FAB 2.0 Review: Part 2 – Good Thought, Let’s See the Follow Through

Welcome back, this is part of the Mega Update. Most significantly, it’s part two in a series examining the FAB 2.0 announcement. Part one is here and part three is here. In this section, I’ll be talking about Part 2 of the FAB 2.0 announcement, which examines the game beyond competitive play. I’m going to break this section into two broad categories: casual play and non-gameplay elements.

FAB’s Current Identity

Part 2 of the FAB 2.0 article tackles FAB’s identity. Well, that’s not how they frame it, but it’s how I think of it. To me, FAB has cycled through a few different eras. When I got in during Arcane Rising’s time as the newest set, FAB was kind of just this new interesting game. Cards had values, but nothing outside for Tunic, Heart, and Eye was that expensive. There was some organized play in NZ, but almost everyone else was in lockdown, so the rest of the world’s play was casual and mostly digital. From there, we hit the FAB-as-a-way-to-make-money period which pretty much concluded with Monarch’s release and the subsequent price crash, even if it took a couple months for most people to accept that. From there, we really saw a doubling down on competitive play, and since that time, that’s been the game’s predominant identity. When I talk to people who don’t play, they generally know about the OP end of things, and they might have heard that sealed stuff had wild prices for a while there, but that that’s calmed down over the past year. There’s no value judgement in any of that, it’s just a summary of the game’s trajectory over the past few years.

FAB has done a good job of assuming the mantle of “the competitive CCG,” something they picked up and ran with after Magic continuously failed to support their competitive play. In that respect, it was a shrewd move by LSS. They’ve taken most of the good elements of Magic’s old Pro Tour system that worked (including the name) and used those to build the bones of FABs OP system. After grafting on some of their own ideas, I think it’s fair to say that this has been a big success. For a long time, competitive play was the thing that defined Magic’s image, even if, as WotC reports, the majority of their customers have never even attended a Friday Night Magic (Armory-equivalent event) or a set pre-release. To come in as a new competitor and eat the big name game’s lunch is a remarkable accomplishment. Magic stumbled, and FAB capitalized on it.

With that said, games cannot serve all demographics equally, though they can do better or worse in terms of supporting multiple groups. Magic’s competitive implosion has come alongside a big shift in the game’s identity that took place over the last 10-12 years. The audience that WotC focuses on most is no longer competitive players but casual ones. Commander, which was originally the fan-made EDH format that was later adopted by WotC, is far and away the core of modern Magic. It’s contributed in a big way to the game’s explosion in growth and WotC’s recent record profits. It’s abundantly clear that Commander players are never far from the forefront of decision-making for WotC. FAB, on the other hand, has generally been a game whose play feels centered on competitive events. Kitchen table FAB certainly exists, but it’s never been something that felt like it was a top consideration for LSS. Thus, in terms of gameplay, FAB’s current identity is as a competitive game, and I think there’s a solid argument to made that LSS is doing that better than anyone else in the market right now in terms of supporting that with a robust organized play structure.

With that in mind, why does FAB need casual play? Well, strictly speaking, I suppose it don’t. LSS could keep a laser focus on the competitive scene and likely do well at it. However, competitive players will never be as big of a potential audience as casuals. Cost and time commitments preclude a big portion of potential players from engaging with the game in those terms. Casual play on the other hand has a much broader audience. If LSS can tap into that audience, it could significantly grow the game. LSS seems to very much want to ascend to be a fourth pillar of the CCG industry alongside Magic, Pokemon, and Yugioh (I don’t know if the correct way to write that last one is with a bunch of dashes and capital letters or not -I’ve never paid much attention to it, as it’s one of the ugliest successful games I’ve ever seen). Becoming a game on the scale of those titles is about numbers, and LSS is going to need to build a big casual audience to catch up to the leaders. So what’s the plan?

What Does Casual FAB Look Like?

