Musings about design

In this blog, I would like to share my views about game design. Don't be afraid to leave feedback of any kind!

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Designing a game from scratch: Blood Rush - Part 1

Javier Martin
Germany
Frankfurt am Main
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Since the 2014 Solitaire Print and Play Contest is underway, I thought it would be a nice idea to follow the development of my game, [thread=16293246]Blood Rush[/thread], with a few blog entries. I'm hoping this will help me order my own ideas and perhaps it will even be of use for other people.

For this entry, I would like to start by going over the basics of how I approach the design process. After a couple of completed PnP designs (The Salem Conspiracy, A Night in Deepwail Manor and Sticks, Stones and Dragonflame), I feel more and more confident on the methods that work for me. It may not work for everyone, but I like to think these insights may help people struggling to take their own ideas to completion.

Without further ado, here are the key points I try to abide for:

1. Come up with an original idea that really talks to you

This idea can be of any complexity. The important thing is that it feels special to you. Most importantly, the idea should be very clear in your mind. It's not enough to think of "something with cars, I guess". Once you have the concept, the most appropriate mechanics will often present themselves, and, as a result, the theme won't feel pasted on.

Examples:

-A card-driven push-your-luck solo game in which the player is trying to steal treasure from a dragon.

-A 2P clown battle played with miniatures on a 4x4 board.

-A dexterity game in which players control monkeys hanging on a bar.

-An exploration and survival game with a modular board that takes place in an island filled with volcanoes.

2. Establish the victory condition of the game

I've read somewhere that one of the first tips professional writers give to newbies is to have a clear idea of how the book will end. This makes a lot of sense to me; if there's no clear objective in sight, the characters will just wander aimlessly and their actions will lack purpose. I feel this rings true for game design as well: it always pays off to keep in mind the final objective of the players in the context of the game and then have every mechanic lead to it. This sounds painfully obvious, but it's really easy to get lost in the individual elements of the design and lose sight of the target. Also, conversely, you should also have a clear idea of how the game can end in a defeat and keep it in mind when working on the mechanics.

-Is your game about dealing 20 points of damage to your enemy? Then the mechanics have to lead to it directly or indirectly. Take MTG: Players are almost always focused on dealing damage to their opponents or removing threats in order to finish their opponents before they die themselves.

-Are the players supposed to collect pieces in a cooperative game? Then all the mechanics in place should help the exchange of these pieces. Take Pandemic, for instance. Players are constantly trying to collect the necessary pieces to win or trying to delay the ending of the game in order to have more time to collect more pieces. As a result, it feels focused, elegant and gripping.

What victory conditions could we have in the made-up examples from the previous point?

-In the first case, maybe the player has to steal three treasure tokens before the dragon wakes up. This gives us the need for something to represent the treasure and a way to track how and when the dragon wakes up. Does that happen when X turns have gone by? Or is decided semi-randomly, by drawing cards from a deck? How can the players interact with that value?

-In the second case, perhaps the players have to eliminate all the opposing miniatures. Or maybe just get a number of hits, or even conquer part of the territory. Each of these scenarios would require completely different mechanics.

-In the third case, the players could try to be the last monkey standing. It would be interesting to have power-ups that affect the balance of the opposing monkeys, or to create random events that can affect both players.

-Lastly, in the fourth case, players may have to locate specific points of the island, or simply survive for a number of turns. What difficulties can they find? Is there any aggressive fauna on the island? How would the volcanoes affect these encounters?

3. Have a clear idea of how one typical turn is supposed to play

Since this is more of an extension of the previous point, I don't want to extend myself too much, but I've found that imagining how one turn may play really helps me find a focus for the game. If you are able to roughly visualize how one turn plays, you're almost surely on the right track. Just keep working on the individual elements until the game tells the story you want to tell.

4. Remember that the game is not set in stone (at least until it's released!)

When I design a game, sometimes I have the weird feeling that I'm just "uncovering" a design, and that I have to go at it at a very specific way or else the game will not work.

