a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


designing magic: FFL & dampen thought

At the start of my career in the games industry I had the pleasure of working at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for five years, and had a chance to work extensively on Magic: the Gathering, a game that I honestly feel has one of the best core designs of all time. I also have a horrible memory, which is a boon because I can watch movies and read books over and over again and it's a new experience each time, but is unfortunate when trying to recall events from more than a few months ago. My goal here is to commit my memories of the experience of working on Magic to "paper" before I forget any more of it and also bring all of you along for the ride as well.

Apologies in advance to those I worked with if I've remembered anything incorrectly. I'll do my best. Also, if you haven't played Magic, parts of this series probably won't be as interesting to you. I'll try to generalize where I can.


The journey started in Pittsburgh where I was working as a web developer at a business called CombineNet. Taken straight from their website, here is what they offer:

"CombineNet, Inc. offers advanced sourcing technology and products. We offer the best-in-class sourcing solution delivered through our core product: CombineNet ASAP (Advanced Sourcing Application Platform), to improve the way organizations source their entire range of spend categories. CombineNet ASAP takes spend under management to the next level by driving significant value improvements to all sourcing events and by addressing spend categories that general sourcing suites and e-RFX tools cannot."

Sounds amazing, right? Yeah, I have no idea what that paragraph means either. Basically I was a Perl/HTML programmer creating front end interfaces that allowed shipping companies to create complicated bids as they tried to earn business from Fortune 500 companies that needed to move huge volumes of goods around the world. For example, they might offer 10% off all of their bids in the Atlantic if they won at least 30% of the bids in the Pacific, along with a myriad of other clauses. Every single one of those bids would then be run through a black box algorithm that would spit out "the answer" which would save the huge company many millions of dollars. Over time, I started taking pride in improving the usability of the bidding interface, to the point of spending more of my time on the user experience and the visual design than the behind the scenes programming. Soon I was taking on more of a graphic design role, which was actually a dream of mine as I had attempted to switch my major at Carnegie Mellon from Computer Science to Communication Design during my sophomore year. Sadly it would've required me to completely start over, and I ended up getting a minor instead.

Then I saw a posting on the Wizards of the Coast website offering a developer intern position. (Developer, in WotC terms, means a designer who's focused more on balance and idea refinement than on the original idea creation process.) It had been an even greater dream of mine to work in the games industry, but up to this point I really had no idea how to make it a reality, as I had no real contacts in the industry. I did at least have the advantage of having a small amount of success on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, with a top 4 at a team Grand Prix and a top 32 at Pro Tour Chicago. I knew that was something Wizards valued and decided on a whim to apply. Long story short, I didn't get the job, but came close enough that I was recommended to Robert Gutschera, who ended up offering me a position as a developer intern for the non-Magic side of Wizards R&D.

It was a harder decision than you might think to decide to take the job. It wasn't because my paycheck would be cut in half, or because I'd have to leave many of my friends behind, or because I'd have to buy my first car and suddenly move across the country. It was because I'd just been told at work that we'd recently hired a local highly respected graphic design firm, and I was being sent to work at their offices temporarily to ensure a successful partnership. It was a perfect start to a successful career as a graphic designer. All of a sudden I'd gone from someone who played and wrote about Magic exclusively for months after college because he didn't know what else to do, to having two of my dreams coming true simultaneously. Still, in the end I knew I couldn't pass the internship up. It's not every day you get a chance to enter the games industry at a high profile company like WotC, and once you're in, the sky's the limit. It's just up to your work ethic, your knowledge, and your skills.

Working on Non-Magic TCGs

Even though my eventual goal was always to work on Magic, I'm actually quite glad that I was hired to fill a non-Magic role at first. Working on games like Duel Masters and the Neopets TCG gave me invaluable experience, because the teams were much smaller and I got a lot of one on one time with experienced designers as they taught me the ropes. It also expanded my horizons in terms of working with different game systems and gave me a different perspective to bring to the table when talking about Magic. And then there were the other perks: the occasional trip to Japan to visit high profile tournaments with huge numbers of kids, and the occasional oddball photo shoot for articles in Japanese magazines. For whatever reason, Japanese kids treated designers of their favorite games like rockstars, and never seemed to tire of reading about them or asking for autographs.

The Future Future League

From the beginning I was a regular in the Future Future League, an internal format that utilizes a mixture of recent sets and future sets to try and predict the upcoming Magic: the Gathering metagame. Since Wizards works 6-9 months ahead on future sets, every Magic player who starts at Wizards has a "black hole", a set that essentially never existed for them, because it wasn't released when you started and it's already finished by the time you get there. For me that set was Darksteel. I can't take any credit for allowing a broken card into existence (that honor will have to wait for Betrayers of Kamigawa), although I do have the dubious distinction of being the first person to put it in a Ravager Affinity deck, as noted in Aaron Forsythe's article on Skullclamp. Here was my eventual FFL decklist along with my terse notes:

4 AEther Vial
4 Frogmite
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Stinger
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Skullclamp
3 Myr Enforcer
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Glimmervoid
4 Great Furnace
4 Vault of Whispers
2 Darksteel Citadel

Awesome until Skullclamp was internally banned. Now it’s just okay, with Skullclamps being replaced by Spellbombs I think. Not clear that this is better than regular affinity anymore, especially if Force of Will stays the way it is.

Clearly I didn't yet understand the full power of Ravager Affinity, although to be fair our format was a bit different. "Force of Will" was my nickname for Disrupting Shoal when it was a Power Sink instead of a Spell Blast. Yeah, a Power Sink. As in, pretty much a hard counter at most points during a game. As an example of how much it warped the format, here's my regular Affinity list from the same period:

4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Thoughtcast
4 Force of Will
4 Qumulox
4 Broodstar
4 Myr Enforcer
4 Frogmite
4 Chromatic Sphere
2 AEther Spellbomb
4 Arcbound Ravager
2 Scale of Chiss-Goria
2 Tooth of Chiss-Goria
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
2 Tree of Tales
4 Chrome Mox

Ah, affinity. This deck is strong, especially because Force of Will is so amazing here. Could want more AEther Spellbombs if fatties continue to be good.

The Chiss-Goria pieces never caught on in the real world, and the lack of Shrapnel Blast is a little awkward, but the deck did need a core of blue cards to support the Shoal. "Force of Will" was almost better than the real thing in this deck, since most of the cards pitched cost 5-8 mana, and you could sometimes hardcast it for three or four mana. Decks like this contributed heavily to the card being changed to its current incarnation.

Another one that I played heavily was a Skullclamp/Tangleroot/Auriok Steelshaper combo deck. I don't remember the specifics of how it won, but basically it would use Steelshaper's Gift to find a Skullclamp, and then use some combination of Steelshaper and Tangleroots to make playing and sacrificing creatures essentially free. Myr Retrievers could continually cycle with one another or you could use them to return a Skullclamp that had been killed. Eventually, the level of artifact removal in the FFL got so bad that I had to start playing Ritual of Restoration in the maindeck just to keep a Skullclamp on the table. This was one of those decks where I remember it performing very strongly in the FFL but then the deck never seemed to show up in the real world.

Finally, here's a deck you'll likely remember:

4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Reap and Sow
4 Rampant Snake (Sakura Tribe-Elder)
2 Mindslaver
4 Tooth and Nail
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Platinum Angel
2 White Dragon (Yosei, the Morning Star)
1 Leonin Abunas
1 Duplicant
1 Viridian Shaman
4 Regrowth Guy (Eternal Witness)
3 Naturalize
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Cloudpost
1 Stalking Stones
2 Blinkmoth Nexus
14 Forest
2 Plains
1 Bojeisu, She Who Shelters All

This deck was amazing, much better than expected. The addition of Rampant Snake gives the deck some extra early defense. Can’t be countered land gives it a strong game against blue. Double white dragon is double time walk. Tutoring up Regrowth Guy means Tooth & Nail recursion. The biggest worry is the new existence of RFG wrath.

