An Alternate World of Vintage Comic Combat - The Making of Pack of Heroes!
Phil Walker-Harding
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Ashfield
NSW
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Pack of Heroes, my latest game, has just been released! It is a card game of superhero combat set in a fun alternate world of vintage comics.

Designing Pack of Heroes has been quite a unique process, so I thought I would share the story of its creation. As you will see, designing this game was more than just writing rules and creating gameplay... we ended up with an entire world outside the box!

I hope you enjoy reading how it all came about...

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1. Board Game: Kool-Aid Kid's Trivia Game [Average Rating:4.50 Unranked]
Phil Walker-Harding
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Ashfield
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Fighting jugs: The pre-history of Pack of Heroes

The story of Pack of Heroes begins all the way back when I was 12 or so. My brother, cousin and I loved to design weird board and card games. It was one of our favourite ways to spend a rainy afternoon. We just used paper, index cards and whatever else we could find. We’d try to make them as silly and crazy as possible, and especially loved it when the gameplay ended up stuck in an interminable loop!

One of the games we came up with was simply known as “The Fighting Game.” It must have been our favourite, because we made more than one version of it. This game was more or less our own version of Top Trumps. Each card was a character, and in a round everyone played a character from their hand, and then they all fought. The fun thing about this game was we could always add new cards whenever we liked (almost like a primitive Living Card Game!) So, if we thought of an idea for a fun character, we'd draw him or her on a piece of paper, come up with their stats and add them to the game.

Sometimes the characters were superheroes, sometimes they were fantasy characters or creatures, and sometimes they were just plain weird. I remember, for example, a bizarre parody of Kool-Aid Man, known only as "Juggy".

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2. Board Game: Archaeology: The Card Game [Average Rating:6.70 Overall Rank:1111]
Phil Walker-Harding
Australia
Ashfield
NSW
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Making card games... For real this time! The re-emergence of Pack of Heroes

I can’t say I really thought much about “The Fighting Game” for the next 15 years or so. I got back into board games, and then “serious” game design in 2007. After Archaeology: The Card Game went quite well for me, I decided that Adventureland Games (the name I came up with for my self-publishing exploits) should focus mainly on card games. They are much cheaper and easier to produce for a small publisher, and for someone living in Australia, the reduced shipping cost per game is a huge plus as well.

So I started filling notebooks with ideas for card games I could work on. And lo and behold, “The Fighting Game” wandered back into my mind. I still really liked the idea of each card in a game being a character, with his own personality, stats and fighting style. I thought tying the theme down to the superhero genre would be best, as there is so much creative space to work with given the history of comic books, as well as plenty of room to keep things fun (and even funny). There were also relatively few superhero games on the market then too, something which has really changed in the last couple of years.



The earliest notes I have are very basic, and I don't think I even got an actual prototype up and running until 2008 or 2009. Needless to say, this game has been my “on the back-burner” design - something constantly bubbling away in the background as I designed other things. It never quite took off and became ready to focus on, but it also never went away.

The main element of the design I needed to get right was the combat system. This was “The Fighting Game” after all! So much of my attention was on how to make the combat in the game satisfying. Which leads me to...
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3. Board Game: Chess [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:414] [Average Rating:7.09 Unranked]
Phil Walker-Harding
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Ashfield
NSW
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Excursus: Uncertainty and control in board game combat

If you decide to make a game where one piece can remove another piece from play, you are entering an age-old discussion of how to model combat in games. To me, his is one of the most interesting sub-topics in game theory.

To simplify it right down, here's the way I express the two extremes of how it is usually done:

Controlled combat: If I move my rook on to your pawn's space, I defeat it. This is always the case, and both players know it. This often leads to very analytical, often abstracted games.

Uncertain combat: If I attack your warrior with my wizard, I roll a handful of dice. The resulting numbers determine how successful I am. No one knows exactly what will happen. This often leads to more surprising, visceral games.

I have often heard game designers and reviewers say of “uncertain combat” that it is more realistic because combat in real life is never a sure thing. No one knows for sure who will win a fight or a war because there are always random factors. I agree with this, but I still find that this style of combat in board games often leaves me cold. I think the reason is, that while I am more than happy to accept uncertainty in fighting, I still want a strong feeling of control.

If you were to watch a fencing match as a spectator, and the unknown underdog wins, this may seem somewhat random to you - it was totally unexpected. But to the underdog himself, who trained hard, focused well and made clever decisions all through the match, it would feel anything but random! And as a designer, I want the players to feel more like the fencer than the spectator.

Don’t get me wrong, I think having some uncertainty in combat is a good thing, but so is having control. That is, an attack shouldn't be a complete certainty, but at the same time the players should feel like their decisions really affected the outcome.

