Designing Deck Devices

June 15, 2016

So we started to look at decks in general on Monday. Today we’re going to keep going in that direction by examining the work I’m doing working on deck structures for a game I’ve been kicking around for a while. What matters when putting together deck design templates? What does a designer want to look for when putting together rules for a deck-oriented game? How do decks work?

Well, I can’t answer all of these questions. I can’t answer many more that are relevant. But I can examine design from a designer’s perspective on a game that I think would be fun to play. So let’s talk about what it’s like to be a fencer in a large, wide-ranging tournament.

So I’ve been working on this game, Touché!, for a while now.  The idea behind the game is every player is a master fencer using their preferred sword. The most common kind of game would be two players facing off against each other in single combat until wounded. Each player would use a deck built from cards that represented different techniques from the fencing school for the weapon, inspired by historical martial arts. Each deck would also have a set of cards that are always on the field – cards that represent the stance the player’s fighter is in. Each card in the deck is a strike or parry that can only be used from certain stances.

From a design perspective, there are a few interesting problems. First, ensuring that each player has the same kinds of options at the start of the game but that the options are varied enough to allow for strategic play. Second, ensuring that the cards are clear and easy to understand in play, especially since this is intended to be a fast-paced game. Third, ensuring that there are enough variations in play to be interesting and not simply a repetitive strategy game like Mille Borne, Uno, or 13. Finally, there being enough information available for tactical plays to be made.

We’re going to ignore the second problem for now, since that’s more in art design after the rules are set up, what we’re focusing on is rule design today.

So, let’s look at the first problem.

Every game is about resources. The most basic resource is knowledge; The Game is predicated on either having it or not having it, and having it means you’ve lost. In any situation where you have a game mechanism, there is a resource being used. “Walking Simulators”, the most in-vogue indie game to hate on, even has resources – time and atmosphere. You spend one to gain the other. They’re the video game equivalent of ambient music, improv exercise games, social games like spin the bottle or never have I ever, and the way people play games like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity. These are all experiences, first and foremost. It’s not significantly different from hiking, watching a good movie, or reading a good book. Though there is one major difference – in order to enjoy the experience, you must interact with the resource system.

Because of this, the best place to start with any game design, once you have your concept or your story, is your resources.

We have a few resources outlined already; we have the play deck for each player, we have their stance cards (an evergreen resource), we have their choice of weapons, and we have their turn structure. We don’t know what that turn structure is yet, but we know there is one – they’re only allowed to take a certain number of actions within the game’s ruschiavona.jpgles. Some will be explicit (ie, “Play only one card from your hand per turn.”), some will be implicit (ie, “Do not burn your opponent’s deck if your are losing”), but we do know that there will be limitations on what a player can do in a turn.

So, to dig into the resource question, lets create a hypothetical game state. We have two players rapier.jpgsquaring off against each other, and they’ve chosen different weapons. Both are classics of the genre of personal defense swords. Rani has chosen the single-handed English broadsword and Nomi has chosen the Italian-inspired rapier. These weapons should feel distinct in play, so we know their decks have to be different in style. The Rapier should more oriented toward thrusting, and more aggressive because of it, but have limitations on switching stances since you have to commit to things like thrusts. The broadsword, however, is a cut and thrust weapon balanced by the hilt so that it feels nimble in the hand. It should be flexible and able to respond to changes in the fight quickly. Where the rapier should have a hard time switching stances, the broadsword will feel easier. You can simplify these two decks to one idea each; the rapier is Aggression and the broadsword is Flexible.

So while the Rapier might have better cards for attacking, the Broadsword will usually have access to options to save themselves from being hurt, or for turning a missed attack into an opportunity for themselves. Given the rules we know they’ll be under – similar play rules and similar deck construction rules – we can assume they’ll have competitive options against each other but they won’t be playing the same cards against each other.

After several hundred words, I think we can assume that if we do everything else right, they’ll satisfy condition one. With different weapons and different focuses, we’ve probably got condition three down as well. But what about condition 4?

To get into that, we need to look at game states. We know what our win state is – one player being “wounded” and being unable to continue the fight. We know what our starting state is – each player in a single Stance with a deck of cards representing their options in combat. Now we just need to figure out what the gamestate looks like between the start of the game and the end of the game. That’s where we have to start looking at how the rules interact and how the mechanics have to function.

We know there are two systems that need to interact – the cards from the deck and the Stances. Lets restrict Stance changes, then, using the cards from the deck. We’ll state that the player can only change their Active Stance once per turn, and can only assume a Stance that is permitted on their played card from the last turn. The player may also only play a card from their hand that can be used from their current Stance. For the Broadsword player, there may be cards that allow them to switch stances as part of an attack or defense, though some may be forced (such as “You are now in En Garde”). This allows the deck to feel flexible, as we were looking at earlier.

To get to card design, though, we’ll have to dig into exactly how the win state is accomplished. I think we should get into that next time, though…

Enjoying my work? Please consider supporting me on PATREON! I’m working on two game design posts and one fiction post every week, and one day maybe releasing a book or a game. Or several.

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