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Evolution of a board game: Don’t aim for perfection

Alexander Wrede
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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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