Now having said all this, when I first started designing Pack of Heroes - I whacked dice into the design without even thinking! Fighting superheroes and dice seemed like the obvious match!

I tried quite a few mechanics for using dice in combat. The one that stuck around for the longest was putting a simple combat results table on each card to show how a die result would effect the power in question. For example, here's an old prototype card for Bazooka Boy:



The idea of this card is that Bazooka Blast is a very chancy attack to use. On a roll of 1-5 it does nothing at all. But on a roll of 6, it does 4 damage! (Which in the scheme of the game was very powerful).

This simple system allowed me to get some interesting flavour into the game's combat, but of course it also has a big flaw. Every use of a power becomes its own random moment. Every time you try and fire your bazooka, it has a 5 in 6 chance of doing nothing. You could even try and shoot it 20 times and just be really unlucky! The combat in the game came down to dozens of these random moments, and there was nothing connecting these moments to each other across the game. Surely a bazooka which hasn't triggered 4 or 5 times in a row will just have to work soon!

I tried a whole bunch of ways of using dice that mitigated their natural randomness: rolling heaps of dice, being able to affect results after rolling, etc. But I finally came to the conclusion that no matter what I did, a random number generated in the instant of attacking would not give me the decision points I wanted the game to have.

It was my frustration with all this that eventually stalled the design. I pretty much put the game in a drawer for two years. It just wasn't that satisfying for me to play. Plus,I figured there are so many good games with dice combat out there, why make another one?

And so, the design sat in a draw for two whole years.
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4. Board Game: Niagara [Average Rating:6.53 Overall Rank:1091]
Phil Walker-Harding
Australia
Ashfield
NSW
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Enter... more cards! Pack of Heroes gets moving again

I designed and self-published a few other designs in 2008-2011, and basically didn’t touch Pack of Heroes. I decided I didn’t want to do a dice combat game, and so it seemed dead in the water. Until...

One afternoon I was hanging out with my cousin Chris (a co-designer of “The Fighting Game”, you’ll remember). He was doing some preparation for a holiday kids club at his church, and the theme was “superheroes”. So we sat around making up and drawing some superheroes characters that he could maybe use. It was a weird flashback to the good ol’ days of making cards for our game. Anyway, we were having so much fun coming up with these characters, that I suddenly got the itch to get back to Pack of Heroes, and its card-based character design.

But this meant I would actually have to come up with a new way of resolving combat in the game! And if dice were out, what is the next obvious place a designer goes to create some uncertainty? Cards. Of course, more cards!

Now especially in the “German” school of game design, there have been many games that essentially use cards as a randomiser where perhaps dice could have been. A classic example is the Spiel des Jahres winning Niagara. If this game had been put out by Parker Brothers in the 70s, I am pretty sure you would move your boats by rolling a six-sided die. But instead, each player has movement tiles numbered 1-6 in their hand. The player can choose one to play to move their boat that many spaces, but must play each of them before they can take all 6 back into their hand again. So it's kind of like having a perfectly weighted 6-sided die and getting to control which number comes up when. This gives the players plenty of control, but they still need to play the low numbers sometime. Ideas like this one came to mind as I began to consider how a set of cards could be used to trigger attacks and blocks in my game.

And so, after plenty of scribbling in notebooks and play-testing... I created The Walker-Harding Power Card System! Okay, okay, it's not that ground-breaking... but how cool would it be to invent a game mechanism that might one day be called a “system” by someone!?

Here's the basic idea. Each player has a deck of 9 cards called power cards. Each card is one of 3 “colours” of power, and there are 3 cards of each colour. Each superhero’s power requires spending one or more power cards of a specific type. For example, punching with one hero might cost 1 red power, while defending with another might cost 1 blue. This was a really simple way of triggering actions in combat, but I found it brought a whole lot of interesting stuff to the design.

Most importantly, your combat abilities are always constant and known. You can choose when and how to attack, but you must work with the power cards you have in hand, and the power cards you think your opponent has. I decided from the outset that each player’s power card discards would be open information. This means that you can plan around what cards you know your opponent has already exhausted. Yet it is rare you will know exactly how powerfully they can attack or defend.

With this system I found I could still give each attack its own flavour, like an attack which is very powerful but hard to pull off. For example, here is a later prototype of the Bazooka character (we changed her to a girl scout, it just seemed cooler!)



Bazooka Girl needs three red power cards to fire her bazooka. This means you have to keep a red in your hand while waiting to draw the second and third. Once you’ve made the attack, you have to somehow keep her alive long enough for the red cards to cycle round again. While she is in play, your opponent knows you can deal some serious damage. They will have some sense of when this may happen based on how many cards you have in hand, and your discards, but the moment of attack, and if it can be defended, is still uncertain.

