11/11/19 - Designing a Card Game

Tags Game Development

I picked up a respiratory bug from Minnow (the parental lot: suffering the many diseases your child brings home) and was in the tired-send-help phase yesterday and for some reason decided to start working on the solitaire post-apocalyptic deckbuilder I’ve been meaning to design. The notes and cards are a total mess, but I have been thinking a lot about what works/doesn’t work and I’m just going to brainstorm here.

I’ve been playing a lot of Agent Decker and Helionox (H) and Tournament Fishing (TF) are also inspiring a lot of decisions.

The basic idea, right now, is a PA deckbuilder that focuses on rebuilding and sustainability, and recruiting people/agents to rebuild society. I want the game to be easily expandable by adding locale decks. The win condition will be a set or randomized goal (e.g. settle a farm) that escalates, creating a campaign mode. The lose condition is ostensibly dying or starving to death but I haven’t decided how to implement that. I’d like there to be some way to ‘save’ or otherwise reset any particular game so the player isn’t playing the same missions over and over.

The locale decks are my current challenge. I hate to have the player have to build decks a la Pathfinder but there needs to be some selection method for cards for any given location because otherwise the game becomes too swingy. It makes sense that a player would primarily loot medical supplies from a hospital, for instance, and I don’t see the point in making the player pick out 3 medical items and 2 hospital equipment, or whatever, when I can just say here’s a hospital deck, it’s yellow, just shuffle it. The locations are facedown to start, and when the player arrives (or is able to scan via map or some other equipment card) the top card is turned faceup, and that explains the location, approximately what the player might find (aforementioned hospital might be 3 first aid icons, 2 equipment icons, and a person icon, representing frequency of loot), and provides an explanation of what resources/perks are gained if the location is settled and made operational.

Last night I got the idea of attrition. Each round the player discards the top location card from the deck if the location isn’t settled, if it is settled that card goes into the player’s deck or can otherwise be purchased. This could represent resources spoiling or going bad, agents naturally leaving a location to go elsewhere, equipment being scavenged by someone else, etc. This creates a timer and incentivizes settling and also randomizes loot. You can logically assume a hospital has medical supplies, but maybe by the time you get to scavenging they’re already all looted from this location.

The only bad thing about Agent Decker is you can sometimes be in a situation, especially during mission one, where you have multiple turns where you cannot perform any action, you just have to sit there and take your lumps. If the deck happens to be stacked against you this really sucks and is unfun. Agent Decker is well-tuned otherwise, as it has a tiered card system. The way to avoid this is to make the starting cards more powerful, reduce the power of the obstacle deck, or add dual actions to the cards. Agent Decker doesn’t do any of these things because it’s a pure deckbuilder and the starter cards are constantly cycled back into the player’s hand until they are binned. So the idea is you have to tough out those early bad decks until you can acquire new cards.

Since this is a game about gathering resources and sustainability, the player currently starts with exhaustible resources (water, canned food, a battery) and these are spent to find more resources and equipment or travel. These are incredibly boring starter cards. Ideally, resources have dual purpose. So I’m keeping that in the back of my mind for how to deal with a situation where the player starts at a higher-difficulty location and just has like a taco and a bottle of water and is supposed to somehow do something with it.

I also made note of things I liked in H and TF. I like that in both games the player retains as many cards as they want (Agent Decker requires the entire hand be discarded). I like that in TF cards are purchased directly into your hand for the next round, in H it is essentially the same as purchased cards go on top of your draw pile. If these 2 mechanisms are in place, turn end is going to be an arbitrarily defined point where the player cannot, or does not wish to, play additional cards from their hand and is ready to refresh their hand. If the player purchases cards that go into their current hand, there is some kind of market/trade phase, otherwise the player can purchase at any time and it goes on top of the draw deck. Leaning toward the former as it makes more sense thematically.

I like that Agent Decker allows the player to KEEP or equip certain cards, which are then essentially held to the side until they can be used, like items in an inventory. TF sort of does this by allowing you to attach a card to your play area. I have toyed with the idea of having an inventory line of cards that are equipped, and the player reaps those passive bonuses or can use those actions and discard. The reason AD lets you have a side inventory of cards is because you are always discarding your hand at the end of a round. If the player isn’t forced to discard, it seems that the hand limit ought to be the defacto card limit. I’m thinking now instead of having an inventory line, the player just needs to hold the cards they want to wear and the current hand limit functions as ‘encumberance’ (so the backpack card, when held, allows +2 cards to the hand limit). Maybe like TF we can attach a card to a location and allow the passive bonus to continue there. For instance I created a generator card, which for a fuel cost generates 3x electricity. A card like that shouldn’t do much in hand, but attaching it to a settlement makes sense thematically.

Well, that’s enough for now. The only thing I can add is that equipment breaks, the card is turned 90 degrees in that case, and an agent is required to repair it (e.g. mechanic to repair car) and it is turned back at that point. Having resources be one-time, and burn on use, makes sense thematically. I guess equipment cards, when broken, are pulled from the deck and turned sideways until they’re repaired. The other option is to turn them upside down, and that way they could be shuffled back into the draw deck.

Oh yeah, one more thing. I was toying with the idea of events to add more of a storytelling element, even having action event decks like in Robinson Crusoe where you draw a card and have to deal with a scripted incident related to the action (settling, scavenging, recruiting, whatever). For prototyping purposes I would have a list of events and select a random number, eventually it would be determined by appropriate die throws, something like 2 D10s or a D100 or whatever. That just saves having to print off a million cards and makes the system more easily expandable. I am getting a bit ahead of myself, however.