Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Twisting Deckbuilding

United Kingdom
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This morning I've been reading an article on iSlayTheDragon talking about the emergence and development of deckbuilding games. If you're not already familiar with the mechanic or want to see a neat summary have a look at the article here. The reason that I mention this is that Jonathan very neatly summarises a lot of common rules about how deckbuilding is implemented and whenever I see a neatly organised set of rules I can't help but want to know what happens when you break them.

Despite joking about thinking like the Joker, I've got a constructive reason for this. In fiction there is a rule "break one rule", drawn from the observation that fiction that changes something can be interesting, but changing too many things simply leads to an unintelligible mess. Similarly, I think that a lot of game design occurs in stages, it's interesting to think about which "one thing" could be changed from successful designs to generate new ideas. I'll try to throw together a quick pitch for a game that breaks each idea. I bet at least one of the things I talk about turns out to already exist.

"A common staple of the DB genre is that each player has their own deck to build. This is perhaps the first requirement of a deckbuilding game."

Players are the leaders of nations that are supposedly working together to build a better world through international treaties and negotiations. Each player starts with a hand of cards that represents the resources of their country, their objective is to have the highest scoring hand of cards at the end of the game. A central deck represents the resources that have been contributed to international bodies over the course of the game. Each turn an international crisis or opportunity is revealed, each player plays a card face down to be their countries response and then cards equal to the number of players are revealed from the international deck are revealed, collectively these cards combat the threat and reward or penalise players with extra cards for their country based on the individual card they contributed. Finally the revealed cards are discarded and each player adds a card to the international deck which is then shuffled. The skill of the game would be in leveraging the information you have about the central deck to obtain the best rewards, which consists not only of the cards you have contributed, but also of observing the cards that other players are using and deriving what their expectations of the central deck are.

"Another common element is that a player's starting deck is filled with cheap and sometimes useless cards."

In Wizard Academy I ran into a problem with the bad stuff deck, in which the initial threats were either too dangerous for the early game or diluted the effectiveness of the deck in the late game. I eventually solved the problem by making the effects of the cards indirectly dependant on what else had happened in the game, so that they powered up over time. This could be used to create a twist on a traditional deckbuilder in which initial cards were expensive and had effects such as "Gain a card buying point for each ten cards in your deck" and a viable strategy would be to quickly add a bunch of cheap and useless "This card does nothing but be a card" cards to the deck in a reversal of the traditional deckbuilding approach. I think it's always more interesting to strike a balance between two conflicting factors (I want more cards to make the initial stuff more useful, but I don't want useless cards) than it is to try to optimise a single value (I want to get rid of all of my useless cards). Tension is cool.

"A core feature of the gameplay is that players will draw cards from their deck, use them, and then recycle those same cards back into their own deck in addition to adding new cards."

A lab full of engineers are trying to build The Perfect Machine (tm) out of whatever parts are lying around. They're forever bodging things together just long enough to get a job done and then throwing away the burnt out remains. Everyone is close to a breakthrough and things are getting tense so they've started to sabotage each other's efforts. Each player has a deck of parts that represents their machine. Hands are played together and the influence of playing parts depends on the other parts played, critically they might have a positive or negative effect depending on what else they're played with. For instance, one card might read: "If you also played a power source, rearrange the top three cards of your deck, otherwise draw only two cards next turn." The twist is that rather than discarding your played cards to your own discard pile, you discard them to your opponents pile. Ideally giving them to an opponent who doesn't have the other parts necessary to make them work in a positive way, which requires a much greater attention to the contents of your opponent's deck than traditional deckbuilders.

The other issues raised in the article look like they've already had this sort of treatment. Designers have been exploring the available "one change" approaches for acquiring cards or deck improvement and have come out with some neat ideas. I guess I'll finish up by trying to make a "one change" to a complaint about the genre:

"One of the biggest "complaints" about deckbuilding is the lack of player interaction. As the focus is on efficiently building one's own deck, direct player interaction is often sparse."

What would a deckbuilding game in which every single card influenced your opponents capacity to play look like? I can think of a game, it bugs me that the name escapes me, in which laying your tile dictates where your opponent may play their tile. Each one has effects such as "Your opponent must play adjacent to this tile" and the goal is to make your opponent unable to play. Something derived from that such that the play restrictions were more the point of the card than anything else.

Okay, I've got it. Let's end on a silly note. In this deckbuilding game the cards that you might add to your deck are scattered across the floor between the players in a big heap. On your turn you may play a card, which may enable the playing of other cards, the end goal of these cards place restrictions on your opponent such as "Your opponent must keep their left hand on their right knee until your next turn." or "Your opponent may not do anything that causes a red card that is not in their hand to move." Then you take a card from the mess of cards between you to add to your deck and your turn is complete, the only restriction on which card you could take would be those placed by your opponents turn and the physical limit of how the cards were piled on top of each other. The objective of the game is to eliminate your opponent by rendering them physically unable to take any card on their turn, which you could build towards by creating an engine that places many restrictions or by engineering what you take from the stack to make a particular restriction more dangerous and ensuring that your deck can inflict this restriction. I think the world has been crying out for a cross between Dominion, Twister and 52-card pickup.

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