For the last few months, I have been meeting up regularly with a friend from my local game group to talk game design. Over the year-of-no-contact, he found himself invested in the idea of creating his own game. Now that we can start meeting up in person more, he and I have been talking design and playtesting each other's games.
A few things of interest have come from this.
One is that his game is incredibly fun, with some great decision space and an unusual theme that I think would work well as a published game. I look forward to seeing what he does next with it.
Second I have found out that my designs, while much less polished, tend to have some definite strengths to them from the start. I appear to have decent design insight for an initial game idea, though I do lack the follow-through.
Third is that my friend and I have very different design philosophies, even though we have very similar taste in games.
To go further into that, I wanted to explain what I mean by the term "design philosophy." I am using this term to refer to the general purpose behind why the game is designed, but also the style of design progression one tends to emulate from others. I know that's not quite the term I really want to use, but I can't quite figure out the proper words I need to describe the idea.
In this particular example, I want to highlight a few different designers that have come up in conversations during these meetups and how my friend and I compare ourselves to them.
Cole Wehrle is the designer my friend seems most like. Cole's designs seem to come from the direction of finding an idea or concept and making a game to best emulate it. His design diaries show that his inciting concept is the properly convey a message, and the mechanics and theme serve to mirror this.
My friend's games are along this same path. He finds an economic, political, or other theory he has learned and wants to showcase and molds a game around that. We have agreed that his games do not hold the depth of a Cole Wehrle yet, but do definitely seem to be based on that same principle.
I always describe Vital Lacerda games as being a handful of well known mechanics that are simple in and of themselves, but when combined they make a very deep and crunchy game. This is the designer I would most want to emulate. I love the simplicity beneath the surface of his games. I also love how complex they are when you actually play the games. I have found that my designs are not this, though. I struggle with layering the complexity on top of a game in such a way to keep it fun and playable, but also as heavy as I want.
I find I am closer to a Friedemann Friese. My friend and I talk about Friese designs as more of a "that's a unique concept or piece, what could I do with it?" Friedemann Friese has such a wide variety of games, of varying levels of complexity. The one thing the all have in common (other than the color green and letter "f") is the feeling that he is playing around with something that caught his attention.
This is more along the route my own designs go. I have an idea, and chase it to see what kind of game comes out of it. These ideas have come from pieces I have found online, old bits from games I have acquired upgrades for, interesting mechanics I have found in other games, and sometimes misunderstandings of what a game I have seen is. All of these have led to a strange mishmash of games with nothing much in common.
One last designer I would like to mention, though he does not have anything to do with the designs of my friend or myself. Uwe Rosenberg is a designer who has an interesting trajectory to his catalogue. He seems to find a mechanic he wants to work with, and keep iterating on it for a number of games until he has squeezed every bit of inspiration from it. This started with his card games, moved on to economic worker placement, shifted to polyominoes, and now seems to be more in the ream of pattern building and tile placement.
So, I have a couple questions related to this. For those of you who like to design games, what is your design philosophy (or whatever better term for what I am talking about here would be)? Also, what are some other designers that you thing have a specific style that could be distilled down in this same way?
The meandering thoughts of an avid collector, wannabe designer, and all around opinionated nerd.
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Let me preface this with the fact that I love everything I have tried that this company has put out. I own everything for Root, have Vast: The Crystal Caverns (and want to purchase everything I am missing from that), own (but have not had the chance to play) Fort, and have my copy of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile on the way. So I want it to be know that this rant comes from a place of love.
That said, their company annoys me with how they do their Kickstarters.
I feel they put their games up on KS far too early in the design process. With the last two Root expansions as well as Oath, there have been some great design diaries and updates on what these games are going to be. Following along with the progress has been a lot of fun, and offers up some great insight into how a game comes together. There has been some invaluable advice on how to work on ones own designs within there.
The problem is that the ideas presented in the documents, and by extension the KS projects, have changed very much from the initial ideas presented. I don't mind, and actually fully expect, a game to evolve and transform over time. If the design diaries themselves were all we had to go with, I would not even have a problem with the changes happening. But, the fact that the game I have paid for is not the game I end up getting is frustrating to me.
I am sure these will all be better for the changes, I do have faith in everyone at Leder to do what is right for the games. I also am sure I will be quite pleased with the results. With the Root: The Underworld Expansion expansion, I was indeed quite alright with the changes to the Corvids. I just don't like getting excited for an announced mechanic or play style that ends up getting dropped from the game after my money has already been put into it. I know that the changes made post-campaign to Oath ended up lessening some of my excitement for the game.
