Fantasy Flight Discusses Game Balance, RPGs, and Star Wars at SDCC

Reading Time: 9 minutes

If you play board games, or have played a Star Wars tabletop role playing game (RPG), you’ve almost certainly heard of Fantasy Flight. The tabletop game company was founded in the mid ’90s, and their first game, Twilight Imperium, is famous for its epic scope (and equally epic length). While at SDCC, I was lucky enough to chat with Evan Johnson, the Marketing Manager of Fantasy Flight Games, about their Star Wars games and their approach to game design and balance.

Sean
Can you talk a little bit about what games you’re showing at Comic-Con this year?

Evan
Here at Comic-Con, we’re part of the Lucas Film pavilion, so we’ve only brought our Star Wars games. The main game we’re demoing is the second edition of X-Wing. We also have a lot of our RPG stuff for sale, and we’ve been showing the Super Star Destroyer for Star Wars Armada.

Sean
Can you tell us more about X-Wing?

Evan
X-Wing is a tabletop miniatures game, focusing on dogfights between star fighters in the Star Wars galaxy. So you’ll have a squadron of these little miniature star fighters, you’re going to be maneuvering around trying to get the advantage on your opponent, firing volleys of lasers. It has a lot of dynamic potential in the ways that you can build your squadron and the ways you can approach each battle.

Sean
Now actually, that brings up an interesting question with Star Wars and game design. When you design a game like X-Wing that is based on a licensed property, do you start with that, and set out to build a Star Wars game, or do you build a miniatures game, and then decide, based on licenses, to make it a Star Wars game?

Evan
So it’s a bit of both? The game arises from Star Wars in a large part. The Star Wars galaxy is kind of built into the very fabric of the game in a lot of ways.

Sean
So in this case you acquired the license, and then designed the overall concept?

Evan
Yeah exactly. X-Wing was our first game that we launched after getting the Star Wars license, and we knew that we wanted to really hit the ground running with that.

Sean
It looks amazing. One question I have is, when designing a game like this, that is a miniature-based game, or even one of your more traditional board games, what are some of the more challenging parts of designing the game?

Evan
Sure, so there are a number of things that have to be considered when designing the game, perhaps paramount among those is faithfulness to the universe. We could make all kinds of ships that are cool and have interesting abilities and are balanced with each other, but if they do not correctly invoke the Star Wars galaxy, then the pieces ultimately fail in that respect. Designing these pieces that evoke the Star Wars galaxy, and draw on what people know and remember from the saga, and then making sure all of these pieces are balanced with each other, that they all play well together, that it’s a fun and enjoyable experience for everyone, is the challenge.

Sean
On that topic of balance, when you’re designing a game like Star Wars X-Wing, where you have different factions, and each faction is asymmetric, how do you establish what is fair and balanced?

Evan
Sure, so it’s a number of things. We have obviously our internal designers, we have a ton of play testers that help with our game, where we share with them early files ahead of the game’s release, so they can play with these ships on the table and get a feel for you know what is balanced. Is this too good? Is this ship to easily attainable.

One interesting thing to consider with any game is that perfect balance is not only unachievable, it’s also not ideal in a lot of ways. As example, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a perfectly balanced game, but people do not play Rock, Paper, Scissors for fun, they use it to decide arguments. Having a little bit of imbalance is okay, and it’s good for a game. It’s okay if it’s a little bit of an uphill fight for Rebels to fight this other faction, if they also have an advantage against this third faction. The key thing is that, any of those matches should feel winnable for either side.

With X-Wing in particular, the developers also have another great tool for balance in that the points values, of the ships and the upgrades are governed by a companion app. And so, much like a video game where they can patch in fixes, if a certain ship or upgrade is just dominating the field, the developers can very easily go, “All right that’s going to cost a little bit more now.” Or vice versa, if nobody’s playing generic TIE Fighters for instance, they can take the price down a little bit and encourage play in that way.

Sean
And how does that design process compare the something like Citadels, which was the first Fantasy Flight game I ever owned, which doesn’t have a companion app, or way to update the game.

Evan
So obviously that one, you know, it does not have the potential for patching as it goes along. Arguably, it’s a game that doesn’t need to be as tightly balanced as a competitive tournament driven miniatures game. For all of our games, even for our board games, there is still an extensive play testing process and even then, we will release errata or rules clarifications, if there’s something that is really kind of game bending, that will clarify some of the things and help achieve that balance we’re looking for in a game.

Sean
It sounds like you rely heavily on play testing more than mathematical modeling for the balance systems. How does that work?

Evan
Play testing feedback is crucial, but there is also a lot of mathematics that goes into the testing and the balancing of the games. A very easy example that I can think of, with Descent: Journeys in the Dark, one of our games. Every hero has a number of skills. You have obviously your combat stats and what not, based on your weapons, but then they’ll have a number of attributes that will be tested, like might, willpower, and so on. It was four numbers and they all added up to, for every hero, they added up to 13 or something like that. And every hero had it broken down differently, some of them were very well rounded across the board, some were very strong in one attribute and weak correspondingly in others. But they all were balanced, because they always added up to 13 for instance. That’s obviously a very simple example, because that’s just a tiny piece of a system in Descent. But there’s definitely a lot of math that goes into games as well as all the play testing.

