Interview with Elli Amir, designer of Worldbreakers: Advent of the Khanate – Turn Order

Worldbreakers: Advent of the Khanate is a new 1-2 player tactical card game by Elli Amir. (You can read our review of the game here.) Adopting recognizable language, syntax, and grammar from popular collectible card games (CCG’s)—most notably Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner—Worldbreakers still manages to trek through undiscovered territory with an elegant union of form and function and an ideal marriage of mechanics and theme. It’s a fresh new entry in the skirmish card game arena.

I spoke with designer Elli Amir over a Zoom call shortly before the launch of Worldbreakers’ Kickstarter campaign (as of this writing now fully funded and active through the end of March 2022). Elli shared his origin story and influences, design process, big-swing ambitions for the game’s audience and its longevity, the differences between Magic and magic realism, and the inclusive immersion that sets Worldbreakers apart from most card-based skirmish games. (Our original 90-minute conversation was condensed and edited for this article.)

Mx. Tiffany: Richard Garfield said that when he released Magic: The Gathering in 1993, he had no idea that it could possibly lead to all THIS (waves at the last 30 years). While Worldbreakers is indebted to MtG, you’ve said your biggest influence is Netrunner, which Garfield released three years later.

Elli: Even though Magic: The Gathering was released first I believe there is an alternative universe where Netrunner came out before MtG and is the considered the card game that created the genre… because (I think) Netrunner is just better in every considerable way. It’s much more elegant, it’s much more complex, thematic, and thought out… if we did a retrospective history of CCG’s, Netrunner’s release in 1996 is orders of magnitude more significant on the timeline than Magic.

Mx. Tiffany: Did you discover Magic first or Netrunner?

Elli: Magic. I was in 4th grade when MtG was first imported to Israel. I did Magic non stop until I was sixteen or seventeen. I met most of my friends through Magic and spent and my hobby time with Magic.

Mx. Tiffany: Was it always only Magic? Did you have other gaming influences growing up or did that come later?

Elli: I skipped school playing computer games like Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic, and Baldur’s Gate. When I was six I got the Dungeons and Dragons red box for my birthday and remember sitting in my grandma’s kitchen and reading the whole thing in one go. I have been DM’ing games for friends ever since. I drafted my first D&D adventure when I was nine.

Mx. Tiffany: So game design came early and naturally to you.

Elli: I always dreamed of creating my own game. My first board game prototype with dice and foam components was when I was twelve or thirteen, but a card game was always the design ideal in my mind. I am a huge fan of the (MtG and NR) card game genre. I like the customizability. And the creativity; you have to be elegant and efficient; it’s this intersection of engineering and art to build a great deck. Decks are reflective of your personality. Why and how you build a deck. It could be winning a game… but often times you just want something cool to happen and you don’t mind losing ten games if on the 11th game the cool thing you built into your deck happens and you and your opponent get to say “oh my gosh that was amazing” because it happens.

Mx. Tiffany: Is it true that Worldbreakers started out as a direct Netrunner clone?

Elli: Yes. Netrunner was a huge influence. I first read about Netrunner as a kid in a 1996 issue of Duelist (a now-defunct trading card game magazine published by Wizards of the Coast). I was a cyberpunk nerd and read everything by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. But at that time Netrunner wasn’t available in Israel so I couldn’t play it. Fast-forward to 2012 when Fantasy Flight Games rebooted it (as Android: Netrunner) and I was all over it. I played it non-stop.

Then in 2019 Fantasy Flight discontinued Android: Netrunner. Even before that I had been thinking of creating my own homebrew version and started playing with designs. I was telling my friends “I’m going to reboot Netrunner, I’m going to reboot Netrunner.” But then (non-profit volunteer Netrunner fan collective) Project Nisei did it for me so I didn’t have to make my reboot anymore.

Mx. Tiffany: But you still wanted to design your own card game.

Elli: I took a step back and asked myself “what do I really love about Netrunner, and how can I take the essence of that, and create a new game?” Even in my Netrunner reboot I planned to address some of the – I wouldn’t say flaws? – but some of the “challenges” I saw in original Netrunner. There is also my love of board games and especially the worker placement mechanic seen in Agricola, Caylus, Underwater Cities. If I had to choose three “parents” for Worldbreakers it would be Magic: The Gathering, Android: Netrunner, and Agricola.

Mx. Tiffany: When did you have your first Worldbreakers prototype?

Elli: For my “Future Netrunner” reboot I had a spreadsheet with a bunch of card and mechanical ideas – and the last idea on the list was “Worldbreakers.” This was 2016, even before Android: Netrunner was discontinued. But the official push to make the version being released later in 2022 started in 2021. This only after countless ideas from many many past iterations over the 5-6 years, so last year’s version was not “from scratch.”

I would say 2021, about a year before the Kickstarter, was my big mechanical breakthrough. Which was having players alternate turns performing one action at a time. That came late in the design but broke it wide open. It’s that worker placement influence. And it really separates Worldbreakers from other games in this genre, in my opinion.

Mx. Tiffany: I love the turn-based mechanic in Worldbreakers; it changes the way you analyze and strategize. There’s more tactics. You can react more quickly to the game state and your opponent’s moves.

