Get updates via e-mail:

« Various Updates | Main | Yomi Pre-orders, Again »

Design Dilemmas

I'll tell you about some design issues and the process of working through them, even though I can't actually tell you any of the details. Sorry about that, but you'll still get the gist.

One of many things I've been working on is a new card game, to be released in about 100 years. It's "somewhat similar to Magic: The Gathering." I have One Big Idea for what makes it new and different, and I've played the prototype a fair amount. It's fun. I've played probably dozens of my own prototypes, and having them actually be fun is a kind of rare and great thing, so that's a strong signal to keep going.

I discussed this game with several other professional game designers, some of whom actually worked on the real Magic: The Gathering. The problem, I said, is that even though it has the One Big Idea that makes it play a lot differently, it still is just too close to MTG. Like how do I not have a card that destroys a "creature," or that deals 2 damage to a creature, or Llanowar Elves, etc, etc. Even cards like Ball Lighting are hard not to have.

In my prototype, many specific cards are like MTG cards. Even though I think that's good for the game, I think the audience has a strong, almost irrational love of the "new" and would actually prefer a game to be new and different than for to be the best it can be if that means a lot isn't new. Every single designer I talked to including the MTG guy said don't be afraid to copy MTG. They said the more you copy it the better, probably, because it's damn good (I agree it's damn good) and that my One Big Thing and my completely different business model are more than enough to make it stand apart. They said of course many of the staple cards should be in the game, and not to avoid a bunch of good ideas just because they are in MTG.

Well, I didn't really listen. I think those designers are underestimating the board/card game market's desire for the new, even though I wish they were right. What I needed was a second Big Idea in addition to the first. I had a few ideas, some driven by mechanics and some by theme. One that was driven by mechanics was a bidding system that is somewhat similar to the bidding in Chess 2. This system added A LOT of depth and strategy and "yomi" to the game, so it showed lots of promise. It was totally unwieldy logistically, but I was looking for depth first, and to sort the rest out later. In order to address the logistical problems, I then tried a simplified bidding system that was just easier to keep track of. This reduced the depth slightly, but there was still plenty. Then I tried the same game but with the bidding system removed entirely, to see what it would be like. It felt like a breath of fresh air.

I have a specific point about that, that will come up later. You might expect the reason that it was a breath of fresh air was because of the game flow being logistically smoother without worrying about the trappings of keeping track of your bidding resource. Actually, this wasn't the reason. (The simplified bidding system was easy enough to track already.) The reason was actually the mental fatigue. It was just completely draining to actually play the game. It had "too many decisions," you could say. Let's come back to that concept in a bit.

I moved on to several other ideas, which I will just skip past. There was another idea, a theme-driven one, that was always on the table. Going with this theme would surely suggest several new mechanics, so it could be a way to kill two birds with one stone, when it comes to being "not exactly MTG." The thing is, I had other themes in mind that I liked a bit more.

Someone Else's Game

I think one turning point for me was at one of the meetings of professional game designers that I go to. At this meeting, Ron Carmel (co-creator of World of Goo) was presenting a prototype of a video game idea he had. I think it's confidential, so I can't really tell you about it, but I can say in totally vague terms that it involved the idea of some characters working together to achieve a goal. It also had a Big Idea in it, an interesting game mechanic. In one sense, the game was about the mechanics of the characters working together. Or was it about the Big Idea mechanic? Or was it about the *maps* you play on? Or was it about creating new maps as part of the actual gameplay? Or was creating new maps not part of the gameplay, but more like a modding thing in an FPS that's outside of gameplay? On top of all that, Ron was very interested in exploring the personal relationships between the characters, and what those meant emotionally.

