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Alex Greenberg | Studio Director, Founder

Jan 26, 2024


We take playing cards for granted far too often. As players, we frequently overlook the pervasive challenges of creating a functional, let alone satisfying, deck of cards, and with good reason. At this point in the long timeline of game development, the presence of playing cards in any game almost inherently signals the integral role they play in the game’s functionality. Players see cards and think “those must be the primary method for progressing through the game,” and most of the time, they are right. It is no surprise, then, that we assume the soundness of their functionality, purpose, and understandability. Having experienced the trial of developing ULTRAMASSIVE’s deck of Action Cards – which is indeed central to the game’s progression – I feel the need to acknowledge this laborious and often strenuous undertaking that a myriad of designers before me have conquered. ULTRAMASSIVE’s Action Cards have seen all the seasons of development. From being exciting and powerful, to impotent, to confusing, to too balanced, to satisfying and purposeful, these cards have been through it. So, with our Action Cards nearing the end of their harrowing development, it is time we take a look at their volatile conception, dreary mid-life, confident return, and why the whole process was so dang hard.

In the beginning, ULTRAMASSIVE’s Action Cards fueled the game’s progression almost entirely. This meant that most abilities we wanted players to have access to needed to be on one or more cards and had to be balanced appropriately with the rest of the deck. While not inherently an issue, the cards lacked specificity and purpose, and this approach led to some wild cards and egregious balance issues early on. On top of this, many cards started out too complex and disjointed to be satisfying. The upside of this “wild west” of cards was that some individual cards and combinations were incredibly potent and, when offset by collections of lackluster cards, gratifying. While turns were usually a mildly productive, somewhat awkward affair, the occasional lucky hand would unexpectedly launch a player into the lead, much to the surprise, and appreciation, of the now-leading player.

In response to this chaos, we moved to simplify the Action Cards and standardize their strengths and weaknesses. With the goal of consistency in mind, we categorized cards by one of three actions (Siphon, place Matter, and Orbit) and removed the elements that overcomplicated them. With this change, we accomplished our goal but encountered the unexpected: without the chaos of the previous iteration, the cards felt dull. Suddenly players were no longer occupied with an onslaught of eclectic, but versatile, cards and instead were treated to an underwhelming set of cards that left something to be desired at every turn. Another dilemma. On the bright side, we had reigned in the unruly Action Cards and, more importantly, had cracked open a door to a new mechanical opportunity.

Enter: Anomalies. Over the course of mere days, ULTRAMASSIVE changed its tune dramatically. The power of Anomalies eclipsed that of Action Cards, directing players’ focus away from their cards and toward optimizing their collection of Anomalies. With the introduction of Anomalies (the engine-building aspect of the game and the mechanic that now largely defines its appeal and replayability), the Action Cards had a renewed and specific purpose. With Anomalies at the helm of the game’s progression, the Action Cards occupied a supporting role, one which they were more equipped to handle. As an additional benefit, Action Cards became more dynamic throughout the game, their importance waning as players gained more Anomaly abilities.

Finally, we were free to design Action Cards within a clearly defined framework. In their new supporting role, Action Cards could be balanced without the fear of players feeling unfulfilled each turn. We could confidently determine why each card existed and how well it served its purpose. Critically, Action Cards could now assume a position of connectivity throughout the game, tying multiple elements of ULTRAMASSIVE together to reinforce its engine-building system. By adding a Wormhole Wager Value to each card and increasing their power with the acquisition of Anomalies, Action Cards could bridge the mechanical gap between Wormhole, Anomaly, and card systems. This change represented a major turning point in ULTRAMASSIVE’s development.

After 15 months, ULTRAMASSIVE’s Action Cards serve a specific purpose and have a unique identity both in, and out, of the context of ULTRAMASSIVE. Important to note is the vast volume of iterations required to reach each developmental checkpoint described above. The sensibility behind Action Cards and their integration into the game are the product of hundreds of hours of critical thinking, synthesis, and experimentation– all to simply get the cards to make sense and function properly. This process is replicated throughout the design space of modern analog games, with many superseding the time and effort required for ULTRAMASSIVE’s Action Cards. So the next time you play a game and think “I like these cards– they’re fun”, I encourage you to pause for a moment to appreciate your enjoyment of those cards– the game will thank you for it.

An additional update this month is the major component change of Anomaly Cards! We have done away with the somewhat clunky system of Anomaly Boards and replaced them with a deck of Anomaly Cards. Though they function the same as their predecessor, Anomaly Cards introduce several advantages. They are more accessible, as they can be collected and laid in front of each player, reflecting their Anomaly collections much easier. The game only requires one set of Anomaly Cards (rather than two Anomaly Boards in prior versions), making table space less of an issue. Lastly, the cards are easier to read. Wondering what Anomalies your opponent has? Just take a look at their cards! We are excited about this change and the design opportunities it brings and are eager to share it with you all.

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