Character Design: Enforcer

The Enforcer was the first character I designed. It’s difficult to fully express the challenge of designing the first character. The game is a blank page. There are no abilities to compare the first ability to. There is no concept of how diverse a range of abilities the game mechanics can support. There is no sense of how the abilities will play. There is no way to test the first abilities. There is no way to know what the game is. There is no game.

If you’ve been reading this journal you probably have a pretty good idea of the challenge I faced. You know about as much as I did about my game at this point (a little bit more if you’ve been paying attention). How do you overcome a blank page? You brainstorm. Designing the first character is easy for the same reason it’s difficult: there are no abilities already populating the game that new abilities need to be different from.

Brainstorm

I did have some context to work with. Here’s what I already had to work with: choosing actions simultaneously, the rune deck, the resource system, health and damage, a goal for the number of turns a game should take, the mechanic I’d designed for armor, and the board. (The board was still a question at this point, but as I came up with more and more abilities that relied on having a board, it was clear that the board was worth having.) I brainstormed iconic melee abilities I knew I wanted in the game, like charge, area melee attacks, and stuns. I brainstormed abilities that worked with the rune deck: how many runes you reveal, putting specific runes on top of your deck to set up the next turn, and modifying the contents of your rune deck. This brainstorm would serve as a starting point for all of the melee characters abilities, and for the first character, I used as many as I needed.

Math

I could also work out some basic math before I designed the first ability. I wanted the game to average ten turns. I wanted +1 focus abilities to deal half as much damage as -1 focus abilities. I knew how likely the Enforcer was to block, so I knew what the ratio of damage needed to be between the Enforcer and the rest of the characters. I gave abilities their lowest possible damage average to accommodate the ratio and the focus, and based health totals on the ten turn goal.

Two Iconic Abilities

(+1) Spin Attack [4]
Move 1 Burst 1
Sun: 4 Damage

(+1) Bash [4]
Move 1 Range 1 Damage 2
Sun: +2 Damage and Knock Down

Spin Attack is the only Enforcer ability that made it all the way from initial design to the current state of the game. I didn’t yet know how to evaluate knock downs, so I just tacked it on the abilities as a sort of flavor bonus at first. Eventually I learned how to evaluate knockdowns and balance them with other abilities.

Enforcer

Synergy with Block

(+1) Defensive Stance [4]
Move 1 Range 1 Damage 2
Moon: [5] to block this turn.

(+1) Punish [4]
Move 1
Lightning: Successful blocks deal 9 damage and stun this turn.

Synergy with blocking was design space that was open to me. Testing revealed that these abilities were very limited in their usefulness, because in group games your opponents are already trying to attack your allies so their attacks don’t get blocked. The situation would come up where your opponents had to attack you, and you could play one of them, but even then they were “win more” cards. At first I combined them so that they would only take up one option, but eventually I scrapped them altogether.

Simultaneous Play

(-1) Intercept [6]
Switch places with an adjacent ally. Redirect all attacks against your ally to you. Deal 6 Damage to each melee foe who attacks you this turn.
Blood: +6 Damage

This was a very powerful ability, though it did require some setup to use well (you had to stand next to an ally). This ability showcases simultaneous play well. The problem with this ability was that it invalidated your other strategies for getting your opponents to attack you, such as knockdowns . Cutting this ability made the rest of the Enforcers tools more appealing.

Now

The Future of the Enforcer

I don’t know what playtesting will reveal in terms of changes that still need to be made to the Enforcer if any. At some point I will need to stop tinkering and call the game ready. I might have room for one more ability per character in my print run, so I can still design one more ability for the Enforcer. More importantly, I need to determine a starting set of seven recommended abilities. Players are able to customize their characters by choosing which seven abilities they will use in the game, but a starting player can’t reasonably make that kind of choice. I need to determine which abilities are most essential to a player’s initial experience of the game.

Next Time

I could continue with this character design series, moving on to the Berserker, the second character I designed. Or I could move on to a broader topic, like designing for strategic options, or other games that inspired me. I’m considering continuing the character design series every other week, and I’m also considering two posts per week. Please leave a comment and let me know what you’re interested in.

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Design Goals

I designed this game because I wasn’t satisfied with the play experience I could get from any of my favorite games. I wanted a fantasy combat game that delivered on the game design principles of modern board games like Settlers of Catan and Dominion. I decided to design a game because I wanted to be a game designer, and I realized that there was nothing stopping me. I decided to design this game because it’s the game I want to play, and there’s no game already out there that provides this play experience. These are some of the design principles that formed the vision for the creation of this game.

