Fort | Development Diary 1 - The Origins of Fort

Designer/Developer Diary, Fort -

Fort | Development Diary 1 - The Origins of Fort

This Summer, Leder Games is opening direct pre-orders for Fort and the game will be shipping out over the course a month or two. For that reason I wanted to say a little about the history of the most excellent gaming structure known as Fort.

To find the origins of Fort, we must excavate the tattered marble of antiquity. Though in this case it wasn’t marble, but wood. Still, a squirrel in a toga is close enough, and better than no toga at all. At least it is for this historical comparison to make any sense. Before Fort, there was 
SPQF.

Core to my design process is taking a well-worn mechanism or subject matter and finding a twist to create something fresh. For example, with Imperius I made a drafting game where the decisions were almost entirely about counter-drafting and hidden information, instead of focusing on your own goals and building a public tableau.

Between 
Imperius and SPQF I made Five Ravens, which experimented with deck distillation and building a tableau. It was interesting, a little fiddly, but certainly promising. I knew the relationship between deck and tableau was fertile ground, strong enough to foster a burgeoning civilization, so I returned to it and added deckbuilding to the mix.

Cards. Tableau. Hand management.


An early look at some of the first cards for the SPQF prototype.Some of the first cards tested.


For me, deckbuilding is about enhancing and refining an organism - your deck - to create something unique and powerful in the span of the game. It gives people the immense satisfaction of a personalized story (which is why games like 
Magic: The Gathering are so intoxicating) with the shared input randomness of the card pool and draw to force interesting decisions and trade-offs.

I love this genre and it is well-occupied by games that have sold absurdly well. Let’s ignore the hybrid games to keep this simple. There are two juggernauts that represent the two foundational archetypes of the genre: 
Dominion and Star Realms. In Dominion, all players acquire cards from a shared pool that is defined at the game’s beginning and does not change. In Star Realms, the card pool is always the same, but when, and what cards emerge adds a great deal of variance.

Note: Yes, I know Star Realms expands on Ascension, but I think it’s a superior system and this is my developer diary.

By examining the key decision space of the genre, and the two key standards, it showed me where to apply my efforts. Sometimes a great idea just arrives, but often one doesn’t, so finding ways to narrow down one’s focus is incredibly useful.

Ultimately, I came up with two twists: cards don’t cost anything, and you acquire them from your opponents. However, nothing in a design exists alone. It’s all a part of a greater ecosystem, so simply stating these two distinctions is worthless without covering the other twists and elements that made them really work.


An early look at some of the first cards for the SPQF prototype.My first pass at icon based actions.


I wanted to create a more interactive deckbuilder. Honestly, adding interactive elements is a core requirement of all of my designs. I believe humans are the greatest foe and I vastly prefer interaction as a randomizer than mechanisms of chance. The deckbuilder genre is notoriously one of isolated play. Players are racing against a goal in parallel, and while some Dominion card combinations foster more interaction, it feels more like a supplemental experience than the core intent.

Design is not always about invention, but borrowing heavily. Chefs don’t often create wholly unique dishes, but mix and match different elements to create new, interesting flavors. I love 
Race for the Galaxy and it seemed obvious that the follow mechanism is one that forces and interesting choice while also not being aggressive or confrontational. It also worked in Eminent Domain, which is a deckbuilder itself.


The cards of the military/sword suit.

The key twist of SPQF required one more ingredient. My initial inspiration was the combo abilities in Star Realms. In that game, there are four suits of cards - green, blue, yellow, and red. When playing a card, you get its Action. However, if you play multiple cards of the same suit (ex: Two Reds), you get to use their Actions AND their bonus Actions. I love this system, but sought to reduce the volume of content it requires (as I am lazy) and also streamline the experience (as my games are notoriously complex). The idea was to allow every action to be enhanced numerically by one for every matching suit you play to increase the action.

For example, “gather one green crop resource” improves to “gather four green crop resources” if you play 3 more cards of the appropriate suit. [Formula: Action Card + Three Enhancement Cards = Four]

All of these components created a really distinct, crisp, and fast-playing deckbuilder.

When it isn’t your turn, you can play cards of the matching suit to follow an opponent, i.e. take a lesser version of their action. Everyone is involved in every turn, and because following has a cost, you have to choose what to spend and what to keep.

When it is your turn, you choose one card to play for its action, then other cards that match the suit to enhance the action. Building a cohesive deck is key, but focus too much and your economy lacks the breadth to excel.

Finally, cards you did not play to follow, or for its action, or to modify your action, are put up for sale. That’s right, use it or lose it. This further augmented the decision space, not just in terms of what action to take because you need it, but what action to take to protect certain cards you wanted to keep. It also made following a precious release valve.

