Design Diary #3 - "Systems and Touchpoints"
2 months ago
– Fri, Mar 31, 2023 at 08:45:25 AM
The campaign is steadily growing as we move through the traditional mid-campaign slowness. In case you missed it - The Brothers Murph did a full playthrough against the Martian Invaders and you can watch the video-on-demand. And we have another playthrough with The Dice Tower coming up April 4.
And stay tuned... we might have some news about Unmatched to share soon.
Now let's get to the good stuff - our latest designer diary from Jason and Darren...
Design Diary #1 - Going Remote
Design Diary #2 - A Pitch To Amaze
How did the system for Unmatched Adventures: Tales to Amaze begin?
Darren: I remember the first time we entertained the idea of a system controlling the enemies. We took a normal hero deck and just walked through the combat interactions of a “dumb” deck as though we were playing against it, flipping over cards randomly and seeing what happened. This obviously didn’t work at all, but it helped us to start identifying the interactions we were going to need to design around.
Jason: Quick aside, I want to take a moment to say that Unmatched is such a cool core system. While it’s a game about comparing combat cards and dealing combat damage, it’s also special with how the roster of available characters interacts with the game system in so many different ways. Just look at the original Battle of Legends: Volume 1 set. It’s full of superb character choices to show off a great general design.
- Alice highlights versatility and variable character powers
- Medusa highlights attrition and ranged combat
- Sinbad highlights deck composition and battlefield movement
- King Arthur highlights aggression and boosting
I think it's an A+ first installment of a game system. Those heroes hook into all of the major aspects of Unmatched!
So there’s the rub. In order for our new mode to play nice with existing designs, we needed to either abstract or simulate each of those major touchpoints along the way.
When you simulate, you go literal, trying to match the exact inputs and outputs provided during a normal game of Unmatched. Give the Villain a hand of cards? Give the Villain scheme cards? Maybe, maybe not.
When you abstract, you ask, “what role does that play in the core Unmatched experience, and could this new framework provide something that matches that purpose but in another way (and also not wreck things).” An indirect translation, getting the gist.
We started each major design hurdle with a “simulate first” mindset. When we’d come to an impasse we’d try to solve it by “abstracting it away.” If that still didn’t work, we’d ask, “can we ignore this entirely?” Then we’d step back and check if the experience still felt like Unmatched. If the answer was “yes,” we’d lean that direction. If the answer was “no,” we’d reroute, iterate, and run it back.
Here’s a great example: Enemy Combat Cards
Darren: We knew early that Villain combat cards would need to pull double duty. They would need to handle offense and defense, and be more than just regular versatile cards. We played some games against all versatiles. Super bland. We needed solutions to make combat interactions feel different - either offensive, defensive, or tricky.
Jason: The simplest solution to execute and remember was to let the baddie flip a card in every combat and have those cards mean different things depending on the context. The way we originally did it was by hiding the defense value of a given card in the Boost value. This wasn’t ideal (for a number of reasons) but it got the point across that these cards could and should be modal. Having the same card play differently in different circumstances felt right.
Darren: One level deeper, we found that the combat experience was generally much better if we increased the variance of the defense values. Having a deck of 1 and 5-value defenses was much more engaging than a deck full of 3-value defense cards. The game needed high highs and low lows. Just as satisfying as it felt to land an occasional Gaze of Stone, it was equally great to have your Beastform spoiled like they knew it was coming. (Jason: Mothman knew.)
Darren: Lastly, we wanted to mimic having the occasional defenseless opponent. Some aggressive fighters rely on catching an opponent defenseless. That needed to be in the game but not always be predictable. Otherwise the game would be played solely around the moment of catching a villain defenseless.
Darren: We tried the occasional zero-value block. That worked pretty well. Then we wanted to lean toward a teamwork mechanic where nearby teammates could cancel that Villain’s defense value with a matching Boost. This was fun but complex and confusing. Ultimately, the Restoration development team solved it with the Deception cards. The system already needed a way to remind you to reshuffle Villain and Minion decks, so pushing both of those needs onto the same card was a win-win.
