In September, I had what I believed to be a breakthrough with Armor & Ash. For about a year now I’ve been struggling with what to do with Heroes in the game. And removing them wasn’t an option. It was clear though that something was a little off with how they worked.
For the past few months, since before Origins 2015, but it escalated after that and certainly increased after receiving feedback from the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con, I have tried a number of different iterations of mechanics for heroes in Armor & Ash. I was really throwing everything I had at the wall but nothing was sticking. I was getting desperate, and I was losing momentum and faith that I’d find a solution. But, through a series of conversations with other board game designers, I had a breakthrough. I started looking at my game in a different light, started really thinking about what I wanted to encourage players to do and how to make that fun.
From these thoughts, the idea was born that heroes should be shuffled into the deck like normal units, but when they get defeated, instead of being discarded, they charge up—yes, like a Super Saiyan. For some reason I thought this was a good idea. I mean I was really sold on it. I was so excited that I probably pissed off my blind playtest group by sending them a super long email about it.
Every hero had two versions, a “normal” version and a “charged up” version. I almost commissioned the artist to start on some of the secondary poses. Thankfully, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t commission art while playtesting. But, having a hero that only gets stronger when they are defeated sounds cool, doesn’t it? Spare me your answers. While that notion may or may not sound cool, depending on your views, mechanically it just didn’t work. I mean it worked, but not for Armor & Ash. And that’s an important distinction. At some point, as a board game designer, there is probably going to be a mechanic you love that you’ll have to pocket for another game. Knowing when to do this will make you a better board game designer.
For Armor & Ash, shuffling in the hero didn’t feel right. And what essentially amounted to having to defeat two heroes just made the game take longer. Thankfully, even though I was really excited about this version of the game, I knew that I had to not only listen to player feedback, but also be honest with myself about how these changes affected gameplay. Shuffling in the hero removed a lot of the strategy surrounding when to play the hero. And I certainly didn’t want to remove a lot of strategy from the game. After a few playtests, I started making additional rules, like that players could look at the bottom card of their deck, after shuffling, to make sure it wasn’t their hero, and if it was they could reshuffle (and look at the bottom card again). I made change after change like this to try to force in this new hero variant. After a while it became clear that this version just wasn’t working; too much needed to change to make it playable.
So, back to the drawing board yet again. But now I was really desperate, desperate enough to actually try out some of the player feedback I’d previously discarded.
In almost every playtest group at least one person has suggested that Armor & Ash needs a “support row”. I was very resistant to this because I thought that would make my game borrow too much from the Vs. System. After hearing this feedback almost every time I pulled out the game, I finally gave in. Surprisingly, at least to me, I think this is the right choice. My support row doesn’t feel like the support row in the Vs. System. And really, it is just where the hero hangs out so I need to call it something other than the support row. Regardless of what I end up calling it, I think having the hero start out in this area feels right. Selecting which front row unit to place your hero behind adds an element of strategy. Thematically though, I think it also feels like a match because your hero is always on the battlefield. I’ve tied some things to the hero, like the ability to cast spells, which I had in early versions of the game, but that was replaced with hero defeat being an end game situation.
I’ve playtested this version enough, and received nothing but positive feedback, that I’m calling it: this is THE version of the game. I know I initially thought the previous version was the one, but that quickly showed not to be true. This version, on the other hand, has tested well every single time I’ve brought it to the table and with every single player. I haven’t had to go out creating more rules just to try to make this version work. And so, last night, I declared that the mechanics of Armor & Ash are finally done. Took quite a bit longer than anticipated, but I’m really happy with where Armor& Ash ended up.
And no, Armor & Ash isn’t finished yet, not by a long shot. Card text will need to be cleaned up so the meaning is clear. Certain spells might need augmented a bit so that they are balanced and things like that, but the core game is finally done. That is certainly a big hurdle to cross and a great feeling to have.
Now I need to focus on the small details, some of which were mentioned above, but believe me the small things add up. I’ve still got quite a lot to do. And I’m talking about just with the game. On the flip side is building awareness, which I’ve lacked due to trying to focus my energy on getting the mechanics of the game worked out. Now that that task is complete, I can move on to minor rule tweaks and trying to spread the word.
My wife and I recently play tested a game of Armor & Ash using the Forest Elves and Fomorians. She was the Elves, which lost, by a lot. Of course, this prompted her to claim that the Fomorians are too powerful and not balanced against the rest of the factions. She’s played all of the other factions a lot, so she is familiar with them. One of her major complaints was that the Fomorian deck had too many powerful spells/characters when compared to the other factions, whose power cards were in limited supply.
