Welcome to the second part of Upper Deck's Introduction to Vs. System 2PCG! Today we are going to be looking at some of the things that have changed in Vs. System 2PCG from the original Vs. System TCG. To describe those changes and to provide some insight into the design and development process, we've asked Vs. System 2PCG lead designer Danny Mandel to give you a brief walkthrough. Whether you're a Vs. System veteran looking to return to the game, someone who always wanted to get into Vs. System but felt intimidated or excluded, or maybe even someone who's never heard of Vs. System and wants to know more about it, this article should serve as a decent primer for how Vs. System 2PCG will play. The battles start soon, so get ready - Vs. System 2PCG launches this summer at Gen Con 2015!
This is Danny Mandel, the lead game designer for the relaunch of the Vs. System. A lot of people have been wondering what changes have been made to the game, so here goes…
Here’s a little background on who I am and how this project came to be. (Feel free to skip ahead and get to the good stuff!)
Way back in 2003 I was one of the four main designers on the original Vs. System TCG (along with Mike Hummel, Matt Hyra, and Ed Fear). I worked on Vs. System for a couple years, and then went on to work on other games at Upper Deck (most notably the World of Warcraft TCG). Then I went into video games for a while before starting a tiny design studio (Super Awesome Games) with Ben Cichoski, another Upper Deck alum.
When our old friend Jason Brenner pinged us a couple years ago about working together, we leaped at the chance. Our first game for Upper Deck was Legendary Encounters: An ALIEN Deck Building Game (which was based off of Devin Low’s excellent Legendary: A MARVEL Deck Building Game).
After that Jason talked to us about bringing back the Vs. System…
We had several great discussions about the game with Jason. We discussed game design, collectability, organized play and more. We talked about which factors led to the early explosion and growth of Vs. System and which led to its eventual demise. We discussed the market and how the world of games and game design is different in 2015 from what it was in 2004 (when Marvel Origins released).
Lots of thought went into this relaunch, but for today I’m going to focus on game design. When we discussed the design with Jason, we all kept coming back to one point: accessibility.
Despite all of the original Vs. System’s great qualities, it was a relatively inaccessible game. It had lots of basic rules to learn, like how formations work, stun+breakthrough endurance loss, flipping up Plot Twists or playing them from hand, resource costs and threshold costs, team attacks and reinforcement, one free recovery, etc.
It was also challenging to play the game (let alone play well) since there were so many things to consider (especially the formation step, checking your face downs again and again, and going down various attack option mental flow charts). And because the game was challenging, this often led to slower turns and longer games, meaning that even choosing to play required commitment.
I should stop right here for a moment and make something clear. When I say that the original game was hard, I don’t mean that it was hard for everyone. But it was hard for enough players -- and too hard for many potential players -- that it hurt the overall lifespan of the game.
So the goal for the new Vs. System was to find ways to make the game more inviting to as large an audience as possible, while retaining the core mechanics that made original Vs. System so great in the first place.
We started off by looking at the game from every angle, and we put everything on the table. We discussed which aspects of the game engine were the most iconic and which were the most superfluous. We looked at each game rule to see which ones were carrying their weight. It’s our opinion that in game design, the fewer rules the better both in terms of accessibility and elegance. This is especially true in games like Vs. System where there are so many rules on the cards themselves.
We examined small issues (like whether it was worth having threshold costs at all), big issues (like slow formation steps), structural issues (like how the steep character curve magnifies the importance of hitting your drops), and subtle issues (like wanting to up the potential for drama or meaningful decisions during the first few turns).
In the end we essentially took the game apart and put it back together in a more streamlined, faster-playing package. The new game has the same DNA as the old game, but as you’ll see, many of its systems have been updated.
What’s the Same
Before I dive into the changes, here’s a quick rundown of what’s pretty much the same:
Each player has a Front Row, Back Row, and Resource Row. (The Back Row used to be called the Support Row.)
You draw two cards per turn.
You can play any card as a Resource, but some cards do special stuff in the Resource Row.
You can rearrange your characters during your Formation Step.
Characters direct attack each other and get stunned (and KO'd).
Many characters have Flight and/or Range.
There are Team Attacks.
Characters are Unique and there are Power-Ups.
There are Plot Twists (but they work a little differently).
