Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

Events And Scripting

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

Soren Johnson of Civ and Spore fame made a recent post on his Dev Blog “Designer Notes” about the Seven Deadly Sins of Strategy Games. His first sin on the list was too much scripting arguing that used unwisely (as a core feature) scripting undermines the rules set/mechanics architecture by dirtying up the decision space aesthetics with lots of exceptions… like triggers and other “story hooks.” I tend to agree with him on this point. Over at QT3 there’s a good thread discussing the whole list and the first sin in particular.

I’m very interested myself in “Emergent Narrative” in strategy games as it’s often called. The ultimate idea would be to have a text/image based story produced at the conclusion of the game that chronicled all the important decisions made by the player and the outcomes of those decisions as well. I think that the old canceled space opera game “Stars Supernova Genesis” promised an HTML type newspaper to be generated during the game and at its conclusion. This would be the Holy Grail of emergent narrative for me. Just how much effort it would be to accomplish something like this is something I’m not exactly sure of. With my limited resources and time I’m not about to take this on…. as the famous saying goes “Don’t look at me. I’ve got my own problems.”

A good question that arose in the QT3 thread is “What are some examples of scripting done well in strategy games?” I’d like to think my Cults of the Wastelands free mini expansion pack could stand muster. Basically the idea was to augment the free form random sand box of the vanilla AE game with some scripted narrative elements…various cults pursuing some type of special agendas. The payoff was the ability to force players to make some interesting decisions like the confrontation with the messengers of the Great Kabaagh. The downside was that once the script has fired the surprise is over and the repeat enjoyment value is diminished.

What triggered off this whole blog entry was a combination of Soren Johnson’s post, the discussion on QT3 and my own work over the last couple of days on Solium Infernum. I’ve returned the the Events system and have been fleshing out some of the more involved and intricate events and there’s a huge scripted element with some of them. For a little background on all this you can read this post here where I discuss my original intentions to have some type of event system for Armageddon Empires. The short of it is that I cut it to finish the game but when I took up the design gauntlet for SI, I was intent on working the events idea into the games mechanics.

So in Solium Infernum events are actions that are played by the players as one of their possible turn orders. You can’t just play any old event though. You draw an event “card” each time you are named Regent, an honor which passes from player to player as the game goes on in a clockwise direction. You can easily see who is the current Regent by looking at your Diplomacy tab or reading the turn log entry that is generated each turn making the formal announcement. Depending on the level of your Prophecy power you can keep one or two event cards in your “hand” at any time. If you have a full hand and draw a new card you’ll have to choose one to discard.

The events fall into a range of categories and costs. Generally the more targeted the event’s effects, the more it costs to play. Many events don’t cost any resources at all to play because they affect all players or a random player (sometimes including the player who played the event). The effects are also usually doubled edged swords with a “screw you” twist. For example, many of the events are posed as “Decrees of the Infernal Conclave” which as a Lord of one of the Great Houses of Hell you are compelled to comply with. The “Infernal Legion Tax” decree forces every player to pay a tribute card for each legion that it controls on the board or lose Prestige points accordingly. Not a bad event to play if you have a warlord neighbor who has put together a large collection of legions and you only have a few to whip the Lemures into shape.

Some of the events are more involved and this is where the scripting comes in. For example you can play the “Angelic Host of Divine Retribution” event and a host of angels will descend on the board and start causing trouble for the players with the most prestige points. The challenges here were very similar to those I encountered with the Great Kabaagh. Pick your targets, do the pathfinding, dish out some retribution, check your status and when your mission is accomplished fly back to Heaven. Special scripted events like this often get their own piece of artwork. Here is the art for the Angelic Host event

Angelic Host

Thematically Evolved Design

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

I’m coming up for air after a very intense coding run over the last few weeks. Solium Infernum is in that phase of development where the flesh has to be grown on the bones and the little details have to be carved into the fancy woodwork. One of those little details is the special abilities.