Different designers could identify various things they liked, or thought had promise, but we were struggling to figure out where to go or what manner of advice to even provide. One designer said, "The problem is that you're not sure if you want to build a car and drive to New York or build a boat and sail to Japan." I thought that was very appropriate in that it expressed that we didn't know which problem we should even be solving yet. Ron asked for advice on which direction to take, noting that again he liked the concept of making the personal relationships of the characters come through. A few pointed out that perhaps the mechanics needed to make this the best game possible would push it in a different direction from maximizing the impact of the relationship stuff.

Ron asked Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, what he would do when faced with such things. Specifically, he said that the ending of Braid expresses an idea, and that the mechanics of the game are very aligned with it. So was it that he designed mechanics to support that idea and make it happen, or was it somehow the other way around? Mr. Blow explained that though it might look like the idea for the ending inspired the game, it didn't at all. In fact, the game was very far in development with some completely different ending that he was never really satisfied with. He said his subconscious mulled over this for months, and eventually the current ending for Braid occurred to him. That ending, he said, has a kind of shallow coolness to it, like a trick ending sort of thing, but that in addition to that it deals with a deep thematic concept that the game is all about. He likes it because it's satisfying on two different levels, and it grew out of mechanics.

What sets games apart from other mediums is the interactive part, the systems we play with, the mechanics of how things work. Those have to be center stage in designing a game. Jonathan Blow's advice was that if the mechanics are telling you something, you have to listen. Go in the direction they are telling you, not in the direction you thought you wanted.

My Card Game Again

So back to my thing. As soon as Mr. Blow said that, I thought "Damn, I have no choice but to explore the theme that the mechanics in my game are already sort of suggesting. Ok, fine." So I did. I tried two more Big Ideas (game mechanics) to add to the first. They grew out of that theme, which is a good thing. I have honestly been struggling with the game though. At another design meeting just recently, I discussed this with Soren Johnson (Civ4, Spore). I explained that both of these two new Big Ideas together were making the card game better in some ways, worse in others, and generally mentally exhausting as well as logistically too much to deal with again. Soren thought that my very first Big Idea that the whole thing is based on was also highly mentally taxing. (I'm personally able to deal with the mental strain of it, but adding those two other Big Ideas on top of it was stressing even me.) Soren said that as designers, we want to give the player hard decisions and that's what we spend lots of time working to create when we make strategy games. But, he said, what we often don't realize is that giving people a truckload of hard decisions isn't ultimately good. It sounds good at first glance, and it sounds like you should turn your "hard decisions knob" up to 10, then keep going up to 11 if you can because that's the best strategy system you can give the player. But really, it just becomes too damn much. Fun gives way to mental strain and fatigue.

Amen to that. If we're talking only theory, I would say we should turn strategy up to 11. But having actually played these versions with too many decisions going on, I've experienced first hand the unfun state of analysis paralysis. As much as I would prefer to turn "decisions up to 11," Soren seems to be right. Perhaps 9 will be enough, ha.

Soren's other feedback was of my two new Big Ideas, one of them was thematic while having a lot of gameplay possibilities, so he advised to keep going with it. The other he was more skeptical of and it did seem that it's adding too many logistical problems and to many things to track. He wondered if that idea could be thrown out or vastly simplified and repurposed as a way to actually reduce the analysis paralysis inherent in that very first Big Idea that it's all based on. (Interesting suggestion.) He emphasized the value of limiting decisions on early turns to less than a zillion possible choices, and letting the complexity open up over the course of a few turns at least.

I don't know where any of this will end up, or if it will really come together, but I thought I'd share with you some of the creative process, and how the problems and advice of different game designers can affect each other.

Reader Comments (22)

I think you're looking at this the wrong way. The thing you got from those other cards was a "small idea", a set of simple decisions that are so common that they become busy work rather than actual strategy. That's probably what you need, a bit of busy work to give the players a few more moments to process the big ideas without ending their turn or interrupting the flow of the game.