It's fun to look back at this with the benefit of hindsight, knowing just how strong Tooth and Nail strategies turned out to be in the real world. This was a time when decks based around huge creatures and nine mana sorceries weren't ever viable, as R&D had just started cracking down on counterspells not that long ago. Trust me when I say that for every deck like this one that I contributed to the FFL, I built ten more that were terrible. But throw enough darts at the wall and you're guaranteed to hit a bullseye once in awhile. "RFG Wrath" was Final Judgement, and I believe it might have been five mana at the time so it was seeing heavy play. It was eventually pushed to six since it could invalidate a lot of otherwise interesting creatures.

Champions of Kamigawa

I wasn't on either the design or the development team for Champions, but had played enough FFL at this point that I was on the "hole filling" list, an internal email list where developers would request card designs when they had specific requirements in the set that needed to be filled. It's a fun exercise because you aren't present in the room when your designs are evaluated, so the card literally must stand on its own. This makes you consider even the smallest details, like the placeholder name, if you wanted to improve your chances of getting a card in the set. To be clear, I don't mean to imply that cards would get into a set for frivolous reasons like an amusing placeholder name. But when you're not there to defend a design, anything that can help get across why it's cool is inevitably going to help. A flavorful design with an appropriately evocative name was a strong start.

With Champions I had some sort of beginner's luck as five of my designs made their way into the final set: Bushi Tenderfoot, Nezumi Graverobber, Villainous Ogre, Candles' Glow, and Dampen Thought. Bushi Tenderfoot was all about living the dream of smashing a big creature with your small one and having him grow up as a result. Of course, it's one of those cards where the idea is cooler than the reality, because generally he just doesn't get blocked if your opponent is at all suspicious. I'm proud of the Graverobber design and happy with where it ended up. The Ogre I barely even remember designing, but I'll always have a soft spot for Candles' Glow and especially Dampen Thought. Neither was a particularly earthshaking design, since Splice already existed and the question was just what to do with it. It was the deck that they spawned that I truly enjoy.

Basically, there ended up being a draft archetype in triple Champions draft that completely revolved around the Splice mechanic, and specifically Dampen Thought. The deck wanted few creatures as it had no interest in ever attacking. In fact, Quentin Martin managed to draft an entirely creatureless deck at a Grand Prix as highlighted in this Creatures? Why Bother? article by Scott Wills. Creatureless! In draft. That's crazy. A year ago Tom Reeve wrote an article called Finding the Dampen Deck. An excerpt:

Sometimes something happens to you in a draft that you couldn't see coming with a telescope, radar, or even a Magic 8-Ball. You come away from the table happy with your deck – you have a good curve, a nice selection of removal, a couple of bombs for the late game. You go back and forth over your last couple of cards. You sleeve up, shuffle up, and shake your opponent's hand.

Then you get hit by a truck.

Afterwards, dazed, you ask yourself if that really just happened. If that collection of twelfth picks that just stomped you into the ground really existed. Peer Through Depths? Psychic Puppetry? Dampen Thought?


Welcome to the wonderful world of the Dampen deck, where men are men, and opponents are confused.

Why do I love this so much? It goes beyond just being excited for my card to have such an impact on a format. I'd prefer that every draft format has one or two possible options like the Dampen deck. Here's why:

  1. Adds interest to the late picks of the draft. Instead of everyone just taking the 8-9 good cards out of the pack and then ignoring the rest, suddenly you're thinking about what it means that the Peer through Depths is still in there. Should you move in and try to cobble together a Dampen deck? Should you hate it just in case? Do you take a sideboard card against it?
  2. Adds depth to sideboarding. Suddenly a bunch of cards that would otherwise be weak are relevant maindeck or sideboard options. Distress, Hisoka's Defiance, Reito Lantern and Thoughtbind all gained value because of the possibility of a Dampen deck at the table. Even rares like Cranial Extraction suddenly become slightly more attractive in draft.
  3. Violates the established norms. Normally in Limited formats removal is always a first pick, and you never take it out of your deck during sideboarding. Against a Dampen deck, maybe you do. Maybe the value of removal goes down a little because you might face a deck that has very few creatures, and you take an aggressive creature instead. I'm a fan of almost anything that makes you reevaluate your priorities when drafting.
  4. Creates extremely different pick orders. In a more focused format, everyone might agree on the top 10 cards of a color regardless of the deck they're drafting. I'm much more excited by formats where people have wildly differing pick orders even within the same color depending on the archetype they're drafting. That's when you get interesting choices like "do I take this Ethereal Haze now, since I want it more than anything else in the pack, or do I try to table it since I know no one else is likely to want a Fog effect?"
  5. Adds excitement to the draft format. There are few things more satisfying in Magic than beating someone with a pile of "terrible" cards. As the alternate strategy begins to be discovered, it generates a lot of buzz as people hear about it and start refining it.

I can hardly take credit for the existence of the Dampen deck. It's not like we knew it was going to exist and crafted the format to allow it. But I'm thrilled that I was a part of creating it.

As for seeing my first cards released into the wild: there's nothing quite like knowing that you've helped shape a game that you've played for 10 years, that thousands and thousands of players enjoy every day. For some context on how long I'd been thinking about making Magic cards: the card to the left is one that I created a little after I first started playing back in 1994. Yeah, you're seeing that right. I gave myself an artist credit for that epic colored pencil illustration.

Thanks for reading! My FFL recordkeeping wasn't nearly as thorough for the other sets, but there are plenty of stories to be told about my stints on the development team for Betrayers of Kamigawa and Ravnica, and the design teams for Planar Chaos, Lorwyn and Morningtide. Next part, coming soon: the Betrayers development team, my unfortunate contribution to the existence of Umezawa's Jitte, and tidbits about the rest of the Kamigawa block. (Part Two is now available.)


everything went better than expected

Four months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled why i'm skeptical about active reload in SpyParty. I then proceeded to play SpyParty, with an implementation of said active reload (or Action Tests, as it were), and things went altogether better than expected. Then I promptly failed the third and crucial step, which was writing about why. In my defense, I was shipping a game, which is an all-consuming time-sucking vortex if I've ever seen one. Still, better late than never, so this is happening. Right. Now.

(Those last two words were more to keep myself pumped up than they were for your benefit, gentle reader, but I'm leaving them in there just the same. As much as I love having a blog, I'm not the type to rush home and pound out an entry every night. When precious inspiration strikes, it must be kindled.)

First off: during the playtest, it became clear that Ian had "leveled up" several times in his Sniper skills thanks to manning the SpyParty booth at conventions like PAX, whereas my Spy skills had stayed about the same or even atrophied somewhat. So we actually ended up testing the case of the elite Sniper against a decent Spy, rather than two evenly matched players.

Second: in a discussion with Chris before we started playing, he compared the Action Test meter to the physicality of spy actions. It was sort of a throwaway comment that was almost tangential to the rest of the conversation, but it actually made me feel significantly better about the feature, perhaps more than anything else. Put yourself in the shoes of the actual Spy for a moment. You're trying to bug the ambassador at a party surrounded by twenty people, or trying to slip some microfilm out of a book without anyone noticing. Maybe someone's watching you closely, so you try to do it more quickly than normal. Maybe your nerves are acting up and your hands are trembling just a little. Seen in that context, the Action Test becomes almost a way of humanizing the Spy. He's no longer an infallible automaton; he can mess up just like the rest of us.

Chris also mentioned that Jason Rohrer had suggested a nervousness meter, and just to add another layer of deception and strategy, maybe the Spy could step outside onto the balcony for a cigarette, reducing nervousness but giving up valuable seconds and potentially tipping off the Sniper. Maybe the Sniper shining his laser sight in the room would increase the Spy's nervousness at the cost of showing where he's looking. The better off your nerves are, the wider the range for the postive result on Action Tests. I think this suggestion has promise, because again, it brings the Action Test out of the realm of a seemingly tacked on skill ceiling mechanic and into the realm of the fiction.

Now, some observations from the playtest:

It makes the Sniper look for behavioral tells instead of animation tells. SpyParty is at its worst when the Sniper is just staring at the bookcase, waiting for someone to play a certain animation. There are no shades of gray with animation tells; either the Sniper sees it, and they shoot, or they don't, and can't. Behavioral tells, on the other hand, are much more interesting and can lead to varying levels of suspicious without confirmation. The addition of Action Tests actually forces the Sniper to look for behavioral tells, because they can no longer rely on noticeable animations playing when the Spy completes an action. Related: as the Spy, it wasn't enough to just succeed at the Action Tests. There was one memorable game where I got a perfect result on 2 out of my 3 Spy actions, and Ian still took me out with ease thanks to some behavioral mistakes on my part.