Sean
One thing I’ve always thought of when I think of Fantasy Flight is that, sometimes your games are really straightforward, like Citadels, where the game is easy to teach. And then there are the games like Star Wars Rebellion where the manual is, what, a quarter of the box? When you set out to design a game, do you establish ease of instruction, time to play, and those kind of characteristics when you start designing it. Or do you design an experience first, and then work backwards developing rules and time targets?

Evan
We definitely want to have a variety of games that cover a variety of different play times, degrees of complexity, all of those different things, to fill different gaps in that market. So we want to have Star Wars games like Rebellion, that take like three to four hours to play in their entirety. That offers big, huge, sprawling maps.

Whereas we also want to have games like X-Wing that are playable in a little bit over an hour and really zooms in on the dogfight between these two star fighter squadrons. And then there’s games like Outer Rim, where you’re a smuggler, traveling across the outer rim of the galaxy, it plays in maybe two hours, you’re really getting into the head of one of these iconic smugglers and bounty hunters, and gathering fame and smuggling goods. And then you know obviously there’s role playing games in Star Wars galaxy, which kind of take that to the extreme where you can play campaigns which last months or years as the same character. So really just having a wide catalog that hits all these different levels of complexity and play time and player involvement.

Sean
And if I can pivot just a little bit to the RPGs for a second. On the topic of design, when we talk about designing an RPG, are you talking about designing the core system or are you talking about designing like the story modules?

Evan
Both. The design of the core systems undergoes extensive play testing obviously.

Sean
Do you always build your own RPG systems or do you ever like adapt existing systems like FATE or GURPS, or another type thing?

Evan
We’ve certainly inherited systems, like a good example is we re-released the West End, Star Wars: The Role Playing Game, which was released back in the ’80s. We re-released that and we changed, well, literally nothing about the books. We put in I think a one-page ad in the back of each book and we put them in this really nice slip case that we designed, but other than that it was just painstakingly recreating what West End games had made all that time ago. And then you compare that to the Star Wars RPG, where we have the narrative dice system, design by Jay Little, which was our own system built from scratch to support this game.

Sean
What makes the determination of if a game is going to get a new system? How do you decide what system would fit what RPG?

Evan
Almost all of our RPGs are our own in-house systems. The West End Games RPG is more of an exception, because it was built as an homage. We built as this 30th Anniversary Edition, that’s what it says on the slip case, heralding back to the Star Wars RPG of yore. But pretty much any RPG that we build in-house has our own system.

Sean
Is the in-house system common? If I go from a Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG game to another Fantasy Flight RPG, are the systems largely identical?

Evan
Yes and no. We have the Star Wars RPG, we also have our Genesis system, which is a generic role playing system basically, and that takes the Star Wars RPG’s system, that narrative dice system, and changes up the symbols a little bit but basically it works essentially the same. But then you can compare that to Legend of the Five Rings RPG that we have, which draws elements from the narrative dice system, but also draws from the original Legend of Five Rings RPG that people have played across four editions prior to us acquiring that license. So our LO5R RPG is unique fusion of what has gone before and what we’ve had a lot of success with in the Star Wars RPG and Genesis realms.

Sean
Then, just to build on that, which of your RPG systems do you think are the most beginner accessible verses the ones that are kind of more crunchy, more number driven, if somebody wants to try out one of your games?

Evan
Yeah, so we have a number of different RPGs. I would say that, one of our most beginner accessible is our series called The End of the World. In that series you are playing actually as yourself, we make an RPG stand out version of you in this game, and you are just faced with an apocalyptic scenario, right? Like the end of the world by, could be zombies, could be Ragnarök, could be alien invasion, all these different things and you just have to survive.

The rules on that are very very easy, it just uses simple D6s. It’s very basic, but also a lot of fun, especially for these crazy one shots where everyone’s just going to die at the end because it’s the end of the world, but that is super easy for people to get into. For all of our others we’ve actually eased the path to entry by releasing these beginners’ games for the Star Wars RPG, as well as for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG, where you get these $30 kind of beginner game boxes that come with pre-made characters so you don’t have to do too much with character generation, you can just kind of slip into the shoes of this character that’s already built for you. And there’s a pre-written adventure in there that walks both the players through how to play and the game master through how to game master the game.

So End of the World is probably the easiest, and then we have the Star Wars RPG, and Genesis in the middle. And the Legend of the Five Rings RPG is a bit more crunchy than those.

Sean
Is it a spreadsheet game?

Evan
Not quite so much. It certainly does not reach the extent of DnD 3.5 or something like that, but it is more crunchy our Star Wars RPG.

Sean
Shifting back to design, for those RPGs, when you want to then develop pre-written story content, do you hire writers for individual expansions, or do you have staff writers that generally will add those modules?

Evan
We do both. We do have a full RPG team in-house, that deals with all the writing, and editing, and crafting the stories for all these RPGs, but then we will turn to freelance writers on the outside, people who have a lot of experience writing these RPGs and working with that, so we’ll use both to get that content.

Sean
Well, that exhausts my questions—do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Evan
Just that we’ll have a lot of exciting news to share at Gen-Con in the next few weeks.

Sean
All right! Thank you so much for your time.

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