I’ll give it to her that I might need to work on some balancing issues. It was an easy victory, which usually isn’t the case. And, she was playing with the updated version of the Forest Elves, which included the Fen Guardian and Witte Wieven.
One specific character that she had a problem with was the Skulker. Currently, their power is that they can be discarded from your hand to place two wounds as desired (is it as desired or on a single character?). Her issue isn’t the fact that you can discard the Skulker for auto damage, although she wasn’t thrilled about that, but rather with how it functions. In essence, it is like gaining an additional powerful spell. Also, by discarding the Skulker from your hand, you are still able to place five characters onto the Battlefield. So their power triggers, but they don’t take up one of your slots on the Battlefield. After discussing this, I’ll admit it does feel a bit cheap compared to how other powers work and it isn’t fair that using its power doesn’t take up a slot on the Battlefield.
Because of this, I will reword the power so that the Skulker is discarded from the Battlefield. This will address one of the issues of whether the card is overpowered. And I’ll playtest different amounts of damage it applies as well. For the next playtest, we’ll swap factions and I’ll be the Forest Elves against the Fomorians.
The Fomorians also have quite a few characters that have the ability to wound opposing characters adjacent to their target. Damaging adjacent characters is a really powerful ability. And having multiple characters with that ability just amplifies the effect. Guess I need to whittle these down a bit.
I was able to use the Evil Eye spell three times. Of course, she didn’t like this. Three times does seem kind of powerful, but that was luck and won’t happen most of the time. But I probably do need to help ensure it isn’t the norm. Instead of toying around with how Evil Eye works, I could add its mechanic to spells from other factions. The Elves have Elf Shot, which could certainly benefit from a chance at multiple uses, and the Undead have Shadow Bolt. More playtests are needed.
Since every faction has such a limited number of spells, perhaps I’ll make a mechanic where every spell can be used twice. If I attach a dice roll to that mechanic that introduces chance. And you know that chance means one person is going to get good rolls while someone else won’t. Therefore, it is possible for the situation to become lopsided and feel unfair or unbalanced. PLAYTESTING!!!
It might come as a surprise to find out that the factions and unique characters that end up in the final version of a game are not necessarily the factions that came to mind first when creating the game. I know this to be true of many games as I listen designer podcasts and interviews. This is certainly true for Armor & Ash.
As mentioned in a previous game developer blog post, the first faction that I created was the Undead. This was a fairly easy faction to create as I was decently familiar with the different types of Undead creatures available and I had a rough idea of composition I wanted.
The second deck I created was the Forest Elves. I had the Undead as the baddies and needed a force of good to fight them. I quickly took a moment to think about the various archetypical fantasy races. I like dwarfs and all, but elves have always had a greater appeal to me and I wasn’t able to quickly come up with as many different dwarf units as I could for the elves. When I thought about using humans as the possible force of good I couldn’t decide what type of human, as in what group of humans would transfer nicely to this card game? I thought about medieval knights, but quickly ran out of unique card types.
Elves though, when I thought about them, their entire way of life sprang into my head. I could see where and how they lived, what values they held important, why they were fighting, etc. I pictured their respected leaders, fearless heroes, and brave soldiers with stunning clarity. Images of how these elves looked filled my mind and the Forest Elves were born. I knew the Forest Elves would make the perfect adversary for the Undead. Initially, satyrs, dryads, centaurs, and other fantasy creatures that typically dwell in the forest were included as units and allies to the Forest Elves. I’ve since removed a few of these creatures; I thought since the faction was Forest Elves and not Sylvain Warriors (or some such) that there should be more elves.
So now I had my “good” faction and my “bad” faction. A solid foundation was well under way, but the goal has always been to launch with four factions in the base game. This should mean two factions for light and two for dark. Goblins were my next choice. Of all the medieval fantasy bad guys, goblins seemed the most plentiful and easiest to convert into card stats. Reading up on goblins led me to an article about Ghob (or sometimes written as Gob), a goblin king and who the goblins were named after. They were Gob-lings, as it were. I liked this idea and let it shape the goblins, or Ghob-lings as I was now calling them, of my fantasy world. Like with the Forest Elves, in the beginning there were hobgoblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, and other menacing creatures that lived in the Ghob-ling deck. And originally, the Ghob-ling faction was a little more like the orcs in Warhammer and World of Warcraft than a slightly whimsical fantasy race. This has changed a bit as I have begun to draw inspiration from personal fantasy favorites, such as the movie Legend. I’ve still got a ways to go to break away from the brutish orc-like mold, but now I at least have a different picture of what these Ghob-lings should be like.
