So, from the first the basic mechanics of Moonflight were pretty solid. I’ve tweaked the player steps to avoid downtime and combat hate buying, along with slipping in some ways for people to protect their market for the same reason, but the central engine has hardly shifted. I suspect that’s just part of my process, I think well in abstract terms but particularly in the case of Moonflight the basic issues were so significant that once I figured out how to get over them sufficiently to bother making the first prototype anyway there wasn’t a lot of work that needed to be done on the central engine. Basically, in order for the game to work at all it had to work pretty well. The thing that has taken work has been balancing the actual decks and the characters of the four Jacks. Each deck has to do something interesting and different from the others and it has to do it in a way that’s both fun and interesting. I’ve found the shape for the first three but since I’ve just had an interesting early playtest for Jack O’ Cot and Hovel I thought I’d write a little about that process.
Jack O’ Cot and Hovel is the tableaux building specialist, the theory is that they have several tableaux cards in the first half of the game that each has repeatable and ongoing abilities but in the second half of the game the tableaux cards crumble down and filter, giving up a lot of their abilities and simply becoming halls to shove cards into. The feel is intended to go from an active and bustling town that devolves into essentially slum housing and places to hide away the unwanted. When I first wrote the Jack O’ Words and Names it worked, it was balanced, but it rewarded disengagement and lacked fun. Fixing Words and Names required a total re-design. Cot and Hovel has issues, in the second half it generates an effective and interesting engine, but in the first half its cards are powerful and expensive enough that not enough tableaux cards are actually coming out. The point, however, is that there is an interesting engine in there, it simply needs a tweaking of costs and abilities to make it fun and useful. The purpose of this blog then is to figure out how to tell the difference between when you’ve got a Words and Names situation from a Cot and Hovel situation. Frankly I only just figured it out at this point and I could have saved some time if I’d had it more in hand when I was working on Words and Names the first time so possibly this could help other designers trying to build their own asymmetric powers in games.
While this is a development journal for Moonflight, its also a guide for designing asymmetrical powers. This is not for the design of a fully asymmetrical game, which can sometimes be easier than extremely asymmetrical abilities in an otherwise symmetrical game. I’d suggest adopting the following steps in designing asymmetrical abilities:
Step 1: Figure out what you’re breaking.
Asymmetrical abilities break your existing game rules and theme. For that reason they’re immense fun to write, however, you need to have those rules in place to break. So, step one is basically write your game (big help). What I mean by that is figure out the basic rules and the mechanisms. Your asymmetrical abilities will not be inherent to the main game, they might inform the writing of parts of the main game but you should have enough of a rough idea of the asymmetrical abilities to be able to have placeholders in your head.
For example, in Moonflight the central mechanic is set up to allow a deck unbuilding second half of the game, that means that there have to be several mechanics that are similar to traditional deck builders but several that are not. As such I was able to write out a basic game with a set of traditional deck builder mechanics and then bolt onto that the mechanics necessary to allow the game to turn and unbuild, without having the specifics of the decks entirely worked out. With Gaslands I came to work on the asymmetrical teams after Mike Hutchinson had basically established most of the mechanics of the game, but I still had to learn what he had in mind and what his intentions were, I had to learn what was sacred and what I could break. If I’m honest, it’s something that I still had to learn during our recent re-write for Refuelled.
Step 2: Figure out how it will break.
This is possibly the most fun but most dangerous part. You now need to look at each of the defining features of your game and figure out how they will be most interestingly twisted, which is a huge amount of fun. However, you’re twisting pieces with the engine running, which is dangerous. Particularly balancing can be a problem since adjusting one piece will usually unbalance another.
The system here is to start by looking at how a player wins your game, first generally then specifically and then figure out a way of breaking the way they do that specific action to create a unique ability. One thing to bear in mind is to set unique abilities in such a way that they do not cause their targets frustration, but rather lets them admire how cool the unique ability is when used. If there is a single golden rule to allow this to happen its to throw out anything that is useless if the opponent is aware that a player can do the thing in question. Hidden abilities should be kept for cards available to all players, rather a unique ability should be something that everyone else is well aware of but that offers options to one player such that they can take routes and tactics simply not available to other players.
For example, in Gaslands players win by driving cars around a table top while destroying their opponent’s cars. So, they generally win by driving, ramming or shooting. They drive either skillfully or fast, ramming both causes and suffers damage and shooting can both destroy and destabilize opponents. As such we quickly formed six asymmetrical teams, all of which can do things which are both powerful and remain powerful no matter how many times you’ve seen them done.
Similarly, with Moonflight players win by having all their scoring cards in hand when the game ends. To achieve this a player will need to remove their non scoring cards from their deck into the Trash pile, avoid buying non-scoring cards, move non-scoring cards to their tableaux or have more cards in their hand than other players. Which is where the four Jacks came from in the game.
Just a few things to avoid:
Don’t think that because something is unique its therefore interesting. Unique can be dull, not only that, it can uniquely force players to play an interesting game in a dull way. Power and winning, in itself, is not interesting.
Don’t balance out psychology. Some players will want to pay off powerful in return for controlled, some players will find certainty of no value whatsoever. If you’re writing a range of abilities there should be a range of play styles available, a good mix of playtesters will help with this.
Hopefully some of that will help at least a little bit. Writing asymmetrical abilities, particularly ones that effect a significant proportion of your game, can be hugely difficult. It seems to get easier with practice but its something I’m still learning. I’ll keep you updated with any lessons learnt.