Elementa Arcanum - Design Influences
Like many other game designers, I've taken lessons and examples from other games I've played. I transplanted some ideas that worked, tossed out some things that I thought didn't work so well, and massaged what was left until I had the final rules for Elementa Arcanum. Let's look at the games that have influenced Elementa Arcanum and what specific aspects have impacted the game's design.
Considering that the earliest versions of the game used traditional playing card decks, it's unsurprising that Poker has had some influence on the game design. The point values of the lower level Spells, and the general idea of trying to use small numbers wherever possible, were both influenced by the numbers used in playing card decks. The idea of the face cards being the most powerful was preserved and reflected in the fact that the power levels start jumping up in Tiers II and III. Aces being special lent themselves well towards being used to track victory points. Lastly, in particular, the betting rules for Texas Hold 'Em influenced me in how I tried to manage the age-old problem in board games -- how to balance the "first player advantage". In Texas Hold 'Em, being first to act is holds the disadvantage of clarifying the strength of your hand before you are sure how strong the hands of your opponents are. This disadvantage is called "acting out of position" and those later in the turn order than you are said to be "in position" in respect to you. In Elementa Arcanum, going earlier in the Combat Phase is also usually a disadvantage. That's because during Combat, attacking first means you have the least information about what is in your opponents' Hands, and leaves you the most exposed because your Hand will be depleted before all your opponents take their Combat Turns. Said another way, the later you take your Combat Turn, the more you know about the remaining contents of your opponents' Hands, and the fewer players after you that can take advantage of any exposed position you leave yourself after performing your Attack. The passing of the First Player marker also performs a similar duty to the rotation of the Dealer button in Hold 'Em.
Axis and Allies
Next, let's talk about a little game by Larry Harris you may know: Axis and Allies. It might seem unrelated at first, but one aspect of it was always endearing to me. The game inexorably progresses -- a little slowly at first, but steadily faster -- towards an inevitable massive showdown to determine the winner. Every turn is more tense than the last, and each player knows it's coming. Noone can be sure of every detail of their opponents' plans, and who will be the first to initiate the "beginning of the end". There are, however, enough clear signs of the apocalypse that's just over the horizon. Stacks of a mere 5 or 10 infantry have transformed into piles of 20 or more units, accompanied by battleships, tanks and bombers. Skirmishes over lower value territories has given way to lethal standoffs over vital bottlenecks. I wanted to capture some of this same buildup and tension in EA, and for that I have the bonus Star system to thank. Since earlier Combats are much less valuable than later ones, and because you keep any cards left in your Hand between Combat and Research, smart players are naturally more reserved and docile in the initial turns. As deck power grows, a sense of tension creeps over the table and Combat victories emerge as the new primary focus. By Era III, the tension becomes explosive as gaining 2 or more Stars in a single turn is now not only a possible outcome, but a likely one. Ultima casts its long shadow over the battlefield and is simultaneously each player's greatest desire and deepest fear. This is the dramatic tension I craved and most other deck-builders seemed to be lacking.
Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne
As the development of Elementa Arcanum proceeded, I purchased a few more card games to see what the rest of the game industry was doing in this space. I consider "doing your homework" to be required for any aspiring game designer, since it's hard to know what pitfalls to avoid and how to value the level of innovation your own game is bringing if you're blind to what other creators have put out before you. One game I bought with this purpose in mind was Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne, published by a company that believe is really innovating the physical and digital board game space -- Direwolf Digital. After playing that game for a while, I drew some conclusions that either questioned or reinforced some of the direction I had been taking with Elementa Arcanum. First of all, I really like the way that they do combat. Since creatures leave play the same turn that they're drawn, they don't carry the massive weight that they do in Magic: The Gathering (another influential game I'll be discussing in more detail later) where entire games can be won off the back of a single creature that ends up staying in play for a large number of turns. It also has a similar blocking mechanic to Magic: The Gathering that I like. Usually, you're incentivized to block, but there's also a sizable number of situations where it's either illegal to block, or it's smarter to refuse to block (usually, to damage the opponent back instead). This type of mechanic helps push the game towards faster conclusions, because there will be many situations where one player cannot -- or refuses to -- block, thus bringing their life closer to 0. On the other hand, I noted that the Tier system being used for Elementa Arcanum is great for avoiding common problems I have with most deck-building card games, Eternal notwithstanding:
- The eventual winner of the game can often be attributed to the player that has the most efficient early turns, and a lot of that has to do with the cards that were randomly dealt out to the shop at the beginning of the game. Since the first player gets dibs on the best cards in that initial deal, the first player advantage can be quite big in these games.
