April Patreon Postmortem: Marionettes & Combat Mechanics

Hi everyone! This article is part of a series of postmortems I’ll be doing on games I make through my Patreon. If you’d like to support more of this work, click here! Thanks for reading, I hope you all enjoy this!

This month, I made a small card game called Marionettes. It’s a two player competitive game where both players play as magicians. Both players face off against each other using dolls, and by dressing up these dolls in different outfits, they gain exclusive abilities. For example, dressing a doll in knight’s armor would passively give that doll better protection against physical attacks, and an activatable ability could taunt one enemy doll into attacking only that doll next turn.

Each doll has three dress-up slots that you can completely customize throughout the course of the game: a hat slot, a body slot, and an accessory slot. At some point, I also chose to include a weapon slot as well. This was actually a pretty huge mistake: adding a weapon slot made the combat aspect much more violent than I had originally hoped, and turned the main point of the game away from “dress up dolls to defeat other dolls” and more towards the usual game narratives. “Kill your enemies.” Blegh.

When I first set out to make this game, my first thought was, “I want to make a competitive game that isn’t too hardcore.” I usually dislike playing competitive games, and I try my very best to create cooperative ones when I can (because a lot of designers choose not to, there’s a surprising amount of uncovered ground in that realm, I feel). At the time, I was juggling a couple of rpg’s, and it dawned on me that the reason I love to play these types of games is almost never for the thrill of battle.

It’s for costumes!

Everybody loves costumes!

That’s why I got so big into FFXIV, and stuck with Persona 4: Golden. Costumes are a huge draw for me: being able to customize familiar characters gives players a little more freedom of expression in a game that might not otherwise allow it.

It’s a lot more interesting to me when you’re facing down a big boss and you know in the back of your head that you’re gonna get a cool outfit based on their design. If, of course, you can manage to defeat them!

So, the inspiration for this game came directly from games like Final Fantasy XIV and Bravely Default: dressing up your character in different ways gives you different abilities to work with. Centering fashion as the main method of making your character more powerful is also a way of destabilizing the quintessential game narrative of “A bigger gun makes you a stronger person. Grr.”

grrrrrr

I felt that Marionettes was far more complex than it needed to be, however. As far as 1v1 competitive CGs usually feel in terms of pacing, it felt slow. There weren’t any “Gotcha!” moments, just slowly building up outfits for a doll or two in tandem until you get a really good combo, and then steamroll your opponent’s dolls. I attempted to introduce other elements in the game, like instant spell cards to mitigate some of the lack of action from turn to turn (after all, you’re magicians!), but that didn’t seem to help much.

In the end, I felt that the idea didn’t carry the weight I wanted it to. It felt like a game of watching numbers go up and down, which, as a designer, feels like the worst kind of failure. I felt that having all the numbers out in the open like that felt too simple, too basic. As if you could see the game designer slowly pulling the strings as players draw card after card, hoping the next one would be something they’d be able to play.

A basic card set-up. This combo seemed cool in theory, but in practice, getting all of these cards out in a single game would take a miracle. Or, alternatively, a LOT of stalling. :\

I’ll come back to this idea someday. When I do, I’d like to eliminate weapon cards entirely to mitigate some of the pacing worries, and maybe combine the body slots and hat slots to create a single outfit slot. Perhaps by lessening the amount of different kinds of cards you can mix and match, the emphasis will be more on keeping the action moving, rather than stalling until your next big play happens to stroll on by.