Character Design: Storm Caller

Designing the Lightning Mage, I really needed to find a way to differentiate it from the Fire Archer.  I knew that the character could be more magical, so I came up with some cool abilities for any mage to have, such as teleport and shock wave. I also wanted the character to play differently from the Fire Archer, so I thought about how to represent lightning differently from fire. One idea was to add an electrical charge to an enemy, so that your next attack would bounce to that enemy. I eventually called the electrical charge a “Lightning Mark” to be consistent with the Assassin Mark and Duelist Mark. Here are some examples from the last iteration of the Lightning Mage.

Electrify 9.7.12-01 Lightning Mark-01 Mental Drain 9.7.12-01

In theory you would play Electrify against one opponent, and then Mental Drain against another, and steal a focus from each of them.  In playtesting it became clear that this mechanic rarely worked. The problem was that you were rarely in range of two different opponents. There was another big problem with this mechanic.

Lightning Bolt 9.7.12-01

In order to balance the interaction between Lightning Mark and Lightning Bolt, I needed to make Lightning Bolt more expensive than it otherwise would be. The most fun thing you could do with the character was to hit two opponents with Lightning Bolt on the same turn, but eventually the character felt like a one trick pony. I don’t think anyone ever used a Lightning Mark for Mental Drain. Even if I had removed Lightning Bolt, the Lightning Mark mechanic still wouldn’t work, because of the positioning issue. So, I decided to redesign the character.

Keyword: Combo

The new character is called the Storm Caller. It salvages what I was going for with the Lightning Mark, but can also be played in a variety of ways. I designed a new mechanic for the Storm Caller with the key word “combo”. The idea behind the Storm Caller is to combine your spells into new spells. Como reads like this, “Keep this card in play. You may return it to your hand to give the following effect to this turn’s ability:” At first, I wrote that out on every card, but I decided to really narrow it down to Combo: Effect. Using a keyword puts a little extra burden onto learning the game, but once you understand combo, cards with combo become much easier to understand. This helps you understand what a new card with combo does that you haven’t seen before, and helps the game flow more intuitively for players that know how combo works.

Chain Lightning-01 Siren's Call 9.30.13-01 Intensify 9.30.13-01

Now, you can combo Siren’s Call with Chain Lightning for the same effect that I was going for with Electrify and Mental Drain, except there isn’t an issue of getting into range of both characters. When I first designed combo, it only worked on the next turn, but that also turned out to be more restrictive. After play testing, I tried using the same wording I had used on a couple of Enforcer abilities. That wording is much more flexible, and also allowed me to use combo in all of those cases. Now, instead of having abilities that work similarly, but not quite the same, they actually work the same, so it’s much more intuitive when you switch characters.

Card Layout

I updated the layout of the cards to make it more clear which cards stay in play. Putting “Combo” on the center line, helps you and other players recognize why the card is in play even though you didn’t play it this turn. I’m also using a convention from Ascension of having the titles of cards that stay in play white instead of black. I added “ranged attack” and “melee attack” to the center line so that other cards can refer to them clearly. For example, Parry can now say “cancel a melee attack against you” instead of “cancel an attack against you with range 1”. In order to make room in the center line, I moved the base damage of melee attacks into the text box. This is actually more intuitive for players anyway. People were forgetting the base damage on their melee attacks because they were looking at which runes they hit. I think that by putting the base damage with the rest of the effects of the card, it will be easier to see what the card does.

Here are some examples of abilities from other characters that use combo:

Hymn of Sustenance 9.30.13-01-01 Hymn of Valor 9.30.13-01-01 Take Aim 9.30.13-01-01

