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Spirit Island Development Diary - Spirit Complexity

Ted Vessenes
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Microbadge: Dune Series fanMicrobadge: Spirit Island fan - River Surges in SunlightMicrobadge: Spirit Island fanMicrobadge: Johann Sebastian Bach fanMicrobadge: I play Elder Dragon Highlander

Spirit Island has been out for a while now and it seems like a good time to share some stories from the development end of things. But first, a bit about myself.

I’m Ted. I’m credited in the rulebook as the developer of Spirit Island, but like most titles, it sounds more impressive than it actually is. There are dozens of people who contributed to Spirit Island, and at least half a dozen other people were also critical in making the game a development success. I’m not an employee of Greater than Games and I’m not paid for any of the work I’ve done. I’m just a fan, like you, who happened to catch Eric’s ear early in the design process.

The totem pole of who has the final word on something looks like “Greater than Games > Eric > Ted”. Since I’m at the bottom, my role has been largely advisory: I test things, then report back about whether they are under or overpowered, or just plain wonky (and how to fix it). And I can explain why I think a certain system should get seriously reworked. But at the end of the day, it’s Eric and GtG’s call on what ends up in the finished product.

The split between design and development is like this: Designers make the game fun to play. Developers make the game fun to play against. In other words, designers come up with all kinds of cool ideas and concepts that make you excited to play. Developers make sure that winning isn’t too easy or hard, and that the game is simple enough that you aren’t wasting all your time trying to follow the rules. For Spirit Island, my three main objectives were:

* Keep power level balanced
* Spend complexity budget wisely
* Ensure mechanics embrace their theme

Whereas Eric’s posts focus more on the design and refinement of major mechanics (eg. fear, game boards), I’ll focus more on stories of specific cards, spirits and rules, explaining why they ended up just the way they are. Spirit Island had a ~5 year design cycle, so there’s a lot of stories to share covering every spirit, adversary, and a bunch of the the major/minor powers.

Complexity Budget:

For this post, I’ll talk about complexity budget, spirit complexity and how they affects development. Rules can only get so complicated before players feel like they are struggling to correctly follow the rules instead of enjoying playing the game. There’s a maximum amount of complexity that any subsystem can use and still be “fun” instead of “fiddly”. That maximum is the complexity budget.

A simpler spirit like Lightning's Swift Strike therefore has a lower complexity budget than a medium complexity spirit like A Spread of Rampant Green, which itself has less budget than a high complexity spirit like Bringer of Dreams and Nightmares. Note that power and complexity are two completely different axes. A spirit can be overpowered and complex, or overpowered and simple. Spirit development is the art of getting each spirit to a balanced power level while keeping their complexity in the right zone for their target player audience.

What separates the three complexity levels? Different people have different opinions here, but these are mine.

Low Complexity:

* Special rules, innates, and powers should only help. Using these should never leave the spirits worse off than not using them.
* Special rules should not increase the number of choices the player has to make.
* The spirit should have no mechanical drawbacks. When the basic rules of the game are different for this spirit, they cannot make things harder.
* Presence tracks may not have elements. There must be two tracks, one solely for energy and the other solely for plays.
* The spirit has exactly one innate power.
* Growth options must be pick 1 of 3.
* Each power must provide an obviously useful standalone effect. Power synergy is fine, but should not be mandatory for the effect to be useful.

These rules are relaxed a bit for...
Medium Complexity:

* Special rules can increase the number of choices the player must make. A poor choice could leave the spirits slightly worse than the alternative, but not significantly worse than not using the effect.
* Special rules should not be something that other players need to be aware of.
* The spirit should have no mechanical drawbacks. When the basic rules of the game are different for this spirit, they cannot make things harder.
* Presence tracks may contain elements, but there must be two tracks, one solely for energy and the other solely for plays.
* The spirit may have up to 2 innate powers.
* Growth options may be pick 2 of 4.
* Each power must provide a consistently useful standalone effect, but its usefulness need not be obvious. Synergy with other powers is still fine, but synergy shouldn’t be mandatory for the effect to be useful.

There are far fewer constraints, but still some for...
High complexity:

* Special rules can dramatically change how the player interacts with the game.
* Special rules can be something other players need to be generally aware of, but they cannot be something other players must constantly pay attention to.
* The spirit will almost certainly have a mechanical drawback. The spirit will probably not be allowed to interact with some section of the game the way most spirits do.
* The spirit may have up to three presence tracks. The tracks may intersect each other. Any effect that could be used by growth could also be unlocked through presence tracks.
* Growth options may be strange and non-standard.
* Each power must provide a useful standalone effect. It need not be consistently useful, nor obvious, but the effect still needs to generally do something useful by itself.
* The spirit needs to feel like a single, cohesive entity. All powers must work towards telling the same story.

What about Wildfire and Shadows?

By these guidelines, I consider Heart of the Wildfire to be high complexity. It quickly reaches a point in the game where it can’t add presence without also adding blight. That’s a large drawback, and something other players should at least be aware of.

From gallery of tedv
From gallery of tedv

Similarly, I consider Shadows Flicker Like Flame to be a medium complexity spirit. Its special rule greatly expands the search space of where it can use its powers, and using the special rule comes at an energy cost. So a strategically poor use of the special rule can cost the spirit a bunch of energy. Using the rule well involves thinking about a lot of the board. Additionally, the Concealing Shadows power card is not obviously useful to players who’ve forgotten they can pay 1 energy to target any land with Dahan. Because the power has base range 0 and it’s only useful when the land would blight, actually using it at range 0 means Shadows is guaranteed to lose a presence.

At the end of the day, designing low complexity spirits is hard, much harder than medium and high complexity, which is part of why Shadows ended up as one of the initial four base spirits. Towards the end of development there was a lot of discussion about the set of starter spirits. We knew Shadows was more complicated than the others, but the spirit also had a lot of fans. We couldn’t find a way to reduce its complexity without giving up what its fans really liked about the spirit (it’s special rule), and there wasn’t enough time to design another spirit. Perhaps someday we’ll come up with more low complexity spirits though. From what I can tell, every designer loves making spirits, and there’s a huge amount of available design space.
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