It provides a nice shot of adrenaline based on the results. In a shooter with active reload, the stakes aren't all that high. It's the difference of a couple seconds, and it's happening constantly throughout the game, so there's no spike of intensity when you fail to pull it off. When a Sniper is staring right at you, the stakes are life or death every time, and there's a definite feeling of smug satisfaction every time you pull it off, and a shooting feeling of panic whenever you completely fail.

It does feel like the Spy needs some recourse when they are highlighted all the way up. This playtest with Ian was the first one where I felt truly dominated. Ian had my number, and there was nothing I could do to shake him. Even the slightest missteps would result in him highlighting me, and once I was fully highlighted, my only out was the Action Tests. It turns out that the AIs rarely if ever arouse suspicion from an elite Sniper on their own, which meant that waiting around and acting "normal" wasn't enough. I'd still be highlighted, and he'd still shoot me as soon as I attempted a mission. With Action Tests, though, a string of perfect results plus perfect behavioral play could theoretically allow me to pull off a win even under his watchful eye. (Not that it actually happened, but it's the hope that's important. "The player should always have hope" is a good rule for multiplayer game design.)

It's an opportunity for humor. SpyParty is a 1v1 battle of wills where every second counts and every decision is life or death. For players who are competitive, who can't just shrug off losing like it doesn't matter, the game can be rather intense. Those of you who have played a fair amount of 1v1 Starcraft 2 will probably know what I'm talking about. Adding some opportunities for humorous animations with the failed Action Tests can go a long way towards breaking that continuous intensity. It's something to blame when you lose, and something to talk about after the match.

Of course, it wasn't entirely upside. There were a couple potential drawbacks as well:

It makes the game more complicated for a new Sniper. It's no longer as simple as saying, "Here is what the Spy is trying to do. Here's what you're looking for." There are now three potential outcomes to each Spy action, and new Snipers have to continually question their information. It opens up the question of maybe having a beginner version of the game with no Action Tests, although Chris has been testing with new players and they seem to mostly ignore the Action Tests altogether, so perhaps it's fine the way it is.

Elite spies will have to practice the Action Test to keep their skills up. I've already put in probably about an hour of endless Action Tests, trying to incrementally improve my results. At the end of the hour, though, it felt more like one of those zen activities where being "in the zone" was far more important than rote practice. The randomness that Chris added to the system went a long way here. Still, adding Action Tests comes with the cost of adding a mechanical skill to playing the game that can potentially be incremented through repetition.

Still, given my previous post on the subject, from my point of view, the playtest was a wild success. Am I sure that Action Tests belong in the game? Not exactly. Something like the nervousness meter, or a UI treatment that somehow makes them feel less mechanical, would still help immensely. And honestly, how many games that are made these days can support a nervousness meter in the first place? Making SpyParty without a nervousness meter would be like making a Cthulhu game without a sanity meter. Well, that might be going a bit far, but I'm intrigued by the possibility.

Now to get back to practicing my Action Tests...


elegance and armada d6

Elegance is a word that is used frequently in conversation by game designers, yet there has been very little written on the internet about elegance in game design. Some of that probably stems from the fact that it's hard to define. In fact, a high percentage of the discussion that does exist starts with a dictionary definition for that very reason. It's an easy launching point for talking about something nebulous. Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: the Gathering, has an article on the subject, but even he seemed to steer towards writing rather than game design. (I'm not 100% sure, because for an article about elegance, the formatting was surprisingly tiresome and impenetrable.) He does follow the trend of starting with the definition, though, so who am I to differ:

Elegance is...

  1. refined grace or dignified propriety
  2. tasteful richness of design or ornamentation
  3. dignified, gracefulness or restrained beauty of style
  4. scientific precision, neatness and simplicity
  5. something that is elegant

Thanks, Merriam-Webster, for that fifth one. For the purposes of game design, the third definition speaks to me the most, with a touch of the fourth as well. So, dignity, grace, restrained beauty, style, precision, neatness and simplicity. Easy enough, right?

Jesse Schell also touches on elegance in his esteemed book, The Art of Game Design. "We call simple systems that perform robustly in complex situations elegant. Elegance is one of the most desirable qualities in any game, because it means you have a game that is simple to learn and understand, but is full of interesting emergent complexity." He goes on to say, "You can easily rate the elegance of a given game element by counting the number of purposes it has." This seems like a reasonable rule of thumb for approximating elegance, although I think there is slightly more to it than that.

Here are my primary aspects of elegance as pertaining to game design:

  1. Simple rules that create emergent complexity.
  2. Single elements used for multiple purposes.
  3. Conform to player expectations.

Conforming to player expectations can take a variety of flavors, but it includes all sorts of common situations like using white/green/blue/purple rarity colors in your loot system, making higher numbers the more desirable result, or making the shotgun deal high damage at close range but no damage at long range. Why is this a factor in elegance? Because it frees up the minds of your players for understanding the other aspects of your system. The more you can make them feel at home, the more brainpower they'll have for appreciating what makes your game unique. (This is actually one of the toughest aspects of making a sci-fi RPG; you can't rely on the common fantasy elements like zombies, goblins, swords and bows that everyone understands.)

Victory points, a common mechanic in German board games, aren't particularly elegant because they are divorced from the theme and they serve only a singular purpose. For example, as mentioned in my post about 7 Wonders, the most elegant potential victory condition in that game would be completing the construction of your wonder, as that's what players will expect based on the name and theme. However, that would mean that the wonders would all need to be perfectly balanced against one another, and would heavily warp the mechanics towards either hurrying construction of your own wonder or somehow delaying construction of another player's wonder. Through the use of victory points, Antoine Bauza was both able to create multiple viable paths to victory and also give himself built-in tuning knobs for adjusting the effectiveness of each one.

During GDC I had the pleasure of playtesting a prototype of a board game, Armada d6, from Eric Zimmerman and John Sharp. The game just oozes elegance out of every pore, from the components to the mechanics, and was the catalyst to me writing this post.

So what is Armada d6?

It's a battle for space colonization where the ships are represented by dice. The basic game can be completed in as little as 10-15 minutes (or longer, depending on the level of aggression), and there's an advanced game that adds more depth. There are six different types of ships, each denoted by a different face of the die, with the lower numbers representing the hulks of the battlefield, slow but strong, and the higher numbers representing their fast and sleek opposites. Each ship can move a number of squares equal to its number, and combat is resolved by each player rolling a separate die and adding their ship number to it, with the lowest total winning. Colonization is achieved by surrounding a planet with multiple ships whose values sum to exactly the colonization number of that planet (always a number from 7-9, displayed directly on the planet).

So in total, each of the player's core dice is used for:

  1. Marking the location of a ship.
  2. Denoting what kind of ship it is and by extension the ability of that ship.
  3. Defining the exact speed of that ship.
  4. Defining the colonization potential of the ship.
  5. Defining the inverse combat potential of the ship.

You could easily imagine a version of this game created by less seasoned designers where the six ships each have their own individual stats contained in a chart off to the side. Maybe the 6 ship (scout) turns out to be a little too good with a colonization potential of 6, so with the chart you could adjust its colonization down to 5, and maybe give it a point of speed to compensate. In a different situation, opening up that flexibility would be a great move. But here the payoff of having the ships conform to their directly visible numbers is so strong that it's clearly the right decision. And since everyone has access to the same ship options and there is a built-in way to reroll your ships, small imbalances are hardly even a problem. With the base components supporting five different purposes, using Jesse Schell's definition of elegance, Armada d6 is already off to the races.

As for simple rules that create emergent complexity, the game excels at both sides of the equation. It provides you with a clear goal (maneuver your ships with a certain summed value next to a planet with that number) and leaves it up to you to find the solution. Everything except for the special abilities is right there on the game board; since the speed and colonization potential are both equivalent to the visible number on the die, planning high level strategy is a breeze. The more accomplished players can start to explore the possibility space that the special abilities open up, with options like transporting other ships, free ship rerolls, or retrofitting to a ship that's one number higher or lower. Every turn is a puzzle with variable difficulty settings -- the easy level is focusing just on your ship numbers and moving them to a nearby planet, the medium level is starting to consider the ship abilities and how they affect your plans, and the advanced level is looking at your opponents and what they're trying to set up, and seeing if you can disrupt it with a few well-placed attacks.

