Post by: Grant Rodiek
This is the second 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.
Good games begin with a good idea. A flash of inspiration that combines two delicious flavors, or that incredibly rare gem that takes something relatively unseen. The Holy Grail of Design, as my friend once said. But, getting lost in the land of ideas is a trap, especially for new designers.
The reality is, you cannot play an idea. An idea isn’t fun. You can fool yourself into believing every scribble on your notebook is brilliant, but I can point you to a literal pile of great ideas that I couldn’t turn into a playable prototype. And a slightly smaller pile of prototypes that I could never turn into something fun. You need to begin answering real questions and putting thought to paper.
If you’re following loosely with the assignments, you should have an idea or two that you think can become something fun. What next? How do we make that fun? Today’s guide is really two guides in one. I should space them out, but I’m terribly impatient.
Therefore, today we’re covering two exercises that you can wield sequentially, out of order, individually, or not at all: Outlining and the Content Slam.
[insert foundation metaphor]
A good outline is the framework about which you’re going to strap the rest of your design. Before you go whole hog (or even fractional hog) with your idea, you need to answer some basic questions.
I created an Outline for you here. You can print it, copy and paste it, read it, or comment on it directly. Experienced designers may scoff at this list, as many of the questions are things you automatically consider with time and craft. But, I think it serves us all well to take a step back and consider why every element is in our game.
All too often, we toss items into our designs because they seem cool. “Ooo,” you coo to yourself. “That would be sweet.” Sure, and really, you don’t want to make something that steadies your design temperature at tepid. But, really seek to understand what you’re trying to do and why every element is in your game.
You need a method to create conflict. You need an element of scarcity. You need to know who players are.
That linked Outline provides a rough series of questions, with examples and some light explanations, for the types of questions you need to ask.
I’d love to improve this Outline! Comment within that doc or leave comments below or email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. Remember, I’m not the expert. I’m just excited and trying to facilitate all of us making something special.
I’m going to fill out my outline for my 54 Card Game.
Project Name: Project Gaia
Hook: Pre-Constructed decks, like those found in Netrunner, paired with tile building, like Carcassonne.
Q1. Who am I? Who or what do I represent? Each player (2) represents an incredibly powerful Immortal being. As planets form, these Immortals rush to the planets to wrest control of them and increase their power. Players are fighting over a new planet as Immortals.
Q2. What am I doing thematically on my turn? You are slowly taking control of the planet by managing the Powers, Creatures, and Terraforming abilities under your control. You’re shaping the planet to your will and defying your opponent.
Q3. What am I actually doing on my turn? I believe one of three things:
- Play a card from your hand, which starts with your 9 pre-constructed cards
- Draw the top card of your deck. Your deck is formed by cards played via #1 above.
- Activate a creature that is on the planet.
Q4. What are the crucial decisions? What is the source of the scarcity? There are limited and contextual ways to score, which you’re working towards. You must choose what card to play, especially in light of the fact you won’t get it back immediately. You must spend cards when you play them, so choosing what cards to discard. You’re also choosing when to draw, based on what cards you need to get back. You’re essentially always spending or cycling your deck.
Q5. Who or what is my opponent? The other player, whose goal matches mine.
Q6. How can I affect my opponents? You can change the shape of the planet in ways that will benefit you more than your opponent. You may add creatures to fight your opponent’s and reshape the planet. You can score limited points. You can force your opponent to discard cards.
Q7. What are some common mechanisms you intend to employ? Pre-constructed decks (of 10 cards), hand management, tile laying.
Q8. What is your unique hook that you intend to employ? The cards that are not selected for the decks are turned over. Their back sides have tiles, which are then used to build the planet.
Q9. How does someone win? The first player to earn 4 Points wins.
Q10. When does the game end? The game ends when a player earns 4 Points. There may also be a mechanism to destroy Points if the game isn’t progressing (so first to 3).
If you have any questions or thoughts about Outlining, be sure to share them in Comments, or email me to discuss it via Slack!
