Musings and Retrospectives

Mostly for design diaries and retrospectives, perhaps branching out into posts on more general design thoughts.
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Spirit Island Design Diary - Powers

R. Eric Reuss
United States
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From gallery of darker

A prototype Minor Power card

From gallery of darker

A prototype Major Power card

From gallery of darker

A prototype Spirit panel,
with innate Power at lower right

(You can see something closer to
actual Power Cards / Spirit panels
in this forum thread.)

If you haven't played Spirit Island: Powers are what the Spirits use to act within the game. There are Power Cards (cards in your hand) and Innate Powers (printed on your Spirit’s play panel). Power Cards cost Energy to play, and you’re limited in how many you can use each turn. Innate Powers don’t have either of those restrictions - but are only triggered on turns that you’ve played certain combinations of Elements on your Power Cards (those things along the left-hand side).

Each Spirit starts with four unique Power Cards. More can be gained as the game goes on, from the Minor Power and Major Power decks. Major Powers are very potent, but have high Energy costs, and to gain one you have to Forget (lose forever) a Power you already know.

~ ~ ~

The core concept of Power Cards has existed from the beginning. Innate Powers - and Elements themselves - were conceived of alongside them, but absent from initial prototypes to make sure the underlying systems of the game worked before layering other pieces atop them.

The major areas of mechanical evolution have been:

Power Speed

The very first draft of the game (on paper) had something ridiculous like 8 phases per turn. I immediately trimmed this down to 6, which went something like:
1. Buffs to other Spirits
2. Defense Powers
3. First Invader action
4. Do one sort of nasty things to Invaders
5. Do other sort of nasty things to Invaders
6. Second Invader action

By the time I got it in front of playtesters, I'd merged #4 and #5, and #6 was only relevant in the second half of the game. (The Invader deck had 2 cards of each terrain. The first time through, the Invaders acted once per turn at #3. After you reshuffled, they acted at #3 *and* #6.)

It didn’t take many playtests to find the split between #1 and #2 terribly awkward, so I condensed Powers down to “Fast” (before Invaders) and “Slow” (after Invaders). Phase #6 was eliminated, replaced by the 2-terrain Stage III Invader cards.

A year or so ago, I looked into dropping the Fast/Slow distinction entirely, making everything Fast. On a mechanical level, this would have worked; it would even have streamlined the game some, and satisfied those testers who disliked having their plans messed with by Events. But it was a huge hit on theme: the Spirits are supposed to by-and-large be slower than the Invaders, scrambling to anticipate and react in time. Making everything Fast removed that. It also lowered Power diversity, gutted one very popular Spirit concept, and removed a particular type of planning that I (and many of the game’s fans) especially liked about it.

(Making everything Slow would have eliminated entire categories of defense cards, or required awkward carry-over-to-the-next-turn effects. It was a non-starter.)

So I decided that the Slow/Fast split ought to stay, but worked on developing Blitz: a simple scenario that lets players play with entirely-fast Spirits, either to explore the difference in feel, or if they just prefer that mode of play.

(This possibility was another reason to go the way I did: making a scenario in the opposite direction would have been impossible.)


Power Cards used to be able to have more than one of an Element: two Fire and one Plant, for instance.

This turned out to be a bad idea.

First of all, counting seems to be much easier on the brain than adding, even when the addition is “one plus one plus two plus one”. Playtesters had a substantially harder time adding up their elements than counting them up.

And with no more than one of an Element on each card, “number of card plays per turn” is a general ceiling on how many elements of any type a Spirit can have. This allows for much easier calibration of innate powers: if an innate triggers off of 4 water, I know it can’t be hit without playing 4 cards. (Modulo any Elements on the spirit’s Presence track and a few co-op effects.)

The full evolution of Elements and how spirits use them is a post unto itself.

What sorts of Powers are there?

Early versions of the game included many effects that are no longer present. There were a whole mess of different types of effect-tokens that could be put onto the board. There were divination effects, which let you peek at what the Invaders were going to do next. There were multi-turn Powers that ramped up for each turn you kept them in play.

All of these ended up being dropped or deferred for one reason or another - usually complexity, though a few just never ended up working well, and learning what the Invaders will do ahead of time turns out to be too much information: it makes things un-fun.

Energy scaling

Energy values used to be about 3x what they currently are, with costs running up into the high 20s. There was a long Energy track on the Spirit mats to accomodate this, with “+50” and “+100” spots.

