FLEET: Making a Card Game (pt 1)
Updated: Jun 10, 2021
Games are a big passion of mine. I wrote my thesis in no small part because of the implications it might have for risk assessment in game design. Human Systems Engineering is all about how people interact with systems and products, so applying those best practices to making a card game seems like a no brainer. I hope this proves helpful or at the very least interesting. I intend for this to be the first of many articles covering the timeline of my process.
Before doing any design work, I evaluated my needs and limitations. I then constructed criteria as a base for brainstorming. I decided my game would need to have the following attributes:
A physical game, as I lack the programming skills to create a video game. Would only need an artist as an additional contributor rather than needing a larger team; it naturally reduces scope.
Novel in some aspect. All media is derivative but what separates truly great media is that it either perfects a previous concept or it combines concepts in innovative ways.
Self contained, i.e. doesn’t require players to bring their own pieces like trading card games. These games require large player bases to function.
Easy to prototype
Easy to eventually fabricate, down the road I may want to publish the game and easy to manufacture components would decrease costs greatly.
A player vs player group game, for no other reason than it is the type of game I enjoy.
Easy to pick up and play but still has interesting decision making. Many group games have very heady rules that can take a long time to learn, there’s always need for simpler experiences. On the other hand this can lead to shallow gameplay, which isn’t desirable either.
I quickly settled on creating a card game of some kind. Card games are extremely easy to prototype, as you simply print out new cards for each iteration. They also have an advantage in manufacturing; cards are cheap to print, and packaging can be as simple as a cardboard box with no need for plastic inserts to hold oddly shaped parts. They provide a simple structure for displaying information and have good visual affordances i.e. people already know what a playing card is, how to hold a playing card, and how to read the information that is presented.
Another early decision was to base the game around drafting. Drafting is a mechanic where each player takes turns picking from some set of objects that may or may not be shared across the whole group. Magic the gathering limited play is an archetypal example of drafting: Each player opens up a booster pack of 15 cards, chooses one, and passes the rest of the pack to the left player. This repeats until the packs are gone, then a new set of packs is opened and the process is repeated passing left. A final round drafts to the left for a total of three packs and 45 drafted cards for each player. Drafting magic works best when it is done in groups of at least eight. Getting a playgroup that large is daunting for most, so most drafts are organized by stores. I wanted my game to match the size of a small gathering, around 3-5 people. Groups this size often want to draft magic even though they don’t meet the criteria, in response a set of small group draft formats have been developed that use alternative methods to distribute cards. One version that particularly caught my attention was a style called Winchester drafting. A detailed explanation can be found here, but the basic gist goes something like this:
Each round players put two cards on two slots in front of them
Each player picks one slot and takes all the cards from it.
Cards are placed again, and those slots that weren’t picked begin to pile up so that when they are chosen the player gets multiple cards.
This version of drafting is fascinating because of the choices it forces; “do I pick the one really good card or the pile of 3 pretty good cards?” In this way the draft is somewhat self correcting as the luck of a good card being placed down will not always outweigh the value of a larger pile. This tension was the nugget that I honed in on, I felt it was the perfect dynamic to base a game around.
The flavor (art, aesthetics, and theme) of the game are placeholder. My initial idea is that each player is represented by a space faring civilization vying for control of the galaxy, with FLEET as the placeholder title. This may stay the same in the final product, however it is important to me that whatever artist I would theoretically team up with is able to create a world they are passionate about. This does not mean the flavor isn’t important, in fact it’s vital to have a placeholder. Themes allow for players to group similar cards together in the mind and to simplify their thought processes. “These are both meteors therefore they both have the same characteristics on some level.”
First draft prototype
The first draft of the game classified the cards into two types, Actions and Permanents. When drafted, the text on an action card takes place immediately. Inversely, when permanents are drafted the player places them in front of them where they stay unless destroyed. Permanents have effects that can be activated during a player's turn by tilting them to the side and paying any costs associated with the effect.
Cards are also classified by rarity from one to five, seen to the right of the card name. This denotes how many are in the deck (A level one card will have five copies while rarity five will have one). This is also sometimes referred to in card effects, which creates a sort of “knob” to tune mechanical interactions. Being able to disrupt a high rarity card with an effect may be more valuable than one that targets low rarity cards. It also makes it easier to evaluate card power level at a glance, as higher rarity cards are intended to have higher power level. This should help facilitate decision making without requiring a ton of experience.
Mechanically the flow of the game revolves around acquiring resources and depleting the opponents resources. Actions do this as soon as they are drafted, but many permanents need Energy to activate; this comes from certain permanents that can be tilted to produce it. This balance of instant gratification from actions and the stable churn from permanents is at the core of draft decision making. Energy requirements also skew decision making; you can keep picking all the permanents with the best payoffs but if you ignore resource generators you’ll end up with a stunted board.
In order to give players a starting point, they each start with three hydroponics and one scouting drone, so at the very least they can earn one victory point a turn. These are also a good example of the way permanents play off of each other.
An additional subtype of cards are actions with negative effects. These may deal damage to you or inflict other disruptive effects. These cards serve to twist the pile evaluation further. They can create situations where a pile stacks up particularly high, and suddenly it becomes worth taking a few points of damage.
Instructions (Draft 1)
Three cards from the deck are placed on three respective piles.
The current player untilts all tilted permanents they control.
The player chooses one of the piles to draft.
All permanents in the pile are placed in front of the player.
The player activates the effect of each action card, and may choose to activate them in any order.
The player may activate the effects of any permanents that they have.
The turn passes.
Each player starts with 20 health.
If a player's health is depleted to zero, they lose the game and are removed from it.
If a player is the only remaining player with health, they win the game.
