The Origin of Five Ravens
At the conclusion of Solstice I knew I wanted to create a new card game that sidestepped some of the issues that made Solstice such a difficult game to design. Namely, I wanted to craft something lightning quick to play, something far less subtle in its strategy, and less subtle in the multiple uses of the cards. Because, let's face it, I've never designed a card that cannot be used in more than one way.
I was drawn to brisk experiences like Love Letter. Not so much its randomness or lighter overall experience, but the fact that you could play the game start to finish in only 15 minutes. I was also drawn once again to an experience that I have attempted several times but never quite made to work. That is, players having to choose between bad or negative options. With all of this swirling in my mind, I arrived at a point of origin:
Players would all have a set of cards. I chose nine as a number that provided sufficient variance but wasn't too cumbersome. These cards would all provide an action when played, identically to cards in a game like Dominion. However, every round you would need to choose one card, which you'd use to gain points. The trade-off being, once used in this manner, it'd leave your deck permanently. Then, you'd gain its benefit, if it was a weak card, or suffer its penalty, if it was a strong card.
This created an interesting premise. Players would be managing a deck of cards, growing ever weaker as they sacrificed cards and added pointless treasures to it. Deckbuilding is an excellent and standard mechanism. Players would also be managing a tableau of bonuses and penalties. I predicted, and was surprised to see, a vast amount of divergece in experiences from the very beginning.
But, before that, I needed to create nine cards. Nine cards with two functions. This means I need to create 18 cohesive pieces of content, which is quite the pain at the outset. I leveraged theme to guide me. I tried to think of a useful premise, and quickly came to the notion of a medeival heist. If you think of the classic PC game series Thief, you have a good approximation of where my mind was. I imagined nine characters in a gang and used that to find purposes for them. These roles, in order, were: Thief, Snitch, Spy, Fence, Muscle, Magician (later cultist), Alchemist, Strategist, and Master.
For example, how would the muscle use her physical power to intimidate or affect others? A spy can see things, or hear things, so I gave her the power of hidden information. The Strategist had forethought, so I gave her the power to manipulate your deck arrangement. Creating this content helped paint a tidy image of the game, but also frame the mechanisms better.
Thinking back to my initial goals, namely, making sure the cards weren't subtle or obtuse, I really tried to focus on powers and abilities that had an obvious value to the player. Through testing when this wasn't the case, I scrapped them immediately and replaced them with something better. One example being that originally a card let you examine somebody else's Thief. This seems useful, as you can then exceed their play to choose first. But, that also means you need to have the card in hand to exceed them. Often times, players would look, not have a way to react to the information, and feel stupid for doing it. Scrapped. Gone.
Therefore, cards all performed standard functions in most cases. This included things like drawing and cycling cards, revealing and hiding information, and organizing your deck.
The actions were relatively obvious most of the way, but I really struggled with the bonuses and penalties. Really, the latter. Yes, there were some issues early on with some bonuses being too good, and therefore guaranteeing they were always used. For example, the Thief used to give players +1 card draw every round if she were captured. That is exceptionally good. If it's too good, it removes actual choice. She was altered to become more interesting and useful.
But, the penalties often limited the game in the opposite direction. They were too bad, or seemed to be too bad, so players avoided them like the plague. For a long time the Strategist would limit your actions (punishing and difficult to track), or limit your card draw (a plague-like penalty for players), and she effectively wasn't used. Piece by piece, card by card, I had to scale back the penalties, uncertainties, and bad things until all but two were removed. And, those were incredibly straightforward and obvious: when your Strategist or Master are captured, you lose one point at the game's end.
All of these initial struggles, ideas, and conflicting ideaology were made excellent by one key factor: it went over incredibly well with my group. In fact, it's one of the best received games I've ever shown them. Sure, Gibson's terrible at the game, but over the months it's one we play 4-10 times per week over coffee in the morning. This is helped by a few things. One, it's very quick. While new players may take a minute to read the cards and figure out how to combine them, we can play it in 10 to 15 minutes easily. Secondly, it's interactive, but not mean. We deal with each other, but not in a way that leads to bad feelings. And finally, it builds on deckbuilding, which is a mechanism we all love. Whether the game came down to Antonio perfecting his deck culling strategy, me trying something new to ensure it could succeed, or Dave finding ways to win while hindering the rest of us, we all kept having a good time. Note that I didn't mention a way Gibson wins, because Gibson never wins.
Five Ravens began well. I knew I wanted to make a simpler, more obvious, fast game. I knew I wanted to experiment with deck and tableau building, but with a very tiny set of cards. I quickly came up with a theme to guide my content creation, and once again learned my lesson that too many negative choices aren't fun at all. It put the heist on the right foot, which led to a successful design.