There's nothing farther from the truth! Until you feel comfortable with how it plays, you shouldn't be afraid of making drastic changes to your design. Yes, it's a pity to lose a mechanic that you loved, but perhaps you should give the game a try without it and see if it works better. I promise you the mechanic is not going anywhere; you can try to re-work it in at a later stage or, if worse comes to worse, use it in another design. Maybe the mechanic is so good it will inspire you to create another whole game!

5. Polish and re-iterate

When the game is in a working state, you should probably stop thinking of what to add and start thinking on how you can streamline it. This doesn't necessarily mean cutting features, although that happens often as well. Maybe a simple cosmetic change or a simplification of the rules makes a world of difference for the players. It could be anything! A minor rules change that entails one less shuffle of the deck, an ingenious way to track a variable that saves you a few components, a more efficient way of setting up a game. Keep always the objective in mind and try to have everything lead up to it as smoothly as possible.

It's critical to be open to testers' feedback, since they will come into the project with an open mind and without any knowledge of how the game plays in your head. Sometimes, it's very easy to miss the forest for the trees, and a simple remark of a person that encounters the game for the first times may open your eyes to problems you didn't even know existed and offer you solutions that you had never thought of.

I think that's enough rambling for today. Thanks a lot for reading!
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Sat Jul 12, 2014 5:16 pm
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The power of card-driven games 3 - Portability, rules self-containment, randomization, narrative, customization

Javier Martin
Germany
Frankfurt am Main
Hessen
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Alright, let's wrap this up! Today I would like to present another 4 different aspects of card-driven games that are interesting from a design point of view.

Portability


This is the first thing that drew me into card games. You're not simply carrying around a card deck. No, what you have in your pocket is a fantasy army. Or a host of madness-inducing creatures. Or perhaps a dungeon filled with perils, or a city filled with intrigue. Or heck, a few civilizations that progress throughout several ages.

One of the things I like best about this feature is that you can have rich experiences without carrying around a board and other relatively big pieces. In fairness, though, many card games use tokens, but the additional space needed for storage and transportation is negligible.

Rules self-containment


Two interesting things about cards: they're flat and have a very generous surface, which is generally used for illustrations and text. How exactly is this important? Illustrations provide flavor. They're two-dimensional and are thus not limited by the shape of the object. A miniature can only represent one thing (well, to be fair, a definite set of things, for an antropomorphic miniature could represent a thief as well as a wizard). Cards lose aesthetic value and, arguably, immersion, but they can represent anything at all: locations, characters, items, spells, events, conditions... Come to think of it, there are not many mediums that can represent abstract concepts inside a game.

This is greatly supported by the second feature I wanted to talk about in this point: Cards can have text. Therefore, they allow for a smoother learning curve. Many card games are actually quite simple to play – the complexity comes in the cards themselves and is added throughout the game. To all effects, cards are modular pieces that can contain snippets of rules that build upon (or, in some cases, change or contradict) the basic rules of the game. Not only that, but they can also act as reminders of those rules if need be.

Additionally, in the case of expandable games, new sets commonly introduce unique mechanics that keep everything fresh.

Randomization


I don't want to go too deep into number crunching (mainly because it's really not my field blush), but I feel cards can be very useful to create (and control) randomization. Games like Pandemic are a good example of this. Do you want to make the game harder? Add more Epidemic cards! Easier? Play with only a few! And no matter what, the tension will always be there, albeit to a bigger or lesser degree. To all intents and effects, the deck is an adjustable machine against which you can measure your skill. It's no wonder that many games that have a solo option use cards in some way.

Narrative


Given the size and general shape of cards, they're perfect for narrative-heavy games. The text can, of course, tell a story, but it's also interesting that it's possible to form a timeline of sorts either by arranging them sequentially (Chrononauts) or by stacking them (Mythos). Let's talk about two such games with stackable timelines: The Lord of the Rings LCG and Mythos.

In the case of LoTR, players must go through different phases of a quest that usually change the general gameplay conditions. During one of thsoe phases, they may not be able to call allies for backup, or perhaps they're supposed to seize magic items or keep a neutral character alive. In all cases, the details make perfect sense thematically and highly improve the game experience.