- As a reversal of fortune, the first few player(s) can get wrecked in the opening if the initial cards in the shop are randomly all on the expensive side. An attempt to mitigate this problem are the cheap "always available" (or "early available") cards for purchase, like "Mercenary" and "Seek Power" in Eternal, but this is a bit of an ugly patch. Usually the power level of these cards are on the lower side, so the first few player(s) are still usually falling behind a bit compared to the player(s) whose early buys were not obstructed too badly by the contents of the shop.
- Combining the first two points above, if I wanted to design something new and different in the deck-building game space, the RNG of getting what I call "wrong cost screwed" was something to be avoided. This was one of the major influencing factors behind several design elements, like the Tier system, the Obsolescence Step, the number of decks and Magic Shop slots used in multiplayer, the costs of the Spells themselves, etc.
Some other important elements of Eternal I noted were how they handled multiplayer combat (being forced to always attack the player to your left), the fact that players got eliminated in multiplayer (something I loathe in games), the interesting idea of a "reward bounty" in multiplayer, the relatively short length of the game, how simple the tactical decision-making was outside of deck-building, and how little starting health players were given. Elementa Arcanum was shaping up to be longer and have much more complex turn-by-turn decisions than Eternal (specifically, "how do I best play my Hand this turn?"). I had to make some conscious choices about whether to reduce the complexity (and therefore the amount of time needed to play it) or to keep it the same.
Another game I bought while playtesting Elementa Arcanum was Star Realms. While I thought some of the things that Star Realms did were interesting (and Eternal replicated some of these ideas), there were other things I definitely did not like. First of all, I found the game not as fun as Eternal. Even more so than Eternal, I felt that the hands of cards played themselves -- there was very little decision-making outside of the deck-building aspect, and therefore very little skill required to play hands optimally. It relies a good amount on "faction combos", which are both good and bad, in my mind.
- They increase the feeling of each game being unique. Since the order of what appears in the shop, how many, and how quickly one can accumulate multiple cards of the same faction will differ, and you'll always think back to question whether you prioritized your buys towards synergy vs individual power level correctly. These factors add to the game's depth and therefore replay value.
- The cost to a mechanic like this is that it increases the probability of getting "wrong cost screwed". If a powerful faction card appears and someone else snipes it right before your turn, either coincidentally or for "zero sum" denial reasons, it can definitely feel bad. Alternatively, you may randomly end up with 1 less money than it takes to buy that crucial card on the perfect turn, and that probably feels even worse. Lastly, you may start focusing on a Faction in the beginning, but then hit a long drought of that Faction and get overtaken by another player that just got more lucky draws.
- These faction combos also increase balancing complexity tremendously. It's pretty hard to reliably balance the stand-alone vs combo effects, probability of occurrence, and opportunity cost considerations. While a game doesn't need to be perfectly balanced to be enjoyable, it certainly can impact replayability if "killer combos" are discovered that prove themselves too dominant.
