bounty hunter deck.  Our designs were already popular, but they reached another level with the insight that decks have to have a “fun heart of the deck” and I think this is what differentiated our designs from the rest.

The “fun heart” is also a key element of designing original games, which I’ve blogged about.  I carried these concepts into what was my first original game since I was a teenager, Lord of the Rings Epic Duels.  Now, of course, LOTRED is based on SWED so it’s not exactly original but nonetheless, I consider the Transfomers version of the game to be a new, different game, not an expansion.  If you take any time to examine the LOTRED set, you’ll find it’s quite original and different from SWED, even though it obviously has a lot of similarities.  It gets even more original in the Armies expansion, which broke considerable new ground with the Nazgul and Uruk-hai Army decks.  Although no new ground was broken with The Hobbit, I took care to give each deck its own unique feel.  Bilbo has an invisibility theme going on while Azog tries out some new “power up” cards.  Smaug has his own thing going on and isn’t quite like any other deck out there.

So after 10 years of designing some highly popular decks for Epic Duels and the LOTRED game, multiple friends suggested I start designing original games.  I was battling with depression at the time, so I wasn’t as productive as I otherwise might have been and completely missed the early days of Kickstarter that I might have cashed in on, but I was able to develop a few original designs.  Through the design of Santa Fe and later Convoy, I adapted the processes I used to build Epic Duels decks, to build original game prototypes:  I used Google Images and pasted imagery to Word documents, printed them out onto 110lb. cardstock, and play tested them — all skills I gained from creating decks for Epic Duels.  To my credit, Santa Fe has a clear “fun heart of the game” that I was going for.  I didn’t pull it off but, because it has a “fun heart” concept, I may dust it off some day and try again.  Convoy does too, but since it was tied to the Mad Max Fury Road theme, I’ll only bring that one back out if there’s more Mad Max in our future (and my guess is that there will be).

That brings us to 2017.  At my wedding, I’m talking to an old friend from high school about resurrecting that old Saint Seiya RPG that I had created, with his help.  Following the wedding, we chatted about getting together with a third friend to discuss some ideas for bringing it back.  If you don’t know Saint Seiya, both the anime and manga are very combat-oriented.  The Saints aren’t the X-Men, who mix skills and knowledge with mutant powers.  Saints are like Itchy & Scratchy from the Simpsons:  They fight, they fight, they fight they fight they fight, fight fight fight, fight fight fight!  The RPG was similar:  We’d basically explore around, looking for other saints to fight and then, we’d fight them with the ol’ system of, “Roll d20 for initiative.  Roll to strike.  Roll to dodge.  Ok, you did 1d6 damage”.  At that point in time, I considered myself a game designer, so I wasn’t going to just show up to meet a couple of guys with nothing in hand.  Thinking we needed a more dynamic combat system, I sort of on-the-fly designed a rock-paper-scissors system where you gain “cosmo,” which you could later spend on your big saint powers like the Pegasus Meteor Fist.  The “build energy with small moves and spend them on big moves” idea is one I borrowed from MMORPGs, World of Warcraft and Star Wars the Old Republic.

We play tested it and it was success.  I play tested it with a different group of friends and it was again a success.  I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I kept developing the game, because by then, you know, I was a game designer.  After a while, I had a combat system I really liked, and felt it would be squandered because A) there was no way I could get a license to Saint Seiya and B) even if I did, nobody would care.  So I thought about other themes to which I could apply the combat system and MMA was a great match, both in terms of the application of rock-paper-scissors combat, and because MMA is rapidly growing in popularity.  I got laid off from my job in late 2017, which resulted in a tough year for the family but also turned out to be a blessing.  Not only did it provide an immediate bounty of time with which to pursue my new idea for a MMA game, but it resulted in me switching my career from one that was very time-intensive and draining, to one that is less of those things, allowing me enough space to pursue designing and publishing my own games.  I’ve elaborated more upon the Cage Match! process in this post.  Along with my post about my name, this is essentially the third and final post about my personal journey from Epic Duels add-on guy to original game designer and publisher.

It wasn’t that Epic Duels got me into game design so much as it got me back into game design.  I think being a game designer is just who I am, and have been since an early age, but I needed something like Epic Duels to wake that part of myself back up after a long sleep and many distractions.  Furthermore, although it took some years to become cognizant that decks need a “fun heart,” I had already instilled that in my very first design in Luminara & Barriss.  I like to think that deck shows some aptitude for creating good decks and hopefully, good games.  It’s still one of my favorite decks to play with and it was basically, completely original, not based on anything else.  I think it’s important to be able to generate original stuff without relying on others, but there’s also nothing wrong with taking someone else’s idea and making it better.  For example, it was Rich who came up with the 4-arm concept for Grievous but in my opinion, I perfected that design.  I think this can apply to original games as well.  I will get my space pirates game going at some point, and my plan is to base it heavily off of other pirate or space exploration games like Merchants & Marauders and Firefly, fixing what I see as the problems with those games and creating the perfect pirate game in space.

For now, designing decks for Epic Duels has led to designing a dueling game with 12 original fighters, much like Epic Duels.  However, I have no doubt you’ll find that Cage Match! The MMA Fight Game is completely original and unique, with a “fun heart of the game” of trying to out-guess your opponent while applying thematic MMA moves.  What will likely be the next game, Watering Hole, is completely different, a Euro with a bar theme.

Thanks to everyone who visits this blog, and for the kind comments and emails I’ve received along the way, all have encouraged me that I’m maybe, possibly, on the right path.

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