Since the very beginning, I planned for Flash Duel to include a "raid" mode where 2, 3, or 4 players teamed up against a 5th player who controls a powerful dragon. While Flash Duel is a pretty simple game overall, it's still a 1v1 competitive game. I wanted to give players a way to team up and have someone on their side, so that it can be an even more social experience if that's what you're looking for.
I always planned this mode to be part of the second expansion. The first expansion was to have 10 new characters and the second expansion was to include the cooperative play of the dragon raid mode. Somewhere along the way, I decided to redo the entire game and include the base and both expansions all in one though, as part of my "too much value" initiative for Flash Duel. Anyway, even though I planned to include this mode since day 1, I thought I'd explain some of the design choices that came up along the way, for your entertainment value.
Who is the Dragon?
Master Menelker is one of the Fantasy Strike expansion characters. He's actually been with us for a very long time, and he even predates Valerie and Geiger in Yomi. In the lore of Fantasy Strike, he is the most powerful combatant in the realm because he has the will to do what others won't. There is no "cheap" to Menelker, there is no taboo. He is the ultimate embodiment of Playing to Win.
Menelker and Midori trained together long ago, and each have the ability to transform into a dragon. Midori into a powerful green dragon, and Menelker into the much more powerful black Deathstrike Dragon. Menelker got this name from rumors of deathmatches (fights to the death) that he's been involved in--and, apparently won. Menelker would not engage the weak in such a challenge, as it would be outside the point of playing to win. That said, Menelker doesn't need to bother using his ultra-powerful dragon form in such matches, as he would win too easily and learn nothing. No one has defeated the humanoid Menelker, and no one man could defeat the dragon. It would take a team of fighters working together to have a chance.
The Dragon Cards
If the Deathstrike Dragon is to live up to his lore, his cards had better be pretty damned awesome. Early on, there was some talk fo the dragon player having a hand of ability cards so he could keep them secret, instead of the usual face-up abilities in Flash Duel. Even from that earliest moment, I knew it wasn't the right direction though. Hidden information like that can improve the strategy, but we have other ways of improving the strategy, too. It's important to have a bit of showmanship and to make the legend of the dragon come alive. The best way to do that is with gigantic, amazing looking cards, and those cards would be too big to reasonably hold in your hand. The dragon cards use the same one-shot flip mechanic as all other Flash Duel abilities (which is a plus for consistency in mechanics), they are just on huge cards.
Here's one of Menelker's human form cards:
And here's one of his HUGE Deathstrike Dragon cards:
Wow! Notice that the dragon doesn't obey the usual rules of card frames. He's busting out of these cards, stepping in front of the title and the ability text at times. He can't be contained inside a mere card. The art direction was incredibly important here too, as the dragon had to live up to his lore but also be "cute." Flash Duel 2nd Edition uses a chibi (kid) art style, so we're seeing the cute kid version of the dragon here, remember. It actually took months and months to get these cards looking as fantastic as they do, and special thanks to artist Genzoman for the character images (and to me for the graphic design besides the characters, ha). Here's another one!
Are these sweet or what? Oh and incidentally, the back of character cards in Flash Duel all have a black border except for the dragons'. ("A mere card border can't contain him!") And the pawn for moving the dragon is enormous compared to the pawns of mere mortals.
I think we got really close to the right gameplay in the very first prototype version. In that version and in the shipped game, the mortals can have 2, 3, or 4 players. Each of them take a turn before the dragon takes his. The fight takes place on the same 18-space track as the regular 1v1 game. The more mortals there are, the more hit points the dragon has and the more abilities he gets to bring into the game. Also, the more numbered cards are used. All players draw from the same deck of numbered cards. The tuning variables of exactly how many hit points and how many abilities and so forth were adjusted, but the concept of all that stuff is still the same as day 1.
One tuning variable that took a long time to sort out was how many numbered cards should be in the deck when there's 2, 3, or 4 mortals fighting the dragon. Getting to the answer took a bit of math and bit of just trying it out. The interesting thing about this is that when there are 3 or 4 mortals, you actually reshuffle the deck one time to simulate having more numbered cards. You might think the reason for this is so fewer physical cards can be included in the box, to make it cheaper to manufacture. While that is one reason, there's an actual gameplay reason for it, too. By using 40 or 50 numbered cards and shuffling them once, there are only 8 (for a 4p game) or 10 (for a 5p game) copies of any given number out there. For example, in a 4p game there are only 8 cards that say "2" on them and 8 cards that say "3" rather than 16 of each of those if you just used more cards. It's a bit better for strategy when are fewer copies of each card, because it helps you better guess how many the dragon has at any given moment.