Each player starts with zero victory points.
Victory points can be earned through card effects.
When the game ends, each player counts all permanent cards they control and adds that number to their point total.
When the game ends, a player's remaining health is converted into victory points.
If a player is the only remaining player with health, they automatically win the game.
If a card would be placed on the pile but there are no more cards in the deck, the game ends.
If a player reaches 20 victory points, the game ends.
The player with the greatest number of victory points when the game ends wins.
Testing results (Draft 1)
Testing for the first draft was very informal. I would simply play the game with friends, often during a game night in between other games. Data was qualitative and messy, based on observations and verbal feedback. The first prototype provided a number of insights:
The core drafting experience is excellent.
Certain cards are much more powerful than intended, with the worst offender being a card named colony festival that almost always ended the game and gave the player an incredible amount of victory point advantage.
Action, Colony Festival, Rarity 5,"Tilt any number of permanents. For each permanent you tilt, gain 1 VP"
Rules lacked clarity and led to moments of confusion, specifically in understanding which effects occurred at what time.
Too many permanents. On top of each player starting with four permanents, permanents outnumber action cards in the deck. This leads to bloated boards and tracking problems.
The third insight is the most important, and also needed the most creative solution. In response, I decided to introduce a new card type to the next draft: Event cards. Event cards are a renaming of the old Action cards, which frees up the name for a new card type. These new Action cards act like a combination of Event and Permanent cards; when drafted, they are placed onto the players board like an permanent card. Each has some ability that can be activated the same way permanents can, however unlike permanents these cards are discarded after use. This allows for strategic depth on the board without clogging it up with Permanents. Many of the old action cards became Event cards, and many Action cards were created to dilute the pool of permanents.
Instructions (Draft 2)
Creating a training document for a game is much like creating one for a study; it needs to convey information clearly and efficiently. I tried to focus on making explanations cleaner to avoid confusion during gameplay.
Additionally I created a new card type called the “Mothership” which replaces the hydroponics. The Mothership is indestructible and can tilt for three energy, which is enough to pay for the scouting drone's ability. This reduces starting permanents from four to two. In addition, landing the killing blow on a player gives you control of their mothership; this incentivizes aggression as the mothership is worth five victory points when the game ends.
---Start of instructions (Draft 2)---
Health represents the vitality of your empire. It can be lost from taking damage from certain cards or being attacked by other players. It can also be regained, however your health cannot go above 20.
Victory Points (VP)
Victory Points represent the influence of your empire. They are earned by conquering and building infrastructure. Victory points cannot be lost like health.
Energy is a temporary resource that can be used to pay for the effects of many cards. Balancing between cards that create energy and those that consume it is key to winning FLEET.
Some effects will ask you to tilt a card. To tilt, turn the card diagonally in front of you. This often denotes that a card has been used this turn. Abilities that require the card to be tilted cannot be activated if the card is already tilted.
Rarity is denoted by the number next to the card name. This will occasionally be mentioned by card effects. Higher numbers are higher rarity.
Event cards are played the turn they are drafted, and must be played immediately. Once played, Event cards are placed in a discard pile.
Permanents are cards that can be used multiple times. When drafted they are placed in front of you, and have effects that can be used every turn from then on out.
Action cards are kept in front of you as you would a permanent and can be activated on any turn, however once used they are discarded like an event would be.
How to play
Each player starts with 20 health, zero victory points
Deal each player one Mothership and one Scouting Drone card.
A card from the deck is placed on each of three piles
The current player untilts all tilted permanents they control
The player chooses one of the piles to draft
All permanents in the pile are placed in front of the player
The player activates the effect of each event card, and may choose to activate them in any order
The player may activate the effects of any permanents and actions that they have
The turn passes
Ending the game
Victory through combat
If every other player has their life depleted to zero, the remaining player automatically wins.
Victory through influence
When a player reaches 20 victory points, the game ends. Each player counts up their victory points, health, and permanents. The player with the highest score is the winner of the game. The winner might not be the player that reached 20 victory points.
---End of instructions---
For the second phase of testing I asked my players to give me feedback on three things: balance, clarity, and fun. I also asked them for any suggestions in an unstructured way. Here is a condensed version of the feedback I received:
Players die too easily. Feels like there's no way the game will win by VP.
Effects that punish you for having more resources than other players feel too harsh.
Mothership should create an additional effect that generates resources late game, maybe an over costed effect like deal 1 for 4$.
Certain low rarity card combos are extremely efficient at generating advantage and it may be too much (A permanent that tilts for 3$ and one that you pay 3$ to generate 2VP).
Using "$" to symbolize energy doesn't work because money implies that the resource can be kept between rounds.
Easy to learn and effects are clear. Game took about 45 minutes including learning it.
Making events resolve before actions and permanents is confusing.
Energy gets difficult to keep track of late in the game.
It feels good to take a bunch of cards.
Activating Events and then Permanents/Actions seems a bit restrictive and confusing.
Being knocked out is brutal. Teaming up on someone is very effective.
Swooping in to deal the final blow is very fun.
The feedback from the second draft was heartening because I seemed to have solved a few of the problems from draft 1. Events helped greatly with the tracking problems people were having with permanents. The game balance is on the aggressive side currently, however that may not be a bad thing. My current plan is to make fairly minor changes for draft 3, focusing on easy fixes and only the most prominent balancing issues. The plan:
Change $ to E on all the cards.
Increase rarity on a number of low rarity cards.
Change the rules so you can activate all cards in any order.
Create/use more standardized methods of survey
I intend for draft 3 to have a longer testing period than the others, I want to understand the game's balance intimately now that the mechanics seem to be gelling well. This will be a series of posts, so I hope you check out the next one!