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Analysis: Wizard Academy Spell Design

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If you've been following this blog for a while you'll have noticed a pattern to the Tuesday posts. I started writing puzzles for Wizard Academy and continued this for a while, but then I realised that until the project was much nearer completion I wasn't going to persuade enough people to learn the rules to make it worth doing. So instead I started using the puzzles' solutions as a springboard to analyse different design decisions, figuring that once I'd run out of puzzles I could move onto general design analysis. Last week I used up the last puzzle solution and then paused work on wizard academy. So here I am preparing to write analysis of decisions I made on a topic that I'm not currently actively developing.

Okay, fine, here's the new plan: I'll use the Tuesday slots to talk about some of the design decisions made about a game that I'm working on. Today I'll still do something on Wizard Academy since the new games are only a couple of days old, but in general Tuesdays will be for self analysis. I think it's good to devote some time to picking my own ideas apart since it might lead to improvements and keeps me honest in terms of how I see my own work compared to other peoples.

So let's talk about spell design for wizard academy. Spells are the principle way in which players interact with their environment and the spell book is the element of the game that produces the most excitement, so it's important to get this area right. In designing spells there are a few important things to bear in mind:

Coverage: There needs to be at least one spell that places every threat, at least one spell that removes every threat and at least one spell that allows every objective to be achieved.
Utility: For each spell there should be at least one situation in which the players would want to cast it.
Schools: Each school should have the same number of spells. Spells belonging to a school need to fit the theme of that school.
Cost: Spells normally cost at least three actions to cast (two to gather runes, one to cast), which means one and a half threat cards are played for every spell cast. Their effects should reflect this.
Staffs: Players can make staffs that allow for a spell to be cast as a move action, this means that it can occur three times per turn. Spells should be valuable to cast more than once, but not game breaking when cast with such frequency.
Level: Spells have a level that roughly determines their power. Higher level spells should be better than lower level spells. Some effects can make others redundant (e.g. teleporting obsoletes moving faster) so need to be at different levels. Acquiring a new level of spell should feel awesome.
Botches: Botches should have an effect that is negative under most circumstances, but that is positive in some limited circumstance. The initial casting of a botch should generally be a bad thing, but it still represents a tool the players may draw on later.
Boosts: Boosting a spell should improve it dramatically. Boosting a botch should either mitigate its negative effects or give a thematically related bonus. The latter is normally more fun.

There are a lot of requirements there! Also some of them require several solutions; coverage for instance is sometimes not sufficient. If there is only one spell that addresses water in the game, then water will be an unstoppable problem in a fair number of games. My goal here was to make it the case that any given game will only have one problem that does not have a direct spell solution, the flexibility of the game means that a creative solution to such a situation can be found. If no other options exist, the workshop or scrying chamber enable such threats to be adequately controlled for long enough for the game to be won.

The spells vary in terms of how well they achieve these goals. As I've argued before, the best solutions are those which solve several goals at a time. I'd like to talk about a few examples, I apologise in advance for the missing school symbols, the round symbols to fit on the new style cards are still being worked up. Where it's relevant I'll mention the spell's school in the text.

A low level attack spell is necessary for overcoming guardians and needs to be included for some objectives. This spell also offers coverage against Imps and Trolls, but against trolls it loses action efficiency due to needing to move into the same room. As it's a level one spell the inefficiency seems like a fair trade off. Having destruction spells that do something other than damage was often a problem during design, so adding a boost effect that did something other than damage and worked thematically (shattering ice with a blast of energy) felt right to me.

I enjoy the effect of abjure as it can theoretically act as coverage against anything. Disaster cards can place any type of threat and almost every threat can be destroyed by some other type of threat. Rearranging the location deck doesn't sound like awesome power, but the effect of that is to allow the players to decide where the next three disasters will strike and since they already have the cards in hand they know what these disasters will be. This wide coverage is impacted by the fairly significant limitation that its usefulness depends on which disaster cards are coming up over the next few turns, but the boost allows that to be modified too. Repeat castings of such an effect could be very powerful, but since the cards are only rearranged there's no point doing it more than once per turn which prevents an abjure staff from becoming overpowered.

Summoning an imp initially felt like a level 1 spell, as imps are the lowest powered creature. However they have the ability to tackle a large number of problems when they activate, including demon portals which very few spells are able to address. The ability of this spell to deal with a wide range of problems is restricted by the fact that the Imps must steal runes in order to deal with threats, which adds an additional cost to the effect. Higher level spells can deal with the same problem without this drawback.

Alone is a great botch to have in the set, once the players know that it is there. Picking the most dangerous room and teleporting it outside of the academy is a powerful effect that can get rid of a great many problems at once. Since it was so effective and would sometimes allow half a dozen threat cards to be resolved with a single spell it needed some discouragement. Alone is an answer to this, preventing the threats in the removed room from being a complete irrelevance, it needs to be a level four botch as it will very often kill the casting player if they are under prepared. By level four, players should be properly prepared, using staffs of teleport to always do their experimenting in the warded room, having robes that protect them from common dangerous threats or other self defence mechanisms that are possible by this stage of the game.

Drain soul is another answer to the problem that the destruction school has with only having damaging effects. No player wants to feel like their wizard's school is a one trick pony while others get to have a variety of interesting effects so thinking about coverage within each school was as important as considering coverage between schools. This spell works thematically and allows "create magic items" to occur outside of the enchanting school while making a destruction spell that manages more than "do damage". The spell had to be a top tier entry as it allows for tremendous action efficiency, not only does this kill an opponent, but the wizard may subsequently use a move action to cast their choice of what is probably a large variety of spells. The theme helps it achieve the goal of all fourth level spells, make the players feel awesome when they use them well.

So there's a bit of insight into what drives the design of the spells that go into Wizard Academy. With luck, I'll have something new to show you this time next week
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