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8 Lessons learned in developing Thalara

Alexander Wrede
Germany
Bremen
Bremen
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designer
publisher
Microbadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Codex: Card-Time Strategy fanMicrobadge: I do board game development for the love of itMicrobadge: Plays Games with SpouseMicrobadge: Composer
8 Lessons learned in developing Thalara

E Es gibt eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels:
German version: http://wredespiele.de/8-dinge-die-ich-bei-der-entwicklung-vo...

If you've read my designer diary, you've probably guessed that I've learned a lot about game design in the process. This is a list of the most important points.

1. Every idea has been there before
Alright, the new game is supposed to be unique, of course. But it’s not that easy: Every theme, every game mechanic, everything has been there before in one or the other way. The problem is: Every year, infinitely many new games become available on the market and it’s virtually impossible to know all of them - let alone play them. So, everytime a new game had some similarities with Thalara, I threw everything overboard. This is not even necessary as long as there are enough unique elements. There are countless love songs out there already, but still some of them enter the charts every year. This realization took me a lot of time - don't make the same mistake! Thalara is a really unique game, but similarities can be found everywhere. Thalara is like Smash Up, but with almost no luck involved. Thalara is like Magic: The Gathering, but much easier. Thalara is like Dominion, but without deckbuilding (how is that even possible?)

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Siege Storm or Dominion: Some similarities with other games aren't really a problem


2. Restrictions drive creativity...
If I get stuck, this technique helps me: How would I solve the problem if I only had certain components available? For example: No game board? No game pieces? Only a certain number of cards? What would happen if the instructions had to fit on one page? So you are forced to find new ways and question the old. What is the essence of a deckbuilding game and does it work even if you have the whole deck in your hand? With Thalara I took these limitations to the extreme: I threw out almost all the components over time to distill the essence. There are other great examples out there: Think about the the minimal components of Love Letter or Dragon Punch, for example.

3. ...and restrict you
This is quite obvious: self-imposed restrictions not only boost creativity, they also make finding solutions enormously more difficult. Therefore, it makes sense not to hold on to every restriction compulsively. Of course, it's great when a game works completely without resources and yet achieves the same desired effect. But when the game gets better by adding resources: Go for it! The restriction must not degenerate into an end in itself. In the end we want to play a great game, no matter what it takes. With Thalara I had decided to use a maximum of 36 cards. This had a very practical reason besides the creative effect: I wanted to keep the production costs low. This is an important point, especially for a small edition. And yes, I had a wonderful solution that works with 36 cards. But: In the end the game just got even better with more cards.

4. Perfection gets in the way
A game that is never finished is of no use to anyone. And the secret is: There is always something that can be improved. I don't know if my perfectionism is just an extreme case or if everyone feels the same way, but no matter how satisfied I am with my ideas today, tomorrow I'll think of what I could do even better. And then nothing fits together anymore and I start all over again. With Thalara, I had to learn at some point that small improvements are perfectly okay, but you can't always start from scratch. It helps not to lose sight of the goal and to save a great new idea for the next game. Also, it helps me to write down all these ideas. They are not lost!

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Playing Thalara at Bremer Spiele-Tage 2020. Letting others play your game is just SO important. This is how you make the most of the test results:


5. Testplayers provide problems, not solutions
Some test players know quite well what they find annoying about a game. Maybe the game takes too long, maybe it's too complicated, maybe it's unfair. And I'm sure they have lots of ideas about how to solve the problems. Most of the time these are the most obvious solutions: If a game takes too long, then fewer cards need to be drawn. But the simple solutions are rarely the best. It's better to listen to the criticism of the test players first, and then think about where the core of the problem lies. Maybe the game takes too long because the decisions are not intuitive? Are there really too many rounds or do the individual moves take too long? And when you have a solution, test it on your own before you let it loose on the testers again. With Thalara, I often made the mistake of thinking aloud in response to justified criticism and discussing my solution approaches. But when testers have just gotten used to a certain rule of the game, it is sometimes difficult to mentally break away from it. Then it can be useful to continue with a different, unbiased test group. Oh, yes, and of course we authors make the same mistake when we love a game element. Which brings us straight to the next point:

6. Streamlining is important
This one rule that made the game so special in the beginning, it can't disappear under any circumstances. In Thalara there was a "color joker" for a very long time. It had a very low strength, but could be used as any color. The color joker was awesome: it opened up a new strategic option, made the game less unpredictable, and the test players loved it. It took a really long time and a lot of effort to remove the card from the game. And indeed, the game had changed so much since the invention of the color joker that it was no longer necessary. And if one element of the game does not make the game much better, then there is a cost-benefit analysis: How much does the element complicate the game and how much better does it make the game? The color joker extended the rules of the game by a whole paragraph, while the fun remained almost the same. Even worse, the color joker frequently led to questions and ambiguities regarding a number of spells. For example, does it always count as all colors at once, even if I don't need them right now? Elements like that are not lost: In a well designed expansion the mechanism could find a place again, but in the basic game it doesn't have a place.

