I'm really not keeping up this blog very well, I see. Well, I've been busy, and my other blog over at solitairetilldawn.blogspot.com gets more attention—which is as it should be. But I can't spend every waking moment on solitaire programming, and I've been able to find time for some table-game design lately.
First a glance back: last post, I was talking about recent changes to my Spatial Delivery boardgame. After a lot of playtesting, I'm now pretty satisfied with that design. I think it's done, and I don't expect to do anything more with it. (No publishers in sight, but the market is pretty crowded these days, so I'm not holding my breath.)
And now I'm working on a new design called "DeckVille".
A while back Dice Hate Me Games held a contest for game designers. Entrants were to design games that could be played with only a pack of 54 standard-size cards. I was too busy moving to think about it at the time, and the contest is long over. (You can see a number of the winners on Kickstarter at Big Game for Small Pockets.) But the idea stuck in my head, so I recently set myself a challenge.
I have wanted to create a card game in the style of the kind of board game that Helen and I like best: an "economic builder". Simply put, this is a strategy game where you spend the early part of the game building things that make you efficient, and the late part building things that will make you points.
I wanted this design experience partly for fun, and partly in hopes of getting a compact, portable, playable game out of it. But mainly it's meant as a learning tool. I thought that this exercise in minimalism might give me useful insight into this kind of game.
I didn't worry about coming up with anything original. I happily stole ideas from quite a few different successful games by published designers: 7 Wonders, San Juan, Suburbia, and Ticket to Ride, along with a number of others.
In nearly all games of this type, the player is to jump through some kind of hoops to get <something> that is spendable, and later jump through more hoops to spend the <something> on <something else> that will provide victory points. I decided that DeckVille would be about building a city; that the spendable stuff would be several different kinds of resources (e.g. wood, brick, steel, etc.), and that the victory points would be provided by facilities: residences, shops, businesses, public buildings, and so on.
San Juan provided a crucial notion, one I've also seen in many other games: every card can be used for two or three different purposes, all useful; but in every case you must choose one use per card, and forgo the other possibilities. This gives the players decisions to make. The decisions should be significant (that is, they will affect the outcome of the game), amenable to reason (that is, their effects are somewhat calculable), but not obvious. (Sometimes these are called agonizing decisions.) In DeckVille, a card can be used as a resource or as a facility, but not both. The cost to build a resource is to discard some number of other cards from your hand (another notion from San Juan), while the cost to build a facility is paid by having previously built all the resources that the facility needs (7 Wonders).
Interest and variety come from making every card different, and by making the scoring value of cards interdependent. Every facility has a type, out of eight different types (public, housing, shopping, dining, etc.). The scoring value of a facility might be absolute ("2 points") or conditional ("1 point per public facility you have built"). This kind of variety can be found in quite a few games, but I took most of my inspiration here from Ted Alspach's Suburbia.
Given that basic framework, what's needed for a good game is balanced paths to victory. There should be a number of ways to achieve victory: for example, you might build a lot of business facilities, capping them with a facility whose score depends on that. Or you might build the right combination of public and infrastructure facilities; or a mix of housing and shopping. If the game is balanced, there will be quite a few good ways to make lots of points, none of which are overwhelmingly better than the others, but all of which will be difficult to achieve in the face of intelligent opposition.
I found that the original goal of a 54-card game worked, but only for two players. After some thought, I added a second deck of 54 more cards, with half of that deck marked for "three players" and the rest for "four players". You can still play the two-player game with just the original deck.
It needs more work, probably lots more work. But it actually plays quite nicely, even now, which is encouraging. I think I will eventually spruce up the artwork and post it for print-on-demand at TheGameCrafter, when I'm done with it.