For conforming to player expectations, there is only one flaw: that combat both rewards lower ship numbers and asks you to roll low for success. I always strive to avoid this in my designs. That said, there are successful games that utilize a similar system (Axis & Allies) and the payoff of having the speed/combat potential tradeoff inherent in the ship's value is more than worth it here.

One potential upgrade in terms of elegance would be to eliminate the need for outside dice during combat by rolling the ship itself. Of course, there are three obvious problems with this: it requires you to remember where your ship was, it requires you to remember what type of ship it was, and it makes it harder to do the combat math since your ship's combat value is no longer visible when you're figuring it out. Three strikes is enough to convince me that Eric was correct in leaving it out, but it's a worthwhile thought experiment to consider.

In the advanced game there's a mechanic where you can unlock advancements, and each time that happens you could either research one out of three technologies randomly (chosen from a personal pool of five at the beginning), or add one to your maximum number of ships (plus deploy a ship immediately), or add one to your number of actions starting next turn. The problem I discovered during the playtest was that for the most part it was just better to take the extra action every time. Taking extra ships didn't help because you needed actions to take advantage of having more ships, and the technologies were of varying usefulness so a random one was too risky. This is a common problem with action-based games, such as Agricola, although it's handled rather elegantly and thematically in that game. Adding a member to your family requires constructing an additional room in your house, taking a family growth action that's restricted in availability, and has an ongoing upkeep cost of additional food, so the extra action ends up being reasonably balanced (although still quite strong).

But back to Armada d6. One of the proposed solutions was that you couldn't ever have more actions than you had ships (you started with three of each). We dismissed this quickly, but I want to highlight why, as it can be very tempting to add rules like this when designing a game:

  1. Rules like this are usually applied as a band-aid to mitigate a more systemic problem with the game. This is pretty much the opposite of elegance and leads to them feeling tacked on.
  2. These rules tend to be hard to remember because they often have no association with the theme or flavor of the game.
  3. They often restrict player choice. In this case the player will generally only take a ship upgrade with the plan of taking an action upgrade next, which puts them on a specific pattern and makes what should be a three-pronged choice into a binary choice instead. Ideally the three upgrade paths should be balanced more organically.

We also discussed increasing the power of the other upgrades to make the choice more interesting, as in letting you choose your technology or giving you two extra ships if you choose that upgrade. Eventually, though, another group of players (Jason Rohrer and Christina Norman I think) suggested another idea, which was to roll both the extra actions and the extra ships into the technology system, and rather then forcing the player to make a somewhat awkward choice about personal techs at the beginning, instead just place a global random selection of techs off to the side of the board. Players can choose the one they want when they earn an upgrade and then the chosen tech is replaced with another random one. That way players are a lot more invested in the tech choices of their opponents, they can try to race for desirable techs, and they can't just continually choose to take extra actions since they're limited by the current selection.

In conclusion: elegance is a truly desirable quality in a game, although it shouldn't be pursued to the exclusion of all else. Armada d6 is one of the most elegant games I've ever played and is clearly the result of a series of strong design choices. I know Eric and John are currently looking for a publisher and I wish them the best of luck, because I look forward to playing more!

(Photos by Richard Lemarchand and John Sharp.)


the seven pillars of drafting-based games

Some time ago I played Fairy Tale for the first time. It's a game designed by a former professional Magic player named Satoshi Nakamura, and it's based around drafting, which is a format that has fascinated Magic players since the game's creation. Drafting is the perfect mix of luck and skill, with infinite replayability because every draft presents wildly different situations and challenges. In fact, there are sites online where you can draft Magic over and over against AI opponents that learn over time from the picks made by humans. The only problem with these sites is that, as fun as drafting is, it loses something when there's no validation at the end of the draft as to how successful you were.

Fairy Tale takes a stab at providing a more casual drafting experience with some quick resolution at the end of each round and a simple victory point system for determining a winner. It's a fun game, but after playing it a couple more times a month ago I felt like drafting games deserved more exploration. The problem was, I didn't have a great sense of how to make drafting compelling as the main feature of a game. In both Magic and fantasy football, it's used simply to distribute resources, with other mechanics carrying the bulk of the weight. Like Fairy Tale, I wanted the bulk of the strategy and decision-making to happen during the draft, with the resolution phase just providing a quick injection of validation to the process.

I had an idea for a simple game almost immediately, so I created a prototype and played a few games. Cards were split into three types and assigned a base value, a bonus value and a conditional. You first drafted three packs worth of cards, then shuffled up your deck and played a modified version of War where you have three piles in front of you. (I wanted to try the extreme of not having any decisions in the resolution phase at all.) Based on the three cards you had visible, the conditionals of your cards might or might not trigger, which would determine if you got the bonus points. The highest total in each round would win a point card with a random value. One of the three types focused on low base values and high bonus values, another focused on the opposite, and a third was average in both.

Right around that same time I started hearing about a game called 7 Wonders that claimed to let seven people play a game in half an hour. Turns out 7 Wonders is a wonderfully crafted drafting game that advanced my understanding of this budding genre by leaps and bounds. Having played both it and my prototype around five times each now, here are my thoughts on the seven most important aspects to keep in mind when designing a game based around drafting:

1. Card types that do wildly different things so that the draft choices are not just straight comparisons.

My prototype: All cards had the same point numbers on them. This was simple but it made almost every decision into just a straight expected value calculation. The EV of each card was the base value plus the bonus value times the chance of succeeding on the conditional. The types could change that a little bit if you were setting up for a certain strategy, but not nearly enough. This was a disaster.

7 Wonders: There are many different card types (resources, science, military, civilian, commercial, guilds) and almost as many ways to score victory points. While this does add complexity, it's key to making the draft choices interesting. For example, think about a fantasy football draft where you're only drafting quarterbacks. It breaks down into a straight EV calculation to try and decide which QB will give you the highest number of average points each week. When you add in all the other positions, though, you have to think about what positions are being drafted aggressively, which ones you can leave for later, which positions generally score more points, and which ones have large point differentials between the strong players and the weaker ones.

2. Rare cards that can excite drafters and give them a direction.

My prototype: In the first version I tried balancing almost all of the cards against each other, but players had no obvious direction and weren't excited about any of the cards that they got. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fact that Magic has cards that are somewhat obviously better than others and also rare cards that are labeled as such are both key to making draft more dynamic and interesting. There's no better feeling than opening that "bomb rare" out of a Magic pack. That said, it is a little more dangerous to have overly strong cards in a drafting game where the card will automatically come up. There is a lot of variance in what cards appear in a game of Magic, and also a decent number of cards that can answer the bombs. Still, in the second version of my prototype I added a second deck of powerful and narrow rare cards and created each pack with five commons and two rares. This was a huge improvement.

7 Wonders: This is one area where I feel 7 Wonders falls a little short, although the double resource cards fill this role to an extent, and the starting resource and wonder requirements help as well.

3. Not having to memorize or continually look at a bunch of hidden cards.

My prototype: It was easy for me to fall into the trap of having a hidden pile of cards that you're creating as you draft the cards, since that's how Magic works. Worse, a lot of the cards you could potentially draft depended heavily on you knowing the contents of that pile to properly evalutate them. So players had to keep picking up the pile and sifting through it to remember what they had drafted.

7 Wonders: Uses an obvious but elegant solution of just playing the card immediately and resolving the effects. One of the great things about this is that you get immediate payoff from each card you draft rather than having to wait until the end of the pack or the end of the draft. You do lose some strategy in trying to figure out what your opponents are drafting, but that's a pretty subtle skill that isn't necessary for a compelling experience.

4. Not having to draft and/or play every card.

My prototype: The final card of each pack is discarded. I also tried having players draft all of the cards and then letting them cut some from their deck, but that was too much work for not enough payoff, especially since it just came down to EV calculations again.

