Warriors of Jogu, my second game design, is a combination of both. Inspired by Liar's Dice and Poker, the core idea for the game was developed in a couple of days in March 2009, and for a little over five years existed as a microgame. What prompted me to fully flesh out this microgame into a card game was an accident that happened in late 2014.
My then girlfriend Jane had just gotten into board gaming, and I told her about this microgame I had designed. Well, she said she wanted to try it, so one day after work we went to a café and played it. The game takes only about five minutes, hence we were able to play it over and over and over again that night.
Jane had the toughest time playing the game. The game was so simple that she felt she had "nothing to do", yet the game had enough things going on that she could tell that she was missing out on something she could be doing. I had never seen her so paralyzed before in a game, and it wasn't analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is when you have too much stuff to think about and can't focus on the important choices. This was kind of the opposite: Jane wanted to think about something, but had seemingly too little to work with! (She was the one who kept suggesting that we play the game over and over again. I think she was traumatized and really needed to figure the game out before going to bed that night.)
Here is the game that we played that night. In each round, each player draws one location card and secretly looks at it. The board has six locations (numbered 1-6) corresponding to the location cards. A player has only two warrior cards in hand: a warrior 1 and a warrior 2. On their turn, a player either plays a warrior 1 to one of the six locations, a warrior 2 to one of the six locations, or passes.
Each location has a capacity limit of three, that is, each location can accommodate at most two warrior 1s, or a warrior 2 and a warrior 1 (from either player).
If a player passes on their turn, they cannot play any more warrior cards for the rest of the round. Theoretically, a player may pass on their first turn without having played any warrior cards. Once both players have passed, they flip over the two location cards they received at the start of the round; these locations are the battle locations for the round. All other locations (and the warriors thereat) are ignored. For each warrior a player has at a battle location, they gain a strategy rating of X times Y, where X is the warrior's strength (1 or 2), and Y is the number of the location (1-6). If, for example, I have my warrior 2 at battle location 5, and my warrior 1 at battle location 3, then my strategy rating is 2*5+1*3 = 13.
Whoever has the higher strategy rating wins the round and some victory points. The number of victory points won is equal to one plus the total value of the warrior cards played by the losing player, so if my opponent played a warrior 1, then loses the round, I'd get 2 victory points for winning the round; if instead they had played both warrior 1 and warrior 2, then lost, I'd get 4 victory points for winning the round. Whoever reaches 10 victory points first wins.
At its heart, this game is about bluffing. The warriors are analogous to poker chips. The more chips you play, the more likely you are to win the round. However, if you lose, you'll end up giving away more to your opponent.
The Accident (Continued)
Games like this can be very abstract, very mathematical, and seemingly very random. Jane couldn't get into it. It was too basic, too raw. A little bit about Jane as a gamer: She got hooked on gaming with Cosmic Encounter. It was a five-player game, hidden aliens, and she revealed Mirror on the final turn to claim a solo victory. She likes to hold a hand of cards, she likes to use special abilities, and she likes to win.
I went home that night thinking that there is nothing wrong with my microgame per se, but how do I make it a game that Jane would like to play? And it hit me. Make a card game out of it with different decks like Summoner Wars, with special abilities on each card! This way, Jane would have something to strategize over. She loves having a hand of cards, and picking when and how to use them.
However, I didn't start haphazardly slapping down abilities. As a designer, I have a particular procedure. I wanted the core of the game to be the master and not the slave, to be that Interesting Problem and not a mere tool for moving things along. Therefore, all the cards and abilities were designed to highlight the core of the game in a complementary way, thereby keeping the decision-point to game-time ratio extremely high.
Within one week, I made the first two faction decks for Warriors of Jogu, and after trying it out we knew we had something special. Retroactively, I realized that most good card games, from Magic: The Gathering to Android: Netrunner to Blue Moon to Star Wars: The Card Game, have interesting microgames at their cores. The microgames themselves are interesting in their own rights, and the card abilities complement and bring out the interesting aspects of the core mechanisms. We didn't set out to build a great card game, but through twists and turns, a good microgame ready to serve as the base system, a little bit of love, an apparent problem, and some clever solutions, we came up with one.
Over the next two years in 2015 and 2016, we developed many different factions, testing and balancing these over and over again. Each faction has a distinct and characteristic playstyle, bending elements of bluffing and timing to its favor in unique ways.
