Balance & Consistency in Game Design
by Shannon Appelcline
Not all of my creative work is done for Skotos. I have my own projects, usually not electronically oriented, which I work on as well. My biggest push over the last year has been on a background source book for the HeroQuest roleplaying game; it's still in process. But in the last two weeks I started on something very different: a CCG, or Collectible Card Game. I'm hoping to present it at GenCon, where it might get picked up, or (equally likely) it might get shelved. However, as with any creative work, I can now look at this CCG design and see how it lends suggestions & ideas to many other mediums of game design--including our own electronic field.
I should comment, before going on, that this isn't a new area for me. I played Magic as far back as the release of Antiquities, the second expansion, and also played a lot of the other early CCG releases. I was still going pretty strong with CCGs in 1996 when I started working for Chaosium, and in fact I ended up being a developer for Mythos Standard Game Set, Mythos: The Dreamlands, and Mythos: New Aeon. I was also the arbiter of all rules questions, the maker of FAQs, and generally the person that tried to figure out how the game really worked. In 1998, when I left Chaosium, I was pretty burned out, and in the interim since I've just played a few CCGs every year--which brings me to 2005 and my newest design, something that's been costing me sleep for two weeks now.
Starting a CCG
As with most game designs, this one started with a flurry of activity as I jotted down ideas on a sheet of paper. That paper was sitting on my coffee table, and as the day went by I slowly added to it, until I had a semicoherent mess that was only meaningful to me. Within a couple of days that had been transcribed into a full set of rules, and some general discussions of what I thought were the selling points of the game.
After that came the cards, as I gruelingly worked through source material to figure out what should be integrated into the game. Eventually I had enough down that I could outline a couple of decks, and then it was back to kicking out more cards. I needed 100 total to have two decks that I could test against each other, and though there would doubtless be duplicates, as there are in most CCGs, I knew that I was going to have somewhere between 50 and 80 original cards (as compared to 200-300 that would be needed for a full release).
Some of this work was exhausting, because that's a lot to do, but still it remained creative and interesting. There was something new to consider every time I started writing up a new card, and as I moved through them I began to think more about the design of the overall system, and was able to polish some corners in the process. (I think.)
However, last Saturday or so I hit a new element of the design: the drudgery.
The Careful Work of CCGs
There's a lot of prejudice against CCGs amongst other game players. I see it in particular amongst board gamers (sometimes myself include) who look down at these "simplistic" card games. A lot of that has to do with demographics. For whatever reason (person a reason as simple as disposable income) CCGers tend to skew younger than board gamers. I did most of my CCG playing between ages 20-26, myself.
Beyond that, CCGs can be simplistic. Magic: The Gathering has some subtleties, but it also tends to epitomize the tap-and-kill school of design, heavy on deck design, light on strategy in the actual game. Many of the CCGs that came out shortly after the release of Magic, which was when I did most of my playing, were even worse. (Redemption or Wyvern, anyone?)
However, none of those elements are necessities, and as I've learned in the last few weeks, the design of a CCG can be a very tricky thing indeed.
The problem is that CCGs are full of moving parts. In a normal game, be it a board game or the computer game you're designing, you get to largely present the game to the players. You decide which elements will be used in which combinations. You have a fairly concrete set of rules, and so you can choose what to place in the rules, and what to try and cram down onto individual components.
This is not true in CCGs because of two elements: deck design and continued expansion. On Day 1, players will be trying to put together the most broken, abusive deck from your initial set of 200-300 cards. A few years later, they'll have a thousand cards to pick from, to design their uberdeck.
And you somehow have to account for that.
Balance & Consistency
Which leads to my two main topics for the day: balance and consistency. Because of the rugged environment of CCG design, you need to have these from day one, or your game is dead. And, as I'll talk about afterward, any non-CCG designer would do well to emulate these two design ideals as well. Even if they're not as life-and-death elsewhere as they are in CCG design, any game will be much improved by their careful application.
Balance is the art of making sure that all similar elements in a game are equally viable options either because they all have a similar advantage to choose or because any with a superior advantage have an additional disadvantage as well.
In a CCG this means painstakingly ensuring that there's an equally good reason to include every card in a deck; usually this requires some type of disadvantage system, so that you can include cards of different power levels. In Magic: The Gathering each card has a cost to play in "colored" or "colorless" mana; the more you need and the more colored mana you need, the harder it is to play the card and thus the more powerful it can be. In Mythos, a Lovecraftian CCG, each card had a Sanity value, which was either a cost (driving you insane) or a bonus (bringing you up out of insanity). Again, the higher the cost, the better the card, while Sanity bonuses were added to otherwise weak cards.
For my CCG design I developed a somewhat complex point system which let me cross-reference every power against every card type, and give it a value. That value was then translated into a total power level for each card, which ran from 0-3, and is what players would see. Part of my weekend drudgery was thus spreadsheeting out all these values, and making them more internally consistent, thus better balancing the cards.
This same issue of balance will arise in any game where players have a choice. If they have a random hand of cards, will some never get played? If they have a choice of two different paths on a road, will there be one road less taken? Some game systems innately balance themselves. In auction games, a better option will be more fiercely bid upon, and in majority control games, a better option will be more fiercely battled over. (In fact in some of these games, the imbalance is a core strategic element; as a player you have to decide whether "better" options will be more contested more than their value, and if so avoid them.) However, in games were players aren't as able to directly contest for options, you have to think more carefully about their balance. And, in CCGs in particular some of those contesting options might not be available: auctions and majority control both tend to work better as multiplayer designs. So, you're back to balance.
Consistency is the art of making sure that all similar elements in a game are described the same.
In a CCG that primarily means making sure you always use the same language to describe the same effect in card text. If you don't, players will innately assume that the same thing actually means something different when you describe it in five or six different ways. Besides avoiding this problem, consistency also allows you to spend the time to generate the smallest, most perfect explanation of an effect, and then clone that to every card which has that same (or a similar) power. And, it can aid in the balancing, as it'll help you to realize that, yes, this power shared by these two cards is actually the same thing.
For my CCG design I expanded my spreadsheet to also include the standard language for each power, and then copied that as I rewrote each and every card.
There are also graphical consistency elements in CCGs. I've paid attention to them when I mocked up my cards by using the same spaces on the card, the same shapes, and the same colors to represent the same things. If this game is picked up, a real graphic designer down the road will probably revamp all of this, but hopefully my initial presentation of graphic consistency will be a good starting point.
Again, the same issue of consistency applies to any game. In a computer game you might hide the gameplay elements from players more, as they're less likely to understand the nuts and bolts of your system, but you still need to make sure that the game as it appears to them appears consistent. This primarily comes out in interface: the words and pictures you use to display content to your players need to be consistent with each other.
As ever, looking at other genres of creativity can help illuminate online game design. The three things that I bring out of this experiment with CCG design are:
Drudgery: Ever game design has drudgery, as you do the polishing to make sure that it works and makes sense.
Balance: Whenever you offer options to players, and there isn't a good way for them to compete for that resource, you need to make sure the options are balanced in some way, most often by offsetting bonuses with penalties.
Consistency: Make sure you always have consistency in how your game is presented to your players. The same words and the same pictures should almost always mean the same things.
I have another week of CCG design before me, on top of the work I'm doing preparing Skotos for GenCon. However, if any of you are in Indianopolis next week, I'll see you then. Skotos is at booth #430 at GenCon this year.