11-04-02 Latest News

The Card that Flipped -- DecipherCon Day Four
Quickbeam @ 12:00 am EST

Greetings -- Quickbeam here.

This day held a special treat for me. I sat down with two of the LOTR Trading Card Game's senior designers, Chuck Kallenbach and Tom Lischke. I learned a lot about what happens behind the secret walls of Decipher.

Quickbeam: At what point in developing these Two Towers cards did you see the wonderful images from Peter Jackon's new film? I heard a rumor that you had an entire reel of film and used a telecine to freeze frame at any point in the movie you wished -- just to pick out prime images for the cards. True?

Chuck: Well, that rumor is completely true. But only for the Star Wars CCG. When we worked on that, it was already 20 years old. There were no secrets. Now when we work on LOTR cards, we start several months before the release of the film. When we started TTT design in April 2002, there wasn't even a rough cut of the film yet.

Tom: We have never seen a rough cut. Our art director, Dan Burns, will go down to New Zealand and choose several hundred images from what New Line Cinema allows him see. Those images go into a process where we get low resolution versions quickly (sent from NZ) to use in designing cards.

C: They have to burn the files onto a CD and send them. However, when we first started work we had the story and script to work from, which gave us a jumping off point for card design.

T: We also had the books! That's always the better place to begin.

Q: I know many fans will be pleased to hear you are turning to the original source.

C: With the Sauron Orcs in TTT, we already knew without the movie that there would be conflict within the ranks about what they would do with Merry and Pippin. So we designed a lot of cards for Sauron Culture that would exemplify that in game play. But when we got our image resources we found there were no images for those particular Orcs. So we made changes to the cards at the development stage to account for that.

Q: After the Fellowship base card set, you no longer had to rely just on preliminary images from a CD. You could draw from the entire film after its theatrical release for all future cards.

C: Yes. There were things that New Line certainly did not want us to reveal too early -- like the Balrog -- which as you know did not appear in the Fellowship base set. It showed up in the later Mines of Moria expansion in the spring so as not to spoil the appearance of the creature as audiences saw it.

T: We are sometimes surprised by how fortunate Decipher is in having the ability to use these images and bring them to fans in the first place.

Q: Will there be more cards for Ents besides the one Treebeard? Even a separate Ent Culture? That would be awesome!

C: Absolutely. Nobody wants Ents more than we do. We will probably stick with the original plan, which is to keep Ents in the Gandalf Culture. But that's two expansions down the road; the next one immediately coming in March 2003 is Battle of Helm's Deep expansion. Then after that will be the Ents of Fangorn expansion.

Q: Now about this Gollum chap. Will we see him very soon, or will you wait until the later expansion? And which side will this card play on? Fellowship or Shadow player? Slinker or Stinker?

C: Certainly Gollum will be in the Helm's Deep expansion. We wanted to put him in the first base set for TTT but could not. Much like the Balrog. Now to your second question. He is the one character that we get questioned about the most. Everyone has an interest in him and how he will affect the game. Why not have Gollum play on both sides? I will say nothing more for now.

Q: What is the best story you have about creating a card for the new TTT set? From first thought of design all the way to final print run....

C: These cards are like our children. We love them all equally.

T: For my part, this TTT process was more like an engineering project than the Fellowship set. We already understood the game mechanics and had to focus on shoring up what worked and what did not. It was more about thinking in the larger framework and expanding the horizon of the entire game for the future. Where it would go and how it would continue to work in the long-term.

Q: Having so many new characters to choose from, as you work on designs, must make your office feel like a playground. You have all these heroic and dastardly people to choose from -- and then have to figure out where they fit in game play.

T: We really focused on making the Elves feel like Elves. The Ithilien Rangers must feel like Ithilien Rangers. So we have this whole new palette to paint from and we were careful not to mix up the colors.

Q: There's a remarkably varied audience for this game. There are really casual players, like the suburban Mom who enjoys the beautiful images of Orlando Bloom and just sits down with her kids to play -- and then you have serious players seeking to dominate the tournament circuit. How do you consider this disparity when you are designing the game?

T: You've just described the central design issue for a licensed TCG. The short form of this process is accessibility. That means "depth without too much complexity." Any given card should be understandable.... all players should be able to quickly read it and understand it. That makes it good for casual players. But the meat of the game for veteran players comes from how those relatively simple cards might interact to create much more depth and tactical possibility.

Q: What about your personal love of Tolkien's works? Is it something that creates a special bond between the designers and the project -- getting to work on something which you are already fanatical about?

T: I know of one bond between us and the project. Several of us had played the earlier Middle-earth CCG from Iron Crown Enterprises and enjoyed the experience playing together.... years before Decipher acquired the license. For me it extends way beyond that. I've been a Tolkien fan and collector for years, collecting every edition of The Hobbit and LOTR that I came across.