Jason: And we kind of continued this way throughout the system. We answered questions like:
- What do discard and hand effects do?
- How should fatigue or the end-game work?
- What about opponent choice effects?
- Who would the Villain/Minions target first?
- What path around the map would they take?
- Would Villains/Minions occasionally run away or take a breather?
- and many more…
Darren: Ultimately, we also needed a lightweight system that could get out of its own way and let Unmatched happen. The card and hero ability interactions already added a decent amount of rules weight to the game. If the system wasn’t smooth to play, the game would not be enjoyable to play.
What were some big turning points in the system?
Darren: Early builds of the game didn’t have Villains+Minions. We had Villains+sidekicks pairings. All the Villains were equal in standing and they each had a sidekick running around the board. Which was just bonkers to play at high player counts. Each round could have 5 Villain moves+attacks to resolve, followed by 5 enemy sidekick move+attacks/effects to resolve. It was a beautiful chaos, but not something that would work in reality. We had to get more gameplay out of fewer Villain actions. That was part of the first round of Restoration feedback.
That feedback led to the Villain+Minion model that we have today. The Villain became objective based and their objectives tied to the board. The minions became interchangeable and tied to the player count.
Jason: We had this one Villain that was very different mechanically and narratively because it had a weird side objective. Every game where they made an appearance gave us a story to tell afterward. We liked it so much that we eventually shifted everything to be like that. If one big bad doing a specific thing could do everything we wanted, we were on the right track.
Darren: Another big turning point was adding the “player 5” space. We needed somewhere for the, now singular, Villain to start. We were using the edges of the board, but now that it was only 1 big bad, the center made the most sense. We used a star at first, until we realized we could just increment a starting space to 5. Making a fifth starting space also gave us some inspiration to include enemy combat effects that cared about the starting spaces. Instead of several sentences telling players to move a Villain to a zone they aren’t already in, and how to avoid heroes when doing the move, we could just say “Move to the nearest available starting space”.
How is playing against the Adventures system different from playing against a human opponent?
Darren: There’s a great saying “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough”, that should really be the motto for the Villains and Minions in Adventures. Developing them as super clever decision makers would have been possible, but it also would leave the players to work through a large flowchart of “If/Then” statements every turn. We simplified the Villain turn a lot during development, and Restoration simplified one step further in final development. If the Villain's turn didn’t flow as smoothly as it does now I don't think the game would have made it to release.
Something for the players to remember is that the AI isn’t as smart as you, but they have some nasty tools at their disposal. They don’t get tired. They don’t retreat. They don’t step back to regroup. They are a Terminator focused on taking you down. I saw in early testing with players deep into the competitive scene, they were often playing “not to lose”. When things got hairy they would take a double maneuver turn and back off. That almost always ended up in loss for the players. The Villains would swoop in next turn, beat the defense cards out their hand and win the game shortly after. My advice to players in their first games of UMA: Tales to Amaze is “Play desperately to win.”
Jason: To prepare for the design, I became pretty active in the online competitive scene to understand the game better. I learned that Unmatched is a game with incredible depth for player-vs-player tactical skill, matchup preparation, and system mastery. But, the game at the highest level also often revolves around exhaustion strategies (what happens when you run out of cards at the end of the game). To that end, one of the best tools to forestall exhaustion and dictate who is forced to engage with whom are scheme cards that don’t draw you cards or gain you actions. The community calls those “passes,” and they are celebrated for doing less. With the co-op experience, we wanted to avoid that play pattern as much as possible. We wanted the way you win the co-op system to be closer to the most fun way you win regular Unmatched games – with the flip of a card in combat. It should still pay to be careful, but the system should dissuade you from playing keep away. I’m a very passive competitive player, and we felt like the system should punish the way I played. It does.
OK, Last topic. Theme! How did you settle on the Hero or Villains for the game?
Tune in next Designer Diaries to find out! Until then, stay amazing!