Now I needed just one more faction. Only one more and I’d have the four factions to make up the base game. However, this last faction was proving to be very elusive. I couldn’t pin down anything suitable to go along side goblins, elves, and undead. It actually became slightly frustrating. So instead of finding the last faction to complete Armor & Ash, I found factions that would make great expansions. Some of these factions instantly went into the “expansion” category. I knew they weren’t suitable for the base set but I wanted them to be part of the game eventually. As I was researching and brainstorming for the next faction, I kept going back to actual folkloric history of Western Europe for reference.
While on vacation at the beach, sitting in front of a laptop with far too many browser tabs open, a link led me to the Fomorians. Through my love of folklore and World of Darkness role playing games, I was readily familiar with Fomorians, but reading about them in that moment put them at the very top of the list of faction decks I wanted to create. Fomorians, in my opinion, would make a great antagonist. They had a rich history with lots of characters and fabled items from which to draw inspiration.
Adding Fomorians to Armor & Ash felt natural, like they belonged. Creating this deck was easy and I finished it in record time. With all of the history and tales of Fomorians readily available on the internet, I had a goldmine of reference material at my fingertips. True, the internet contains a lot of information on undead, elves, and goblins as well, but the Fomorians seemed to leap onto the cards. I was never hard pressed for the next card or its ability.
With four decks now created, I settled into playtest mode (as opposed to research or brainstorm mode). I subjected my friends and family to countless playtests using these four factions. It wasn’t until a few months later when I remembered that the Fomorians would not be included in the base set; I still needed another “good guy” faction. Back to brainstorm mode.
I liked the Fomorians. I liked how their deck interacted and compared to the others. But, if I kept using it as the fourth faction I’d never find the actual faction that was to be part of the base game. So I decided to set the Fomorians aside. There would be no more playtests with them until the base set was 100% finalized and ready for printing. This forced me to really consider what I wanted/needed as the fourth faction.
Finding this hidden forth faction was still proving to be difficult. I was getting desperate and forlorn. At times I felt like throwing in the towel; nothing seemed to fit. One faction that kept popping up was the Nippon, which means Japan. The Japanese have very rich folklore about their ancestors, spirits, and demons. I knew I wanted to eventually include a Japanese themed faction, but I couldn’t justify how a Japanese faction would be fighting the Ghob-lings, Forest Elves, and Undead, which I envisioned to be in a fantasy medieval realm resembling Western Europe. Also, as I began to think more about what I wanted for the Nippon, and how I started to see the game and its expansions in general, the more I realized that I wanted a complete two deck Japanese themed starter set. This means “good” Japanese units, like samurai, squaring off against “bad” Japanese units like Oni or Kappa. This was great, but didn’t get me any closer to settling on a fourth faction for the base game.
For me, the above picture happens a lot. I’m going to call that design creep. I’m sure it happens to the best of them, but for novice board game designers it can really sap away a lot of time. Hours turn into days that turn into weeks and sometimes months of lost time. This valuable time can seem worthwhile in the moment, but it is easy to see how playtesting the Fomorian deck and dwelling on the Nippon deck cost me months of actual forward progress. I should not have spent the time and energy on those two decks and instead should have doubled my pursuit of the fourth base deck.
Thankfully, all that was lost was time and, at the time, I only have self-proposed deadlines. There was a little sting in the realization that so much time had been lost and I wasn’t anywhere closer to the finish line. But, with realization comes focus and focus yields fruit.
I think I finally settled on Vikings as the fourth faction as kind of a copout. I couldn’t think of anything else so why not at least jot down some possible Viking cards and see how it goes. At the time, I wasn’t certain what the faction would be named; originally I was against using the name Vikings as I know too many people that cry “They didn’t call themselves ‘Vikings’” upon hearing that word. So naming them became a stumbling block. Should they be called Norsemen? I actually conducted an online poll for suggestions. Ultimately, I decided that the word Viking evoked such a strong image that I’d be foolish not to use that name.
