Arcs | Designer Diary 3 - The Trick’s the Thing

Arcs, Designer/Developer Diary -

Arcs | Designer Diary 3 - The Trick’s the Thing

Unlike Root, Arcs is not a fundamentally asymmetric game. It’s not Root 2 and it doesn’t really try to attack the same design space, despite, as we shall see later, sharing a few rules. However, in one key respect, Arcs does respond to fundamental problem in Root.

I’m not saying Root is broken. Rather, the design is built in such a way that there are strict limits to the kinds of conflicts it can portray. Those limits are set by the game’s board and the rules that govern the different piece classes. Ultimately everything in the game converts into pieces which get placed, moved, and removed from the shared board. This means that when we think about faction control and power, we basically have to couch the discussion in terms of how a player might influence the map. This is why I called the scenario creation system in Root the “reach” system. Because, ultimately, the collective “reach” of the factions chosen across the map determines the larger viability of the scenario.

Root the board game set up to play on a wooden table

Now, Root trades in violence of fairy tales, animal parables, and Saturday morning cartoons. This means the game’s limits are not critical flaws. So long as the game wants to tell stories about insurgency, policing, and war, the game works just fine. But, the moment you try to broaden the game’s storytelling range the wheels will fall off. Thank goodness the game’s world has a wonderful tabletop RPG for such stories!

I didn’t want Arcs to fall into this trap. I wanted the game to have a much wider storytelling range than its predecessor. While there would still be plenty of fighting, I liked the idea one player might be searching for relics while another was trying to break a blockade So, I gave myself a little design challenge. I imagined one player is playing in a special, single-ship mode. Their objective is to find some critical item and activate it. Another player has to put down a rebellion led by some separatists. These two players are not friends or enemies. Could they possibly have any meaningful interaction? Does it even make sense to tell those two stories in the same game?

My mind jumped first to 90s and early 00s eurogames. I think one of the biggest breakthroughs in this design school was the notion of a shared action structure. Though they have a reputation for being “multiplayer solitaire,” games from this period were anything but. Think of El Grande, where the drafting of the action focuses the game’s drama while allowing players to develop very different game positions. In fact, I think this is one of the key distinctions of these kinds of games from their predecessors. Generally games with wargaming or more traditional roots had a very permissive action structure. If you had the pieces you could make the move. In the games that flooded into the market in the late 90s, this was no longer taken for granted. If you really wanted to take a particular action, you had to fight for it.

The cover of El Grande the board game by Rio Grande Games

Over the years, the fight for actions in this games became more elaborate, and I think at some point the designs got a little out-of-wack. The vast majority of interaction and complexity was found in their action frameworks, and very little attention being paid to the game’s other systems—including those that game meaning and identity to the parts of the game that bore its narrative and thematic loads. This lead players to feeling as if a game's theme was an afterthought.

These early euros seemed like an appropriate style for tackling the problem, as long as I could avoid over complicating my action system. It wouldn’t necessarily mean sacrificing the game’s thematic rigor either. Though euro design often have a reputation for being too abstract to tell memorable stories, I think they have a lot of narrative power. When I thought about some of the most memorable and immersive games I had played, I found myself thinking about games like Taj Mahal or Condottiere. While the game’s might have been less individually memorable than a long day of Twilight Imperium or Diplomacy, they were still memorable in the aggregate. And, more importantly, I think they also captured a specific kind of tension that seemed foundational to my game.

Both Condottiere and Taj Mahal are essentially auction games, and they seemed particularly well-suited to the design problem I had given myself. That is, those euros focused the player’s attention on the cost of doing something. The impact of these costs is so direct. Rather than building a big army, marching it across the board, and then finding out if you brought enough units to take your objective, players find out instantly by using a somewhat more abstract system such as the card play bids in Condottiere.

The abstraction these games use might limit their storytelling potential, but it also makes them better suited as metaphors because they can be more easily applied to any number of circumstances. Critically, this doesn’t mean that their themes become arbitrary. Instead, it means that the central action system can create interesting and resonate tensions in a wide variety of contexts. In Taj Mahal a contest could be a military campaign, a courtly intrigue, or a theological debate!

