Elemental, My Dear Watson

You may remember that I recently posted about experimenting with Magic: The Gathering by playing with the mana system and allowing you to identify what colour of spell a card has by its card back.  Well, I've moved this onwards a little.  Imaginatively, I have retooled these ideas into a new two-player, magical duelling game, partly because I was being thematically uninspired, and partly because most of my games so far don't work so well with two players, so I wanted to work on something for two.  Besides, doesn't everyone make a two-player, magical duelling game at some point?

A common trope for game designer is to make a game where you cast spells, but look! - there are six types of magic (or four, or seven...) rather than M:TG's five.  I can do that too, so I made my game about wielding the four elemental powers of earth, air, fire and water.  In another not-entirely original step, I decided that the game would be about trying to win a certain number of simultaneous battles.

So I threw together a first-pass prototype, with a few cards from each of the four elements, including elementals which are used to take control of a battlefield (or "realm" as I am calling them), enhancements to buff an existing elemental, and incantations which have instant and non-persistent effects.  The idea is that on your side of a battle you may not combine opposed elements, so if you play an earth elemental into a realm, you may not play an air card in that location, for instance.  As with that M:TG experiment, cards are used to power cards.  Apart from a few other card features, that was about it.

Playing this went pretty well -- certainly better than the Magic variant that it was built from.  There were, of course, plenty of problems, including that it was far too common to end up with pretty much useless cards in your hand, and that control of the realms could turn too quickly, but most of the issues were with details; the big takeaway is that this looks like a viable game in a form similar to where it is now.  Good enough for me to do some more work on, certainly.  I suspect that it would be difficult to get the game published (I mean, everyone and their dog makes magical duelling games, so you have to be really special to stand out) but I think my main aim here is to work on something that stretches different design muscles to the ones I have been using before, and see where it goes...


A Little Light Playtesting

I've recently had a couple of playtesting sessions (one at home and one over lunch at work) when we have played a couple of my lighter games, just generally looking for what needs to be done to them to make them better.
Cards, meeples and cake, the recipe for a good evening of playtesting.

After bringing My Name Is... to a Playtest UK meetup, I've been looking to see if there is anything to be done for the end of the game.  Other game designers had observed that, at least in the test game they played, the last couple of turns can feel a bit trivial and maybe there needs to be something to provide some sort of finale, so the game ends on a bit of a high.  We tried out the idea I had to make people have to remember any cards they have left in front of them in order to score them, but this felt really clunky and unfun, so got abandoned pretty quickly.  Further plays seemed generally fine as it is, though it sometimes feels a bit weird when one player builds up a big stack of cards, and the game seems very variable in its feel depending on how good people's memories are and how confident they are at making challenges.  What I need to do next is to use a rule where players grab a token in order to make a challenge and see how that goes.

One of my old 24 hour games, Treasures of Atlantis, has been busted out of deep storage for another look, and we have had a few plays, now working in a limited number of meeples that each player can use through the game -- originally you could take part in all rounds, however many there are, but now, if you place a meeple during a round (which you do to claim treasure, and you might miss your chance if the waters rise too quickly), that meeple is used up, so you may run out before the game is over.  This approach actually seems to work well and adds a little more tension, but it does sometimes mean that one or two players have to sit out the last round.  There are also possible issues when one player can sometimes collect enormous amounts of treasure if other players wimp out too soon, and also there is a non-zero chance that the game will end before anyone has collected any treasure.  I'd also like to rethink the set collection rules and possibly make monsters and boats work a little differently.


Hare Today, Invaded Tomorrow

I had been planning to stop taking Invaded to playtesting meetups in London as I thought the game was stabilising and would be better off getting focussed testing for a while from a group who could play the game repeatedly and look for problems.  Well, while the rate of change has slowed a lot, as this month's third-Sunday meetup approached, I felt that I could do with some more input from other designers, so off I went...

Getting to London was a bit more problematic than usual as the rail line I usually travel on was closed, so I had to take a detour via Oxford and end up at a different London terminal.  On the plus side, on the train from Oxford there were a couple of young women handing out free promotional chocolate, which went nicely with the coffee I had just bought myself.

Anyway, when the playtesting started up I was allocated a table in the first 90 minute slot, and had three other designers joining me, including two who had played an earlier incarnation of the game.

See? Actual people playing with me! Thanks to Rob Harris for the photo.
Overall the game went pretty well and I got a good combination of supportive and critical feedback.  The game ran for 50 minutes, which was great as I am hoping to keep it at about an hour, but there was a general feeling that the ending was a bit abrupt and came too early to allow strategies to really come into play.  This feeling was exacerbated by the "strategy" cards we had in play, which give an in-game benefit and an end-game scoring bonus, as these are definitely too hard to take advantage of.

