Published on June 19th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Space: the Convergence
An Intro to Re-skinning a Game
Theme can make or break a game. Hitting the right thematic notes can propel your mechanics into the spotlight or relegate them to general obscurity. As I wrote last week, I consider theme to be a very important element of any game. Theme is just as important to a game becoming well loved as mechanics and art, and it can change the way you feel about the game while playing it. Recently I’ve been involved with drastically changing the theme, and only the theme, to a very popular game and I’d like to show you what I’ve learned.
Space: the Convergence
In what seems like an eternity ago, way back in the forlorn year of 2007, there was a blog entry on the Magic: the Gathering website. “What if,” the article poised, “What if Richard Garfield had made Magic: the Gathering as a science fiction themed game?” The original article is actually really interesting, mostly because it doesn’t really give any explanation as to why things were changed, it just presents this Space: the Convergence game as if it were a true history of the first collectible card game. Ultimately the game hasn’t changed at all, it still has creatures (units), sorceries (strategies) and instants (tactics) but the way that they are presented gives quite a different spirit to the game. All of the cards presented on the blog entry are iconic Magic cards and if you’re familiar with the game, it’s strangely satisfying to identify the cards as you read through.
More than just card conversions, the article gives you the fluff introduction and default setting pitch for Magic but with all of the fantasy turned into science fiction tropes. Mana becomes Psi, summoning creatures becomes teleporting units, and the graveyard becomes the void as a further way to make you remember that you’re not playing the same game anymore. The descriptions of the Psi types is illuminating. Usually if one were to ask the average “kitchen table” Magic player what black mana or magic represented in the game, that player would say something along the lines of “necromancy” or “zombies” or “vampires”. Now that the magic is taken out (kind of), that leaves the description of black psi as something more metaphysical- the article focuses on how it represents greed, ambition and ruthless determination. These are all true of black mana as well, but the change in overall theme also changes the specific themes of the factions/colors in unexpected ways.
Making my own space themed set
After browsing around various tabletop message and image boards, and seeing some people get excited about the idea I decided to contribute to the project. Now, there is an online community who have standardized the language and the keywords and formatting and so forth of the non-official “StC” and I made the decision not to fully follow that for several reasons. One is that I don’t particularly like some of the choices made for the new names of keywords, and I wanted to make my own changes. Secondly, I use a program called Magic Set Editor to edit cards and the only template already made for that program doesn’t look very good so I just used the “Future Sight” frames from Magic the Gathering’s set of the same name. Thirdly, there is an assumption in the online StC community that you will not make explicit references to or use art from existing sci-fi properties and I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted with the properties I chose.
So after doing some research and making my own guidelines I tried to determine what sorts of cards I wanted to make. Would I come up with my own mechanics or use existing ones? How would I achieve balance within a set? At this point I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the cards when I was done, so I tried to figure that out as well. It’s tradition now that every time a set of MtG comes out, I buy a booster box and then invite a bunch of friends over so that we can have a draft style tournament. I keep all the cards afterwards because I paid for them, but it’s more fun than just opening dozens of boosters alone by myself. I decided that it would be really fun to draft with space themed cards at a party, so I chose a basic and straight forward set to convert directly over: Magic 2013. I really liked the cards in that set and the cohesion of it was amazingly well done, it’d make a perfect project.
So I booted up the Magic Set Editor, started a new Set file, and set to work creating cards. At this point I was just re-typing all the card text to have the new keywords by hand, but I later found out that in the Space template file there is code that will auto-convert Magic keywords to Space keywords. With minimal work I could have created a duplicate of the Magic template files, dropped in the text-replacer, fixed the new keywords to the ones I had made up when there was a difference, and then just copy-pasted Magic text into the text box. Maybe if I extend this project I’ll work to do that first. At any rate, what I ended up with is a bunch of files with rules text and casting cost and unit types that I had decided on before-hand (so I knew going into it that I wanted all Zombies to be Nanites), so what I needed to do at this point is add art, flavor text and names to all of the cards.
Wow this is really complex
I have to say that just doing a copy-paste re-skin of a pre-existing Magic is in and of itself a time consuming and frustrating project. I have a much higher respect for not just the game designers (more about that next week) but also just the writing team and art director on the Magic team. I opened up my art folder on my external hard drive. I save every single cool picture I have ever seen on the internet, for things like this but also because I play a lot of RPGs and character portraits are a lot easier to find if you’ve just kept everything decent you’ve ever come across. The only sad part is that I see a lot of these images on second or third hand sites like Pinterest or other image boards so often times I don’t know who the original artist is to find more of their stuff or buy prints (support your artists! If anyone knows the artists who made the images I use here please tell me so I can credit them. Comments are below). So now I just had to figure out which images to fit into each card.
Finding good art is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’d decided, for example, that Goblins would be called Colonists (in a Borderlands style/theme) and that Warriors would be Mecha which would give me a lot of rag tag giant robots in the red section. That meant that I had to find something that fit that vibe for every Goblin/Warrior in that color, which is no small task. You can see some of the other themes that I used in the examples here, Vampires are Syndicate thugs and Elves turned into generic Aliens. Sometimes while adding art to card I’d get a feel for it enough that I’d add a name to it. I already knew my theme on a per-color basis so this was sometimes really easy- Angels are all references to Mass Effect’s Normandy but other times I just made things up. Many of the vehicle names are just a made-up name that I thought sounded like what I think a real jet or military vehicle would be named. I used Wikipedia a lot to get a feel for things but there isn’t really a lot of structure to these ones.
After pictures and names, the rest was just filling in some cards with flavor text that I thought was cool. I feel that I could have been better about making the flavor text more succinct, but at that point I just wanted to call the project finished so when I felt comfortable with it I left it alone. Here is a gallery of some of the cards I made using this technique, let me know what you think and leave a comment if you get any of the references!