I love special abilities. Just the name indicates that they are interesting and unique (special) and full of action (ability). Special Abilities are often all about breaking the rules that have been set up…the game’s mechanics. They are also the ornaments on the tree. So how did the tree get built. My approach to the whole design process is probably a bit unconventional. I start with the Theme. For Solium Infernum first there was the idea based on a simple thematic sentence:

“To reign is worth ambition though in Hell, better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

From that starting point I sat down with a bunch of cannibalized board games and started tinkering. I built the major mechanics systems and integrated them… map, player avatar, agents, rituals (super powers), bazaar for bidding, event system, and victory system. These were bare bones systems though. All the fleshy detail had to wait for the computer implementation.

Once I got the major systems coded and functioning the basic game ideas were set in place. But I didn’t have a list at this point describing all the details (special abilities, perks, bonuses, events). These all needed to be brainstormed, implemented and tested and would flow from the theme.

The Legion power up system is a great example. Legions are the fundamental agent of the game. They are hired by the players in the Infernal Bazaar via a blind bid system. They are placed on the board and move across it to claim/control territory and key locations called Places of Power. I started with a list of legion names. The list was divided into archetypes such as Melee Bruiser, Ranged with mobility, Infernal Power focused (magic), hybrids, devil’s bargains (cost Prestige/Resources to keep in your service) etc. At this point the art was commissioned and then shortly after I commissioned background text descriptions for each agent. Only then did I sit down and start creating special abilities for select Legions. I had a good idea what they would be since they focus on bending and breaking rules but each special ability often requires that I go into the code base and hand craft special functions, data structures or exemptions. In general I tried to match special abilities to the flavor of the legions’ stats, image, and flavor text.

The same process was followed for the Power Up system that permeates the game’s mechanics. Legions are the sole agents on the game board but you have a lot of room to customize them to your strategy goals or compensate for any built in weaknesses. Legions get one attachment slot for every two levels with a maximum of four slots. You can attach Praetors (a Demon Hero, but only one per Legion), Artifacts or Combat Cards (which you create yourself).

Places of Power also allow for attachments but in this case only Praetors (max 1), Relics or Combat Cards. Since places of power almost always generate some type of Prestige bonus per turn (through a special ability), Relics are a great way of powering them up to increase their Prestige generation. Here is an example of an Unholy Relic that you might purchase in the Infernal Bazaar and place in one of your conquered Places of Power.

Bowl of Abject Darkness

The Bowl of Abject Darkness
What was once part of you is now part of me. Look into the liquid and see what squirms beneath its surface. In my body swims the little creatures that was made from your flesh. You put them inside of me, and now I must let them grow. Do not look at me with disgust when you have finished. It is because of you that I take this shape.

–Etched into the side of the Bowl of Abject Darkness

Limited Actions in an (near?) Infinite Universe

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Limited actions is an important part of the Armageddon Empires design and it’s fundamental to Solium Infernum as well. The basic idea is that it forces you to prioritize your strategy goals and that mental process is supposed to be both challenging and fun. As a design choice it has some nice side benefits as well. It’s a great way to speed up gameplay. It also minimizes micromanagement in that you don’t have to adjust the position/state of 100 agents on the game board. The game simply won’t let you micromanage. From an AI standpoint it helps to focus the decision space within which the AI must operate and that’s a big plus.

The limited actions mechanic is a common feature of Eurostyle games. On any given turn you can pick from some finite action menu a limited number of times. Or you can claim a “role” card for a given turn and get its benefits. This is opposed to a classic hex based wargame where you can move almost any counter on the board unless it lacks supply or some such other action limiting state is involved. AE was a nice mix of both of these styles. For Solium Infernum I wanted first and foremost a Grand Strategy type feeling and I felt the limited actions mechanic fit perfectly with this.

All players start the game with 2 Order Slots. The maximum number of order slots available is 6. You can gain additional slots by powering up your avatar attributes. You can also claim places of power that might occasionally give you +1 Order Slot. Some rare events can give you more (or less) order slots as well. In general an additional order slot is a precious commodity. +1 is a big deal and players running around with all 6 slots available is designed to be a rare thing. The advantage of having 4 slots versus 2 is also huge. Since ordering your minions to bring you “tribute” requires an order slot you will have to plan carefully. You can try the feast or famine approach or some type of hybrid but you will need to balance your need for gathering resources with your need for more direct actions that earn you prestige and interfere with your opponents’ prestige activities.

