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Thalara - Behind the scenes, part 1: The concepts

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
Thalara has come a long way, it’s been 5 years from the idea until now, so there were many design stages that changed the game a lot. But there are a few concepts and ideas that didn’t change and that make the core of Thalara. This is the first part of Thalara’s “Behind the scenes” article series.

Getting the most out of the least

I like elegance in game design. But what does that even mean? For me, it means trying to get maximum value out of every single component and every single rule. I tried to achieve that by reusing components again and again, while changing their meaning in a subtle way. To better understand this, let’s go back a few years. In one of Thalara’s early versions, it was a deck building game that felt a little like Dominion meets Smash Up. You’d acquire cards, add them to your deck, shuffle the cards and draw a new hand. Since then, the game has changed to a hand building game, because I tried to distill the feeling of building a deck into something even more focused, but even in that early deck building version of Thalara it was a very tight design: A deck would contain only very few cards, and even at the end of the game your deck would consist of only 13-15 cards. Every single decision matters. A lot. So, we had a very small deck of cards that would be shuffled every single round. One of the problems I had with this design was: I don’t like shuffling cards that much, and the smaller the deck, the more often you need to shuffle. Also, I didn’t like the amount of randomness involved, but that’s another topic. Changing Thalara to a hand building game solved all of these problems at once. Now, the cards you’ve acquired get locked to your hand. That not only means you’ve got total control about which cards you have in your hand, it also means that every round you need to select less cards from your pool. There are obvious implications that affect your strategy, but there’s also something really subtle and elegant: From round to round, you use up less cards. Although your hand size is seven cards every single round, your card pool of 20 cards is enough to play a lot more rounds than you might think. It also means that the game will end faster if one player acquires many more cards than the opponent, and the game achieves that in an emergent way. The game ends when a player claims seven artifacts, but it also ends when a player runs out of energy cards. The less artifacts you get, the faster your energy pool will deplete, bringing the game to an end. There’s a lot more to Thalara than this, but these are the kind of things I use to create elegance in game design.

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I love asymmetric games. There’s something about giving each player unique characters, unique abilities or rules that makes me feel connected to a game in a special way. Maybe it’s the possibility to select your own playstyle to make the game feel exactly the way you like it, maybe it’s about the variety of experiencing a different game every time you play. Magic: The Gathering is one of those games that pushes asymmetry to the extreme. I love building decks and playing against people that play with cards that I’ve never seen before. This concept works really well when playing in a casual environment. Once you get more serious about playing competitive, some problems with the concept get more visible: To stay competitive, not only do you need to acquire expensive cards, but the number of viable decks gets smaller and smaller depending on the current meta game. In the end, although there are many thousands of cards in Magic, there’s only a dozen combinations that have a real chance of winning in the long run. Other games tried to solve these problems in different ways: Living card games like Android: Netrunner removed the exploitative aspect of random booster packs, while duel games like Codex, BattleCon and Exceed focus on characters or factions with a fixed card pool. The CCG simulator Millennium Blades went another way and made buying booster packs part of the game. While I really like all of these games, I always felt that they’re missing something. With Thalara, I tried to make a game that features heavily asymmetric gameplay, a balanced gameplay no matter which character you choose, while still providing a learning curve that feels great for beginners and experts alike. A game where you have a fixed card pool and fixed character abilities, but still get the feeling of “building” something (your hand) to allow for many different strategies. I’m excited to hear if you think Thalara succeeded in reaching this goal.

Meaningfulness in simultaneous selection

The information horizon of a game determines how far you can plan your next steps. In games without hidden information (like Chess, for example), the information horizon is very far away, only limited by your personal ability to look ahead. The other extreme would be a game like Poker. Games with a close information horizon are usually a lot more random, although randomness and hidden information aren’t necessarily the same thing. In Thalara, I tried to keep randomness as low as possible, but still keep the information horizon at a point where players don’t feel overwhelmed by choices. Since players select their hand cards, there really is no luck of the draw, but selecting your cards without knowing which cards the opponent(s) will use introduces just the right amount of hidden information. In an early version of Thalara, I experimented with players selecting the cards for the whole game right at the start. Moving the information horizon a little closer improved the game a lot. That doesn’t mean that there’s no randomness in Thalara at all, since the available artifact cards are randomly drawn each round. This is called “input randomness”. It means that only the starting conditions are random, but players know the outcome of their actions at all times, while “output randomness” (like throwing dice) randomizes the outcome. Hidden information still can feel just as random as “real” randomness in many cases. If you have no idea which cards your opponent is going to select, the fact that those cards aren’t random doesn’t change anything for you. If you’re playing Rock Paper Scissors, there’s no randomness at all, but it still feels random if you don’t know what your opponent is doing. The key in making simultaneous selections become meaningful is giving different non-trivial weights to choices. In Thalara, if Kandhran already has a purple card on the table, chances are that he has a second purple card in hand, because as Kandhran it’s an expensive move to waste purple cards without activating the very strong energy barrier spell. There are some obvious good or bad moves, but also many tactical uses of spells that you’ll discover with experience.

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In order to get an idea about what your opponent might be doing next, you need to know the opponent’s options. This is true for all games in some way, more so for asymmetric games. In many games, you have a very good idea of your own options, since you’re looking at the cards in your hand, but the other players’ options are hidden. In duel games like Yomi, you need to know not only your own, but the opponent’s character really well to even have a chance at winning. Games with pre-game deck construction go a step farther: You need to know the playable decks in the current meta game to make an educated guess at your opponent’s next move. In some of the earlier versions of Thalara, spell effects were part of the energy cards in your deck. You still needed to match the right colors to activate a spell, but you could also use a spell to power another spell. While that approach worked to some amount, I figured that the game worked much better with public spells. You’d know exactly what your opponent could do at a given time. Also, each spell was available all the time to provide a useful answer whenever you know what your opponent is going to do. Because just as important as knowing what your opponent is up to is having a viable answer at hand.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the visual development and the balancing of Thalara. But there’s more: If you haven’t read my designer diary, this is your chance to get a look at early prototypes and a deeper insight into Thalara’s development:

Thalara Designer Diary
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