Elli: It goes back to cognitive complexity. If you look at modern MtG you can have game states (and turns) with dozens of moving parts. Especially more modern cards, which (for example) add tokens from outside the game and thus adds complexity. Netrunner’s late game state could involve 15-25 cards for one player. That doesn’t include what’s in your hand or what your opponent has in their hand and on the table. I tried to avoid this issue with Worldbreakers. Even if the board gets “cluttered” with cards in a game of Worldbreakers, it would never be to the levels of MtG or Netrunner, and it tends to clean itself up every few turns. So even the most complex board states you see are not that complicated, and are not that long-lasting.

Mx. Tiffany: I love that Worldbreakers banishes late-game, deck-emptying, five-minute turns you routinely see in NR or MtG. While the other player has no choice but to sit and wait passively for the opponent’s endless engine to run down.

Elli: Because cards come out more slowly with alternating turns in Worldbreakers and don’t stay on the table as long as they do in MtG or Netrunner, it means that every decision matters to both players in the game, going all the way back to the very first turn.

Mx. Tiffany: Yes! No more “suspenseful” automatic first-turn mana cards!

Elli: What I’m very proud of in Worldbreakers is that the tension and strategizing starts as soon as the game begins. And it is more or less evenly distributed. It’s not like an engine builder where you spend the first third or first half of the game setting it up so turns are less meaningful early on. You have important, game-changing cards to play and actions to take from turn one. You’re always on your toes. There’s no downtime where you just sit there and your opponent does things that won’t impact you or your next turn or your decisions. Everything that happens each turn affects both players.

Mx. Tiffany: These specific design choices are more minimalist in contrast to Magic and Netrunner’s higher cognitive load. As popular as MtG and NR have been, they are less accessible to someone who knows nothing about CCG’s or tactical card games like them. There’s a level of “fluency” that’s a high bar to clear in MtG or Netrunner when just starting out. And you’ll never compete or even enjoy the game unless you are playing with players at the same inexperience levels. But Worldbreakers feels different. It feels more accessible because it’s easier to grok and more “winnable” for novices (like me) from the first play.

Elli: This was a conscious design decision: to lower cognitive complexity. This is not something that people talk about often in board games and card games. Many games are not cognitively “accessible.” They’re too complicated. They stack complexity, or assume you have already leveled up. Speaking of MtG the latest release which is cyberpunk-themed [Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty] and is fantastic, but is criticized because it’s far more complex than past sets. I’ve seen people tweet “my 14-15 year old kid has been playing MtG for years and doesn’t understand Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.” If your game isn’t accessible to a 14 year old that already knows how to play Magic, you might have an accessibility problem.

So one of the design goals with Worldbreakers was to make the game accessible both to card gamers that are “fluent” in MtG or NR and non-card gamers – especially people coming from board games and not other card games. Worldbreakers is still complex and I consider it “heavy” but is simpler than NR and MtG. I worked a lot with Jennifer Conte (rules manager for Worldbreakers) and we’ve been continuously stripping away, simplifying, simplifying, simplifying, to make it the game more cognitively accessible.

Mx. Tiffany: Moving from mechanics to theme: how did you decide upon Worldbreakers’ theme and its (13th Century) historical setting?

Elli: I had guidelines. A “wish list.” I wanted to stay away from Dungeons and Dragons or overt fantasy settings; I’ve been doing D&D-adjacent stuff for decades. When Game of Thrones came out and had dragons and people were excited, I was over it. Really? The same fire-breathing dragons I was introduced to thirty years ago through D&D? I was tired of it. I also wanted nothing European-centric. I was bored with that being a game’s setting or locale. A lot of board games are set or themed in Europe already in all the same ways.

Mx. Tiffany: So no dragons, and no Euro-centrism.

Elli: I definitely wanted something anti-hegemonic – where the assumption isn’t that there’s one big power that dominates society economically, culturally, scientifically, and so on. Since the Renaissance we’ve been living in a world where western civilization has largely been that hegemonic power. Which is why I didn’t want Euro-centrism. I was working with a historian friend of mine and we talked about time periods in history when society is non-hegemonic and non-western dominant. Where humanity was in a golden age of sorts but there was no one power dominating or foisting their culture onto everyone else.

Mx. Tiffany: So you decided on real-world history, and 13th Century Mongolia.

Elli: For a few reasons. One: geographically it was huge. The area included East Asia to Eastern Europe. It was a tremendous amount of populated territory. The diversity in this population/region was unprecedented. You have people from China, Mongolia, India, different Arab nations, North Africa, all the way to Russia and Europe, an Egyptian dynasty at the time… there is so much diversity and history there, so it was a huge world thematically to work in now and for later expansions if I’m fortunate enough to continue past the Worldbreakers base game.

And the important thing is that 13th Century Mongolia was non-hegemonic. The Mongols were the biggest force at the time but they only ruled a fraction of the region, and they didn’t force their own cultural values (customs, religion) on the rest of the non-Mongol population. So this was a perfect setting in my mind for Worldbreakers.