For a test, try adding a mechanic where you flip a coin three times and based on whether it's mostly heads or mostly tails the player wins or doesn't win a "point" of some kind. You could use it as a "charge up" to using the main big idea so that players have some game time before they have to use it. Obviously, I'm not saying consider this for a main mechanic, but if it really helps the flow and prevents you from burning out mid game then it's probably a sign of where you should spend your time.

Of course not knowing what all you've done, I could just be repeating everything you've already tried back to you... so yeah. >.>

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSara Pickell

"In fact, the game was very far in development with some completely different ending that he was never really satisfied with. He said his subconscious mulled over this for months, and eventually the current ending for Braid occurred to him. That ending, he said, has a kind of shallow coolness to it, like a trick ending sort of thing, but that in addition to that it deals with a deep thematic concept that the game is all about. He likes it because it's satisfying on two different levels, and it grew out of mechanics."

You have no idea how happy it makes me to see game developers looking at design this way. I'm honestly really tired of dealing with colleagues at school that come up with a story idea and then try to tack on shooter elements or RPG elements because it's easier than thinking about what a game is. I'm also pretty tired of seeing a ton of cinematic games that play very similarly. Great, come up with an awesome story, but if you don't have the game play to back it up, WRITE A ****ING BOOK OR DIRECT A MOVIE.

As for things being too taxing... there was a point some time ago where I was thinking of what would happen if you design fighting game mechanics that just make things absurdly hard, for the sake of pushing the players to their limits while playing. I eventually dropped the idea entirely since no one would play it if I could execute it.

Not sure if it's possible since I don't really know MTG, or the mechanics you're coming up with, but maybe you could find ways to make things more difficult for the people that want it. Just like how in Guilty Gear, you could pick Faust/Ky/Jam/Potemkin and have an easy time based off of what you already know, the lack of technical skill required to play them, or the ease of picking them up, or you could play I-No/Eddie/Johnny and have a really hard time learning the technical aspects of the characters (chemical love > FRC > IAD, or Eddie's Negative Edging, or Johnny's Mist Finer Cancels).

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheRealBobMan

Perhaps the problem isn't that you've turned that decision knob up to 11, but that you aren't pacing them? For instance: the game could be set up so that there was an ebb and flow, with a buildup of tension in the turns preceding the Big Decision (tm) and then the player is allowed some relief to see the consequences of that decision in the turns afterwards. Perhaps then perhaps the Big Decisions won't be so overwhelming.

In other words, basically what Sara said. The minor decisions act as release or buildup towards the major ones.

Player fatigue is something Valve had a lot of trouble with regards to designing Left 4 Dead. The phrase they like is "peaks and valleys" to describe the ideal pacing of their levels, with frantic, chaotic events followed by periods of silence. That way, players wouldn't become numb with the constant action, and instead would have time to bask in their victories and begin to anticipate the next challenge.

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan Morrison

Can the similarity issue be resolved by overhauling the IP? From traditional fantasy to Star Wars-esque "people call it sci-fi even though it's totally just fantasy in space and not sci-fi at all" fantasy?

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterspecs

Thanks for sharing this, I always enjoy hearing what you're up to.

Is there any way to make your card game extensible in a such a way that you can implement these crazy (possibly undesirable) rules to the players in later expansions? This would enable you to ship something that lots of people will enjoy and be familiar with to a degree because of it's similarity to MtG, and then introduce additional complexity after they've had a chance to understand your system, without tying yourself to a single overcomplicated rule-set.

Thinking about it now, that's similar to how Magic works already, but I imagine this would be at a more fundamental rule-altering level, if it's even possible.

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFlu5h7

Ian: yeah that is what Soren was saying. Though actually I like that the early turns have more decisions than MTG, but I think I don't like the versions of the prototype where the early turns have "knob turned to 11 for early turns" heh.

specs:I've actually tried two different settings already. It's still just as MTG in any of them though.

