Just a reminder that Puzzle Strike Shadows as well as Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition are up on Kickstarter right now. Let's delve into the design in excruciating detail!
Casual versus(??) Hardcore
"Casual" and "hardcore" can be a false dichotomy. Which one is World of Warcraft, for example? It's pretty casual friendly, and yet it's not at all casual to the hardcore raiders that spend literally more hours than a full time job at the game. Likewise, Puzzle Strike is pretty casual friendly, having kid characters, a pink box, and fairly easy rules. I'd like to talk about the casual side of Puzzle Strike in another post, and the several ways we're really turning up the casual appeal even more in the future.
But for now, I want to tell you purely about the hardcore side--about Puzzle Strike as a serious, competitive, tournament game. Make no mistake, one of the missions of the game is:
"For Puzzle Strike to be the best competitive deckbuilding game there is."
Ok great mission and all, but how do we accomplish that mission? Let me tell you all that's gone into making that happen, and the challenges we've faced along the way. Here's the criteria that have always been at the heart of the project:
- Asymmetric design
- Player interaction
- Getting to the meat of the game quickly
- Strategically interesting dynamics
- Exciting moments built into the system
- Balance of "viable options during gameplay"
- Fairness of the asymmetric choices
In Puzzle Strike, you start by choosing a character. Each character has different abilities, and allows for different gameplay, and appeals to different player personalities. I've been involved in competitive scenes for games for a long time and the excitement added by having a cast of characters to choose from is enormous. The 2-player version of the base set alone has 55 different character matchups, while the expansion brings that to 210 different matchups. There are so many nuances to knowing how to play all these matchups differently, that symmetric games feel flat by comparison. Even apart from the big gameplay advantages of asymmetric games, there's a boost to the player community by having so much to debate and explore. Different characters also allow different players to find their personal playstyle in at least one of the many options.
Though your opinion may differ, to me, a symmetric game would be a non-starter here, as in not eligible to even consider as the best deckbuilding game for pure competition.
There's a reason to have games with low player interaction. Maybe you'd rather all play a mostly solitaire game without having the "harshness" of directly competing. Even in games with low direct interaction, there can be indirect forms of interaction. That said, this is not a great recipe for a real competitive game. The more player interaction there is, the more opportunity there is to display the kind of skill that should matter in a competitive game. A game with literally zero player interaction would still require skills of course, and those would probably be the skills of optimization. It's just that a race of several non-interactive players optimizing is a missed opportunity when instead we could have a game of very high interaction, allowing for maneuvers and counter-maneuvers.
I've heard the terms "contested" and "uncontested" skills used, here. Uncontested skills are the kinds your opponent can't do anything about. In a video game like Street Fighter, that would be the part where you perform a difficult combo, for example. Contested skills are the kinds your opponent CAN do something about. In Street Fighter, the example would be getting at just the right range to do your move, because your opponent can move his own character to affect that range. While uncontested skills can certainly exist in a good competitive game, the focus really needs to be on constested skills, at least if long-lasting tournament play is the goal.
In Puzzle Strike, the "crash" mechanic builds player interaction into the core of the game. You are trying to fill up the other guy's gem pile full of gems, and you do that by "crashing" (breaking) gems in your own pile and sending them to your opponent. He can "counter-crash" to stop those incoming gems. He might want to because doing so actually ends up removing gems from the system which slightly lengthens the game. Counter-crashing this way also doesn't cost an "action," so that's another reason to do it. But there's reasons on the other side, too. Simply accepting those incoming gems and crashing on your own turn would require spending an action, but it would also yield you a bit of money to buy some better chips. And it would NOT remove gems from the system, so if you're in a good rushdown position, this might be a better option.
The point is that this kind of direct interaction is at the forefront of the game. Also, the red attack chips all have big effects on the game, and the blue defense chips have pretty relevant effects too. You are very often faced with decisions how about to respond to your opponent, and whether you should try to disrupt them, rush them down, or hang back and build your own economy. All the *indirect* interaction that's common in deckbuilding games is still there too, of course. The part where your choices of which chips to buy depend on which chips you see your opponents buying. Luckily that's not *all* the interaction though.
Getting to the meat of the game quickly
In Puzzle Strike you start with your three character chips in your deck, so you can play those starting on the very first turn. In some games, you start with basically blank cards and it takes more turns to get into the real meat of the game. This might sound like a small point, but in a tournament game, it's actually very important to use every minute of gameplay to its full extent, or to cut that gameplay. If you want to run several games in series, it's kind of boring if the first few turns of all those games take a while to get things going, so it was a very conscious decision to give players character chips they can play right away, even before the buys from the deckbuilding start to kick in.