7. Balancing is never objective
It took me a while to figure this out: How can balancing not be objective? If one character is better than another, if one skill or card is better than another, then it's a balancing problem. And if two game elements are exactly the same strength, then the balancing is objectively good, right? It is not that simple. At game fairs, where the testers often only play one or two rounds, Thalara's balancing has been criticized time and time again. So it doesn't help much if I can assure the testers that you‘re reliably winning with every character against every other character as long as you’re the better player. What counts is the perceived balancing. And the challenge is to give beginners and professionals alike the feeling that the game and its parts are well balanced. Of course, that's not always possible, some subtleties can't be fully understood in the first rounds. Then it is important that beginners at least keep going long enough to develop a feeling for the tricks. And that brings us to the final point:

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Myrja vs Kandhran: If both players know how to play, no character should be better than the other. On your first play it might still feel a little unfair.


8. A focus on fun
We all have different expectations of a game. Some want a strategic challenge that slowly builds up over hours of conflict. Some want a short, unpredictable chaos. A fun game with nice people, where you can have a good time. In this respect there is of course no general advice at this point. But one thing I learned during the development of Thalara: If it's no fun, it's not worth anything in the end. How much fun we have while playing depends on a lot of factors, which are weighted differently for everyone: Interesting decisions, experiencing self-efficacy, tension or surprising aha-moments. An important factor is often the learning curve. That doesn't mean that the game has to be easy, nor does it mean that there must be endless room for tactical improvement. But the game must be fun at every point of the process: The very first game just like round 1000. "Easy to learn, hard to master", it's often called. I prefer to put it this way: Fun to learn, fun to master. The game should also be fun before I have memorized the texts of 200 different cards. And it should still be fun even if I know the game inside out. With Thalara I tried to achieve just that. I hope I succeeded, at least for some of you.

Read more about the Thalara design process here:
Evolution of a board game: Don’t aim for perfection

Also, there's a free PnP version available at https://www.thalara.com!
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Mon Apr 20, 2020 2:16 pm
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Evolution of a board game: Don’t aim for perfection

Alexander Wrede
Germany
Bremen
Bremen
flag msg tools
designer
publisher
Microbadge: 5 Year Geek VeteranMicrobadge: Codex: Card-Time Strategy fanMicrobadge: I do board game development for the love of itMicrobadge: Plays Games with SpouseMicrobadge: Composer
Evolution of a board game: Don’t aim for perfection

E Es gibt eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels:
German version: http://wredespiele.de/evolution-eines-spiels-kann-es-das-per...


Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first: There’s nothing like perfection in board game design. Everybody has different preferences; a game that you wouldn’t play by any means can be another person's favorite game. Maybe you enjoy light games, maybe you enjoy throwing dice, maybe you want an epic no-luck strategy feast. No game can cater for everyone. Consequently, what I was looking for when I started designing Thalara wasn’t a game everybody would like, but it was meant to be the perfect game for my own taste. I’ve played hundreds of different games in the past, and not a single one gave me what I was looking for, although many came really close. What I really wanted was a deep, low-luck card game that I could play with my wife whenever the kids gave us a little time.

I like deck building, both the pre-game construction of Magic: The Gathering and the in-game variant that Dominion made popular. But M:tG, one of my favorite games of the past, suffers from so many things that would be considered design flaws today that I don’t play it anymore. Dominion is a fun, solid game, but there are two things that I don’t like about it: There’s just too much luck in the combinations of cards you draw, and there’s almost zero interaction. I knew I wanted a game that heavily favored the better player, and a game that wasn’t just multiplayer solitaire - but a real fight. Also, I like elegance in games. What does that mean? I think that a game shouldn’t have more components or rules than absolutely necessary. The rules of a game taken together should be more than the sum of its parts. Call it emergence if you like.


