Designing the Core Mechanic

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.

The Game

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.

Future Entries

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!

Related Links

A blog entry about games without randomness


12 thoughts on “Designing the Core Mechanic

  1. I’m curious about your design for the hit cards.
    How did they interact with the character cards?
    Did you start with the idea of the hit cards first?
    What was the main push for the creation of this new game?

    1. It would have worked like this: you play an ability, then you reveal cards. If you reveal a hit card, the card works. If you don’t, the card does nothing. It was never play tested, because it was obviously not a fun system, but it was the seed of the idea.

      As for the main push for creating this game, I think I’ll dive into that in another entry.

  2. Solid post with some great fleshed out ideas. I’m a bit more of a kinesthetic learner so I’m finding it a little hard to really conceptualize the mechanics fully (plus I think it will make more sense when you have explained certain concepts further)

    I actually have a post backlogged on probability which touches on calculated risk and chance in games which I may post next week or in three weeks. I definitely come at chance in games with a probability mindset, and often create games within games just toying with the odds in my mind. And that for me, almost entirely creates a satisfying experience. It matters very little for me if I win or lose given a probabilistically well played game. But that’s because I am 1) quite math inclined and 2) pretty chill as a person. I have seen chance frustrate people to no end. To someone very invested in victory, there is nothing quite as depressing as, say rolling (1,2) and watching your opponent blaze away with (6,6) in Backgammon or Parcheesi, or perhaps having all your stars swapped on the last turn in Mario Party.

    Another thing that I find very interesting is chance created by lack of knowledge. I think I talked about this in a post. In Star Craft, for example, there is a bit of a rock paper scissors style build in zerg v zerg matches at high level play. So the fog of war sets players down separate paths which could be extremely detrimental down the line, and that macro build is pretty much a flip of a coin. It is a very interesting way to see chance creep into an entirely skill based game and then see how players mitigate this risk.

    My brother and I had a pretty interesting conversation about chance not too long ago. It started with a conversation based around deck vs. dice play of Settlers of Catan. The group he plays with had opted from time to time to play Settlers with a set deck of cards (based on a two roll probability set, ie: 1 card for 2, 6 cards for 7 etc). It was a choice to squelch that volatility that pops up game to game. The idea made a lot of sense, but for some reason it just didn’t sit right with me.

    Maybe it comes from that previously mentioned math/chill, combined with what you talked about as that glimmer of hope for a lesser to topple the mighty. I play to bring people together and get agitated less by losing because of flukey occurrences and more by people not feeling like they have a chance (not to say my brother doesn’t, I’m just working through my personal rationalization). Cutting that volatility seemed (at least conceptually, I haven’t actually played a game with the cards) liked it would create a structure that would ramp up a seasoned players efficacy… which should be a good thing, but for some reason didn’t feel right in that game for me. Something about the dice in that game weirdly struck a chord as a good balance of chance.

    We later discussed different rule sets of D&D and how they use dice pairings and AC to expand or contract that volatility, as well as manipulate that mean point in the distribution of what the player needs for success. But I don’t feel like getting into that here.

    Anyways, as I said, without some more details (which I’m sure are coming in later posts) it’s hard for me to have a real good handle on how the parts come together necessarily, but it seems like a pretty interesting system. It looks like you have attacked the thought process with some good questioning of certain basic elements of games, and I like to hear you are developing with probability distributions in mind. Look forward to more details.


    1. I have the same sentiment about caring less about victory than about whether I played the game well and made the best decisions. Math oriented and chill, I think that also describes me well. My fiance is much more victory oriented, and she is ready to flip tables when she loses, especially if she gets some bad luck on the last couple of turns.

      I thought about including a section in this entry about ro-sham-bo (rock-paper-scissors). It’s interesting because there is no pure randomness in rock-paper-scissors, and you get complete control over your action. There was a time when my magic player friends were getting frustrated by mana screw and mana flood in Magic, and encouraged me to design a game without randomness. I thought about it, and decided that I didn’t want a game without randomness, and neither did they, not truly. A roshambo with many more components was one way to give the illusion of not being random. But alone, hidden information isn’t a good game mechanic.

      On the other hand, it can be an excellent game component, like it is in Starcraft. When there is a combination of known and unkown information, roshambo elements become much more interesting. And this element is included in my game, because each player plays an ability card face down, then reveals them simultaneously. So you’re trying to predict what your opponent will do, but you’re also trying to make a good decision based on what you know about the remaining content of your own rune deck. Also, you have some knowledge of your opponent’s rune deck, which can help you to predict their action.

      To address the comment that you don’t have a clear picture of how the game is played, it’s something I definitely think about. The internet is an awesome tool for me, but one thing it doesn’t do well is get across how my game is actually played. My best tool for that is meeting people in person and showing it to them. So I’m trying to figure out ways to generate some excitement about it, without necessarily showing exactly how the game is played. I think that this will become much easier once I have some artwork, which will come eventually. In the meantime, I plan to include more images in future entries.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      1. Have you played Vandal Hearts 2 on the Playstation, or Kongai on Kongregate? Both games use a simultaneous action based system, so if you are doing that you may want to try to check them out and see what feels good about them and where you feel they have pitfalls. Just a thought.


  3. I ran into an interesting post on this issue recently from Dan Cook –

    I think that our ability to discern pattern in a noisy environment, and to induce the existence of patterns which are fundamentally stochastic, is part of our way of being in the world. So perhaps randomness in a game could be considered a naturalistic feature, even when its context is a relatively formal and abstract one. Whether games should offer a purely rule-based refuge from the nature of things is a matter of taste.

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