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#10 – The Great Theme Update of 2020

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!

This is a large entry, with a preface that may trigger some readers’ anxieties over the pandemic. To get into the core topic, jump to the second section titled Theme Is Everything.

Preface: This Is Not a Silver Lining

It could go without saying how much of the tabletop gaming landscape has changed since the start of 2020, let alone our society at large. Though the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the topic of today’s post, its impact is too relevant to ignore, too destructive to forget. The presence of it crowds us even while we’re home alone. Whereas before there were elephants, it looms like a leviathan in the room.

My home state of Washington saw one of the earliest shelter-in-place orders. And while I did have about a two-week stretch without working at my day job, I’ve been at least partially employed for nearly the entire pandemic (due to my day job’s “essential” function). However, this has still left plenty of expendable time on my hands. Although I was late to putting it to good use (stress, anxiety, and depression are real drags on productivity as we all know), my creative spark eventually reignited. After having shelved any hope of a summer Kickstarter launch and my interest in Rise of the Gods dwindling, the passion returned, brighter and stronger than ever.

However, like this preface’s title suggests, I won’t refer to this breakthrough as a silver lining or making the best of a bad situation. With the U.S. approaching 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 at the timing of this post, I feel it’s too disrespectful to take solace in the spare time afforded to us while so many other people have suffered. 

You may feel differently about the situation, and that’s okay. We all have to process the event on our own terms. To borrow a quote said by Gandalf as he consoled Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

For all our plans and hopes dashed this year, it remains important to find ways of coping. After a month or so of neglect, I finally decided the unfinished state of Rise of the Gods wasn’t an albatross around my neck. Rather, it was an untapped creative outlet waiting for me, and toward the end of May, I was ready again to put it to good use. 

So, here’s what I did.

Theme Is Everything

If you’ve read older entries in this blog, you know Rise of the Gods has been in development for years. Game mechanics and rules have been in flux, always (hopefully) trending toward a more concise, accessible experience. But one thing that I thought I had on lock was the game’s theme. Turns out I was still clinging to older remnants of what I thought was the theme. 

I was wrong.

Just the name Rise of the Gods alone should evoke particular story questions. Who are these gods? What does it mean for them to rise? Is that a positive or negative outcome for the game’s world?

I had convinced myself after settling on that name for the game, it would explain itself. Then, I could shape the designs underneath the general umbrella of “fantasy” and everything would just work. But small speed bumps kept cropping up during playtesting. One player wanted to know why there were words like “deploy” used to signify playing a follower* to the field, which felt more military-themed than fantasy. And why was the resource just generic gold?

The reason for the mismatch of names and certain components stems from the original iteration of the game, before the titular gods became, well, titular. It had more of a military focus, with a light fantasy wallpaper. Yet instead of updating the game completely as the theme shifted, I was making more incremental changes and dusting off outdated terms because they’d worked. So surely, they could just keep on working, right? But this piecemeal approach meant certain parts of the game hadn’t caught up with the newest version. It felt and looked disjointed.

With these loose ends finally being tied up (or just cut altogether), I decided it was time again to liven up the appearance of the game pieces, namely the cards themselves. But also the play mat, resources, and even the symbols for the orders (factions). A “light fantasy” setting was no longer good enough. My game had a story world, which drove the theme. So why wasn’t I showing it off?

One of the first things I did was revamp the card frames. I wanted each different card type to have its own quirks about it, and I wanted each order to feel unique, too. The older card frames mostly achieved this with some minor cosmetics and color adaptations. But I wanted to go even farther, even deeper into the theme.

In the older frame, nothing really says Wind other than the order’s symbol and the color. Now, not only does the symbol have its own thematic installation, but the stat symbols at the bottom do, too. Can you spot all the changes?**

Terminology changed, too. Followers are now summoned as opposed to being deployed. Resources became shards made out of aether, the substance that forms the game’s world. Even some names of the orders changed and as I mentioned above, all their symbols. The more I shone a light into the crevices of my game, the more I found outdated aspects overdue for an upgrade. I was on a roll!

But what came next truly surprised me.

It wasn’t theme alone that was weighing down the game’s progress, and it took the re-analysis of one of the game’s central mechanics to solve a problem I’d been having for years.

*Prior names include troop and unit, while rituals were once called tactics. Even more militaristic!
**Literally everything but the font for the card effect, copyright, and illustration.
 

Time to Focus

Rise of the Gods is a game about physical space. Each card you play occupies a space on the board, called the field, and that determines how they all interact with each other. Except I had taken away focus from this core conceit with the design of the most important component in the entire game: the gods.