Tabletop

Our modern society puts us in front of a computer screen for work and entertainment. Tabletop games give us an opportunity to use our time differently. They allow us to be in our minds and our bodies. We can stand up, stretch, get a glass of water, or go to the bathroom without ruining the experience. They let our eyes focus on something without a frame rate. Above all, they create opportunities for live human interactions.

Play Time

I knew that I wanted to create a game that plays in roughly 45 minutes. I identified playtime as one of the reasons why I like Magic: The Gathering, Dominion, League of Legends, and Starcraft. It’s the perfect amount of time for a game to hold my attention, similar to an episode of a TV show. It’s long enough to be satisfying and short enough to be fun all the way through. I designed the game with this in mind from the very beginning. A lot of the development of this game has been aimed at play time.

Group Play

There are three elements that I kept in mind when designing this game for more than two players. All three of these elements are present in Settlers of Catan, a pioneer in the field. First, there shouldn’t be any player elimination. Second, the game should have good pacing. In other words you shouldn’t have to wait too long for the other players to finish their turns. One great tool for accomplishing this goal is simultaneous play. Third, players should be given the freedom to employ their own individual strategies. Different games accomplish this in a wide variety of ways, but the most important thing to avoid is ganging up. A lot of development was done to make sure that the mechanics that were used to encourage fun group play, actually worked.

Simplicity

One of the mantras in modern board game design is “easy to learn, easy to teach, deep gameplay.” I wanted to design a game that’s simple enough to be easy to learn. I want players to be able to play without referencing the rulebook as soon as possible. Cards are an excellent medium for steering the player away from the rulebook.

Strategy

One of my greatest motivations was to create a game with deep strategies. Building a game for deep strategies means building meaningful player choices into the game. For player choices to be meaningful in a strategic sense, there need to be multiple paths to victory. The choices need to build toward an overall game-long strategy. Strategy is distinct from tactics in this game-wide view. For example: do I build up to a late game advantage, or do I maximize my early turns to rush a victory.

Chance

When done wrong, chance undermines the player’s strategic decisions. When done right, chance creates variance in the play experience; it evens out the learning curve a little, giving beginning players a glimpse of hope against veteran players; it can even be a driver for strategic decisions. One more good thing about chance that I didn’t mention before, and the reason why games of pure chance are fun, is that it creates moments of tension and surprise.

Theme

Most modern board games already do all of these things well. In my experience, fantasy combat games do not do these things well. My long term goal is to create a game that can be used for both player vs player combat and for cooperative combat. I decided to design the game for PvP first. There is an inherent challenge and thrill to attempting to outplay a human opponent. I also thought that it would be easier to translate a PvP game into a cooperative game. Now that I’ve begun the work of creating a cooperative mode for this game, I’ve discovered that it might be better to build a new game with cooperative play in mind from the beginning. I’m still happy to have a game that uses the design principles of modern board games and applies them to fantasy combat.

Onward

I hope that this entry gives you a clear view of my vision for this game. I plan to go into greater detail about these design principles and how they informed my actual game design decisions. I would love to get your feedback on which aspects of game design you find most interesting, and what you want me to write about next.

Development – Round One

The untested game. Abilities are scrawled on index cards, ripped in half. A marked up piece of hex paper from the back room serves as a board. Four players sit around the table ready to play a game that has never been played before. Excitement and dread play competing scenarios in my mind: the game mechanics don’t work; or the game play falls flat and isn’t exciting; or the players are riveted, onlookers gather ’round and yell, “Ohhh!” when a risky play pans out.

I was lucky. The very first play through of this game was a blast. The players put real thought into each decision, imagined the battlefield, and struggled to outplay their opponents. I had good circumstances for my first play. My players were versed in all of the biggest influences on this game: Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, League of Legends and Dominion. The setting was a game shop where I gathered players and passersby became an interested audience.

There were serious flaws with the game at this point; deep flaws that would require major changes. Yet there was a core play experience that was fun from the very beginning. Thinking through the role of chance in game design had paid off.

Flaw # 1 – Player Elimination

In that very first game, a player could be eliminated. I knew that my game possessed the flaw of player elimination before play testing, but I hadn’t come up with a way to fix it yet.

This was my solution – Each character has a certain amount of health: 30 for melee characters, 24 for ranged characters. When a character takes damage equal to their health, they get a wound. Each game is played to a certain number of wounds, depending on the number of players. While you don’t have to watch out too much for overkill damage, the system does reward you for hitting health amounts as exactly as possible since the wounds are all that count towards victory. The system also still rewards you for going after high value squishy ranged characters. This one was the easiest fix.