Strategically interesting dynamics
Of course a game has to be actually interesting to play on a strategic level if it is to be a long-lasting competitive game. I wrote an article about how difficult it was to arrive at interesting dynamics that weren't degenerate.
The short version is that the money system, the purple chips that manipulate the gems in your gem pile, and the delicate balance between rushdown, building econ, delaying the game, and ending the game were tough to get right. It's tough because the game system is interconnected, meaning that just about everything effects everything else. It's easier to balance a game if you have some subsystems that can be adjusted without messing up everything else, but if you do manage to get such a dense system to actually work, it means an even richer strategic playground to play in.
I also was the lead designer of Street Fighter HD Remix, and balancing that game was challenging, too. It was based on a game that had been played heavily in tournaments for 14 years, so changing anything about balance at all is a bit like threading a needle. Also, if you change anything about a character to fix a specific matchup, then it will affect all the other matchups. At first glance, it means the system is so interconnected that it's damn hard to work with. But in Street Fighter, it was actually possible to use a lot of tricks to make that balancing challenge easier. By thinking hard enough, many solutions to balance problems in a matchup could have minimal effects on all the other matchups.
One example is Dhalsim vs. Guile. If you aren't familiar with Street Fighter, Dhalsim has stretchy limbs that reach across the screen, while Guile often likes to stay back and throw his projectile called the Sonic Boom. This was a problem, boring match. One champion tournament player suggested that barely changing the hitbox on one of Dhalsim's stretchy punches would mean the difference between it getting a clean hit against the Sonic Boom and trading hits. And that one change would really improve the gameplay of the match. Changing that hitbox had very, very little effect on any other match because it meant changing something on the backside of the character, in a place where fighting moves don't usually interact anyway.
I'm not sure if you followed that, but the contrast is that in Puzzle Strike, there are usually no such tricks available to us. Every damn thing affects every other damn thing, which means a lot of work on the development end, but also a lot more ability of the player to affect the game with nuanced play than there would otherwise be.
Exciting moments built into the system
That last section might have sounded a bit dry. Although strategy is very important, there has to be excitement in a competitive game. Now that we understand games more than the olden days, I think we know that when making a competitive game, we want to build in exciting moments into the system. I don't mean to force them artificially, but to create a game system that we know is likely to generate exciting moments.
In Puzzle Strike, there's a comeback mechanism that's modelled after the very interesting comeback mechanism in the video game Puzzle Fighter (I was also lead designer of Puzzle Fighter HD Remix, by the way, so it's no surprise I chose this theme for Puzzle Strike!). Anyway in both games, when you have a lot of gems in your gem pile, you are closer to losing in some sense. If your side fills up to the top, you lose. In another sense, you're doing just fine though. One reason is you have more ammunition to fire back at the other player. And on top of that, both games have a "height bonus" that gives you an advantage for having a lot of gems. That means there's a push-your-luck element there, which also helps as a comeback mechanism. In Puzzle Strike, the height bonus allows you to draw more chips per turn the higher your gem pile is. So when you're close to losing, you can do even bigger combos.
Another conscious design decision to increase the drama of the game is WHEN the win condition is checked. The basic idea is that if the various kinds of gems in your gem pile add up to a total of 10 or more, then you lose. But you don't instantly lose; this is checked only at the end of your turn. You often go over that limit, then on your turn manage to save yourself and stay in the game. It gets really exciting when your opponent sends you way, way, way over that limit of 10, and you somehow manage to pull off an amazing turn to throw it all back at him. This isn't an accidentally exciting moment though--it's there on purpose as an example of designing excitement into the game system.
Balance of "viable options during gameplay"
In my series about balancing multiplayer competitive games I talk about the difference between two different usages of the word "balance." Sometimes people mean balancing the set of options available during gameplay. Both symmetric and asymmetric games have to care about that. If there are several kinds of moves you can make, but all of them basically suck except one kind, then that isn't "balanced" in a sense.
Asymmetric games have to deal with that AND then also deal with making sure the different starting options (in our case, all the characters) are fair against each other. Let's talk about that first kind of balance first, though: the viable options during gameplay, regardless of there even being different characters.
The article I linked earlier touched on the challenges of getting this kind of balance to work. After releasing the game, we've had a whole lot experience with it though, and have seen across dozens of tournaments exactly how different strategies are used--or not used. And there has been a threat to balance of viable strategies we've been facing for a long time. The 3rd Edition of Puzzle Strike (and the Shadows expansion) make one change--one seemingly small change--that has a huge effect across the entire game to address. But first, what is the problem?