Someone at a local testing meetup suggested lowering the granularity on all Energy costs by as large a factor as I could manage. I was initially resistant - the fine granularity meant I could base a Power’s effects entirely off of its theme, then cost it very precisely - but the advantages were so huge that I eventually took the advice, and oi, I’m glad I did. Slashing costs by a factor of 3 (and then lowering them all by 1 Energy, to make each play more intrinsically powerful and permit very-low-Energy lots-of-small-Power strategies) dropped the range to 0-9, which is great for card layout, easy for addition (especially since most numbers are 0 or 1), and permits using “coins” for Energy instead of a space-eating, too-easy-to-bump track.

Major Powers

The first versions of Major Powers didn’t grant Elements, and flatly required certain Elements to play at all. Both of these were un-fun and got winnowed out by testing; the idea of "if you have certain elements, the Power does more" was a replacement for requiring the Elements in the first place that worked about a hundred times better.

The cost for gaining a Major Power fluctuated a number of times. At one point or another, you had to:
* Pay Energy;
* Destroy one of your Sacred Sites (back when Sacred Sites were a separate piece);
* Destroy your Presence;
* (and other things I can no longer remember)

The solution of Forgetting cards actually came from the other direction: I was actively looking for something which permanently removed Power Cards from circulation. Partly because every once in a while, someone got a Minor Power draw where all four options were genuinely sub-par (given the spirit + circumstances); partly because sometimes players would end up with an unwieldy number of Powers in late-game, esecially if they didn’t have many card-plays. Forgetting another Power to get a Major Power addressed both issues, and also worked well thematically: gaining a Major Power is a big step up for most Spirits, and it made sense they’d have to lose a little bit of who they were in order to become a being incorporating this new, massive thing.

(One of the side themes of the game is “How will you change in the face of adversity?”)

Starting Powers

For a very long time, Presence was not added via Growth. (There was no Growth, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Spirits had 3 unique powers, and 3 Standard Starting Powers. Two of the Standard Powers added Presence (or, when they were a separate piece, a Sacred Site) in different ways; one let you send dreams to the Dahan telling them to move.

At PAX East 2014, I played a number of nicely thematic-feeling games, and somewhere in there I looked at Spirit Island and said: “these Powers are diluting the unique feel of each Spirit”. I’d previously considered giving each Spirit unique Presence-adding Powers, but felt that was asking for trouble: not every Spirit wants really distinctive ways of getting Presence on the board, and designing the game such that I had to come up with two interesting and thematic Presence-adding Power Cards for every Spirit seemed like asking for trouble.

But after wracking my brain for a while, I came up with a different plan: give each Spirit a unique power for their relationship with the Dahan, and don’t add Presence with Powers at all. Instead, roll that and the things covered by “Seeking” (an old mechanic for reclaiming used Power Cards and gaining a new one) into a regathering/expanding of strength called “Growth" - the organic processes which didn't involve a Spirit using special powers, just... growing, living, changing. Each spirit could have different Growth choices, and while the atomic pieces of those options could be very simple (“Add a Presence at Range 1”), the way they were grouped could, I thought, let different Spirits feel appropriately different, and offer strategic choice in how they progress. (And indeed, it does.)

It took roughly 6 months for the major side-effects of this change to ahake out, and over a year for me to get as good a handle on Growth as I’d had on the previous system - but the benefits have been fantastic: Spirits’ starting powers are entirely unique. Spirits need fewer card-plays (since they used to need an average of 1/turn for Presence placement), which makes early game decisions more manageable for new players - as does having fewer Powers overall (which also benefits later-game hand size). It's removed certain Presence-spamming openings, which makes it easier to predict/design around a spirit’s rough power-level at any point in the game. It allows Growth design to influence how a Spirit spreads, and feels while spreading. And...

How Power Cards are gained

…in the old Seeking model, Spirits only gained a new Power Card when they Reclaimed all of their spent Power Cards. (Which cost some amount of Energy at end-of-turn.) The shift to Growth decoupled “Reclaim Powers” from “Gain a Power Card”, which permitted a much greater diversity of tempo-feeling among Spirits. Many still kept one Growth option with the two of them together - it’s a good dynamic, especially for beginning players (since if you dig yourself into the hole of “I’m playing so many Power Cards that I have to Reclaim every turn”, it automatically self-corrects by giving you more Power Cards) - but even those could include other options for gaining Power Cards, and some spirits separated the two things entirely.

As Always

Comments and questions are welcome, as are suggestions for any aspects of the design, concept, or game world that you'd like to hear about.

(Also let me know if you'd rather see narrower scope and more drilldown, fewer or more details, etc. - there have been so many changes and lessons that it's difficult to put it all into narrative form.)
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