Flaw #2 – Simultaneous Play

In that very first game, you played one card to represent your action, and one card to represent your target, both face down, and then revealed both of them. The idea was to give each player one decision point, and then let the game rules work out what would happen next. It worked fine a surprising amount of the time (in retrospect) but when it didn’t work, it really didn’t work. There are many examples, such as knock backs, but there’s one example that illustrates the problem well – two melee characters are standing so that there is one hex between them and they each play a melee attack with move 1 targeting the other. Which one moves into that hex?

There was a dark and convoluted path before I let go of completely simultaneous play. My girlfriend really wanted me to embrace simultaneous play, a la slap-jack… I knew that wasn’t my solution, not for this game. Someone suggested putting timing numbers on every card. I tried that, but checking the timing numbers bogged down play like a… like a bog. (I think this mechanic comes from RoboRally, which I really ought to play and haven’t, and the mechanic may work well in that game, but it didn’t in this one.) I won’t take you down the complete twisted path.

Here’s how it works now – There is an “initiative” marker, held by one team at a time. Each player plays an action card face down, and reveals them simultaneously. The team with the “initiative” marker moves all their characters and declares all their targets, in whatever order they choose. Then the other team moves all their characters and declares all their targets. Then runes are revealed simultaneously. Then the teams declare their damage and effects in the same order. Then the initiative marker changes hands.

The best thing about the initiative marker is that it opens up design space for making decisions throughout the turn instead of once, because decisions don’t have to be hidden.

Flaw #3 – Turn Based Movement with Simultaneous Actions

Solving the paradoxes of simultaneous play led to a new design challenge. Consider this scenario – We begin the turn next to each other, we both play a “move 1” ability, and I move first. I want to attack you with my range 1 attack, and you’re already next to me, so I don’t move. Now, you can move one away from me, and I can’t attack you, even though I could have gotten to you with my movement. This is an artifact of simultaneous damage combined with turn based movement and is not an issue in a game like D&D where everything is turn based.

The solution to this problem was easy and direct. You can choose to “follow” your target. If your target moves, you’ll use as much movement as you have that turn, to follow them. You must move directly toward your target. You can choose the hex you land on if it’s ambiguous, but if you have extra movement you don’t get to use it.

Here’s another scenario to consider. We begin the turn with two hexes between us, we both play a “move 1” ability, and I move first. I move one, but you’re not in range yet. I could target you, and then you could choose to battle me or not. But, what if I choose to target you, and then one of your allies comes into range, and you don’t? Now, I’m not attacking anyone, even though there’s a foe right next to me. Now there is a similar rule to the “follow” rule, called the “retaliate” rule. If you choose to retaliate, whenever a foe comes within range of your attack, you can target them. You still only get one target, and you have to decide as soon as someone comes in range.

These two rules play intuitively, and allow me to keep some of the simultaneous elements of the game.

Flaw #4 – Why Move?

Once I introduced the initiative marker, I noticed that players lost track of who had it. I realized that it wasn’t that the players were just being lazy or inattentive, but that movement didn’t matter, especially in the middle third of the game. People would get into position, wail on each other, and then maybe switch targets suddenly once during the game. If I’m going to have a board, it should really matter more than that. People should remember who has initiative, because they should care. I decided to try map objectives. I wanted to be sure that the map objectives I added felt like they belonged in the game.

The map objectives I designed are “rune tokens” you can pick up. Once you have a rune token, you can spend it to automatically hit that rune on one of your abilities. It’s great because it helps to mitigate the frustration of missing an important rune, and feels like a natural fit. Before the map objectives, initiative was always bad, because you give up information first. With map objectives, initiative means you get first chance at picking up a rune.

Onward

I designed this game from scratch, with very little to model it on, and playtesting has revealed numerous flaws. Working out solutions to those flaws has led to some of the most engaging elements of the game, which I didn’t have in mind from the outset. I hope that following my process for developing this game is enjoyable, and maybe even insightful. In future entries I plan to talk about some of the elements of game play that created the impetus for me to design this game. I also plan to discuss in greater detail how I designed the abilities for each character; further rounds of development; the story concept and illustration for the game; what I’ve learned about the indie board game industry; and future possibilities for expanding on this game design.

Designing for Fantasy

In my first entry, I described the bottom-up process I used to design the core mechanic of my game, the rune deck. Now it’s time to see what that mechanic can do. Once I had a core mechanic, I could turn my eye to the top down concepts I wanted the game to convey. This is where the runes will become fleshed out and become less abstract. Before I get too far, here are some pictures so you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about.

