We just finished up a nearly two month process designing, testing, and producing our recently announced Cosmic Tokens line, compatible with the Marvel Champions LCG. We rarely take the time to share more about the process and why we approach these kinds of projects in the way that we do (obsessively), so this blog is a step toward fixing that.
This entire process started a few minutes after Marvel Champions was announced at Gen Con. Right after the InFlight report, we headed to the FFG press hour for a quick demo, and an hour later we were playing our very first game on stream. My first comment to Steven after the game was, “I had no idea you were that close to being knocked out of the game!”
With wide eyes, he replied, “yeah, I had no clue how much health you had either.”
From behind all the cameras and computers, Jon called out, “It was impossible to tell what was happening from the stream!”
Even though there would be a lot of discussions between this moment and the development process officially beginning, this is where it all started.
Given these comments, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the first problem we aimed to solve was the information hidden by the dials. After many discussions, prototypes, and concepts, we decided to cut them completely. Early prototype pictures (like those above) rightfully raised questions and concerns.
To understand this decision and the hundreds of others we made throughout the development process, it’s important to understand why we create products like these in the first place. With everything we do, we’re looking to optimize the experience of playing games across the table from other people – and that means different things to different people.
Trust me when I say it would have been a lot easier, faster, and cheaper for us to create a few thematic designs, engrave them into acrylic, and cut them into similarly thematic shapes. While the tokens yielded from this kind of approach might be helpful if you’re just looking to ‘bling out’ your table, it doesn’t make the experience of playing the game as engaging and meaningful as possible. In other words, we couldn’t really imagine a less enticing project.
We’ve been making tokens like this for nearly eight years, and have always started with the understanding that cheaply and efficiently tracking a game is generally available with Core Set components. If you’re like us though and you’re looking to really dive into the theme and fully soak up every one of the too-few hours you plan to play the Marvel Champions LCG with your friends over the next decade, a different approach is necessary.
Our first step when we start working on components is to play the game they will be compatible with using the standard components. While we’re playing these early games, we look for anything that might distract from the story being told on the table. We ask a ton of questions, like what takes us out of the game? What’s unclear? What makes us feel like we are managing a game instead of playing it?
Beyond our initial realization that dials made it difficult to see health totals, we quickly recognized how moving the dials were not capturing the action and excitement of the game. They made us feel incredibly mechanical, as if we were temporarily running a spreadsheet so we could get back to the fun of the game. There was nothing worse than landing a Swinging Web Kick and simply taking a number from 49 to 41. There was no gravity to it, no visual indicator that “Spider-Man just wrecked this guy!” Likewise, taking a swing from Ultron just fell flat – so, we ran a few quick prototypes to get a feel for what it would be like to track villain and hero damage with a board and tokens, ala our Mythos Token line.
From my first game with those early prototypes, I was convinced. There was something about adding and subtracting health that felt right. It was also great to be able to see how much health every hero had with a quick glance.
At first, we tracked a villain’s health just like we did the heroes. We would add damage counters every time we attacked the villain. But this immediately felt counterintuitive, since villains just felt like big punching bags without an indication of how big and terrifying they were. We tried it the other way around, setting the villain’s health with tokens and then removing them as we did damage. That felt completely right, and synced up with the removal of threat that also happens when heroes “attack” via scheming. When you do good things, you remove tokens from the villain cards. Consistent.
It’s a bit hard to explain, but I know the moment you swing in for a One-Two Punch with She-Hulk and remove 6-8 health worth of tokens, watching the villain transform in front of your eyes, you’ll understand completely. As with the hero side of the table, we could now intuitively get a sense of how well we were doing just by glancing at the villain board. If the villain had a lot of tokens on their board, we had a long way to go. We appreciated how the pressure mounted as we got closer and closer to clearing out all of those health tokens, even as the threat tokens were stacking up.
Once we had the villains and heroes being managed by boards, the main scheme stuck out like a sore thumb. Threat tokens were quickly covering the art and rules text and we were hitting a consistent “square tokens” theme, so we made a few more prototypes and put a board on the main scheme, too. Steven made a comment after our first game using boards for everything that I’ll never forget, “Did you notice that neither of us asked each other how much health or threat was left that entire game?”
Confident about using boards and tokens instead of dials, it was time to really hone in on the actual design of these components. We had been toying with a process that would let us use multiple colors on each side of our tokens for a few years, but couldn’t ever quite get it right or in a position for actual production due to cost. With components inspired by a comic book though, we knew if we were ever going to solve this problem, this was the time.
We got to work and what resulted was even better than I imagined. You can see one of our first prototypes above – probably good enough – but they just kept getting better and better with each iteration. The biggest hurdle was figuring out how to actually manufacture using this process… It took us a few weeks and countless prototypes, but we eventually got there!
What happened next still gets my adrenaline pumping. Realizing everything on the table would be managed by a board and knowing we could use multiple colors, what if we designed the boards and tokens to look like panels from a comic book? Like really look like panels from a comic book – with fully unique, stylistically-appropriate illustrations (without simply ripping off other artists or copyrights).
This is when the set really took off. We always want our components to showcase the games they are compatible with, but never to be the center of attention. Designing the tokens as panels of a comic book let us perfectly frame every hero, villain, and scheme (see Ultron above).
This led us to exploring ideas we had never considered for the tokens. For example, what if the threat tokens let you piece together the story as the game went? This meant instead of designing one threat token, we designed six. Each of these threat tokens is pictured below, with the 1’s on the front telling the first part of a story and 2’s on the back telling the next.
After all was said and done, we went through more designs, prototypes, and iterations with this line of products than any we’ve ever created. The final set itself has 30 unique designs! Having personally play-tested these components more than any other product we’ve made, I can say with absolute confidence that you are going to love playing the Marvel Champions LCG with these components.
Our team, especially Jonathan (who designed everything) and Steven (who managed the process), poured their hearts and souls into these components. To everyone who commented throughout the process – on pictures and live streams – know that it was extremely encouraging. There is a lot of frustration, pressure, and insecurity when working on a creative project like this, and it means everything to hear positive feedback along the way.
To everyone who ends up purchasing these products (available here), thank you, thank you, thank you. We care about all of this so much, and your purchases allow us to explore what is possible – be it products, content, local retail, online retail, or undiscovered opportunities – and for that we’re all incredibly grateful.