Character Design: Duelist

Before I moved to Korea eleven months ago, I took my last opportunity to put the game through a big play testing push. One of the things that came out of those sessions was a consensus that the Duelist was the most fun character to play. It was partly because the Duelist was flexible – you could choose whether to play defensively or aggressively. Mostly though, I believe it was because you got more decisions.

Each of the melee characters had a special ability. Block for the Enforcer, rage for the Berserker, and stealth for the Assassin. The Duelist’s special ability was that some of his abilities were responses. In light of this being the most fun character for most players, rather than keep responses unique to the Duelist, I looked for ways to add responses to other characters. The timing rules for the game were also robust enough by now to be able to handle more than one character getting to respond to things. The Duelist’s new special ability is an extra card to choose from, and an extra card in hand.

Here are some of the responses that were inspired by the Duelist:

Conviction-01 Stamina-01 Adrenaline-01

After adjusting the other six characters, and in a couple of cases totally overhauling them, the Duelist started to feel a little neglected. In Korea I’ve continued to steadily play test the game with a much more limited pool of players. Over the past two months or so, I’ve been working on the latest character overhaul.

Here are the Duelist abilities that came out basically unchanged:

Feint-01 Parry-01 En Garde 9.2.13-01 Trip 9.2.13-01 Reprise 9.2.13-01 Lunge-01

And here were the abilities that needed to change:

Disarm-01 Sweep Attack-01 Advance-01

Disarm was the most glaring problem. Getting stunned is one of the things that makes players want to flip tables, especially new players. Getting your current attack canceled is even more frustrating, and this card did both. For all the headache this card caused for your opponent, it wasn’t even fun to play, because you had to hold three focus for the perfect moment and then…do nothing. A lot of nothing. I’d be looking for a powerful ability to replace Disarm that was more fun.

Sweep Attack had a very different problem. This card was fun to play, but blurred the line between the Enforcer and the Duelist really hard. It basically turned the Duelist into the Enforcer. I’d be looking for a level up that fit better with the Duelist thematically. One of my favorite play tester’s (Greg McHugh) who’s good at both League of Legends and Magic put it to me this way, “The Duelist wants to corner someone and force them into a duel.” That comment stayed with me.

Advance was actually a really fun card, which is part of why it was so hard for me to see that it needed to be changed at first. In retrospect the change to Advance seems obvious.

Here are the new cards:

Slander 9.2.13-01-01 Deft Maneuver 9.2.13-01  Advance 9.2.13-01

Slander was the first of these cards that I came up with. I wanted to give the Duelist a way to incentivize attacking him, without taking away his opponents options. One obvious way to respond to Slander is to focus the team’s attacks against the Duelist, and I wanted to give the Duelist a way to respond to that. Deft Maneuver winds up looking quite a bit like the old Disarm, but unlike the old Disarm, it keeps the game moving forward. It also gives you a way to specifically deal with incoming ranged attacks when you’ve successfully cornered a melee opponent. By taking away the Duelist Mark cost on Advance, it became a much more attractive way to corner a melee foe.

Disarm 9.2.13-01The change to Advance combined it with an old ability, opening up a new ability slot. I’d been discussing part of what makes knock downs more fun than stuns in this game with my primary play tester in Korea, Angus Miller. When you get knocked down, your set of options is altered instead of taken away. You can play a card to gain focus, look at your runes, or even prepare an attack in case someone moves close to you. I liked the idea of reversing the effect of knock downs. Making your opponent unable to deal damage on the next turn could easily be represented by a disarm. Similar to knock down, Disarm alters your opponents set of options on the next turn. Disarm also lets you really use that steel rune when you know it’s coming up next, and you know you probably won’t be able to use it to parry. It also let me use the word “Disarm” for the Duelist, which I love.

The Duelist now has no area attacks and no stuns, yet a lot of battlefield control, and I’m happy with the results so far, though play testing has been very limited. I’m very excited to come back to California next month, and run the game through the gauntlet one more time.

I plan to continue with the character design series, with the Fire Archer coming up soon. I also plan to talk about adjusting where the runes show up across all the characters’ abilities, the graphical layout of the cards, and eventually share some of the incredible artwork that’s being produced for this game by this incredible artist.

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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: 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.