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Designer Diary: BattleCON – Design Philosophy and Game Breakdown

Brad Talton
United States
New Mexico
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Battle Connection — or BattleCON, for short — is a game that I've wanted to design for about as long as I can remember. It's a character-based, head-to-head dueling game that works in layers, with simple foundations that support multiple levels of customization and decision-making. It is themed and designed with the most compelling features of 2D console fighting games in mind. Two players (or three or four) can sit down and play a game in 10-20 minutes, and it's just a lot of fun.

I'm currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the publication of BattleCON, but let's first see how the game came about...

You Are Who You Play

When I was 15 years old — that's eight years ago at this point, wow — I started work on a collectible card game called The Anime Arsenal, after the name of an anime club that I belonged to in high school. Though I'm not a big anime fan anymore, we had a great time, and this club still operates in North Carolina.

Anyway, The Anime Arsenal was a collectible game along the lines of Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon or Legend of the Five Rings. I was the main card designer, and I would print the cards at the local OfficeMax, use spray adhesive to glue the fronts to the backs, cut them out, and distribute them to friends for free. (You couldn't squeeze money out of these guys with a vise because they spent it all on anime, naturally.) The game included around 400 different cards, with perhaps 2,500 cards printed in total, so OfficeMax made a bundle off of us.

The Anime Arsenal card game — one of my first large-scale projects

Everyone in the group played their own, unique deck. Curiously enough, players began to come to me with card requests: "Brad, you know Gerald's vampire deck? Well, it's way too strong for my giant robot deck. I need something to deal with this." Even when all the cards in the game were free and shared property, players didn't want to just adopt the most powerful deck available — they wanted their chosen deck to be the most powerful. A sense of identity was attached to what they were playing, and winning their way was more important than winning at any cost.

The Anime Arsenal card game gradually died out, mostly because everyone left for college, but the idea of that game stuck with me. What I learned — aside from a bit about game mechanisms, game balance, and prototype production — was that players in a competitive game identify with their side, much like people watching a sporting event. They want to win their way, and not just by using the commonly accepted tactics or the single most powerful option.

I have developed a lot of games between then and now, and the one thing that I was always looking for in a game was a way to bring players that sense of relationship with the side they are playing, to rally the player and get him excited about his particular army or team or character. I called that excitement "immersion", though the word means a lot of things to a lot of players, and strove to create games that would form an identifying relationship with their players.

Making More from Less

In the business of small game development, especially short-run games that you plan to play only with friends, you learn to do more with less. Card printing is expensive for personal use (about 11 cents per card), so you try to get the maximum use out of the fewest number of cards. You can't afford to playtest a 250 card CCG base set knowing that it might go through ten different iterations (which you have to print in triplicate if you allow multiples of a card).

Plus, the process is just too unwieldy. In MTG, I'd venture that 70% of the cards in the game don't see high-level play, and why settle for anything less? Part of good game design is that there should never be a suboptimal card, so you distill out every element that you can until you get the game down to its minimum. At most, I wanted a 20- or 30-card deck for a character. The deck wouldn't be customizable, but rather tuned to be the best and most competitive deck possible for that character, while also being balanced against other characters and ready to play right out of the box — a perfect high-level gaming experience. But 20-30 cards per character still makes for a 300-card game. These were pre-Dominion days, so a boxed game like that was pretty much unthinkable. I needed to stretch individual cards even further, but ten cards didn't seem like enough to make for a compelling character.

One day, I was playing my favorite fighting game, BlazBlue, and I was thinking hard about what made that game compelling. In the middle of a match, something occurred to me: Every character has a heavy attack; just about every character has a ranged attack; and just about every character has a feint of one kind or another. When they use the light, medium, or heavy versions of these attacks, they just change their stats a bit, becoming faster or stronger, or having more range.

Then it hit me.

All the characters were using the same tactics, but each had a different way of using them — the game had divided play style and tactics. Two distinct ideas were being merged into each attack seamlessly. Because I know in BlazBlue what a punch is intended to accomplish, or how to input a certain special move command, I can use just about anyone in the game decently. However, to use a specific character effectively, I have to master their individual quirks. I have to put the strengths of their style to work.

Suddenly, the mechanism I needed was staring me in the face, the base mechanism for what became BattleCON. And it wasn't just saving space either — it actually made each character easier to play! With the tactics all included in the base character cards, once a player understood those six cards, he could use anyone in the game decently. With five personal styles and one personal base, each character could have a completely different play style.

