Designing Games: A Couple's Perspective

This blog chronicles the game designing journey of husband and wife team Will and Sarah. Mostly written by Sarah, this blog is meant to be informative, interesting and fun. Oh, and a historical account so we can come back in the future and laugh at our naive selves. ;-D

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Designer Diary 12 for Project Dreamscape: Kickstarter Success!

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

I have to say, the campaign was a success. We originally wanted $6,000 and through our 862 backers, we got $23,577 pledged. Now I know my contributions during the running of the campaign were not as obvious as Sarah and Ben. I’m not so handy with the various social media connections that they have already established. Therefore, you may wonder, what did I do? That’s what we’ll cover in this designer diary.

The Story

On the campaign page you may have seen the intro video that features Dr. Reed. Story elements written on the page also describe a lot of the game in context. I was tasked to write these portions of information. In short, I was the keeper of the lore.

There was even a minor theme tweak to the game. If you pay attention to the various reviewers, you may note that the theme seems to be slightly different. That’s because after sending out the review copies, we got it into our heads to give players more of an incentive to win the game. This meant it changed from a subject in a study to a participant who can use the machine to make their dreams real.

Finally, the issue of an art book was brought up. This meant someone needed to write all the text that would be inserted in between the images. So while the others were tweeting and posting on forums, I spent a good portion of the campaign writing.

More Designs

Ben is a giver. This means he wants to do as much as he can to give extra content to the backers. This meant I was a sounding and designing board for the various ideas he had. This included extra bits, dice, and even a set of separate cards. Each time I came up with mechanisms that still fit the game and his requirements. Sadly most of these ideas needed to be dropped due to cost.

However, two mechanisms that were designed during the course of the campaign did make it in. The first of these was an alternative use for the Z shield tokens. In the normal game, these are used to keep track of the different costs of dream cards. In my alternate idea, they could be moved around with the Shifting Dreams ability. I wanted this variant to make the tokens feel useful for those people who purchased the play mat. And thanks to some clever wording, you can find this variant where Shifting Dreams is explained in the rules.

The other mechanism turned out to be the very last stretch goal in the campaign that was reached – the sleep token variant. Before the token was even discussed, I had designed character cards for the game that I planned to be a part of a future expansion. In designing these characters I came up with the ability that is identical to how the Sleep token is used in the variant.

This means that the token is a glimpse at a new mechanic that I hope to have in the future. Essentially, the token helps players get straight into the meat of the game. The issue is that the decision on how it is used is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the base game. This is why we suggest it be treated as a variant for use by experienced players.

The Future

In a previous diary I mentioned that I had at least two more abilities in mind for the game. Since then I have developed three more bringing the total to five. Given how many more cards needs to be added for each ability, this will probably cap all the abilities that are going to be designed for Project Dreamscape.

However, counting up the cards, I saw that there was a bit more room to design in. So I had an opportunity to put back the four cards that were removed from the base game due to production limitations. I also could add in randomizer cards to help players choose a unique setup. And finally there are twelve characters laid out with funny names like Gain and Gamble.

Given the fact that this results in 162 cards plus five extra bits, a bigger box, and some rules to explain all the new things, we’ll definitely need to pace ourselves on how we consider making an expansion. I believe once the initial print run hits the market, we can better gauge the demand and decide whether or not this is even a good idea.

In the meantime, we plan to continue partnering with Ben. We have some designs in prototype form that need some serious playtesting, Project Dreamscape to be produced, and a whole lot of backers to keep in touch with. So until the next game, take care.
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Wed Apr 22, 2015 7:18 pm
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Designer Diary 11 for Project Dreamscape: The Finished Look

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

After wrangling the game into shape, it was time to make it look presentable. This all starts and ends with a good theme. Thankfully, I had incorporated that theme from nearly the beginning of the process once I had a mechanical framework in place. Plus the partner we teamed up with thought it was a great theme. The trick was figuring out how to express a science feel alongside a whimsical dream world.