A hand of cards in Taj Mahal the board game

If Arcs was going to have a wider storytelling range than Root or Oath, I needed an action system that could adapt to the demands of the story—that is, I needed an action system that was well adopted to metaphor. It didn’t take me long to find the one I needed. From my background teaching and researching British literature, I knew of dozens of instances where trick taking games were freighted with meaning both literal and metaphorical. This isn’t especially surprising. Trick taking games were commonplace in the 18th and 19th centuries. But, it wasn’t just their ubiquity that made them so useful to writers working at this time. The fundamental elements of their design were important too.

Trick taking games are, like most games, auctions. But, they are a curious type of auction. For one, they have a very long strategic horizon. Players must resolve a large number of tricks/auctions with one diminishing hand (sometimes 10 or more cards!). And, the value of a hand is highly variable depending on how a player manages to control the game’s tempo by taking the lead and how the game uses trump suits. These two elements combine to create an exceptionally potent mixture of strategy, creative play, and turns of fate.

Watercolor of men playing cards by Mary Ellen Best.

The academic in me badly wants to take you all on a quick survey of trick-taking games in poetry and prose from 1712 to 1872, but I'll restrain myself for now. Let’s get back to Arcs

To design a trick-taking action framework for Arcs, I started by building a simple proof of concept. To do this, I decided to subject myself to a self-imposed “game jam.” I gave myself about 72 hours to come up with a working action system. I did this because Oath, espeically in the final months, had needed a very large iterative loop. An iterative loop is the process that allows you to theorize, construct, test, and adapt design ideas. Generally, in the early stages of a design process you want the smallest, fastest iterative loop possible. But, as a design stabilizes, you want to make sure you don’t break anything, and so the iterative loop gets longer and more cautious. Frankly, I was sick of being so cautious and so I wanted to put myself in a situation where I would have to work quickly.

To this end, I kept things simple. I wasn’t designing combat or movement or a map. I didn’t care about tech trees or special effect cards. Nope, I was just looking at one thing: the action structure. So,
I grabbed a copy of Sticheln from my shelf and went out and set up a blasphemous game of Root that starred 4 roughly symmetrical cat-like factions. I figured that Roots core systems worked well enough that I could test a radical revision to the game’s action economy without worrying if my movement rules were too permissive. So, instead of using the regular Marquise sequence of play, I dealt each player a hand of cards and instructed them on a simple trick-taking system wherein players would have to manipulate lead card sand trumps to move and battle and build.

card fans of matching colors

The deck was suited to the game’s actions (red cards were battles, blues were moves, etc). Playing on suit would let you take that action, and playing off suit would let you fight for control of the initiative. To my surprise, the basic system worked almost immediately, but there were a few very obvious problems that needed solved.

The biggest problem was the drafting of the cards. Originally I had a card market that players would draft from based on the strength of the just played trick. In theory I loved this because it meant that every trick was multidimensional. That is, we were fighting for initiative, the actions themselves, and over our ability to craft a strategy for the next turn. In practice it was a mess. Players couldn’t just resolve a trick and instead had to basically play two action rounds for each. In the first the cards would be resolved and in the second players would draft their card for the next round.

And, while it did provide players with a powerful tool for building a strategy, it was simply too much to think about. Playing a hand was hard enough let along trying to draft a hand! I gradually came to the opinion that it was a fool’s errand to build any kind of precise drafting into a trick taking game. It was strategically baffling and a serious flow-break. (Note: for a counter-example, check out Peer Sylvester’s Brian Boru which is a trick taking game that does feature a draft. Though I quite like the game, I’m not convinced the draft makes it better.)

At this moment I decided to step back. Why on earth did I feel so strongly that a draft was needed at all? After some soul-searching, I realized that I wanted a draft because hands were not very flexible. If you had a hand full of battle cards you couldn’t do much besides battling. So, I decided to go through the deck and provide a bunch of additional actions on the cards. These actions were often in other suits—so certain battle cards might also have move actions or repair actions. This allowed me to remove the draft entirely and just dealt players random hands.

Example initiative cards from Arcs the board game
This change did more to snap the game into focus than almost anything else. Though the hand draft was interesting, it was fooling the players into thinking they were making interesting strategic decisions. The question of how to play a particular hand offered plenty of room for creative play. At this point the game stabilized to a point where I could turn to the design of the board, combat, and the game’s other systems. Months passed with this framework in place.

As I continued working on other parts of the design, I would revisit the action system to make small balances. I started finding though that the play of action cards had less dramatic tension. This was happening because I had overbalanced them. Every card was as good as any other card, and so it was hard to reward players for good play or give them room to surprise me with some clever strategy. So, after months of testing, I decided to take the action system through another revision.