Fixing Lightning Bolt

Lightning Bolt 9.30.13-01I love the concept of calling down a natural lightning bolt. I remember reading somewhere that roman soldiers feared the Druids of the British Isles because they thought they could call lightning. Before, you only really wanted to use Lightning Bolt if you had a Lightning Mark on someone. When I got rid of the Lightning Marks, I could reduce the cost back down to -3 focus, and I also took away the “can’t be prevented” clause, to bring it in line with the power level of other abilities. Then the problem was that Lightning Bolt didn’t play very well with combo. I mean, 35 damage isn’t that much more impressive than 30 damage. It also bothered me that even though Lightning Bolt deals 30 damage, it’s still better to target a character with 24 health, to get you closer to that next wound. Then I realized that what makes Lightning Bolt interesting isn’t the 30 damage, it’s that “can’t be prevented” clause I had stripped away. So I reduced the damage of Lightning Bolt, and put can’t be prevented back on it. I also made it the Storm Caller’s level up ability. The reduced damage also effectively justifies the unlimited range. The unlimited range makes it strong against ranged characters, and the “can’t be prevented” clause gives it utility against melee characters. Also, it plays better with combo, because it lets you pick out exactly which character you want to get the combo effect on. I made it the Storm Caller’s Level Up, because it feels like something that’s fun for the Storm Caller to do often.

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Onward

The next character design entry will also be about a character that got a redesign. The next one is much more drastic though, and the character that was scrapped looks nothing like the one that replaced it. Eventually I’d like to unveil some artwork for the game and plans for kickstarter, but those are still a ways away. Also, if anyone is living in the San Francisco bay area and interested in helping me playtest this game, I’m planning to move back there in late October and you can get in touch with me at wylliamjudd@gmail.com. My current thinking is that this will be the final playtesting push to reveal minor kinks that need to be worked out, but that the game design is mostly finished (no more character redesigns). Let me know in the comments what else you’d be interested in once the character design series is over. I’d also love to get recommendations on getting the word out about this project.

Character Design: Fire Archer

The Fire Archer was the first ranged character I designed. While designing the melee characters, I kept a brainstorm of ranged character abilities. The most straightforward of these abilities form a unified strategy: kiting. For anyone who doesn’t know, kiting is a term for the strategy of keeping a distance between yourself and a shorter ranged enemy.

Take Aim 9.15.13-01 Trick Shot 7.25.13-01 Strafe-01

Because all of the damage ranged characters deal is tied to their runes (rather than dealing some base damage) ranged characters also benefit more from leveling up, and this feature of ranged characters is especially clear with the Fire Archer. Playing a Fire Archer is a careful balance of protecting yourself by kiting, leveling up, and knowing when to convert your extra fire runes into end game damage output. The clarity of these choices are part of what makes the Fire Archer interesting to play.

Fire Arrow-01 Rapid Fire-01 Blaze-01

One of the primary challenges in designing this character was that I had so far imagined the runes in terms of melee characters. Thinking through how to differentiate each of the seven runes for the Fire Archer helped me to clarify their functions across all of the classes. It really helped me to think about each of the runes, but the impact was especially dramatic for the blood rune. Designing Hunter Shot prompted me to design a cycle with this effect for all seven characters.

Hunter Shot-01 Trap-01 Blinding Arrow 7.25.13-01

Very recently, I’ve done a realignment of what each of the runes represent. Previously there had been a lot of muddling between the runes. Steel and Blood were difficult to distinguish as they were strongly associated with single target melee attacks, and they were especially problematic for ranged characters. Steel and Sun were both associated with stuns and burst attacks. Steel, Sun and Moon were all associated with preventing damage. Each rune now has a primary effect: Sun stuns; Moon moves your foe; Steel is used for single target and burst melee attacks; Blood increases your focus; Fire gives bonus damage; Lightning is used for high movement abilities and for extra turns; and Eye lets you look at your runes. Overlaps still exist, but by identifying primary effects for each rune their identities have been clarified, at least for me. I’m particularly happy with the change to the blood rune, because it now has a clear identity of a rune that draws on inner strength rather than referring to the blood drawn from your enemy.