Another issue was the balance of the cards in the colonial activity deck, and some aspects of how they work.  The approach I use works pretty well, I think, but there are points where things can be overlooked (like when the colonial aggression level changes), and the way things played out there just wasn't enough colonial presence on the board by the end of the game.

All of this is very fixable, and our discussion after the game came up with some good ideas, so I'll be trying some of them out in the coming weeks.  Unfortunately, though, this means that I won't be doing something that I was hoping to do.

Each year there is a contest run by a German games club called Hippodice, where the club members and a group of publishers combine to judge a variety of unpublished games. A couple of my friends at Playtest UK have actually won this contest.  It's quite a prestigious contest as these things go, but one of the big benefits is getting blind playtesting and written feedback from the club members if your game is selected for the "main round" of the contest.  The deadline for submission of rulebooks and supporting blurb is only a couple of weeks away, and with the amount of work I still want to do (and test) on Invaded, I feel that I'm just not going to get there in time.  It's a shame, but no big deal. Maybe next time.


One dream, one soul, one prize, one goal...

I've not done one of these experiments for a while, but this is one that I thought about quite a while back and set up the necessary components, but never got around to trying out.  The idea in this case was to explore using cards both to be played as a type of "activity" and as a resource to spend on those activities.  Not entirely original but this took me, after a little thinking, to wondering what Magic: The Gathering would be like if you could use a card either as a spell or as mana of the matching colour.

To cut a long story short, I ended up with a deck of 100 Magic cards, with 20 of each colour, all in opaque backed sleeves coloured to match the spell on the front, so white spells have white backs, red spells have red backs, and so on.  The plan was to have a two-player game of Magic using a common deck split into a few piles, so you can choose which pile to draw from and get some control as to the colours you draw.  To gain mana, you either play a card from your hand face down, or you discard one of the face down cards from a previous play, so each card can generate one mana of its colour, twice.

And to be clear here, I'm not trying to "fix" Magic, but the existing game provides a useful bit of scaffolding on which I can play with a mechanism.  If I like it, it may become something new.  (Apart from anything else, something I really want to try making is a two-player head-to-head game of some sort, and maybe this could be a start.)

...One golden glance of what should be... (it's a kind of Magic).
So I finally managed to persuade one of my game designer friends to give this a go over lunch.  As a game of Magic it was less than satisfactory: without the restriction of playing one land per turn, my opponent managed to play a couple of fairly powerful cards right away and I never really got a look in, but that wasn't really the point of the exercise.

What we did discover was that being able to have some sort of control over the cards that you draw (choosing from three piles in our case) and being able to see what colour cards were coming up in each pile made for some interesting decisions.  In Magic terms it meant that you were never mana starved, and it also meant that, as most of the cards in the deck were pretty stereotypical for their colours, you could to some degree go hunting for the type of spell you want.  Plus a card draw was almost always helpful -- though not always in the way you wanted!

I noticed that the management of resources could sometimes get a bit confusing, when you are using cards for mana from your hand or from the table, but I think that is a fairly minor issue that could be dealt with later.

Overall, though, we both felt that there was something there in the card management and use, so I'll be having a bit of a think about ways to work with this in a game that isn't much like Magic.  You never know, this could be the start of yet another new game...


Seasonal Invasions

I'm making slow but steady progress on Invaded and am working on yet another revision of the game: the new version is number 13. This iteration is actually a relatively small change from version 12, being mostly component tweaks, hopefully improving clarity, and a little reworking of some of the card texts, as well as introducing "default" setups which mean that first-time players won't need to worry about initial placement of their pieces.

One of the small, cosmetic changes, though, is reflecting the way I have been explaining the game, and the realisation that I might as well just embrace a metaphor.  The way the game works, you "activate" your units on the board in order to take an action, and activation means moving the piece from one space on a card to another.  One round is a "square" round and all the pieces move into the square space, and when everything is in the square on the card, the round is over. The next round is then a "circle" round, and units move back to the circle spaces. It's basically just a way to keep track of what pieces have been used without having to reset everything at the end of each round.

This works well, but some people find it a bit abstract and weird, so I have started explaining it as, "You might want to think about one round being one season, say the spring, and the circle is where you put units that have done something in the spring," and so on.  This metaphor seems to work pretty well, so I figured I might as well make it explicit in the game.

Subtle season signage.
So all I did was to add the words "spring" and "autumn" into the two activation spaces on the location cards, and now the explanation will reference these and I am hoping this will make things a little more intuitive.  I'm hoping to do some playtesting this week, so we'll soon see how it goes down.

Of course, I'm bracing myself for comments and questions about whether the seasons are mechanically different -- they aren't.  If I wanted to get thematic I could make seasons have an effect on resource gathering (for example, grain is more plentiful in the autumn), but I suspect this might be adding more complexity for no real gain.  We'll see...