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: 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.

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.