The Making of Wing Commander (Scrye article)

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The Making of Wing Commander is a behind-the-scenes article by Jeff Grubb which appeared in issue #10 (November 1995) of Scrye magazine, a collectible trading card game publication. It offers a look at the making of the Wing Commander Collectible Trading Card Game.



The Making of Wing Commander (Scrye article)


The point where several streams flow together to form a new river. It's not a word you can slip easily into conversation, and the only reason I know it is because I'm originally from Pittsburgh (where the Ohio appears, mighty and wide, out of the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers).

Confluence can also mean the joining together of ideas and desires from several sources to produce a new and more powerful idea.product or game. Wing Commander, the CCG from Mag Force 7, is a project of confluence.


Origin Systems in Austin, Texas is the publisher of the immensely popular Wing Commander computer games. This computer game started as a simple space-combat simulator and has grown with the PC industry. The latest incarnation, Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, is a CD-ROM game that not only provides the excitement of space battles against the catlike alien Kilrathi, but backs it up with real-life action on the Terran Carrier victory, where what you do on board ship can affect the outcome of the game. Mark Hamill plays you--Colonel Christopher Blair. Malcolm McDowell is your commanding officer, Admiral Tolwin. Other well-known actors include John Rys-Davies, Jennifer McDonald, and Ginger Lynn Allen.

The game is already a bestseller, but Origins wanted to let even more people (maybe in the next galaxy!) know about the Wing Commander Universe.


Mag Force 7 is a brand-spanking new company in Williams Bay, Wisconsin founded by Margaret Weis (of Dragonlance fame) and Don Perrin. Their first product was the highly regarded Star of the Guardians, a CCG based on Margaret Weis's novels that pits tenure interstellar empires against each other. Don and Margaret wanted to release additional CCGs to supplement their success with SotG.


After 12 wonderful years at TSR Inc. (being part of the original Dragonlance Design Team, helping launch the Forgotten Realms and writing Al-Qadim, Marvel Super Heroes, and a ton of other stuff), I decided it was time for a change. I left TSR, primarily to devote more time to working on novels. I discovered, however, that after being the product group leader (kibitzing and running interference on the Blood Wars card game with Steve Schend), I wanted to get my hands on a card game myself.


Three sources moving together to produce a stronger stream. Mag FOrce 7 and Origins met and came to an arrangement. Mag Force 7 was granted the license to produce a CCG based on the Wing Commander Universe. Don and Margaret contacted me to take up the elead design--aided and abetted by Don.


The first step in the project was a total immersion in the world of Wing Commander. This is more difficult than it sounds, since both Don and I freely admit that we are terrible fighter pilots. (Don's just slightly below average on the reflexes. I keep slamming into my own carrier). We pored over text material and backgrounds, clue books and how-to manuals. We read all the Wing Commander novels. I kept a main list of characters, places, history, and ships for every incarnation of the game. Don performed the ultimate sacrifice--watching ten hours of tapes showing every option of every choice one can make in the game.

The results paid off. Not only did we have a solid base of material, we had a feel for the world of Wing Commander, where space battle is a deadly duel in the sky, where experience and skill will serve you well--aided by a good dose of luck. It is a world of high-tech fighters, but also one of human emotions. Our task was to capture that feeling in cards.

Early on, we decided to go with the idea of two separate decks--one for the Terran player, the other for Kilrathi. Each side has advantages and disadvantages. The Terran player would have more pilots while the Kilrathi player would have more ship types. The Terran player would be hard-pressed to first equal his opponent, then beat back the tide and carry the battle to the cats.

This was the original concept. It turned out to be great--if you were a Kilrathi! By having more Power Points at the beginning of the game, the original design gave the Kilrathi an edge. We discovered in playtest that the Kilrathi were winning way too often. Now both humans and cats have the same number of power points.

We compared the worlds of Wing Commander and Star of the Guardians. While SotG had a galactic feel to it--space battles as a method of political force--Wing Commander was much tighter, closer, and more personal. In the computer game you take the role of Col. Blair (Mark Hamill), and you risk your skin and that of your wingmen when you fly in combat. In other words, if SotG is the entire Pacific War, then the Wing Commander card game would be the Battle of Midway. We saw Wing (as we fondly call it) as a very different game, much together and reflecting personal tactics.

