Designer’s Den is a game design blog by Derek Conrad covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!
Rise of the Gods was born from the ashes of another, very different game I scrapped sometime in September of 2017. I won’t share the name of that other game out of respect for the dead. Let’s just say it borrowed a tad too much from an iconic fantasy RPG property and leave it at that. (Fun fact: the terms that made it to the current version of RotG include the pit (discard pile), every “faction” identity (now called Orders), and Favor.)
Anyway, in an early design of that game, the player paid the costs of his or her cards by mining resource cards. These resources provided one count of a specific type of Power. After a resource was mined for its Power, it was turned face down until the start of that player’s next turn. The seven resources were Radiance, Talus, Chasm, Crypt, Zephyr, Flow, and Growth.
This system probably reminds you of the O.G. of trading card games, Magic: The Gathering. And while I was aware of my game’s proximity to lands and mana, there was one important departure from Magic’s version of resource management that I felt was enough to make my game stand out: the introduction of a separate deck devoted solely to your resource cards.
This deck, called the landscape deck, didn’t have a set size, as it depended on the total number of resource cards you wanted to include in your starting deck limit of 60 cards. The whole idea was to mitigate variance, so when a player started his turn, he could choose whether to draw his card from the main deck or the landscape deck, depending on what he needed. Plus, the opening hand of seven cards was assembled in any combination of the two decks, dealt all at the same time.
Unfortunately, when that game was trashed and I started on RotG, I overhauled the resource system’s mechanics in a big way. Some of the individual names remained for the time being, but the uniqueness of a separate deck was removed and the resources went back in the main deck. It would take another year or so for the idea to separate resources from the main deck to return to the game. The reason why may surprise you.
Now that resource cards were mixed into the main pool of a player’s cards, I still wanted to lesson the pain of drawing too few of them when they were needed. Thus, rather than a resource providing a single material (e.g. the Astral material), it provided three. Insane, right!
Resources were still mined, and a player was free to mine any available materials on a resource, even if that meant mining all three on the first turn. However, if a resource was ever mined for all of its materials, it would become depleted and go to the discard pile. Then, any remaining resources in a player’s supply regenerated one material at the start of his or her next turn.
This depletion mechanic allowed someone to play a “three drop” each turn, assuming that player was willing to be down one resource. Players who managed their resources more conservatively could play larger cards later on, but that left them vulnerable to an early aggro rush.
This huge swing in power levels proved difficult to plan around and it produced wildly different outcomes from one game to another, severely reducing the reliability of any non-aggro strategy. At the time, I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong until I realized the allure of playing a bunch of cards and depleting your resources was too strong. If you couldn’t kill the opponent in time, you’d quickly lose ground because you’d thrown away all your resources and would have a hard time catching back up.
The solution, then, was to rid the game of the depletion mechanic altogether. But without it, the immediate burst of three material was still too favorable for aggressive decks, so something else needed to be done. It wasn’t until I sat down to playtest with a family member who’d never touched a TCG in her life that I came up with the solution.
What if cards could retain their own unique faction identities but no longer had to rely on a corresponding resource to pay their costs? So for example, what if a card could be identified as part of the Pyro faction but not need a Pyro-specific resource? Instead, what if something generic could pay for it? This was the question I asked myself when deciding how to streamline and simplify the game’s resource system.
You see, the family member I played with didn’t understand why all costs weren’t the same. When she had a Flora card she wanted to play but only had resources that provided Hydro materials, she felt restricted and helpless. And the symbols that indicated a material of any type (e.g. ❶ ❷) added to this frustration. Why did things have to be different?
I tried to explain that this was just the nature of card games. Each of the Orders had a corresponding material you needed to have on hand to use those particular cards. And then it hit me. I was making my own game. There was no good reason why it had to be that way.
At this stage of design, the game consisted of the cards in your deck (what are now followers, rituals, etc), resources, and shrines. Shrines were special cards set aside at the start of each game that named the god you intended to summon. (Nowadays, this card is just your god card.) While I was reviewing these components and looking for solutions to the “resource problem,” I realized I could utilize the shrine to indicate not only the Order related to the god you wanted to summon, but also indicate the player’s Order as well. Then, I could dump all the various resources and create one that paid for everything, gold.
This was when I devised the current method of configuring costs. Here’s an early prototype with this new mechanic. (Ignore all the other crap. I mean it!)
Just focus on the teal flag on the left under the card’s name. What it’s supposed to represent are two costs: a devotion cost of 6 and a generic cost of 7. Basically, when your player devotion as shown on your shrine card matches the devotion of a card—in this instance, Hydro—you pay the corresponding cost of 6. However, if your player devotion doesn’t match, then you pay the alternative cost below that of 7.
Since then, costs have been improved visually to look like this:
Now, it’s clearer that costs are always paid in gold. The one touching the Hydro symbol indicates the devotion cost, while the one below the slash is the generic cost.
By making costs based entirely on your, the player’s, identity instead of requiring you to carry a specific resource, you’re never punished for not having the right resource to play your cards. Rather, you just need to match the card’s devotion to yours, or in cases where it doesn’t match, be willing to pay a higher cost to use that card.
This shift in the game’s paradigm from being resource-dependent to identity-dependent allowed for some fun exploration of an entirely new design space. By tacking on generic costs to select cards—or what amounts to a tax on playing cards outside your faction’s identity—I could test a player’s skill at deckbuilding. Would you be willing to pay a higher cost to gain access to a card you normally couldn’t play? Now, the question is out there. Let’s see how players answer it.
With the game’s resource system turned entirely on its head, mixing resource cards (the gold) into the deck just didn’t feel right anymore. Because all the resources were the same, there was never any question as to what type you’d draw, but only a matter of when. And since I’d already bucked one trend of common card design, why not buck another? So, I went back to the game’s roots and dusted off the concept of the landscape deck.
The name had to change of course, as landscape no longer made sense. I was now referring to this set of resources as your “locked chests,” and any in your supply were considered “unlocked.” And rather than deciding between drawing from the main deck or the locked chest deck at the start of their turns, players drew one card from each. Also, the count was fixed at ten chest cards, but still contained two gold each.
It wasn’t until the night before the inaugural playtest incorporating the revamped design that I hastily printed out new images and changed the contents to one gold per card. Why? I’d suddenly become extremely aware that two gold guaranteed each turn was making the game too fast. At a steady rate of one gold each turn, the game slowed to a more comfortable pace and usually wrapped up between seven and ten turns, instead of the blowouts that could close a game in as little as four regardless of what the opponent tried to do.
Shortly thereafter arriving at this final design for RotG‘s resource system, I discovered a colorful little digital card game called Hearthstone. Maybe you’ve heard of it? In this game, players are given a steady allotment of resources each turn, which also cap at ten. It is identical in virtually every way to what I came up with except Hearthstone calls the resource mana whereas mine is gold.
Now, Hearthstone has been around since 2014. It was a game I’d heard of but never bothered to play. (I have since and it’s quite charming.) Regardless, they beat me to the idea by at least four years. Maybe if I’d known, I would have tried to come up with something different. But then again, after testing so many other versions, I’d settled on one I felt was the most conducive to the playstyle and pacing I’d been looking for.
Plus, at least now I know it works!
Thank you for reading, and until next time!