Armor & Ash, The Early Versions

Armor & Ash, The Early Versions

When the original idea for the card game, Armor & Ash, came into my head I started writing the core elements of it down on paper.  I wrote down all of the core concepts and major elements that made up the game.  These were just ideas, but contained information about the different card types and how they’d function.  Then I went to my computer, opened up Photoshop, and sketched out what the table would look like with a game in progress.  Meaning, I actually sketched out where the cards would be.  For each of the players I sketched out where their magic pile was, the army pile, and the hero.  After this, I did a rough sketch of the different card types as well: the hero card, the regular rank and file cards, and the magic cards.  These were quick sketches just to get the ideas out of my head and try to make sure everything made sense how I was picturing it.

The first iteration of the game was vastly different from where we are today, and where we are today might not actually be where we end up. There have been quite a few alpha tests done thus far with my wife and family friends.  Because of all these early play tests, the general rules have changed along with the special ability text on some of the cards.

The first instance of the game, in my head, the cards were cleared from the play every single round. New cards were laid on the table every round regardless of whose turn it was.  Each player would roll the dice to see who damaged who, which card(s) were wounded, and which card(s) was killed.  If a card was slain then it was put in a discard pile.

In the first iteration, multiple cards could attack a single opposing card, so I could have two of my cards, for example, attack a single card of my opponent’s. However, there was an inherent problem that could arise based on this rule set.  It led to certain cards not being engaged on a turn because units were ganging up on more powerful cards.  Unengaged units, cards that didn’t attack and were not attacked, were discarded just like cards that did attack.  So, if a unit attacked but wasn’t wounded, it went into the reserve pile.  If it didn’t attack and also wasn’t attacked, then it went into the reserve pile.  However, if it was wounded it went into the discard pile, just like cards that were reduced to zero health.  The reserve pile was reshuffled and became the draw deck when the current draw deck ran out.

The thought was that this is war, this is a bloody war and it should be like the old medieval fantasy style wars where if you were wounded, there was a good chance that you’d die, either from bleeding out, infection, or shock.  Wounded cards had a chance to attack back before they were discarded but it wasn’t fun losing your 4 health card to 1 wound.

We tried this method a few times where at the end of the turn both players would wipe the board, either put their cards into a reserve pile or the discard pile, and then a new turn would begin with each player drawing three cards and putting them into play.

We found that
1.) This made the game longer than it was ever intended.
2.) It was clear that something was off.

The fact that something was off was apparent immediately.  The game just wasn’t super fun.  It just didn’t seem to work, something in this set up didn’t make sense.  Wiping the board every round didn’t feel like it fit with what was supposed to be going on.  It wasn’t realistic that a four health creature would die from suffering one wound.  I knew something wasn’t right.

With a little help from my wife, we tried to fix things and so the second iteration of the game was born.  This second iteration lasted only two plays.  Maybe one and a half plays, really, before it was decided that the cards should stick around for a little while.

For both versions, cards had to attack in order.  This made when and where you placed the card on the battlefield important.  Everything was resolved from the active player’s left to right.  But cards were picked up and placed on top of the cards they were attacking.  Something about this didn’t seem to work.  The second iteration of the game kept this ridged resolution order but allowed cards to stay on the battlefield until they suffered wounds equal to their health.  But cards still attacked from left to right.  Also, in each of these iterations the player that lost initiative placed their cards on the table first.  Then the other player would place their cards on top of these, in the order they wanted to attack.  The fact that cards stuck around but were placed on top of each other kind of gave off the feeling of engagement.  But that just didn’t work at all. Placing cards on top of each other and making them resolve in a specific order was just clunky and didn’t feel right.

And that’s the second thing we took out was activation order and placing cards on top of the opposing card they are attacking.  This brought us to version three, which is close to the version we’re on right now.  In version three, players did not place their cards on top of any other card to signify the target of an attack.  Instead, the players just called shots.  They simply said this card is attacking that card.  This, combined with cards staying in play until they were killed would become the new core mechanics of the game.

There have been a few other changes, smaller changes, since the birth of version three, but none so drastic as to create a new version.  The breakdown of the versions thus far:

Version 1 – The cards got wiped ever round, attacking was done in a very specific order, and if any card suffered even one wound it died and was discarded. Determining the first player (the attacking player) was based on an initiative roll and  it was therefore possible to gain the upper hand on multiple rounds.
Version 2 – Cards had to lose all of their health before they were removed from the battlefield.  Attacking was still carried out in order they were played. The attacking player switched from turn to turn.
Version 3 – Cards have to lose all of their health before being removed.  A card in play can attack any other card in play and this attack resolution is up to the player.  The attacking player switches each turn.

Removing the initiative roll every round was huge.  Before that it might have been common for your units to just kind of sit there and get slaughtered because you couldn’t roll a high number on a d20. I think we only played one full game with the initiative rule like this.

