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.