Ideation and Development
For the special abilities, we drew inspiration from the races in Blue Moon, Cosmic Encounter, Summoner Wars, and gaming lore in general. The League of Agents, for example, is inspired by ninjas. Their cards are played face-down to a location, so the opponent doesn't know what those units are! The Gang of Mibits is modeled after the idea of rats and small creatures, having units with low strength but abilities that allow them to move from location to location even after they have been played to the board. The Ganji Resistance, Jane's idea, has units that become stronger and stronger each turn that they stay on the board, eventually exploding if they outgrow the capacity limit of the location. The Zaigas faction is, suprisingly, inspired by my dog. To create a feeling of the dog's friendly and confident personality, I designed a card with the following ability: If the opponent plays a card into the location corresponding to Zaigas' location card, the Zaigas reveal their location card to their opponent and gain three morale.
In all, we created fifteen factions that are diverse and unique, each having a characteristic playstyle. However, they all follow the same design philosophy. A faction's theme must come through organically and contribute to emergent gameplay. No forced execution of themes, nothing ham-fisted.
Testing and Balance
I have a short confession to make. I used to think that games with luck cannot be deep.
Then I played Yomi, a glorified rock-paper-scissors game played with decks of cards. I played for fun at first. But then I kept playing, and kept playing, and I started to notice some patterns, opportunities to leave myself in better situations, ways to set up better bets. So I started applying what I learned, and I started winning, at one point beating an opponent seven times straight.
While Yomi provided no direct inspiration for Warriors of Jogu, it had a deep impact on how I viewed luck-based games, which in turn affected how I tested, balanced, and designed Warriors of Jogu.
There is actually a surprising amount of information you can gather from your opponent's actions. In Yomi, is your opponent blocking a lot? Maybe their hand is short on punches. In Poker, if a player bets a certain way on the flop, and another way on the turn, you can actually deduce if, for example, they are sitting on a pair of kings, a flush, or something else. In Warriors of Jogu, the fact that your opponent played/did not play a card to a location in a specific situation could signal a lot of information.
So while luck-based games are affected by chance, there are actually many ways a good player can affect the odds, and the tricks behind them, in a way, actually require more creativity than a clever move in a perfect information game does.
Warriors of Jogu's core test team consists of seven playtesters who have diverse playstyles. Some are more aggressive, some are more conservative, some are good at managing their overall deck, some key in on specific tricks and combos, etc. But everyone has something in common: We all understand luck-based games. This makes playtesting highly effective because games are tested by people who understand Warriors of Jogu, the strategies involved, the balance, etc. Altogether, we've tested well over three hundred games. We also did blind playtests with strangers and open playtests with the public, but this is mainly to see whether people could understand the rulebook, to gauge how accessible the game is, etc. (The reception here has been pretty positive. At any particular convention/event, people would tell us that our game is the best they've played all day.)
In 2017, we completed testing for five factions that will be included in the base game: Guards of Keion, Gang of Mibits, League of Agents, Society of Engineers, and Tribe Wu. In the final stages of testing, most of the balance fixes involve simply altering the card count in each deck, e.g., changing the number of Conjurers in the Tribe Wu deck from seven to five, changing the number of Bomb Towers in the Engineers deck, reducing the number of Good-for-Somethings in the Mibits deck by one, etc.
I want to talk about the Bomb Tower and the Engineers deck, as an example. In our testing, we found that the Engineers are a little weak against Guards of Keion, and strong against Mibits. A Bomb Tower destroys a card, so they are generally stronger against Guards of Keion (who have a lot of high strength cards) than they are against the Mibits (since destroying a small Mibit unit affects relatively little). Thus, we increased the amount of Bomb Towers in the deck, thereby simultaneously making the Engineers a bit better against the Guards and a bit weaker against the Mibits.
We believe we have created a very clever game that is filled with luck in all the right ways. Our next step is to showcase our product of love and labor to the gaming community. First up is SPIEL '17, where Jane (now my fiancée) and I will showcase and demo Warriors of Jogu: Feint. Please visit Monsoon Publishing at booth 7: D108!
To give you more details on the gameplay, here are brief descriptions of each faction's playstyle.
GUARDS OF KEION
Strength: Strong units, ability to play straight up.
Weakness: Information disadvantage.
The Guards of Keion have several units that can, in the right situation, secure advantage in a round despite blatantly telegraphing their battle location to the opponent. Therefore, the Guards have an advantage in playing the game straight up provided they do so at the right moment.
However, this does not mean that deception should not be a part of a good Guard player's strategy. Because playing straight up is such a strong tactic for Guards of Keion, it is that much more devastating when they do play deceptively because the opponent will be really caught off guard.