Reaction Trap-01-01I designed Trap to both advance the kiting strategy, and to give the Fire Archer a flavorful way to use the steel rune. I talked in the previous entry about adding reactions to characters other than the Duelist. Trap was an ability that translated well into a reaction. When looking at the Fire Archer’s ability set as a whole, changing the Trap into a reaction has one problem which is that it restricts the Fire Archer to a single +1 focus ability with movement (Take Aim). However, Hunter Shot has been added since identifying this as a problem, and may help to alleviate the issue. While Hunter Shot itself doesn’t let you move, the extra focus it provides can be used to move. I plan to test both versions moving forward and see which one makes the Fire Archer more fun for more people. I am also debating changing trap to revel 4 cards and knock down and deal 3 damage instead of stunning. Trap is a placeholder name; if I get the opportunity to expand the game, I will want to design additional traps. If I go with the knock down version, I’ll change the name to Caltrops.

Recently I’ve taken the step of identifying seven starting abilities for each character for new players. In designing these starting sets, I’ve discovered some things that are essential to a new player’s experience of the game. For example, having access to a level up is important to the feeling that you have some control over the course the game takes. Also, not having access to a high movement ability would leave a new player with the impression that ranged characters have no way to escape from melee characters. On the other hand, high damage game enders are not very important to a new player’s experience, but they are intriguing cards to gain access to in the second game.

Onward

Next up, I’ll go through the design of the Lightning Mage, and the process of redesigning the Lightning Mage into the Storm Caller. The Storm Caller inspired a new mechanic, which I’m now using for several of the characters.

Character Design: Assassin

Designing Stealth

Just like armor, I knew that I wanted to include stealth in this game from the beginning. And just like armor, I knew that I would restrict stealth to one character rather than making it a facet of each character. I’ve always been a huge fan of stealth in games, and I wanted stealth to be powerful and to work the way the player would want it to work. So, stealth works like this: When the Assassin goes into stealth it is removed from the board and avoids all attacks on that turn. When the Assassin attacks from stealth, it is placed anywhere on the board, so long as there’s an enemy within range of the Assassin’s attack. I sometimes get this mind boggled reaction, “so the Assassin can just teleport wherever he wants?” and my answer is, “yeah, it’s crazy!”

Enforcer Enrage-01 Ambush-01

Character Redesign

Initially the Assassin had two sets of abilities, one of which could only be used when attacking from stealth. This greatly limited the number of options the Assassin had access to at any given time. During one of the major rounds of edits to the game, in which movement was costed appropriately, the Assassin was redesigned so that any ability could be used at any time. Using an ability from stealth is still a huge benefit, because your opponent has no chance of escape. This redesign was part of what inspired the current design of Savage Strike which was previously two separate abilities.

Ambush 5.1.12-01 Paralyzing Blow-01 Savage Strike-01

(That icon in the upper left meant the ability could only be played from stealth.)

The Evolution of an Ability

Before I designed any characters I brainstormed abilities I could put into the game. Out of that brainstorm came a pull ability, inspired by Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, Pudge from DotA or Blitzcrank from LoL. I debated whether to give the ability to the Berserker or the Enforcer, and I decided on the Berserker. In order to support this ability for the Berserker, I needed to conceptualize the Berserker wielding knives on the ends of chains like Kratos from God of War.

Playtesting revealed a number of things about this ability. The ability was often not used for its pull, but for its damage. Movement was a more reliable way to close a gap, so the Berserker would typically use high movement abilities instead of this one. On the other hand, there were a couple of cases where this ability would be used primarily for the ranged damage. One was when the Berserker was standing on the other side of a well placed trap, and the other was when the damage was enough to end the game. Changing the ability to a Move 1 Range 3 ability, that dealt less damage helped to resolve all of these issues.

Lash Knife 3.8.12-01 Whip Cord-01

One of the play testers mentioned that it felt more like an Assassin ability than a Berserker ability, so I decided to try it out on the Assassin instead. Once I decided to try it out, I realized right away that this ability interacts interestingly with stealth. The Assassin can use this ability to pull an opponent closer to your allies, just like the Berserker could, but the Assassin could also pull an opponent off of a vulnerable ally by using it from stealth. Ranged abilities also give the Assassin greater flexibility in where to appear from stealth. This ability is now central to a build of the Assassin that serves as the team’s “tank”.