In their more recent versions, gods not only served as the player’s “identity” by granting you devotion to one of the game’s seven orders (which in turn influences how you build your deck). But they also came stocked with repeatable abilities the player could use when they didn’t have anything better to do on their turn. I call these abilities godsends.

For a while now, godsends have come with basic effects that cost 2 resources, and stronger abilities that cost more, but that require “leveling up” to reach them. In essence, the more you used the godsend, the higher its level climbed until it unlocked the new abilities. Straightforward? Sure. Thematic? I’d say so. Investing or paying tribute to your god can get it to help you out in a tough spot. But how did it tie itself back into the game’s main selling point of space? Well, it didn’t.

In fact, leveling up your godsend had nothing to do with the game happening on the field other than how the abilities played out. It also required its own dice to track the level. And to keep it from potentially getting out of hand, I even designed effects that could decrease a godsend’s level. But again, that was an action happening off of the board. It was almost like a separate mini-game happening on the sidelines.

I wanted the gods to be important, obviously. That’s the name of the game. And I still wanted them to have cool abilities you could use that had the potential to be stronger over time, because they add another axis to game design space. But I had to make them relevant to the field somehow. And that’s when I realized I could add a new card type that cared entirely about being on the field while also having an impact on your godsend and while simultaneously killing a boring card that nobody really liked.

Thus, the offering was born and the equipment died.

Equipment cards used to be attached to your followers on the field. Sounds legit. But the problem with equipment cards was the player had to move them around with their follower, which was rather cumbersome. Plus, with both followers and domains already on the field, equipment was a third card you had to manage. Things often got cluttered, fast.

Enter the offering. Think of them as gifts you leave at a shrine. (In real life they’re referred to as votive offerings.) 

Wait, shrine? That’s not in the game, is it? Well, not until now. A shrine is a new space on the field located directly behind your allied territory. They’re represented by these little icons:

Screenshot is from the Tabletopia demo available online for free.

When you play an offering to one of your shrines, you usually get an immediate effect for the corresponding column (the spaces running vertically across the board). For instance, look at this Champion’s Lance:

Combine multiple offerings with the same name at the same shrine and you may gain a bonus Hoard effect! Unlike other spaces, shrines don’t have a cap to the number of cards you can put there.

Allied Mounted followers in the column with the lance get a +2 Power bonus while attacking. Mechanically, you can see that the offering essentially does what the equipment card did, but without clogging up valuable real estate.

So, what’s this got to do with the godsends (I hear you asking)?

Before, I mentioned that godsends used to get stronger the more times you activated them by increasing their levels. With the additions of shrines and offerings, however, I now have levels built into the field itself! Basically, the more offerings you can stash away, the more “tribute” you’ve paid to your god, which then in turn unlocks their better abilities. Take a look:

The base ability, Light Shield, functions like it always has. However, the next stage, Cleanse, is now unlocked when you have three offerings stashed at your shrines, as indicated by the candle icon next to the cost.

You could argue that these stages still contribute to a mini-game, as players race to unlock their better godsends. However, what’s most important is the focus.

Gaining access to better abilities can only happen by playing offerings to the field, which while there, add their own twist to the game, making the relationship between spaces even more relevant. And don’t worry – interacting with offerings themselves is possible, whether that’s kicking them back to their owner’s hand, destroying them, or outright stealing them!

This shift, piggybacked on the reevaluation of the overall theme, has helped to narrow the focus on the field while also expanding the possibilities for new designs. It will take more time and playtesting for the changes to solidify, but I’m confident that they’re considerable improvements for the game’s health in the long run.

Cleaning Up

The hunt is still on to root out the relics of the game’s past and replace them with more appropriate, thematic additions. But I’m also looking for corrections I can make to the rules for quality of life reasons. A large one to note was the change to the win condition from gaining victory points to defeating the opponent by reducing their Health to 0. Almost every other card game does this in practice, with few exceptions like Pokemon, which eschews it for good reason.

I didn’t really have a good enough reason other than I wanted to be different. But I think having a field where cards can move around and attack each other is already distinct enough to forgo any other radical changes to what players have come to expect.

That frees me up from looking for excuses to break the mold, and devote my attention instead to the mechanics, rules, and themes that actually matter to the game first and foremost. That way I can break the mold from within and build upon the quirks with a strong foundation already established. Ultimately, my goal is to make a great game and to innovate wherever possible while staying true to the original spark that motivated me to get started in the first place. I hope I’m on that path, and I hope you’ll continue to walk it with me.

I know this was a long post, so kudos if you made it this far! I appreciate your interest. As always, thanks for reading, and until next time!

– Derek 

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