Written By: Jesse Bergman
Here we are back again for part 2 of my Designing a Card Game Series. In this post, I will start walking you through the process of creating cards and the necessary steps for building out a Strategy Card Game. If you missed part 1, I suggest you go back and get your Core Game Play Loop handled.
Designing Your Cards
Did you think I was going to jump right into designing cards? Oh heck no! We can't begin to develop our cards until we've established a framework of sorts. For some, they will start with mechanical card designs and then flesh out the rest of the design around those mechanics. I don't necessarily believe this is a wrong approach, but I do think that you should be considering the framework for the cards long before you get into the first designs.
For Sularia the framework was established by deciding why we are fighting on the world, and what strategies would each of the distinct factions have? If your game is without factions, then think about some of your minor subdivisions. What identity can a player take in your design?
For example, in Magic the Gathering some players are mono-colored players, others adhere to multi-color plays such as blue/red. Wizards took this a step further by implementing in recent years guilds from the Ravnica block as an identifier. The Magic guilds give the player agency. In Sularia, we gave players Agency by designing factions. We hoped that players would feel a loyalty to a specific faction and want to fight for that faction. Another game that does a fantastic job of giving the player agency and identity is Legend of the Five Rings LCG from Fantasy Flight Games. Their organized play further establishes this emphasis with tournaments that name players leaders of different clans and give them a choice on which element their clan represents for the upcoming month.
So you've established a Framework, next up is to decide whether you want to approach your design from a Color Pie Perspective. Mark Rosewater discusses color pie design, and it has become somewhat of a coined standard for card game design. So what is color pie you ask? It's a good question but it is a set of design standards that in terms of Magic, tell the designers what color a particular card would fit. For example, in Magic red is the color of direct damage, they have cards like Lightning Bolt or Lava Axe. It means that you won't find those effects in the other colors of MtG. While I do like color pie design and it can certainly work, I do believe it opens up your design to the necessity of players gaining access to the other "colors" of your game for deck building purposes. By doing this players will be able to pick and choose the "color identities" that they want their decks to contain for gameplay.
The approach I took was much more focused on play style and less about making abilities color specific. While yes, factions do have some identity they don't necessarily have unique access to that identity. Battle for Sualria cards Vassad Saboteur, Tunnel Rat, and Sularium Tactical Assault Beam are good examples of the different factions gaining access to similar effects.
The overall strength and power of each card are controlled by which faction, in particular, is using the effect. For example, in our core framework, Synthien were the masters of resource collection and direct damage. Because of this, their direct damage abilities are full of utility and nearly uncapped potential. While Tunnel Rat offers similar efficiency the potential is limited by a set value. By doing this, we accomplish a faction specific design that gives each faction a unique identity and play style.
What this design means is that we can play with every mechanical effect in any faction and strengthen or weaken it based on which faction it's intended. One of the challenges with this approach is that it can become increasingly challenging to feel a gameplay difference between the factions. The last thing you'd want as a designer is that the gameplay experience is the same with the only difference being the names and visual queues of the cards.
So You've designed your framework right? Do you have a good idea of what mechanical functions you are taking with each faction/color/subdivider? Spend some time on this part, it's essential, and I would be remiss if we didn't also mention that Lore/Fiction of our world played a crucial role in how we approached this stage of the game. If your game is controlled by elements like fire, shadow, wind, water, etc.. then you want to think about what mechanical words you want to leverage and what sort of effects each will have. Now you may be asking "Jesse why does lore matter?" It is a complicated question and one that does go outside of this article, but I want to touch on briefly.
First, Some number of players will not care or ever read the lore, but they will play your game. Having lore as part of the driver behind mechanical choices helps give your game identity. It can help with visual elements, to faction mechanics, etc.
Second, Some number of players will drastically care about your world, and they will want to soak it up. Why would we alienate them so that we can fast forward through our design? When Wizards created MtG, the lore was super loose, and it became a complicated, unwieldy beast that didn't make sense to even the most die-hard of fans. Do you want that for you your game? I'm quite sure that you don't.
Okay So you've designed your lore, you've designed your faction framework, you've created your core loop, time to build cards? Yup, but before that, we need to consider some math and probabilities.
Uh oh! I've said a four letter word Math!
Many designers forgo math and start putting numbers and words on cards all willy nilly. I certainly did this on my first pass at designing the factions of Sularia. But it was a major mistake and one that cost us countless hours of play testing and the dreaded word redesign. It could have been avoided entirely just by understanding the impact math has on your game.
Before we deep dive into the math on this we should talk about quantitative design vs. qualitative design. If you understand the difference between these feel free to skip ahead. If not, well let's break it down.