This change also improved the concepts of both characters. A friend who was doing art for the game at the time wanted to draw a cord weapon for the Assassin, but it weirdly stepped on the toes of the Berserker’s chain knives, which were clunky anyway. Now the Berserker can carry whichever weapons the artist feels is most appropriate, and the Assassin can use the same cord for choking people or pulling them.

Assassin Marks

I’m sure you can figure out for yourself how Slice and Dice and Vampiric Strike are a combo.

Slice and Dice-01 Assassin Mark-01 Vampiric Strike-01

Current Design

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In the works

Poison Dart is a problematic ability. It was designed because players were worried that popping out of stealth in the middle of the enemy camp might not be the smartest thing to do on the first turn, but the Assassin had no other options. I also like the idea of letting the Assassin set up their runes while in stealth, to make coming out of stealth a bit flashier. The ability works fine, but it has two problems. One is that the Assassin stays in stealth for too long, making it unlikely that the Assassin will ever get attacked. The other is that between Vanish and Poison Dart, the Assassin winds up with an overabundance of focus, making the most expensive abilities the most relevant. I plan to resolve this problem by combining Poison Dart and Vanish into one ability that doesn’t adjust your focus.

Out:

Vanish-01 Poison Dart-01

In:

Vanish 6.16.13-01 Sure Strike 9.7.12-01

This new ability can be used in a bunch of ways. You can use it when you aren’t next to an opponent to set up your runes and close the gap; you can use it to put a mark on a foe and set up your runes; and you can use it from stealth for a chance to go right back into stealth. My thinking is that, as opposed to Poison Dart, attempting to remain in stealth is a risk, as you may not hit the moon rune you need. I should probably come up with a new name for this new ability as well, that better represents putting an Assassin Mark on your foe. Hopefully this will give the Assassin a number of viable opening moves, and will help resolve some of the other issues with the Assassin. Combining these abilities will also open up room to bring back Sure Strike, an old ability designed to combo with Assassin Marks.

Character Design: Berserker

Before I go into the design of the Berserker, I think it’s important to explain why I included characters in the game’s design in the first place. Once I’ve tackled that topic, I’ll discuss balancing different strategies within a single character’s design, using Berserker abilities as an example. I’ll talk about naming abilities, how I assign runes to abilities, and define some of the keywords used in these cards I’m revealing. I’ll also tell a bit about what’s in the works now.

Why Design Characters?

I could have designed the game without characters. I could have designed ability cards that anyone could use. The abilities could be drafted and you could build your own unique character, much like Magic: The Gathering. Despite this very cool potential scenario, I didn’t design the game this way. Why not?

There are a number of reasons why having characters is a good thing for this game. Having characters enhances the flavor of the runes, the abilities, and the game overall. Characters can be balanced against one another in ways that abilities can’t be. For example: health, always available passive abilities, and other subtler factors such as access to ranged attacks. One more advantage of characters is that they are better for game setup than the draft scenario. Time you’re spending drafting cards is time you’re spending not playing the game (or rather, there are two games to play, the draft and the battle). Allowing players to choose from a set of abilities that no one else has access to gives players the freedom to craft a strategy without having to compete for the elements of that strategy. Drafting abilities that aren’t restricted by character would have a whole different set of advantages, but these are the advantages of designing characters as I see them.

Balancing Strategies

Surprisingly, I’ve rarely needed to adjust the relative power of different characters. Apparently the math I used to design the abilities from the outset was sound. Instead, I’ve been focused on balancing strategies within a class. One round of across the board changes I made was to make abilities with high movement less powerful, because smart players figured out that high movement abilities were much better than abilities with low movement. Playing a low movement ability is a risk, since your opponent could move away from you and nullify your attack. Now, that risk is counterbalanced with a greater reward compared to the lower risk, high movement abilities. These three abilities represent three different strategies for the Berserker. Trying to make sure that there are a variety of appealing strategies within each class is a fair deal of what character design is all about.

