I was talking last week about a sense of the unknown, and I really do think that is the major key to, well, almost any game, but tactical combat games in particular. Whether you have a 1-in-100 chance to land your hit or a 1-in-100 chance to miss it, that sense of the unknown is what keeps the fight tense and exciting. Only once the monster is brought down and the objective is complete can you breathe a sigh of relief.
Of course, I don’t think randomness should be the major deciding factor in the outcome of a battle. It should add flavor, but the meat of the game should be about solid tactics and good game play. To that end, I’ve never really been super-excited about the combat in any tactical combat game I’ve played. Sure, there are tactics involving where to move and who to attack, but at the end of the day, it boils down to “move your figure and roll some dice.” You can add onto that with special abilities and whatnot, but then you’re just adding flavor to a meatless broth.
I wanted to start from a different place, using mechanics that interested my more Euro-style sensibilities.
I was at a meeting of tabletop game designers in Indy many months back, playing this guy’s game about crowd-surfing. You had this army of guys and had to play cards from your hand to determine the magnitude and direction each of them would move over the crowd, with the goal being to get your guys onto the stage at the front. It was an interesting game, but in its current iteration, the direction of someone’s movement was random, and all the player could do was decide the magnitude of that movement. This lead to some pretty mundane decisions of, “Well, he’s moving back, so I’ll play my lowest value movement card so he doesn’t go back too far,” or, “Well, he’s going forward, so I’ll play my highest value card.”
This system of having to determine two separate values – direction and magnitude – through two separate cards (even though, at the time, one of the cards was a random draw) reminded me of a game I had seen on last year’s Tabletop Deathmatch. It was this card game called Rocket Wreckers, where players were battling on a rocket to either make it crash or hit its target. The important part was that each player’s turn consisted of playing two separate cards – one for a special ability and one as a distance traveled. Each individual card had both a power and a distance on it, though, which lead to interesting decisions about how to best use the individual cards and what combinations of two cards worked best, so that you also had good combination options on the following turns.
So anyway, this crowd-surfing game got me thinking about that two-card mechanic again. I suggested using a similar system where a player drew a random hand of cards that each had a direction and a magnitude on them (and, to add a little more flavor, a special ability that activated with the direction), and they had to play two together for each of their surfers, one as the direction and ability, and one as the magnitude. This led to more interesting decisions about how to combine the cards in the right way to get a maximal effect. Do you use all your good cards to push one guy up and leave the rest of them hanging? This direction card sends you back, but has a great ability with it, so do you send someone backward to use the ability, or do you play that card for its magnitude instead?
Unfortunately, I have yet to see where the guy took the crowd-surfing game after that suggestion, but discussing that type of two-card mechanic with him put it in the forefront of my mind just as I was sitting down to work out the combat mechanics of my own game. I really liked the mechanic, so I ran with it.
Each player starts a dungeon with a deck of cards. The number of cards in the deck and exactly what they do is highly dependent on the player’s class, but all cards start in the player’s hand of active cards. Much like in the previous examples, each card sports two abilities – one on the top of the card and one on the bottom – and each turn, players will play two of their cards simultaneously. Player order for the round is determined by an initiative number at the top of each player card (and monster ability card), so players must choose which of the two cards they played to put on top and act as their initiative for the round.
But the card they play on top isn’t necessarily the card they want to use the top ability of. That just determines their order in the round, and on their turn they can decide which top action to use and which bottom action to use on their cards (though they can’t use both abilities from a single card). Hopefully the player had a good idea what he was going to do going into his turn, but the best plays are often the ones with versatility, so that depending on what the monsters and other players did before you, you can use this top and this bottom, or switch it up and use the opposite top and bottom.
For a large part, the top abilities on cards are attack-like actions and the bottom abilities are move-like actions, but this system has so much more to offer that typical move and attack mechanics, in my opinion. First off, the decision making becomes much more interesting and complex. It’s not long just a matter of where to move your character, but also how you will move him. If you use this card for its move effect this round, will you still have enough attack cards next round to do the damage you need to? This card I’m using to attack has my only looting ability on its bottom, so I need to decide whether I want to kill this monster or wait around for someone else to do it so that I can loot its corpse next turn.