LSS answers that question with a list of three things: Products tailor-made for first time play and social experiences, reformatting the extant casual play formats, and reviewing rules enforcement for casual events. We’re not really going to talk about that last one because it’s kind of scant on detail and also, frankly, not actually that casual (remember what we can learn from Magic: a huge swathe of your “casual” audience is never going to play in an organized event). So, that leaves us with the first two elements (one of which is actually two different things).

Let’s talk about those “tailor-made” products and new experiences. The Classic Battles decks, in the abstract, are a fine idea. Pre-constructed decks are a huge boon for new players to CCGs because they reduce the onboarding process by saving a lot of high-effort elements of playing for later. New players don’t need to figure out how to build a deck, find deck lists, buy singles, etc. The catch is that they have to be good products. Speaking of lessons learned from Magic, Magic introduced pre-constructed decks in 1997 with Tempests release (I vividly remember buying the Slivers one from a mall Electronic Arts Boutique with some residual birthday money). The thing about those early precons is that they kind of sucked. Why? Well, they weren’t particularly powerful, and the value of the cards inside of them was quite poor. Magic has iterated on this a lot over the years, including cancelling multiple pre-con product lines, before sort of figuring it out with their pre-constructed commander decks, which tend to have unique cards that either can’t be obtained elsewhere or show up infrequently in select types of booster products from their associated sets. But the big lesson from all of their attempts was that intro products tend to fail if your established player base isn’t also interested in buying them. New players cannot be the sole target audience for a product.

From what we know, LSS seems to have taken that lesson into consideration. The new Dorinthea and Rhinar are themselves a draw so long as they remain the only cold foil versions of those cards with that art. We’ll have to see what else is in these products before we can make a final determination on whether they’re a success or not, but new cards and good Majestics will likely be key. And it obviously wouldn’t hurt if the decks play well against one another (and ideally against future Classic Battles decks as well). So, no hard determinations on this one until we get more info, but I haven’t seen anything yet that concerns me aside from the price point. Magic’s Duel decks, which had pretty much identical packaging and offered a similar pair of premade decks, were sold for $20, but LSS could absolutely put enough value into the product to justify the $50 price tag. We’ll just have to wait and see if they do that.

The other product they mentioned here is the long-rumored PvE. We honestly don’t really get enough information to make any calls here. The fact that they’re calling it their “flagship social play product” is helpful though. It tells us that this is being situated as their sort of answer to Magic’s Commander, even if it’s PvE as opposed to PvP. Honestly, this is a total wildcard and could be a big success or fail spectacularly. We don’t have remotely enough information to make a determination. This has the potential to be good, but nothing is concrete, so I can’t factor it too much into how I’m judging FAB 2.0. At some point I want to put together an article about what I think a successful PvE format would look like in broad strokes based on my time with Fantasy Flight’s PvE games, and the cooperative board game I’ve been helping to co-develop for the past few years, but those thoughts didn’t make it into the Mega Update.

This ties more into the value proposition of Part 1, but another important thing that casual play can do for your game, as illustrated by Magic’s Commander, is to give new life to cards that can’t make the cut in competitive play. Magic’s secondary market is tremendously influenced by casual formats where cards that are either not legal in or not good enough for competitive formats have an opportunity to shine. As a quick example, take Revised edition Wheel of Fortune. This is a card that is illegal in all competitive formats aside from Vintage (which virtually no one plays in paper anymore) where it is restricted to one copy per deck. I remember buying multiple playsets (four copies) of these things for $5 a pop back before Commander took off. Today, if you want a copy that looks like it spent time in someone’s back pocket, you’re dropping $200. Want a nice one? That’ll be $400. Imagine if there was suddenly a place where CF Duskblade had a purpose? How much would that help FAB’s struggles with EV?