Here is a screenshot of what the Orders Tab looks like on the Main Interface Viewer. The orders tab shows you what orders you have queued up. When each turn is processed all orders are processed in sequence of their phase number starting with the player who is currently Regent and proceeding clockwise. This can have a big impact on whether your orders are successful. If your opponent moves a legion first that blocks the path that you had plotted out for one of your own legions then a collision will take place that you had not forseen. The results could be combat if you are in Vendetta or Blood Feud or it could mean that your legion must halt its movement unexpectedly. Early in the game when the great land grab phase is in full swing this can be a big deal and you can be faced with a lot of “game theory” type mutual interaction situations when deciding where to move your legions and which territory you should try and grab first.


Each order is represented by an icon specific to the order. In this case you see that phase I has a specific ritual called “Lies and Rumors” being performed. This will create decoy icons of a designated legion in a series of hexes chosen by the player performing the ritual. How long the decoys stay on the board and how many are placed depends on what level the player has achieved in the “Deceit” power. The second phase slot has a diplomatic order as you can see the two demons arguing across the table. You can also click on the “eye” buttons next to each icon and get an exact text description of what the order entails.

Vlad Tepes Diplomacy

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

So last bat time, last bat channel I described the two cardinal tools of the diplomatic trade in Hell: Demands and Insults. In a complimentary fashion they were a means to initiate a controlled form of conflict between players called Vendetta. They are also designed to offer players some interesting choices. A demand might simply be a probe to see what another will give up. It might be a gauge of how much another player fears you. It might also be a simple goading into Vendetta which the player making the demands thinks might work in his favor. Even repeated demands when met can allow the demander to be in a position to declare Vendetta which is something that I didn’t mention last time. Consent to too many demands and your groveling is so unseemly in Hell that Protocol almost requires the demanding party to smack you around with a Vendetta.

Sending Emissaries is another diplomatic order available to players and is meant to act as a compliment to Demands and Insults. If you send an emissary you are showing weakness. Sorry that’s just the way it is in Hell. The desire to talk to your rivals is something that’s just un-demonic even if you are intending to slip the dagger in their back. So you have to spend some prestige to send your emissary to the Infernal Conclave and have him accredited for “Parley” with a rival. The amount as always depends on your threat ranking of the player you want to receive the emissary as well as your own Infernal Rank.

Here is where it gets fun though. You can send the emissary with a bribe or an offer of non-aggression. The player who receives the emissary does not get to know what message the emissary bears. A decision must be made in front of the Infernal Conclave. Receive the emissary or reject it. If you receive the emissary you get any gifts (usually tribute cards) or the offer for a non-aggression pact (which is the lowest cooperative relationship possible). If you accepted and a gift is present then you have been “bought” off and the Protocol states that you may not insult or demand anything from the gift giver for a certain number of turns. I’ll talk about the non-aggression pact offer later. It’s basically a way for two players to formally pledge items of value (tribute cards, artifacts, relics etc.) that are held by the Conclave to enforce a NAP. You can break the pact but you will lose your pledge (but no Prestige).

If you reject the emissary you earn the Prestige that the player spent to send the emissary. And if you take it one step further and go Vlad Tepes on the emissary then you get a nice prestige bonus BUT the player sending the emissary can declare Vendetta on you the next turn. So you have to decide if nailing those hats down is worth the risk for the extra reward.

Vlad the Impaler

Great Moments in Deception

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2008

One of the cleverest and most successful operational deception plans of all time has got to be operation “Mincemeat” carried out by British Intelligence during WW II. It was performed in preparation for Operation “Huskey” the Allied invasion of Sicily. This link here has the a complete description of the operation and you really do need to read the whole thing if you aren’t familiar with it. There will be a quiz.

If this theatre of WW II interests you then I’d also recommend you check out this book “The Day of Battle” by Rick Atkinson… and you better pick up the prequel “An Army at Dawn” and read it first. These two books are some of the finest military history that I have ever read.