The Science



Ben Haskett, designer of Tower and Baldrick’s Tomb and our partner, had the perfect idea. Using the videogame Portal as inspiration, he created a layout that was scientific in design with just enough tongue in cheek to make the whimsical elements not feel out of place.

All the rounded edges soften the typical hardness in a stereotypical science environment. The added bonus is that the theme states the study is about dreaming so using a scientific frame further pushes the concept of science framing the dreams.

Ben continued his brilliance by coming up with the perfect font for the game. Project represents the science involved so it has a serious type face. Dreamscape, on the other hand, stretches the imagination; so long whimsical lines make an excellent counterpoint to the way Project is styled.

The Dreamscape



It was fortunate we had a chance to see a friend’s art when we did. Julie has a very dreamy quality to her pieces that effortlessly evokes a dream world. She was the first and only person we thought of to do the main pieces for the game.

This was her first time doing art for a game so we all had to figure out how to direct the art. We started with a general concept of each ability and let Julie have the opportunity to envision the world. After some preliminary drawings, we evaluated whether or not to go with this approach.

We ultimately decided that what might work best was to describe a scene for Julie and let her do the rest. Man, was that the right way to go. The very next few sketches were more than we hoped for. It ultimately came down to finding a level of direction that worked for both parties.

In the end, we are creating a game that I wouldn’t mind having just for the art. This is not to say I don’t love the game play, but the art just sells it for me. This is why it was essential that Julie’s name gets placed right on the front of the box.

Next Time

I don’t know when the next time will be, but I hope to be able to talk positively about the campaign for getting this game made.
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Wed Feb 4, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 10 for Project Dreamscape: Unconventional Player Interaction

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

As we received feedback from play testers, some groups claimed that Project Dreamscape had very little player interaction. This seemed rather odd to me since I left only one aspect of the game free from player attack. So I want to get your opinions on the subject. I believe my game does have a lot of player interaction, just not conventional.

Conventional Player Interaction

Judging on what people have said, I want to first identify what I think is meant in what I’ve identified as “conventional player interaction.” Essentially, you damage the other player. This could be health, troop strength, destruction of things built, hand size, space denial, or pretty much anything that lets you say “take that.”

Now I admit this is a very direct form of player interaction. However, for me this only covers the concept of attack. I’m not even addressing cooperative player interaction which is, for the most part, the opposite of everything I mentioned. What seems to be missing from this equation is maneuvering.

My Version of Player Interaction

Attacking is fine, but it in the end feels as subtle as being wacked with a stick. I prefer to wage wars against my opponents where not a single shot needs to be fired. I want to have more buying power than my opponent while controlling part of their actions by dictating what is available.

In Project Dreamscape, this idea is brought to the forefront. The game does not necessarily revolve on getting the most of any one thing, but knowing how to out maneuver your opponent(s). This is done through leaving things they can’t use in the shared play area.

Now, I know there is player interaction in play-testers’ games that report little player interaction because of two major points. The first of these is the low scores. Generally, when you work against others, your scores are low. Second, the presence of group think. Generally, they all start playing one another, which means they fight over similar abilities.

Surprisingly, I’ve only seen one person who can commonly buck the group think mentality. As a consequence, he often out maneuvers everyone and wins the game consistently. While the rest of us struggle with getting 10+ points, he’s scoring in the 20s.

I also have a friend who totally believes this game has immense player interaction. As an example, he did the following. He flipped three cards in the shared play area that I needed to their face-down side. This means they could be bought as currency or I had to wait to get an ability that flipped them back. However, he didn’t stop there. There was one card left that I could still use to good effect. He used another ability to push it all the way back in the most expensive spot possible. This meant on my turn I could either barely afford a partially useful card, not afford a very useful card that got drawn since he also reduced my currency stack, and left me with the option of buying up all the currency cards which count for negative points at the end of the game.

He did all this without killing a hero, stealing from me, or reducing my life points. Now there were still elements of a traditional attack in what he did. However, he accomplished this by leaving behind extremely poor options for me to deal with.

