Wizard Poker Development

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my goals for 2014 was to design smaller, simpler, weirder games that, if possible, can support a larger number of players. I've been making a lot of smaller prototypes, typically involving cards (Draftaria, Fool's Brigade, Wizard Poker, Clarity) and it has been very productive and very fun. I really recommend wild, mass experimentation. It strengthens your other designs, is good design practice overall, and is just really fun.

I've been crunching on York and Sol Rising lately. Also, a little bit of Flipped. All of these are bigger, more complex games. Wizard Poker is one of my simpler little prototypes, and it's been really fun to play, so it has received most of my attention these past few weeks after I finish the high priority work. It's always easier to work on something like this. Diving headfirst into a problem child is less fun.

Wizard Poker has provided a lot of interesting lessons. The idea for the game came to me when discussing using Poker for a deckbuilding engine. That original idea is now buried under about 5 iterations, but the heart remains: What if you could play a poker-like game with wild abilities that lighten the spirit? What if poker were a filler that could be enjoyed at lunch or at the start of game night by people who don't like poker?

Terminology and Key Words: When you're building an engine atop a game as popular and well-known as poker, you need to tread carefully. You need to adhere to the proper terminology and NOT change what those terms mean. I tried to use "Fold" differently for quite some time and it caused a great deal of confusion. This applies to other games. If you're making a deckbuilder, you need to not use a term that Dominion uses and change its meaning.

Really, using key words in a game that has abilities is so fundamental and crucial to your game playing smoothly and being easy to learn. Magic: The Gathering is a great example of this. Hearthstone is another. They create a glossary of terms, such as Wall, Battlecry, Haste, Flying, and they adhere to them. If you're making a game that uses text and actions on cards, try to re-evaluate it through the lens of "what key words can I use repeatedly?"

This is something I started doing in Sol Rising and York and it really helps. It's also something I've done in some parts in Wizard Poker, but as I develop the game, I'll need to do it more thoroughly. For me, these are things like:

  • Draw: This single word means "draw from the top of the deck," which is less text than "Draw from the top of the deck."
  • Reveal: This single word should mean "place one card from your hand face up in front of you."
  • Flip: This single word should mean "flip one card in the center to its opposite side."

And so forth. Remember, key terms reduce text, simplify cards, and essentially act as building blocks for you to craft more complex, nuanced experiences. Instead of having one wild idea, have several simple ones that work in concert with one another.

Expectations: Another interesting thing to remember is that people have certain expectations when they play a poker-like game. And, for the sake of this being broadly applicable, you can replace "poker-like" with any classic game or standard genre. For poker, players want to bluff. They want to bet. If you jumble those concepts or overlook them entirely, there will be a lingering hint of dissatisfaction in players' minds.

When writing rules for a game built on a common framework, it's doubly important to not gloss over those features. If you begin tweaking things, even tiny things, your omissions become enormous, gaping holes. It was like I had to learn how to write rules all over again. Never assume that because something seems obvious or seems familiar, your players will just get it.

For me, this was really made clear when I introduced the concept of a final betting round. I did this to provide an opportunity to bluff and bully, but I did so in a way that doesn't conflict with one of my core goals: no player elimination. My initial rules for this were two sentences. Oh, how wrong I was! The current rules are longer and they precisely outline every step. Never assume, unless your assumption is that you need to over explain.

Eliminating Elimination: It has been a real challenge to design a poker game that doesn't involve player elimination. The winner is the player with the most Coins at the end. Coins are also used to activate special abilities, called Spells. Therefore, Coins are both points AND currency.

My first idea, which has persisted, is to give players a way to earn coins through, essentially, folding. Now, I had to revise the wording because using Fold for this caused a great deal of confusion. "Wait, he folded. Why did he get coins?"

Now, it's called "Cash Out." Initially, using Cash Out was too good, so players simply did that instead of playing. Not good. I then decreased the amount given, but it was still too good.

I then made it so Cashing Out helped you AND the pot, which meant those still in the hand would also benefit. Close.

Finally, I put a limit on who could use it, which meant the player in the lead couldn't simply stay there by using Cash Out. There are still some quirks, but it is ultimately a relatively simple way to make it such that players who are losing can quickly Cash Out to get back in, but also, the best way to earn coins is to win the pot. The incentive should be clear.

Catch Up Mechanics: In a game like this, where players can lose a lot of coins quickly AND I don't want elimination to exist, there need to be more catch up mechanics. It can't just be tacked on. It needs to be core to the experience.

I gave players a way to gain spells for themselves. This was actually one of my first ideas, but back then it was the game, not a catch up element. There are two Basic Spells that exist in every hand. They are constants that never change. There are then 20 Advanced Spells. In a 2 or 3 player game, you draw 1 per hand to pair with the Basic Spells. In a 4 and 5 player game, you draw 2 per hand. This means every hand is unique and offers different abilities and bonuses to take advantage of.

In the original version, the player who won the hand gained all the coins in the pot AND a spell of their choice. There was a spell for everyone, so the game was about tableau building. The problem was, not all spells are created equally. If a player both won the hand AND took the best spell, he or she would be very difficult to take down.

This was also very complicated. Players weren't sure if they were vying for spells or coins (it was both). It meant I needed to balance everything very differently, which I didn't really want to do. Not because I'm lazy, but because it's fun when wild, ridiculous things come out in this game. It's only for one turn for everyone and part of the game is using this power.

I reduced the number of Advanced Spells out each hand and made it such that the winner of the hand took the coins. Then, the players with the fewest coins gained the spells. This worked, mostly, except if a player won early hands, his opponents would have so many powerful abilities. They could easily out-spell him. It discouraged winning early. I guess when I said it worked mostly, I mean it didn't work at all. Your game should never discourage victory, or at least not confuse it.

A few iterations passed, and ultimately I've settled on this (until it turns out it doesn't work): The player(s) with the fewest coins at the end of a hand take the Advanced Spells. They may use them once only by paying to the Pot (like normal spells, which simplifies the rules). Once used, they are removed from the game. Players may instead Purge them, which means the Spell is removed and the player gains 2 Coins. It's a catch up mechanic with 2 flavors: coins or a powerful ability only you can wield.

The PNP: I've never designed a game that was simple to Print-N-Play. I released a PNP for York and one for Sol Rising. The former had zero plays, the latter 2 or so (which was immensely helpful). Even Farmageddon's PNP, shared during its Kickstarter campaign, required you print and cut 108 cards. Wizard Poker is the simplest PNP I've ever made and I've already had at least 4 people cut it out. Hopefully more?

Four may not seem like much, but I think it's pretty good. The game has "poker" in the title, so I know that'll turn some folks off immediately. Which is why I need to change the name.

The point here is that if you make a PNP, try to make it simple. Make it easy to print, easy to learn, and give folks a good reason to try it out. Joshua Buergel and Jay Treat have been giving me piles of feedback and it has been immensely helpful. PNP is a great route to take if you're interested in it.

The Next Trick: I don't know what will happen with Wizard Poker. It's testing well and it's a game I really like. It's fun to play and fun to develop. I feel like it's this odd combination of Texas Hold 'EmCoup, and Ascension rolled into one. It's a good candidate for Drive Thru Cards or The Game Crafter, so perhaps I'll do that and watch tens of cents roll in!

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, send 'em below!