Mythos is truly a different kind of monster. It feels more like a narrative exercise that just happens to play like a game. Quite literally, players must visit locations, retrieve items, summon monsters and meet allies in order to fulfill the conditions that appear in the lengthy text of story cards, which is the main way to victory. All these cards have also gameplay effects, and can either help your goal or hinder your opponent (who loses the game if his sanity is reduced to 0). It's simple, fun and immersive, and it's a pity that games like this are not more popular.

Customization


This is a big point for me. It's rare to find games that allow you to take away the components you don't like and add new ones to fit your playstyle and taste. This has a downside, of course: you will always be buying more of the game, which can become a money sink. Many games in the DBG genre are meant to combat this, but I still think that expandable games are a boon because they make the experience substantially more unique. Indeed, many fans of CCGs spend more time building and fine-tuning decks than actually playing them.

Well, that's the end of it. I hope you enjoyed the series -- I know I've learned a lot thanks to your feedback and the whole thing has certainly helped me put my thoughts in order. See you around and game on!
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Tue Mar 20, 2012 3:02 pm
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The power of card-driven games 3 - Portability, rules self-containment, narrative, customization

Javier Martin
Germany
Frankfurt am Main
Hessen
flag msg tools
designer
mbmbmbmbmb
Alright, let's wrap this up! Today I would like to present another 4 different aspects of card-driven games that are interesting from a design point of view.

Portability


This is the first thing that drew me into card games. You're not simply carrying around a card deck. No, what you have in your pocket is a fantasy army. Or a host of madness-inducing creatures. Or perhaps a dungeon filled with perils, or a city filled with intrigue. Or heck, a few civilizations that progress throughout several ages.

One of the things I like best about this feature is that you can have rich experiences without carrying around a board and other relatively big pieces. In fairness, though, many card games use tokens, but the additional space needed for storage and transportation is negligible.

Rules self-containment


Two interesting things about cards: they're flat and have a very generous surface, which is generally used for illustrations and text. How exactly is this important? Illustrations provide flavor. They're two-dimensional and are thus not limited by the shape of the object. A miniature can only represent one thing (well, to be fair, a definite set of things, for an antropomorphic miniature could represent a thief as well as a wizard). Cards lose aesthetic value and, arguably, immersion, but they can represent anything at all: locations, characters, items, spells, events, conditions... Come to think of it, there are not many mediums that can represent abstract concepts inside a game.

This is greatly supported by the second feature I wanted to talk about in this point: Cards can have text. Therefore, they allow for a smoother learning curve. Many card games are actually quite simple to play – the complexity comes in the cards themselves and is added throughout the game. To all effects, cards are modular pieces that can contain snippets of rules that build upon (or, in some cases, change or contradict) the basic rules of the game. Not only that, but they can also act as reminders of those rules if need be.

Narrative


Given the size and general shape of cards, they're perfect for narrative-heavy games. The text can, of course, tell a story, but it's also interesting that it's possible to form a timeline of sorts either by arranging them sequentially (Chrononauts) or by stacking them (Mythos). Let's talk about two such games with stackable timelines: The Lord of the Rings LCG and Mythos.

In the case of LoTR, players must go through different phases of a quest that usually change the general gameplay conditions. During one of thsoe phases, they may not be able to call allies for backup, or perhaps they're supposed to seize magic items or keep a neutral character alive. In all cases, the details make perfect sense thematically and highly improve the game experience.

Mythos is truly a different kind of monster. It feels more like a narrative exercise that just happens to play like a game. Quite literally, players must visit locations, retrieve items, summon monsters and meet allies in order to fulfill the conditions that appear in the lengthy text of story cards, which is the main way to victory. All these cards have also gameplay effects, and can either help your goal or hinder your opponent (who loses the game if his sanity is reduced to 0). It's simple, fun and immersive, and it's a pity that games like this are not more popular.

Customization


This is a big point for me. It's rare to find games that allow you to take away the components you don't like and add new ones to fit your playstyle and taste. This has a downside, of course: you will always be buying more of the game, which can become a money sink. Many games in the DBG genre are meant to combat this, but I still think that expandable games are a boon because they make the experience substantially more unique. Indeed, many fans of CCGs spend more time building and fine-tuning decks than actually playing them.

