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.