Playtest Story – The Bloom of the Beasts

It’s the way of the fool  to marginalize any living thing. Even the smallest, most chaotic ones can surprise you with their victory.

The legend said that there was a certain breed of survivors of the Darkness that did not hide from the terror of that time. In fact, they fed from it until their bodies were strong enough to set out and claim what was left of the world. They were small bands living from meager supplies, with stories told of mythic fire-weapons from the world before. To their disappointment they could find no traces of any in their hunts. They decided then that it was time to make their own weapons from what was left with no regard to the quality of the construction. Those that did find strong materials made deadly arms, such as the Red Crescent – a giant, oddly angled disc cut into the shape of the first sign of the moon.

One of the most dangerous threats to the Beasts was a time called the Prophets’ Culling. Many so-called seers of the future proclaimed of some good, but mostly horrible tidings. As a consequence, fear invaded the minds and hearts of the people. The Beasts became the scapegoats for the doom that fell out of the prophets’ mouths.

The iconoclasts from the Hammers of Light, in their mission to break down anything from the blighted past,  smashed icons considered holy to the Beasts. The Water Runners casted out the rugged warriors into the raging seas when they encountered them on the coastline. The Beasts, however, were born from the calamity of an apocalypse – these new attacks were merely a scratch. Their numbers never faltered, and even in the most trying of moments found manners of survival.

In retaliation, the tribes of the Beasts joined together, and their sole prophet made a declaration:

The moon will bring us her strength in the form of a red bloom. We will harvest it, and from it will come the weapons of victory.

At first, many scoffed at the threat, but as the revolutions of the sun progressed and people became more complacent, the Beasts gathered their small army, each holding Red Crescents, and attacked. Shrines were cut down like chaff in wheat fields, icons were turned against their owners, and the Beasts bestowed on their opponents the mercy they had inflicted onto them. The Prophets’ Culling turned into the Bloom of the Beast. The Beasts made semi-permanent camps after that, knowing full well no one would have the nerve to attack them, and  even to this day when one sees the moon turn red, they look off to the horizon hoping that they do not see the crescents coming their way.

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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.

Jesus Joins Us at the Round Table

On September 26th 2012, Jesus joined Cindy and I for his first game of Cult Leader. We had brought him in on the project a while ago and it was good that we did. The ideas that he brought to the table that day were the inspiration for many significant improvements.

Prototype

Prototype

Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures from that day. I still have the old prototype though, so I laid them out and snapped some pics. This version of the game had Influence cards, which act as currency and also give you special actions that you can pay for. It had Event cards, which change play for the round that they are flipped. The Shrines and Followers were always available to be purchased with Influence. Filling up a Shrine with Followers would grant special bonuses. And finally God cards, which were dealt out to players at the start of the game and granted unique benefits. Also, note the paper cutter that I purchased online immediately after I cut out 300 cards for our next prototype.

Influence Cards

Influence Cards

This was the first prototype we made where the cards you drew were also the currency you used to purchase things. The currency in our game is called Influence, and you can gain Influence in a variety of ways. Influence cards also give the player access to special actions that they can execute by playing the card and spending any required Influence. In earlier versions, the player was granted a certain amount of money to use during their turn and they had to mentally keep track of it. And in versions before that, we were keeping track of money with tokens.

Having the Influence cards be the currency and a way to give additional options to the player does a few things for us. It allows us to stay true to our design goal of using only cards. The player can easily keep track of how much they have to spend. It also introduces some interesting decision making, since the act of buying something requires the player to discards some of their options.

After this playtest, we ended up splitting the Influence cards into Ideas and Relics. Ideas would perform the same function of providing one-time actions to the player. The new Relic cards would be played the same way, but would persist. This split came from a change in our theme.

Before Jesus entered the picture, the setting of the game was to be on another planet where strange and varied religions were only just starting to form. Jesus had the idea to set the story in a post-apocalyptic Earth, far into the future. And the thing that sold me on this setting was his idea for Relics. The people of this distant future are far more technologically primitive and have little knowledge of what came before. However, they find these strange Relics and take them as sacred artifacts and ritualistic devices. Bringing these into the game gave the player some more interesting choices and gave us a great way to inject a lot of flavor into the game.

Shrines and Followers

Shrines and Followers

The basic mechanics for Followers and Shrines has remained largely the same in the past few versions. Both can be purchased from a common area by spending Influence. Shrines provide you with benefits and/or Power (victory points) once the Shrine meets or exceeds a specified attendance. Followers must become a member of a Shrine when purchased. Followers can also become Missionaries by removing them from the Shrine. If you do so, you gain a benefit unique to that Follower type. After this playtest, we added a few more Follower types and tweaked the benefits of all the Shrines and Followers.

God Cards

God Cards

The idea behind God cards was to give each player a unique benefit, so that they would try to modify their play to take advantage of this benefit. But since this game was supposed to eschew supernatural elements, the Gods were to be imaginary avatars of the religions. We were having a really hard time getting this point across in an elegant manner and ultimately decided to get rid of the God cards. However, we liked the gameplay elements they provided and replaced them with the new Culture cards. This gives the player an interesting window into the game world, while still providing the same mechanical elements.

Since this prototype, we have made huge strides with our story and have been working to bring our mechanics in line with the theme. One of the key challenges of game design is getting the story, mechanics, and aesthetics all to line up and support one another. When you get it right it makes for a much more immersive and enjoyable experience. The theme and mechanics of our game are now doing much better at reinforcing each other, but I think we can do even better. How well the theme and mechanics are fitting together will continue to be one of the main questions I try to answer when playtesting.