Elementa Arcanum - Design Goals

Now that I've discussed most of the games that have inspired Elementa Arcanum, I'd like to focus on the ideas I had that drove me towards completing the game and publishing it.  There's certain aspects of the design that, while some have been seen in one form or another in isolation, have never really been all combined together into the unique tapestry of mechanics that Elementa Arcanum became.  This article will focus in on those aspects and highlight what I believe makes Elementa Arcanum a must-try.

 

Different Game Modes for Different Audiences

Old Man Playing Child in Chess

In general, I believe board game makers can do more to bring their game to as many different audiences as possible.  Throughout the design process, I've tried to see my game from as many viewpoints as I could imagine.  An appealing version of the game for an 8 year old can be quite distinct from what appeals to an avid adult strategy game player, and if designed properly, I could handle these audiences and more.  Gaming groups come in varied sizes as well, and it was important to me that Elementa Arcanum's rules could scale from 2 players up to 8 or more without many additional rules.

 

Simple as Possible, Complex As Necessary

Game Pieces

 

I see board games that have unnecessarily complicated mechanics, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of engrossing its players with a plethora of choices that occupy their time and attention.  These choices aren't always fun to play as a game, though.  My approach to game design is to keep the most important rules consistent and easy to remember, and for the harder rules, have them come up infrequently or only in the more complex game modes.  This way, the majority of players are only needing to think about a handful of simple rules.  For players looking for a deeper experience, that's possible (for example, Attunement Effects and Last Resort), but it's not the default way to experience the game.

 

Fast Setup Time

Alarm Clock

It's important to remember that board games are manual affairs.  Having too many cardboard chits to track game status increases setup and playing time without necessarily having a positive effect on how much fun the game is, especially for newcomers.  My goal with Elementa Arcanum was to make the game fast to setup and restart, and to keep turns moving along swiftly without tons of things to keep track of.  Due to these goals, every single game piece is a card, and there aren't many little pieces of information to track (only Stars and who is the current First Player).

 

Short Turns With Interesting Choices

Thinkers Playing Chess

I split the game into Combat and Research Phases to keep each individual player's turns short.  In large multiplayer games, that keeps everyone focused on the game, since you'll want to know how many cards are left in each other player's Hands during Combat, and watch what they're buying with their Research Turns, so you can stay aware of who is focusing on what Elements.  By making the decisions for Combat and Research separate from each other, it limits the number of things players need to think about at any given time, and keeps the flow of the game consistent.

 

Modularity

Something that comes up regularly in my experiences with euro games is how differently the game tends to play out based on the number of players.  In these games, either the game board itself changes drastically (like in Agricola, for example), or the level of competition for the various spaces changes drastically (like in Dune: Imperium, for example).  I'm a big fan of clean designs that have elegant solutions for problems like this.  What I came up with for Elementa Arcanum is how I wish more games were designed -- if you change the number of players, the game has graceful measures for handling the additional players without the core gameplay balance changing very much at all.  Depending on the rest of the design, this isn't always possible, but when it is, I hope future games utilize similar mechanics.

 

Tiered Power Growth -- Consistent Start, Climatic End

Graph Up Right

The way that most deck-building games work is that each card you can buy to power up your deck has an equal chance of appearing at any point during the game.  In Elementa Arcanum, the Arcane Library's design has several goals.  The first goal is that the Shop rotates the Spells for purchase based on the current purchasing power of the players' decks.  Even after considering the Obsolescence Step, there are still some ways for the Shop to not line up well with a particular player's Hand.  When that happens, the Forget rules are there to provide another avenue to spend Power.  Another goal is to guide the build up of suspense during the game.  Tier III in particular is purposely short, because this is the point of the game where each Purchase and Forget becomes critically important.  The game is meant to end here, and every player knows that when the first Tier III spell hits the Magic Shop with a thud.  While in other games, the contents of the shop on the last turn is indistinguishable from any other stage of the game, Elementa Arcanum's shop has a very unique feel to it.  I plan to use a similar Tier system on other games I design because I think it works great for controlling the gradual progression of the game and building suspense, and I believe the small amount of additional shuffling overhead is worth the cost.

 

Including a "Free to Play" Mode

For those of us that do, it's easy to forget how blessed we are to live in developed countries.  For this reason, it was important to me to build a game that is accessible to as many people as possible.  Elementa Arcanum can be played using regular playing card decks, and it's my dream that the game becomes popular enough where players in parts of the world that my game isn't distributed are able to download the rules for free and give the game a try.  It's a great competitive experience, and if you can't afford to get your hands on real Elementa Arcanum decks, I want anyone wanting to play it to get a chance to do so without needing to pay me a dime.  If you do have the means to do so, by all means, purchase a copy and support the spread of this game!

 

Avoiding Elimination and Kingmakers in Multiplayer

Crown

I think it's very important to not eliminate any players in multiplayer games.  I see board games designed all the time that allow player elimination, and while I do understand it can't be avoided in some designs, I just have to ask myself what they expect those folks to do while everyone else continues playing and having fun.  While I don't consider player elimination to be a good idea, I also don't want to have players stuck continuing to play for an extended period of time without any real hope of victory, and wanting to either leave early or play kingmaker.  Too few games are able to navigate these extremes, but I was determined to do it as well as I could.  I believe the Star system I've implemented keeps everyone within striking distance of victory throughout the game, without removing all relevance of skill from the more experienced players.

 

"Just Right" Game Duration

I'm sure you've had the same experience I've had with some board games.  The game is fun, but you reflect back after the game and think to yourself, "It's a cool game, but I'd like it more if it was {X minutes/hours} faster."  These games, while interesting in concept, are hard to bring out to the table often because either you or the other players don't want to lose half their day playing it.  I wanted to make sure that didn't happen with Elementa Arcanum.  During playtesting, we went through several different configurations of the Arcane Library focusing in on the game length.  The Damage Threshold (the rule that gives bonus Stars) also was tweaked several times, trying to hone in on where we finally ended up, which was around 45 minute games on average between experienced players.  I think for this type of game, going too far beyond 1 hour between 2 players is getting too long, and I had to compromise a few times on the scope of the game to get it where it is now.  All of these changes were well worth it, and I'm very happy with the game length as it currently stands.

 

Control Over Randomness

As a strategy gamer from a young age, I've never been a fan of games with too much of a randomness factor.  On the other hand, games like Magic: The Gathering still appealed to me, because while the game has significant randomness built into it, there are a large number of ways to affect the outcome with smart play.  Elementa Arcanum has enough turns in it where skill can greatly affect the outcome, but there's still plenty of chances for players with less skill to challenge or even surpass a player with more experience than themselves.  It's hard to strike the right balance, but I believe Elementa Arcanum has plenty of ways for skill to overcome the luck of the draw while keeping a high amount of variation in how games can play out.

 

Conclusion

So, to sum up, I'm determined to bring something new to the board game industry, and I believe Elementa Arcanum has accomplished that.  My hope is that enough other gamers out there are interested in an inexpensive deck-builder with accessible rules, friendly but competitive multiplayer, and a smooth power ramp enough to give it a try.  I'm sure once you've played a game or two of it that you will see in it what I do -- a classic in the making!

Thanks for joining me today in this journey through the game design process for Elementa Arcanum.  If my design concepts intrigue you, I suggest following my Kickstarter Campaign for Elementa Arcanum!  Feel free to sound off in the comments below with any questions.  Next time we will focus on the design of the cards themselves, see you then!

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