I’m writing this blog to journal my experience designing games. In this entry I’ll give a brief description of how my game is designed. I’ll talk about how thinking through the role of randomness in games in general, led me to design the core mechanic of this game, the rune deck.
You play as a fantasy character in a battle against the other players. You have a hand of ability cards that you play to move around the board and attack your enemies. These actions are available to you every turn. You also have a “rune” deck, with three each of seven elemental runes. Each ability card tells you how many runes to reveal that turn, and every ability card has bonus effects that depend on which runes you reveal. There is also a resource system called “focus”. You begin the game with three focus, and then each ability tells you how to change your focus, either by gaining one, or spending focus. At the beginning of each turn, each player plays an ability face down and then reveals them simultaneously. The players move and resolve effects one at a time.
How did I get to this design? My goal for this game is to design a tabletop fantasy combat game, with excellent gameplay. You might be asking, “Shouldn’t every game have excellent gameplay?” It’s a good question, but there can be other things to consider when designing a game. If the game you are designing is a simulation, and any game that isn’t totally abstract is a simulation to varying degrees, you need to consider how well your game simulates the scenario. There’s also the aesthetics of the game to consider. So, I wanted to design a game in which the gameplay trumped other considerations. This kind of game design is sometimes referred to as bottom up design.
Excellent Game Play Part 1 – The Role of Randomness
There are many games with little or no chance involved such as Chess, Soccer, and Charades. Each of these games tests a different set of skills; decision making and game knowledge in the case of chess, fitness and technique in the case of soccer, and creativity in the case of charades. I enjoy playing all kinds of games, but I’m interested in designing games like chess that test strategic decision making.
The trouble with chance in games is that it can undermine the impact of strategic decisions. Many early board games that incorporated decision making and chance had this flaw, such as Risk and Monopoly. So, why introduce chance at all? There are many answers to this questions, but here are a few. Randomness adds variety to games, so that you get a new experience every time you play the game (this is called variance). It also gives new players a chance to occasionally beat veteran players, something that’s more or less unheard of in a game like chess, and helps to get new players interested. A related line of thinking is that a combination of chance and decision making gives players a sense of discovery as they learn more about how to play the game.
One more reason to introduce randomness into a game’s design, that I’ve rarely seen discussed, is that it tests a new skill. Like chess tests decision making, and charades tests creativity, games with the right kind of randomness test your understanding of probabilities. In order to test your understanding of probabilities, a game needs to give you decisions about what chance you will take, and the probability that one decision or another will be successful needs to fluctuate throughout the game. Poker is an excellent example of this. In thinking this through, I’ve realized that this is why I prefer playing with cards to rolling dice.
The Rune Deck
This line of thinking led me to design the rune deck. I set out to design a system that accomplished a number of design goals. The player needs to feel like they are controlling a fantasy character. It needs to feel like the player is trying to hit with an attack. The player needs to have different options, with different chances of success, and the probabilities needs to fluctuate throughout the game. There should be different strategic options to set up future turns or to go for an early victory.
I knew that I wanted each player to have access to all of their abilities every turn, because that would create the feeling that you are controlling a character. The changing probabilities would have to be something other than the abilities themselves. So I had this idea to have a deck that you would shuffle and reveal cards from. If you reveal a “hit” card, the attack is successful, giving the feel that you are trying to hit with an attack. More accurate abilities would reveal more cards. Abilities that added “hit” cards to your deck would give you long term strategies.
What about all the cards that aren’t hit cards? They can’t just be blank. The answer was to have the other cards be abstract. Each ability could have bonus effects based on which abstract cards you reveal while trying to get that “hit” card. I wasn’t satisfied with this system yet. It’s not exciting enough to try to predict how accurate an attack you should use. There should be something cool you can do every turn. So, I took out the hit cards and made all the cards abstract. The game still has the feel that you’re trying to hit your opponent with an attack, but there are different ways to represent hitting your opponent, depending on how you’re attacking them.
How many different cards should the deck have? The deck should have as few cards as possible, while satisfying two criteria. First, there should be enough different cards, that there are a variety of probabilities depending on how many cards you reveal. Second, adding a new card should have some impact on those chances, but not too much. I was able to figure out some of these probabilities through brute force calculations. I was so excited when I discovered binomial distributions and learned how to use them properly. I’ll spare you the math, but suffice it to say, three each of seven different cards gives you a nice distribution of probabilities, and a moderate impact for adding an extra rune to your deck.
I know that this entry got a bit technical, so thanks for bearing with me. In future entries, I’d like to talk about what was going on in my life when I decided to design my own game, why I designed the rest of the components of the game the way I did, how I came up with the different characters, major changes that the game has gone through so far, major changes that I’ve made to the characters, the story concept for the game, as well as my most current design challenges, and thinking about future expansions for the game. Let me know what you’d like to read about next!