Game design for 3DTotal is still somewhat exploratory, with 404 we made a (fiscally) midrange game and Wizard’s Academy was at the top end, with lots of minis and chrome. To complete the triangle our next game will explore what we can do on a budget. The brief is to create a 54 card game using existing art. This is a serious challenge for me, because so far all of our games have been praised more for their mechanics than their art (and the art has been beautiful) but this set of restrictions are all things that limit what I can do mechanically while utilising art assets that we already know to be exceptional. On the other hand wouldn’t it be spectacular if we manage to put something together that got rave gameplay reviews but that anyone could get for around a fiver?
I’ve been working on these projects whenever the Wizard’s Academy files have been in the hands of graphic designers and other artists and have three very early prototypes. They’re somewhat rough and ready and early playtests have proven very divisive – so far there’s no agreement on whether some of them are brilliant or utterly awful and a chore to play.
First up is a game that you’ve seen before: An arena battling game in which players compete to have their collections of heroes triumph over their opponents. Players form their force by selecting four groups of heroes and shuffling them together. A group might be a team of assassins or of a bunch of cowards who got kicked out of the A-Team or a necromancer and her zombies or a team of faries or a trio of cultists to the tentacle god. Whatever, with 54 cards there’s room for 18 sets of heroes which gives 73,440 possible deck combinations – not bad for a small game.
Obviously Smash Up is an inspiration here, but I think that they play very differently. Combining four decks rather than two leads to a much wider set of combinations, but as each deck only has three cards in it then it’s much harder for them to have a strong archetypical identity in the way that the Smash Up decks do. In play the games wind up very different because I’m shooting for a much higher level of interaction between cards, which has the advantage of creating a larger design space and potentially achieving a deeper game, but at the cost of making it less accessible and with a risk of making analysing the results of a particular play difficult. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s talk about the mechanics.
The game is played by having each player select a hero simultaneously and reveal simultaneously. The highest power hero survives and goes to the bottom of its owners deck, the lower power ones die and go to their owners discard pile. The last player standing wins.
The twist is that after throwing heroes into a conflict, but before resolving it, you select heroes to commit to a different conflict. All of the heroes have powers and most of these are global (e.g. All heroes with swords suffer -2 POW) so there’s a balance to strike between playing a hero that can win the new conflict and playing one that will alter the outcome of the conflict that you’re already committed to (and can see the tentative outcome of). Also as decks get smaller opponents become predictable as the same winning heroes are cycling through their decks so in principle there should be some bluff and counterplay in working out which heroes to play off against each other.
In playtesting this is the safe option – nobody hates it and a few people love it. However while it’s sometimes mechanically interesting the theme and objective are super generic, which is hard to get excited about. It’s also going to be appalling to try to balance, with so many differences in kind present.
On the plus side the playing into one conflict to influence the other is very positively received in playtesting and some of the sets of heroes have a very strong identity that people really enjoy (Particularly the samurai and their “predict what your opponent will play for a bonus” mechanic). There’s also a lot of “room to grow” in that there are times that the possibility of certain types of play or combo shine through and it’s apparent that some playtesting and iteration could bring that to the fore.
If you want to try this one out I’ve uploaded it to tabletop simulator here.
Next up we have a game that came from looking through our art assets. I found a bunch that pretty much made me remark “Some of this stuff is nightmare fuel” and wound up spinning that theme into a game. Escape the Nightmare focuses on a group of people trapped in a shared nightmare trying to escape before some devourer in the dark eats them all.
Players start with a hand of cards depicting various types of nightmare: Abduction, Assimilation, Consumption, Delirium, Death, Insects, Isolation and Mutilation. While their hand is a mess of nightmares it’s not consistent enough to escape, but if they can collect a set of five cards of the same type of nightmare then there’s a coherent theme to run from and they can escape. The game is not played in turns and players can offer another player a one for one trade at any time, either revealing what is to be traded or keeping it secret.
Of course that’s too easy, so the cards also feature restrictions on what a player can do. Some influence who they can trade with, others what they can communicate and a few cause the game to instantly end in defeat if traded at the wrong time or in the wrong way.
Of course that’s too easy, so there’s also a card called “It’s coming…run”. Whoever holds this card counts down from ten, if the count reaches zero then everyone loses. They can’t discard the card, but they can trade it away, which means that its new owner can start counting from ten.
Of course that’s too easy, so there are also wardens keeping the players trapped. Each set of cards discarded defeats a warden and when they’re all defeated the players escape and win. However while a warden is in play it adversely affects the players in some way, such as making it harder for them to coordinate trades or having them discard cards in a way that hampers their progress.
This has been by far the most divisive game in playtesting. Most groups have absolutely loved it to pieces and declared it their favourite or they’ve decried it as the worst one of the lot and absolutely refused to touch it again. In the last iteration there were no wardens and players instead had to all simultaneously obtain a set of five cards, which was boring for people who obtained a set early and just had to sit there while everyone else sorted themselves out. You were also affected by all of the cards in your hand, which could get confusing under time pressure, so the next iteration has players only be affected by the card that they most recently received. These changes may or may not be an improvement, I’ve got my first playtest group coming at 3pm to try it out.