7 Wonders: Turns out that the designer of 7 Wonders came to the same conclusion, as the final card of each pack is also discarded. On top of that each drafted card can be sold for coins or placed facedown as a section of the wonder itself, which allows savvy players to "hate draft" (taking a card that would be good for a neighbor) and also mitigates the bad feelings of getting a pack that doesn't have anything that they really want.

5. Cards that have different amounts of value to different people.

My prototype: I was actually reasonably successful here with the conditions. Someone who was trying to draft an "A deck" would value a C type card wildly different than someone else. There was some amount of skill in trying to find the underdrafted archetype.

7 Wonders: There are tech paths that are represented through certain buildings in the game allowing you to build other buildings for free. They aren't necessary to succeed (you can always pay for the building the hard way) but they provide a clear reason why one player really wants a certain card whereas another might not. Additionally, science gives victory points in a way where the value of the science buildings fluctuates wildly from one person to the next. And finally, military varies from being incredible (when you're slightly behind your neighbors) to useless (when you're either far ahead or far behind both neighbors).

6. The opportunity to change your strategy based on what other people are doing.

My prototype: Sadly, not much of this exists. At some point I added conditionals that depend on the active cards of your neighbors, which helps, but it's hard to tell what they're doing anyway. It's all far too subtle.

7 Wonders: There is a mechanic where players can buy resources from their neighbors, so right off the bat you're intrigued by what sorts of resources your neighbors have chosen to develop. Then there are markets, which allow you to buy more cheaply in either or both directions. And of course, science rewards you heavily for jumping in when it's underdrafted, and military rewards you for staying slightly ahead of your neighbors.

7. Players should start the game from different positions.

My prototype: This one didn't make it into my prototype design, but I think it's a strong tool for accomplishing multiple other goals as well as adding replayability.

7 Wonders: Each player is attempting to build a different wonder, which determines both a starting resource and also a set of costs and rewards for building stages of the wonder. As mentioned above, this helps give a starting direction and also helps with players having different value for cards. Completing your wonder would have been a more flavorful victory condition, but relying on victory points instead does allow the game to keep wonder building as an optional task, which means that wonder balance doesn't have to be perfect. If you get one you don't like you can just focus on other goals for that game.

So there you have it. If you can't tell, I found my prototype to be fairly terrible (although illuminating) and 7 Wonders to be relatively exquisite. I highly recommend it. One of my only complaints about the game is that you can't "table" cards in larger games. (Meaning to see a card early in a pack and then still have a chance of getting it later when the pack returns to you.) However, it's not clear if the benefits of tabling outweigh the disadvantage of players having to deal with much larger pack sizes. Magic gets away with fifteen card packs because of rarity and colors; rarity shifts the focus heavily to the rare when you first open a pack, and colors narrow the relevant cards pretty quickly once the draft gets going. 7 Wonders has neither, so a smaller pack size makes sense.

As always, I've rambled on a bit much at this point, so let me know in the comments if you disagree with any of these "pillars" or if you have your own ideas about the genre.


exploring penumbria

Jonathon Loucks had a troubled trip through the Great Designer Search 2. He set himself up with the difficult task of fitting the concept of "light vs dark" into Magic, which sounds simple in theory but is actually quite difficult in practice. His submissions were often too complex and he was often called out by the judges for submitting cards that players of his caliber would enjoy but that would be too much for more casual players. His final submission abandoned one of his more complicated mechanics, Illuminate, in favor of a new "all colors vs colorless" theme that the judges (correctly, I think) felt was less an embodiment of "light vs dark" than a replacement of it.

So how would I fix it?

One issue that makes light and dark so tricky to represent in a Magic set is that ideally you need your representations to work within all of the colors. For this reason I liked Jonathan's original direction, which was that darkness is represented by hidden information (showcased by Morph) and light was represented by illumination (though, like the judges, I disagreed with the specific implementation of Illuminate). That said, there are some challenges inherent in trying to make revealing cards a theme of your set:

(Morningtide, a set that I lead designed, flirted quite heavily with including a reveal subtheme. More on that in a later blog post.)

  1. One of the best aspects of Magic is the hidden information. The secrecy of your opponent's hand and draw step adds uncertainty, which makes the game interesting in countless ways. (Try playing Magic with open hands sometime and see how much worse it is.) This is the main reason that Wizards has pretty much never printed a constructed playable card that permanently reveals the opponent's hand.
  2. Players want to cast their spells. A reveal subtheme naturally leads you to having reveal as a cost, which requires players to hold spells back in order to reveal them at a later date.
  3. Revealing adds a large memory burden onto the players. I either have to write down what I saw so that I won't forget, or risk walking into it a few turns later and feeling really stupid because I should have known better.

So why do I still want to use revealing?

I think it's because if there is ever a time to make a set themed around revealing, this is it. The light theme is perfect, and I think it needs to be the first set in the block so that everything can be set up to support it. One of the problems in Morningtide was that much of the environment was still made up of Lorwyn cards, and that set wasn't built with a reveal subtheme in mind.

Let's continue down this path, although it's fraught with peril. Here's what I'd do:

  1. Denote a number of cards in the set as representing darkness or light. White would have more light cards, of course, but would also have some darkness cards as well. I'd start with White at 80/20, Green at 60/40, Blue at 50/50, Red at 40/60, and Black at 20/80. There would a roughly equal number of cards in each color that are unaligned.
  2. Light cards would revolve around revealing hidden information (but in limited amounts) and then taking advantage of that information. For example, a light-themed spell might ask you to target a facedown card or a card in your opponent's hand and guess the name of it, exiling the card if you're correct. Or another might ask you to choose a card type and you draw cards equal to the number of cards of that type your opponent has in their hand. Predict would be a natural reprint.
  3. Darkness cards would revolve around Morph and removing or re-hiding known information. Examples would be looting (draw a card and discard a card, allowing you to ditch a card they've seen if you choose), changing your morphs (pick up a facedown card, then put a card facedown from your hand), and shuffling your library.
  4. There would be reveal triggers sprinkled throughout the set that would do something when the card is revealed. For example, a cycle of common lands that come into play tapped and draw a card for the owner when they're revealed. (You'd probably also have to pay a mana so that they're not broken in half with multi-reveal cards in older formats.) There would also be one or two morph cards that let their owner do something good when they're revealed, so that there's a bit of a risk when using light cards to peek at the darkness morphs. These would also trigger when you flip the morph over naturally.
  5. I would keep Dig as a mana smoothing mechanic. It fits the world nicely. I like the "bottom of library in a random order" wording too.
  6. All other mechanics at common would be kept quite simple. Energize (gain a bonus whenever you play a noncreature spell), one of Jonathan's mechanics, would be a good start for light. Shroud is an obvious fit for darkness, although not something you want to use too often. It could be ramped up slightly if there were more non-targeted spells that interact with permanents than usual, though (like edicts).

The goal here would be to provide an ebb and flow of information as the light player reveals cards and the dark player endeavors to use them or hide them again. There also might be space for some darkness cards that reward the player for keeping secrets. Perhaps darkness has a cycle of cards that count the number of facedown cards you control and does something based on that? And then light has a Break Open variant that also deals 3 damage to the creature. (I've always thought that would've been an awesome card for Onslaught block. Usually it's removal, but once in awhile it backfires spectacularly. It's even better in this set since you can set it up with reveal cards sometimes and you only have to cast it blind if you're desperate or want to get lucky.)

Anyway. Am I sure that this is the right direction? Not exactly. I'm starting to wonder if this would work better in an online game, where the computer could keep track of the revealed cards for you. But I do think there's something compelling here. It's part information warfare, part structure for setting up fun combos, and part an excuse to revisit the world of morphs, but this time with a little more interactivity beyond just guessing based on how much mana they have available. I would be excited to try it out!


why i’m skeptical about active reload in SpyParty

Tonight I'm heading over to Chris Hecker's house to playtest a new feature in SpyParty, active reload (in this case, "Action Testing"). SpyParty is an incredible game that I've had the pleasure of playtesting for many hours at this point. If you haven't heard about it, here's a quote from the official site: "SpyParty is an asymmetric multiplayer espionage game, dealing with the subtlety of human behavior, character, personality, and social mores, instead of the usual spy game explosions and car chases."

