The Birth of an Idea

I have a friend who is an avid board gamer, attending the WBC convention every summer.  My introduction to the world of gaming, however, was lukewarm at best.  I assumed what most non-gamers assumed, that board games were nothing more than Monopoly and Candyland, and maybe Risk if sleep wasn’t an important part of your life.  As someone who works in electronics, not being on top of your game at work can spell disaster.

At first, my friend introduced me to some of his favorite resource management games such as Power Grid.  Later, he introduced me to tabletop RPGs, like Dungeons and Dragons, or Pathfinder.  To my uninitiated self, I found them overly complex, but the story made everything else worthwhile.  I may have been a latecomer to the world of board games, but as someone born in the 1980’s, I grew up with video games.  My favorite video games, despite not being good at them, were the ones that had a story to tell: Legend of Zelda, Heavy Rain, and so on.  Electronic or not, the games that had good stories to tell were demanding.  Moreover, the games that didn’t were a little too abstract for my taste, such as Acquire.

Given my lackluster interest in board games, I never expected to fall in love with a mechanism.  Then my board game friend introduced me to Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion.  I was instantly hooked.  Dominion was unlike anything I had played up to that point.  Most of the games I had played, especially Pathfinder, used dice to randomize the outcome of player actions.  I didn’t like this.  It made it feel like you couldn’t really plan your move.  Dominion, on the other hand, may randomize what cards you draw, but once they are in your hand it was essentially multiple choice.  You might have a bad hand, but it never felt like your overall plans were hanging by a thread tied to your d20.

Slowly, an idea began to take root in my mind.  What if you could use the deck-building mechanism as an engine to control character actions within an RPG style map world?  I drew from my experience playing classic 8-bit Nintendo games, the kind with a map that started as a black square and slowly filled itself in as your sprite traversed it.  I could recreate this in the physical world with a map made out of components: terrain hexes similar to CatanMage Knight uses a similar mechanism, but I wanted more variety.  I didn’t want forest village number 3 to always be forest village number 3.  At first, I used a d6 to simply roll for a structure when you placed a new tile, but alas I hate dice.

Dice can be so fickle.  During play testing, we spent the middle of one game marching around the map rolling the die because all of the structures hadn’t been placed despite using up every hex in the map deck.  Finally, I was inspired by another deck-builder: Mystic Vale.  Mystic Vale is a unique and wonderful addition to the deck-builder genre because you don’t add to your deck, you change the cards themselves.  They accomplish this by using clear cards with an image in one of 3 positions.  You overlay the cards and can eventually create a card with 3 images on it.  Imagine a dominion card with a copper, silver and gold on it.  I figured I could use the same idea for my map hexes.  Instead of using tokens that would be placed according to a die roll; I would just shuffle the structures and terrain hexes together virtually guaranteeing that they would all eventually be placed.

I knew I wanted to control player action with a simple deck-building mechanism, so things like draw extra cards, movement and so on would have to be on the card itself.  Despite this, and my hatred of dice, I used attack dice, hit-points and a leveling system that was clunky and frankly annoying.  I shelved the idea for a year.  Then, I had an epiphany.  This is, at its heart and soul, a deck-builder.  Dominion doesn’t have health points.  Ascension has attack points, but those are on the card – there are no dice in Ascension at the time of this writing.  When you play a deck-builder, you have a hand.  What if you just treat the cards in a player’s hand like health points?

If you get hit with 3 attack, discard 3 cards.  That’d be kind of rough in a deck-builder, but made sense and led to the structure of the cards.  During your turn, you’d either be in combat, or you wouldn’t.  Combat would require attack and defense.  Then there’d be everything else, so I called that General (and now that the game has a theme I’m calling it the Exploration Phase).  Again, drawing inspiration from Pathfinder et.al. I decided that defeating someone would be a threshold, but just that in itself seemed a little boring.  I wanted to recreate the feel of an actual martial-arts fight with cards.  So, keep it turn based, but use the Dominion action structure: you can only play one card.  That would give players an incentive to buy better cards and make it harder for a player to win just by stacking all their attack.

Now I needed enemies.  I had already designed starter decks for 6 different characters.  What if you could just make one of those characters an enemy?  How would that work?  The only difference between a player and non-player character is that no one is choosing the cards or what to do with them for a non-player character.  So, just make a hand pile face down for the non-player character, and hold them to the same rules as player characters: if you run out of cards in your hand, you’re dead.  Well, not dead.  That was too rough and too likely to happen at the beginning since you don’t start with good cards – and you shouldn’t.  Fine, let’s call that exhausted and you basically loose a turn.  That worked well.  However, since enemies could be playable characters, and playable characters have weak starter decks by design, I added a couple wild tokens to them to give them a boost.

