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#11 – A Change in Direction

Designer’s Den is a game design blog covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!

As I alluded to at the top of the last Designer’s Den entry, right now, time is not of the essence. Any feelings of being rushed to meet a deadline are entirely manufactured, as in-person events have been canceled for the unknowable future, and the demand to get physical, hard copies of games that require (under normal circumstances) players to congregate in communal spaces has evaporated. Though, that may depend on your local market, as each state, county, and even city is adapting and responding to the prolonged COVID pandemic in their own ways.

With all this ample time still on my hands, I’ve been thinking. And doing. And tweaking. And I’ve come to realize something important. While suspended in this development limbo, Rise of the Gods is no longer innovative — if it ever was. Two-ish years after the original kernel came to be, one of the game’s core conceits of “spaces matter” has lost its surprise, and refusing to move past that — or at least acknowledge it — may hinder the game’s overall health in the long run. So I’m looking now at a fork in the road: do I commit to the game’s state that has existed for roughly two years, or do I change direction toward a healthier game state with longevity in mind?

This sudden quandary has actually been a nagging concern at the back of my mind for a while. I love the game I’ve created, but I’m also worried about falling into that old trap commonly found in the creative process, of being too attached to something to see past its faults. “Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings,” — I’m sure you’re familiar with the term, or at least the concept. And I think I need to kill mine, too. But not the whole thing! Oh no, that would be an overreaction. Instead, I’ve identified the unpalatable parts of the game’s design and worked out a solution.

In this post I’ll talk about the parts I found that aren’t working. In another post, I’ll address the solutions to them.

What’s the Problem?

“Spaces matter” is the idea that wherever a card is on the playing field determines the card’s function, especially in relation to other cards in play. As I said, this design concept has driven the game’s development for years because I found it so unique at first. Nowadays, making spaces matter in a card game has become more conventional than not. But besides lacking the luster of the newest hotness, the design is also counter-intuitive to the strengths of the card game genre, to the point where it defeats the purpose of making a card game in the first place!

Now, there are legitimate card games that have unique spaces on the field — think the Pokemon TCG and Yu-Gi-Oh (2 out of the big 3). But these spaces lean more toward “zone organization” than “spaces matter”. For example, in the Pokemon TCG, there’s one space for your active Pokemon and five for your benched Pokemon. But these spaces are not necessarily relative between themselves — a benched Pokemon is a benched Pokemon regardless of where you put it. Likewise, the differences between a benched and an active Pokemon is important insofar as the active Pokemon is the only one you can attack with each turn. It’s the zones that matter, not the spaces.

Rise of the Gods has separate zones, sure. And within the field zone, there are three sub-zones, called realms. Yet, a follower within one realm is never the same as another in that same realm because the space it occupies determines other factors. Is it close enough to attack the opponent? Where can it travel to? Is it on top of a domain or not? Is it within range of an enemy follower’s attack? Etc. These game states may be interesting to most players — they add a lot of complexity to the game! — but it’s also a lot of information to track, and these states are generated more from what a follower can’t do than what it can. So while it was not entirely obvious to me at surface level for so long, I now notice a pattern of undesirable outcomes all stemming from this core “spaces matter” design, and they’re ruining all the fun.

Five Conclusions

I arrived at these five conclusions when I really started to unpack my game’s problems due to the space mechanic. Each one is antithetical to the card game as a genre, which relies on a combination of the A) convenience to set up and play, B) and relatively short games.

1. Individual spaces create more restraint than freedom. 

By overlaying a grid onto a card game, the game is limited in the number of cards that can be played at any given time by the number of spaces within that grid. Rise of the Gods has a 4×4 grid, so the cap is set at sixteen cards. That’s actually a large number of cards to exist in any card game, but you have to remember: the spaces are cut up between different realms. So my sanctuary (friendly realm where only I can play my cards) is limited to only four spaces. That’s a pretty hefty restraint right there.

Spaces also make movement feel rigid, because followers can only travel between them. Normally this is done in orthogonal directions, but a few could move diagonally with a special ability. Regardless, if there was a roadblock in your follower’s way, the time it took to move around it (because it couldn’t go through it) basically doubled in the number of turns. Time was being wasted just getting things into position!

