A good idea solves many problems
(Posted in 2016, but I think it still has value)
In Derek Yu’s excellent book on Spelunky, he mentions a fantastic Shigeru Miyamoto quote:
A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.
This was bouncing around my mind when struggling with some problems in the vampire card game I’ve been working on with Bruno Faidutti. I was about to write him an e-mail describing a potential solution and the reasons for it, and I thought it might be helpful to other designers if I posted it here instead. I’m fleshing it out a bit more for context.
Note: This is pretty convoluted. The details don’t matter completely, but iterating designs to solve many solutions at once is the main point I’m trying to convey. Onward.
Context – Players draft 5 cards at the start of the game. Players can use three of these cards the first age, four the second and all five the third. Each age players add a card to their hand, which means that once they start playing with a card, they will keep playing it. This forms the balance between randomness/surprise and players being able to react to their opponent’s moves.
Players play their cards at one of three locations, then add some of their blood from their pool at these locations. Then all cards are revealed, the attack values and blood added up, and the winner takes the human at that location.
In the current version of the game, there are a few problems that are rearing their head up:
Problem #1 – Playing with all thes cards slows the game down exponentially and makes “mindgames” difficult. Going around a circle of players3-5 times is sllloooow.
This also means it can be quite hard to remember every card you’ve seen, and then brain-burning to figure out how THAT plays into strategy.
Problem #2 – Some people have mentioned a “lack of counterplay”. Because players secretly draft their cards at the start, sometimes even though they predict where and what their opponents will play, their drafted cards still can’t adequately counter them. They drafted their cards at the game start, so they can’t adapt their cards to adapt to their opponents.
Problem #3 – When playing blood as part of an attack without a card, it causes confusion in the minds of players. What does it mean to play blood by itself? Using blood to “power” attack cards makes sense, but played “naked”, it suddenly feels abstract. But for balance, players need to be play blood at multiple locations in an age.
Idea – reduce cards, add a universal “Feed”
The idea here is to reduce the total number of cards for each player from 5 to 3. But then give each player one more a “universal” card: Feed. Note no aesthetics yet, purely functional layout:
Along with this, change blood placement so players can only play blood where they have cards (I’m calling this “one idea” because it all works in concert).
This is the idea that may solve many problems.
How this (could) solve the problems
Now players are playing 2 cards (1 drafted + Feed), then 3 (2 drafted + Feed) then 4 (all 3 drafted + Feed). With blood limited to card placements, it no longer feels abstract and still remains balanced. This solves Problem #3.
The first age, players play two cards: one they drafted, along with Feed. This solves Problem #1, as the addition of an extra card means other played cards can be more obfuscated (I realize this is probably hard to understand without playing the game). Playing this additional card per-player shouldn’t add to the game length too much as players don’t have to track many cards: they know everyone has a feed.
The part I’m most excited about though is how it could solve the issue of counter-play. In a rule-changing, chaotic game like this one, it’s hard to imagine how players might be able to improve their draft-picks vs. another player. One player might need extra blood capability to counter, another might need more attack strength, another information gathering. Adding a hard “counter” card (“Remove another card in play”) leads to players strategizing and bluffing well, but then very easily having all that hard work go down the drain with no skill.
But Feed works differently – it takes blood from the player that won the attack. This isn’t a direct counter, in that you don’t stop the player from winning. But if a player is going to play an unstoppable combo at a location, and other players can figure it out, they can all play their Feeds their and make sure the winner pays dearly. Lose enough blood and you’re out for the round while the other players make a run on the remaining targets without you. So it doesn’t stop you from being your all-powerful bad-ass vampire self, but it can make you wish you were a whole lot sneakier about it. This could very neatly solve Problem #2.
This could lead to a last unanticipated win too: theme. Vampires now are “feeding” often and turning on each other. But the more predictable they are, they more danger they are in. This could bring a Dixit-level of cunning to the game, where you must not only be powerful and predict your fellow players, but you must fly under the radar so they can never quite pin you down. I could still this feeling cheap, so another solution could involve beefing up the card, but having it be a one-time use.
Bruno and I have seen many MANY solutions to problems that seem great in our minds, and then turn out to be terrible, or have some other terrible attribute. So I’m not holding my breath this will work as elegantly as it does on the page. But it feels powerful to start thinking about solutions in this multi-level way.