Flush: it really comes down to figuring it out for real the first time. It wouldn't be great if an MTG expansion had some entirely new resource outside of lands or something, and was thus not even really compatible with what came before. I'll figure it out, hopefully. Working mostly on Flash Duel 2nd Edition, Puzzle Strike expansion and Yomi expansion right now though.

April 13, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Well, I didn't really listen. I think those designers are underestimating the board/card game market's desire for the new, even though I wish they were right.

I think this is true of a large segment of the board/card game market, but keep in mind that your target audience isn't necessarily that large segment. Most board/card game players will find a new game, play it a few times, and then move on to something else. Your games (at least Yomi and Puzzle Strike) seem to cater much more strongly to the gamer who wants to pick one game and invest a significant amount of time into it. For him or her, depth and quality of the gameplay is far, far more important than how new it is.

Every single designer I talked to including the MTG guy said don't be afraid to copy MTG. They said the more you copy it the better, probably, because it's damn good (I agree it's damn good) and that my One Big Thing and my completely different business model are more than enough to make it stand apart.

I'm going to agree with every single designer you talked to here. Don't underestimate just how much the business model plays into the differences between your game and Magic. At the highest level, it's fair to assume that card availability isn't an issue in Magic; but your target audience isn't people who play Magic at that level (you're not going to pull them away from a game they've invested that much into). For the vast majority of Magic players, full access to all cards at a reasonable price would be a strong hook to get them in the door, and they'll be most likely to stick with the game if it's as good as you can possibly make it (with the added bonus that it speaks to what they already know).
I'd guess that the only people for whom copying Magic would be a turn-off are those people who don't like Magic to begin with. If your target audience is this group, then any changes you make to the game aren't for the sake of being different, but rather for the sake of appealing to a different group of players.

April 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterawall

Awall, I disagree. I might be less likely to buy a game that seemed to copy Magic. It's not because I don't like Magic - I used to play casually and thought it was an amazing game, albeit an expensive one. It's because of two reasons:

1. I value originality. I tend to resent developers who take a cookie-cutter approach. I respect David Sirlin enough to know that his game is not a knock-off, but as an uninformed customer, this would concern me.
2. A game that is too similar to Magic will seem like a competitor. I might say to myself "Should I buy this, or just get back into Magic instead?" Magic already has a huge player base, whereas I may never find anyone to play Sirlin's game with, as I don't belong to a community of gamers.

A thematic distinction would help quite a bit. It doesn't help that Magic utilizes the same tired fantasy tropes as everyone else, which I have come to resent(see #1).

Thanks for the article! I realize that your website has planted a number of fascinating ideas into my head.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

I am sure you are already familiar with Mark Rosewater's "Making Magic" column.
I think one of his most valuable points is that difficulty and frequency of decision points is not as important as whether those decisions are fun and interesting.
Whether or not you should discard a card to gain 1 life might well be an important and hard decision, but it's likely not as fun and interesting as choosing between putting down the 3rd card of an awesome combo or the dragon that has been sitting in your hand since the start of the game.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFalke

I'll throw in with the designers. Just making it something that can be played out of the box is already a great departure from MTG. Change terminology a bit (infrastructure for lands, money for mana, unit for creature, HP for life, or whatever), but don't be afraid of using the more obvious mechanics. Chess has clearly defined spaces on the board, pieces which move differently, and moving into a piece's space to attack. Eschewing these really reduces the design space.

In no direct connection to your game idea, I feel magic would be changed significantly if players started the game with some cards already out. It would be changed significantly if there were multiple decks per player (either you pick where to draw, or they contain different types of cards - RAGE had a separate deck for combat). It would be changed significantly if Attack wasn't a separate phase, or players attacked simultaneously between their turns. A mechanic where cards are played in sequence (lightning storm costs less when played after lightning strike), or where the is more synergy between cards (something between landwalk and nothing, for example) would make the game significantly different. What if players had a "character" or "faction" card that they could personalize (point-build? hard to balance) and print?