Again, I am not saying that Leder is bad, or that these changes were not the right ways to go. I am sure everything will be just as great as I want it to be. I just wish they would finish their design and development a bit more before they launch a KS so I don't always feel like my emotions are being played with.
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As a final discussion on deckbuilding, I wanted to look into some of the variations on the idea that have come out. This is far from an exhaustive list, as deckbuilding has moved from a genre of its own into a mechanic that is used as part of a larger whole. These are just the games that stand out in my mind as unique takes on the idea.
Mystic Vale took the idea of building your deck, and made it into building the actual cards themselves. Instead of having a deck of cards that you add new cards to or remove cards from, you have a deck that remains the same size but changes in composition and use. Each card in this is clear, and when you gain a new card you are slotting it onto an existing card in your had to make an improved version.
Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure is one of a number of games that use deckbuilding in combination with a board to make a game that is greater than the any one thing. Many of these use the deck to effect how you interact with your board.
Along the same line, you have a game like Great Western Trail where the deck itself doesn't have much to do with your turn-to-turn actions, but does have some impact and matter for long term planning and goals.
Puzzle Strike took the idea of a deckbuilder and made the deck a bag of tokens. The same general idea of how deckbuilding works remained true to this game, but instead of cards you are drawing tokens from a bag.
Orléans does something similar to that, but removes the direct abilities of the tokens in favor of making a worker placement game where the "cards" are the workers.
Quarriors! and Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men also play with this idea. Here, you have dice to replace the cards or tokens. To add more variety, each die has a handful of cards to represent any special abilities symbols on it may represent. Since each die can have a few different cards, each game can play a little differently just by swapping one set of abilities for another without having to change out the dice at all.
Automobiles is another game that uses tokens in a bag with variable cards to change what a token can mean. This game also interacts with a board.
These games, and the likely hundreds more I am not thinking of now, show just how much deckbuilding can be used to make amazing games.
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Up to now I have talked about how deckbuilding games work. What do you start with? How do you gain or get rid of cards? How are cards played? How are cards made available? This time, I want to look at how a game ends and how you win.
Dominion has a fairly straightforward end condition. When a specific stack of cards, or any three other stacks of cards, run out the game will end. Players then add up the victory points provided by cards in their deck. Since most cards that provide points do not have use during the game there is a balance of when and how many to buy.
Ascension: Deckbuilding Game has each game start with a number of VP tokens available at the beginning of the game. When certain cards are bought, some of these tokens are taken by that player. When the tokens run out, the game ends. Tokens as well as certain cards in the deck are worth points, with the most points winning.
Hardback has players play until someone reaches a set point value, then plays on until each player has had an equal number of turns.
Shards of Infinity has players dealing damage to each other until one player has managed to reduce all other players to zero health. This can be done by simple damage from number of cards. However, there is a card in each starting deck that allows a player to deal infinite damage if they can build up to a certain level of mastery (one of the game's resources).
Thunderstone has a starting boss shuffled into a deck of monsters. If the boss reaches the entrance to the dungeon the players lose. If a player defeats this boss, the game ends and players add up points in their decks.
Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game also has a system where villains will move along a board and could cause a loss if players do not defeat them in time.
The Quest for El Dorado has a board that a player need to reach the end of. As soon as a player accomplishes this, they will trigger the end of game. Any player who can reach the end of the board within a turn of this will be in contention for winning.
Obviously, there are more ways to end games and win than I am listing here. This is just a small sampling of the variety of ways a game with deckbuilding can be concluded.
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An important aspect of deckbuilding games is actually building a deck. To do this, players need access to new cards. How the game hands those cards out varies from game to game.
Once more, we look to Dominion for the baseline. In this game, there are a number of stacks of cards. Each stack is different, but the cards in the stack are identical (until Dominion: Dark Ages changed that up a bit). There are a handful of stacks that are in every game, representing the resource and point cards. Other decks are varied game to game, either randomly chosen or using set guidelines of optimal builds.
Ascension: Deckbuilding Game changed this by having all the cards in one big deck. A set number of these cards are placed out in a row for purchase. The market is replenished as cards are bought. There are a few piles of cards set aside that represent basic cards you can purchase when nothing better is available. This change made long term planning a bit more difficult, as you do not know what cards would be available to you from turn to turn. There is also the less-than-ideal feeling of spending your last resource to buy a card, only to have a better card show up that your opponent will get before you have the chance to.
Miskatonic School for Girls went along the same route as Ascension, but made two decks. One of students you buy to aid you, and one of teachers you buy to hinder others. Even more interesting was that, since buys are mandatory, if you could not get a card from one of those decks you had to get a lesser version in its place.