The easiest way to explain how it plays is to compare it to a reverse Turing test, where instead of an AI pretending to be human, the Spy is pretending to be an AI. The job of the Sniper is to watch for discrepancies in behavior between the AIs who inhabit the party and the Spy who is walking in their midst. This could come through simple mistakes (walking erratically, bumping into things), more subtle behaviors (that guy is spending a lot of time at bookshelves), or seeing mission completions (that guy just reached into a book and removed some microfilm!). These can be categorized as "soft tells" that make you more suspicious but don't confirm anything, and "hard tells" that give the Spy away completely.

Chris has already written a blog on the new feature. Here is his primary reason for wanting to try out the mechanic:

The flaw in the current game is if a merely good Sniper is playing an elite Spy, the Spy player can’t accomplish any missions if the Sniper is looking directly at the Spy, even though he or she is much more skilled. The Spy will still win most of the time, because the merely good Sniper won’t be able to tell which partygoer to watch if the Spy is good enough, but I still consider this a flaw because an elite Spy should be able to perform missions right in front of the less skilled Sniper due to the skill differential.

The source of my skepticism starts here, because I actually disagree with this premise. There are essentially four major levels of suspicion between the Sniper and Spy in the game (with more gradations in between):

  1. The Sniper has been completely thrown off track and has either marked the Spy as "not suspicious" or is focusing on another suspect closely.
  2. The Sniper has no idea who the Spy is and is either surveying the whole party or watching a particular objective.
  3. The Sniper is suspicious of the Spy and is keeping a very close eye on him, either from one or more soft tells, or process of elimination, or a gut feeling.
  4. The Sniper is "sure" about the Spy, likely from having seen a hard tell.

Once the Sniper reaches the fourth level, the game is essentially lost for the Spy. He is about to shoot. (Although I have won a couple close ones by performing the final mission in full view of the Sniper and then doing my best to hide behind and weave through other partygoers for the final ten seconds, but that won't work against strong players.)

So let's move on to the third level, which is what this mechanic is intended to address. Chris's point is that elite Spies in this situation should be able to perform missions right under the nose of a merely good Sniper, but I disagree. The interesting interplay of the Spy and Sniper is about two things: not letting it get to this point in the first place, and then recognizing when it does and going into damage control mode, blending back into the flow of the party.

There's nothing worse as the Sniper than having a hunch and following it, watching a certain person closely for a good 30 seconds, and nothing happening. A growing panic forms as you wonder if you were correct in the first place, and you start to worry about what missions might have been completed when you weren't paying attention to the others. You have to decide whether or not to cut your losses and abort your close observation or just continue following and hope for the best.

(As an aside, if you're wondering why a Sniper can't just watch the entire party at all times, one integral piece of the design is that there's simply too much going on at any one time to focus on all of it. At least, I certainly can't. If there are Snipers who can I think that'll create even bigger problems, but luckily there's an easy tuning knob, the total number of people at the party, that you can turn to increase the information density.)

Unfortunately, the Action Testing undermines these interactions. Now you really don't have anything to go on, because you might be watching the actual Spy and he's finishing missions right under your nose! My theory is that this will make losing a lot less fun, because it introduces that feeling of "there was nothing I could do." You could be watching the actual Spy for the entire party and still lose. Yeah, even the awesome results are still theoretically noticeable, but remember that the stated goal is to allow the Spy to win while being watched, so I can't imagine it'll be easy. There's a question I've been thinking about a lot recently: "Is your game fun to lose?" I think adding Action Testing risks hurting SpyParty a lot here.

You'll also have the games where the Spy flubs an Action Test for whatever reason. At that point, there should be a good chance that you notice him, and win the game on the spot. Here's another relevant question: "Is your game satisfying to win?" Sure, it's always fun to win, but the brilliance of current SpyParty comes in forcing me to interact competitively in novel ways. When I win it's because I picked up a subtle clue, or outthought my opponent. Winning because my opponent or I were good or bad at a reaction/timing mini-game is something I can find in countless other games.

And finally, there are two aspects of human nature that concern me here:

  1. Humans aren't that good at properly evaluating risk, especially when randomness is involved.
  2. Humans tend to overvalue their own abilities.

Both of these point to people trying the Action Tests far more often than they should. The design intent might be to provide a tool for someone under close scrutiny that shouldn't be used otherwise, but my guess is that people are going to use it far more frequently than that. The more people use it, the more the game becomes about the Action Testing and the less it's about its other novel aspects.

With all that said, I love Chris's specific implementation of the active reload system. Randomness in multiple axes should go a long way towards preventing people from mastering it, which was another initial concern. And I'm certainly hoping that I'll be pleasantly surprised tonight. We'll see!

edit: My post-playtest writeup is now up: everything went better than expected.


tiny adventures: depth

Though accessibility is key to social games on Facebook, you can't neglect depth, because you want to keep your players interested in the long run. On the surface, accessibility and depth are at odds with one another, but you can have both if you build your systems carefully. A simple example of how we did this with Tiny Adventures was in giving primary stats to the terrains.

If you recall the way the adventure system worked, each adventure pulled from a set listing of terrains in a specified order. So, we knew that players who had seen an adventure before could figure out what terrains they'd be traveling through. We also knew that with a fully random system, this knowledge wouldn't help players out at all.

To make the terrain types matter, we assigned two primary stats to each terrain. Encounters for those stats would be twice as likely as encounters for any other stat. Savvy players who realized this could pick adventures that were well suited to their character. For example, I would tend to favor adventures with a lot of Dungeon encounters when I played a Wizard, because Dungeons favored Attack Bonus and Intelligence. Within adventures, players could also switch up their equipment based on the upcoming terrain.

A couple reasons why the primary terrain stats worked well:

  1. It cost us literally no development time. All we had to do was skew the distribution of encounters that we were writing. So, rather than ask a writer to make five encounters for each stat, we'd ask them to write eight for Attack Bonus and Intelligence and four for each of the others. Then we just threw them all into a random pool with equal selection chance and everything worked out automatically. (If we'd written an equal number of each and just skewed the probabilities, the primary stat encounters would have come up twice as often, and we'd have more frequent repeats.)
  2. Players who didn't want additional depth could completely ignore it. Many systems that add depth also add complexity. While on many platforms that can be fine, in the social space you want to be careful about overloading players who aren't ready for it. The best methods for adding depth are often under the surface in a way that will only be found by players who dig for it.
  3. It gave players something to discover. There's a lot to be said for straight randomness, but I'm a fan of building in patterns for players to discover over time. I would have been sad if the players had gone through all the trouble to create a stats versus terrains matrix if there hadn't been anything to find. Uncovering the secrets of a system can be incredibly satisfying.
  4. It gave players who were going for high scores a subtle way to improve their odds. I'll be talking about the scoring system later, but taking advantage of the terrain knowledge was one of the ways that hardcore players could improve their scores.

I recognize that this system only added something for a small percentage of players, but those are the types of players that will come back day after day, and spread the word about your game.

What else did we do? We had the generations system, which added character skills to the game, but only for players who'd already retired a couple characters (and therefore were ready for additional complexity). We had the scoring system and leaderboards, which gave players incentive to optimize their characters and show off their skills. We had the fixed story encounters, which were a more obvious way for players to optimize, since the actual encounter was the same each time. I think this functioned nicely as a bridge to the primary terrain stats, in that players would quickly realize they could take advantage of the story encounter knowledge, and then start digging more deeply for other opportunities to get ahead.

Little touches like these helped Tiny Adventures become the eighth most engaging app on Facebook when it was released (and the second most engaging game, pretty much).

Takeaway: Don't neglect depth even when you're building for a more casual platform. Look for systems that add depth in a way that players who don't want the added complexity can safely ignore. If the system is too visible, players will feel compelled to explore it, even if they aren't ready.

Next topic: The scoring system and leaderboards.


great designer search: green in epolith

Taking a quick break from the Tiny Adventures posts to talk about the Great Designer Search 2 again. If you're new to the blog, I worked at Wizards of the Coast for five years, and was heavily involved in Magic design during a portion of that time. Reading through Ethan Fleischer's assignment for this week I felt compelled to blog about my reactions to some of the cards from his set, Epolith. I want to stress that I haven't read any of the article comments or any other thoughts on the topic, so apologies in advance if I'm repeating what's been said elsewhere.