I would have to make some careful decisions about factions (Elements in EA). If I wanted some flavorful distinction between the 4 Elements, game balance would have to be handled delicately to avoid the risks above. On the other hand, the replayability factor probably makes the risks worth it. Based on these thoughts, I focused on these parts of Elementa Arcanum's design:
- Faction (in EA, Elemental) specialization should not be all upside -- it should have both risks and rewards associated with it. Specialization is mainly beneficial and rewarded by EA's mechanics (easier to Purchase more of an Element the more you already have of it, it becomes easier to Forget its opposite, and stacking 1-2 Elements in your deck leads to the biggest Attacks), but also carries risks (focusing on 1-2 Elements leaves holes in your Defenses) that the player must try to mitigate.
- All Elements should be roughly equal in both presence and power level. Presence was easily balanced by just having the same number of copies, but power level balance was something that took a bunch of testing in the Advanced Game. While the relative power varies by Era, I believe we're in a good spot at this point.
- The game should provide players actionable measures to facilitate focusing on (and rewarding) their combo(s) of choice. In the Advanced Game, this is provided by each of the 4 Attunement Actions.
Star Realms includes some cards that force the player to decide between purchasing power and more damage, and I always enjoyed these cards. It tests the player's understanding of the phases of the game, and when purchasing power starts becoming irrelevant. This experience convinced me that allowing players to keep cards between Combat and Research was the right move.
Of all the deck-building card games I've played, Dune: Imperium by Direwolf Digital had the biggest impression on me. It was the first such game that I'd played since Dominion several years ago, and it's a great synergy between worker placement and deck-building. Dune: Imperium is where I drew the inspiration for 5 card hands and 10 card minimum deck size. I also liked the push and pull between having more workers to get more uses out of the top half of cards, but accepting the disadvantage of having 1 less card in hand left during the Reveal. This is parallel in EA to overcommitting your Hand during Combat, thus making your Research Hand less predictable. I also liked how they handled Combat and the fact that no player could be directly eliminated from the game based on Combat, it just dictated a bit about how Victory Points were distributed. Since runner-ups get sizable prizes, a player that loses a Combat on a given turn could use those smaller prizes to come back with a bigger effort in a later turn and make up or surpass their losses from an earlier one. This lead me to include the rule for the Defender drawing a card after a loss -- a consolation prize of sorts.
Another thing I did not like about these other deck builders was the low amount of ability given to streamline your deck by eliminating bad cards. Each of these games only granted sparse amounts of such ability. In the late game, there's a significant probability of just drawing a garbage hand on a crucial turn, losing the game. These experiences were directly related to my inclusion of an easily-accessible way of trashing cards in the Full and Advanced Games.
Magic: The Gathering
The last inspirational game that I took some lessons from was the world's first (and many would say still best) trading card game, Magic: The Gathering. I've played MTG on and off since I was in elementary school, and have a ton of respect for the complex ruleset that's behind it. I knew that my game wanted to stand apart from most other deck-builders by having a system in it for direct conflict with other players, and Magic's was a good model to start from. This is where I came up with the mechanics of Attacking and Defending, and the idea of Attunement Spells as static defenses (this is similar to how Creatures with Vigilance work in Magic). I thought about, but ultimately decided to stay away from, using some derivative of Magic's life point system. The reason for avoiding it is because I didn't want eliminating players to be possible in multiplayer games. The "first to 5 VP" system I settled on allows players doing well in Combat to have an advantage, but it's one that can be stopped and reversed by other players. Also, since nobody can have negative VPs, there is a bit of a built-in comeback possibility that would be lacking if players could be eliminated due to running out of life points. Finally, I considered Magic's ability to have interrupt effects and whether Elementa Arcanum needed it. After some consideration, I decided that EA's mechanics were already complex enough, and allowing players to act out of order (especially in a multiplayer setting) could get very messy, therefore creating the Attunement Action system I have now instead.
I hope you've enjoyed this ride through memory lane of these other great games. Just to be clear, none of my comments are meant as a disparagement of any of these games -- just notes about what I learned and what I decided to do differently in order to carve out my own domain in an increasingly crowded game design space. 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 take the learnings from this article to focus in on my main goals for designing the game, see you then!