Return to Echo Base
Tony Fanchi and Todd Michlitsch on the Latest Campaign for Legends of the Alliance
"Wars not make one great."
–Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Imperial walkers close in on the Rebel base as the last transports flee. Amidst the chaos, a few select heroes step forward to protect the refugees, never knowing that they may be forced to return to the very planet that they had once fled.
You may have already had the chance to play the free Return to Hoth campaign in the Legends of the Alliance companion app for Imperial Assault. Today, we take a peek behind the curtain at the trials and triumphs of its design process with Tony Fanchi and Todd Michlitsch in this week's designer journal!
Tony and Todd on the Return to Hoth Campaign for Legends of the Alliance
At the opening of the Return to Hoth campaign for the Legends of the Alliance companion app, it is several days after the Battle of Hoth. Our heroes are stranded on the Imperial-controlled ice planet and they must find a way to escape. Luckily, they are not alone. Joining them are two Echo Base troopers, Lieutenant Talcon and Corporal Kish—who you might remember from the Legends of the Alliance tutorial missions!
As the heroes and their trooper allies trudge across Echo Base’s now-defunct trench line, they are assaulted by Imperial forces under the command of General Sorin. Accompanying this Imperial patrol is a vehicle the heroes have never seen before, the SC2-M Repulsor Tank. This vehicle proves too well armored for the heroes and troopers, so they must find an alternate means of taking it down.
Much of what you encounter in this campaign may be familiar if you played through the physical Return to Hoth expansion, but for this new take on the Return to Hoth campaign in the Legends of the Alliance app, we decided to make Sorin’s Repulsor Tank central to the plot. We wanted the tank to not only make an appearance in the opening mission, but to be impervious to normal attacks. Thus, the opening mission presents the players with a formidable puzzle: how do you defeat an indestructible enemy?
The initial version of the mission presented a satisfying puzzle, but once it was solved, it became a little too easy to rush to the ending of this mission, especially upon repeat plays. As we revised, we decided that players would need to not only defeat the tank, but the entire Imperial patrol! This incentivizes you to spend more time dealing with the other Imperial forces, rather than just rushing to defeat the tank… but you still can’t take too long to take out the tank, however, because it is such a powerful threat. Leave it alive too long, and it will blast your team to bits!
Another late addition to this mission was the DF.9 Anti-Infantry Battery. Players first encountered one of these laser turrets (albeit in less-than-working condition) in the introductory mission from the original Return to Hoth campaign, which also has a mechanism for allowing the heroes to fire this turret. So, we decided to bring this mechanic back, with some tweaks to take advantage of the app’s functionality.
In the original campaign, this turret could only be fired four times in the entire mission. For the digital mission, it can be fired any number of times, but only twice per round. This keeps the turret as a tool the heroes can use throughout the mission, but also limits the frequency with which it can be used. And as you might expect, there are some other interesting ways that you could use the turret, but if you haven't played the campaign yet, we'll leave those for you to discover.
One other element of this mission that we liked a lot is the Echo Base Troopers. On this mission, the heroes are accompanied by Lieutenant Talcon and Corporal Kish, in the form of a regular Echo Base Trooper group. These Echo Base Troopers are a powerful pair for the players. Their Front-Line ability gives them strong attacks, stronger even than most hero starting weapons, so long as they are in close with the enemy. At five health, they won’t survive long in close quarters, so keeping them alive becomes a challenge. However, you may find it's worth your while to keep them alive through the entirety of the mission…
Designing a Mission
As we continued to move forward, we knew the second mission of the campaign needed to introduce the main villains: General Sorin and Dengar. A general bent on hunting the surviving Rebels on Hoth would likely be camped at Echo Base and would probably have a shuttle to steal! And if a general like that were desperate enough to prove themselves to the Empire, they may even hire an elite bounty hunter to help them in their task.
After choosing the mission’s premise, we took stock of the Return to Hoth box expansion’s components. We wanted to use as many of the tiles and figures as possible, and it quickly became clear that if we were going to visit Echo Base and encounter Wampas in this campaign, the second mission was our best chance!
With a hazy feel for what the mission might contain, we looked at what it needed to accomplish. Over the course of the second mission, the heroes needed to evade Imperial pursuers, encounter Wampas, elude Dengar, infiltrate Echo Base, steal a shuttle from under Sorin’s nose, and escape from Hoth. Noting the Wampa tunnels running beneath the base, the story seemed to write itself!
But now that we knew the story our second mission would tell, how would it go about doing that?
First, we considered how we wanted players to feel as they played the mission. The heroes would be running low on supplies as the Empire closed in around them. They would be chased into the uncharted caves below Echo Base where they would be lost and cold—maybe even a little frustrated, too.
A maze where you can’t even trust the map’s geometry seemed like the perfect way to make players feel as lost as their characters. We theory-crafted a few concepts before deciding to use a maze we knew we could build, along with a few tricks to make it difficult to remember where you’d been. The mission seemed like a perfect embodiment of the vision. And the maze was glorious!
But the mission was not. The heroes spent too much time walking through empty hallways, setting up map sections, fighting minor skirmishes, and freezing to death. On top of that, it was much too long. Some playtesters reported wandering the caves for as many as five hours! Each week we trimmed a little more of the maze, and each week it was still too long. Eventually we accepted that the original vision was too ambitious. Reluctantly, we stripped out everything that we thought defined the mission and sent it back to the testers.
To our surprise and joy, the reports were positive! From our isolated perspective we felt like we’d had to sacrifice our vision. But in reality, players were finally experiencing what we’d set out to create. We had to remember that Imperial Assault is first and foremost a tactical combat game. While the mission’s initial design had strayed too far from this core experience, we could still deliver on the vision.
We were satisfied with the mission’s buildup, but we still needed a satisfying conclusion. Reinvigorated, we got to work building on this stable ground.
Rediscovering a Mission
The longer we work on a mission, or any game project, the more we learn about what it isn’t. We know so much about what isn’t in the mission anymore, that it can be difficult for us to see what the experience really is. Sometimes during playtesting it’s helpful to take a step back, refocus, maybe ask another developer to play your content, and critically analyze what the game is right now.
When we reexamined the second mission, we noticed that it flowed well, but toward a natural conclusion that was, at the time, far too complicated. With fresh eyes, we saw that we were trying to do too much storytelling “on camera.” It was interfering with good mission pacing. With a new sense of what the mission really was, we reconfigured the ending to carry the story with core Imperial Assault mechanics. The front of the mission was already interesting enough to be memorable. Now, we just needed to let the heroes play.
Reimagining the Return to Hoth campaign for the Legends of the Alliance app was a wonderful experience—and it went far beyond these two missions. Each of the six missions in the campaign (five of which you'll play in a single playthrough) offered its own unique challenges and rewards, and we hope you find the new campaign similarly challenging and rewarding.
Thanks for reading!