Slam Fire Arrow

(Top left is focus “cost”, top right is number of runes revealed, and the text box shows effects depending on which runes are revealed.)

Representing Armor

One of the things I knew I wanted to be able to represent was armor. In the very early stages of designing this game, before I had designed any abilities, I had the notion that each character might have varying amounts of armor. You could reveal cards from a deck to see how much damage you absorbed. This was before I decided to lose the hit cards, and base all the abilities’ effects on the abstract cards. Once I hit upon the idea for seven runes, I realized that each of the runes could be primary for a particular class, which would help me to determine what sorts of bonuses each rune would grant. One of the first characters I designed, was the Paladin.

The Paladin’s primary rune would be the sun rune, which would also be used as the Paladin’s armor. The Paladin would be the only armored character, at least in terms of the game mechanics. Any time the Paladin would take damage, the player reveals three rune cards. If any of them are sun runes, the Paladin takes none of the damage. This is a very powerful ability, that greatly reduces how powerful the Paladin’s attacks can be. The effect is also very flavorful and gets across clearly that the Paladin is a heavily armored warrior.

Increased Flavor, Decreased Complexity

Each of the four melee characters was designed around a class feature. Each of these class features was something I knew I wanted to represent, but had originally imagined as various features of a single character. They are armor for the Paladin, rage for the Berserker, stealth for the Assassin, and responses for the Duelist. One of the great things about breaking these features up into different character classes, was that it greatly reduced the complexity of the game. Only one character has to worry about how armor works, and it won’t be hard to remember, because it’s such a major feature of the character. More to the point, that player won’t have to worry about stealth, or any of the other class features.

Designing the ranged characters was more difficult for me. Designing the Fire Archer came to me easily, but the Lightning Mage and Wolf Shaman were much trickier, and both eventually got scrapped. The two characters that replaced them are now two of my favorite characters, but I didn’t design them until I had already been playtesting the game for about a year.

Ranged Attacks, Increased Complexity

Before I could design any abilities, I had to decide whether the game would have a board, and how I would represent ranged attacks. Having a board was the simplest most evocative way to represent movement and ranged attacks from a flavor perspective. From a design perspective though, it increased the complexity. I consider simplicity a virtue in game design, but I’ve learned that complexity has its place. In this case it’s become one of the primary dynamics of the game. I’m still a believer in the virtue of simplicity in game design, but the process of actually designing a game from scratch has taught me that simple design is only better when it does the job just as well as a more complex design.

Another way that ranged attacks are represented in this game is that they can miss. Melee attacks always deal some amount of base damage, and have a chance to deal bonus damage depending on the runes you reveal. In contrast, ranged attacks deal damage only if you reveal a certain rune. In exchange, ranged attacks deal more damage when they hit – from a full rune deck the averages are the same. The potential to miss entirely with ranged attacks but not melee attacks is another evocative way to represent ranged attacks.

Taking into account the board and the runes, melee attacks and ranged attacks can both be unreliable. It’s much easier for an opponent to move out of range of a melee attack than it is for an opponent to move out of range of a ranged attack. They are unreliable in different ways, which means that the characters need to be played differently. Ranged characters need to pay close attention to their rune deck and know when to use which ability, while melee characters need to pay close attention to the board and know when to spend some resources on movement, or when it’s safe to go for a strong melee attack based on positioning. Of course both types of characters need to keep track of both, but these different play styles were totally unexpected outcomes of combining these two game elements. Let’s see those pictures again:

Slam-01 Fire Arrow

The Resource System

Before I ever play tested the game, I had lots of ideas for resource systems, but one of them stood out as the best. It’s no secret that the resource system is based on Planeswalker loyalty from Magic: The Gathering. For those of you not familiar with the resource system, you begin with a certain amount of loyalty. Some actions increase your loyalty, others spend it. This was a natural fit because you already can only play one action per turn, which is necessary to make the system work. The advantage of this system is that it is linked directly to your actions, which means that the cost and generation of the resources can be printed directly on the action cards. I noticed after designing this system that it’s become very common to do something similar in video games like Diablo III. Even though each character in that game technically has a different resource system, they all share in common that some abilities generate the resource while others spend it. It’s a fun feature for a system to have, because you always have options.

Plans for Future Entries

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this entry. In future entries I plan to write about: the difficult process of resolving timing rules for a game with simultaneous play and movement, and the simple solution it took me months to design; why the board wasn’t fun at first, and what I did to make it fun; major changes I’ve made to the game and the characters; the story concept and the artist who will be illustrating the game; ideas for the game that might be implemented in the future; and maybe some day I’ll talk about my personal life and how it relates to designing games.

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