Assertion: Turn based strategy games need to have mechanisms to pull off operations like “Mincemeat.” How can this be done? I’m exploring that right now with Brimstone. The key I think like many other aspects of game design is to formalize it so that it exits within the “state” of the game and not just the opponents’ heads. What I mean by that is the signaling of false information is channeled/instantiated by some concrete mechanism in the game. Opponents will always try and infer things from the state of the game or by analyzing your demeanor, play style and verbal/written communications. But what about letting players set up “operations’ which were really merely Potemkin villages or elaborate ruses designed to distract opponents. In Brimstone at the beginning of every new turn you are presented with a turn log of all the events that happened during the last processed turn that affect you. The temptation is to view everything as completely factual since the authority of the computer presents these events as “facts.” But what if false information could be seeded into the turn log by opponents willing to spend resources to do that? It’s something that I think is worth trying to pursue. It’s also something that needs to be handled carefully. More later……..

Quiz Question: Where was the man who never existed buried?

Is Real Time An Option?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

This is going to be another one of those stream of consciousness posts so be warned. It all starts with a series of features that Troy Goodfellow is running over at Flash of Steel. The features are mini time machines that go back and examine the pioneers of computer games portraying “Ancients” politics, diplomacy and warfare. Whenever he can, Troy has contacted the original designers and gotten commentary about the design process that is simply fascinating…at least to a would be game designer like me. I don’t know a lot about the period to be honest. I could give you a very brief overview of the historical timeline and a summation of how they fought but I wouldn’t wager much money on its accuracy. I’ve had my eye on this game system for some time but not pulled the trigger. I had a fascination with the Peloponnesian War many years ago and read Thucydides account… but didn’t really understand it until I read Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book (no relation to me of course) “A War Like No Other.”

As Hanson recounts there were really only two major land battles during the course of the 30+ years war. One at Delium and one at Mantinea. Because of the asymmetrical strategies being used by Sparta (decisive hoplite land battle) and Athens (long walls and maritime empire and projection of power from the sea) neither battle was decisive since Sparta won both. The odd thing about asymmetrical strategies is that stalemate often results until one side musters the ability to beat the other on its own turf…. Sparta would eventually float a Navy and beat Athens at Aegospotami. What I always found fascinating about the hoplite battles though and probably the majority of battles in the ancients time period is how much they were like wind up toys. Even as command and control was improved it still never approached anything resembling the dispersed computerized battle field we have today. From my studies of Civil War battles I can tell you that large infantry battles even then were things that slipped quickly from the general’s hands and events flowed imperfectly from some high level plan.

What I’m trying to say is that two generals often maneuvered their armies until they made contact with a general plan as to how they would proceed but once the fighting started things took on a life of their own. Sounding a general retreat or pursuit order was about the most control they could hope to have. Hoplite warfare during the Peloponnesian War was almost ritualistic. A strong left wing nearly always faced a weak right wing and vice versa. The victor was the army that could crush the opposing wing of weak allies first and turn on the elites. This was soon to change but you can understand how such an arrangement came to be. It was an attempt to eliminate some of the uncertainty of the battlefield even if it meant a dangerous predictability.

This facet of ancient warfare….of the trainer unleashing the dogs and only being able to sit and watch the outcome for the most part got me to thinking about how computer strategy games handle this. The Dominions series of games created by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel does this the best. You position your troops, plot your movement, set your battle stances and watch the results. Combat Mission does this as well but breaks the action up into 1 minute turns. Why haven’t we seen more designers take this approach? It’s real time in that you can watch the fireworks and enjoy the latest visual effects. You get a visceral thrill from observing all the action. All the big components of strategy are there and even accentuated…. risk versus reward, tough choices, engineering tradeoffs (conservation laws), psychology and game theory. I’ve often thought that the Total War series would be much better if you had to position the troops, draw out lines of approach, give some contingency orders and then let the dice roll and see who is right and who is dead.

So this is my type of real time. It’s the type of real time I’d like to see used in more games. Space fleet battles in David Weber’s Honorverse… hell yes. The Sid Meier’s Gettysburg engine adapted to this paradigm… you draw on the map and place the marching routes for your corps and then watch what happens. A tactical AI handles the rest. You can zoom in and see the Sins of a Land Empire. Road to Moscow but in bite sized chunks.

