This week I've been testing Genesis and there's a broad agreement between playtest groups that the most troublesome thing in the game at the moment is if someone decides to be a god of madness. This domain grants the power "This power targets the world, for the rest of the turn any champion with a power that targets one or more champions instead targets only itself."
It's a problem because it's a power that modifies other powers, a metapower, which have two important features:
1) Players get excited about them, they offer a lot of flexibility adding a relatively large number of things someone can do in the game for a relatively small complexity cost. Generally they're some of the powers that get the most positive feedback.
2) They're a massive pain in the arse to design because they impact the design of every other power.
The fact that madness exists obliges me to look at every other power and go "What does this power do under the influence of madness? Is it obvious? Is it balanced? Is it interesting?" which is a lot of work for one domain.
It goes beyond individual cards too and into combinations of cards. For instance if there's nothing in play that can remove a madness wielding champion without directly targeting it then everyone will target themselves constantly all game. This leads to degenerate games where the madness domain might as well read "Stop playing now, the game is won by whoever has the most targetting powers that give bonuses and the fewest that give penalties."
Astute readers may have noticed the construction of the madness power is something that's necessitated by the existence of powers like it. Having some of the odder powers read "This power targets the world, this rule applies for a turn" means that metapowers that mess with things that target champions exclude them - meaning you don't get combos of metapowers on metapowers.
Consider a situation like this:
Power1 targets everyone and makes them target themselves.
Power2 targets each players highest level character and makes them target everyone on their own side.
Power3 targets everyone and cancels their powers, making them have no effect.
What the hell happens? Does power 3 make everything have no effect so the other two don't matter? Or does power 1 mean that power 3 is only making itself have no effect (which means it doesn't which means it does)? Or does power 2 mean power 1 only applies to its controllers stuff? If that's true does that mean it then targets only itself so it retroactively doesn't apply to the rest of its controllers stuff?
You can do metapowers that affect each other, but you either need a rigid framework that makes the ways they influence each other relatively uninteresting or to manage them carefully which creates exponentially more problems the more of them you have.
Despite the caveats they are neat and offer advantages. Lets agree that we're going to do them and get into how to implement them.
The main thing to shoot for is consistency of language. This is generally desirable anyway since it makes games easier to learn and rulebooks read more smoothly. For this sort of thing it really matters though. Consider the original wording for the power a player gained if they elected to play as a god of vengeance:
"When this power is in play and a champion dies then the champion with a power that killed them also dies."
What happens if that power is madness'd? The wording makes it unclear. Consider some alternative wordings:
"This power targets the world. For the rest of this turn if a champion dies the champion with the power that killed them also dies."
"This power targets all champions. If a target dies, the champion with the power that killed it also dies."
"This power targets any champion that's power has killed at least one other champion. The target dies."
Standardising powers to always start "This power targets X" obliges the power to be worded in such a way that it's clear. You can see what madness would do for either of these wordings. It opens the way for any number of metapowers of the form "modify target" (So long as there's some system for how they interact with each other to avert paradoxes)
Astute readers, who get time in the spotlight for the second time this post, will have spotted the problem with all of the suggested vengeance wordings above. Namely that the champion of vengeance always kills itself - since if (say) Water kills Fire then Vengeance kills Water. In that case Vengeance has killed Water so Vengeance kills Vengeance. It needs an exception for itself, but I left that out of the example to keep us on topic
Aside from standardising power wording to make sure that metapowers work consistently there are two other approaches to consider:
The first is to look at every 2 card combination of powers and do a mental "Is this okay? Is it clear what these do together? Does that combination break the game in some critical way?" check.
The second and most important is to do lots of playtesting. You will miss things or a thing will seem clear to you while being obtuse to your players. Always do everything you can that isn't playtesting before squandering tester time on a thing you could've fixed yourself - but never skip playtesting. It'll catch problems you wouldn't have dreamed of.
What are We to Do About Madness?
I've said what I wanted to about game design in general, but it feels like a tease to discuss a topic on a game I'm working on without describing the resolution.
In reality there isn't a resolution yet because I've written some new versions of the affected cards for the next playtest and that playtest will undoubtedly change things again.
The change I'm looking at is "This power targets each players champion(s) with the lowest level. If they have abilities that target champions they will target only themselves instead of their usual targets. If a champion with this power targets itself its ability is unaffected."
The reasons for this are:
1) There are some standard forms for the game in there. Opening with explicit target information is standard. "Champion(s) with the lowest/highest level" is standard (and applies a general game rule of "In a tie the thing happens to everyone whose tied")
2) It moves away from the "targets the world" construction which while hardened against some interactions also makes things less interesting. I'll revert to targets the world if testing shows this generating more problems.
3) Modifying it only to hit low level champions deals with a lot of the complex interactions. You can't have degenerate games as easily because someone can drop a high level champion and then a low level champion that targets and kills the madness champion. The most broken combos were madness + domains with high level champions balanced by giving opponents bonuses in some circumstances - these are harder to pull off if the madness card can't target those high level champions. Low level champions also tend to have more interesting and powerful abilities so hitting everyone's lowest level champion is likely to preserve the meddling troublemaking options that made people like the madness domain in the first place.
I've no idea if it'll work, but we'll see after the next playtest.
Incidentally I'm recruiting more testers for this game soon. I worry that my existing testers are too familiar with the game which distorts feedback. If you're already on the 3DTotal mailing list you'll get a message about it in a week or two. If you'd be interested in PnPing a version or trying it as a Tabletop Simulator mod drop me a comment or email to email@example.com