So what are your views on player interaction? How do you define this crucial element of game play?

Next Time

The game needs to look good. This means we had to sit down and figure out what art direction to take. I’ll generally outline the process we took to make the game look like what we wanted.
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Wed Jan 28, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 9 for Project Dreamscape: Items for the Future

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

As I mentioned before, I had a lot I wanted to put into the game. Thankfully, I was able to put everything game related I wanted for playing the game. Most of the cuts came from slight luxuries. Perhaps later down the line, depending on the success of the game, these items can be addressed.

Luxury

The biggest issue I knew I had to drop was alternate cards for the solo game. As it is, you can play the game just fine, but there are a couple of changes to some base abilities and one change to an expansion idea.

I actually wasn’t expecting how enjoyable the game is as a solo experience. Perhaps this is something that can be revisited at a later date if people want more to the game. That might even mean alternate cards receive unique artwork.

Future Ideas

Given the structure of this game, each idea I come up with requires more and more cards to cover the appropriate distribution. Nevertheless, I still have two more abilities in mind. Just to give you an idea of the number of cards needed, if we were to make just two more abilities, it would require 46 cards. Considering the count for the entire base game is 52 with 2 reference cards, 46 is a massive jump to add on.

Ultimately, this means the game has some untapped depth so it can grow in the future. I’d like to say, if I could plan a future expansion, it would contain a big box to hold the entire game, the solo alternate cards, the two additional abilities, and the four cards that were originally removed from the base game. We could even work in some extra reference cards to boot.

For the time being, we still need to see how much gets funded through the Kickstarter to see if everything we planned for the base game can be made. Perhaps anything that we miss there can be rolled into a future expansion.

Next Time

I want to discuss the idea of player interaction. I have a particular view of it that does not seem to be shared by other gamers. Project Dreamscape is an excellent example for this discussion since it reflects my beliefs.
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Wed Jan 21, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 8 for Project Dreamscape: Incorporating Play-Tester Feedback

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

Play-testers make games so much better. In this installment, I wanted to focus on the way I’ve incorporated feedback from the play-testers to make the game all nice and shiny. It’s their hours of play time that makes sure this game does not break. So a big thank you to all of you. Your names are in the credits.

Scoring

I am not ashamed to say, with all the thought and detail I put into the game, the scoring was just a mess. Frankly, it took the play-testers suggesting time and again how to streamline and make the process meaningful. Not sure why I had such a problem figuring this process out.

I believe my first version involved a number of mathematical equations followed by some comparisons and lord knows what else. Thankfully I no longer remember the entire process. So, one of the first things that happened was the play-testers said, “Just add up the dream score and subtract the Z score.”

This was a breath of fresh air. However, the play-testers were far from finished. In later games they mentioned that the longer chains needed better returns. So I tried applying about five different number sequences until I found something that felt right. After that was done, I still had some weird number issues with the 2, 3, and 4 long chains. Again, a play-tester came to the rescue and gave me a simple fix that worked perfectly.

Language

You know how you understand something in your head but when it comes time to explain it, you’re lucky if someone doesn’t accidently hurt themselves trying to follow your rules? Well, writing rules for games is a lot like that. Those little bits of information that are naturally meant need to be caught and it’s the play-testers that do that.

It’s the difference between “any” and “all” that make a world of difference at times. We can’t express how happy we are to have those brave souls willing to explain time and again why certain things MUST be in the rules.

Game Flow

This game has no business playing as smoothly as it does. And that is all possible because of play-testers. They clearly identified what felt clunky and where things needed to be sped up. Gaining currency at the beginning of your turn, that’s a play-tester suggestion.

