Unearthed Relics

Our great artist Cindy has been hard at work the relics.  In my opinion, this is part of the game that really cements the themes and world. As mentioned in my first post, the idea is to make these seemingly normal items into something you would put on a pedestal. With that in mind, I present to you the first one, the Earth Grinder:

“An unorthodox sword to fight greedy earth spirits”

RELIC-Earth_Grinder

This was one of the first Phil came up with. It is one of the Faith (general utility) cards. When sacrificed, it allows the player to draw more cards. I chose the name  to continue on the narrative of how the loss of information has made words as simple as “shovel” disappear.

Next one up is the Enduring Confection:

“Sweet ecstasy from the World Before attracts the hungry”

RELIC-Enduring_Confection

This is one of our Zealotry (attack-based) cards. When sacrificed, a player can steal a follower or missionary from another player. This one actually came from a friend of mine. I wanted to make an “edible” relic, and he was the one that suggested a Twinkie-like pastry (personally, I think they taste bland as hell).

We’ll put up more as the art progresses.

Streamlining

It’s been a while since we’ve updated you on our progress, but we’ve been working hard. Most of the mechanics work has been focused on streamlining the game and making it more accessible to new players. I wanted to give you all an update on the things we’ve been doing to that effect.

We used to have a concept called “Storage”, which determined how many Relic cards you could have in play. Players started with a default storage of 1 and could get more by playing or buying certain cards. Storage was a value that would frequently change, which made it tough for players to keep track of and make sure they had enough storage for all their Relics. We wanted to get rid of this confusing concept while retaining the limiting factor on the Relics. Our current solution is to say that each Shrine can hold 1 Relic. This is a more natural progression and is very easy to visualize. It has the added bonus of increasing the value of Shrines and makes more sense thematically.

Previously, the mechanics wording on Influence cards were very flavorful. I was using a lot of keywords like “Discredit” and “Sacrifice”. To justify using these words, the rules had a glossary that players could use to look up their meanings. With the help of our playtesters, I came to realize how silly this was. By using direct and unambiguous language we make the game easier to learn and teach. Now instead of telling a player to “Sacrifice a Follower”, I tell them to “Remove a Follower you control from play”. It’s not very flowery and it’s much wordier, but a player can pick up this card and know what it does without having to cross reference the rules. We can just let the flavor text handle all the thematics.

One thing we are consistently working towards is reducing the amount of information we bombard the player with. We moved in the right direction with the Tribute changes, but we are now taking it a step further. Now whenever you draw a card, including at the end of your turn, you draw it face down. Face down cards can be spent, just like cards in your hand. At the end of your turn you can put these face down cards into your hand, up to a maximum of 6 cards in hand. This means that a player will only have to read, understand, and plan based on a maximum of 6 cards at a time. Since the players can still spend these face down cards, it doesn’t impact our existing economy. This also creates some consistency in how players draw cards, instead of having them sometimes draw face down and sometimes draw to their hand.

Lastly is a change that I will be trying out at our next playtest, so it may not stick. When we first introduced the idea of Prophecies I was very pleased with them. However, I’ve become less taken with them as time has gone on. The purpose of Prophecies was to make the game end dynamically so that players wouldn’t get an advantage based on turn order. While they perform this function well, Prophecies add quite a few rules to the game. I’ve also seen an unpleasant phenomenon where a player will need to completely calculate the current score of each player before they can feel confident playing the Prophecy that will end the game. In light of these issues I plan to do away with Prophecies and instead have Event cards trigger when a purchase pile is emptied or the Influence deck runs out and is reshuffled.

Combined, these modifications significantly reduce the length of my rules explanation. And while I’m not sure we will end up using all of these changes, I think we’re heading in the right direction. I’m looking forward to further playtests.

Influence Card Art

An art post has been a long time coming – so here’s a peek into what I’ve been working on lately.

There’s a lot going on in the world of our game, but I like to keep the art a little more on the simple side. To fit our theme, I felt we should add a lot of texture to the cards, and keep the images rather simple but colorful, and full of symbolism.

The cards below are all for the influence pile. All the idea cards fall into the categories of “Favor,” “Faith” or “Zealotry.” Since there will be a lot of idea cards, we’re going to use a consistent background for each to quickly visually identify that it is an idea card, and then vary the symbol used in the center of the card to quickly determine which category the idea falls into.

Favor:
favor

Faith:
faith

Zealotry:
zealotry

Another card that will share the same visual characteristics of the above three is the prophecy card. This symbol was a lot of fun to create – I drew on traditional symbolism used to represent a prophecy, as well as native imagery such as the Nazca Lines.

Prophecy:
prophecy

I’d like to work on the texture a bit more – it’s a challenge to create a texture that’s visible on a small image.

