The 54 Card Guild: #3

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Posted by: Grant Rodiek

This is the third entry in the 54 Card Guild, a loosely guided course for designers new and old interested in crafting a game consisting of at most 54 cards and nothing else. If you'd like to read the first post, check here. If you're interested in joining our discussion on Slack, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

At this point, we all have an idea that we think has a kernel of fun. We've brainstormed a variety of themes and mechanisms to emerge with a solid pairing. We've filled out the Outline to answer some basic questions for the experience and we conducted a Content Slam to actually design the game. Hopefully, from there you built the cards!

Note: Members of our Slack group gain access to Paperize, a free program that lets you export a Spreadsheet with a single button click to create your cards. I'm not lying when I say it saved me 12 hours of layout and card creation work.

We need to test our game, quickly. It's time to begin development! However, before we put the game in front of others, let's ensure it's actually a viable game. We are going to run a solo test to kick the tires, identify and eliminate huge, obvious flaws, and polish up the test to ensure your first testers don't waste their time.

Before you play your game with others, you should validate your game functions and identify your first problems. Leveraging the scientific method, you want to build a hypothesis towards the elements that will hinder the fun of your game. When you test, you should do so with a goal, and knowing the problems you have ahead of time will improve the effectiveness of this.

There are a few tools that will help you solve this effectively: a Rules Outline and a Pre-Test Check. Let's discuss the Rules Outline first.

Note: In the future we'll go into depth on rules writing and game testing. For now, let's focus on these interim steps.

The Rules Outline

At times I've advocated for writing the rules before I even build my prototype. But, I think this is a path that's atypical and overwhelming for new people. I don't want to create a brick wall that gates your steady ramp into design, so let's instead pare the rules down to a simple outline.

Similar to the previous Outline, we're going to create some questions to arrange our thoughts. I've created a Rules Outline template here, which you can read, download, and use as you see fit. Below, I'm going to discuss it and fill it out for Gaia to provide an example.

This rules outline acts as a reference for you. It'll arrange your thoughts so that you can cohesively explain your game to others. It'll also act as a reference for you to look at to see what you thought in isolation. In your first 10 tests, your core rule assumptions will be frequently challenged and it's nice to have something written in ink so you can firmly say "Oh, I thought this, but it seems like it may be wrong."

Q1. How many people can play the game? 2 Players

Q2a.  How do players set up the game?

  1. Each player chooses 1 Immortal. Set the other 7 aside.
  2. Each player chooses 9 cards from the deck of 45. You can use a basic drafting mechanism.
  3. Shuffle the 27 cards that were not chosen and deal each player 3. Players use the back side and one at a time begin placing these tiles to build the planet. Build until it's 15 tiles.
  4. Each player gets a reference card.
  5. Shuffle the 7 Immortals not chosen and deal 3 face up. These are the initial Scoring conditions.
  6. Oldest player goes first.

Q2b. Draw a loose diagram showing a game setup to play.

GaiaSetup

Q3. What is the structure of play? And what happens within the structure?

The game is played in alternating turns. On a turn, a player takes any two Actions. The same actions can be chosen multiple times and they can be chosen in any order. There is a bank of two actions.

Q4. What is the win condition? A player scores 4 Points.

Q5. When does the game end? A player wins.

Q6. Are there any special rules or exceptions that need to be considered?

Tiles must be placed such that they pair with their land type, if possible. Otherwise, they can go anywhere. On the very first turn, the player takes only one action.

Q7. What are some of the key terms in your game?

Discard, Return, Draw, Attack, Devastate, Adjacent, Add, Shift, Cover

[For the sake of space, I didn't write the definitions out, but YOU should!]

Q8. Are there any special rules based on the number of players?

No. It is exclusively a 2 player game. Though, there is potential for a 3-4 player experience with multiple decks. Not important at this time.

Q9. Can you provide an example or explain how different pieces of content work?