On the downside the game can be stressful and complicated to play. Time pressure isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The theme is also a mixed bag, it’s not particularly friendly and some of the cards are uncomfortable to look at. On the other hand it’s got a really strong identity and some players have latched onto it. It probably means that the game isn’t particularly child friendly, but then children are awful. I’m in two minds about how the theme is playing out.
In good news the card effects lead to a lot of exciting emergent situations. One playtest had players buzzing angrily at each other for trading the insect communication nightmare at the wrong time, while a player with too many isolation cards to talk waved frantically at them trying to get their attention before the doom count hit zero. Another saw a player make a last ditch effort to use a death card to wreck their hand so that they could undo a trading limitation that looked like it was going to make “It’s coming” run out the clock. It’s also been praised for delivering on theme in a way that’s quite visceral. Having a combination of isolation nightmares that make it difficult to get the rest of the group to pay attention even when it’s really important works well. I suspect that the right combination of Delerium nightmares could make the game take on a surreal turn with all of the rhyming and singing too.
On the other hand it’s been criticised for viscerally delivering on its theme. Some people don’t want to feel like they’re trapped in a nightmare. That being said it has a nice trait in that choosing the types of nightmare involved at the start of the game allows players to modulate the game, so (for example) someone can say “I’m self concious about singing, leave the Delirium cards out”.
In any event this game has got the most extreme reactions from playtesters. Dizzying highs and rock bottom lows, if only I could find a way to maintain the highs while making it not such a trial for other players it could easily be the next game that we make.
The third and final game is a little bit meta. You have a team of people trying to cheat at card games, you win by having your card gamers win at card games, usually by catching the other team cheating. The card gamers you play allow you to do things to cheat, like fixing your hand or peeking at face down cards. Basically it’s cheat with more cheating.
Everyone starts with an identical deck of nine cheats and shuffles it before drawing three cards. Each turn you play a card, either face up or face down and declare its value (this must exceed the previously declared value) and optionally use a splat power. An opponent can call ‘cheat’ at which point you reveal whether the declared value was true and whether the power really existed – if you cheated in any way then you collect the cards from the middle otherwise your opponent does.
The revealed powers mostly make it so that even if a card is played face up your opponents won’t know the value of the card because it depends upon some hidden value such as cards in your hand or cards face down on the table. The splat powers are all available through hidden characters, allowing you to access any power in the game if there’s a face down card and nobody is willing to call you on it.
Of course since it’s a game about cheating your opponents have the option to use their cheaty splat powers to find out if you are telling the truth, should they have added those cards face down earlier in the round.
But of course you might predict that an opponent is going to do that, assuming that you’ve tracked what their doing and have adequate ideas about their behaviour – so you might try to trick them into looking even when they shouldn’t.
Hands down this game has the best “First play” experience. Play a card, declare a value and maybe use a power is fairly instantly comprehensible. However it also has the least variety. The arena game has some 73,000 possible decks. A given turn in nightmare with four players has just over 592,000 possible permeations of restrictions that might be in force (That’s just looking at one card from each players hand plus the warden). This game has only 3,528 plays (possible hands multiplied by possible splats in the pile) and intuitively a lot of playtesters seem to grasp that. “I really enjoyed my first game and I very much wanted to play a second and a third and a fourth – but I don’t see myself playing a tenth” is quite a common comment for this one.
That being said, people do really enjoy those initial games and there’s a very strong drive towards “Can we play again rather than moving on to the next prototype?” which is generally a very positive sign. It could be at a local maxima though, compared to the other two games I have relatively few ideas on how to make improvements to this one. In part this is due to the repeated content (The same ten cards repeated five times) in theory it could be livened up by some asymmetric play, but that would make the summary cards that let players know which splats might be available rapidly become overcomplicated.
It’s moved quite far from its original design vision in which players could literally cheat (deal badly, sneak cards into the discard while nobody was looking and so on) within the rules of the game. With their combination of cards altering such behaviour from “Actually cheating, please don’t do this” “Legal to cheat this way but penalty if you get caught” or “Totally legal to cheat this way, even if someone catches you and they get a penalty if they call you on it”. The problem was that a single deck of cards is often too simple for the average player to do much without the other players immediately spotting it so the original core design concept didn’t work so well in practice.
Still, everyone likes lying to their friends and there have been successful bluffing games with a relatively narrow set of permeations. Coup has vanishingly few possible hands but maintains fantastic flexibility for it by virtue of the social element that players bring to the game. If this game could capture something like that it could be the best one to make.
These games are all very alpha so there’s plenty of room to muck around in the guts of the things to try to make them do more exciting things (As is probably apparent in how extensive the last rework of Nightmare was, I’m not sure a single card survived untouched and the core mechanics around how players win and how cards in hand effect them were both changed). Who knows, maybe the game we wind up making won’t bear any resemblance to any one of these!
I look forward to finding out 🙂