The problem is "mono-purple." That is, the strategy of ignoring most of the bank and buying only the purple chips that directly affect your gem pile. Playing in this way is kind of short circuiting the game, avoiding big swaths of it. That could be fine depending on how powerful such a strategy is. So is it powerful? Well, yes and no. Some characters in the 2nd Edition tended dangerously close to mono-purple power, while others used more diverse strats. Then we released the Puzzle Strike Upgrade Pack to address that. The situation was much improved, as more diverse strategies were viable than ever.
In developing the expansion though, we were very often faced with too small of a design space. We make an interesting character, but then the game system's reward for playing in the boring mono-purple way is a bit too much unless we take specific steps to fight that with various extra clauses on lots of chips that punish such a strategy. It also left us very little design space in which to create new puzzle chips (those are the ones in the bank that change every game). If a puzzle chip is too weak, people will ignore it and just buy purples. But purples are so strong that when we turn up the power of puzzle chips to compete, they often have to be so strong as to be game-breaking if they are tuned just a hair wrong. What we need is more breathing room here, more space to create chips that are of a reasonable power level compared to purple chips.
In another article, I talked about how I looked toward Starcraft for an answer to something, and their model of late-game units like Carriers that could smash early game defense sparked me to create uncounter-crashable 4-gems in Puzzle Strike. So again, I looked to Starcraft to answer our troubles here. Our trouble is that a player who buys only purples is trying to end the game as soon as possible--he is doing a 6 pool zergling rush, or something. But if the opponent holds off this rush, he is no better position.
In Starcraft, the rushing player would have a big economic disadvantage, so there is more of a tradeoff in whether to rush. What makes matters worse is that in Puzzle Strike, it's not really even analogous to the rushing player having zerglings. Those are early game units that fade in effectiveness later (yeah, yeah they can be upgraded in Starcraft, but that's beside the point). Anyway, all those purple chips in Puzzle Strike are just as good late as early. So it's like rushing for no economic disadvantage with hydralisks or mutalisks or something that you can win the game with later anyway.
This maneuver needs an economic disadvantage for the system to make strategic sense. And now it does.
The Combine chip (the basic purple chip that combines two smaller gems into one bigger one) now costs $1 of in-game money each time you play it. If you buy and play only this one chip over and over, you are rushing to end the game, but if your opponent buys just one or two to hold you off, he will be able to survive and extend the game. At that point, you will have spent several turns buying low cost chips, while his economy was not really affected, so he will have better tech going into the mid-game.
Along with this change, we also adjusted several other chips to allow for rushdown to still be possible, just in a way that requires actually using your character chips and puzzle chips from the bank. Overall, in high level tournament play, there's a more diverse set of viable strategies now. Rushing, econ, disruption, and engine building strats all coexist.
Fairness of the asymmetric choices
Once the game system works, we need to have a set of fair characters. That is, no character can be too good or too weak. Too good is a much worse problem because that invalidates all other characters. Too weak is just minorly unfortunate because no one will play that character. After years of iteration based on tournament results, I think we're in good spot now. Twenty different characters(!) that all seem to have their uses in high level play, without any particular one of them dominating too much.
I could go on forever about the balancing process of these characters, but instead I'd rather talk about the goal of even balancing them in the first place. It seems that most games are interested in releasing more and more and more content. Like expansions every three months. New, new, new. I'm not interested in that at all, and it actually runs counter to the goal of creating a highly polished competitive game. Instead of adding more and more, we are zeroing in on a better and better game. Each iteration has been more polished than the last, better gameplay dynamics, and better balance. If we simply add more and more, yeah that appeals to some players, but it doesn't actually produce something legitimately great. It means instead of fixing whatever issues older chips / cards have, we would be waiting for them to rotate out of tournament play. We'd be forsaking those earlier sets and letting them lie with whatever issues tournament play had uncovered.
I'd rather give you all the very best versions of my games that we're able to produce, at that given moment. And with years of development effort now spent on making Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition (plus the Shadows expansion!) the best competitive game it can be, I can truthfully say that this is the best version we've produced so far, by a big margin. I look forward to seeing the competitive scene grow, and for years of Puzzle Striking to come.
You can also play Puzzle Strike at www.fantasystrike.com for free, by the way. Some players have logged THOUSANDS of games of Puzzle Strike there, and there are tournaments all the time, in addition to casual play. Thanks to the entire community of players who have all contributed to refining the game into its current awesome state.
If any of this sounds good to you, get in on the Kickstarter project for the Puzzle Strike Shadows Expansion as well as the 3rd Edition base set.