The goal now was to make the individual tricks or rounds more cutting. To do this, I reevaluated a rule which had been in place almost since the beginning. In the design, any cards played off suit were counted for initiative, with the highest card taking the lead. This meant that each round players were choosing between bidding for the lead or taking actions. As you might imagine, it was very difficult to hold initiative for more than a hand or two. So, I dropped this rule and went to a more traditional trick-taking system where the highest card of the lead suit took initiative. Suddenly, the tricks were dramatically more strategic and brutal. Play the wrong card and another player could easily run the hand. This was exactly my intention, but I may have over-corrected. I needed to offer players a little more flexibility.

The first step was to re-balance the action deck so that the low cards had far more actions than the high cards.

Example mobilization cards from Arcs the board game
If you played a high mobilization card you’d get fewer actions and would hold the lead. However, if you played your low mobilization card you would get nearly as twice as many actions! This forced leading players to consider how important keeping the lead was and to more frequently “cash out” their control of tempo for extra actions.

However, some players would be stuck with low hands—which had tons of action potential but little to no control of tempo. To help those players, I introduced a workaround that allowed any player to sacrifice an additional card to seize the initiative, regardless of whatever cards were played in a hand. This might make it seem like it was too easy to take the initiative, but losing one of your action rounds (because you were reducing your hand size) was a steep cost. Often players exercise this only once or twice per game at most.

I also revisited the action flexibility and decided that if I was being more severe about the costs and benefits of tempo control, I should offer players who are losing that game a consolation prize. This is achieved by allowing players to copy a weakened form of the lead action card by playing their card face down. They wouldn’t be competing for the initiative, but they’d still get to take an action that might be critical to their strategy.

This means that if you have a hand without battle actions, you can still usually battle once or twice during the hand—you just don’t get to pick when you battle. These face down cards also had a delightful side effect. As the hand wore on the information in front of players became more imperfect. This made for really interesting and dramatic finales to each hand as players spring traps on one another.

The final adjustment was to reintroduce a very limited draft into the design. Players who began the round in the back of the turn order had a clear disadvantage and it was one that often compounded over the rounds. To fix this, these players get to draw a couple extra cards each round and then draft down to the hand size. This was a lot less overwhelming than having to draft an entire hand from scratch and could be resolved very quickly.

Alright, now I realize all of these little alterations might make the system seem a little dizzying. So, here’s how the whole thing works in short:


Example action cards from Arcs the board game

These are our current action cards. Because much of the color space of the game is muted, the action cards could pop easily out of the game's visual design by adopting a more traditional look, with a clean simple layout and brighter colors. Pati and Kyle did a wonderful job bringing these to life.

Every hand players will gradually play all of their cards over several rounds until all players are out of cards. At the start of the hand, players in the back of the order will get a few bonus draws and then will discard down to the hand size (6 with 3 players, 5 with 4).

The player with the initiative plays the lead card and takes all actions on that card. Cards can do a variety of actions depending on the suit, and players can take as many actions as the number of icons on the card. So, an Aggression can be used for moves or battles. If the card with 3 icons on it can be used for any combination of those actions.

Then, clockwise, each player will play a card and take actions. Unlike traditional trick taking games, you aren’t forced to play any particular card. Cards can be played a few ways. If you have a higher card of the same suit as the lead card, you can play it face up and take all of the actions on it (this is called a follow, which is a little different from how this term is used in other trick taking games). If you have an off-suit card, you can play it face up and take a single action of the card you played (this is called a pivot). Otherwise, you can play any card face down to copy a single action of the lead card (this is called a copy).

Anyone who plays after the first card is allowed to spend an additional card to seize the initiative (first come, first served!). Otherwise, the initiative will be passed to the player with the highest card of the lead suit. Then you go on to the next hand.

Together, this system offers players a very robust action framework with a lot of room for turns of fate, multi-turn strategies, and creative play. A player's plans to build a new fleet could be interrupted by a surprise incursion. Is it worth trying to finish the fleet or to withdraw from the fight? Players must constantly weigh their strategic desires against new tactical opportunities.

Those tensions were an exciting prospect for me as a designer. However, I knew that any action system that offered thrilling reversals could also be quite unsettling! A well-played hand could offer you a lot of extra actions or easily cause your entire position to collapse. This was going to present some very real challenges to the game’s overall pace and it’s narrative strategy. We’ll start there next week.



-Cole Wehrle

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