Returning to the “Reformatting casual play formats” point, which is (again) kind of a mixed bag. The Ultimate Pit Fight changes are a throwaway in my book. I’m sure there is a small but dedicated minority of players who love the format, but I don’t think it’s particularly good, nor do I think that its mechanical core works for a multiplayer PvP FAB format. To be brief, Commander works well for Magic because you often have the ability to interact with anyone at the table on any turn. Magic’s mechanics allow you to target runaway leaders and keep the game tight in a way that UPF simply cannot support. Politics in UPF just don’t hold a candle to what the Commander ruleset can produce. This isn’t to say that FAB could never have a multiplayer PvP format that worked, just that UPF isn’t it. I mentioned it earlier, but before Magic had Commander, there was EDH, which was a community designed format that got very popular organically. WotC then stepped in and adopted it with slight tweaks before rebranding it as Commander and making it an official format. There’s nothing stopping the same sort of thing from happening within the FAB community. Alternatively, there may be a time in the future when LSS has the development time and additional people to try to pioneer a better multiplayer PvP format internally. But, for now at least, UPF doesn’t really matter.

And then we have Commoner. Alright, this is already a long article, but it’s free content, so I’m going to go on a mini-rant here. You’re seriously calling it “commoner?” Like, what the hell? Could any company have the presence of mind (or a thoughtful enough marketing department) to not name their budget format after a derogatory term for lower-class or poor people (this isn’t just LSS, Magic’s budget format is the even worse “pauper”). Like, I get that the community uses these terms, but that’s them making a critique of your game being too expensive for normal people to play. So maybe don’t lean into that when you adopt it as an official format? I’m just a lady with a blog, but if I was trying to market a budget format, I’d call it something that evokes a scrappy underdog brawler as opposed to a downtrodden peasant.

ANYWAY, it’s fine. These sorts of formats are always relatively niche, and the main draw tends to be the challenge of making decks that work in them. I’m not sure if FAB’s cardpool is deep enough to make this a robust format or if there are going to be one or two immediately obviously powerhouse decks that need to be banned out, or if it just turns out that FAB with only commons is boring to play. It feels like the sort of thing that’s going to take a while to find its feet, but again, its fine. One more way for people to play isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really do much for the game unless building decks for the format turns out to be really compelling or LSS starts supporting it with OP (which I assume they won’t). The thing is, if you aren’t play OP events, you don’t actually need to worry about budget. When you’re playing with friends, you can just proxy the expensive cards and play the normal game everyone else is playing. Hence what I was saying about these sorts of event being niche for in person play (Magic can make it work digitally since you can’t proxy cards on MTGO). But yeah, it’s fine. Have I mentioned it being fine yet? Oh, I did? Good, let’s move on

Beyond the Gameplay

In addition to all the casual play information, Part 2 of the announcement also touches on FAB as an IP beyond the gameplay itself, as well as setting a goal of creating more synergy between the gameplay and the narrative aspects of the IP. This to be admirable goal. How much having a good narrative actually matters to games that are focused on mechanical play as opposed to narrative is always an open question. But, if you’re trying to build a large popular IP, it definitely helps to have characters that people connect with and care about. As someone who designs games, writes, and critiques media, I have a ton of thoughts on this particular issue, but I think the shortest version is that games like FAB don’t need to develop their narratives. However, doing so can expand their audience and drive engagement with some segments of the community. For these types of games, the narrative content is functionally a bonus; you don’t need to be aware of it to enjoy the product, but for some people it makes their engagement notably more enjoyable, and a small subset will actually care more about the narrative than the game itself, if it’s done competently. If it’s done really well, it can even draw in interest from outside the current community or act to recapture a lapsed audience.

To make a video game analogy, I started playing League of Legends during its beta. LoL has a story, it’s got a fairly expansive story actually, but I never felt compelled to do much more than read a character bio here and there. I played the game pretty consistently from beta to late 2011 and then off and on to 2015 before more or less tapering off. During that time, LoL’s story kept expanding though written fiction and videos and parts of the community really started to care about it. You can find hours-long compilations of some very well produced Riot videos and many, many more hours of fan-created videos summarizing, speculating, and commenting on the game’s lore. In short, people care about the lore a lot, and that drives engagement. Like I said, I didn’t really ever pay much attention to it because it seemed serviceable but not exceptional. Then Arcane was released last year and, holy shit, did I suddenly care about LoL’s lore. While it didn’t get me to go back to LoL, I did give Legends of Runeterra another go, and after poking around there for a bit, I was really impressed with the polish they put into it and how much attention they’ve given to little bits of lore (the amount of unique dialogue they’ve recorded for when various cards get played in the presence of other specific cards is really impressive actually). To me, this is a clear case of lore as a value add. Riot cares about their lore, and, at least in these cases, they’ve put in the effort to execute it well. The end result is that, for the first time in years, they started getting my (and I imagine a lot of other people’s) money.