The Quest for El Dorado starts the game off with six starting stacks of cards. Once one of those is depleted, the player who did so can choose from a set of cards set to the side to add in as a replacement. This gives a bit of control as to the direction a player would like the game to take.
Nightfall took the Dominion model, and tweaked it a bit by giving each player two personal stacks of cards only they can purchase from. This adds some new strategy as everyone has some specific cards only they can get, meaning that everyone has to plan a little differently than they would in a normal game where everyone can buy the same things.
Don't Turn Your Back gives each player a personal supply, ut those supplies are identical. What cards come out for purchase is random each turn, but to total contents of the deck are identical for all players. City of Iron takes this idea, and alters it so a player can look through their supply of cards and buy whatever they wish each turn. Additionally in this game each player has two decks of cards, so they must choose whether then want more military or more skill for their future turns.
Finally, Path of Light and Shadow has four decks representing the different regions of the board. Each deck has its contents divided between two factions (with each being keyed toward a specific kind of action) as well as a more wildcard of a faction present in all decks. Players get cards from the deck representing the region they are in at the end of their turn. There are also decks for each of the five factions in the game. When a player upgrades a card from one of these, they get a specific card from one of these decks to represent it. One of the factions has their deck face down and randomized to show the more random effect they have on a game.
I am sure there are more variations on these that I have not discussed. I would love to hear if there are any ways to change up the market of a deckbuilder that I have not mentioned here.
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One of the key strategies in deckbuilding is proper management of what cards are in your deck. This is not just based off of buying the right cards to put in, but also knowing what cards to take out. Even further, knowing when to take the cards out is also vital to a good strategy. For this reason, the removal of cards is an area that a good deckbuilder has to somehow address.
Dominion offers the first look at this. In this game, the mechanic is called trashing (which I will likely use for the remainder of this post, even if the other games use different terms). Trashing cards is a way of removing them from your deck, and subsequently from the game entirely. This is done by the play of cards that allow trashing. Sometimes the trashed cards are removed, sometimes they are replaced by something else. In later sets there are a few cards that allow digging through the trash, but that is a very rare effect.
Path of Light and Shadow offers up an alternate take on this, where you do not need a specific card effect to trash a card. One of the available actions in the game is to spend one of the resources provided by cards to remove cards from your deck. The removed cards are either removed from the game (starter cards) or returned to the supply (realm cards). It is also notable that doing this produces Cruelty, which has an effect on the strength and usability of other cards in the game.
Witches of the Revolution has trashing as part of the process of gaining new cards. You have to spend cards from your hand to produce the resource needed to gain a new card. The cards spent are removed from the game. Since this is a game where shuffling is a bad thing, poor planning on how many cards to spend in relation to the cards gained is a very different strategy than in most games.
The Quest for El Dorado, has a subset of cards that are removed from the game when they are played. These tend to be the stronger effects, so this is a balancing factor. There are also spaces on the board that require you to remove cards from your deck to move there. For this game, this is both a way to cull your deck as well as sometimes taking a shorter route toward the end of the game.
Star Realms is another game where there are cards that can be removed from the game for an effect. While some cards allow you to trash a card as part of the play, there are also cards that have an alternate effect if trashed from play.
Don't Turn Your Back has an interesting variation where the removed cards are used for end game scoring. In this, game, the cards removed are tallied up at the end to determine which of the four options for scoring are used for that individual player.
There are a few games in this genre that do not have trashing as a mechanic in the game. There are fairly uncommon from my experience, as this has been ingrained in most people's minds as a staple of the genre.
As usual, I'm sure there are games with variations on this that I have missed.
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22 May 2020
So, in defiance of all logic, my game collection is growing by a ridiculously fast rate due to the pandemic.
It seems, even though I am unable to play games much (if at all), I have been buying at the same rate as normal for me. Additionally, I have jumped into the pool of PnP games.
As a general rule I do not like Roll-and-Writes. I have never been able to fully explain why. They just don't ever seem to scratch that itch that other games do. Similarly, I am not usually a fan of solo gaming. I like the social aspect of the hobby too much to feel satisfied with a solo game.
I have always been mildly interested in the idea of PnP gaming. Not enough to partake, but enough to keep thinking about it. A lot of the time, it comes down to presentation. If I am getting a game, I want it to look good. PnP versions of existing games just look inferior to the professionally done version I could be buying (at least, if I am printing them they do). If a PnP game requires a board or cards to be printed and cut, I am generally put off by that. I want my games to be playable with just a rules sheet and pieces I have lying around. Since I like to dabble in designing my own games, I have a lot of random bits and bobs in my house that I can use for tokens and whatnot.