Creature - Horse
Evolve - Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

This is a sexy one drop. Great card to start the set off with, and I'm loving the Evolve mechanic. Rewards you for playing more and bigger creatures but has a built in cap so that it can't get out of control. This is one of my favorite mechanics from the contest so far. The "a" from "a power" can be removed though, and I'd add "you may" to avoid lots of missed trigger disasters during tournaments.

Wandering Elf

Creature — Elf Nomad
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may search your library for a basic land card, reveal it, put it into your hand, then shuffle your library.

Sure. It's unfortunate that there's no obvious reason for this reprint to be in this set over any other (it's more interesting when the card's value changes in the new set or it feels like it naturally fits in somehow), but it's a fine choice regardless.

Cave Bear

Creature - Bear
Evolve - Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

This seems reasonable on the surface, but a tad powerful for common. This is a two drop that's going to grow to 4/4 fairly easily. That said, I'm a fan of giving green commons that you're happy to first pick. It's all too easy for red and black to have all the first picks because removal is so obviously a must have.

My other concern is that a plethora of evolve creatures is going to put a huge emphasis on curving out (playing a one mana creature on turn one, a two mana creature on turn two, etc). Missing your four drop could cost you a 4/3 and three +1/+1 counters, which is pretty swingy. One of the worst things about the VS card game was how heavily the design punished players for missing on-curve drops. They ended up having to print a bunch of cheap creatures that let you tutor so that games weren't decided by which player curved out more effectively. But I digress.

Fertility Shaman

Creature - Elf Shaman
Whenever you cast an Enchantment spell, put a 1/1 green Elf creature token onto the battlefield.

Seems like the set has an enchantment subtheme. It's nice that this creature helps recover the potential card disadvantage of auras in a way that's reasonable at common.

Mischievous Monkey

Creature - Ape
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put target artifact into its owner's library third from the top.

The "third from the top" text is cute, but I like it more in blue or white, since they often focus on dealing with problems temporarily and also on planning for the future. Green's permanent destruction should be more final I think. Wizards did show a willingness to do this in black with Lost Hours, but that was in Future Sight, a set with a focus on time and the future.

Leaping Ornitholestes

Creature - Lizard
G, Sacrifice CARDNAME: CARDNAME deals 3 damage to target creature with flying.

Ornitholestes is a mouthful, but it's an actual dinosaur name, so I appreciate that Ethan put in some research and is tying his world back to ours. I enjoy the flavor of a small, agile lizard sacrificing itself in an epic leap to take down a small flier, and it's elegant to line up the damage with the power of the creature.

Wing-grabber Tree Spirit

Creature - Plant Spirit
Evolve - Whenever a creature with flying enters the battlefield under an opponent's control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

This is the point where I realized that Evolve didn't always trigger off of greater power, and to be honest, I found it disappointing. There is something nice about the flavor here, where your creature is evolving to keep up with what's going on across the table, but I'm not looking forward to stalled board states where I have to keep track of five different triggers on my variety of Evolve creatures. Honestly, the flavor of my weaker creatures evolving to catch up with my stronger ones is good enough. I would strongly consider focusing this mechanic on that one trigger.

Elven Memory Keeper

Creature - Elf Shaman
When CARDNAME comes into play, you may return an enchantment card from your graveyard to your hand.

Traditionally this line of text belongs on white cards, but it's not unreasonable to put it in green. Rofellos's Gift and Nature's Spiral have paved the way somewhat. I do wonder how White will interact with enchantments in this set however.

Sluggish Sauropod

Creature - Lizard
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, it doesn't untap during its controller's next untap step.

I think this creature should probably be a 6/5. There aren't any other green commons with toughness above 4, and the drawback is quite significant. I do like the combination of high power with an ability that encourages the opponent to not block and just worry about it later.

Velociraptor Pack

Creature - Lizard

VELOCIRAPTOR ENTRY POINT! A fine card. No complaints.


Creature - Lizard
Evolve - Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.
CARDNAME has trample as long as it has a +1/+1 counter on it.

Not a fan of using Evolve as a Landfall retread, and this makes me dislike this implementation even more. It's becoming more clear that Evolve in this set just means "trigger - get a +1/+1 counter", but that's not tight enough to be a compelling mechanic. Also, what is the flavor of this evolving in response to more friendly lands showing up?


Creature - Lizard

I like it. Craw Wurm has been obsolete for years now, so it's fine to print a creature with strictly better stats. This guy is also almost guaranteed to trigger your greater power Evolve creatures, so he'll be better than he looks at first glance.

Nature's Sacrifice

Destroy target artifact or enchantment. Its controller may put a +1/+1 counter on a creature he or she controls.

Great card. It fits in the environment, it's possibly exciting to some number of Legacy or Vintage players, and in a pinch it can be used as a combat trick by blowing up one of your own permanents.

Selection Pressure

Put two +1/+1 counters on target creature.

Seems like a good spot for the common green pump spell.

Heavy Shell

Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
You may remove a +1/+1 counter from CARDNAME's target rather than pay CARDNAME's mana cost.
Enchanted creature can't be the target of spells and abilities your opponents control.
: Regenerate enchanted creature.

Great use of an alternate casting cost. Fits the set's theme, isn't anything that's going to be broken in constructed, and has an effect that benefits greatly from occasionally being free. My only critique is that it's too bad it's not slightly more expensive up front so that the alternate cost comes up more often. It might have to do more to justify the added cost though.

...Wait a minute, I just realized this card doesn't have Flash and has no way to get it. My brain simply filled it in because it seems like such a clear fit. I would either add Flash to the card straight up or alternatively just give it Flash if you pay the alternate cost.

Primordial Fog

Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn.
Gain 1 life for each +1/+1 counter on creatures you control.

Not loving this card. I'm on board with having a common green Fog, but the clause feels tacked on to me and some inconsistent life gain honestly isn't worth an extra two mana. I'd consider adding a mana and having it put a +1/+1 counter on each of your creatures instead, as I think that would a pretty interesting spell that (unlike most Fogs) would be playable. Some other changes would have to be made to the set to make that work, such as moving the life gain to the card below.


Search your library for a basic land and put it onto the battlefield tapped, then shuffle your library. You may put a +1/+1 counter on a creature you control.

I would try changing the clause here to "Gain a life for each land you control." This ties in the rider to the initial effect and makes for a card that you're happy to draw late game as well as early.

Venom Glands

Enchantment - Aura
Enchant Creature
You may remove two +1/+1 counters from CARDNAME's target rather than pay CARDNAME's mana cost.
Enchanted creature has deathtouch.

In contrast to the other potentially free Aura, this card needs a lot of work. Let me begin:

  1. Deathtouch is mostly useful on creatures that are smaller than the creature they're fighting. So in the best case, I'm putting this on a small creature and fighting a large creature. But even in that best case, I've just 2 for 1'd myself. This card doesn't have a lot of upside.
  2. This card costs four mana to give my creature Deathtouch. That effect is probably worth around one mana. In the past, for four mana, I could both cast a Gorgon Flail and equip it, getting deathtouch, +1/+1, and an equipment.
  3. The alternate cost is unnecessarily steep. Removing two or more counters should likely be saved for uncommons and rares with strong effects.
  4. The alternate cost should specify "creature you control" somehow. I don't think you want this and other auras like it being used as strange combat tricks that shrink your opponent's creature.

There are some definite mistakes, but the Green commons are in a solid place overall. I'll be surprised if Ethan isn't still in the competition after this week. And finally, here are some quick thoughts about the other competitor's entries:

Jonathan Loucks - Living Reflection could use a new name. It's too much of a mouthful for a mechanic that's going to be used often. Also, Illuminate cards tend to read very poorly. There's so much text before you get to the payoff, which is a bad sign for a common.

Shawn Main - I love Blight, it's my other favorite mechanic from this round of assignements. It's flavorful and should add a lot of tension and uncertainty to the gameplay.

Devon Rule - Gold is cute, but it's a name you probably don't want to use (thanks to Gold being commonly used to refer to multicolor), and basing an entire color around life payments makes me nervous even if you have a mechanic to mitigate it.

Jay Treat - "You and your allies" is a lot of extra text for something that will only really help in Two Headed Giant. The cards that have it do things like granting first strike until end of turn, which won't help your friends unless they're sharing your attack step. If you do want to go that route, you can probably cut the "you or" and just define "your allies" as including yourself.