Post Addendum: I should mention Panther Games fine series of WW II simulation/war games. Several readers have emailed me about their high quality and commented on how they match up pretty well with what I am looking for. It did occur to me shortly after I made the post but at the time I was thinking more of set piece battles in the ancients/medieval vein. I would love to see them take their engine and head east 🙂

The Fourth Funnel

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

During the opening months of World War I, a lone German light cruiser, the SMS Emden pulled off one of the most daring and successful raiding sprees of all time. The story of the Emden’s amazing feats, captain and crew is a great read. Operating in the India Ocean, the Emden used Fear and Surprise to great effect. Because no one expects… Anyway, surprise was a key element in the Emden’s success in raiding British commerce. I’ve been thinking about the Emden because of my ongoing work on Brimstone. The Emden used a very old operational deception trick of changing its appearance to gain a temporary but often decisive advantage when stalking its prey, namely British Commonwealth merchant ships. It did so by adding a fake fourth funnel to make itself look like a British warship. It also sometimes flew the British Colors. Remember that wireless was an infant technology at the time of the war. Visual identification played an important role in discerning friend from foe in an age before reliable radio communications, radar, tactical data nets and prop signatures. It was the classic ploy of Captain Blood and 16th Century pirates but it worked brilliantly.

This false signaling is something that I’m going to try and include in Brimstone. Since the game is a high level strategy/diplomacy game it calls more for the Maskirovka approach. Maskirovka is a Russian term broadly meaning military deception but operating on a variety of levels from changing road signs around to fabricating Potemkin armies. My goal in Brimstone is to set up a house of mirrors where every action taken by players can have multiple strategic/tactical interpretations. What I want to do is foster paranoia. I’m building mechanisms to do this throughout the entire framework of the game. I’ll be writing about many of these mechanics in the future but one of the most basic is to allow players to mess with the known information on the board.

In stark contrast to Armageddon Empires, the board in Brimstone is completely revealed and any agents deployed by a player to the board are visible for all to see and inspect in detail. Well, almost all information is available. I’ll explain in detail later but a player can modify an agent on the board to have some information obscured or withheld or even faked. But the presence of the agent is clear cut…mostly. There are no observation rules. It’s like playing a game of Diplomacy and noting that a region has an army. Or does it? A player in Brimstone plays through an Avatar that he or she develops as the game progresses. Improve that Avatar’s attributes and you gain additional powers. Some of these powers are designed to allow a player to mess with board. Perhaps you can create phantom duplicate agents. Perhaps an agent appears in one location but isn’t really there. The idea is to allow the players to manipulate the information gained by observing or not observing the agents on the board to their own advantage.

There is a course a limit to how much deceptive signaling you can do on a fixed map divided into hexagons with finite numbers of agents. The idea of players making good use of deception, false signaling and bluffing is built into many other aspects of the game as well. I’ll address those in future entries.

SMS Emden

Rewarding Whimsy

Friday, March 28th, 2008

I’m a big MST3k fan. A lot of times I like to code with background noise if I’m not playing my iTunes. The most comforting background noise I’ve found is an episode of MST3K. I’ve got some personal favorites: Outlaw Return to Gore, Puma Man, Anything Hercules, Fugitive Aliens etc. I’ve heard them so many times in the background that I can recite lines in my sleep. I’m odd. I know. Anyway, there is an old MST3K episode where one of the bits in between screenings has Dr. Forrester enamored with the word “whimsical.” The good Dr. uses the word quite liberally, almost whimsically.

A dictionary definition of whimsical might be: determined by chance or impulse or whim rather than by necessity or reason

An incident of whimsy while recently playing Medieval II: Total War got me to thinking about how game designers should reward whimsical choices. I had decided to try the Holy Roman Empire scenario and very early in the game a Great Crusade was called with the objective of recapturing Jerusalem. At this point my coffers were empty and I had a mission to capture some back water village in what is now Poland. I was planning exactly where my main armies were going to be stationed and they really needed some work. I was half tempted to let the rest of Europe worry about it and get on with waging war against my Christian neighbors. Then it hit me. Some whimsical mood that is. I aborted the siege on the backwater, gathered my best knights, some spearmen and archers and formed a crusading army. The Milanese were already making money demands but I would deal with them in due course. About 5 turns later the Holy Roman Emperor himself was sitting in Jerusalem, and the streets were running red with blood and a huge column of smoke was rising to heaven. I now found my self with a new epithet “Emperor Heinrich the Crusader”, Peter the Hermit as a member of my entourage, a holy relic and substantial holdings in a distant land. Acre and Gaza soon fell to my crusaders as well.

