I tried extensively to create some sort of “Destiny of Destiny” title, but it never quite clicked…
This blog has been on my mind since I first experienced the full breadth of the Awakenings set. In those early games, certain cards and interactions seemed entirely contrary to the experience that the Destiny ruleset naturally created – and that has not changed over time. After our recent podcast about game balance and the existence of foundational pillars within a ruleset, my grievances with Destiny have reached a conceptual level that is worthy, hopefully, of sharing.
If this sounds dire, it isn’t. I absolutely love this game, and believe that it would take multiple sets of entirely flawed cards to break it. Like Netrunner, the elegance and freedom of its basic rules structure allows it to withstand a beating from the card pool, and its reliance on “random” dice rolls further insulates it from consistently degenerate interactions. We are nowhere near a breaking point. The game is incredibly fun. Too fun, maybe.
But, ultimately, even the greatest rulesets can become overwhelmed by the content placed on top of them. Though I have never engaged in game development professionally, I have learned that the biggest mistake a developer can make is creating content contrary to the foundations of a ruleset. In the pursuit of groundbreaking, exciting content, it is easy to forget what makes a particular game feel like itself – or, worse, to not consider this point at all. #notrunner
Instead of complaining about these moments in Destiny, I have spent the past few months asking why they feel so out of place. This is what I have found.
Destiny revolves around a long, continuous series of actions traded between players. With each action, a player either increases or decreases their odds of winning. The two win conditions are 1) eliminating all of your opponent’s team and 2) eliminating all of your opponent’s cards – both of which are linked in impressive ways. As I use card effects or discard cards to reroll, I actually advance 2) for my opponent. If I hold cards back in order to prevent 2), my opponent can more easily accomplish 1) due to my not spending cards to control or avoid incoming damage.
How I win is a choice that is constantly being calculated. If my opponent spends a lot of cards early, I might choose to focus on defense and control in order to win by eliminating their deck. If my opponent plays conservatively, I might choose to take a few offensive gambles in order to get ahead on the damage curve. In this way, the macro strategy of the game is always in flux – even if my deck is designed for a specific win condition.
When we dive further into each individual choice, we find even more flux. The best decision is not always the right decision. While this reality exists in any game with hidden information, Destiny practically begs you to push your luck. A card currently in your hand might single-handedly change the momentum of the game if you hold it until next turn, but spending it now on a reroll might do the same. Resolving a die for damage advances one of your win conditions right now, but rerolling into a resource might give you a much stronger late game. These are all incredibly subjective choices, and each player is free to make them in whatever way they please. Most of the time, it is impossible to determine if a given choice was “right”.
I just lost a game because I needed to do three damage on the final turn and only rolled two. What if I had rerolled a 1-damage side into a 2-damage side instead of claiming the battlefield on my first turn? Would I have won that game? Claiming may have been the best choice given the information that I had, but was it the right choice? After every game that I lose, I feel that I could have won had I made different choices.
We are arriving, now, at what I consider the foundational pillar of Destiny: adaptation.
By luck or design, being in control of the outcome, of your “destiny”, is why this game is wildly addictive and remarkably fun. Feeling in control, even when play revolves around random dice rolls, is the standout triumph of the system. By trading the most basic currency of decision making, the action, back and forth, both players can constantly adapt to changing circumstances. This is absolutely critical.
I have Feel Your Anger in hand. My opponent rolls three dice. One of them is blank. I can use Feel Your Anger to remove one of the three dice. I can discard Feel Your Anger to reroll my own dice. I can save Feel Your Anger until my opponent rolls in more dice, knowing that I risk that my opponent could reroll their blank instead.
The decision tree off of a single card is massive, and I have five of them. Each die creates a myriad of decisions as well, since each could be resolved as its current side or rerolled into any of its other five sides. Out of all of these decisions, I take a single action. That action affects the valuation of every one of my opponent’s decisions, which are now recalculated and evaluated. My opponent then takes an action.
The game flows back and forth, with both players adapting after every single decision. Each has the opportunity to adapt and counter constantly. An unbelievable amount of choices have been evaluated and made by the end of the game, every one of them an opportunity to increase my odds of winning. This is the true beauty of the system.
But inevitably, every system can be pushed to failure.
If adaptation is the foundational pillar of the game, and oscillating actions maximizes the opportunity for each player to adapt most effectively, then it becomes clear where problems in development will arise. Cards and effects should rarely, if ever, remove the opportunity for an opponent to respond.
We know it when we see it for the first time. My opponent plays two Ambush upgrades on Rey and proceeds to take three uninterrupted actions. My opponent rolls ten damage in with Jango and immediately resolves. It is the only time in the game when we feel out of control, when things feel “unfair”.
That discomfort, that intuitive sense of “that doesn’t really work that way, does it?” arises when interactions fall outside of our expectations – expectations set by reading the rules, playing Starter games, and reading marketing copy. When those feelings arise, a game has delivered an experience contrary to what was promised. Cards that disrupt the natural 1-to-1 trade of actions, and so remove the ability for adaptation, create these feelings.
Take our above example with Feel Your Anger and remove the response opportunity. I have Feel Your Anger in hand. My opponent rolls three dice. One of them is blank. My opponent rerolls the blank.
I can use Feel Your Anger to remove one of the three dice. I can discard Feel Your Anger to reroll my own dice. I can save Feel Your Anger until my opponent rolls in more dice, knowing that I risk that my opponent could reroll their blank instead. That decision tree is so much less robust.
