This Strategy-Note article was written by Tom Lischke (Senior Game Designer - Decipher, Inc) and was published first on "Lord of the Rings Online (lotrtcg.decipher.com)".
For this addition of designer notes, I thought I'd start by talking a little bit about the templates that our artists created for the Gollum culture.
Fish Bones as Art
Actually, the TCG Studio's part of that process is pretty easy. At the beginning of each set, we meet with the Art department, typically Joe Boulden and Jeff Hellerman, and go over the basics. Will there be any special cards, like the Balrog? What color might work for a new template (that one is, of course, them telling us what to expect, not usually us suggesting colors)? Things like that. Then we sit back and wait to see what they will produce. I've said this before, but I think our Art department is the best in the business at template work . . . catching the perfect feel for a culture.
Lets go over some of the features of the Gollum templates.
- Every wrinkle on the template background is hand painted using Joe's hand as a model.
- The blue highlights of the template are sampled from the blue of Gollum's eyes.
- Almost all of the bones around the picture frame are rabbit and fish bones (due to Gollum's diet). There is one exception. Can you tell which of the bones is a human (Hobbit?) finger bone? Notice that the bones on the Shadow template are far more bleached as if they had been weathering for hundreds of years.
- Following the fish theme, fish bones make up the texture space under the picture box on verb cards. Also, on all of the templates, the card type box is made up of fish scales (mmm, fishes).
- The watermark for the gametext area is the fire writing from the Ring. Notice that on the Shadow version of the template, the border has actually been corrupted away, and that the fire writing is darker (Joe said "more bruised"). The veins from Gollum's skin are also present as detail in the gametext area. Finally, in one of the more gruesome elements, the border of the gametext area is welts from Gollum's back (yow).
Lets talk a little bit about how Gollum and Sméagol are played in the game. Obviously, the fact there can be essentially two versions of Gollum in play at the same time makes the culture unique (er, no pun intended) in the game. It took us a while to get there though.
The original design files for Gollum have both the minion version and companion version named Gollum. We also included some rules and text that allowed players to replace an opponent's Gollum with one of their own (essentially making him switch sides). Star Wars CCG veterans out there will note that this is similar to what was done with Lando back in the old days. In fact, the first time that the file went back to the playtesters, they immediately raised concerns about the viability of such a system due to the lessons history had taught us. It is tough to convince players to use a card that might be yoked out from under them at any point. A designer can do one of two things. First, they can add protection cards (if you play card B, card A can't be taken away). Who wants the complexity or card commitment though? Or, they can make the strength of the risk card stronger to account for the fact that it is unstable. At that point, the strategy starts becoming too swingy (whoever wins the bidding war has too big an advantage, making that bid too important relative to the normal mechanics of the game).
We looked back at the original goals for Gollum, which were to allow players to either splash a few cards from the strategy or to play a dedicated Gollum strategy. With this tug of war going on, we felt there would be very little incentive to include only a couple copies of either the minion or companion as you would just get thumped in the bid.
So, after another round at the drawing board, we decided that due to Gollum's unique brand of conflict, it would probably be okay to let both players have him in play at the same time. He is so unstable that we could see him fighting on both sides in the same fight, including (especially!) skirmishing himself. We then went even further down this road writing gametexts that gave benefit for spotting (or discarding) either Gollum or Sméagol.
The last hurdle for the Free Peoples side of the culture was trying to find a unique twist for the companion. We knew that both versions sides would be tied back to burdens. We already had a host of Shire cards that had burden costs on them associated with Sméagol. At that point I decided to just take a shot at simplicity and make him zero cost, removing some of the burden costs from the Shire cards and adding it to Sméol himself. The testers had a good reaction (who doesn't like free companions).
The only problem to clean up was one with the earlier stated goal of letting people play a Gollum heavy Shadow side. The problem we were facing was the 4 card limit. How can I play Gollum strategy when I might not draw a Gollum until site 5? We decided that we would spend some of our "download points" for the block on We Must Have It. We aren't usually big fans of verb cards that go digging in your draw deck as we feel it disrupts the flow of the game, but felt that Gollum's nature (he is always there) combined with the mechanical need of the culture meant that we could make this card. I wouldn't expect to see too many like it though in other cultures, or even any more in this one.
Thanks for coming along with me for a look at Gollum from the inside!