If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It Anyways

The first step in designing any game is to ask yourself “why?” Sometimes you’re solving a problem, maybe there’s a game you enjoy but something about you think could be improved upon, or just wanna experiment with alternative solutions. And often times you have an idea for a simple mechanic that you think would provide a play experience you haven’t seen before. They often say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I think that just because it isn’t broken doesn’t mean there aren’t other solutions that work just as well if not better. So when I set out to make this game I sat down with my co-designer Ben. Ben was my roommate at the time and the game stemmed from a simple idea I had, “could I adapt the experience of an RTS into a turn-based card environment?”

As any designer does, we started looking for inspiration. We were both pretty big fans of Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone, se we set out looking at what we liked and didn’t like about each of these games and how the methods they used to solve issues of balance and fun could be applied or modified to suit our games needs.

Hearthstone

Pros

  • Resource Management
    • Nothing irritates a player quite like not being able to play cards simply because the game, through random chance, hasn’t given them nearly enough resources to keep up with an opponent. So what we really wanted to do was use their mana system as inspiration. Some games solve this issue by letting you use any card as a resource, but this can cause you to have to use cards you would need to win in order to survive. And it’s still incredibly prone to random chance leaving the play in an unwinnable situation.
    • What we really liked about Hearthstone’s system was that it exists independent of the player’s deck, meaning that the random chance of shuffling the deck had no impact on the opponent’s ability to play cards on a steady curve. In addition this meant that the opponent had limited ways, if any to take away resources from their opponent. One of the most frustrating things I get from players is when they have all their resources taken away. Not only does it prevent from playing cards right now like a counterspell would, but it sets you back permanently, and in most cases you can’t recover fast enough and are stuck at such a disadvantage that you lose a significant chance of winning. It just makes the game less fun ends up feeling like a cheap strategy.
  • Secret Spells
    • One of the most important things in any strategy game is the ability for a player to respond to an opponent’s actions. And an obvious way to do that would be to have cards that can be played at any time. While a perfectly viable design solution and one that we plan on using, we knew it wasn’t the only option, and Hearthstone had a perfect one in it’s secret cards. Secret cards provide a few beneficial ways to warp the metagame that normal instant speed cards wouldn’t have.
      • The opponent knows you have the card instead of wondering if you do.
      • They only have a limited pool of cards they could be, but they will never know which one.
      • But because of this they can’t be certain what the ideal play would be, meaning that the secret has a significant mindgame effect on the opponent.
      • An opponent may hold back on playing cards they want to if they are afraid that the secret card may have an effect that would either negate its benefit or make you lose value.
  • Hero Character and Powers
    • The most important part of your deck in Hearthstone is your choice of hero. Each hero has a unique power in addition to a small pool of cards that are exclusive to them. There are several purposes here, similar to Magic’s color pie.
      • When a player sees what Hero their opponent is playing, they get a quick guess as to what kind of strategy their opponent might be going for, given that some classes serve some roles better than others.
      • It locks players and what actions they can take into a set of restrictions, and as Mark Rosewater always says, restriction breeds creativity and ingenuity. When a player is limited in what they are allowed to do they are forced to find solutions they might not try otherwise. In addition, when designing, having restrictions on what abilities and powers can be used by whom, designers are forced to come up with more interesting ways to handle scenarios and how each kind of player will try to win.
      • In addition, it allows players to assign just a bit more identity to their decks, picking deck colors in Magic and heroes in Hearthstone, a player will go with the one(s) that match their philosophy.

