Step Back to Step Forward

Creating a game is hard. Creating a game as a fun hobby with no game-design experience is harder.

So over the past month we’ve taken a step back and started to research game design to help with the pitfalls we keep running into. 90% of this research is reading through a blog referenced earlier, https://danfelder.net/. I expect it’ll be referenced (along with the Remaking Magic Podcast) a lot in upcoming posts. And a big thanks to Dan if he’s reading this, the information you’ve provided online is incredibly helpful.

First and foremost, we have come up with our design goal. We’ve always had it in our head, but it’s easy to lose sight of a goal if it’s not written down.

Design Goal: Create a fun tactical points-based card game that is quick paced and can be completed in 20 minutes or less.

Complexity & Depth

Secondly, and extremely helpful, we’ve learned about complexity and depth: https://danfelder.net/2015/05/21/design-101-complexity-vs-depth/. We quickly realized the complexity of our game far outweighed the depth it provided, and we’ve made some pretty radical design changes. It’s now top of mind when testing new mechanics to see how they play out. Specifically, when we have to make a decision, we go with the lowest complexity possible that achieves our design goal.

Here are a few examples on how it’s shaped the game:

  1. Combat consisted of adding up attack and defense values and calculating damage. There was a lot of addition and memory with little tactical fun. Now units just do damage.
  2. Notes/rules that read things like “if attack value is 2x defense value, deal 4 damage, if attack value is greater than defense value deal 2 damage, if attack value is less than defense value deal one damage, if you are the attacker and not the defender… except on Tuesdays” were burned.
  3. Simply card design. Cards like “+1 defense vs mounted units” sounded great. But the complexity of tracking who gets bonus defense when, versus the strategic decisions it led to while playing, was out-of-balance.

The game is now the best it has been since we started this project, and we look forward to upcoming improvements!

Combat Mechanics – Part 2

Still quarantined at home certainly has made it difficult to get a lot of meaningful work done on this game. However, thanks to recently learning about, and installing, Tabletop Simulator – I’ve been able to get a deck of cards online to play against opponents that aren’t just myself, which has been a tremendous help!

As mentioned in Combat Mechanics – Part 1, we’ve been toying with a regiment system – where units can be stacked together (up to 3 max) to increase their overall attack and defense. The regiment lined up directly across from an opponents regiment and the two were basically locked into a battle where they could only attack/defend against each other. No surprises, this ended up creating a very snowball-y affect where once one person started getting an edge on attack & defense, they were virtually impossible to defeat.

So we’re testing out a few changes in regards to damage and regiments.

  1. There are no set regiments. A lane has a group of units, and when an attack is ordered, the attacker can group his/her units into regiments as they see fit
  2. There is no max regiment size – if a lane has 10 units, they can be all grouped together, they can be separated into smaller regiments, or they can attack solo
  3. The attacker always does at least one damage. They do more if they have higher attack value than opponent defense, and other factors
  4. The attacker assigns the damage to the opponent
  5. The defender then does the same

There are a lot of minor iterations to be made here to see if this works. Does it make sense for the attacker to always do at least one damage? Does it make sense for the defender to always do at least one damage? Etc.

Hopefully we’ll provide more regular updates over the coming weeks as we work through these mechanics!

CoronaVirus Blues

Game development has taken a bit of a back seat here due to mandatory social distancing from COVID-19. It’s hard (read impossible) to play a game with anyone when you are not allowed to meet with anyone.

That said, I (Joe) have been playing a quite a few solo games to continue to test the combat mechanics. Though I find it difficult to play-test a game effectively playing by myself.

But, all is not lost. We’re continuing to test the regiment combat system and over the next week or so I’ll be solo testing a few new rules here:

  • Regiment size differences
  • Regiment combat lanes and movement

Stay safe everyone!

Combat Mechanics – Part 1

Heavily based on a tabletop wargame, Helorian Battles relies heavily on combat to determine who wins the game.

Throughout the combat system development, while not set in stone, several key features we want to include have driven our decision making:

  • Dynamic lane based combat. The game starts with one combat lane, and can expand and contract throughout the game.
  • Ability to play strong units on turn one. With points based deckbuilding, a player shouldn’t have to save up manna or money to be able to play some of their best cards at the start of the game.
  • No board/mat required. Summoner Wars is a great LGC that is very wargame like, but requires a mat to play on.

We have evolved through several iterations of combat while developing the game, some turned out to be horrible. Some were fun, but had balance issues.

The most notable failure was players would end up spending every turn counting up their attack and defensive power, the opponents attack and defense power, and then determining if they should attack or not. There was a lot of counting, not much attacking, and even less fun being had.

And that brings us to our current combat iteration we are testing. It’s sure to change as we continue to playtest, and may be completely different by the time the game is complete.

The regiment system.

In the regiment system, units can be stacked with other units to increase their power and/or provide cannon fodder for the more powerful units. Players can also create groups of low power units to overpower stronger units.

Based off of this new system, there are a lot of different iterations and adjustments we want to test. Max units per regiment, combat between different sized regiments, ranged units in regiments, and more.

We’ll explore more of these combat mechanic systems and tweaks to the regiment system in future posts.