After that was settled, the Viking deck all but built itself. It was as if I couldn’t contain the characters within me any longer. The Raider, Berserker, and Skald all sprang to life. I never quite understood how authors could say, “The book practically wrote itself” until I started creating the Viking deck. The ideas flooded my mind and struck me like lightning. Whew, what a feeling. I finally had the fourth deck, solid progress was being made, and I felt like I could now move on to the next phase getting Armor & Ash made.
I still had/have a lot of work in front of me, but creating the Viking deck was a defining moment. The foundation was now built. Armor & Ash was one step closer to reality.
After a few playtests, it occurred to me that I might want to save the Young Griffin card for a supplemental Beast deck I’m beginning to formulate. I already have plans for an Elemental deck, which is coming along nicely, but I’m starting to think I need a Beast deck as well. Using either of these decks, players could substitute regular faction units for these new Elementals or Beasts. This would allow more variety and provide a deck building aspect.
I’m trying to flesh out some rules surrounding deck building. As of right now, the thought is that no more than five mercenary/supplemental cards can be swapped out for normal unit cards. I start questioning what happens when only one player has purchased one of these expansion decks? Because the each expansion deck will come with more than 10 cards, I’m thinking that both players would choose from the expansion deck, regardless of which player’s it actually is. Either both players have the opportunity to use a given expansion or neither do.
I also reworded/reworked Fear as a mechanic and keyword. Since only a few cards had Fear or an immunity to Fear, it didn’t seem right to try to make Fear a common keyword. Also, characters that had Fear really stalled the game since it was difficult to attack them, because of this, they started seeming a bit over powered as well. Not sure if I mentioned this before, but originally Fear was a spell. And then I decided that certain characters should have the effects of Fear as their special ability.
Currently, instead of simply saying something like “Immune to Fear” as part of a special ability, I add a little more detail, saying “No spell or ability my stop this character from activating”, which is essentially what an immunity to Fear means. The newly worded version, however, is a bit more powerful because it also blocks other “can’t activate” type powers, such as Will O Wisp. Presently, there are only two characters that have this ability and I think spelling out the effects in detail is a better way of incorporating the ability as opposed to having some players have the need to ask, “What is Fear?”
Continuing my earlier post about diversity within the factions, I recently created a few new characters for the Forest Elves and the Undead faction. For the Forest Elves, one of the first of the new cards I added was a Young Griffin. The Griffin has the Type: Beast but it is exempt from the Beast Lords power, since it is already decently tough. For me, Griffins are forest dwelling animals and of course they’d align themselves with Elves should the forest be under attack.
The next new card for the Forest Elves is the Fen Guardian. The Fen Guardian is decently powerful and has the ability to heal allies upon entering the Battlefield. Rolling doubles will allow the Fen Guardian to heal itself. This makes it kind of a magnet for attacks, but with the “upon entering” rule, it gets to benefit the army regardless. In addition to being a decent healer, the Fen Guardian is a powerful spirit of the forest as well. When being retaliated against, the Fen Guardian has a chance (roll of d20) to wound the attacker. This is a lot of special abilities for one card, but this is a forest spirit we’re talking about.
I also added a couple of new spells to the Forest Elf deck. One is Witte Wieven (wise women). Actually, I keep going back and forth with this card: should it be a character or a spell? The illustration will be the same either way. The special ability might have to change slightly, depending on which way I go, but as of right now, as a spell, Witte Wieven forces your opponent to discard a card from their hand. So immediately, this is a powerful card. The Forest Elves also have Lenus, a satyr, which also auto removes one card from the Battlefield. So, if playing with these two cards together, that’s two opposing units that get removed from the Battlefield without having to attack them. The Forest It seems that Elves are moving from a healing focus to removing units without having to worry about retaliation damage. And, that’s not all, Witte Wieven has an “OR” clause. You can force your opponent to discard one card, OR put a +1 Defense token on the card of your choice. Needless to say, I think this is a pretty good card.
The second spell is Chilly Fog. I see the Forest Elves being able to control the elements. One of the Heroes has control over Fire and another over Air, so Fog is a natural conclusion. Currently, Chilly Fog targets three adjacent units and subtracts 1 attack from each of them for one turn. The more I play with this card, the more I think it should be included in the Elemental deck instead. Guess it depends on how much the Elemental deck gets fleshed out. I guess it also depends on how many spells I determine should be included in each faction. The Undead deck has so many spells that I don’t know what to do with them all, but some of the other decks barely have the minimum.