Secondly, it introduces hidden information into the game. I don’t want to go on a diatribe about cooperative games and the alpha player problem, but I will just say that, in my opinion, any cooperative game that does not address the alpha player problem is flawed, and a great way to address the problem is the introduction of hidden information. If a bossy player doesn’t have information about what your capabilities are, it is much harder for him to boss you around. Because each player’s deck of cards is entirely different from everyone else’s and they are hidden from everyone else, each player has to be in charge of their own fate, which is exactly how it should be.
Third, it introduces a loose system of resources that create a more Euro-like feel than the standard tactical combat game. Once a player runs through their whole deck of cards, they have to spend a turn to rest to get all their discarded cards back into their hand, except that every time they rest, they permanently lose one of the cards in their discard pile before getting the rest back. In addition, some cards have extra powerful abilities on them where if you use them, the card is permanently lost instead of discarded. This introduces a sort of “cards-as-resources” mechanic that pushes players to get through the dungeon as quickly as possible because every player has to either play two cards or rest on every turn. And if you lose all your cards (or all but one), you’re out of the game. In the end, every cooperative game needs a “race against time” mechanic to keep the players from dawdling, but baking it into the card system gives the players much more control over their own fate.
Lastly, and this is a big one, this mechanic blows the design space wide open. It isn’t just move and attack with a couple special powers. Every card in your deck is essentially a special power – a unique ability that you can only use once per rest – and so just designing what each character class feels like and how they interact with their deck is infinitely more interesting, and those dynamics trickle down to the player, too.
For example, the easiest character class to play is probably the Brute. The Brute starts with a deck of 10 cards and a lot of them are the same: attack 3 on the top and move 3 on the bottom. He’s got other cards to make things more interesting, but for the most part, he’s the workhorse of the group. You can always depend on him to get into the fray and deal some decent damage.
On the other hand, you’ve got the Spellweaver, a magic-using class that is much easier to screw up with if you’re not thinking ahead. The Spellweaver starts with a deck of only 7 cards, and most of those cards are filled with abilities that force you to permanently lose the card after it is played. The linchpin to his deck, however, is a card that allow him to recover all the cards he permanently lost – once. It is very easy to have the Spellweaver go into combat with guns blazing, throwing powerful spells around and doing much more damage than the brute is capable of. But even with the linchpin card, playing that way is going to make him flame out early – he’ll get exhausted and spend the rest of the dungeon doing nothing. You have to be much more careful when playing the Spellweaver – using your powerful spells sparingly when they will yield maximal results.
Oh, man, I’ve ranted on about this for way too long, but let’s bring it back around to my original point. Where are the dice? If I play an “attack 3” card, does that mean I just do 3 damage to the enemy? Where’s the suspense in that? Don’t worry, my friend, it’s all in the battle cards.
There’s already enough going on with the players’ action cards and monster automation, I didn’t want to add anything too complicated or time-consuming to add suspense to the combat, so I just devised a simple deck of cards to act as an attack’s modifier. So if you come in with an “attack 3” or a “heal 3,” you’re gonna just flip over a battle card to modify that action. A lot of the cards just have “+0” them, which means the action goes through unchanged, but you’ll could easily end up with a “+1” or “-1,” enhancing or degrading your ability. The modifiers can go even bigger, and there’s also a “double” and a “miss” in the deck, so you always have a small chance of completely dodging the boss’s attack and hitting him back with a crit.
The coolest thing about this deck, aside from it’s simplicity, is that it is very easy to modify. Say the encounter is taking place in a foggy swamp – the scenario booklet may tell you to add more misses and negatives to the deck. Or maybe in a climactic battle, everyone is full of adrenaline and getting a plus or a crit is more likely.
Oh, and one other thing about the character ability decks that is cool: they allow for deep customization. All the stats are on the cards, so you can build and modify your character by simply switching out what cards they go into battle with. This is what I’ll talk about in more detail next time.