Game Balance & Points Based Deck-Building – Part 1

When researching development for this game, trying to answer the question why there are no great point-based deck building card games, we came across an interesting article – Untapped Potential in Card Games: Deck-Building Point Costs

While we had a notion of what the challenges of a point based deck building card game would entail, this article provided a lot of insight from a professional game designer. One key quote from the article:

“So why don’t card battlers use point-based deckbuilding? There’s actually a pretty good reason. When both players start with all their units on the field, both players are guaranteed access to all of their squad points. In a card battler like hearthstone where you draw only a portion of your deck each game, investing most of your points in a few stronger cards would produce massively swingy games. Asking players to pay a cost upon playing the card, as most card battlers do, solves this issue. You only pay for what you play.”

Dan Felder – https://danfelder.net/2017/03/09/untapped-potential-in-card-games-deck-building-point-costs/

This makes a lot of sense – in Warhammer Fantasy one can field at the start of the game 5 units of goblins, or 1 unit of Black Orcs (generalization). You get access to all your units, all at once. However in a card game, not only do you have to churn through your deck to try and get units, you also have a set number of actions to play your cards.

So, a deck of 10 high-powered units @ 100 points each, vs. a deck of 20 low powered units @ 50 points each – all else being equal, odds are the deck of 10 high powered units will win every time.

There are a few game mechanics we’ll explore to counteract this in-balance.

  • In-game balance
    • Supply limit. A player can have more weak units on the board than strong units. (Edit: Though as pointed out in the comments below, this likely defeats the purpose of a points based deck builder)
    • Bonuses for weak units. Example: 2 weak units together become stronger. (Like two goblin units in Warhammer working together)
  • Deck creation
    • Like Warhammer, constraints forcing mins and maxes for your deck to contain set percentages of unit/card types.
    • Set min-deck size depending on deck points.
    • Point values of cards and units
    • Max number of same card in deck
  • Unit abilities – cheap units have unique abilities (draw card when played, no action cost to play, etc.)
  • Deck churn – players can churn through their deck during a game.

In future posts we’ll go over testing these game mechanics (and more) to see what works, what doesn’t, and what is fun!

Scoring

Played through a few more games with new people who hadn’t played the game yet. The games went smoothly, but there were a couple pain points that came up. One of which was scoring.

The existing scoring used player supply + points won from attacking locations = total victory points. Once you hit 20, you win the game.

However, tracking this proved to be difficult. Players forget points for supply, and supply ebbs and flows so there’s a lot of adding points and removing points which just isn’t very fun.

Today we’re going to test removing supply from victory points. Instead players will receive victory points from defeating enemies in battle, and from attacking locations.

Other Takeaways

  • More event cards in a deck might be helpful
  • Point values for some cards need to be reevaluated.

First Playthrough With Printed Cards

First shipment of our prototype cards came in today! The first thing we did was lay them all out, organize them, and then built two 600 point decks (about 30 cards) to play a few games.

Playing with actual cards instead of hard-to-read cut up note cards made the game much easier to play.

We’re still tweaking the mechanics around combat and deckbuilding. The major rule changes we tested today were combined unit attacks instead of just unit vs. unit

Takeaways

  • Combined unit attack too OP? Potentially only allow ranged units to combine attack.
  • Minor tweaks to scoring based on unit value
  • Future test: defender can decide to defend or not defend with units.

Card Prototype

First iteration of our card design. Very basic design that will change over time – especially once we get a professional designer to work on it.

The artwork is blurred due to copyright reasons.

Meanwhile we are continuing to tweak the game. Each playthrough grants us further insight and gives us new rule sets to test. Currently we’re focused on combat and unit supply.

Action Economy

The action economy, a set number of actions a player may take each turn, is often referred to in RPG games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It’s also used in living card games like Android Netrunner & Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

Generally speaking, most of these games have a set number of actions you can take each turn. Then there are gameplay mechanics that can modify the number of actions you can take, or the power of an action, each turn. For example, in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, there is an ally you can play to grant you one extra action each turn.

A limited action economy creates depth to a game by forcing players to wisely use their limited number of actions. Players must optimize the limited number of actions they have across endless opportunities to determine which course of action they want to take during a turn.

This makes for some very fun strategic decisions. Do I move and attack a creature this turn, or do I spend the turn buffing knowing the creature will attack me next turn. Do I cast a healing spell on my allies, or do I cast a damage spell on my enemies?

In Helorian Battles, after initial playtesting with a mostly fixed action economy, we decided to use a dynamic action economy. An action economy that ebbs and flows throughout the entire game as players try to get more actions.

Players have the opportunity to “expand their territory” by placing a new location. This new location grants the player an extra action each round. However, your opponent is trying to attack your locations, and the more you have, the harder it is to defend.

This creates an engaging dynamic to the game where players are trying to get more actions by playing locations and defending them, all while trying to destroy the opponents defended locations.

The First Playthrough

Our first step in designing a new game was to make a game that was fun and engaging to play. It all started with a rules brainstorming session on paper, that we then translated into hand-drawn note cards to quickly play through. It didn’t look pretty, but it got the job done.

The game played surprisingly well the first time through, but unfortunately lacked any sort of strategic decision making, and wound up in a tit-for-tat combat until the game ended. Player 1 played a card, attacked. Player 2 played a card, attacked – and so on.

Takeaways

  • Add in cards to mix up combat
  • Add in cards to increase deck churn