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For many players, the core game of Custom Heroes will be familiar. This is a climbing (or ladder-climbing) trick game, and there are many versions of this type of game; "President" was what my friends and I called our version growing up, and this used just a standard deck of cards. Before I was deep into the gaming hobby or had discovered that many climbing game variants already existed, I thought it would be nifty to make a game like "President", but with a "cool and different twist". As a novice designer, I tried unsuccessfully to pitch the game to publishers. The game, while fun, lacked a good hook or attribute that made it stand out from what I came to learn was a very crowded design space.
In 2013, I started working on a game that used what Alderac Entertainment Group is now calling the "Card Crafting System": Cards are in sleeves, and at the start of the game or during play one or more semi-transparent cards are sleeved with the cards; essentially, multiple layered parts are turned into a single card held together by a card-sleeve. The key here is that a card can be "crafted" with new powers and modifiers, while still functioning like a card, i.e., it can be shuffled, dealt, drawn, played, discarded, re-dealt, etc. and still retain all modifications.
One example of how a card might evolve over the course of a game
My original card-crafting game design was Edge of Darkness, a medium-weight, Euro-ish game that AEG licensed back in 2015. That game is now in the layout phase of production. I followed up that design with Mystic Vale, a light deck-building game released by AEG in 2016, then continued exploring the enormous amount of design space that the card-crafting system opened up.
It occurred to me that a relatively simple endeavor, yet potentially quite interesting, would be a merger of card crafting and climbing tricks. Take a classic game like Asshole with a symmetric deck of numbered cards, and add the ability to modify cards as they are played — the key being that all modifications on cards are retained such that the deck of cards dealt out in the second, third, and fourth hands will be increasingly different from what was dealt in the first hand. This idea didn't make for an exceptionally unique design like I sought to create with Edge of Darkness, but it did make for a pretty radical twist to the established climbing trick game system.
I wanted to keep the game approachable and fast-paced, so the variety of modifications players could apply to cards were kept simple, things like increasing or decreasing the value of a card, or turning a card into a wild or a trump. I experimented with more complex effects, like permanent abilities that players would keep from round to round, but the AEG guys felt this slowed the pace of the game and took the spotlight off the card crafting.
Numbers aren't the only thing that can change
For the strategy-inclined gamer, a key difference in Custom Heroes from other climbing trick games is the addition of resource management. Before each hand, players each draw a number of "card advancements": transparent cards that you can sleeve onto cards to modify them with a plus, minus, or text effects. Whenever you want, you may elect to sleeve an advancement onto a card in your hand and permanently modify that card. At the end of each hand, any advancements you didn't sleeve will still be available for the next hand; any advancements you did sleeve stay on the card, which is then randomly dealt for the next hand.
Wise use of advancements is usually the difference between winning or losing a hand. Conversely, ineffectual use of advancements means you are squandering resources that could have helped in future hands. Therefore, your decisions aren't just about doing the best in this hand, but about maximizing the power of your resources over multiple hands. Rather than blow all your resources for first place this hand, maybe settle for second place and fewer victory points (VP), but an advantaged position going into the next hand.
The card crafting also drives other major differences from more traditional climbing trick games. Numbers often start clumping, for example. In the first few hands, having four-of-a-kind is a big play. By the last couple of hands, you may see seven- or eight-of-a-kind, and your four-of-a-kind is no longer the powerful play it once was. Also, the power-numbers in the deck shift; 10s start the game as the highest numbers, but by the end of the game you might see three 12s beaten by three 16s. These and other dynamics make for a climbing trick game with a fresh feel, and in my experience, many shout-out-loud moments.
Three 7s? Try harder
The scoring system I went back and forth on for a while. It was important to have a scoring system that both kept the game length reasonable and kept all players in the running. I tried several different things, but ultimately ended up with a "win threshold" concept. Points are awarded for doing better each hand (e.g., the first person to play all their cards gets 5VP, the next player gets 3VP, etc.). To win the game, a player must get to 10 or more points, then get first place in a subsequent hand.
What this means is that even if you are trailing 12 to 0, if you get first place in a hand, you deny other players the ability to win the game and you force another hand. Eventually either someone has won or all players have 10 or more points, which leads to a final winner-take-all hand. This almost did what I wanted it to. Most games would end in the fourth, fifth, or sixth hand, which worked great. However, some games would push into seventh or even eighth hands — and by that point, the deck would start reaching a threshold where there were too many advancements on the cards; the game would slow down and overstay its welcome. I wanted to cap the length at six hands, but that meant that if you were too far behind going into the fifth or sixth hand, you were effectively eliminated.
At this point we had a game we really liked with one hiccup that affected maybe 10% of games. AEG CEO John Zinser and I hung out for a whole evening, brainstorming and playing. A lot of ideas were discussed, but when we hit on the right idea we knew it at once. Six hands would be the maximum number of regular hands. If at the end of the sixth hand, no player had yet won by conventional means, there would be a two-player championship hand in which the player with the most points and the player who won the sixth hand would face off head-to-head. This meant points were still crucial, but even if you were way behind, you still had a chance of stealing a shot at the title. Therefore, in the sixth hand all players have a chance, though the players with the most VP still have a better chance.
Hope that sounds interesting! I've certainly had fun with this little design. Happy gaming!
John D. Clair