The one kind of PnP game I can get behind, paradoxically, is the roll-and-write. These require little to no setup for construction and can be played with what I have lying around.
What is interesting to me is that I have discovered if I can't game under normal circumstances, I will be happy to play a solo roll-and-write if it means that or no gaming at all.
So, I have been obsessively downloading any free PnP games I can get my hands on that look even mildly interesting. I have a large folder on my Google Drive of games I have downloaded. I organize these by the ones I have printed vs not printed. Once I play a game, I officially add it to my collection on BGG and rate it. I then further organize by if the game was enjoyable or not, as well as if it was a PnP or Roll-and-Write.
Doing this has caused my collection to grow by nearly 100 games, those being just the ones I have tried so far. I have another 400+ games in this folder, waiting to be tried at some point.
Who would have thought an inability to play games would increase my collection by another 500 or so?
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This post I am going to be talking about discard piles. Specifically, how do different deckbuilding games utilize them.
As usual, we start with Dominion. At it's most basic, this does the same thing as most all games do. You have a discard pile where your cards go. When your deck runs out, your discards are shuffled and places face down to form a new deck. Cards that are played are added to the discards only at the end of a turn, so that if you are drawing cards and have to do a reshuffle, you cannot gain a card you already played this turn.
In City of Iron, you do not reshuffle your discards. Instead, when you have to draw a card and your deck is empty, you take your entire discard pile and turn it face down without changing the order of the cards. This can actually be a huge advantage in a game. By doing this, you can in some ways plan out how your future turns will be structured since your new card draws will be in the same order as you played them the last time through the deck.
Terra Evolution eschews the discard pile entirely. Instead at the end of a turn and cards that were discarded, spent, or purchased are shuffled up and placed on the bottom of your deck. This is something I am playing around with in a design of my own, where cards are filtered through the deck and there is no discard pile.
Miskatonic School for Girls has both a purchase pile and a discard pile. Newly bought cards are added to your purchases, wich will be added to your hand in addition to your draws to form your hand for a turn. Any cards played or defeated on your turn will be placed in a discard pile which is shuffled to form a new deck when needed.
Another interesting idea that I felt should be covered here are games where the shuffling of your discards triggers an effect.
Mr. Card Game gives you a benefit for doing this. Each player starts the game with a deck of 3 different stats, 4 copies of each, all level one. Whenever you need to draw a card and cannot, you get to search your discard pile for any one attribute card and remove it from your deck. Then, you may gain another attribute of the same type but one level higher or an attribute of the same level but a different type to replace it. Then you shuffle and form a new deck as normal.
Going a different route, Witches of the Revolution punishes you for shuffling. Every time a player shuffles their deck, a new event is added to the game. Events are different tasks the players have to defeat to win the game. New events also push older events down a line, which can cause a tyranny track to be advanced or cards in the supply to be removed from the game. If the event track is filled, players lose. If the tyranny track is maxed, the players lose. If the last event is played and not defeated, the players lose. Additionally, a shuffle causes a moon track to advance, which makes resolving events more difficult. So, shuffling is always a negative thing in this game.
This punished for shuffling mechanic is another one I have played around with. While most deckbuilding games reward you for building a small, tight deck that you can run through a lot, I wanted a game that would punish you for being too stripped down. I like the idea of subverting the general strategy of most games of this type to open up new ways to play.
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Last time talked about how deckbuilding games place limitations on the number of cards you can play or purchase. This post, I wanted to talk about where those cards go once they are bought.
Starting with Dominion, we have the standard set with cards being purchased going to your discard pile. Later sets played around with this a little bit, as is normal for this game. Mostly, though, the cards are bought and immediately discarded. Most games follow this route of purchased cards going directly to your discard pile.
City of Iron places your newly purchased cards directly into your hand. This allows you to plan your turns out a bit by giving you direct control on what you will have the following turn.
Mr. Card Game places your newly purchased cards directly into play, allowing you to possibly used them the same turn you gained them. Similarly, Eminent Domain's unique system of gaining cards works similarly, where the card you gain is used for some effect as you gain it.
Miskatonic School for Girls manages to both remain semi-true to the Dominion model while also going somewhere new. When you buy a student card, it is placed into your purchase pile. However, if you buy a teacher, it will go into your opponent to the left's purchase pile. Cards in purchase piles are placed into hands at the beginning of a turn, and teachers in hands are placed into play as obstacles. So, buying a teacher is a way to hurting your opponent next turn.