I wanted to design the game for 4 players, but to make the game easily expandable by simply adding copies of the game.  That still meant that for one box, and a four-player game, you had two enemies.  That wasn’t enough.  Plus, I wanted some kind of “item-drop.”  So, I created three distinct levels of monsters.  Rats would be the most pathetic, even though your starting hand probably won’t let you kill a rat without help.  I followed that up with wolves, and then the highest level monster: trolls.  Since monsters couldn’t be played by players, I just put the item-drop as the third thing on their card.  I later changed wolves to Goblins because wolves just seemed to kill the fantasy feel of the game.

Lastly, I needed a way to win.  I wanted the gameplay to encourage conflicting goals among players, but leave room for party play and everything in between.  So I came up with the idea of “objective” or “Main Quest” cards.  Basically, a number of tasks to complete, and whoever completed one first would win the game.  I started with the “kill the bad guy” idea, then added a few more.  If I want conflicting goals, and one of my objectives is “kill the bad guy,” then I ought to have, “become the bad guy.”  That required a unit of measure, so I added a basic alignment system, light tokens and darkness tokens.  Then I added a “get a bunch of money” objective, and a “become a thief” objective just to spice things up.  I might add more in an expansion pack later, but for launch that seemed sufficient.

The name and background lore actually came last.  From a story stand-point, why do you suddenly “poof” into village one?  Why is there a bad guy, and what do they want?  Why can’t you die?  I wanted to name the game “Legends of…” and name the land, but I couldn’t decide on a name.  I had trouble coming up with one on my own, but the ones I looked up just came with too much baggage.  “Legends of Atlantis,” for example, just came with too many expectations that my game was not designed to meet, plus the name has pretty much been overused.  Then I came across Elysia.  Elysia is basically heaven, but heaven reserved for Greek heroes.  Perfect.  It explained everything: why you “poof” into town 1, why you can’t die and what the bad guy wants.  Legends of Elysia was taken by an upcoming film, but no one had a claim on “Ruins of Elysia.”  And thus the game was christened, “Ruins of Elysia: A Deck-Building Adventure Game on a Map With Limitless Possibilities”

What makes a game fun?

I was sitting down with my business partner/longtime friend, Chris, who has been creating the art for Ruins of Elysia, when he asked me an interesting question, “what makes a game fun?”  Granted, he was asking me this question because we were working out how to pitch Ruins of Elysia, but it got me thinking. 

What are the games I like, and why do I like them?  Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion is probably my favorite game of all time.  Before Dominion I did not consider myself a gamer.  Dominion made me realize that my favorite game mechanic was deck-building.  But why?

I love most deck-builders, but I have some bones to pick with some of them.  Ascension is a great deck-builder, especially due to its ability to support more than the 4-player limit of Dominion.  However, there are aspects of Ascension that I don’t like.  I don’t like Ascension’s marketplace, because the random nature of the market mechanic makes it very difficult to plan ahead and strategize.  That’s actually a minor gripe, though.

I think big turns are the crux of what make deck-builders fun.  In Dominion, you can plan ahead based on what cards you buy and see it pay off towards the end when you churn through your entire deck and purchase the last couple of provinces for the win.  That kind of turn takes a lot more luck to pull off in Ascension.  It’s harder to get cards that do specific things like get rid of unwanted cards from your hand or get cards to allow you to draw cards.

I’m not as one-dimensional as I sound, however.  Deck-builders may be my favorite, but they aren’t the only type of game I enjoy.  I would have to place tabletop RPGs second, such as Pathfinder.   Unfortunately, they are a lot of work.  I’m pretty good at writing a story, but I’m not sure I could do so on the fly.  I need to see my words so I can think about them carefully, so I’m probably not cut out to be a DM.  I might be able to feed a DM story in chat format, but that just seems impractical.  Anyways, we’re getting off topic.  What makes tabletop RPGs fun?  Granted, this is my opinion.  I like exploring and hearing the story.  I have yet to play Above and Below, but its storybook mechanic has me intrigued.

One of the games that I find myself playing repeatedly with my avid board gaming friend I refer to as “draw your track” games.  The use of a map adds another dimension to gameplay and I feel a sense of adventure.  These games usually feature a random stack of cards that include events and delivery requests.  The gameplay then focuses on you drawing the most efficient set of track to get those loads to the places requesting them to make the most money. 

I definitely suffer from wanderlust, so I love games that use maps as their mechanic.  In fact, I thought it was amusing to play Empire Builder on the Empire Builder line when my friends and I rode it to Chicago.  Train games aren’t the only map based game I like, though.  Runebound is great, albeit long.  I do have a preference for controlling a character, rather than a faction such as Small World.

It’s September 2019

I thought I would come back to my first blog since I recently read something relevant. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the source (I think it was a scholarly article via Google). Anyways, the main point of the article was that for a board game to be fun it required two things. As far as the game is concerned, the article asserted, ultimately it served only one purpose: to put constraints on what you can do. So for it to be fun, the player had to enjoy whatever activity was still permitted by the components of the game and its constraints. Basically, our personal tastes will always be a factor in whether or not a game is fun.