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Indie Postmortem: Nayantara's Star Chamber

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Indie Postmortem: Nayantara's Star Chamber

October 27, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

Star Chamber is an independently developed PC online strategy game with a science fiction theme, combining the elegance of a board game with the depth of a collectible card game. Players assume command of one of ten available starfaring races, each with its own special power and technology tree in the form of game cards. Players clash in short CCG-based duels (about 30 minutes per conflict, on average) in which they attempt to win in one of three ways: military, cultural, or political.

I've been a fan of the collectible card game concept since ripping open my first deck of Magic: the Gathering cards. CCGs provide players with a tremendous amount of creative space when designed properly. With hundreds of cards, each doing various things when collected and combined, there are a gigantic amount of different approaches and strategies that players can utilize.

But in traditional non-digital CCGs, the playing field is a blank slate, and I'd always imagined the CCG concept would be even more fun if the field of play didn't start empty, but instead was a randomly generated board. So, I wanted to see cards, but also a board to play the game on. Oh, and I wanted to get rid of the physical hassles involved with the actual cardboard by going digital. For example, I don't want to bother maintaining physical decks; if the cards are digital, I can have the same card in as many virtual decks as I want.

This merging of CCG and board game on the computer had already been attempted by Digital Addiction, with its game Sanctum. While I wasn't involved in the creation of Sanctum, I was hired by the company to work on a sports collectible game to be published by EA. Unfortunately, Digital Addiction floundered as a business, and when they went bankrupt, EA.com hired me to finish work on that sports game. That was in early January of 2001. As bad luck would have it, three months later, I was laid off, along with many other EA.com employees. It was at that point that I made the decision to develop Star Chamber. I expected it would take about a year, an estimate that turned out to be way off.


Welcome to Star Chamber

During the course of development, I discovered that, to develop a fun CCG, you must overcome significant hurdles. Achieving balance is incredibly difficult because of the combinatorial aspect involved - as a designer, there are only so many decks you can test by yourself. Yet achieving a balanced playing field is of utmost importance. If you stumble with even a handful of cards, the balance of power could be slanted too far in the direction of some of the game's factions, making the metagame less fun because the powergamers will all end up playing similar decks based on those few broken cards.

Combining an online CCG with a 4X turn-based strategy game screams niche market, which resulted in Star Chamber being self-funded and self-published. I didn't expect a huge number of customers in this market, so I had to choose a route of low production values, putting most of the energy into the gameplay. Production values can be increased after launch with updates and expansions; game mechanics and the cards couldn't be changed. I expected that the hardcore strategy gamers who would find out about the game would demand solid gameplay first and foremost, and production values last.

But what would the gaming public think of such a title? Would they even give our game a try for long enough to discover the yummy gameplay within?

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Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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