Regicide #1: Design Musings

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Anzac day 2018                                  

Two of my best friends and myself arranged a day together to have a design jam of sorts. Between the 3 of us we have 3 wives and 9 kids (I’ll let you run the possible scenarios) so the idea of having a day for design was really exciting. I had a tile laying game that I wanted to work on, but something I had been thinking about for a while was ‘could you make a co-op dungeon crawl with a standard deck of cards?’ I put it to the guys as a quick design challenge to get us warmed up and within 30 minutes we had a rough shell of what turned out to be a game we are now (after months of development) really proud of. 

This blog series is a detailed look into how that game developed and grew, the decision points we faced along the way and how we handled them. I’m not saying we got everything right, but by either skill or chance, we now have a great game and I thought it could be beneficial for others to follow along at home and see if you might have done anything different. 

I met Andy and Paul for the first time at a Star Wars:CCG tournament in 2000 and from that sentence you can probably guess just about everything else you need to know. Andy and Paul have both worked professionally in digital game design and I’ve dabbled in tabletop design since the early 90s so we have a good common language to work with. Also we’re best mates and don’t have much in the way of ego so it’s a pretty easy group dynamic. 

Anyway, on this fateful ANZAC day back in April of 2018 I put the question to the guys in the hope that it might keep them awake at night instead of me: ‘Could we make a co-op dungeon crawl with a standard deck of cards?’ They were keen and I offered what I had so far. It would be co-op, it could be played with only a standard deck of cards (probably could have guessed those two right?) hearts would probably heal something and the picture cards would either be heroes to choose from or dragons to defeat.

Now at this stage it’s worth pointing out that you will get a lot more out of this if you know how the game works in its finished version. I’m going to write the next few thousand words assuming you do, so it’s going to be worth your while either watching the how to play video, or downloading the rules and giving it a go, or cancelling out of this and going back to videos of cats doing cute things. You can play it with a deck of cards so you don’t even need to print anything out.

We chatted through a few ideas but it was really just a matter of picking up the cards and slapping some down on the table to work out how it should feel, and with about 30 minutes we had the following elements which made a shell. 

We tested as 3 players, starting each with a hand of 6 cards. We knew we would play a card and then take individual damage. You would discard cards from your hand to satisfy that damage and if you couldn’t you would die and your teammates would carry on. Amazingly enough the enemy setup is the same as it is now. You would fight your way through a random pile of Jacks, then Queens, then Kings. The stats were also the same; 10/20, 15/30 and 20/40.

We also started with the Ace worth 1 and paired up to add power. We had no idea how good that would turn out to be in terms of the decision space it created in the game, and just how it makes it powerful but at the same time a liability with its 1 forfeit value.  There was no hand limit but you had to discard down to 6 at the end of the turn. Also, when an enemy was defeated you would put it in front of you, and that trophy would now pump every other card that you play of that same suit by 1. We also had the 4 suit powers from that first conversation. The only difference really was that hearts healed from a discard pile into a ‘Healed’ pile, and that didn’t get restored to the deck until the enemy died. After defeating an enemy you resolve cards to the discard in a certain order then heal off the top.The enemies had immunity, and the Joker could cancel it, but you had to pair the joker with another card just like you did with an Ace. When a player defeated an enemy, they wouldn’t take a hit and would gain the trophy then play would pass the next player to play the first card against the next enemy.

And that was it. We played it a few times that weekend, tweaking it as we went. It was a fun experience but not a particularly good game and we moved onto testing what we really came to work on. In my next post I’ll talk about why I carried on with the game and the major issues we had to start with, but to finish off this post I want to talk about the experience of designing a game from a standard deck of cards. First of all, I thoroughly recommend it! Especially a co-op game. Playtesting it is a breeze! You can do it on your own and you don’t need to do any prototyping. 

As a result, two things really surprised me; the first surprise came after that first 30 min session and the second became more apparent after months of work. The first thing was how much the theme drove the mechanical design decisions. You might think that a deck of cards has about as much theme as a block of cheese (apologies to all you turophiles out there) but it felt like the game was designing itself at a few points. Diamonds is magic, spades is either for digging holes or work as shields (I think we made the right call on that one) and clubs hit hard. Hearts are so obviously healing that it just felt weird that it could have ever been anything else. The second observation which came later is that if you’re designing with a deck of cards, you’re already 90% of the way there once you make that decision. The game being made of 53ish cards, set into 4 distinct suits, with numbers running from 2 to 10, with some pretty pictures and funny cards with A on them - these are all restrictions that eliminate a world of possibilities. Once you pick up a deck of cards you know that it’s not going to be a roll and move, rondel-manipulating dexterity game on a huge board with narrative-driven events. This restriction is liberating! You are immediately released from the burden of having to decide what your components must be. It’s like sitting down to design Settlers of Catan but you already know that there are going to be resource hex tiles, roads, houses and cities, extra cards that feed off the resources and some weird tiles with ratios on them. All you have to do is decide to do with that little black pawn and add in some trading and you’re basically there, and so it was with designing from a standard deck of cards. If deciding to use a standard deck of cards gets you 90% of the way there, our first 30 mins got us to 96%. The last 4% has taken a year and made up more than 99% of the time we have spent on the game. The 80/20 rule has been more like the 99/1 rule for us. I absolutely recommend giving it a go yourself.