The Outline in many ways is your initial design document. It’s the blueprint. Your initial brainstorm was full of ideas, examples, hypothetical situations, epic moments, and the story. Your Outline is now the step by step breakdown of your most important decisions and components. Now, you need to begin answering questions using the lens provided by your outline.
We need to make stuff and we’re going to do it with a shotgun-like approach.
My friend Chevee Dodd refers to this as “Chevee’ing,” and it’s very much like him to create a verb named after himself. The gist is that you just begin crafting content without formal rules or everything answered. The idea is that you let your ideas go directly from their conception to paper or a spreadsheet. Let the game tell you where it wants to go. As you begin to notice patterns or problems, you evolve the content and begin placing guide posts in the ground.
When I started my content slam for Gaia, I knew my theme and that I wanted to fight over a planet. I assumed that cards would be played, they’d trigger a one time effect, then go to your discard pile, which you’d draw from. I also knew cards would affect a planet of tiles, which you’d place over time. This changed later. You actually build the planet at the start of the game.
I created a spreadsheet in Google Drive with the following columns:
- Text (i.e. Ability Text)
I then began listing various names, like earthquake, tsunami, plague (thinking of things an Old Testament or Greek god might do to a planet) and what that would mean for the tiles.
I realized cards needed a cost or limitation, both so I could institute a power curve and force another layer of decisions. Players would need to decide a.) what to play and b.) how to pay. I decided that some cards would have a discard cost.
Example: In order to play this volcano, you must discard 2 other cards from your hand.
I added a new column:
I noticed I was using some words consistently.
- Build: This meant adding a tile from the tile deck to increase the size of the planet.
- Add: This meant placing a card from your hand as a tile on the planet.
- Cover: This meant covering a tile with a card from your hand.
- Score: This was how you scored a point.
I was using these terms fairly loosely and even multiple times. I noticed my cards were getting lengthy and full of conditional statements. Gross. I played Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn the next day and noticed that Plaid Hat did a very simple thing at the top of every card: they told you where to play it.
- Unit Alteration
This was really simple. “Play the card here.” I decided to revise my cards against a set of categories and added a new column to my spreadsheet. Two, actually.
- Type: Creature, Land, Power, Event, Score
- How Played: Return, Add, Cover
There were other ideas that came about. If an opponent forces you to discard a certain card, could they be punished? Could there be a Trap? That seemed fun. Events differed from Powers in that you cannot just play them willy nilly. They need to be triggered by conditions on the field, which means I needed to add Event symbols to some cards. The idea is that events are VERY powerful…but unpredictable. Powers are less wild, but more controlled.
I then added a Count column to track the number of content. I needed 45 cards plus 9 Immortals. I decided to flesh out some of my brainstorms to roughly define the distribution of card types.
Finally, I began commenting on the various fields with definitions and rules. This is what an Event means. This is what a Power means. This is what it means to Add a card.
I’m now at a point where I have a detailed framework for every card in the game. I have simple parameters to fill out and work within. That text you see in the text column above? I’m going to throw away every card I designed up until this point. But, I needed those cards to flesh out my system and parameters. I needed those canaries to determine the strength of my mine.
Let’s take a moment to bask in that metaphor.
Whether you do your content slam digitally, like I do, or with index cards and a pencil with a stout eraser, you need to make stuff. This is your first step out of the realm of the hypothetical. You need to begin putting your hypothesis to test!
You’re essentially triangulating the actual idea that will become your game. Throw ideas against your index cards to figure out what you’re making.
Firstly, fill out the Outline for yourself. Answer those questions! Secondly, conduct a content slam. Design 1 of every card you think you’ll need, then design two more. Evolve your system. Come forward with all of the parameters you need for your cards and an example of 1 GREAT card.
Remember, we have an active Slack group where we post our assignments, pitch our games, and work to evolve the content in these guides. If you wish to join, even as a silent observer, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com.
Question: The content slam is heavily focused on creating, well, content. What if you’re making a very systematic game? Perhaps we’ll cover that in the future! If you have other ideas or topics you want covered, comment or contact me.