Blood Thirst-01 Slaughter-01 Terrifying Blow-01

Subtlety in Character Balance

Characters are defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can do. The Berserker focuses on damage and mobility to penetrate the back line and deal damage to high value targets. In contrast, the Enforcers skill set is more focused on holding that front line and keeping characters like the Berserker away from your allies through knock downs, stuns, and damage prevention. The Berserker’s defensive ability is Blood Thirst which allows the Berserker to heal based on damage dealt. This is a good example of subtle balance, since combining damage prevention with healing creates a multiplicative effect that requires careful balance. If I designed a character with both, I would restrict the power of each accordingly. I’ve given the Berserker one knock down and one stun, both of which I am invested in keeping because of their fantasy value. My current feeling is that these two abilities still keep the Berserker relatively crowd control light since they are both restrictive to use.

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Naming

I read an interesting article about Magic design and why iconic names, such as “Charge”, should be used sparingly so that you don’t box yourself in for future designs. With that in mind I named the two Enforcer movement abilities “Zealous Charge” and “Dazzling Charge.”

Zealous Charge-01 Dazzling Charge-01

There’s also been a process for naming the Enforcer which was called a Knight first and then a Paladin. I liked Knight because it doesn’t hold a religious connotation and I wasn’t necessarily going for a holy crusader as much as an armored warrior. Unfortunately Knight really means someone riding a horse, and actually so does Paladin. Enforcer is both morality neutral, and doesn’t imply a steed. However, as the world for the game becomes more fleshed out, I’m more keen on the idea of returning to the character name Paladin, with an interesting religion behind it.

The names of all of these abilities aren’t final. I’m looking for a naming convention to tie Conviction and Stamina together. One idea is to borrow from Magic and call them seals (like Seal of Strength and Seal of Fire).

Conviction-01 Stamina-01

Runes

It’s very helpful for runes to have a set of effects that they are associated with. Not only does it create an identity for the runes and make them more evocative, but it also aids with game play if you can look at what runes a card uses and guess at what the card does. One of the things that I still need to do for this game is designate a set of seven starting cards so that new players aren’t forced to choose between options they can’t reasonably evaluate. When I do that, I might need to rearrange which runes go on which abilities. Hopefully, as I unveil the characters’ abilities, the themes of each rune will become apparent, but what each rune represents will also likely shift in the future. I’ve actually been thinking of changing Throwing Axe to trigger off of Vision (representing aim) and Blood Thirst to trigger off of Blood + Moon. My original thinking was that the Vision rune would be a generative/regenerative rune (gain health, focus, marks, special resources, etc) for no better reason than that it’s green. But I’ve since moved away from that concept, and focused the vision rune on deck manipulation and ranged attacks, while giving generative abilities to the blood rune.

What do these abilities do?

These abilities need a little more explanation. Knock Down means your opponent can’t move on the following turn. Stun means your opponent can’t do anything on the following turn. Level Up allows you to gather up all your rune cards and exchange one for a new rune from outside the game, then shuffle. Level Ups are one of the primary ways of planning ahead in the game, like buying gold in Dominion or expanding in Starcraft. Differing strategies differ largely in how many turns a player spends leveling up on the one hand and how many turns the players deal maximum damage instead.

In the works

In the future I’ll be working on adjusting where the runes show up on abilities to make the runes evocative and consistent and to keep a variety of options available for each character. After I’ve gotten the artwork I’ll finalize the ability names, and come up with and solicit flavor text for the abilities. The cards are also in some need of a small design update, that draws the players’ attention to abilities that stay in play. I’ll probably create categories like “preparation” and “object” and display the card type in white text instead of black so that players are better able to distinguish cards that stay in play. I also plan to design character cards that show special abilities like Block and Enrage on them and also show the character’s health and starting focus. Most excitingly, I’ll design one more ability for each character. My hope is to have just two more rounds of play testing, one final round for identifying remaining changes that are needed, and one more that I hope won’t reveal anything that needs to be changed.

Onward

I’d like to continue with these character design entries. These first two have had almost opposite styles. In the entry about the Enforcer, I focused on the history of the Enforcer and how designing the game began. In this entry I didn’t discuss the history of the character at all, instead talking about what I hope is good about the character’s current design. Which style is more interesting to you? Next up, Assassin.

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.

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.