A later rule, one that came after version 3 and that I think adds a lot of fun and realism to the game, is that if a unit isn’t immediately destroyed, it gets a counter attack or retaliation.  This retaliation attack was immediate and broke turn order.  This meant that I had to go back and reword some special powers because it was no longer good enough to say something like “after attacking” because did that mean after a regular attack or a retaliation attack?  Using the word “retaliation” would mean getting to trigger some special powers during that phase.  I’ve toyed around with how best to do this because I don’t really want to spell out Attack and/or Retaliate each and every time.  I’ve been thinking about using a symbol that means Attack, maybe it is colored in if it works during retaliation but if it is grayed out then it doesn’t work.  I’m leaning toward the use of a symbol but nothing is set in stone just yet.  Regardless of exactly how it is worked out, the goal is that some powers won’t work during the retaliation phase.  Also, I keep saying retaliation, and I think that’s just because I haven’t heard that used in a game before, but I could just as easily use “counter attack”.

Magic has also been tweaked a little bit. At first there were five magic spells and you could play them at anytime. The Magic deck was a combination of actual Spells and Items, but the total was five.  In my mind I want to have the items stick around after the person holding it was killed. But the first few times we played that never really happened. We just attached an Item to somebody and they died and the item was lost. Sometimes they die immediately and they didn’t really get to use their equipped item at all. This was kind of a big problem. I tried to solve this by having each item come into play with a counter on it.  The counter was removed the first time the person holding the item was slain, but the item remained on the Battlefield.  It was possible to reattach the item to another unit card and the item would be destroyed the next time the card wielding the item was defeated.  I’m hoping this solves the issue because it really isn’t fun to attach an item to one of your warrior cards just to have them die immediately and have the item be wasted.  That feels almost cheated.  Hopefully this works so solve that feeling and allow Items to be a bit more useful.

Another thing I did with the Magic deck was to increase the number of cards in the deck for each faction.  Instead of having five cards in the Magic deck total, which could be any combination of Spells or Items, I adjusted the composition of the Magic deck to include five Spells and two Items.  For the Items, I also changed the rule so that they could only be played during the Recruitment Phase and not at any time like Spells.  This helps separate Items and Spells and gives each its own unique feel.  Now Items can only be played, and attached to warriors, as part of the Recruitment Phase before any attacks are declared.

Currently, Spells can still be played at any time but I’m debating whether there should be a difference for when certain spells can be played.  For example, certain spells are obviously defensive in nature while others are clearly offensive.  My internal debate is should one type of spell (offensive or defensive) be limited and can only be played when a player has the initiative (when it is their attack phase)?  Maybe when I don’t have the initiative I can only play defensive spells?  I haven’t really decided which way to go with this one yet.

If any rule is added or changed, consideration has to be given to the notion of: Does this help the game or does it simply just overcomplicate things? What is the actual need?  What’s the goal?  Is this the best way to meet that goal?  What problem is this rule addition trying to solve?  Does the change create a new problem?  Often the answer to these questions is found through play testing, but I like to try and think about it at length first.  I go through different scenarios in my head before I get to the play testing phase. There are a lot of times that I can simulate a gaming session in my head and decide if a new rule is going to work or if there are potential pitfalls that will need to be worked out.  I try to play all of these “mind games” in advance, try to work out and foresee any kinks before I commit a rule to paper.  Playing games in my head like this has helped a ton and saves time.  I don’t have enough time to physically play test each change or rule addition, so being able to fully conceptualize all of the instances in which the rule can be applied can help shed light on whether it is actually a decent rule.  Often, I’ll run into one snag or other.  Something like, “Ohh, I forgot about that card.  That card certainly breaks the rule” or “Dang, when I only have three cards left on the Battlefield that rule doesn’t make any sense”.  If I can’t see any glaring pitfalls then I commit the rule to paper (usually digitally), tell my play testers about the new rule, and then physically play the game with the new rule in place.  Depending on how things go, the game might get cut short (because the new rule clearly doesn’t work) or it is decided that a few more play tests are needed to determine if the rule should stick around.  I always try to have a piece of paper handy, or at least the notepad app on my phone, and take notes during the play test (or at least directly after the game is over).  These notes are invaluable days and weeks (or months) later as the game being to morph.  I try not to make declarative statements in my notes, such as “Card X is broken” but instead try to ask questions, give tasks, or jot down feelings.  For example, “Look at Card X’s stats, do they seem balanced compared to the rest of the cards?” or “Triggering that power three times seemed a bit much and my opponent didn’t think it was fair.” or “The power of Card X feels off, it doesn’t seem to match thematically or make much sense.”  These type of sentences will help more in the long run as they provide some context and rationale behind any proposed changes.

Well, that’s kind of where I am now in the process and how I’ve been doing things.  Maybe you design or enable new rules in a different manner?  Let me know, I’d love know how others design and get their unfinished games to the table.