Moving over to the Undead faction, the new character for them is the Dullahan, which is basically the Irish headless horseman. The Dullahan is one tough character. If having Defense 4 wasn’t enough, his special ability allows a chance at removal of Defense 3 or lower characters. A chance at auto-removal is nice, and since it is a special ability, it triggers before the target gets the chance to retaliate.
I’ve printed out and played with the Fomorian deck quite a few times. I’m not 100% satisfied with their powers and abilities, but I like all of their concepts/names. The main thing about their special abilities is that I don’t think they fit thematically. My wife still claims that they are overpowered. I’ve only been playing with a single Fomorian Hero; it is proving difficult to come up with powers for the other two. But the core warrior deck is there.
One of the spells I created for the Fomorians is called “Evil Eye”. According to legend, Balor (an old god and one of the Fomorian heroes) was a cyclopes and could use his Evil Eye to achieve massive destruction, even poisoning crops and setting entire forests on fire. Very powerful, indeed, but I couldn’t make it too powerful, and yet I wanted it to feel like it was a force to be reckoned with. I decided that if the spell was played while Balor wasn’t the chosen Hero, then it would be a one and done type spell. However, if Balor was the Hero, then the strength gets bumped up by 1 (roll 4 dice to hit instead of 3) and there is a chance (d20 roll) to return the spell to the Magic deck instead of putting it in the discard pile. Worse case when Balor is the Hero is Evil Eye is a roll 4 dice to hit spell, and it is one and done. Best case is that the d20 dice roll is successful and the spell goes back to the Magic deck to be used again later.
Here’s the possible bad part. If I succeed on the d20 roll, what is to stop me from immediately playing Evil Eye a second time, right then and there without missing a beat? And, let’s say the d20 roll succeeds again. I either pocket the spell or blast another opposing character. This is a major reason that Susie thinks this card is overpowered. But, succeeding on the d20 roll has only happened one out of three times so far.
I also added an item to the Ghob-lin faction, Skofnug. Any character can use this item, but if Sreng is your chosen Hero then Skofnug gets a bonus.
This is the first time I’ve done something like this with spells/items, that is, made their power contingent on which Hero was chosen. I like the idea and want to go back and incorporate it into the other factions. Seems this could work well with some of the Undead spells. Should there be Hero specific spells, and the only way to gain access of those spells is to pick that specific Hero? That would certainly add more cards, which means increased printing price. Hmmm, decisions, decisions. Guess we’ll have to see how this shakes out.
In an earlier post I talked about how I graphed out each of the faction decks that make up Armor & Ash. By the numbers, it looked like the Undead deck was the weakest while the Ghob-ling deck was the strongest. However, during playtests, it seemed that the Undead could certainly go toe to toe with any other faction. I started keeping track of win/lose numbers and although underpowered when compared to the attribute numbers of other factions, the Undead deck had a better than average win ratio.
Despite this, I began believing that the Undead faction was indeed underpowered. The fact that they had a decent win ratio was testament to how well the players played the faction. In the hands of an inexperienced player, I feared, the Undead would simply be steamrolled.
I started tinkering with things to try to more evenly balance out the graph. I wanted each faction to have roughly the same distribution of stats. This proved folly. Initially, it did help spot clear power gaps, but it quickly led to all factions feeling basically the same. Why choose Undead over the Forest Elves besides the art?
After I had my hand at balancing the factions, playing the game lost some of its appeal. It no longer felt like battle was being waged, but rather an abacus was being used to evenly remove cards from the battlefield. Let me tell you: that’s no way to play a battle game. The game felt too balanced.
I wasn’t sure that a game could be too balanced, but let me assure you that it can. Playing one instance of an overbalanced game might not really stand out. The game might feel close and if you don’t play the game again real soon you might forget just how even everything felt. Playing multiple consecutive games, however, is very telling. When both sides can’t easily damage the other or each side damages the other equally each turn, the game starts to feel like a draw. It doesn’t feel like anyone is really winning. And, the game gets drawn out; it simply takes longer to finish because of the precise balance. Having no advantage, having each card met with a doppelganger, feels all but fruitless.
Back to the drawing board. Time to adjust abilities. Time to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each faction. How should the Undead faction play? Why would someone want to play Forest Elves instead the Ghob-lin deck? What makes the decks different? These are key questions to keep in mind. The whole point of having a game with multiple factions is to have some variable player powers, some uniqueness, some asymmetry.