How does FAB’s lore stack up? Well, I’ve often said that it seems like LSS really cares a lot about the story of Rathe, but they’ve done kind of a poor job of conveying that story to the players. That remains my position. I think the information in the FAB 2.0 announcement has good aspirations but sort of lacks any real details that leads me to believe they’re actually going to be effective in building up the lore. The 2.0 document lists three bullet points related to this subject, so let’s tackle those.

The goal of investing in characters we “know and love” is the point in this section that most obviously has some sort of tangible effort attached to it. As they note, we’re now getting additional versions of characters with Bravo in Everfest, Dorinthea and Rhinar in Classic Battles and (I’m guessing) Katsu whenever we get a Misteria set. The new versions of old characters thing is a pretty well-trodden way of developing characters on the cards themselves –here’s a character; look, they’ve changed!– my issue with the FAB cast as a whole is that I am unsure how any of these characters have actually grown.

Lore has been fairly scant since the initial launch of the game. We got the lore book and then some hero stories when a new set launches, but other than that, content is pretty thin. We very occasionally get a new piece of lore on the main site, and the cards in the sets themselves mostly just build ambient flavor as opposed to telling clear narratives. Until the “Morlock Hill” piece came out a bit over a week ago, I don’t think that 99% of the FAB community could really tell you any outcomes from Monarch other than “the Demonastery is fighting Solana”. More to the point, I don’t really feel like characters are growing as people. To return to “Morlock Hill” the big obvious area for potential growth in Dorinthea’s story emerges out of the original lore book. In her narrative there, we establish that she that she has a severe case of protagonist brain, and her rushing ahead to fight despite a senior mentor’s advice gets people hurt and that mentor killed. In the new lore, Dorinthea pushing ahead despite a senior mentor’s advice to pull back gets people killed and that mentor killed or captured (we didn’t see a body, so maybe Minerva is just off to be tortured and turned into an eldritch abomination, who knows). But when you look at this, she’s doing literally the exact same thing we were told was a bad character trait when we first met her character (it’s something that wrecked her friendship with Valeria); however, this time it’s framed as the uncomfortable but necessary price of stopping the bad guys. I’m sorry, that’s not character growth, nor is it good writing; that’s the narrative contorting to accommodate a one-note protagonist. With the relatively scant amount of time given to character narratives, it’s important that when they do show up in new stories we can see either new dimensions to their charter or overt examples of character growth.  You can tell a story about the hard costs of leading, but you shouldn’t do that when the story you were telling before was how always charging forward isn’t the best approach.

This ties in well to the next point in that section “Publishing more lore, including books” with a note that “Publishing quality books is a big undertaking.” I definitely agree on that second point, so let’s talk about the writing quality of FAB lore to date. I would say that the quality of writing for FAB ranges fairly widely with most of it clustering around amateur to competent. I don’t want to call out any specific pieces or writers in particular because, in the context of lore for a card game, the amount of control over the story any individual writer has can vary tremendously, and sometimes you’re not given enough room to write something good. I’ve written short commissioned fluff pieces for RPG manuals before where the amount of direction I had meant that I couldn’t really see any path towards making something great, or even good, and I ended up just trying to achieve “competent.” I have no sense at all of how LSS decides what lore is produced –is there a team that works on lore? Does a single person plan it all and then assign out very specific pieces? Do authors have much autonomy on style? Without knowing these things, it is somewhat challenging to identify the root cause of some of the weaker lore pieces. As they may lie with management over the creatives themselves.

