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Designer Diary: Shifting Realms, or Designing with Tools to Improve Your Game

Craig Van Ness
United States
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From gallery of Craig Van Ness
Shifting Realms, our flagship game from Soaring Rhino, is a game of colliding realms. Five realms are included — elf realm, dwarf realm, orc realm, goblin pirate realm, and priest realm — each unique in their board layout, structures, story cards, tasks, and end conditions. To set up the game, players select three realms at random, then they take turns until two out of the three realms' end conditions are met, at which point the game ends.

During the game, players send out scouts to collect resources, recruit soldiers to protect their scouts, build structures to gain powers, and earn victory points. Story cards and individual tasks add intrigue and complexity to gameplay.

Realm Engine

Shifting Realms introduces the "Realm Engine", which features a number of interchangeable realms, each with their own components, strategies, and story. The realms are designed to have synergistic elements.

One of the games I designed with Alan Roach while at Hasbro was Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit. That game is about four different mini-battles going on all at once. You cannot concentrate on only one of the battles; instead you decide which battle to focus on now while keeping an eye on everything and judging when to shift your attention to another battle.

With Shifting Realms, we wanted to make an expandable Euro-style game that was all about the feel of different realms and the different strategies in each of these realms. Players have to decide which realms to focus on and what realm strategies to go after. They also have to be aware of the many synergistic strategies that exist in the combinations of the realms. The game engine that drives this idea is called the Realm Engine.

Growth and Improvement

Throughout this diary, I will discuss process elements, game tools, and evaluations we used to make sure we were delivering the game we wanted to deliver. We have found that analyzing the game in different ways at various stages throughout the design process was very helpful.

One process element we use is called "Quick First Game". When we have an idea, like an expandable Euro-style game, we try to get to a prototype as quickly as we can. This helps improve our overall effectiveness in total design time, largely due to the early feedback loop we create with playtesters. It also helps us quickly identify games that just are not there yet.

When designing the first prototype for Shifting Realms, we were not concerned about the graphics. Here are some images of the early elf board, card, and structure tile:

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

The first prototype had three realms, but we quickly designed five more because we wanted to prove out the engine.

One way to constantly improve while developing a game is to get a group or groups of playtesters and play the game over and over. After each game, we evaluate for changes. One evaluation we use is called "Likes, Dislikes, Wishes, and Solutions". We would spend time listing likes, dislikes, and wishes, then we would try to find solutions for the dislikes and the wishes while maintaining what we liked.

For example, in one of the first gameplays, the dragon destroyed everything in one space: both units and the structure. This was too random and too powerful, a definite dislike — but we liked the dragon as a cool piece that added to the story of the dwarf realm. We wished there was a way to make the dragon less powerful. That's when we came up with the solution of having the dragon move up to four spaces and destroy any one unit in each of those spaces.

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

Another evaluation we use is called "Strategy and Luck". Before we even designed Shifting Realms, we knew about how much strategy and how much luck we wanted. We were looking for a game with 8-9 strategy and 1-2 luck, based on a rating from one to ten with ten being the highest. Listing the parts of our gameplay that cause chance helps us know exactly where our luck elements are coming from. The final version of Shifting Realms contains few luck elements:

• Picking three random boards and placing them.
• Determining turn order at random when players tie in their bidding.
• Drawing story cards.
• Receiving random task cards.

For many gameplays at the beginning, there were no task cards. The game was fun and replayable, but the end game was bogging down a bit. Because players collectively have control over the game endings, we would have players figuring out everything before ending the game. There was too much strategy, too many calculations. By adding the task cards, we added an element of the unknown, which much improved the endgame calculations because you had to take a chance and you didn't have all the information.

Another game tool we use is called a synergy chart. Here's the chart for Shifting Realms:

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

This chart is only for the base game. When I was working on a game called Heroscape, one of the fans from the website created synergy charts for Heroscape, a visual representation of every combination for all the army cards. At Soaring Rhino, we use synergy charts all the time as they help us focus on making more and more combinations, especially when we are developing the expansions.

Here are some other game evaluations we use:

• See the Math
• What's New
• Game Mechanisms Awareness
• Identify Decisions
• List Interaction Points
• Digital AI


Board Game: Heroscape Master Set: Rise of the Valkyrie
We liked the genre-mixing element of Heroscape and wanted to come up with a story for Shifting Realms that let us do a similar clashing of fantasy and history.

The story behind the game revolves around a secret society known as the Keepers. This group was tasked to guard the Pranankh, the keystone for all of Earth's realities. The Pranankh kept the different versions of Earth from interacting and mixing. The energy generated by the keystone kept those versions of Earth full of mythological and fantastical creatures from mixing with the primary historical iteration. Over the years, factions developed within the Keepers, with the main four being the Neru, the Kesk, the Biru, and the Sarkans. These factions started to fight among themselves. The ritual maintenance of the massive energy of the Pranankh was ignored leading to its shattering.

When the Pranankh shattered, new versions of Earth were created in which elements of various dimensions and realities were mashed together. The different realms seemed to be full of creatures of fantasy such as dragons, dwarfs, goblins, orcs, elves, and trolls but placed in a seemingly 18th-century Earth setting.

In the game, players take charge of one of the four factions of Keepers and go into these shifting realms to try to bring order to the chaos. The players gather resources, complete designated tasks, and create structures and developments in the realms. The most successful faction takes leadership of the Keepers as they strive to continue their task of maintaining order among the dimensions of Earth, perhaps one day even restoring the Pranakh.

From gallery of Craig Van Ness

Simple Turns, Timing, and Growth

When designing an expandable game, we felt the need to keep the basic rule structure simple, making it easy to learn and get into. We wanted the complexity to grow as you collect the additional expansions.

It was important to get this game's playing time at or around sixty minutes, and we went through many changes to make this work. Juggling five different endings that are player controlled was a challenge. Some realms were ending too quickly while others were lasting too long.

Many resource-collecting Euro games are about what you do with your limited resources. Often those decisions are painful, but we wanted a feeling of abundance and joy, not pain. In Shifting Realms, it is easy to get your resource engine going, especially if players are not fighting right away. We wanted to create a game that ramped up quickly. The smart players know exactly when to shift their scouts onto another resource. What really matters in Shifting Realms is what you do with your actions.

We are very proud of our first game, Shifting Realms, and we hope you enjoy playing it! Keep a lookout for Darkness Revealed, the first expansion, which will be out in 2019...

Craig Van Ness

From gallery of Craig Van Ness
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