Witches of the Revolution and Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour (oddly enough, but witch themed) place your purchased cards directly on top of your deck. This is mostly the same as placing the card into your hand, but there could be game situations that make the deck vs hand distinction matter.
Overall, there are not a lot of variations on this mechanic that I have seen. It's pretty standard to jut have all gained cards go to your discards to be dealt with later. I do like the idea of cards going into your hand or on top of your deck for more immediate use. I also like the play value of a card being placed into play directly for those games where that matters.
But, I would like to hear if there are any other variations on this I have not covered or heard of.
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One of the ways in which deckbuilding games differ is in how card plays and purchases are handled. At a base level, this can be looked at as if card play and purchase is a limited or unlimited thing. However, it is also possible to go deeper by looking at how a limitation takes form.
As usual, we must start with the granddaddy of all games in this genre, Dominion. In this game, you are limited to a single card play and a single buy each turn. This can be adjusted by the card themselves, where some allow for playing more cards or allowing additional buys in a turn. In addition to this, cards that are not designated as actions (such as treasures, curses, and victory cards) do not count against this limit of one card play a turn. Granted, most cards that do not count as plays do not have any real effect during the game. Later sets of cards added on variations on this idea by making cards that could be played in reaction, cards that lasted beyond a single turn, and cards that counted as more than one card type. This set the baseline which other games built off of.
One adjustment to this was the obvious idea of not limiting playing or buying cards arbitrarily. Ascension: Deckbuilding Game did this. In this game, you can play any and all cards in your hand. You are also able to buy as many cards as you wish, provided you have the resources to do so. In this way, it serves as the opposite end of the spectrum from Dominion in these axes.
Most games tend to have similar action/buy limitations as these two. Some will adjust the limitations slightly, by allowing unlimited plays buy limited buys or vice versa. There are a few other interesting variations on this.
Clank!: A Deck-Building Adventure takes the unlimited play of Ascension and tweak it a bit. While technically both games are having you play your whole hand, it is only in Clank! where this can be a negative since there are detrimental cards in your deck that you would not want to play if you had the choice.
Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour also plays around with this by making the cards have two effects. Generally the better the effect the more likely it is to create corruption (which you do not want to have). But, a card can be played for a (usually) lesser alternate effect to remove corruption. Since you are always playing your whole hand, there is a balance of figuring out how to be most effective without causing a game loss from pushing your luck too far. There is also a slight limitation on how many cards can be purchased. There are six piles of cards, with the top of each face up. A player can buy any face up card if they wish to take the corruption to do so. However, new cards are not flipped face up until the end of a player's turn, so there is the implicit limit of no more than six purchases a turn. This is further limited by scenario and card effect that may close access to certain piles of cards.
Path of Light and Shadow has an interesting system for purchases where you are not buying cards as much as you are automatically gaining them. Each turn you will get a new card depending on the board state, with the option of gaining another if you wish to gain Marcy. There is a good reason not to gain that Mercy, however, if you are trying to play a Cruelty-themed deck. Since Mercy and Cruelty are a tug-of-war track, and cards are boosted based on which of those you have higher on, this matters a lot. In addition, you know what deck of cards you are gaining from, but you do not know the exact card you are gaining each turn. The board state will tell you which deck to choose from, which gives you a little guidance on what could be there. So, you may not want a lot of cards of one specific region if it does not provide a card type you are looking for.
Miskatonic School for Girls offers a variation on purchasing where you get one buy, twice. Essentially, there are two decks of cards to buy from You can get one from each. The interesting thing here is that if you do not buy from one, you will automatically gain a card specific to that deck that is purchased for free instead. You usually do not want this to happen.
Nightfall offers up a tweak on card play by allowing one card per turn, with a twist. Each card has a colored suit associated with it and two companion colors. If you have a card matching the companion color of a just played card, you may play it. The based off of that card's companion colors you can do this again, creating a chain of cards until you choose to stop. Then, in turn order, each opponent can play off of the chain as well.
Eminent Domain is the final example of a variation on this I will cover. In this game, you get one play where you get to do the specific action of a card in your hand. Then you get to choose a role, which allows you to gain a new card from the supply. When you do this, you gain the secondary effect of the card. You may discard cards from your hand of a matching suit to boost that effect. In addition, your opponents have the opportunity to either draw a card or follow your role by discarding to do the same secondary effect.
I'm sure I have not covered all of the variations on card plays and buys, so I welcome any feedback on what other games do something new in this area.
Next time I will be talking more about card purchases.
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