Most of the icons I used came from The Noun Project. This is a fantastic resource for icons of virtually any noun you can think of. In the future I’d like to customize our symbols a little more, but The Noun Project was a great resource that helped me pull this together quicker than if I had created each icon myself. Perfect for getting great art ready for future play-tests!

Online Playtesting

We have been especially productive these past few weeks and have been getting a lot of playtests in. I’m really happy with how the game has been playing. It feels like we’ve reached an important development milestone. Most of the feedback from our recent playtests has been about individual card balance and improving the way our cards communicate information. It’s a pleasant change and I’m excited about shifting my focus to address these challenges.

The main reason we’ve been able to get in so many playtests lately is that we figured out an effective way to play the game online. Having in person meetups has been great, but I had been searching for an easy way to play with remote friends and teammates. I learned about a really cool tool called Roll20 that was often used to play pen and paper role-playing games online. However, it is flexible enough to allow the creation of all kinds of games, including ours.

roll20_prototype

The above picture is a zoomed out subsection of a game the team played over the weekend. It took quite a bit of effort to put the prototype together, but it actually took less time than printing out a physical copy of the game. Roll20 isn’t perfect and often requires a bit of fiddling, but the ability to play with people on the opposite coast is well worth the effort. I definitely see myself using this tool as a supplement to physical playtests for the duration of this project and for future projects.

This Is Just A Tribute

At a recent playtesting meetup, I was able to sit out and observe people play our game. I highly recommend that designers do this, because it allows you to really pay attention to people’s body language during the experience. It was plainly obvious that players were becoming bored waiting for their turn to come around. And as the designer, that’s really hard to watch.

So, despite our efforts to speed the game up, we still had a serious problem with turn length. Thankfully the playtesters and fellow designers that go to the meetup gave great feedback. Based on their advice we’ve made a change that has had an extremely positive impact on the game.

The core of the problem was the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, primarily in the form of drawing cards. Every time a player drew a new card, they had to read the card and re-optimize their strategy for the turn. This could slow down the game to a crawl. And since they could use the cards to continue a combo, it compounded the problem.

One thing we could do is simply take away card draw, except for at the end of your turn. Since the cards are also your currency, I felt this change would make the game too watered down and boring. Another option would be to take away card draw, but to allow the players to gain temporary currency during their turn that they could use to pay costs. However, we didn’t want to add any additional materials for players to track that with.

With those things in mind, we came up with the new Tribute mechanic. Now whenever a player would have drawn a card during their turn, they instead collect a Tribute. They do this by drawing an Influence card and keeping it face down in front of them. Players can use Tribute to cover any costs during their turn. If they have any Tribute left over at the end of their turn, they draw it into their hand.

This solution retains all the fun combo mechanics, eliminates the introduction of new information during a player’s turn, and doesn’t introduce any new materials or cards. So far, the playtests I’ve done with this new mechanic (including one online using Roll20) have gone extremely well. The turns were going much faster and the players, including myself, were having much more fun.

The Undertow – A Playtest Story

Every time I take part in a play test, my mind isn’t always on winning. I’ve tried to weave little vignettes to give myself more of an idea of the cultures we’ve made cards for. I’ve toyed around with the notes I write down during games, but after seeing that a Kickstarter-backed PC game (Torment: Tides of Numenera) dropping a free novella for their backers to read, I don’t really have an excuse to put down the stories. Here is my first stab at one from a couple of playtests ago.

culture_the-undertow

I recall one movement, perhaps a few turns of the moon ago, of a clever fisher of followers. That leader came from a dock owned by the Water Runners, men and women who saw the unforgiving ocean as their friendly pond, born fearless of the void past the horizon. That fisher told them that only the true believers, not the mediocre seafarers, had the inner faith to risk and survive the crashing waves.

To the fisher’s surprise, the sermons worked. The wonders and preaching dissolved all fears of the converted. But it was not enough  – total dominance of the waters was the goal, and as such all influence must come to the fisher’s control. A group was created, the Order of the Radiant Net,  but others called them by the denigrating nickname of Water Rats . Initiates in the order were  fervently cast off into the sea to find new followers, but their leader made sure to send a select few in each boat that were the true rats.

They were saboteurs and thieves loyal to their ocean master. Every pier they docked in, while the missionaries began their work in a port town, the others crept into shrines, stealing relics or eavesdropping on the leaders of other cults. They would take the spoils back to their leader, who would then re-purpose them as “divine knowledge” the leader gathered from the ocean.

The coastal empire of the order grew with each stolen follower and relic. Soon those that still saw the order as a threat gave them a new name – The Undertow. It was befitting, as while a member anointed a new follower on the beach, with a mix of sea water and other liquids, the tide hidden underneath would force them to prostate. And in the end, their leader had many kneeling on the sand.