I think I have everything back on track now, although at times the game still feels a little too balanced. I question whether a new element of randomness is needed. But where to stop? How much is too random? How much is too balanced? This is where player feedback is important. And the best player feedback, I’ve found, comes from strangers. Friends and family don’t want to hurt your feelings and so they don’t always tell you that your game stinks. Strangers, while face to face, will often want to spare you from brutal honesty as well, but if properly prompted I find it easy to get honest, constructive feedback from them. Often, they’ve even got a list of ways to “improve” your game. “What if the Vampire had this power?” “Have you thought about adding event cards?”
And so, a word of caution to aspiring board game designers. Balance is often difficult to get right. Playing a game that is completely balanced is like playing a game of Rock, Rock, Rock (as opposed to Rock, Paper, Scissors). Imbalance is what makes the game interesting. The belief that they can win is what draws people to games and makes them want to play (that and fun). Graphs and spreadsheets may aid in some of the design process, but don’t solely rely on them. Does each tweak of the numbers make the game more fun or does it simply serve to balance things on paper?
Today, we are testing version 3.something of the game. My enthusiasm is high and the ideas about how to make the game better are coming quick.
The new major, possibly major, revelation or change to the game is that for quite some time I have wanted to incorporate some kind of different damage types, specifically elemental damage. I want an expansion card pack that is full of elementals that can be added to any army or replace normal army cards. Of course, they would have different damage types based on the type of element that they are. For example, the fire elemental would have fire damage type, and the ice elemental would have cold, the earth etcetera, etcetera.
I’ve wanted elemental damage, and different damage types for the game in general, for a while now. But I haven’t been able to work out how, exactly. I also toyed around in my head with melee versus ranged and things of that nature. Haven’t worked that out yet either, but I think I cracked the code on how to successfully add different damage types. The keyword is “think” because it hasn’t been play tested at this point. This has been a tough nut for me to crack, and each time I’ve thought about it in any great detail, it just hasn’t worked. But, this time, I think I got it; it just needs a little refinement.
The idea is to add custom dice for the different damage types. If a card has damage type fire they would substitute one of their normal hit dice for one of the fire dice. The fire dice would be, at least in my mind right now, a translucent red unique custom dice that would have damage symbols on it: single damage symbols, maybe a double damage symbol, and then blanks. The advantage of rolling elemental dice is that you wouldn’t have to get over a certain number (typically over three), you would just have to roll a damage symbol or a double damage symbol for two hits from a single die.
If this is how it plays out then if you have electrical power then you roll the electric dice, if you’re earth, you get the earth dice, and they would have different amounts of hits and blanks. Maybe there could be other symbols to do other things, like affect adjacent cards or to roll again for chain lightning perhaps.
I need to think about it a little more but I like the idea of adding custom dice. How it’s in my head right now is one custom die for each of the powers. One for fire, one for earth, one for wind, dark energy, and so on. At least that is how I’m looking at it currently. A second possibility would be to have a set of elemental dice and have them all be the same so they could be used for any element. Fire, wind, air, whatever, but have the damage type be responsible for how many of those dice a player rolls. Fire might roll two elemental dice for example, while Air might roll only one elemental die. Not sure if this should be in addition to the normal amount of hit dice or a substitution for them.
Sounds like I have some more play testing to do.
Today I want to talk about the diversity of units within each faction because my original concept is a lot different than where the game is currently. The first faction I designed was the Undead. Making the bad guys first felt somehow easier. And really, ever good game needs the Undead. So I just started brainstorming all of the different creature types that could fit into an Undead faction. Of course, the usual suspects came to mind first: vampires, zombies, skeletons. These were easy but if I’m being honest, I exhausted the list rather quickly. Eventually, I took the easy route and decided that I could make different variations of the base creatures. So there’d be a vampire and a vampire lord. There’d be a normal skeleton and an armored skeleton, for instance. In the first few iterations of the game there were a very limited number of different creature types. The differences in the cards were different iterations of those types: normal zombie vs hungry zombie vs rotting zombie vs headless zombie, etc. The plan was: all of these different types would have different stats and art. I wanted the factions to have a very centered and uniform feeling, but at the same time have different characters that would bring life and flavor into them.