Early Prototypes

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Thalara V1 prototype

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Thalara V2 prototype

5 years ago, my very first Thalara prototype was inspired by the Final Fantasy IX mini game Tetra Master. You’d place cards on a 3x3 grid and try to defeat the opponent’s cards. In contrast to the template, every single Thalara card had a unique ability that could be used to attack other cards in different ways. There were cards to buff your own cards, very complex effects and simple destruction spells. In short, it was Magic: The Gathering meets Tetra Master. In the second version, I made the battlefield a little bigger and allowed the cards to move around. There were two things that I didn’t like about those early versions: They kind of needed a board. Well, yes, it was possible to play it without a board, but I wanted a game that felt best when played just with cards. Using as few components as possible, right? And I knew I could make this work with just cards.

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Thalara V3 cards

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Thalara V4 prototype

Always on the road to simplicity, I removed the board and replaced it with lanes. Think of a MOBA style game like League of Legends where characters move back and forth along one of multiple paths to get to the opposing side. It worked perfectly without a board since you could just use terrain cards to form a line between the lanes. I liked the concept, it worked and it was something fresh. But here’s the problem when you take years and years to design the perfect game: Other games enter the market. A year later, my game wasn’t the first MOBA style game anymore, and when Siege Storm got announced in 2017, it was so similar to my prototype that I decided to change it again, not only to make it a very distinct game again, but also to counter what I considered Siege Storm’s biggest drawbacks.


Dancing Around Available Games - Or Don’t?

Thalara was designed to be an asymmetric game from the start. Each player would choose a faction with different strengths and mechanics. I love that concept. There are some awesome asymmetric games out there. Have a look at BattleCON, Yomi or Codex: Card Time Strategy. Those are very intense duel games with unique characters or factions. Codex is one of my favorite games of all time featuring the best deck building mechanism I’ve ever seen, but it’s not very elegant as a whole, has cluttered rules with dozens of keywords and takes ages until you can play on a level that I would consider competitive. All three of the mentioned games can be played casually, but it’s not nearly as much fun. For example, BattleCon and Yomi feel mostly random on a casual level. This gets better over time, but it’s hard to find opponents who want to make this time investment. What I was looking for in Thalara was a game with a rewarding learning curve, where you would discover something new in every single game. Something like “easy to learn, hard to master”, but it sounds so trite and overused and it’s not even the best description of my goal: fun to learn, fun to master.

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Thalara V5 prototype

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Thalara V6 prototype

I simplified the card effects and got rid of the lane concept: Players would attach their cards to conflicts instead. It worked great until after some months of playtesting someone pointed me to Smash Up, where you attach cards to bases. It felt very similar, too similar for my taste. One of my main driving forces to change the design again and again had become the discovery of other games that had been released in the mean time or that I just hadn’t known before. It’s certainly not the best approach and it got really frustrating up to the point that I put Thalara on ice for some time. 2018, I decided that I should change my approach: Don’t try to dance around other games in a slalom, but have a look at what they’re doing right and what I can do better. After all, Smash Up felt frustratingly random to me. I did some experiments with Gwent inspired mulligan rules where you could discard cards to draw new cards, but I knew I needed a bigger change.

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Thalara V7 prototype

I kept the Smash Up style placement of cards, but I decided that in order to experience a rewarding learning curve, a beginner shouldn’t have to learn dozens of cards and their best use. Also, your first game should feel like you’re playing intuitive and you’re having a fair chance to win, even if in fact you probably don’t have any chance at all against an experienced opponent. I reduced the number of unique cards per character and added generic energy cards instead. It made the game feel a little more abstract, but the character spells still felt appropriate and thematic. Also, you would cycle through a very small deck of cards that contained your spells and energy cards. You attached cards to this round’s artifacts and tried to build the right color combinations to activate your spells. Thalara V7 was still very far away from the game that Thalara is today, but this was a major breakthrough. Each round, you’d fight for the cards on the table and add them to your deck. It was a unique, elegant design that just worked: A stunning mix of Smash Up, Dominion and Magic. It was the most interactive deck building game I’ve ever experienced. My favorite advantage: By reusing cards in different ways, the full game for two players needed only 32 cards, which was really low for that kind of game.


When Things Don’t Work Out: Face It!

The biggest drawback of this design was: Having only one or two spells with matching energy requirement in hand seriously limited the decision space. I designed a mini expansion that would change the conflict rules a bit from round to round, but it didn’t really solve the problem. Playtesters complained that there were rarely any deep mind games. To fix this, I removed the spell cards from the deck and placed them on the table - players would have access to every spell all the time. Although playtesters didn’t like the idea at first, after tweaking the energy card distribution a bit it became clear that it was a vast design improvement. Not only would players never have to worry about not drawing the needed spell at the right time, opponents wouldn’t have to memorize which spells the opponents had in their decks as the cards were right there in front of them.