Well, that's the end of it. I hope you enjoyed the series and see you around!
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Tue Mar 20, 2012 2:42 pm
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The power of card-driven games 2 - Orientation and Secrecy

Javier Martin
Germany
Frankfurt am Main
Hessen
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Let's have a look at two intriguing aspects of cards as a format: Orientation and Secrecy.

Orientation


Consider this. A piece in chess can't change its function throughout the game because of its inherent physical limitations. No matter how much you turn that knight on its axis, it will always have the same characteristics within the framework of the game, and don't even think of turning it sideways if you want to keep it upright. This doesn't mean that its relative value can't change during a match, however, but it's impossible to note any change of status on the unit it represents. Is it wounded? Faster? Flying? Scared? Busy? Attacking? Defending? Granted, there's no room in the context of chess for any of these details, but there are other confrontation games that do have this additional depth and face the same problem. Wargames involving miniatures come to mind (please keep in mind that my knowledge of wargames is merely superficial and I'm trying to consider the genre in very, very broad strokes).

It's true that miniatures can change orientation to determine, for instance, if an enemy unit is in its line of sight. But how could one indicate status changes? Basic miniatures just can't, although there are always clever solutions to this (Heroclix, I'm looking at you!). These solutions are probably more costly and they don't seem inherent to the medium. So what's the great advantage for cards?

Cards are blessed with two interesting features – they have two sides (front and back) as well as a rectangular shape (well, at least the most commonly seen cards do!). The rectangular shape allows for 4 distinct orientations, which in a tremendous display of imagination we'll call straight, sideways to the right, upside down and sideways to the left. A chess pawn would be jealous of such flexibility! laugh

Many games use these orientations to indicate different statuses. In Magic: The Gathering, a tilted card is considered tapped and thus unusable temporarily. The Pokémon: TCG is one of the few games that use all four orientations to indicate different lingering effects on the beasties. The Call of Cthulhu card game takes this one step farther -- exhausted characters are tilted sideways, but more interestingly, characters can also go insane. To reflect this, the rules instruct players to flip the card over. There are still other games use flipping cards to good effect. Yu-Gi-Oh has traps and defenders, agents in Arcana agents can be played facedown to hide their stats and Warhammer: Invasion has developments, just to name a few.

For simplicity's sake, most games that bother to include card orientation as a gameplay feature use only two positions. But due to the nature of cards, there's no one stopping a designer from using all four orientations -- eight if we include the variations resulting from flipping cards over. Naturally, the game would have to be designed with this in mind, but having access to eight different potential status from the get-go is nothing to sneeze at.

Secrecy


The fact that cards have a back is actually impactful for another reason. It allows players to withhold information from their opponent's sight and leads to all kinds of mind games, bluffs and psychological plays. This is considerably harder to pull off in other confrontation-oriented games that don't use cards. As a bonus, secrecy makes things more interesting even in cooperative games. Arguably, Pandemic would be a very different game if the cards held by players were public knowledge. whistle

Open information is of course perfectly fine in many games, but cards allow designers to include secrecy if they so desire. There are, of course, numerous card-driven games in which all information is shared among players, although mainly in the co-op genre for obvious reasons. Elder Sign comes to mind (even if its categorization as card-driven game may be questionable for some).

It must also be noted that at some points throughout a game, the information in the cards is not only a secret for the opponent, but also for the player. Card-driven games usually employ one or more decks from which players draw. Even though you may have fine-tuned your deck and are perfectly aware of which cards are in it, you can't know for certain which cards fate will deal you on your next turn. I believe this tension is a very big selling point of deckbuilding games, and so it should be! It adds a layer of randomization without leaving everything to chance. But I would like to treat the topic of randomization in a future entry and I think I've said enough for today...

As always, don't hesitate to leave feedback of any kind and thanks a lot for reading!
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Wed Feb 22, 2012 8:10 pm
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The power of card-driven games 1 - Intro and modularity

Javier Martin
Germany
Frankfurt am Main
Hessen
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Over the next months I'm planning to write reviews for my favorite card-driven games, and I thought it would be nice to have an introduction to this little experiment. As soon as I finished my first entry, however, I realized that I had material for a full series of posts, so I decided to open a full-blown weblog to share my thoughts with my fellow gamers. I'm hoping this will spur some form of conversation.