We started with the Lane-to-Lane combat system from SotG, mainly because it adds a wonderful new dimension to card play. In many CCGs, the challenges are deck design (what you put in) and deck play (the luck of the draw). With the Lane-to-Lane combat system, tactical considerations (which ships are where) suddenly become a major consideration. Wing Commander is also tactical: computer missions often consist of patrolling a number of Nav Points taking out any of the enemy in your path.

Early playtesting was positive, but it really took off when we started playing with the shape of space. Instead of the "battle line" of SotG, Margaret Weis suggested a diamond shape, with opposing carriers at the ends of the diamond, and the main flight paths forming three central Nav Points. Now, sneaking a force around the enemy's flank was a definite consideration. This went extremely well and was further modified in playtest by Richard Garriot and Andrew Morris at Origin Systems, who first developed the hexagon-shaped system of Nav Points that was finally used.


We decided on two methods of winning the game. The most satisfying is to dive in on your opponent's carrier, drop a torpedo, and watch your opponent's flattop disperse into space dust. The second way is to eliminate your opponent's ability to continue the battle. In Wing Commander, bringing new cards into play costs you by reducing your power points. The loss of those cards in battle causes additional losses to your power point total. Reducing an opponent's points to zero drives him from this section of space and wins the game.

You do recover some of these lost points each turn, but usually the losses outweigh the gains. The "spending" also drives the immediacy of the game--the longer you want to attack, the more powerful your opponent will be, and the more capable of launching particularly nasty cards.

Flights consist of the various space fighters available in the current Wing Commander Universe. Cards feature Arrows, Hellcats, and Thunderbolts, and their K ilrathi equivalents, the nimble Darkets, the ubiquitous, frisbee-winged Dralthis, and the ponderous, deadly Paktahn bombers. Each fighter belongs to a different squadron and has its own insignia and motto. It is possible to pack a deck of Hell's Archers,f or example (with their motto, "Get the Point!"), or to hold out for the better-training (and more expensive) elite fighter units.

Fighters battle in space at their listed attack values, or they can be modifier by weapons systems cards and pilots. Weapons range in deadliness from increasing a ship's fighting values to allowing it to take out enemy carriers. The pilots also modify the attributes of the ships and can grow better over time, gaining medals that further increase their abilities. The Best and the Brightest are here on both sides--Colonel Blair (Mark Hamill), Paladin (John Rhys-Davies), and Admiral Tolwyn (Malcolm McDowell), as well as the deadly Kilrathi prince Thrakhath and the turncoat alien Hobbes, who has sided with the humans. All are represented in a photorealistic style artwork first pioneered in SotG.

The best pilots, weapons and ships are no match for a pilot performing the right maneuvers at the right time. The maneuver cards, played in the heat of battle, are the key to Wing Commander's excitement. The various maneuvers range from textbook orders to such wild attacks as The Maniac Solution. Maneuvers are rated according to their complexity, the lightweight Arrow has the ability to dance around its opponents, while a thundering Paktahn bom ber must count on punching through its opposition (unless commanded by a superb pilot). In addition to Maneuver Cards, Battle Damage cards can be played on an enemy in the midst of a dogfight, weakening him and exposing him for the kill. Then there are the Secret Orders. I'd tell you about those, but… they're secret.

Finally, we have the capital ships. The fighters of Wing Commander often fly in support of larger transports, destroyers, and cruisers. In our original design, these large ships were treated as fighters in their own right. The result did not feel like the fighter-based computer game. The game moved too fast to consider the hulking, heavily-armed ships as just "larger fighters." as a result, we changed capital ships into Modifiers for the various Nav Points. Their presence at a location offers advantages to the owner but also provides a large target for the enemy to shoot at.

As I write this, the Wing Commander collectible card game is being playtested from California to New Mexico to Texas to Pittsburgh to Canada. The initial reports are enthusiastic. The art, specially designed for the game, comes from such leading science fiction artists as Barclay Shaw, Alan Gutierrez, Alan Rabinowitz, and Hugo award-winner Bob Eggleton. It is some of the finest space combat art to date, anywhere. The ships and fighters are taken from the game itself and crowned with beautiful squadron insignia by Michael Scott. (How beautiful? Margaret's talking about making shirts out of them!)

With the Wing Commander collectible trading card games, Origins Systems reaches out beyond the computer screen to bring its universe to a new group of gamers. Mag Force 7 continues to evolve its systems with a bold new approach to space combat. And I get the chance to unleash my Killer Kilerathi deck on Don's Terrible Terrans. Three separate rivers have come together fo form a greater, stronger whole. Confluence.