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Thalara V7.3 prototype

One design principle that I think is very important is this: There should always be a good move available. If players get the feeling that they’ve got a perfect idea of what they should do in any given situation, they should be able to do it. That doesn’t mean that every action must be available all the time or that every move must be a good one. The goal is to avoid situations in which a player undeservedly finds that they can’t do anything to counter the move of which they think the opponent will do next. It’s just frustrating. So I added the possibility to counter spells: Each spell had a counter color, and if you discarded a card with the counter color of a spell, you could prevent your opponent from playing it this round. Well, yes, it had the desired effect: There was a great counter move to any possible action now. When you had a good idea what your opponent was going to do, you could just discard a card of the right color. That’s an expensive move, but worth it if you know what you’re doing. But unfortunately it also lead to players never playing any spells on a high competitive level. Skilled playtesters were just too good to allow anyone playing the perfect spell at the right time. But Thalara was about playing spells. Spells were the fun part! Reluctantly, I removed the spell counter mechanic and faced the truth: Players needed more freedom of choice when it came to their hand cards. And game balancing just became a lot more important.


Perfection Meets Reality

I needed to understand that perfection was impossible to achieve if I ever wanted to get a game off the ground, even when I had only my own preferences in mind. Instead, I decided that I would just do some fine tuning and then call the game finished. I changed the rules so players would select their first hand cards from their deck. Also, I did some streamlining, removed the color joker cards that could be played as any color, and the game started to feel really good and round. I started to broaden the playtesting radius, went to board game fairs, contacted gaming clubs and cafés. I sent out many prototype copies and incorporated as much of the useful feedback as possible. Special thanks go out to Michael Tabel of Brettspielen.Köln, who took the time to discuss some design problems with me, to Vivien Mast, my best playtester who gave me the motivation to go on and make Thalara the game it is today, and to my wife, who helped me with handcrafting many prototype copies of the game and with so much more. Finally, I started to look for publishers that could be interested in Thalara.

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Thalara V8 prototype

It was at this point that Oliver Schlien approached me. He told me to stop looking for publishers and let him publish the game with me. Since he liked the game a lot and always wanted to start his own game publishing house, he saw the great possibility to launch Thalara as his first project. It didn’t take long until we agreed to do this together. Oliver did all the bureaucracy stuff, and soon a new company was born. Since we’d focus on releasing my own games, we called it wredespiele.


Locking In

The goal was to kickstart the game in early 2020, and we probably would have done it if it wasn’t for the fact that I had another idea to change the game considerably. I know, I had promised myself not to do it, but this change was something that would make the game something so special and awesome that I just had to do it. I had invented a new mechanic: hand-locking cards. I removed the deck cycling to make room for something innovative. Each round, you would select every single card from your personal card pool. A used card would leave the game at the end of the round. Now, hand-locking means that cards acquired by winning conflicts would not simply go into your card supply, but to your hand. Specifically, they would be locked in, returning to your hand every single round. And the more cards were locked to your hand, the less cards you could choose from your supply. This leads to two very interesting dynamics: First, you need to really plan which cards you want to win, since you’ll be bound to use them many times from now on. And second, the player who wins the most valuable cards will get weaker every round, since those cards limit your choice of stronger cards from your supply. It’s the essence of what deck building games are about: Finding the right balance between victory points and cards that will make you stronger. But hand-locking makes the whole process more intense and less random. You know that you will have every single of those acquired cards in your hand every single turn from now on! The new mechanisms needed more cards than the previous version, but it was absolutely worth it.

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Thalara V9 prototype

The hand-locking mechanism worked so good that we started to design the spin-off game The Animals of Thalara, that did without any characters or spell cards and is a lot more family friendly. It will probably be released after Thalara. Our internal working title for that game is “Spiel des Jahres 2022”. Yep, that’s how confident Oliver is that it will blow away the jury. ;-)

But for me, our true gem is the original Thalara game that we call Thalara: The Last Artifacts now. We finished the little backstory that I had created around the world of Thalara: The world’s magic is fading away and our heroes are fighting for the last artifacts to preserve their power. In the end, it’s not the most thematic game in the world, but it’s the game that I wanted to design and play from the beginning. Anyway, after the long journey that Thalara was, I’m happy to finally see it come alive. Give it a try, it’s deeper than you might think - and you might just get locked in the world of Thalara.

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Thalara V9.3 cards (art by Martin Sobr)
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Tue Mar 3, 2020 12:18 pm
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