2. They slow the game down. 

Carrying the last point forward, the average game of Rise of the Gods was lasting well past where I wanted it to end. Players should be allowed to get in a fair number of turns each, but drag the game out too long and fatigue starts to set in. I think six turns is healthy, with them maxing out at eight. That should give everybody plenty of time to find their key pieces and play out their strategies. Whoever assembles the better strategy should be able to win by then. Any games that go past turn eight occur because a player is purposefully stalling things out, in which case it may just be in the losing player’s interest to concede and move onto the next.

But my games were lasting to turn ten, or even longer, usually because the spatial movement on the field dictated the flow of the game. Sure, you may have just summoned your giant haymaker to your sanctuary. Assuming it has at least 2 Mobility and nothing gets in its way, you’ll be free to attack the opponent next turn (remember, it has to cover two whole spaces to reach the opponent). However, if it has only 1 Mobility or the opponent plops their own follower in its path, the clock just advanced by one more turn at least. After hearing myself continuously say the game should be over by now during play tests, I knew something was wrong.

3. They make choices more difficult. 

When every space is its own microcosm of varying outcomes, it magnifies the discrepancies between relative positions and heightens the opportunity cost attached to every choice. Some choice is good — that should go without saying. Players need to make important choices during the game to feel accomplished and to enhance their skill over time. Otherwise, they’d make the same moves every game. But too much choice can frustrate players and lead to decision paralysis. I often stared down opponents during playtests who waffled over the tiniest decisions, all because they didn’t want to make a move without weighing each outcome. Advanced players who were more familiar with the game were generally less susceptible to this, but I don’t think this high of a barrier to entry is conducive to attracting new players. 

4. They obscure information. 

While there’s a rule that says no two followers can occupy a space at a time, there’s another that says followers and domains can coexist in the same space together. Domains are like physical locations, so it would only make sense that a follower would be on top of one during the game. They also allow you to summon followers onto them around the field, rather than just back in your sanctuary. Obviously, when a card is stacked on top of another, it makes reading the one underneath difficult and thus information gets lost or forgotten. A fix I added in the last update was to rotate domains horizontally so they’d peek out from below. Still, a player would have to pick up a follower or slide it aside to read the domain’s text. This becomes more cumbersome when damage counters are involved and just adds to a sense of clutter on the field.

5. They mandate a play mat. 

Card games are notorious for their portability. However, almost all of them manufacture play mats to provide a firmer surface for playing (and add an element of style!). But play mats are never mandatory, even in a game like Yu-Gi-Oh, which can utilize a central “compass” to orient link-summon monsters. Meanwhile, trying to play Rise of the Gods without a mat would be nearly impossible. Could you imagine trying to track sixteen different spaces without a visual aid? 

And so while playmats are common accessories, they’re not requirements. They should enhance the game for those who want them, but not be burdens to those who would rather sprawl out on a kitchen table or jump into a spontaneous game where space is limited.

Even with these five negative outcomes listed, there were still positive aspects about the design that I — and others — liked. One piece of feedback I got last weekend when I debuted the new version* of Rise of the Gods was it used to be easier to avoid other enemy followers on the field. So there’s definitely some give-and-take. However, I and the other playtesters found the overall impact that the old design had on the game was worse than anything novel or challenging it contributed.

For more on why card games do better without a board or mat that’s made up of spaces, I recommend this video by the YouTuber Kohdok called “TOO MUCH JUNK!!” as part of his Seven Deadly TCG Sins series. Some of his opinions shared in the series have helped me make decisions on how to guide my own game’s development.

*I’ll talk more about the revamp in another blog entry soon(ish). For now, I’ll just say for those who enjoyed the spaces mechanic, don’t worry. The revamped game still maintains a lot of the good feels derived from spaces, e.g. movement and location mattering. You’ll see!

Wrap Up

Making a large change this late in development is terrifying. After years of designing around this version, it feels like I’m losing a part of myself, as sappy as that may sound. And yet, at the same time, I’m incredibly optimistic about the change in direction. Although not exhaustive, the gameplay I’ve had so far is much smoother, and the canvass that’s left to design fun and interesting mechanics within is still huge, even with the spaces having been erased. At the core, the game is still Rise of the Gods. And that’s what’s important.

Ultimately, I’m always committed to increasing the game’s chances at success, both in the near term with a crowdfunding launch and later, if things go right, as an expandable card game. With the crowdfunding launch on hold until at least next year, I’m not going to sit by idly if there are improvements I can make in the meantime. It will take time. It always does. I hope you’ll stick around to see where Rise of the Gods goes from here.

As always, thanks for reading and until next time!

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