There are Locations (but they work a lot differently).
Disclaimer #1: It may be hard to visualize the impact of some of these changes before you’ve had a chance to actually play the game.
Disclaimer #2: For now I only have time to explain the changes. If there’s interest, I can dive into the reasoning behind each change later on.
Here are the major differences between original Vs. System and the new Vs. System 2PCG:
Wounds Instead of Endurance
Characters have a new stat called “Health.” When a character gets stunned, instead of taking stun or breakthrough damage, it gains a wound. If it takes too many wounds, it gets KO’d.
Many Characters only have 1 Health so they get KO’d immediately when stunned. This means it is important to protect them, or at least make sure they do a lot before they get taken out.
Each player starts with a "Main Character" in play who works just like regular Characters (called Supporting Characters), except when your Main Character gets KO’d you’re out of the game. Most Main Characters have 5 or 6 Health.
There’s lots to say about Main Characters (like how the box comes with 16 different ones, and that they make a great deck-building hook, especially for new players), but one thing I really want to cover is that unlike in most games where you have a Hero or Avatar, in Vs. System 2PCG your Main Character works exactly like your Supporting Characters: It has ATK and DEF, and some have Flight or Range. It goes in your Front or Back row and you can move it during your Formation Step. It can attack, team attack and fights in combat just like any other Character.
However, there are two major differences: 1) A handful of effects refer to Main Characters specifically. 2) Each Main Character has a Level 1 and a Level 2 version. You start with the Level 1 version, and during the game you can make plays to earn XP and level it up, making it more powerful and unlocking a new Super Power. Each Main Character levels up in a different way (Captain America likes Team Attacks, Thanos wants to KO characters, Loki likes Plot Twists, etc.), so during the game in addition to trying to shore up your board presence or get wounds onto your opponent’s Main Character, you’ll have the additional goal of leveling up your Main Character while attempting to prevent your opponent from doing the same.
During the Recovery Phase, all of your stunned characters (including your Main Character) will recover.
Simpler Rows and Faster Formations
In original Vs. System, you would place some characters in your Front Row and some in your Back Row, and then decide who was protecting whom. In Vs. System 2PCG, all that matters is who’s in the Front and who’s in the Back. If there’s anyone face up in the Front then all characters in the Back are protected.
This change affects many things about the gameplay, but the big ones are: It dramatically speeds up the Formation Step; it makes Back Row characters easier to protect; it increases the value of Ranged and Flying characters (Ranged characters’ foes only get to strike back if they also have range, and Flying characters can attack the Back Row). There are also more subtle implications such as increasing the importance of team attacks, but you’ll figure all that out when you play.
Individual Turns and New Timing System
In Vs. System 2PCG, each player takes his or her own turn. There are several reasons we ended up moving away from the shared turn (too many and too intricate to dive into them now), but one simple reason is that individual turns speed up the game a ton.
The turn sequence is now:
Draw Phase: Draw two cards.
Recovery Phase: Recover and Ready all of your Characters.
Build Phase: Play a Resource, Recruit Characters, Rearrange your Formation.
Main Phase: Start any number of Combats, one at a time.
During your turn, your opponent can only play Plot Twists or use powers during Combat (this change also ups the pace of play). Each Plot Twist and Super Power states during which Phase it may be used, or if you can use it during Combat.
Revamped Resource System and Super Powers
You can still play any card face down as a resource, but the way Plot Twists and Locations work is different. Plot Twists are now only played from your hand. Locations enter play face up and rather than having their own powers, they are “spent” (turned face down) to activate Super Powers, which are powerful effects found on Main Characters and some Supporting Characters.
Those are all of the major mechanics of the new Vs. System. There are minor details (like exactly how Main Characters level up and what the mulligan rule is), and there are some things you’ll feel rather than see (like how the flatter character stat curve takes pressure off of always hitting your drop on curve, and how you might actually play a Plot Twist on turn 1 to turn a combat your way). But I imagine it’ll be easier to understand everything once you have the cards in your hands.
Before I go I should say one more thing. I realize that some of you may feel that the new game simply isn’t Vs. System anymore. I certainly can’t argue with anyone’s opinion. All I can say is that, in making this product, we took the things we loved about original Vs. System and tried to make them even better.