Guards of Keion have some of the best units in terms of Strength, but in order to make this advantage count they must overcome their inherent information disadvantage. If a Guards of Keion player can deduce his opponent's battle location with consistency and show their own battle location at the correct moments, then the Guards of Keion's high Strength units can be hard to beat.
GANG OF MIBITS
Strength: Information advantage, maneuverability.
Weakness: Small units.
The Mibits have some of the smallest units in the game in terms of Strength. However, what they lack in firepower, they make up in maneuverability with units that can move between locations after being deployed. This mobility not only allows the Mibits to wait and observe where the opponent units are being sent to before committing their troops, it also makes it harder for their opponent to deduce the Mibits' battle location.
Additionally, the Mibits have an ability that allows them to play multiple cards on a turn, as well as an ability that allows them to play zero net cards on a turn. By speeding up deployment, the Mibits can secure numerical advantage at a location early in the round. By delaying deployment, they can withhold commitment of their troops as they gather more information about the opponent's troop deployment.
Due to their small size, the Mibits will have to concentrate the bulk of their force at one or two locations in order to have a shot at winning the round. Therefore, they must extract every value they can out of their information advantage, then move to the right locations, while keeping their opponent away from the Mibits' own battle location. When playing against the Mibits, aim to use their mobility against them by encouraging them to mobilize to a fake location!
LEAGUE OF AGENTS
Strength: Hidden deployment, ability to reduce opponent's draw pile.
Weakness: Poor Morale to Strength ratio.
When an Agent card is played face down to a location, the opponent doesn't know if that is a 0-Strength unit, 2-Strength unit, or a 4-Strength unit until resolution. Armed with these hidden units, the Agents are adept at concealing their objective for the current round. Not only will the opponent be kept guessing the Agent's battle location, but they also won't know whether the Agents are even trying to win the current round or not!
This trait allows the Agents to draw their opponents into continuing to play cards even when they have given up on the round. Since the faction draw pile is not reshuffled once it's depleted, the Agent's opponent is faced with the dilemma of conserving cards versus playing enough cards to secure a win. By using their stealth to tell an enticing "story", the Agents can leverage this uncertainty to trick the opponent into overplaying or underplaying faction cards.
However, the Agents should be wary of playing too many cards themselves. With the worst Morale to Strength ratio out of all the factions, the Agents must pick their fights with great precision, while using their stealth to put their opponent in a precarious situation.
SOCIETY OF ENGINEERS
Strength: High strength towers, high stake commitment.
Weakness: Restrictive deployment.
The Engineers have special placement rules for their two types of units: Towers and Engineers. An Engineer may be played to a location only if doing so does not exceed a capacity of 4, which means that they can be shut out from a location quite early in the round. A Tower, on the other hand, can ignore capacity requirement, even the default capacity restriction of 10. However, for each Tower played to a location, there must be a corresponding Engineer. Essentially, each Engineer at a location allows their faction to build a Tower at that location.
This mechanism means that the Engineers are limited in their ability to respond to their opponent's maneuvers. In fact, they often don't bother and instead initiate the conflicts. By choosing the terms of engagement and forcing their opponents to come to them, the Engineers can use their static but high Strength Towers to overpower their opponent.
When an Engineer is deployed to a location and their opponent does not immediately respond with a unit deployment to that location, a second Engineer can be deployed thereto. Two Engineers means two Towers, an overwhelming advantage if the location turns out to be a battle location! Essentially, the Engineers raise the stakes early and fast, immediately forcing their opponent into making a tough decision.
Strength: Dangerous even when deploying units to non-battle locations, ambush.
Weakness: Morale intensive.
While knowing the opponent's battle location is always useful, Tribe Wu relies less on attacking the opponent's battle location, and more on keeping their own battle location secret in order to spring a big "ambush".
Central to Tribe Wu's strategy is the Prodigy, who has 7 Strength but must be played to a location determined by the opponent. To have any chance of their opponent mistakenly placing the Prodigy into a battle location, the Tribe Wu player must hide the identity of their battle location well!
For Tribe Wu, playing units into non-battle locations might help force an eventual Prodigy into the correct battle location. This creates an unequal situation where Tribe Wu gains more utility by playing units into the "wrong" locations than other factions do. And this is how Tribe Wu's dual threat works. Are they pulling their opponent into playing units to the wrong locations, resulting in an advantage for them? Or are they actually playing into the correct location? With units of decent Strength at their disposal, Tribe Wu can fill up a battle location pretty quickly if their opponent doesn't react.
A downside to these powerful units is how Morale intensive they are. If Tribe Wu is not careful, it can lose over 30 Morale — and the game — in a single round.