Intro


I've been a gamer for a few years, and since I remember I've felt significantly more attracted to card-driven games. The other day I was trying to find the reason why I like them better than other types of games and then it struck me -- there's not a single reason for it, but rather a combination of reasons. For some, all these reasons will be old news and very obvious design points. For me, it was a sudden insight about how games work.

Just one quick note before proceeding. I will be using the term "card-driven games" instead of "card games" because I associate the latter term with classic, abstract card games and I would rather bring to mind contemporary games, in which the cards are just the vehicle for design, as opposed to games like poker or bridge, which are awesome on their own but a different kind of game altogether. In fact, I would really love to speak about "thematic, expandible card-driven games", but I think it's best to keep it simple. So, without further ado, let's dive in!

Modularity


Card-driven games are modular by definition, and modularity is one of the best bases for complexity, which in turn creates engagement and, perhaps more importantly, involves the player in an active way. I've always said that a well-designed game will make you feel smarter for figuring out strategies and combinations, and card-driven games are perfect to achieve this.

Complexity does not equal difficulty, though –- an elegant system is simple to handle yet the variations within make it much richer than a "static" system. In gaming terms, modularity brings the promise of variety, flavor and meaningful interactions.

I know this is an oversimplification, but let's roll with it: A map is static; it represents a portion of terrain. Miniatures are also static, each represents a character or structure. None of this components can change between games (some games have brilliant workarounds, such as Claustrophobia, in which the Demon is different every game... although cards are used for reference). In a card-driven game, a card can represent a location, or a character, or an enemy, or even something more abstract like a spell, a blessing or weather conditions. Granted, this are only 2D images and sometimes a great deal of imagination will be required, but cards have always been an excellent visual aid. The point still stands: in one match, players can be playing in a secret base on the moon, and in another, deep inside a jungle. It is obviously easier to represent this change of scenario with a card as opposed of with a map. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a very good example of non-static locations. Note, however, that both approaches have advantages: maps will be infinitely more detailed and will allow for more interesting warfare mechanics (positioning, cover, etc.). In this topic, some games use modular maps, like the previously discussed Claustrophobia... I like to consider this kind of map card-based too (even if those thick squares don't make for very conventional cards!). A clearer example would be Dungeoneer, as it uses pretty much only cards to represent encounters, characters and sections of the map.

One of the first card-driven games I ever played was Magic: The Gathering. I still remember the exact card that got me hooked. The card in question was the infamous Plague Spitter, a creature that deals 1 damage to every creature in play at the beginning of your turn, and also when it died. Within the framework of the game, a player was able to summon two of the nasties and then, in the next turn, both would deal damage to themselves and to each other, killing themselves in the process and making 4 points of damage to all the creatures in play, effectively clearing the table from pretty much anything. I found this interaction absolutely fiendish. Other combos I came across were more obvious, such as Warped Devotion and Recoil, but in all cases I felt smart for figuring out the "trick" to combining two or more decent parts to make something infinitely more powerful and interesting. You can see this in countless games old and new: Race for the Galaxy, Dominion, The Lord of the Rings LCG...

There's another interesting feature about modularity: not all pieces have to belong to the same category, and despite their disparity, or rather, precisely because of it, the sensation of living, unfolding reality is that much stronger. As an example, a card can represent a character, and another one a weapon. On their own, the character is weak and the weapon is useless, but when the weapon is attached to the character, the resulting sum is stronger than the individual parts. Not only that: it also makes sense thematically. As we all know, sometimes a work of fiction will ask for too much suspension of disbelief, and all of a sudden the magic is broken. Card systems are extremely flexible, and the cards themselves can contain text that regulate interactions ("This weapon can only be attached to a character"). In a nutshell, cards can represent anything and everything appropriate in the context, and I think that's a very solid base for many types of games.

That's it for today. I hope you enjoyed the reading!
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Tue Feb 21, 2012 8:06 pm
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