Deck-building as one mechanic among many

November 25, 2014

full prototype Looking back on my post from last week, I hope I didn't sound too arrogant, like the game I'm working on is going to be the best board game in the world because I'm a super-genius. Honestly, I just think that any self-respecting game designer should be wary of sitting down and designing a deck-builder because the market is already saturated with derivative works that add one new gimmick to the existing Dominion or Ascension formula and then call it good. But the point of my last post was that deck-building can offer an important element of control to a random game, and that idea definitely shouldn't be rejected out-of-hand simply because it bears the tired "deck-building" name. Rather, it should be used as a mechanic to bring something new and unique to the hobby. Something more akin to Martin Wallace's A Study in Emerald and less akin to, say, the Legendary franchise. So, anyway, how does my game fit into all of this? The core concept came from the idea of a "skill check." In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, a skill check involves rolling a 20-sided die, adding some modifier and seeing if the sum is above some fixed number based on the difficulty of what you're trying to do. It's a flat distribution, though, so outside of finding ways to increase your modifier, you have little control on the outcome. I wanted to make a game about performing skill checks, but give the player more control. The initial step was to move to a card-based system where a player had a deck basic cards that were evenly distributed between cards that said "Success" and cards that said "Failure." When a player performs a skill check, they flip over a number of cards equal to the value of the skill they are checking (say, if their character had a strength of 6, they would flip over 6 cards) and they are shooting for some predetermined number of successes. This moves us away from a flat probability distribution and into the binomial distribution, which doesn't in itself offer more control, but is a much more dynamic area to work in. Plus, we're dealing with cards, which offer a lot more customization. For instance, increasing a skill allows a player to flip over more cards, which increases their chance of success; and if you're sitting at a 50% chance of passing on check, a boost in the number of successes you can get goes a much longer way than it would in a flat distribution. More interestingly, though, delving into "deck-building" by modifying the cards in this deck of successes and failures gives the player a lot more control. They can increase their odds by adding more successes or removing failures from the deck. They can add different cards to the deck that give other bonuses when flipped, like extra resources or conditional successes - there's really a great wealth of possibilities for this. So after developing this core concept, I suddenly had a game that certainly wasn't all about deck-building, but had a definite deck-building mechanic inside of it. Every time you wanted to perform a skill check, you had to contend with this deck of cards that you may or may not have spent enough time building in your favor. I was never really sold on the idea of external skill stats, though. If players, say, had a sheet of stats that they had to refer to whenever making a check and had to modify those stats with sliders or tokens or something whenever they changed, well, that would be very clunky. I was watching Tabletop Deathmatch, though, back when it was being released, and I heard something illuminating in The Shadow Over Westminster episode. I'm still very fuzzy on the mechanics of the game, but at one point it was praised for having "all the stats on the cards," meaning that players had stats, but there was no external sheet for it - it was all represented by their decks. "All the stats on the cards." That phrase stuck with me. I think it's a very powerful concept. With that phrase in mind, I moved away from a basic deck of "Success" and "Failure" and instead had a deck with the skills on the cards - "Strength," "Agility," "Intellect" and "Charisma." Now the basic concept was a deck of cards evenly distributed among those 4 skills, and most skill checks in the game would give you a success when either of 2 skills were flipped. This way there was still a 50% chance of drawing a success, but now the stats were on the cards. If you wanted to be better at strength checks, you just added more "Strength" cards to your deck. There was nothing external to the deck to keep track of. How that works out specifically is by replacing your basic cards with only 1 skill on them with cards with 2 or more skills on them - say, replace a "Charisma" card with a "Strength, Charisma" card if you wanted more strength. Or put a card with all 4 skills on it in your deck that will count as a success no matter what skill or checking, or multiple successes if you're checking more than 1 skill. This all creates a very interesting, customizeable system with lots of different variables to tweak to create skill checks that are much more dynamic than just rolling a die and doing some basic math. Without a specific strength stat, though, what determines how many cards are flipped over during a check? That is also something that can be varied, in some cases it's determined by the game, but in other cases it is determined by the player. Because every card flipped costs the player something. The game is played over a series of rounds, and a player's round is over once they've run through their entire deck of cards checking skills. In this way, the cards also become a resource, which I think is pretty cool. Even with all this control, though, the game still felt too random. The last major change I implemented was allowing players to look at the first 2 cards in their deck. Having some foreknowledge of how successful they will be at a specific check add a much larger strategic element to the game I was very happy with. So there you have it, a full tangent on a specific instance of mitigating randomness through deck-building. What other games are out there that use deck-building to flesh out a larger system of mechanics?

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