Shrine Mechanics Video

I did a quick video to show you how one of our core mechanics works. It’s not super high quality and I totally mispronounced “Iconography”, but you get the idea.

I plan to do more of these short mechanics outlines, and eventually a full how to play video. Hopefully I’ll have some better equipment to work with for that. Leave a comment if you have any questions. And if you have some feedback regarding the mechanics or the video, I’d love to hear it.

Research Bookmarks 1

I figured it would be a good idea to get behind the little things I’ve been picking off the internet to help me get a better image of the game’s world. Disclaimer: while I might grab some stuff from them, there is no real way of knowing what will or won’t make it, so don’t take them all as primary sources from what I will eventually put into writing.

Under Tomorrow’s Sky

Description: Under Tomorrow’s Sky is a “fictional, future city…assembled by a think tank of scientists, technologists, futurists, illustrators, science fiction authors and special effects artists to collectively develop this imaginary place, the landscapes that surround it and the stories it contains.”

Why I’m Stealing It: The photo above is a pretty cool concept of a supposed future city. Honestly, though, does the place look…advanced? There’s a goat sitting down in the bottom right corner, and the irregular, raw-cut openings have cloths of many colors draped on them. It’s a rocky mess. But a cool one.

Prophetic News

Description: Oh boy. A little backstory – I run into quite a bit of end-times sites when I sift through lists of links for my day job. This one is the latest of the batch. To give you an idea of the crazy in this one, there is a post where, using completely insane “research”, the ethnicity of the future Antichrist is revealed. It even has end notes.

Why I’m Stealing It: It’s a treasure trove of insane ramblings. The important part of the game is that there needs to be a need of an impending doom, of prophecies and leaders doing what they can to make them real. While I don’t think the blog creator is trying to bring  people to a hidden compound out in Middle-of-Nowhere, USA, the amount of effort made into it shows that even the most irrational things have a solid base of sorts.

Random Cool Church Photo

Description: It’s a weird fish-eye lens take on a church.

Why I’m Stealing It: It just looked cool.

Seven Abandoned Wonders of Institutional Architecture

Description: While I’m still on structures, I found this photo set of broken-down areas in the US, Spain, Scotland, and other places.

Why I’m Stealing It: The world of the card game is strewn with crumbling buildings that house makeshift shrines. These structures are going to be good source.

Gaining Credibility

I’ve been taking the game to a few game designer playtesting meetups. It’s been like walking into a hidden world full of creative and passionate people. Setting our game in front of people who have actually published games is honestly fairly intimidating. There was no need for that though. Everyone I’ve meet has been welcoming, helpful, and honest with their feedback.

I’ve got loads of notes and its going to be quite a challenge to figure out how to solve the problems the playtesters have raised. I’m not going to get into every point in this post, but I did want to talk about a recent addition that came about as a result of some of this feedback. I made a small mention of it in our last post, but now I’m going to tell you how we incorporated the change.

In the game, players draw their hand at the end of their turn. We did this because we felt that it gave players time to formulate a strategy for their next turn, thus speeding up the game. A consequence of this was that discarding was very frustrating, with the worst case being that you could lose all your cards an have nothing to do during your next turn.

We decided to essentially eliminating discard and replacing it with the “discredit” mechanic. Basically players would have a new value to maintain called Credibility, which could be anywhere from 0 to 5. Each Credibility you had at the end of the game would increase your Power (victory points) by 1. Effects could lower or raise a players Credibility and players could also raise their Credibility during their turn by paying Influence. We created new cards that would punish players for having a low Credibility, which would encourage players to spend Influence to keep it up.

The end result is a delayed discard mechanic. You can lower a players Credibility, which they will need to raise later by spending Influence (discarding cards). The main difference is that the player gets to decide when to lose the cards.

I’ve tested the game a few times now with this new mechanics, and so far so good. It seems to handle the problem it was meant to solve and the players seem to actually enjoy it. I also think that its a huge thematic improvement. It’s doing things for us that we had been trying to capture from the start.

Now that’s all well and good, but there’s one more thing we needed to deal with in order to meet our design goals. We had to figure out a way to keep track of Credibility without introducing any outside tokens or trackers. To do this we took a note from the game Bang! and put a value tracker on the backs of Culture cards. Below is a crude representation to give you an idea of what I mean.

Back of Culture

Back of Culture

A player can use their actual Culture card and place if partially covering the back of an unused Culture card. By sliding their Culture card up and down, they can indicate what their current Credibility is. We also put the starting Storage and Renown at the top, so that players won’t have to worry about remembering that.

I’m really happy with how this change is working out so far. I’m looking forward to bringing a better game to the next playtesting meetup.