Designing for Moments

This is the fourth part of a series of articles that chronicle the experiences of the small team of game designers building the digital CCG, Rival Books of Aster. You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

When we decided that we were going to build a CCG I had a slight problem: I had never played a CCG before in my entire life.

That was three years ago. I suddenly found myself in a position where I had to design a game and I had no prior experience within the genre. Luckily, one of our game designers, Wayne Shipley, had played Magic, The Gathering for almost 20 years and invited me to his Wednesday night playgroup. For the next year I ate, slept and breathed CCG’s. I played live, I played online, I researched and built decks, I watched tournaments on Twitch, and I talked about CCGs at every opportunity. I had to get to the heart of what these games are.

In short order I had become a regular at Wayne’s Wednesday night Magic: The Gathering group. We played mostly 4 or 5 person Commander games. Commander is format in Magic where each player has a deck of 100 cards with one of them being the commander of your army. You are allowed only one copy of each card in your deck, and your commander has the ability to come back after he/she dies. What immediately struck me was how highly political the game was. Attack me early and I am going to hold a grudge. How about we negotiate a deal to get us both further in the game? Let’s get so-and-so his board is looking really strong… I realized that deep down the reason we enjoyed playing wasn’t about the cards at all, it was about the moments of human interaction that the cards created when they lined up just right. This was a revelation for me, and it didn’t really strike me until I watched two people lose the game in a single turn…and love it.

I will try not to get too technical here, but what happened was this: Wayne played a card called Door to Nothingness. Door to Nothingness is a special card in that it can only be played in a 5-colour deck (which is difficult to build and play) and it is extremely hard to make work. But, when you successfully activate this card, one of your opponents loses the game on the spot. Now, commander games can sometimes last two hours or more, so a card with an effect that immediately ends the game for one of your opponents is fairly dramatic. When Wayne played Door to Nothingness, he had combined it with a second card that made it slightly easier to activate, and a third card that then duplicated the Door’s effect, and it killed two opponents in a single moment. That happened two years ago, and when we talk about Magic we still tell the story of that time when Door to Nothingness went off and killed two guys in a single turn. The strange thing to me was that Wayne actually lost the game after that. I won on the next turn, but somehow Wayne was the hero of that night. All we talked about, including the guys that lost the game, was how great that moment was.

Games like this made me realize: what makes CCGs so fun is that there is always a possibility for these epic moments to occur. We remember that moment so fondly because 3 niche cards found their way out of a 100 card deck and into play at just the right moment that they worked together in an unexpected manner to make something ridiculous happen. That was what we were all waiting for, whether we knew it or not.

I think I was lucky to have never played collectible card games before we started this project because I came to the genre with fresh eyes. What I wanted to explore for Rival Books of Aster was if it was possible to bring those moments to the forefront of the game mechanics. Could we design a system that allowed us to always have the next epic moment waiting, just over the horizon?

In Rival Books of Aster all decks are combo decks because most of the spells in the game have what is called a combo effect, and a colour identity that lets them help build a combo. When a Simula (creature) becomes the leader of a combo, its combo effect turns on. If that Simula dies or is replaced, then the combo either shuts off or changes. What we found interesting about this idea was the potential to create these mini moments within each game. Routinely in a single turn combos can be turned on and off, shifted, and destroyed. Every time that happens the board state changes; Simula gain or lose power, players gain health or take damage, etc… This fluidity makes for all kinds of really interesting moments. Players are forced to consider what chain of events they might set off every time they play a spell. Designing for these moments became one of the major focuses of building this game.

We had to be conscious of making cards that are so specialized that the moment they create within the game is always the same. This is a problem with some of the other CCGs on the market. What we tried to do was create mechanics that could give us these moments every single game, but in a way that was always a little different each time. What allowed us to do this was the introduction of game board slots that govern the combo system.

Slots in a CCG are not new. I could name several games that use space in various ways, but very few, as far as we know, ever used space as an actual game mechanic the way that Rival Books of Aster does. What we wanted to do was institute a system where space mattered; where it controlled who was the leader of your combo and how many Simula you could have on the board. We wanted our players to have to interact with the board with the same level of strategy as they did with spells. The game board was designed to force players to make decisions on every turn, to create memorable gameplay moments by ordering their attacks and inscriptions so that they slide combos across their board over the course of a turn to gain different advantages at each of those moments. We have been amazed at the amount of conversation around our office about the proper strategy for using space in the game that never involved the mention of a specific Simula. We took this as a real success.

Our entire system for interacting with the game board came about from really investigating what we liked about other games and then making something we thought would be fun to play. We designed our game from the bottom up to try and create really great moments for players and that came directly from our favourite moments that we all experienced in other games. So get out there, play lots of games, don’t be afraid to try and fail at making your own games, and drop us a line and tell us what you think of ours. We are listening.