It remains to be seen whether or not I can found a Crusader Kingdom that lasts as long as its historical counterparts did. So the risk vs. reward outcome of the choice has yet to materialize. But I had fun all the way there. I also want to build these type of odd ball tangents into my games. Yes, you could make a great argument that Crusading wasn’t whimsical but had all sorts of social, political and religious underpinnings and root causes. But I had a strategy at one point that was jettisoned because something unexpected knocked on my door and offered me another path…..and that made all the difference.

Whimsical Dr. F

The Wages of Appeasement

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Appeasement – A dictionary definition might be: to yield or concede to the belligerent demands of (a nation, group, person, etc.) in a conciliatory effort, sometimes at the expense of justice or other principles.

Appeasement as a strategy is often a bad choice. It can be a catastrophic choice under certain conditions. Perhaps the most famous from the last century is the sad spectacle of the Munich Conference in 1938 and Neville Chamberlain’s worthless paper waved in the air with the declaration of “Peace in Our Time.”

Churchill’s Draft Notice

It’s understandable how this happens. Humans have a tendency to project their own emotions, values and world view onto other humans. It’s sometimes referred to as “Mirror Imaging.” The assumption that the party demanding the Danegeld is just like me can be dangerous if not fatal. There are two major problems with a strategy of appeasement. First it often gives the demanding party something which makes him stronger i.e. territory, wealth, prestige or human sacrifices for his gods. Second it sends a signal of weakness. This second part can be even more damaging than the first. Rather than mollify the demands of the aggressor it emboldens and amplifies them. If the game is zero sum or even if one side is playing it that way then each act of appeasement changes the balance of some key variable whether it is power, will or initiative.

So the structure of the system determines the efficacy of an appeasement strategy. In the anarchic system of nation states, warlords or post-apocalyptic powers, the game is played for keeps and often approaches zero sum. The nation state example is especially applicable when polar ideologies, religions or world views are in conflict. In a system built around a free market of international trade two rivals might tussle back and forth over protectionism, subsidies, and issues of national character and culture but occasional appeasement here or there as a policy prescription isn’t likely to be catastrophic. You can call it accommodation and pick your battles. Don’t be fooled though that you aren’t sending a signal by your actions. You are simply fighting in a padded arena with more room to maneuver.

The efficacy and consequences of appeasement as a strategy also depend on the interests at stake. If you remember back to the analytical framework that I discussed, the existence of a hierarchy of core values and interests makes for a great gauge. Appeasing an opponent on issues pertaining to vital national interests is perilous. But refusing to appease the Dane carries consequences and costs as well. The analytical framework helps identify those costs. Often one cost is that the sword must be bloodied. If the system within which you operate includes the use of force as an arbitrator of disputes then to ignore it as an option is to handicap yourself tremendously. I’ll leave out any exploration of the moral aspects of this topic. Moral grounds can be used for both appeasing the demands and using force to resist them. I think though that if you abjure the use of force, then given a game system within which it operates you often elect to lose the game, whatever that means.

For the human mind it is often a counter-intuitive concept. When playing the strategy game Rome: Total War you often see the following dictum during the load screen: “If you desire peace, prepare for war.” Whether or not it is truly of Roman origin, it does seem to speak a counter-intuitive truth. The costs then of not appeasing the aggressor may be high in blood and treasure. Perhaps it’s better to appease once or twice to buy time for creating a better situation to confront the aggressor? This may well be the case. Often however the aggressor is the one in the position of weakness. The aggressor depends on the lack of will to fight to advance his agenda until he is in position where demands no longer need to be made. Ultimately the aggressor will simply be able to take what he wants.