It did take quite a while to get the Dragon's abilities to be tuned correctly. The player chooses a subset of abilities to take into each game, and for a long time there were a couple that were just way too good and chosen 100% of the time. At the same time, there were some that sucked. When the dragon faces more mortals, he can bring more abilities, and as you can see, if the tuning is bad how it was originally, that means the dragon isn't getting enough of a power boost against the additional mortals. So he's too good against a few mortals and too terrible against a bunch. A lot of this problem went away when we were just more careful about balancing those abilities, and specifically including scaling ones that have more effect against more mortals, like this:
New Move: Dashing Block
In order to encourage even more teamwork, we added a new move called "dashing block" in the modes where you have teammates. So if someone attacks your friend with a pair of 4s, you can dash in and both contribute 4s to block. At first the dashing blocker had to block the whole thing himself if he was even going to do the move, but later we relaxed that to allow both the dashing blocker and his friend to contribute cards, and it helped the teamwork for sure.
It wasn't all smooth sailing though. We faced one problem so big that some people said we should just give up on this mode. The problem was that in this "simple, fast card game" it was taking extremely long for the mortals to take their turns. They would do an inordinate amount of planning, then eventually find some amazing unbeatable sequence, then the dragon would quickly take his turn and die. So it was slow and also unfair to the dragon. Sometimes players are too quick to give up on an idea though, and it takes some vision to see that these things are solvable, and the good parts can be rescued.
The solution to both of the above problems was to force the mortals to take their turns in a certain order, and to have them redraw their hands after each of their turns. Originally, all the mortals would simultaneously redraw their hands to save time, but this ends up doing the opposite of saving time. If you have a team of 4 players and all of them know exactly every card in every teammate's hand for the entire set of turns...and if they can take those turns in any order, the possibility space for them to think about is very large. It's a huge but solvable problem. Analysis paralysis ensues, and if you're smart enough, the dragon loses.
But if you must take turns in the same order each time (always player 1, then 2, then 3, then 4), then a lot of the possibility space is reduced. The mortals become weaker (which we needed them to be) but it's also much faster to actually play. You don't have to debate the optimal turn order for 10 minutes, because it's chosen for you. Also, it's much less solvable when the mortals have incomplete information from not knowing ahead of time which exact cards will be drawn over the course of their turns. You might think that uncertainty makes people take longer to decide, but actually it gives them the courage to actually make a move instead of think forever about the provably best move when they have complete, perfect information about all their hands.
These changes greatly sped up the gameplay for mortals and also reduced their power to the appropriate level. It pretty much just worked after that.
Oh, and another issue we had early on that was solved very quickly was the problem of how many turns the Dragon should take. At first I thought he might need to take a turn after EACH mortal went, but that turned out too strong. Then we tried that all mortals take their turns, then the dragon takes just one turn, but this was too weak. Not by much though. The dragon just needed a way that he can sometimes take more turns. The problem comes from mechanics, but the answer came from flavor. "Wouldn't it be cool if the dragon took an extra turn each time he defeated a mortal!?" Yes it would, and it works fine, done and done.
Next time I'll cover the *other*, even more difficult Raid on Deathstrike Dragon mode. For now, I'm pleased to announce that pre-orders for Flash Duel 2nd Edition are now ready, and you can get the game online here. It will ship in early December, assuming no shipping delays, which means it should be here before the holidays. (Disclaimer: I can't control unexpected shipping delays, but I can cross my fingers about them.) Also, if you're a retail store owner or a player who'd like to buy this or any other of my games at your favorite local brick-and-mortar retailer, tell them to sign up here and Game Salute will be happy to supply them with everything they need, as well as offer excellent support. And while we're at it, thanks for your support. And special thanks to Lofobal, Sage, Jelyman and the rest of the sirlin.net crew for the excellent playtesting.
The boardgamegeek entry for the game is here.