Scott Van Essen - Not a big fan of Countercast at first glance. Cost reduction mechanics generally only appeal to Spike. I do like that it interfaces with previous sets and seems exciting with cards like Vivid Grove though.

Daniel Williams - I like the fixed version of Showdown. I think Howling Coyote needs a once per turn restriction or more likely a mana cost on the ability. Right now it disables blocking for your opponent entirely.

Jonathan Woodward - The mechanics seem solid. It saddens me that Graforman Explorer is just Sakura-Tribe Elder with a tap restriction. Maybe the land should come into play untapped.

Disagree with something I said? Let me know in the comments!


tiny adventures: accessibility

Even though a game with the Dungeons & Dragons IP is unlikely to break into the mainstream, any game on the Facebook platform needs to have accessibility as a huge priority. People generally aren't looking for hardcore gaming experiences on Facebook. They want something they can ease into, with low time commitment and a gradual learning curve. And since Facebook games are free, it doesn't take much for a player to quit. When a player hasn't invested anything into the game (with a traditional purchased game, they've invested money up front), it's far easier for them to give up on it quickly. On the other hand, social mechanics work in your favor and encourage players to persist through difficulties.

Character creation, something that seems natural to include in any RPG, can actually be a large barrier to accessibility. It asks you to make hugely important decisions at a point when you understand the game the least. That said, it works fairly well for pen and paper D&D, because the DM or other players in the party will often help a new player through the process. But for a single player experience like Tiny Adventures, we decided to just give people a selection of reasonably balanced premade characters that they could choose between. This way, few players ended up making a choice that they later come to regret.

We kept adventuring simple as well. Players just had to choose an adventure and then return in a few hours and read the results. While there was a definite advantage to knowing D&D rules, it wasn't at all necessary. Players weren't asked to choose what skill to use, or choose which enemy to target, or anything along those lines. We were aided by the new 4th edition rules, where characters each focus on a single stat for their abilities, so we just gave every character a single primary stat that increased their attack bonus. Finally, we added tooltips to everything in the character screen that explained how the various bonuses worked.

You're probably thinking right about now that it sounds like we made the game too simple, but there's almost no such thing when it comes to Facebook, as long as you also have depth. I'll be talking about that soon.

Takeaway: Accessibility is key when it comes to Facebook games, and free games in general. Strong accessibility plus solid social mechanics will create the growth that you want.

Next topic: Adding depth while still preserving accessibility.


tiny adventures: the adventure system

With Tiny Adventures we were faced with a question: how do we tell stories, but not tell the exact same ones every time? While we could have simply thrown an endless series of random encounters at the players, part of what makes the D&D experience memorable is the campaign storyline that ties everything together. Yet, we clearly didn't have the resources to emulate a human Dungeon Master.

We chose to create four adventures per level (we had chosen to focus on heroic tier characters only, i.e. level 1 through 10), for a total of forty adventures. Each adventure consisted of a series of encounters, some random and some story driven. To make the random ones feel like they belonged, we chose eight terrain types that essentially functioned as encounter pools. Then we wrote transition text that let the player know when their adventurer was crossing from one terrain type to another. For example, here's the layout for a level 1 adventure:

Difficulty: Level 1
NAME has heard reports of a cabal of dark elves robbing travelers in the nearby Coilspine Mountains. Because of the thick iron door and dangers inside their stronghold, no one has yet cleared them out of there.

The adventure begins: NAME hiked into the Coilspine Mountains to find the Stronghold of the Drow.
Encounter 1: Random level 1 Mountain encounter
Encounter 2: Random level 1 Mountain encounter
Encounter 3: Random level 1 Mountain encounter
The adventure continues: NAME found an enormous iron door set into a rocky cliff not far from the mountain pass where travelers reported the drow raiders. While watching from a safe distance, he/she saw one of the dark elves wriggle out from behind a small rock several meters to one side of the door. After the elf was gone, NAME snuck up to the rock and entered the Stronghold of the Drow using this secret entrance.
Encounter 4: Random level 1 Dungeon encounter
Encounter 5: Random level 1-2 Dungeon encounter
Encounter 6: Random level 1-2 Dungeon encounter
The adventure continues: Deep in the stronghold NAME heard elvish voices. He/She crept up to a door from which they were coming and peeked in through the small window in the top part of the door. Inside he/she saw several drow standing around a table. The tallest one had his back to the door, and he was gesturing while he talked, repeatedly pointing to a map laid out on the table.
Encounter 7: Final story encounter

This adventure consists of three fixed pieces of text, six random encounters with two possible outcomes each, and one final story encounter, also with two possible outcomes. We liked this because the fixed elements succeeded in telling a consistent tale, but the random encounters ensured that the tale would play out differently each time. The terrain types made it feel like the random encounters belonged to that adventure, when in fact they were part of a general terrain pool, because that was the only way we could possibly create enough content to get the variety that we wanted. I felt like we had succeeded with our goal of making the world and the adventures evocative when I saw that one player, Thomas Denagh, had drawn a map of the world based off of the locations that are mentioned in the game.

The final story encounter gave the player closure by wrapping up the story we had set up in the adventure description. In this case, the final story encounter was always an Attack Bonus check with a Magic subtype (there were items that gave bonuses in Magic encounters). If the adventurer succeeded on the check, this text would appear:

NAME ATTACKED the drow in his back with his/her WEAPON. Then he/she kicked the table over, knocking down the drow witch and disrupting her spell. NAME's surprise attack caught the rest of the dark elves flatfooted and he/she easily ATTACKED them with his/her WEAPONTYPE as well.

And if they failed:

NAME ATTACKED with his/her WEAPON but missed, damaging nothing but the map on the table. When the nearest drow stepped aside, he revealed the drow witch across the table from him. She cast a curse on NAME, bringing him/her to his/her knees writhing in agony. They tied NAME up and took him/her to a cell down the hall. After the drow left, NAME picked the lock and escaped. He/She checked the room where they had been meeting, but it was empty -- save for a few gold coins scattered in the corners.

As you can see, encounter text contained numerous variables so that it could be personalized to the adventurer. All gender-specific words had both forms handwritten inside brackets. Each weapon had a specific verb attached to it, as well as a short name because repeating the full name too many times tended to sound bad. The verbs gave us a chance to make the weapons feel distinct, and allowed us to make the powerful high level weapons feel even more powerful by giving them verbs like "decapitated". Finally, they allowed us to at least give a nod to spellcasting without having to branch a lot of the text; we simply used spell names as verbs (like "fireballed") for the weapons that wizards would tend to equip.

We flagged each encounter as a specific level and only pulled in encounters that were appropriate to the adventure (as you can see above, each random encounter was tagged with a specific level range). We could have built generic encounters and scaled them to the appropriate level, but we bit the bullet and went with fixed levels for three major reasons:

  1. It would be lame to get an encounter early in your adventurer's career and then get it again, with the same text but a more difficult check, five levels later. Because we had safeguards against getting the same encounter twice in the same adventure, it was pretty rare to see the same encounter twice in the same playthrough.
  2. We wanted to show character progression, and one of the most effective ways of doing that was having the character encounter goblins and kobolds early on, and storm giants and dragons in the later adventures.
  3. We could write in specific rewards that were level appropriate. So, if the elf prince that your adventurer just saved was wielding a mithral dagger, he could give it to you at the end of the encounter because it's appropriate for that level. If we were scaling the encounter level we would've had to do away with specific rewards.

The hardest thing about writing all of this text? Figuring out how to work a reward into almost every block of text. Because rewards gained through encounters determined an adventurer's score, we needed all of the successes, as well as many failures, to give a reward of either gold and items. It felt disconnected to just hand out a reward if the story didn't mention it, so we had adventurers looting corpses, looking under rocks, grabbing items off of tables, and who knows what else to justify the payouts that we gave them. In the end, though, it was a blast to work on creating the stories, and one of the most gratifying threads on our boards was a huge collection of quotes that players posted that had made them laugh. I wish it were still around so that I could link to it.

Takeaway: With the right mixture of structure and randomness, you can create experiences that both tell a consistent story and still feel fresh when encountered multiple times.

Next topic: Accessibility