In Cults of the Wastelands you will have the opportunity to assess the value of appeasement as a strategy tool or pitfall. A messenger will arrive from the Wastelands and make a demand along with a threat. Perhaps there is no truth to the threat. Perhaps you are not in a position to risk it. Perhaps you too will refuse to send a token of earth and water to Xerxes no matter what the cost. The demands will be onerous but perhaps once met there will be no more? Perhaps you can buy some time to create an army to defend yourself. Perhaps you can refuse now. What will you decide?

The Strategy of Audacity IV

Monday, February 11th, 2008

In the last entry in this series I offered Grant’s 1863 Vicksburg Campaign as a military history textbook classic (ah the irony) of “Thinking Outside the Box.” Here I would like to examine a brief game design example that illustrates how designers set up a system of conventions and then offer players the ability to bend and twist the rules and pull off the unexpected. Magic The Gathering is considered to be the Granddaddy of modern collectible card games. The system is relatively simple but the game play variations are exceptionally complex. I have to embarrassingly confess that I’m really not very talented at them. I’ve only ever played Magic Online and usually just the “leagues” that they offered for a modest buy in. I never won a single prize. I don’t know how it is today but since I broke the habit several years ago it used to be that you could win something just by placing in the top half.

For me the joy of playing Magic was the mental exercise of putting all the system pieces together into different combinations. Magic for me is a little puzzle box. I’m going to assume that you are familiar at least with the basics. If not please DO NOT go and try the game out without getting some addiction counseling before you break the seals on your first boosters. Magic as a system has different components that operate on a geographical identity principle much like areas on a board game. You have your deck, your resources area, your playing field area where you deploy your agents (summoned monsters to do your bidding), and your graveyard. I’m going to focus on the graveyard. Just by naming this a graveyard, the designer (presumably Mr. Garfield chose this) implies that this is a place where dead, used up cards go. It’s often also called a discard deck in some games. The assumption is that spent cards do not rise from the grave. Well, not exactly because this is a card game about powerful wizards hurling spells at each other so Necromancy seems like a natural. And sure enough some “black” cards let you reanimate cards by moving them from the grave yard back to your hand or even the playing field.

This is some light out of the box thinking. The conventions of the name would have you typically think of something in your graveyard as gone especially if you are playing a non black deck. The blue color’s theme ability to send cards back to a player’s hand is sort of similar. The obvious thing to do is destroy cards not give the player a second chance to deploy them. But just by sending a key card or two back to your opponent’s hand you can really take control of the tempo of the game. Besides being annoying it can be deadly.

This is all well and good. But game designers often invent ways to really push the envelope on thinking outside the box. Now remember, I don’t mean the game is designed so that only a Ulysses S. Grant is going to notice the designers’ hint and use the tools to cut a hole in the box. That only happens in real life. In a game system, the designer wants to make the door outside the box relatively easy to find. Finding it and enjoying it is the whole point. One of the doors I found that really tickled me was a card called the Ichorid from the Torment Block.

Ichorid The Rampager

The clever twist on this card is that it dies every turn but reanimates back onto the playing field by consuming other cards already in your graveyard. Yes, it’s just a variation of some type of reanimation technique. But it’s very clever in my non expert opinion. Your first instinct is to shy away from it because it’s so destructive. It permanently removes other cards from your graveyard to fuel its vengeance…gone for ever and not to be of use again. That’s scary to most people. It seems like a card that let’s you make a death ride. And in my experience it was a very powerful death ride that not only won games but frustrated the hell out of your opponent (Why won’t you just die!).

Of course the card can’t go on the death run by itself and the designers made sure there were helper cards to build some momentum. Here is one that I liked to use:

In Dreams

This card let’s you deal out some damage and clear a path for old Icky. The two cards were made for each other because Icky is coming back and if he took some of his own friends with him he’ll get a snack or two and some return appearances.

Love That Joker

This guy is also a nice combo. Need to feed Icky and get some card advantage? There you go. Of course you need to do the modestly unconventional thing and play it on yourself.

These types of card “combos” are nothing new in the CCG world but the mental stimulation of putting them together in unique ways that let players pretend to be thinking a bit outside the box, is one of the reason the genre is so fun and stimulating.