There are multiple card types. Land cards are added to the board and provide new actions for their owner. Creatures cover tiles and can be moved around to attack the creatures and Land of opponents. Score cards provide one-time actions, but can also be used to Score points. Powers are one time abilities that are then discarded. Immortals provide a powerful benefit for your Creatures.

Q10. Is there anything else a player might need to know to play the game? Any high level direction?

Try to choose cards with synergies. Pay attention to what score options are available and try to stop your opponent from achievement them before you.

You can see now that I can guide someone through the game and I understand many of the parameters needed to play. Teaching your game while muttering through a jumble of rules and concepts is very difficult for others. Prepare an outline, a syllabus, a guide, to focus your teaching and square your thoughts.

Preparing a rule outline will also force you to being thinking about how you'll teach your game. Even if you aren't writing actual rules just yet, always remember that you will not arrive in the box with your game. Others must learn it without you. If you cannot teach a mechanism, you shouldn't use a mechanism.

Pre-Test Check

We have our outline. Now, we need to create a Pre-Test Check. We're going to do this twice: once before you conduct your solo session, and once after you make your changes before you test with others.

For the Pre-Test Check, ask yourself:

What do you think is most likely to not function? For Gaia, I was fairly confident that the tiles would not have sufficient connections, or too many situations would be created where the tiles couldn't be played. I also worried about the synergy of the cards. CCGs are about creating combos and complementary engines and I feared I wouldn't have any. Finally, I worried the scoring might not be possible in some situations, leading to a stalemate.

This question is often difficult to answer as it requires a firm knowledge of other games and often having created other games before. But, looking at my rules, I began to consider the motivations and actions of a hypothetical Gaia player. I looked at setup.

Every card back has a tile type with one of four land masses. These tiles are arranged randomly at this time. What happens if all the Oceans are drafted? What happens if there are empty spaces on the map?

I came up with some solutions by asking this question of myself. I then shuffled the cards and began laying them out as tiles. I quickly encountered a situation with a horseshoe shape. Ah ha! I needed a tile type with all 4 terrains on it.

When I worried about Scoring, I again looked at my tiles and the layout. I quickly arranged some hypothetical situations. The result was that I couldn't 100% state that all Scoring possibilities would be valid. Therefore, I created other cards to address this. It was a little bit of a bandaid, but one that temporarily solved the issue to allow for testing.

As for card synergy, I began drafting 9 card decks to see how things panned out. I noticed I didn't have enough forest cards, or creatures, or Powers, so I added more and improved my card distribution.

That's really it. It's a big and difficult question that requires honesty, but if you can answer that first question - what is broken - you can test.

The Solo Session

In the solo session, you are going to play versus yourself. You versus You. Setup the game, following your Rules Outline. Deal cards to every player, who is a fictional person. Ignoring strategy, really, as you will know everything, pick up the cards dealt to Player 1 and take your turn. Follow the turn steps, play the cards. Then, move physically to Player 2's chair and take his turn. Play the cards. Try to react to Player 1.

Very quickly you might encounter something stupid. Something you either predicted in the Pre-Test Check, or something unexpected. Whoops! Fix it, then start over. Keep moving around the table until you feel it's possible for everyone to play 2-3 turns before the game breaks down. You might not actually finish a game for your first several actual tests!

Bonus: If your game is working to this point, you can create a player AI and when moving around the table, act against that AI. You can create one that is aggressive, one that is passive, one that always hordes money, or one that has a personal beef against another player. You're not testing strategy, or balance, but merely trying to create a more nuanced simulation of how a table of actual humans will play.

Assignment #3

Fill out the Rules Outline. Answer all the questions, or the ones you think are useful to you, and read over it a few times.

Fill out the Pre-Test Check, then run a solo session. Take notes on what happened and fix your game until you can play several turns without finding an obvious problem. Create an AI and begin incorporating those.

Bonus Assignment

Get a smart phone or web camera and in 60 seconds or fewer, record yourself pitching your game. Email me the link at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com and I'll share it on the blog. Or, we can share it in the Slack channel. I'm going to post mine soon -- I'm busy and in the interest of time I haven't done this yet.