Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Interview: Todd Michael Rogers on combining narrative, theme and lots of cards in Spell Saga - part I

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I love games with strong narratives and for the past half year I’ve on and off been following the development of a solitaire game called Spell Saga that’s billed as a “card based tabletop novel”. The game is currently being launched by its designer Todd Michael Rogers and French Toast Gaming Co on Kickstarter, so some days ago I reached out to Todd to ask for an interview about the game and immediately agreed to participate.

So today we’ll let Todd’s whimsically chatty prose be our guide to a narrative card game – please lean back and enjoy the ride.

Morten: First of all thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

As the name of this blog implies it's focused on thematic solitaire games for people who don't have much spare time and many of my questions are guided by this focus. With that said, let’s get started.

Could you start by telling us about Spell Saga from a thematic solitaire and spare time challenged point of view?

Todd: Spell Saga takes place in a medieval/western Post apocalyptic world where most the history and lore seems to have been lost or buried in secrecy. Because it’s played with decks of cards, you don’t have to finish the whole game in one play. In fact we would recommend you not do so!

Morten: Your description of the setting together with what I’ve seen about the game makes me think of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series – have you been inspired by those books?

Todd: Not on purpose. I don't think you can't take from that series after you read it. The western part creeped in by accident. We had a haunted revolver (from another older story of mine) and a "good" prostitute. And of course a man with no name: "The Last Minstrel" (who was obviously wearing some sort of serape) ...but I still don't think we realized it was a western until my cousin Lauren (the artist) and I began to design the clothing each character would wear. In the end we mixed American Old West with British Dark Ages and ended up with the look of the game. So the story choices informed the fashion, which strengthened the genre, which is a long winded way of saying once you read The Dark Tower it sort of bleeds into everything, forever.

Morten: I get your point, The Dark Tower oozes theme and is powerful enough to seep into your subconscious.

While talking about books, you call your game a “card based tabletop novel”, and since I’m a sucker for narratives in games I start to construct sentences with the words “interest”, “piqued”, and “extremely”, but then they get all jumbled up because I get too giddy. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this phrase?

Todd: Sure. tabletop Novel is a dumb name I came up with because we couldn’t justify calling our game anything else. It is definitely a card game. But it's also definitely a novel. It was carefully constructed so that the story and characters are always the same just...different. Man that is a bad explanation. How about this: Spell Saga is a lot like a JRPG with no grinding and instead of a Playstation your using tarot cards. It is a novel in the sense that the feel and movements of the story are enforced. Like invisible checkpoints you won’t always know your passing. You’re deciding what happens next, but our system is guiding you to keep the path wide but the feeling tight.

Morten: I actually quite like that you use the term “novel”, it makes me more interested in the game because it signals that there’s a focus on narrative in the game, and as mentioned I’m quite into narrative games, and having a narrative is a strong way of supporting the theme of a game.

From your focus on narrative and seeing the game as a novel, I’d venture the guess that theme has been important in your design process. How would you rate Spell Saga on a scale from 1 to 9 where 1 is "Game mechanics rule, theme doesn't matter" and 9 is "theme rules, game mechanics must be adapted to support the theme"?

Todd: It’s a balance, you know? I can tell you right now I start with the story, by which I mean not necessarily “this happens, and then this happens, and then this…” Instead I try to get images. And the feel. Which I think is really important for any good story. I try to get the feel of it right, and then imagine moments and pieces. The next step for me is turning those feelings and pieces into cards, and figuring out how those cards might interact to evoke the same feeling or story I was thinking of. It’s actually a lot like putting the right word and paragraphs together to make a written story. The difference being you’re giving the player a bunch of jumbled pieces and trying to be clever about how to give them their own story that still follows the same feeling or course as you originally intended.

Morten: I note that you dodged my question and didn’t give us a number , but it seems to me that what you’re saying that Spell Saga would have a very high rating on this scale, but not all the to the top of the scale. Anyway let’s change tack and strip away the focus on theme and instead just look at the mechanics of Spell Saga. If you try to do that, then what do you see? (To the readers: Don’t attempt this at home. Such an operation should only be performed by trained professionals; amateurs could easily end up killing all their fun.)

Todd: Well, to sort of continue my answer from above mechanics need to feel natural. They need to be simple enough to remember, or, hopefully, to make so much sense they don’t need explanation. And they need to reflect each other as well. So if I were to strip away the theme, I would (hopefully) find something that worked on its own. I have been using different versions of the same mechanics since I was a kid playing with index cards, so I certainly feel like I have a grasp of what I like and don’t like--that being said, I am an idiot. It took us four months at least to write the rulebook. If one of our lead playtesters (Sakroka) had not helped figure out my “rules” were just a list of actions I would still be in front of my computer listening to Radiohead and slipping further toward diabetes.

Morten: OK, let me elaborate a bit on that question: Could you tell us a bit about the mechanics of the game? How does it work if you should describe it briefly without referring to the theme?

Todd: It was really important to me to get the game to work as one deck of cards per act of a story. It would have been a lot easier to have decks for different types of cards, but moving cards in and out of just one stack felt pretty, so I went with the one deck option. That being said it works like this:

Cards are pulled from the deck and kept in the hand, source pile (bank), or play area. Different card types are separated into different areas once put into play. These different areas are called “piles” (Imagine Place Piles, Story Piles, and Item piles) Each Pile has its own rules of how cards work when put there.

Each card has a Source Cost. Cards from the deck or hand can only be put into play (that is to say, into a pile) if the source cost on them is less than the amount of cards in the "story" pile. Then you can use the Source Pile (your bank) to pay for those cards and put them into piles. The Play area and its Piles grow as you explore and delve down into the deck.

Is that simple? It feels simple when you play it.

Morten: It does sound simple .

Now let’s add the theme back in. Which mechanisms in the game do you think best support the theme and narrative?

Todd: That’s a really good question. Uhhm. Er...Oh! probably the ability to move cards between piles to change their card type. I prefer stories where magic is not a system. So the ability to combine certain cards and force other cards to change card feels a bit magical when you figure a trick out. Our other lead playtester Joshua, is much better at the game. I’m sure his answers would differ. I know his favorite mechanics tend to be the ones forced upon the game by the Spell-Song cards.

Morten: That actually sounds kinda cool, and I really love it when mechanics and themes click, but of course it doesn’t always work out like that, sometimes you need to keep in mind that you’re making a game, not writing a book, and this can lead to situations where mechanics must trump theme. Could you give us an example of a situation where you had to be cold hearted and choose to compromise the theme in order to make a good game?

Todd: Yeah, I couldn’t fit the sex scene the Minstrel has during a dream in the second deck.
That’s not a joke!--Oh, and Deck Zero. We had a tutorial deck at the very start of the game that would “teach you” how to play. it was really boring, so we scrapped it. but the story was really neat. It was about finding the Rusted Revolver in a wooden box.

The good thing is (I think) a lot of the story moments come together when cards are combined. And a lot of times the stories aren’t even in the cards. It’s in your head as you play. So the mechanics actually enhance and grow the stories, it’s only very specific moments that were scrapped, and they were only lost because we need to keep the decks at certain sizes. length effects a story too.

Let’s take a break:

Since this interview ended up being rather long, I decided to chop it up into two pieces, so we’ll take a break here and return later to talk about art, long rulebooks and the future of Spell Saga.

If you want to read more about the game in the meantime there are several places you can do that:
• The Design Blog
• The Design blog here on BGG
• The game’s BGG entry
• The game’s Facebook page.

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