shining force

So about a year and a half ago I took a break from designing Forge War to design a tactical combat game that involved players each controlling a large group of characters all fighting against a common enemy. I absolutely loved some aspects of the game, but it never clicked because, in the end, everything was just too complicated and time consuming.

You see, I think I was trying to design a video game. If everything you needed to keep track of in the game could be managed by some automated program, it would be great, but it was board game. Players had to keep track of all that information, and it just didn’t work.

Or rather, I could see that it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t do any blind testing, so I was always there to manage all the data for the players, but it was obvious how quickly things would have fallen apart had I not been managing everything.

Anyway, one of the main sources of complexity was the automation of the enemy units. I didn’t want them to be player controlled, so I devised a complex system of traits an enemy would exhibit that governed their movements and attack patterns. A┬ásystem of numbers and words would tell the players what units the enemy would prioritize attacking, how many hostile units it would run past to get to them and how it would deal with the threats of the players.

I thought I was clever because the monster’s behavior could be summed up in 3 or 4 words. In fact, the whole system was designed around a dependence on keywords, so that any individual character could have all their nuances summed up in a few words and numbers. The problem was that I ended up with about 2┬ásingle-spaced pages of keyword explanations that a player had to understand before they could play the game well.

I know we’re all smart here, and, given time, we could learn to play the game and have fun, but there’s definitely something to be said for getting your players into a game with as little down time as possible. After Forge War, it’s something I’ve been working on.

So, you know, if you’re looking for nuanced 50-page rules where everything has an exception and you’ve gotta do a ton of math before you can even begin to move your unit across the map, that’s great. There’s a whole community of war gamers out there that love that stuff. I’m just not one of them. Here, we’re trying to focus on simplicity – without sacrificing depth or enjoyability, of course.


The other terrible thing about how I was automating my monsters was that they were entirely predictable (if you understood the complex mechanics, that is). Okay, look, we all know I hate randomness and have a strong aversion to dice, but even I can admit that unpredictability is a cornerstone of gaming, especially in a cooperative game.

In a competitive game, designers can rely on other players to supply a sense of unpredictability, because you can never know for sure what another player is going to do. In a game where you’re working together and can actively converse about what you’re going to do on your turn, though, there has to be some other source of unpredictability or the game just turns into solving a math problem, which, okay, is fun sometimes, but not an ideal situation for a board game.

So how do we automate monsters in a simple way that isn’t predictable, gives them depth and variability, but also doesn’t employ dice (seriously, I hate dice)? The answer is always cards.

Before I explain the cards, though, I need to give another shout-out to Mice and Mystics, which blew my mind with the simplicity of its enemy mechanics after I struggled so long to get my own mechanics under control a year and a half ago. On an enemy’s turn, it moves up to its speed to the closest hostile target, then attacks if it is able. If it has a choice of targets, it prioritizes targets that haven’t been attacked yet, then targets higher in the initiative order.

That’s it! No need for 3 pages of rules – it’s just 2 sentences!

Of course, I think these two sentences by themselves lack a little depth, but they are a great place to start. Let’s get back to the cards.

So all monsters have a basic behavior of move and attack, but they are differentiated from one another by their base stats – hit points, attack power, range of attack and movement – and they are given extra unpredictable nuance through a set of 6 action cards specific to that monster type. At the beginning of any given round in which the monster is in play, after the players choose their own actions for the round (kind of…more on that in a later post), the monster flips over an action card to determine its specific behavior for the round. It could be as simple as “MOV+0 ATT+0,” which means they simply move and attack like normal. Or it could be “MOV-1 ATT+1,” where they move one less hex than normal, but do one more point of damage. Or it could be something like “HP-2 Summon skeleton in adjacent hex,” where the monster loses 2 hit points and brings an ally into the fight.

This actually adds 2 layers of unpredictability, where the first time you encounter a new monster, you can get a basic idea of its power from its base stats, but you have no idea whether it’s going to grab and immobilize you, summon a giant cloud of fire or split into two smaller versions of itself. And even after you become familiar with a monster’s patterns, you still don’t know what exactly it’s going to do on any given round, so you always need to be prepared for the worst. I think that’s pretty cool.

So how do players prepare for the worst? And without dice, how do you keep that sense of the unknown even after the action cards are revealed? Next time I’ll discuss the players’ side of combat and removing dice from a genre of game typically dominated by the dice roll.