So with the basic mechanism in place, I had this hugely flexible game that was easy to teach and play with a ton of design space. And a new character consisted of only seven cards! The entire two-player game included about 96 cards total, while having a massive amount of variety with the 12 available characters. What's more, it let players create their own attacks via card combinations. When you pulled off something brilliant, the move wasn't luck of the draw — it was insightful decision-making and good hand management.

Bringing Characters to Life

After I stopped being an anime fan, I became a CCG fan. I played Magic almost religiously and had a singles set (one of every card) of 80% of the game. Under the influence of friends, I gradually got out of that and into board games. Having played only CCGs, I was blown away by the variety of mechanisms and conventions present in modern board and card games: trick-taking, resource management, hand management, chit-pulling, area control, time management, worker placement — the design space was nearly limitless. I once joked to a game designer friend that we should make a Mechanics Quest board game, in which each player got to utilize a different mechanic to try to win. At the time, we laughed it off and couldn't think of any good way to tie all of the mechanics together in a fair contest. But I never forgot about Mechanics Quest...

So after a few playtests of alpha BattleCON, I liked where the game was going. It just needed something... more, something that made the character's strategies not just present but integral. In addition to a handful of moves, I wanted each character to have something that made them unique. Somewhere, out of the murky depths of my cluttered game designer's mind, Mechanics Quest floated to the surface. I could use a different game mechanism to power every character!

As soon as I started considering board game mechanisms, things fell into place like magic:

• "Space Controller" can set a trap on the board to prevent enemy movement or punish them for moving into his territory.
• "Worker Placer" can get a bunch of minions onto the field to fight for him – if his opponent is in the right spots.
• "Risk Manager" has tokens that he can spend for power, but the more tokens he holds on to, the easier it is to get even more.

The mechanisms felt natural, and the system was clean and streamlined enough at this point that they just fell into place. I was using only 96 cards, after all, so I had tons of extra room to include the bits and pieces that would power all these mechanisms, while still keeping the game at a reasonable cost.

Including unique abilities made the characters even more personalized. Now it wasn't just a different matchup when two characters met, but a different game! Unique abilities added an additional layer of macro-strategy on top of the beat-by-beat tactical conflict occurring on the field. Could Resource Management beat Space Control? Would Modular Parts triumph over Worker Placement? The characters didn't just feel like two play styles clashing; they were now whole ideologies of game design fighting it out with one another!

The Elements Combine...

During conception and design, BattleCON had inadvertently separated the three major elements of competitive gaming — tactics, play style, and macro strategy — and boiled them down into modular parts that could be adjusted and tweaked.

The result was a nearly limitless design space that was light on components and extremely deep in game play. It had all the personal appeal of a CCG as your character could reflect your personality and grow in power the more you mastered him or her. The design also had all the production appeal of a boxed game: a reasonable production cost, tons of replayability, and a finite product that didn't necessitate expansions. It was the perfect launch title for Level 99 Games.

Making the Game a Reality

We've created a lot of games — video games, print-and-play, some through other publishers — but this is going to be Level 99 Games' first boxed board game. I'm a game designer because I like to see people having fun, and I decided to move forward and mass produce BattleCON because I think it's a game with universal appeal for both casual and competitive gamers.

One thing I believe in is trying before you buy. I hate opening a box and realizing that you didn't get what you were expecting, so I try to release a free version of every game I create. Thus, there's a free version of BattleCON with only six color pages to print (if you do the rules in black and white) that lets you play four of the characters in the full game. In the free preview game, you can check out:

Khadath Ahemusei, the space controlling trapper, who can manage the advances of his opponents and force them to stay where he wants.
Kallistar Flarechild, a risk-return striker, who sacrifices her own ground to try to take even more from her opponents.
Hikaru Sorayama, a resource management pressure-fighter, who uses different elements to give additional powers to his attacks.
Cadenza, a limited supply managing robot, who has the ability to shrug off his opponents' attacks, but can do so only a few times before he runs out of this incredibly useful power.

The full game includes 12 characters with five different play modes. You can also support four players with tag teams, hold 2v2 matches, and even play a 3v1 "Boss Mode" for players who want a cooperative challenge.

So, that's where we are! It's been a long road to create this game, but the results have been well worth it. I hope you'll give BattleCON a try, and support our Kickstarter project to make it real!

D. Brad Talton
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Subscribe sub options Tue Mar 15, 2011 3:19 am
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