Quantitative Design is probably the most natural component to work with when designing cards for your game. For example, if a card says, activate this character and give another character +1/+1 until the end of turn. In the scope of quantity, our numbers on a card improve by 2 whole stat points. One stat point in attack and another stat point in defense. We can also then make some assumptions on how often a card can get used with that ability. If it's guaranteed to hit 2 or 3 times, then we can modify the value of the ability to be worth 4 or 6 total attribute points in the card design. So while the design is not entirely clear the outcome of the model is relatively consistent.
For Example in Battle for Sularia: The Card Game we developed a Keyword called Focus. It is written on a card as Focus: 2. The beauty of Focus is that we can actively scale the value of the Focus and cost adjust the card based on its numerical value. Focus enables that character while attacking to get +2 on attack, or while defending get +2 on defense. While this stat is fundamentally 2 stats points since it is not always on, we cost accounted for it on the card as a -1 overall to that cards stats or half the focus value rounding down. If the card had Focus: 3 we would still only cost account for it as a -1 overall. However, since this is on the upper end of abilities, we may take that extra .5 of a point into consideration when adding another ability and/or other items that could affect cost.
A qualitative design is much more challenging to design because the scale of value is situational. You sometimes hear people talk about these cards in terms of floor and ceiling. The floor is essentially the worst case performance, and the ceiling is the best case performance. Because you can't possibly know these numbers going into initial playtests, you have to make some assumptions on the value of the card and what it is capable of. An excellent example of this can be found on Ashfall Plains from the Reign of Terror expansion for Battle for Sularia.
Ashfall Plains points allocation is situated around a powerful ability that lets a player surrender a combatant that they control and draw a card. What is the ceiling for this? Well, the best ceiling is surrendering a token combatant who was generated by card advantage for free and drawing an extra card for it. The floor is surrendering a combatant that has real value for the ability. When we designed Ashfall, we ultimately landed on its ability having a numerical impact of -3 points against the card. Assuming that the sacrifice on some occasions will cost you a combatant of value, then that nets positive points for the ability IE a + value for the loss, but because of a strong ability to draw a card, it gets a full -4 points. The offset of the average surrender value combine with the card draw nets a -3 points overall based on adding the two values. This means Ashfalls Attack and Defense are 3 less than the average "common" 3 cost site.
When using math consider how the ability can either be qualitative or quantitative. Then from that determine how many points the card is worth in numerical value. Some of this will require educated guesses in the beginning. This is design, its not a complete science, but using this format to help layout the initial design pass will make the game much more balanced than without it. I highly recommend you start a document that tracks your points allocations for items such as card draw, +1/+1, etc... this way you can reference it later when you have a new design that is a derivative of a previous card.
Resources are the fundamental backbone of any card game, even one without resources. I know that sounds confusing, but let's break this down and discuss what a resource can be. In Magic a resource called mana is pretty simple, there is a certain amount of resource cards in each deck, and they allow you to cast spells and generally control the flow of the game. In a game like Star Wars Destiny players have not only a certain amount of resources to spend they also have a certain amount of actions they can take. Destiny's actions are a second resource, the number of dice/characters/upgrades in play directly correlates to the number of actions a player can take. The more characters and upgrades a player has the more theoretical actions they can take. A third example is in Age of Sigmar Champions where players actions are not tied to resources, but instead, they are strictly limited by the core gameplay loop to two actions a turn. Regardless of what your resources are they each have a measurable impact on the game.
Let's consider this as to how we approached Battle for Sularia's Design. Sularia has two resources, Influence and Sularium. Influence can generate by any card and builds sites. Sites create Sularium which can make combatants. Sularium is a more precious commodity than influence because the card that produces it is limited in the deck. We also knew that influence was a less proactive resource as sites typically can't actively kill your opponent.
When we set out to design a site, then we mathematically set a base statistical value of 1 influence = 4 stat points. We then knew from that one sularium = 2 stat points, because of two choices, we knew that proactive threats such as combatants would be detrimental to the experience if they could go one vs. one with a site. Additionally, we wanted sites to be statistically more significant to fit into the core gameplay of what sites represent in an RTS game.
This is how we started the core balance around resources and how much they are worth. This came from understanding some high-level math around probabilities and the desired resource curve. If the math is not something you fully understand, fret not. I believe you can easily pick some arbitrary starting points and then, work your way through testing to determine if your values are correct.
This seems like a good stopping point for part 2 of this series. I will be back in the coming weeks to bring you part 3. In part 3 we will discuss card rarity and how it can affect card performance. We also will discuss expansion design and why an ECG suffers from power creep.
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