A little bit of this still exists today, but ultimately I decided the game needed more diversity. The idea of increased diversity came when trying to flesh out the other factions. And so, I had to eventually revisit the Undead as well. Thankfully, Wikipedia exists and is readily at my fingertips. A quick search for “Undead” yields a virtual treasure trove of different Undead things that exist in folklore and fantasy fiction.
One thing that immediately stood out to me was all of the myths and folklore of Undead creatures that originated in India. I quickly captured two of these creatures’ names in my Excel document. One was called Preta and the other was called Bhot. I kept reading about these two Undead creature types and eventually made unit cards for them. I did a search for these specific Undead by name, trying to see if any other games used them and possibly gain some more information. Seeing how other people/games interrupted them, artistically, really stoked the creative fire. It also led me down a few tangential paths where I found some other interesting Undead creatures. After more reading and looking at how some other games handled the various creature types I starting to conceptualize how the powers and abilities typically associated with these creatures should be converted into game mechanics.
A little after the game had been play tested for about a month, I decided to graph out all of the cards, focusing on their stats/attributes. Since I now had four, more or less, complete decks I was interested to see how balanced, by the numbers, they all were. How did the different faction decks compare with one another? At the same time I decided to graph out how many different types of creature existed in each deck. If the Undead had only vampires, zombies, and skeletons (there were ghouls and such too, but I’m trying to simplify for the sake of example) while the Forest Elf deck had elves, beasts, dryads, elementals, satyrs, centaurs, etc it might look a little lopsided. And of the different types (vampires, elves), how many of each were there in the faction? In the beginning, I was just creating cards as fast as they’d come to me. I was adding creatures to decks until the deck had enough cards to be considered complete. For some factions, I had too many creatures and so I had to decide which to use or which to substitute if a faction had multiple of a single creature type. For example, should I replace two of the four vampires in the Undead deck with Pretas?
What I noticed when I made the graphs was that the Undead was by far the weakest faction, at least by the numbers and amount of diversity. The Ghob-lings, on the other hand, were the strongest, again, strictly by the numbers. The Ghob-lings had around eight common unit cards with an attack value of three. They had more units with a value of four and really stuck out as being, by the numbers, over powered. At the time, the Undead only had a single card with a defense value of four: the Elder Vampire. Most other factions had at least three such cards. So here I am with three vampire cards, two regular vampires and one elder. I start thinking that I either need another Elder Vampire or I need to get rid of that card and make room for two other creatures.
As I was looking at the graph it occurred to me that even though the Undead appeared to be weak, at least according to the numbers, that during play tests it didn’t seem under powered. And in every play test that involved the Undead (all except one, actually) the games were very close, coming down to the last hand. The Undead had a decent winning streak, but the numbers said they didn’t have as many powerful units. The question became: was it just luck, or perhaps the skill of my opponent that determined victory against the Undead? Were they in fact under powered and I simply played them well? How would they fare while in the hands of someone new to the game?
After turning this over in my head for a while, I finally decided that the Undead deck needed another card with a defense of four. And so, the Headless Horseman was born. It took a while to decide on exactly what the new card would be, I mean there are so many Undead things to choose from. Ultimately, I decided I was looking for a creature that is typically thought of as powerful, so nothing like a bag of bones skeleton. No ephemeral ghosties.
As of writing this, I haven’t yet played with the Headless Horseman. It actually took me a while to settle on using him in the faction so I just haven’t had the chance. Right now he just exists in a spreadsheet. This is the first card that I tried to individualize. The card is THE Headless Horseman, not simply A Headless Horseman, and so there is only one of him in the Undead deck.
Early on I wanted the different units in each faction to have very similar abilities. For example, if one Undead card said something like, “add +1 to all damage rolls” then I wanted a card in the Forest Elf deck to say the same thing. Some cards would be unique, but I thought that by having three or four central powers that the different factions would be better balanced. I have since learned that that makes then bland and boring, but this lesson didn’t come early on. Making all cards have pretty much the same powers kind of defeats the purpose of having different factions.
After I discovered that the game wasn’t really fully developed with half the cards in a given faction having the same abilities as half the cards in any other faction, I decided that I needed to go in and rethink/rewrite some abilities. I’ve reworked quite a few cards, but I haven’t finished yet. Now I am of the mindset that I want to incorporate elemental abilities of some kind. Adding elemental damage and making cards have different elemental damage types would be an easy way to increase the diversity. We’ll see how it goes; currently this is all just in my head. Play testing will determine if this is a viable option.
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.