The 54 Card Guild: #8

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If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

A post I've wanted to write for a very long time with this series is one about the Core Loop, and how understanding it can greatly strengthen the cohesiveness of your game and further your understanding of its components. I've tried to use Project Gaia as a case study for every post so that I'm not just blathering hypothetically, but with an actual use case. As such, I needed to take a few weeks to develop Project Gaia so that I had something new and valuable to offer.

Before we go too far, perhaps you want to familiarize yourself with Project Gaia?

  • Read the rules here. Comments allowed in the document!
  • Download the PNP here.

I'm sure academics can define this in a thousand ways, but generally speaking, I see the core loop as the path of decisions a player must traverse, and how the various pieces of your game feed into it. Essentially, we're stripping away the outer paint to examine the foundation, or engine, of your design. Every piece has its place -- like the Comanches with the buffalo, nothing shall be wasted.

Let me explain some of the components of Project Gaia.

  • The first player to Score three times, using Objectives or Triumphs, wins
  • Players are manipulating the Planet to fulfill Objectives to Score
  • Players can use Powers to change the Planet
  • Players can place Monuments to add Tiles they control to complete Objectives.
  • Monuments also give players new Actions, which don't cost cards.
  • Creatures can destroy Monuments and other Creatures
  • Creatures can block the use of Tiles for the opponent.
  • Creatures can take Landmarks, which grant bonus abilities.
  • Creatures reduce the cost of every other card type. Having Creatures and Monuments therefore makes you more efficient, provides new powers, and provides momentum.
  • Triumphs are like Powers, but they also have a secret Score condition. If you time them right and keep them hidden, they help you score quickly before your opponent can stop you.

I put this in a visual. Click the image for a bigger version. I'm not a graphic designer. I'm sorry. I tried to group the arrows and explanation boxes by color.

Core Loop My hideous core loop/breakdown of Project Gaia.

Let's look at this in terms of the player's journey through the experience.

End Point: The player knows they need to Score. They'll need to manipulate and control the planet to do this.

  • Monuments
  • Powers
  • Creatures

The player needs to hinder their opponent by blocking them and  destroying their offensive capability.

  • Creatures
  • Powers

The player needs to not lose too many actions by discarding cards. Spending an entire turn to redraw your deck is powerful, but you can lose momentum to an opponent. Furthermore, you need cards in hand to score.

  • Creatures reduce discard cost
  • Monuments provide actions that don't require discard
  • Creatures can hold Landmarks, which grant bonus abilities

Therefore, a player might build a deck based on a balanced approach, or one that leans heavily in one directly to greatly offset an opponent's ability to corner an angle. In a typical game, a player might pursue the following logic:

  1. Is my opponent about to score? If so, do I have a Power or can I play a Creature to slow that?
  2. Which Objective am I going for? Which Monuments should I play, and where, to make progress towards one?
  3. Can I slow my opponent's plans and retake momentum simply by destroying Creatures or Monuments? What are my best tools to do that?
  4. Can I score? I need to gather cards, or use a Triumph decisively.

Once again I have made a diagram for this. Once again, I apologize to you, fair reader.

CoreLoop2 How a player might process decisions in Project Gaia.

Now, I didn't always have a clear vision for how all these pieces work. In previous versions, folks questioned the value of Creatures. Sure, they can destroy other Creatures...though I'm not sure why that matters. And yes, they can destroy Monuments, but that seems less important than having Monuments.

I began to strengthen Creatures.

  1. Creatures can deny use of Tiles to an opponent with their presence
  2. I added Landmarks. Creatures can use them. Free Actions are awesome.
  3. I gave Monuments a Tile type. Not only do they provide new Actions, but they help players Score. That makes them more valuable targets.
  4. Finally, Creatures reduce the cost of all other cards. Keeping them alive fuels your efficiency.

There are other reasons to implement these solutions. By reducing the discard cost, Creatures expedite the pace of the game. Players spend less time drawing and more time playing. By providing alternate Actions, Monuments pull the same service.

Having public Objectives is nice. It means you can build a deck against some number of them -- remember, you only need to Score 3! However, this also means that everything is public, and a game needs a little magic and mystery. Triumphs provide a secret or two to each player. Their application is finite -- once Scored, they are removed from the game. But, if properly saved and used to discard, your opponent won't know about them. If you see in the decision tree, your opponent can counter your moves towards public objectives. It's far more difficult to counter a hidden Triumph.

All of this stems from an understanding of my goals for the game. If you remember from 54 Card Guild Guide #6, building a vision is crucial. If you have a vision, you can develop it. If you have a vision, you can ensure that your loop supports it.

A large part of my vision is to allow for deck pre-construction. Doing this in a meaningful sense means the game needs to have enough breadth and variable options to be compelling. Much of that will come through in the balance and creative testing phase, but, if the game lacks breadth initially, no amount of creative testing will solve it. I knew my core loop needed multiple decision points:

  1. What tricks will my deck have that give me an edge? [Strategic Layer]
  2. Can I stop my opponent right now? [Tactical Layer]
  3. How is my economy? [Strategic Layer]
  4. Can I retake momentum? [Tactical Layer/Strategic Layer]
  5. Can I score? [Tactical Layer]

To support these, I identified 4 Card Types. Their use grew organically, which I think is the best. You should have a petri dish -- you aren't building the Empire State Building. But, once things begin to grow and form, you need to ask why each component exists, what it supports, and what it needs to completely fulfill its purpose.

By designing a core loop after your petri dish is formed, you have a tool by which to evaluate your progress.

You have two assignments!

Assignment 1: In any method you choose, be it a written list, or awful diagram, break out all the components of your game. Draw lines between them to demonstrate connections. Caption these lines to clarify the purpose of the connection.

Assignment 2: In any method you choose, be it an awful diagram, chart out a decision tree for your players. Each turn, round, or game, what must they evaluate to reach victory? What are the components in your game that support these choices?

From here, you can strengthen your design. You'll know where your design is weak, and what needs to improve.

Tell me what you think in the comments below, via email, or on the Slack forum! Happy Thanksgiving!