Game Prototyping: 9-4-3-2

Okay, let’s talk about this idea.

You are hiding your One card. Fortunately, you have eight other cards, and you have arranged a line to defend them. They’re all more powerful than your One, each one counting up from Two all the way to the immense Nine. You can’t hold all the cards, though, so you have to get rid of one card, chosen at random (not your One, don’t worry about it). You put a card in reserve. This is a card you’ll be able to quickly deploy later. Then you pick of your remaining seven cards, four cards to put down in a defensive line in front of you.

And now, you can use a face down card to attack an enemy’s card. But cards can attack the cards on the table, or sometimes cards in the hand or sometimes even attacking the card in reserve. Sometimes there’s cards that care about the burned card under the reserve. You have nine cards, and they all do different things, and you’re trying to find a way that your cards can find my One without presenting vulnerabilities to my cards, and I’m trying to do the same.

It’s got a spatial element. If a card is destroyed in your line, it can be reinforced from the reserve, or your hand. If it’s not, enemies can move into that space and suddenly that card can attack your hand directly. Combat is simple – you reveal the cards, and the higher number wins, the lower number is destroyed and ditched. There are ways to return the ditched cards to your hand, too, so you can even resupply!

The game is eighteen cards in total. Cards have their own abilities, and the game has room to put a lot of cool art on these cards.

Now I have a problem: What fiction am I going to put on this game?

Where It Came From

I really like hearing people describe the rules – generally – for games I don’t have and haven’t played. I think it’s an interesting way to separate game mechanics from necessarily the fiction of the system they’re in. For this reason, I watch a lot of board game reviews. I don’t necessarily want a Heavy Cardboard style deep dive, I much rather something that’s more of a single surface idea.

This means I like watching Dice Tower stuff, from time to time. I’ll go months without looking at them, then I’ll watch a dozen reviews in a day and take notes on things. If I know the game they’re talking about too much, I dunno, that feels too samey, that feels like I’m doing my own version of something. And there’s a reason to do that — Fabricators is San Juan without the colonialism, and Good Cop, Bear Cop is Secret Hitler without the needless edginess of being Hitler. But anyway, so I’m watching Tom Vasel.

Tom Vasel did a look back video on 2016, where he talked about a game called Thunder & Lightning (itself a reimplementation of a 2000 game called Hera and Zeus). In his description, he outlined the idea of the game as being Stratego, The Card Game. And that was kind of all I had to go on. That you’re trying to find a single card from your opponent’s deck, and it could be in any one of a number of locations, but you don’t know where. That’s a great idea, that’s how Netrunner works.

By the way, if I’d wanted to, I could have downloaded the rulebook for Thunder & Lightning and seen how it worked, right there. I didn’t. I just had that idea of ‘stratego, but cards.’ Stratego is a game with a tier system for units, and those units start the game obscured. That means there’s a setup phase, and then you’re going to be challenging your units against your opponent’s units and you need to guess how they’re doing it, and then every unit you understand helps to shape what you’re not seeing. Great, easy, I can do something like that.

How small can I make it?

Okay, so if it’s about an increasing/decreasing hierarchy of cards, where bigger numbers beat smaller numbers, easy place to start is nine cards. That means you have a clear number of cards where every card beats every other card and you only need one ‘bit’ of space to store the value of the card. Plus we have existing cards that are easy to prototype with if I don’t go past 10.

Material Conditions

If you’re not aware, my current situation with microgames is getting less and less viable. Microgames, 1-27 card games, which I love to make, are steadily becoming print-and-play only. If I make more of them, they need to be good games for their space, and they kind of need to maximise the space I have for them.

The hook box constraints are pretty tight. The smallest hook box has room for eighteen cards, but I can print on the inside and outside of the box for the rules. Eighteen also works out great because that’s two sets of nine, which puts us under our 1-10 spectrum from earlier.

If the card game is thin enough then suddenly it’s being mailed rather than being shipped and that makes the game more affordable. At this point this game looks at being about as physically difficult to get, carry, and transport around as a booster box, which means making the game fun and fast and easy to teach works well with the typical play pattern. No reminders, no tokens, just cards in a space. I like the idea of that.

Great, okay, so we’re a hookbox, with 18 cards, made on Gamecrafter.

The Quandrary

The design I have is nice and simple and has some mechanical space that allows for themes. As it is, the individual cards, and their abilities, are kind of waiting on that. Sure, some things might translate, but consider if this is say, cyberpunk hackers in a neon 90s attacking each other’s servers, then looking at a card could be attached to the flavour of someone sneaky and small. On the other hand, if it’s say, ships trying to sneak past one another in a line of smugglers during the fog, you might want that to attach to something big and ponderous that could have a searchlight and win lots of fights, like a high power card.

And thus the problem of what fiction am I using becomes kinda integral.

Here’s a list of possible flavours I’ve thought about:

  • Aliens vs Space Marines, as they both hunt each other’s command centre.
  • Cyberpunk gangs, hacking each other to take over blocks of the city one at a time
  • Bloodborne-style hunters, monsters vs hunters stalking through the mist, or maybe two identical hunter factions convinced the other is corrupted
  • Thieves guilds competing for a contract
  • Cold war spies, trying to find the secret plans

And that means … I dunno. It means I need to find resources that work for this. I could commission art for it, but the game will almost never make enough money to justify it. I’ve been looking for art resources I could buy – but then I need either nine or eighteen pieces of artwork I can use that have a matching aesthetic that don’t present problems.

No followup, no finale.

Time to go looking.

If you do art, and any of these aesthetics sound like they match your art, and you’ve got something you think you’d be happy to license me, let me know!