Q: So this really runs in your blood?

T: Absolutely.

C: For me, the thing that draws and binds me to Tolkien's work is the struggle of the characters against prejudice and adversity. That's what brings me back to the story over and over -- perhaps what connects all Tolkien fans. It's what we seek to recreate in our game. If we can make that connection we are doing justice to the wonderful work that we get to interpret.

Did you ever want to play LOTR but your friend had gone off to the dentist? It's the middle of the night and you wanted to challenge another player from Germany? Ever thought of going head-on with the champions and even trading cards with them? Well, it won't be long before we have the perfect solution to these nagging quandries.

The new Online LOTR Trading Card Game is almost here! Decipher is close to revealing this fascinating new project -- with the help of their developer, World's Apart Productions. President Scott Martins gave me the inside scoop: the creative wheels are quickly spinning and the game will be ready for open Beta testing in April 2003. They have a cracker jack team of engineers, designers and artists working to bring it all together.

This online version of the full LOTR TCG will include all the paper cards available in the game (even the new TTT cards), now made virtual. Going online under your own account you will find your cards listed; and before a match begins you can assemble any Deck you like. Then click over to a lobby where you'll find other players waiting with their own decks -- and you simply join in.

I saw some really COOL interfaces for the game. You will recognize colors and shapes in the "playing field" that are recreations of card Culture templates (like Shire green with the big leaf or Ringwraith cold grey). Sections of this interface show the Site Path on the side, all your cards in one section -- and of course what your opponent has in play. They are planning to make it adjustable so you can customize it any way you please. And when I asked about getting some of Howard Shore's film score for use as incidental music in the game, I saw a light bulb go off over Scott's head. He said, "That just might be possible."

Throughout the game you can see which part of your turn phase is current with little icons in the corner. Rules are fully enforced: the computer will never allow cheating or let someone illegally construct a deck. A little chat window on the bottom lets you talk to your opponent. Scott said they are probably going to include a "beginner's learning tool" that will highlight any useful card that should be played at certain times. Thus the novice will get much more familiar with his cards in real situations as he progresses.

Tournaments around the clock. All kinds of tournaments. Can you imagine? The thirst for playing really good card games at any possible time will at last be quenched!

You will get to trade with others anywhere -- anytime. With a secure trading system, Decipher will keep an electronic log of every card's owner and its entire history. Post on a message board what you have to offer (and what you want) and then the system automatically accepts from another player who comes along and offers up the cards you want.

But they haven't quite figured it out the pricing yet. What will it cost the player? Decipher and World's Apart are very interested in getting input from YOU, the players.... It is likely that the LOTR Online TCG will have randomized booster packs just like the paper cards. We should all go to the website and tell them on the Message Boards what we think. This is going to be a fantastic product and having the chance to give input during its creation is even better. You can even sign up to be a Beta tester! [Click here]

This whole experience at DecipherCon has been a blast. And it has really changed my mind about the LOTR Trading Card Game. To me, I just love playing the game. To others, it is a serious bug they catch, trying to collect every card they can (shiny foils, foreign language cards, etc). Of course you have the hard-core tournament players, who are all quite brilliant. Now I have learned that this gaming thing has another powerful aspect:


When we had brunch for the Championship winners Sunday morning, a whole room of people were brought together. The tension of the previous Tournament now evaporated! Previous opponents who sat across the battle lines of the game were now friends again, enjoying a good talk. Players who once locked horns were now back to being pals. It felt rather like a big extended family; they have rough spots when the stakes are high (and they get passionate about it), but when it's all over they sit back down and trade, discuss strategies, and relax with good company. But they are still part of the family. I recognized that this "community" of players is exactly what the word implies.

There was an awards ceremony where the Decipher Game Management Authority recognized the many judges, volunteers, retailers and players who support the larger world of gaming. This was the first ever Decipher Hall of Fame Awards. [click here]

Matthew Yakobina won a special award as 2002 DGMA Player of the Year for being "one of the most consistent performers" in many tournaments world-wide. He also got a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The top winners for the LOTR World Championships received their One Rings and cash awards; and in the case of Matthieu Brochu, a gorgeous glass trophy and the keys to his new PT Cruiser. He's driving back to Canada in style!

It was such a shining moment for all of them. I was glad to see such dedication and hard work given the acknowledgment it deserves. It refreshed my notions of what makes this "world of gaming" really connect, and how it can fulfill the people who live it.

Much too hasty,


For the previous reports in this Series:

DecipherCon Day One[click here]
DecipherCon Day Two[click here]
DecipherCon Day Three[click here]