I will admit that sometimes these kinds of shakeups can be positive. Challenging players to think outside of traditional expectations often leads to exciting new lines of play. Having characters that function outside of our expectations is the easiest way to make them feel memorable and unique. If balanced correctly, cards that limit the ability for an opponent to respond are reasonable additions to the game. Ambush mostly (if not fully) accomplished this right out of the core rules (more below).
With this in mind, I have compiled a list of cards that function outside of Destiny’s foundational adaptation principle, and offered up errata that attempts to fix them in the least destructive way. If I could implement all of these changes tomorrow, I would.
Rey – Force Prodigy
Rey is the most problematic card in the game, and will cause innumerable headaches for future sets. Her ability is the only engine that can consistently generate multiple actions, leading to entire turns with no adaptation whatsoever (not to mention player confusion). A simple line like “Holdout Blaster on Rey (2 actions generated), Roll Han, Resolve 2-Disrupt” at the start of the game dramatically shifts the odds with no chance for counterplay. She severely limits all future Ambush upgrades, and breaks a huge number of interactions that are disproportionately strong when uninterrupted.
Suggested errata: After you play a non-Ambush upgrade on this character, you may take one additional action.
Explanation: Rey still feels “fast”, and is well worth her cost, but the ability for action stacking is removed. Alternatively, this ability could read “Before you play an upgrade on this character, that upgrade gains Ambush”. The obvious synergy with Han makes that very questionable, but I like that it works within established keywords.
Jango Fett – Lethal Mercenary
Jango is built around the concept of non-response, so he has to be on the list. He severely limits the design space for future Villain upgrades, and disrupts the standard response window. While his ability is somewhat minimized through counterplay, skipping character activations is rarely an acceptable choice.
That said, decks that include offensive Supports would provide a strong counter. As we get more options for counterplay of this kind, Jango might become less oppressive. Then again, Destiny never promoted itself as a game of “play your favorite supports in a saga-spanning duel between Black Markets and Jawa Sandcrawlers” so Support-heavy decks might not be desired.
Suggested errata: After an opponent activates a unique character, you may activate this character.
Explanation: Maintains the essence of the ability, but allows for far more counterplay. It also feels much more flavorful, in that Jango is not wasting his time with small bounties.
Similar to Jango, the Tusken Raider’s ability is built for non-interaction, with no chance for counterplay. Luckily, with low hit points and a weaker, non-Elite die, the actual impact is minimal. Stacking upgrades like Holocron -> Mind Probe is abusive, but that is a problem with Holocron, which should be errata’d for balance (card restrictions should also always apply, regardless of how the card enters play – but I digress). Otherwise, big upgrades are appropriately risky.
Suggested errata: None.
The only event that directly provides additional actions, Tactical Mastery creates a moment of non-interaction. Even so, it is appropriately balanced. Costing a card and a resource, with the condition to spot a red character on top, provides adequate counterplay. This card only becomes problematic if you can loop it over and over, or if cards with similar text are printed. Neither of these should happen.
Suggested errata: None.
Hit and Run
We need to talk about the biggest elephant in the room at this point: the Ambush keyword. This core element of the game directly contradicts the “constant adaptation” principle. I have to imagine that its purpose is to achieve the “shakeup” discussed above. It is meant to be a quick, surprise effect that switches up the tempo of the action exchange. As long as Ambush is treated with respect, and balanced accordingly, it does enhance the game.
Ambush is perfectly fine on Upgrades and Supports. It speeds up your turn and places a “surprise” option on the board. Cards like Shoot First and Unpredictable are more questionable, but their impact is properly limited by conditions and/or only affecting a single die. It’s a Trap is extremely close to the line, but with its cost, necessity for a “multiple dice in the pool” setup, and reliance on an opponent’s dice symbols, it gets a pass for now (though it likely just should not exist).
But then there is Hit & Run. What is the difference between Jango Fett or Tusken Raider, and Hit & Run? The latter is a much more powerful effect. Hit & Run allows you to fully control when you activate (after you have played the upgrades you need, for instance) and removes the opponent’s ability to react to the dice that you roll. This is obviously the intent, but allowing up to 5 dice to hit the table and resolve without any response is simply too much for a 0-cost card. Compared to all of the other Ambush cards, this one is too unconditional and disproportionately powerful without a response window.
Suggested errata: Change “Cost” from 0 to 1.
Explanation: There is no way to work with the text in order to bring balance. It simply needs to cost more for its potential impact on the game. This puts it in line with Tactical Mastery. Tactical Mastery is less conditional and universally usable, while Hit & Run benefits from Ambush and all future synergies that it affords (Han, etc).
In my logical marathon to find the heart of Destiny, I discovered that the constant adaptation between players is critical. Trading actions, the smallest possible transaction in the game, maximizes the potential for each player to overcome random outcomes (dice) with skill. When cards take away this back and forth action trading, that randomness starts playing a much larger role. Likewise, skill takes a backseat.
There are a few cards in Awakenings that I would change in order to address this reality. Most of them are characters, simply because those abilities are static and they affect the game every turn. I am not a game developer. I have not tested these changes. They are not designed to provide “balance” between Heroes and Villains. My sole criteria was how severely a card violates the adaptation principle.
By limiting cards that allow uninterrupted action sequences, now and in the future, Destiny will more readily empower players to control the outcome of a game – and I find that to be extremely valuable.
Sidenote: Spirit of Rebellion does not look promising in this context.