Cons

  • Lack of card type variety
    • Hearthstone has two card types, creatures and spells. Both of these can only be played on your turn, with the exception of secrets which are played on your turn but activate in response to an action taken by your opponent. We understand the reasoning behind such a limited number of card types. It makes the game easier for new players to adopt. And by reducing card types it reduces complexity meaning that players will have a better understanding of the game state and usually provide a more fun experience.
    • However, we feel that this level of simplicity isn’t best for our game. We feel that it is very possible to have more card types while maintaining player comprehension and without making it too difficult for new players to understand. In order to capture the epic feeling fo RTS games and to maintain the aspects of them that make them unique and draw players in we find that we’ll need to have more kinds of card types.
  • A Dependance on Board State
    • Due to the nature of the game, nearly all decks are required to have a significant number of creatures. Something we didn’t entirely agree with. We would rather have the option for players to have decks that run minimal if any units and open the path to more unusual strategies and methods.

Magic: The Gathering

Pros

  • Variety and Depth of Mechanics
    • Magic the Gathering is the longest running TCG in the world. Because of this, Wizards often had to set out into design territory that no one else had. In addition, with over twenty years of design, they had many opportunities to experiment with a variety of mechanics and due to the sheer size of the card pool, there exist so many strategies on a variety of power levels and effectivenesses. Often they take classic mechanics or methods of gameplay and turn those on their head. There are a variety of mechanics that changed how players interacted with game rules, or gave incentive to things that a player may not normally want to do. These are but a few of them. Later I will come back talk about how each of these helped lead design for EC, or will provide interesting design space for the future.
      • Miracle
      • Madness
      • Infect
      • Overload/Kicker/Multikicker
      • Suspend
      • Vanguard cards
  • Color Pie
    • Flavor – When Richard Garfield designed Magic the Gathering he divided the cards between five colors, and based on that each mechanic is delegated to one primary color and either one or two other colors. And the beautiful part about the color pie is how it’s layout relates to the color’s personalities, morals, and goals. Each color is located adjacent to the two colors (allies) that have shared traits with them while having some differences. Across from them exist the two colors (enemies) that have opposing views on the world, so that the two colors have stark differences in what would be the ideal world and how to go about it. This greatly helps with flavor because it represents the relationships between colors in both the story and is also the basis for how mechanics are given to each color. Because each color has different traits, it handles different situations by different means, and sometimes they are blocked from being able to perform certain actions or must find unusual ways to accomplish this task. For more detail I recommend reading up on Mark Rosewater’s articles about the color pie.

Cons

  • Mana System
    • Due to the design of mana being primarily generated from cards (lands in this case) being shuffled into a player’s deck, the ability to get the kind of mana needed at any given time, even after the deck is optimized, is still left to random chance. This means that on some circumstances a player loses a game because it’s not impossible to either draw land for ten turns in a row and thus have no cards to play, or to draw no lands for ten turns leaving the player with no way to play cards.

General Observations

  • Card Draw and Hand Refilling
    • A common, almost unspoken rule for card games is the principle of drawing one card a turn. And well, I don’t quite believe it’s the only solution. The main benefit of having a limited draw is that your hand becomes a limited resource and players are slow to use cards because they know they won’t get them all back if an opponent has a counter play unless that player has an effect that allows additional draw. So every cards played becomes a decision that might reduce your resources too much and you run out of responses if a game goes on too long. As a result, if a game is going longer than expected players are either forced to play extra card draw cards, or to accept only playing the card they drew that turn, removing a lot of strategy and leaving the game down to the luck of the draw.
    • Well we decided against this, instead of having a limited draw, the player will instead draw cards until they have the maximum number of cards they can hold in their hand. This means that players are more encouraged to play cards because they know they will replace each card they play. In addition, since we strive to make our game run more turns than other games tend to at competitive levels, this would ensure that later in the game player’s have access to more cards and thus more tactical options on how they might win the game. We think this is an interesting design space to experiment with as it would drastically change how concepts like card advantage work and have a potentially massive impact of the strategy of the game.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that I and my fellow designers have used to work with and develop both the mechanics and feel of our game. There are many other aspects of these games and more that contribute to our decisions with these games, and the design for the game certainly isn’t final as we have much balancing and design to do before we find what feels best in terms of gameplay. Stay tuned for more updates on the game as we explore our way through the design process.