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.

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.