Either way, should you become happy with what you're designing, I'll be eager to play it! (though I may have to stick with the beta, as 2111 is a bit far off)

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterArchon Shiva

I'd like to add that certain game decisions seem to exist in a separate category and don't increase the mental workload in the same way. For example, there is a successful Chinese card game called Sanguosha which bears strong similarity to games of this type. Sanguosha is like non-collectible M:TG style games, but adds the mechanic of unkown friends and foes. There are several roles that can be assigned to each player, but the identity of each is kept secret, so it's not clear which players are the enemy. Because this can be played with something like 2-10 players, the social dynamic can be quite interesting.

Technically, every decision is made substantially more difficult by not knowing who your enemies are. Not only that, but the decision to attack one player over another is usually one of the most important decisions of the game. But it seems like the mental stress from the social dynamic is in a different category. There are no calculations to be made, just social intuition. And it rewards players who know each other well. Furthermore, it requires almost no instruction. People already have an idea of how to read each others' intentions.

Sanguosha is also an interesting case because it is a high-quality M:TG style game which most Western gamers are likely unfamiliar with. It is set around an assassination plot in ancient China, making it thematically distinct. While the meat of the gameplay is relatively simple, it stays interesting by making excellent use of asymmetrical mechanics. Each player draws three character cards at the beginning and selects one to play as. These characters have individual abilities, HP, and factions, which can change your play style dramatically. Throw in the secret identity mechanic and you start to feel like it's a fresh game each time. It's an excellent game which helps to prove the viability of the non-collectible card game market, but unfortunately there is no official English translation yet.

I am a former Magic player who saw striking similarities between Sanguosha and M:TG, but even though Sanguosha clearly draws inspiration from M:TG, it really felt like a different animal to me. The thematic distinction was the biggest reason, surprisingly, with the secret identity mechanic a close second.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

It is very difficult to read this post with the actual ideas redacted to "Big Idea". If you are asking a question for your blog audience to help you with, then it is impossible to really comment with everything abstracted to that high of a level without the comments also being abstracted to an unhelpful level.

If you are posting just to get things off your chest without any sort of need for comprehension or follow-up, then never mind.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZack

There is no question in the post. I thought you might find it interesting. If you don't, then oh well.

Michael: Do you have your own deck that you build in Sanguosha or something? Or is it more like the game Bang? Having just a character card define what you can do is not quite asymmetrical enough for me to actually make a game like that. Would be interested to hear more for the sake of knowing, even if it's not for the game mentioned in my post.

April 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Sanguosha is basically Bang with a Chinese Romance of the Three Kingdoms theme from what I hear.

Battlestar Galactica actually has an interesting take on character asymmetry. Each character three abilities that fit their theme: one ability that can be used every turn, one stronger ability that can be used only once per game, and one persistent drawback. For instance there's Tigh. He can use Cylon Hatred any turn to make it easier to put someone in the brig, or Declare Martial Law once per game to give the Admiral the President title. On the other hand he's an Alcoholic and discards his hand if it only has one card in it.

There are five skill decks that represent special actions characters can take, and each character also has five skill points, which determine what skill decks they draw from. Tigh, a military leader, would draw 3 Tactics cards and 2 Leadership cards each turn, while the crew chief Tyrol draws 2 Leadership, 1 Politics and 2 Engineering each turn.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDavid H

FWIW. I love that you share part of your design process in your blog. I find it interesting and sadly not many people do it. I like that you do and I personally feel it helps me to understand my own thinking process when I do things. On the other hand I feel abstracting things do not help the situation. I would learn more/better if I would knew what exactly you are talking about. But I know you are kind of protective of your ideas and fear of being used by someone else before you, so I guess nothing can be done about it.
So it could be better, but still good as is.

April 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWaterD

yomi is the japanese word for hell, or place of the dead. Jin, is shinto for knowing of ones thoughts in combat.

