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Subject: Designer Diary - Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State rss

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Cole Wehrle
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As both a designer and a player, I dislike cards. Perhaps that’s too strongly put. Really, I don’t mind them, but when I sit down to play a game that makes an extensive use of cards—especially multiple decks—I begin with more suspicion than faith in the design. I think this tendency came from the role that chess and classic war games played in molding me as a gamer and a designer. Card decks were something I toyed with during my brief stint into Ameritrash games in high school and college. As soon as I found Martin Wallace (especially Age of Steam and Struggle of Empires), I thought I was done.

Of course, there were games that won me over anyway. I adore several CDGs, including the Napoleonic Wars and Twilight Struggle. I also enjoyed Wallace’s experiments with card-games, such as Brass and his various deck-builders. Still, the inclusion of a bunch of decks of cards in a game’s manifest was often enough for me to look elsewhere for something new to play.

I often relate my first encounters with Phil Eklund’s games as a turning point in my own thinking as a player and a designer. But that’s not really true when it comes to cards. Phil’s games are more auction games than card games. Even in Pax Porfiriana, a game with about as capricious card deck as you might find, so much of the disorder of the deck was managed by the market. Again, the game was about valuation and position. You could see the train coming well before it slammed into your best-laid plans.

It should come as no surprise then that, when it come to my own design, I am always hesitant to include cards. In Pamir, they were a generic convention that I wanted to build on. An Infamous Traffic dropped cards altogether. And John Company’s cards aren’t really cards in any real way. With the exception of the thin deck of Evening Post cards, the cards in that game represent a production constraint more than anything else.

That said, when I approached Root, I knew right away that I would need cards. This wasn’t a decision that I made lightly. But, from the start, the game clearly demanded it.

Thematically, I wanted space in Root to attack some of the most insidious tropes about how states should behave in games. I won’t bother to rail against any specific design, because, frankly, almost everyone is doing poorly on this point. The biggest offense, in my opinion, is the erasure of the different peoples that comprised a state. Too often game designers, authors, and even historians (!) give too much credit to the way a state imagined itself and fail to ask if that self-image was somehow wrong. History is always more cosmopolitan than we are taught.
So, it was important, right from the start, that the great woodland of Root be peopled with a variety of creatures and that each player faction not is wholly associated with one group of these nations. To that end, I decided that the creatures of the forest should be divided into four different interest groups: small herbivores, medium herbivores, medium predators, and birds. For ease of communication, each of these groups got a single avatar: a mouse, a bunny, a fox, and a hawk.

Managing all of those peoples and their opinions in the traditional way (with chits and tracks) would be a nightmare. So, I decided to map those creatures on to the game’s deck. The deck of 54 cards would be composed of four suits, one for each of the interest groups. It was also important that the deck be “tilted” so that it could reflect what I saw as the “natural” balance of this particular woodland. Birds of prey have the biggest suit, mice have the smallest.

The cards in a players hand represented the biopower on which their political faction could draw. So managing a hand by choosing which cards to hold and whether to expand hand size or the flow of new cards in and out of a hand because an exercise in Foucaultian biopolitics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biopolitics#Foucaults). This mechanical space also provided me with a second core system through which I could easily differentiate the various factions. It allowed me to have the egalitarian Woodland Alliance manage their followers quite differently when compared to the strict (almost caste-like) society of the Eyrie.

I knew early on that I wanted all the players to be interacting with a single deck and that deck should represent the different interests of the woodland creatures. This choice also led to some mechanical concerns. Highly asymmetric games can sometimes feel quite solitary—especially if players share few if any rules and components. I wanted to do everything I could to bind the systems (and the players) together. Forcing the players to use a single deck of cards would answer this problem. At the same time, if the factions were going to be truly different, any resource they shared would have to be generic. This made me nervous. If I was using the deck as a generic noise-maker in the design, then it was hardly worth including in the first place. While the random churn of a deck of cards can make for the occasional bits of excitement, it’s a very poor foundation on which to build a game. So, if I did want a single deck to work in this design, I needed to make the cards multi-function. But, as I’ve slammed right into my word limit for the day, the exact functions of those cards will have to wait until tomorrow.