By the end, we started getting comments that they game ended too soon. Problem is we are making a filler game that we want in the half hour mark and that’s exactly how long it took them to play. Of course, we still need to explore this suggestion and will be looking at putting two copies of the game together to see if it lengthens the game while remaining balanced. We just want to make sure this game doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Next Time

The hopes and dreams I have for the future of this game. And I’m still making puns.
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Wed Jan 14, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 7 for Project Dreamscape: Modifying for Production

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

When designing Project Dreamscape, I was not thinking about publishing the game. For me, the design came first. So whether or not the game worked was my primary concern. Finding out that it worked and played well was thrilling. However, realizing that if it were to be printed, certain standards would have to be worked around.

Card Count

Those who have made a game know that cards are printed in sheets of 54 cards. So if you don’t want to be paying through the nose for having a game with a strange number of cards, like the 56 Project Dreamscape was made up of, something needed to be done.

The solution thankfully was surprisingly simple. If I removed 4 cards we could get under the count and have 2 cards left over for a scoring aid. This meant I had to remove one instance of each ability that demonstrated a slight edge.

Since I built the game around strategies, the answer was to look for combinations that had a higher degree of synergy. So the card that had Perfect Respite and Night Terror was a good choice since both worked to do roughly the same type of concept just through different means.

The odd thing is the expansion cards fit perfectly in the old distribution. So for those math junkies when you play with an expansion ability there are 14 instances of it while there are only 13 instances of the base abilities.

Thankfully I have seen no mathematical difference in scoring to make it imbalanced. However, if the game does well and an additional expansion is made, I will push to restore the original abilities back to their 14 instances.

Weight

If they’d let me, I’d throw everything at this game to have maximum options. However, you need to ship these puppies out. If that is going to happen, weight is your enemy. Now it becomes a tug of war between how much the game will weigh versus the point at which it will upset the cost of shipping set aside in the budget.

Quality in the cardstock means a heavier weight. In order to combat this, we are making estimates based on the fully tricked out version with all the bells and whistles we can think of. And even after that, we add in some additional imaginary weight. The end result is a game that is focused on getting as much game play in the box and waiting on nice convenience options like special cards for solo play.

Next Time

We will look at how the play-testers gave us the boost this game needed to be a dream come true. Sorry the pun was there, I couldn’t help myself.
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Wed Jan 14, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 6 for Project Dreamscape: Expanding Meaningful Choices

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

As it turned out, the game design was fairly tight when it came to how the abilities fit together. Minor tweaks were made to a few of the abilities, but, for the most part, the game stayed identical to the original draft. Now that I felt comfortable with the game as it was, it was time to toy with the idea of expanding the game in some way. In order to do this, I needed to figure out something extremely important.

Meaningful Choices

At first, I had a number of ideas that explored different elements of the game. However, as I matched them up with the goals I set for myself, it was very difficult to find something that could fit into the web of abilities I had weaved.

This meant I had to get more precise with the criteria for a good ability. In order to figure that out I had to determine what constituted a “meaningful choice.” Given the fact this game is a bit of a hybrid between American and European style games, the typical choices you would make didn’t quite apply.

An example of this is an American game might find a meaningful choice in how well you can destroy others while a European game might call a meaningful choice something that helps build an engine you use. Well, neither of these choices really applied in this game. Therefore, I worked back to figure out what do both game types have in common.

The answer turned out to be maneuvering. American games often require you to maneuver to exploit weaknesses while a European game has you maneuver to capitalize on a particular strategy.

When I compared the idea of maneuvering with Project Dreamscape, it exactly matched up with this concept. This meant I now had a new ruler to introduce abilities to that provided a type of guide in their creation.

Additional Abilities

Originally my goal was to see if the game would last longer if you just added abilities in. That quickly turned out to be not the best choice. Adding just one more ability in the mix disrupted the tight balance of the game and the frequency in which abilities showed up.

However, the abilities did work extremely well if you swapped in/out on a one-for-one basis. Additionally, the dynamics of the game shifted dramatically with the introduction of an ability and the removal of something a player might subconsciously count on.

This in turn let me introduce other player personalities into the game. The Conservative who uses Empowered Dreaming to use abilities, but is not forced to put those cards in their REM stack to clutter things up. The Speed Demon, who uses Paradigm Shift to move the Dreamscape faster than ever. And the Chaotic, who uses Invasive Dreaming to finally swap cards with the Dreamscape and another player.