With all of those caveats in mind, I get the impression that some of the writing is being done, not by professional writers, but rather by genre-fiction enthusiasts who are excited about the material but don’t really have much of a writing background. These pieces read a lot like the sort of thing you’d see from people writing one of their first RPG campaigns or an early attempt at fan fiction. That’s not me being sarcastic or thoughtlessly mean. I literally went back through my archived writing and pulled up some of the early D&D campaigns I wrote back in my teens, and yep, that looks familiar. Again, I’m not sure what the working relationship LSS has with the writers it employs is. Do they write individual pieces on commission with only a surface knowledge of the game’s setting and story? Are they staff that have like three different roles, one of which is writing lore? It’s hard to imagine that they’ve had that many people continuously employed full time as writers because they amount of writing they’ve given us over the past few years just isn’t that much in terms of volume. I get that out of the gate, fleshing out the lore was not a priority for them, but at this stage, LSS could have at least one staff writer who is producing one or more pieces of lore for the site per week. It’s not that hard to bang out one or two 1000-2000 word pieces of competent fiction in a week, particularly when the world and characters are already established. They don’t need Hugo-award winning pieces here. But going years between bits of lore around (what I assume are) important characters really makes it difficult to feel like any of them are growing.

To pullback here a bit, I realize that my use of “competent” comes off as kind of harsh, but honestly, I think “competent” is the realistic target for most media rather than exceptional. Exceptional stuff tends to either be divisive and/or challenging (which limits your audience) or familiar but executed extremely well (which is hard to do). Meanwhile, plenty of beloved popular media is competent without being exceptional. Many Marvel movies, for instance, are competent, and they still do exceedingly well in terms of satisfying its audience. I’m a critic in the literal sense that I’ve been writing media critiques for most of my adult life; the things that I tend to like best usually fall outside of the scope of mainstream tastes. I get that. So while I might personally prefer a FAB lore that is challenging and does a bunch of novel things, I don’t think that necessarily serves the game best in terms of building a broad audience. What they need for that is to just competently execute the sorts of stories people expect from genre fiction. Fortunately for them, it’s easier to please general audiences than critics. Also, just because a particular writer is putting out competent work in one context doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of exception work in another. I’ve seen authors who’ve written books I really like take on commissioned work for other people’s IPs, and the quality is definitely not on the level with the personal work they’re really passionate about. I desperately do not want to turn this into two articles, so we’re going to cut the talk of writing off there and just summarize by saying: I think FAB has the pieces to tell perfectly competent stories that will engage and please their core audiences. Let’s just hope that they allocate the resources required to achieve that goal.

I’ll wrap this thing up with the last point, “Products that offer play experiences that bring fans into the adventures, conflicts, and story arcs that are happening within the world of Rathe.” This is in the “too vague to be useful” category. Legend of the Five Rings used to have tournaments where the winning players collaborated with the AEG to shape the story being told. It was a very cool approach to storytelling that showed an interesting level of collaboration between the game’s makers and its fans. If you were to apply that sort of model to FAB, you might have seen narrative updates about the growing power of the Demonastery while Chane was on his run of domination. That said, I don’t see that sort of thing happening with FAB. The game feels far too micromanaged for me to believe LSS would ever give the players that sort of control of story events. And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be L5R, and, in fact, there are a lot of challenges to that approach. But, if you’re not doing that, what does it look like to “bring fans into the adventures?” Is it PvE scenarios that retell important story moments? Are Classic Battles sets actually supposed to be self-contained pieces of lore that build out a cannon confrontation that happens between the two characters in a given release? We don’t know!

All-in-all, I feel like Part 2 was sort of characterized by words that sounded good, but was somewhat scant on concrete information that would help convince me that LSS has charted a path that will allow them to complete those goals. In no way am I saying that I think they’ll fail, but I need to see more before I can make a call on their likelihood of success (well aside from UPF, I just don’t think it’s happening for that format). I really do hope that these elements come together in the next couple years, because while I think LSS has demonstrated a solid level of skill at running a competitive game, all of the casual and narrative “stuff” in this section will be necessary if the game is going to have a future as that forth industry pillar.

* Header Image – Weave Earth by Sherbakov Stanislav

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