(Note: Though the layout is close to final, the icons here are not. I'll be talking about those at some point too)
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Kurt R
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
Well, if that's not just about the most compelling start part 3 to a designer diary I've ever read.
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William Sobel
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
Amazing start. I can't wait to hear about your journey with Root!

One minor question; Is the intent of the cards for them to be normal card size? I understand this could still change since it hasn't been sent to the printer, just curious about what you intend them to be.
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Cole Wehrle
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
enzo622 wrote:
Well, if that's not just about the most compelling start to a designer diary I've ever read.

...well, it's actually part 3!

Part 1:
Designer Diary - The Roots of Root

Part 2:
Designer Diary - Some Helpful Symmetry
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Cole Wehrle
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
_RedMask wrote:

One minor question; Is the intent of the cards for them to be normal card size? I understand this could still change since it hasn't been sent to the printer, just curious about what you intend them to be.

They will be poker size. So, same as vast.
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
Cole Wehrle wrote:

I knew early on that I wanted all the players to be interacting with a single deck and that deck should represent the different interests of the woodland creatures.... So, if I did want a single deck to work in this design, I needed to make the cards multi-function. But, as I’ve slammed right into my word limit for the day, the exact functions of those cards will have to wait until tomorrow.

It's no surprise that my favourite single-deck designs either have multi-function cards or there is an explicit knowledge component that you have as to what could possibly be in someone's hand. Those sorts of things can actually add to a skill curve and that isn't always a bad thing- deck knowledge is a fun thing to have if a game is worth repeatedly delving into.

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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
It feels slightly strange to me that there are more bird cards in the deck than mouse cards. From the perspective of numbers of animals, or biomass, the mice would vastly outnumber the birds. So the card distribution is more representative of the power wielded by each type of animal, predators being stronger than prey. I found that initially unintuitive but I'll get over it.
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Cole Wehrle
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Re: Constructing a Deck to Deconstruct a State
woodnoggin wrote:
It feels slightly strange to me that there are more bird cards in the deck than mouse cards. From the perspective of numbers of animals, or biomass, the mice would vastly outnumber the birds. So the card distribution is more representative of the power wielded by each type of animal, predators being stronger than prey. I found that initially unintuitive but I'll get over it.

The forest is not quite a one animal, one vote kind of place. The numerical majority of mice is reflected in other ways in the design (namely in the crafting system).

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I really dig the way you’re separating the Resistance into its own individual factions. I may be spending too much time in political Facebook groups, but this is highly relevant even now.
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
As both a designer and a player, I dislike cards. Perhaps that’s too strongly put. Really, I don’t mind them, but when I sit down to play a game that makes an extensive use of cards—especially multiple decks—I begin with more suspicion than faith in the design. I think this tendency came from the role that chess and classic war games played in molding me as a gamer and a designer. Card decks were something I toyed with during my brief stint into Ameritrash games in high school and college. As soon as I found Martin Wallace (especially Age of Steam and Struggle of Empires), I thought I was done.

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Cards are the best!
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Redward wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
As both a designer and a player, I dislike cards. Perhaps that’s too strongly put. Really, I don’t mind them, but when I sit down to play a game that makes an extensive use of cards—especially multiple decks—I begin with more suspicion than faith in the design. I think this tendency came from the role that chess and classic war games played in molding me as a gamer and a designer. Card decks were something I toyed with during my brief stint into Ameritrash games in high school and college. As soon as I found Martin Wallace (especially Age of Steam and Struggle of Empires), I thought I was done.

shake

Cards are the best!

Removing fiddly decks for elegant mechanics are bester. cool
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Patar Absurdus the Shananigator
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N Jones wrote:
Redward wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
As both a designer and a player, I dislike cards. Perhaps that’s too strongly put. Really, I don’t mind them, but when I sit down to play a game that makes an extensive use of cards—especially multiple decks—I begin with more suspicion than faith in the design. I think this tendency came from the role that chess and classic war games played in molding me as a gamer and a designer. Card decks were something I toyed with during my brief stint into Ameritrash games in high school and college. As soon as I found Martin Wallace (especially Age of Steam and Struggle of Empires), I thought I was done.

shake

Cards are the best!

Removing fiddly decks for elegant mechanics are bester. cool

Single deck can be great (GtR). Multiple decks can be amazingly well done as well (Innovation). I like the multideck deal in Vast as well. It all depends.
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