This mechanism satisfied me as a good middle ground between having chance and control in combat. And so, the game was back in development!
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5. Board Game Artist: John D-C
Phil Walker-Harding
Australia
Ashfield
NSW
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The arrival of John D-C: The art and character design of Pack of Heroes

I always knew the art for this game would be really expensive to produce. There are lots of unique characters, each requiring a design that matches their powers and personality. By this time I also knew I wanted the art to look like the comics of the 70s and 80s, the ones I read the most growing up. So I needed an artist who really understood this aesthetic.

Then the stars aligned and the perfect person came along! Actually it was a good friend, local illustrator John-DC (next to me on the right):



I knew John was into comics, and I had always really liked his art and design style. When I raised the issue of working together, his enthusiasm was palpable! We decided to see if it would work, by doing a test run of a character design. I gave John one of the superhero doodles I had made that afternoon with Chris. It was an army strongman with rhinoceros legs and a horned helmet. I asked John to turn this into a character design that could have jumped out of a quirky alternate universe of vintage comics. Let’s just say I was really happy with the result!



Once John was on board, I realised he could provide much more than art. He had an amazing knowledge of older comics and a real knack for creating off the wall characters. Together, we ended up creating thirty unique heroes, and we tried our best to make each one really feel like their own character, with their own personality. Herr Pretzel's arms can stretch right across the play area to slap you in the face. The Magnificent Mancini can read your opponent's mind by turning their power cards face-up. A robot named Flux can travel back in time and undo your opponent's last turn. Zombie Lad is weak but if he gets a hold of you, he just might nibble you to death.

We also decided to have each hero be in a team, and this provided another space for our imaginations to run wild. The Freak Show Five are a weird group of circus freaks turned good. The Data Brigade is a team of robots, each based on a different decade's archetype of the perfect robot. The Guild of Ghouls are stereotypical villains and horror B-movie characters, each with a fun twist.
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6. Board Game: Big City [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:985]
Phil Walker-Harding
Australia
Ashfield
NSW
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Power City - The alternate world of Pack of Heroes

When we started working on character design together, the ideas for heroes, powers, enemies, settings and back-stories came thick and fast. We found all this extra detail and flavour so fun that we decided to try and get it all into the final product. We wanted to infuse Pack of Heroes with all the rich detail of a fully-imagined alternate comic history.

We worked really hard on character design, but also product design. For example, we decided the hero characters in the game should come on cards modeled after vintage trading cards. On the front is the hero's picture and all the gameplay information, and on the back is their catchphrase, fun statistics and an origin story. (We looked at including a stick of gum in each copy of the game, but the costs were prohibitive).



There were times when the decision to write 30 original origin stories felt a tad foolhardy. It is surprisingly tricky to come up with backstories that sound like they could be from real comics, yet are different and original. We decided to meet for dinner every Tuesday night to brainstorm, draft and edit all our ideas.

Here's a link to a list of all 30 original characters with their pictures and origin stories!

At some point in this process, I remembered that I had no money to actually produce the game! Adventureland Games is still just me, and I have always had to scrimp and save even to get a small print run of a game into production. My last game, Sushi Go! had just finished being crowd-funded, so I decided we’d try and raise the money on Kickstarter.

Thinking of ways to advertise the game created a whole new space for our imaginations to go crazy. We made a TV-style commercial for the game, as if it had actually been on the market in the 1980s.



John, who also does action figure customising, made a set of Pack of Heroes action figures. Then I made a video to advertise them based on 1970s action figure commercials. We were on a roll!



John also designed a line of Pack of Heroes t-shirts and made a bunch more fake merchandise just for fun, like a lunch box and even a couple of actual comic books!

Thankfully, there was a great opportunity to show of all of this work. John organised an exhibition at a local art gallery, displaying all of his art for the game, as well as everything else he has made. The opening of the exhibition was a great opportunity to show everyone this weird world we’d created!


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7. Board Game: Pack of Heroes [Average Rating:6.43 Overall Rank:4161]
Phil Walker-Harding
Australia
Ashfield
NSW
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A final thought

And thankfully there was a happy ending! Pack of Heroes did get funded on Kickstarter and it was great to have so many people on board for the ride! During the campaign we added 2 new teams to the game and a ton of other cards and features! John even created a mini-comic book that is in every copy of the game!
 
Designing this game has been a great experience. At times of course, it became tiring and even exhausting. But it also reminded us how important it is to not take things so seriously. There have been some suggestions that the game should have a more serious tone or more “gamer” combat theme. But I have kept coming back to that light-hearted, weird and wonderful sense of imagination that turned a few sheets of paper into the first version of “The Fighting Game”. Games and comics, after all, are meant to be fun!
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