Designer's Notes: Strange Synergy

by Mark Ahlquist

Last century, in 1985, years before Magic: The Gathering shook the gaming world, we were dabbling with cards that combined their effects in unpredictable ways. I remember reading Magic cards and thinking to myself, "They should've worded that one differently." Then, more often than not, the next edition of the card would read very closely to my guess. This is not because I'm some sort of super genius, but because some of the same issues the inventors of Magic were grappling with were already explored by me and my partner Brian, in our own game, Strange Synergy.

I wanted a game that would continue to surprise me even after playing it a hundred times. The answer, I felt, was in combinations. Super-simple rules, lots of cards that modify the rules. Take any three cards and the modifications would likely be interesting. (Actually, I didn't really think it through like that. I just wrote.)

The first draft of the rules fit easily on a three-by-five-inch index card. My memory of them is vague now, but they went something like, "Move: 1, Attack: 50%, Damage: 1(hard), Life: 10. Two actions per turn, per warrior."

For power cards I tore index cards in half. The powers were things like "bottle" and "swing on light." It represented a fight in an old west saloon.

I persuaded my brother to play and he whooped me 15 straight games; still, it was fun. We both wrote up some more power cards and played some more. Then more cards, and more playing. The objective was to destroy your enemies, but the real objective was to write cards that were cool and/or made your brother laugh. The saloon scenario was long forgotten.

More friends played in the days that followed, and they all wrote new power cards. Everyone had different concepts about the game mechanics, the physics of the game world, and even what the hell was going on. Why are these guys fighting? I had no idea. One kid figured they were giant monsters so he wrote the card "rocket-powered turtle shell." Another guy imagined super heroes so we got "elastic body" and "retractable claws." Yet another produced cards from high fantasy; "talking sword" and "unicorn" were added. And of course there were the downright silly, like "biggest hat ever." In one game I battled the "vengeful ghost" of "giant Bullwinkle balloon," equipped with "machine-gun nipples." I succumbed to this worthy foe, but since I had the "Kansasizer," my warrior awoke from a dream and the game was a draw.

I eventually realized this game was a winner. Everyone who played it played it enthusiastically, and wanted to play again. Why not publish it? So the fun part ended and the hard work began. I accidentally used the phrase "hard work," and when I looked up, only my good friend Brian was still there.

Good thing he was, too, because the game was a killer. It was easy and fun to come up with crazy new powers, but now we had to make them all get along. Cards like "Fast" just add to a warrior's speed, no problem. But a card like Giant Magnet adds new physics to the game world. Are smoke bombs magnetic? Smoke Bombs create line-of-sight issues. But what about Stench? Stench is omni-directional! Surely nothing beats Stench. Hold on, Robot Body is immune to Stench, but makes the warrior magnetic . . .

I wasn't comfortable with cards that added new physics. As a purist, I felt that each card should be entirely self-contained, and resolve its own issues. But then I wrote "Bat Wings." I went nuts trying to write all the rules for flying on one card. They just wouldn't fit. And each other gadget or mutation that enabled flight had their own quirks that would have to be described on the card too. I gave up and wrote flight into the rules, but I didn't like it.

Flight turned out to be a can of worms of a different color. It seemed to screw up everything. Now, two warriors could occupy a single space. Was it a diagonal attack to strike at someone who was flying? How high could they fly? Where is this battle taking place anyway? We finally decided to remove the third dimension altogether, but keep it in reserve for a possible expansion. As it turned out, no one missed it.

The difference between magnetism and flight was that magnetism added some real interaction to play. Now you could move your enemies around if they didn't let go of the magnetic thing, and it really mattered when there were bottomless pits around. Flight just let you move over bottomless pits, and there were sneakier ways to do that.

So the game was written card by card, and rewritten many times. Finally we said, "Perfect enough!" We pitched it to Steve Jackson Games. He responded that he liked it, but since it was heavy on components, it would be on the back burner.

Then 10 years later he e-mailed us: "We're finally ready to move on Strange Synergy . . ." Oddly, it wasn't overcooked a bit. In fact, they suggested many small improvements of the kind where you say, "Now why didn't I think of that?"

Amusingly, the SJ Games development team had some questions about certain cards, but Brian and I hadn't really thought about them for years. It had been a while since we had played the game, and we were busy with other projects. Luckily Brian had many of our old drafts stored away. He pulled out the rules and cards and we looked them over. We realized that to answer their questions we needed to know which version of the game they had. Brian always insisted we keep meticulous track of version numbers, and I said it was a waste of time. Boy, was I proven wrong.

Our duty was clear. We had to play the game a bunch of times to refamiliarize ourselves with it. The old gang was called out of retirement, just like in the Blues Brothers. We played into the wee hours. Hilarity ensued, but in the end the verdict was unanimous. Strange Synergy is still a blast!

Article publication date: September 12, 2003

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