Next Time

I will talk about trimming the game down and preparing for the various logistics in making the game.
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Wed Jan 7, 2015 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 5 for Project Dreamscape: Timing & Number of Players

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

Now from the outset, I was looking to make a filler game. In my mind that is a game that lasts around the half hour mark no matter how many players you play with. This was easily done by making the deck of cards the timer for the game. However, I still had to justify why I would allow certain player counts.

Two Players

The majority of my gaming is done with my wife. This means I have a high regard for games that deliver a solid two player experience. As a general rule, I don’t mind if a player’s turn lasts a bit longer in a two player game because no matter whose turn it is, the other player will always play next.

For Project Dreamscape, this is a surprisingly intense game. Every decision you make will directly impact the other player. What you leave and how you leave cards behind will dictate the course of the game. So I was very happy with how the game plays.

Three Players

This is where the game starts opening up. You have another player that makes it harder to plan long term. However, I reasoned a good player will still pay attention no matter whose turn it is for the following reasons.

On your turn, you must pay attention to play. On the player after you, you need to pay attention because what you leave them on your turn can directly mess them up. However, you need to know what they do on their turn to make a greater impact on their play. Then the player after them is important because what they leave behind is what you will have to deal with on your turn.

Four Players

This admittedly is the most casual way to play. The timing of the turns for the person before you and after you is the same as the three player game; however that last player opens up a lot of room.

In terms of timing, a good player will use that turn to consult their REM stack and figure out what types of abilities they will want to look for. This gives them time to prepare for when it is important for them to pay attention.

Given the sheer amount of technology available to people at the table, a game can’t demand constant attention especially if it is a filler game. Therefore a space for downtime is allowed which makes turns less intense.

Along with shortened attention spans comes a level of impatience where people want it to be their turn again. This means turns have to get quicker without changing how the game plays. It was decided that four players is the maximum amount of downtime that would be allowed that still provided enough game tension to be interesting.

Single Player

After working out all the timing for two to four players, I was a bit disappointed to find I couldn’t stretch the game to five players. That’s when the idea of going the other way and making a solo variant for the game was born. Now, for this to work, a few abilities needed to be changed. However, once made, the game becomes this diabolical machine that forces you to figure out new ways to utilize all the abilities to their full potential.

As for timing, the game still comes under the half hour mark I was looking for even though the length of each turn is greatly increased. I’m actually surprised how well the game works as a solo version and I found I can continue to tie thematics in by adding a score ranking chart.

Next Time

I will discuss how I approached expanding the game and figuring out what is a meaningful choice within the game.
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Wed Dec 31, 2014 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 4 for Project Dreamscape: Unexpected Group Think

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

Finally the game was ready for play-testing. I had a quick couple runs with my wife and the results were very promising. Generally, I wanted the game to fit a particular time frame, which it did surprisingly well at no matter the number of players. However, what I was interested in was whether or not players would pick up on different play styles. What I found out was rather interesting.

Play the way you think

No matter which play-test group we put this in front of, we had consistent reports of how smoothly the game played. It was easy enough to learn and many reported wanting the game to last longer. However, since I was looking for a particular time for it to last, I couldn’t fully address this issue. However, we are looking at what happens when we combine two copies of the game together.

The real interesting observation is that some people thought certain cards were too powerful while other ones were not strong enough. I was, of course, concerned since I was striving for an equal balance of all types of strategies. That’s when I discovered something interesting.

The issues people had reflected that player’s play style. No one play-test group matched any other play-test group in their opinion of which ability was stronger than another. One said Floating Free was overpowered. However, a single ability is easily countered, shared, or eliminated by other abilities. Others said Night Terror was not strong enough while another group absolutely loved the ability. Still others said Lucid Dreaming was too powerful and suggested changes to make it even more powerful.