April 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteruchimatamaster

Long time reader, first time poster.

After reading this blog I couldn't help myself but reply!
Having worked on designing a card based game for a group project just recently, I could not agree more with the design dilemmas you encountered, constant prototyping and trial and error more or less gave us the opportunity to iron out any flaws the game had portrayed.

I like the fact that you had second opinions from renowned game designers within the actual industry which gave you somewhat a direction to pursue in and help decide on what steps to take.
I am quite happy with the decision you made and that you didn't listen to the developers suggestions on copying MTG as obviously it will just end up "being someone else's game" that you just ended up polishing, re-branding and maybe ironing out any features that they didn't improve on ;)

The constant struggle to design something "new" & "fun" these days are unfortunately becoming slim and/or harder but that is not a reason to give up, I am however really eager to see what this game your designing beholds and by the way you explained it so far, seem's to be worth the wait, hurry up and tell us more already!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

I've been working on it a lot. In further testing, it seems the idea Soren liked is kind of good, but perhaps does not pull its weight. I mean it adds depth, but at the cost of a fair amount of annoyance of things to track. The other idea he was skeptical of has turned out to be pretty amazing. It really is the "second big thing" the game needed.

There are still numerous logistical problems, but I think it's getting there. I see a big potential here, and I expect to tell you a lot more when it's a bit further along.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterSirlin

It’s interesting how you’ve mentioned that ‘One Big’ idea can add value to an existing (and already good) game. The fact that you were able to playtest the prototype dozens of teams and still have fun is a true testament to your idea! If you’re able to still have fun after a number of playtests then you have a good concept at hand.
Even though you’ve taken an existing game as a starting point it’s good to see that you value originality and are looking to create something ‘new’. Adding a second ‘Big Idea’ to help cultivate this is great. Changing the theme can also create a sense of ‘new’ which you seem to have realised.

You mentioned that you playtested different variations of the game by changing the mechanics which is certainly a good way to determine what works well and what does not. You implement good design principals by placing yourself in the players shoes and being and advocate for the player. The bidding system caused mental fatigue and removing it was a relief. It’s good that you’ve noticed that not all good ideas are great ideas in practice.
Players could be plagued with analysis by paralysis due to too much mental strain and because of a thorough playtesting process you’ve discovered this. As you’ve said it’s important to create challenge but not overdo it otherwise the fun of the game is taken away. You want the player to be in a state of flow with the game not too difficult to cause anxiety but not too easy to create boredom. It appears you’re well on track to finding this special state of Flow within your game!

I like how you say that the mechanics of the game can show you the direction of how the game should end. More often than not designers get caught up with a great idea but fail to realise that sometimes the game mechanics determine a better path to completion. This is a very powerful concept that’s not often realised!

Well done and good luck with the remainder of the game design project!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBG

Wow, actually even I am a big fan of card games but I didn’t really know how big the board/card game market is before read this article and search about it…!

I love that you share part of your design process in your blog. It is very helpful to understand a bit of game designers’ world. I appreciate it. (I find that not many people actually share such things for public.)

Anyways, I agree with what the other designers said to you that don’t be afraid to copy MTG if it gives better satisfaction for the players. Just like people don’t say that Command & Conquer or Warcraft or Starcraft are ‘someone else’s game’ by pointing to ‘Dune’ series. In this sense, also as a big fan of card games, I am quite happy to hear that you have got some good ideas to make it new and different.

As you know, recently most popular games have got very similar formats if they are in the same genre. I think the age for discussing similarity between games has been finished. The success of a game is up to the entire quality and the attractiveness regardless of the similarity with the other games. Also I believe that one different idea can change the whole attractiveness of the game. I think that basically ‘games’ should be enjoyable for as many people as the designers can attract to. ( it would make better results by discussing the ideas with as many players as you can)

I can’t wait to see and play the ‘damn good’ game!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSiwoo
Comment in the forums
You can post about this article at