Mx. Tiffany: Are you worried that people won’t know you are drawing from a real-world setting, or that since it’s not straight-up fantasy that some won’t find it interesting?

Elli: People are familiar with 13th Century Mongolia even if they don’t realize it. Marco Polo, Kubla Khan, the Mongols. Asia, Europe, Russia, Africa. Whether it’s surface knowledge or even a stereotypical, pop culture idea they have, they know enough to work from. With Worldbreakers I hope to dispel their assumptions or myths through the game’s narrative and immersion through the artwork, backstory, and gameplay.

Mx. Tiffany: Worldbreakers does have a fantastical element – literally. Which is the fictional substance you created for the game called Mythium.

Elli: I asked myself: “What could be an inflection point from actual history into the alternate world or alternate history of Worldbreakers?” And that is when I came up with Mythium, which humanity is just discovering for the first time in Worldbreakers. Mythium is a currency in the game. But in the lore, Mythium allows people that use it to do extraordinary things. Note that I didn’t say “superheroes.” I mean to do things that are beyond what a typical human is capable of doing, but are still recognizably human things. So it’s not “magic” in a high-fantasy interpretation like fireballs or teleportation or time travel.

Mx. Tiffany: It’s a tweak. It’s not hard magic or full fantasy, it’s a touch of magic realism.

Elli: In my design iterations of Worldbreakers I made Mythium weaker and weaker. Making it less fantastical and only a slight enhancement. For example, Khutulun is the Worldbreaker for the Earth Guild (the Khanate) and is a real person in history. Records show she was an extraordinary fighter and leader. At this time the Mongols were irrevocably fractured after Genghis Khan’s death. Historically, if she was a man it’s possible she would have been Genghis Khan’s successor. But because she was a woman, culturally she was not permitted. She wasn’t even considered. So Mythium unlocks the “what if?” possibilities and offers the alternate history: what being a woman in that time and place was no longer an impediment to Khutulun becoming leader of the Khanate? She could have reunited and led the Mongols. And that’s what she’s doing in Worldbreakers.

Mx. Tiffany: Let’s talk more about about diversity, representation, and inclusion in your Worldbreakers universe. Which is another thing that stands out in your game when compared to other games. The world and world history you chose lends itself well to incorporating diverse and positive representation organically, not as an afterthought.

Elli: Presenting diversity with respect in games is complicated; it’s not been done well enough or often enough in the industry. I was always aiming for diversity. I was mindful. But I’m interested in hearing about where I can do more with future releases; I don’t think you hit a certain percentage and then say “I’m all done.” I don’t want it to be surface or self-congratulatory. I have tried to bake it into the design and the theme from the outset and not as a retcon. MtG is discovering that being inclusive and diverse 30 years into an established way of doing things is a challenge.

I never wanted to design a game with everyone having the same gender, ethnicity, body type, age, etc. I didn’t want 100% cards that were perfectly bodied – except for the villainous or “monstrous creatures,” for example. The Orc Problem. As I say in the Kickstarter, I strove for fair and accurate representation of its setting and its real-life historical characters.

In Worldbreakers many (most) characters are Arab or Asian. Many are women. One guild is a group of women engineers. There are neurodivergent characters. There is an astronomer in a wheelchair for which I consulted with Dr. Noa Tal, who researches society perception and response to people with disabilities and advised on our depiction of the character.

Mx. Tiffany: You consulted with dozens of experts and consultants; your Kickstarter page lists them and an 18-book historical and cultural bibliography.

Elli: My initial motivation was to make sure I wasn’t messing it up. And to be candid, this is also a point of criticism. Cultural consultants I worked with said “people often only call us when they need certain type of validation… a ‘certification’ for doing the bare minumum of diversity work.” I didn’t want to merely “do a diversity” with Worldbreakers. I wanted to do more and I know I can do more than I did. But Worldbreakers really evolved through this collaborative research. Ideas and historical research shared by the cultural experts and advisors became content in the game through both theme and mechanics. I worked with them early enough in design to include their ideas.

Mx. Tiffany: What are some examples of what made it in?

Elli: Including but not limited to Mongolian artists contributing card artwork, Mongolian clothing, use of language, women, religion, combat, kalaripayattu (a martial art form that originated in India), even the Mongol’s complex political structure and postal system.

Another example: I worked with Mattie Schraeder on trans representation. She shared with me the concept of naming and renaming ceremonies, which many trans people have to honor their true self in formal rituals. In the Worldbreakers universe Miriam is a trans woman who belongs to the guild of women engineers building a utopian society in the mountains of Persia. Those who become master engineers have a naming ceremony, and the flavor text on the Naming Ceremony card which features Miriam is “The Council of Engineers cherishes a person’s chosen name, regardless of how others have named them.” Through working with Mattie on representation, Miriam became a pivotal character in the Worldbreakers universe and will be part of a major storyline in a future expansion.

There’s always room to do more for the cards and mechanics and lore, and also more representation. When I made Worldbreakers I found that emergent theme and emergent design met in the middle and informed each other. I hope to have more opportunities (and success with Worldbreakers) to do even more of this in the future.