The end result was a null outcome. All the abilities had their moment of glory but it was all dependent on how that group played. Some suggestions that came from this were helpful when they pointed out aspects that better fit my design goals, while others I couldn’t use for similar reasons. Even though these latter suggestions were interesting, they often focused the game in a single direction.

Through all this the most interesting factor that emerged was Group Think. Sure, thematically everyone is connected into a Dreamscape, but there is nothing saying you have to play like everyone else. However, that is often what happens.

Group Think

So if you are unfamiliar with the term, Group Think generally means that as a group, decisions are made and everyone seems to follow along with those ideas. Every time we heard from a group, certain opinions were formed based on the group. This is both a blessing and a curse with this game.

As a curse, if the group believes that a certain mechanism is unfair, it often remains as the dominate opinion for that group. This leads to a lack of effort in figuring out how this seeming imbalance can be exploited (and believe me there are lots of ways to exploit abilities).

However, as a blessing if a group thinks an ability is too powerful then everyone fights for it and its effectiveness is diminished. In this way, Group Think naturally helps balance a certain play style within a group’s dynamics no matter what the prevailing thought happens to be.

Next Time

I will talk about dealing with differing player counts and the timing involved.
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Wed Dec 24, 2014 6:05 am
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Designer Diary 3 for Project Dreamscape: Incorporating Play Styles

Sarah Reed
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Written by Will Reed

Previously I mentioned choosing play styles that reflected different personalities. Well, the personalities I was referring to dealt with how you play a game. This is not meant to be a commentary on how that player acts outside a gaming environment. So here are the play personalities I targeted.

Aggressive

This player likes to have the opportunity to engage with other gamers as directly as possible. For them, I have Night Terror, Interrupted Sleep and Lucid Dreaming. With Night Terror, they destroy the buying capabilities of other players. As for other attacks, they can leave voids in the Dreamscape with Interrupted Sleep or completely remove a card their opponent needs with Lucid Dreaming. Ultimately, they can lay waste to their opponent’s power and leave a mess behind.

Hoarder

A player with options is the player that wins, right? That’s what a hoarder believes. For them I have Lucid Dreaming, Perfect Respite and Shifting Dreams. With Lucid Dreaming and Perfect Respite, it is all about gaining more options faster than anyone else. They have their pick and the money to choose whatever they want. Combine this with Shifting Dreams and you can make your money stretch just a little further.

Thinker

A well planned, orderly approach gives you the intellectual edge. An organized stack is a high-yield point generator. For them there is Floating Free, Recurring Dream and Collective Dream. Floating Free gives this player the ability to make the stack they want. Recurring Dream lets them use the stack they’ve built. And Collective Dream gives them the option to capitalize on anything they believe they missed.

Free Spirit

It’s all luck and randomness when you get right down to it. That’s the long and short of it for these players. For them there is Shifting Dreams, Collective Dream and Lucid Dreaming. Essentially, they believe if randomness rules, you find abilities to offset it. Shifting Dreams let them get what they need now. Collective Dream lets them tap into the things others got that they missed. And Lucid Dreaming lets them save something for a rainy day.

Sacrificial

The ends justify the means. If a sacrifice needs to be made to make a better play, then that’s what they will do. For them there is Interrupted Sleep, Perfect Respite and Floating Free. With Interrupted Sleep, you will clutter the Dreamscape but that means your opponents don’t get a certain card. With Perfect Respite, you risk the negative points to give a boost to the income. And sometimes you just need an ability whether or not it wrecks your stack, that’s why Floating Free is so powerful.

Power House

Become the richest so you can make the best decisions. This player looks to create an imbalance of wealth in which they can exploit. For them there is Perfect Respite, Night Terror and Shifting Dreams. Perfect Respite gives them more currency faster. Night Terror takes that currency away from others. And Shifting Dreams make everything either cheaper for them or more expensive for what is left behind.

Next Time

I will find out some interesting facts when I put the game in front of play-testers. I was expecting some things, but surprised with others.
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Wed Dec 17, 2014 6:05 am
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