Early testing revealed what I always know - humans are naturally very risk averse. They won’t modify their deck unless it is crystal clear it provides an improvement. Therefore, I made the card acquisition mandatory. Every round, you must buy a single card, either from your opponents, or from the middle community row.

When the choice of whether to acquire or not was removed, players found satisfaction in acquiring the perfect card for their deck from an opponent. Or, at the very least, denying their opponent a good card you know they need. Or, and this is where the follow mechanism really enhances the overall ecosystem, if Jenny is taking a lot of actions of a single suit, and you don’t have any of those cards, you can never follow, which means you’re playing inefficiently.

The initial mechanisms came together relatively quickly. As a result, the game was immediately compelling, and as the four of us were soon able to play a game in only 15 minutes, we would usually play 1-3 times every morning over coffee before work. Typically, my mechanisms and my content are a mess. Here, it was mostly the content that posed a challenge.

My group has several personalities, which make it incredibly useful to me as a testing organization. Gibson is your standard Magic control player. He is cautious, hates an inelegant deck, and doesn’t like to share. Miotke is a spiteful wild card and a loose cannon. Romeo finds a strategy and refines it until it cannot be beaten - he has a knack for finding a prototype’s dominant strategy. As for myself, I try to do a little of everything to ensure that I can beat Romeo’s current dominant favorite, Gibson’s caution, and Miotke’s erratic pettiness.

For example, Romeo found one strategy that effectively allowed him to ignore us, condense his deck down to five cards, and earn five points every turn. We had to fix that with a solution that forced him to participate. Then, he found a strategy where he would build to the highest level so quickly that alternative strategies never had time to get going, so we had to slow him down. I found that if there was ever a card draw action, or ability to cycle through your discard, that Gibson would do that forever and it slowed the game. Good bye, sir strategy.

But, all along the development was quite enjoyable. We all enjoyed playing every morning. I enjoyed trying new strategies. Yes, every few days we’d identify a card, or action, as a hint powerful, and yes, it would take another week or so to fully feel comfortable in its balance, but as a designer, leaving the testing station with three players all nodding felt really good.

I’ve written a fair amount on my blog (http://hyperbolegames.com/blog) and BGG (check the SPQF forum) about my publishing process, so I’ll briefly catch you up here. As a solo effort, all of my games are treated as limited pop-ups. The Kickstarter campaigns are usually only 7 days in duration, and my promise is that you will never see them again from me. So far this has always been true and typically 200-300 people come along for this journey, which is perfectly fine by me.

Card array from the game SPQF on a green lawn
The final copy of SPQF
I produce everything using a series of domestic manufacturers. I sourced thousands of wooden cubes, hundreds of shipping boxes, printed labels, printed cards with DriveThruCards.com, purchased a box and rule booklet from TheGameCrafter.com, and ordered laser cut tableau and tokens from a wood shop in Utah. Then, in my apartment, I assembled every package personally. The idea is that every backer gets something special, distinct, and personal. Furthermore, unlike a traditional print game, I deliver my products usually within a few months - I’ve always hit or exceeded my deadlines.

SPQF was special in that it sold about 600 units, which is by far the largest of my small hipster production runs. I attribute this to the quality of the art from 
Sid Quade, to the community’s love of deckbuilding, to the loyal folks who show up to try what I make, and finally, to the production effort I put forth. Learning from Solstice and Five Ravens, I made the assessment that Kickstarter backers, especially ones interested in something like SPQF, are not looking for a deal. They’re looking for something cool. Instead of chasing a low price, I set the price at $50 and packed the box with much cooler stuff. Is that too expensive for a typical deckbuilder of this size? Yes! But, I didn’t rip anyone off. I left myself a little room to make a profit after paying my illustrator, manufacturers, paying for shipping, the KS cut, and any unexpected oopsies.

It was really rewarding!

Even more rewarding is receiving direct messages on Twitter from 
Patrick Leder and Cole Wehrle. I’m a massive fan of Root. Having also designed an asymmetrical area control game, when I played Root, it revealed all the things about Cry Havoc that frustrated me and showed me how much better the design could have been. Playing Pax Pamir 2nd Edition is a revelation. Vast: The Mysterious Manor is the ultimate chaos euro and just a beautiful product. I felt like working with them would be like getting signed by the 2010-2014 San Francisco Giants. You thought I’d say the Yankees, didn’t you? Gross.

I knew Leder Games would make SPQF a strictly superior product, full stop. I had no doubt. I already knew all the things I would change. Things like simplifying the Leader (Bear) suit, removing certain one-off exception actions, and rules that could use some clarification work. Nick Brachmann did such a good job on these things and more. As I saw things come together, I kept nodding and thinking “Yep, that’s the right call.”

It’s been a joy, and a pleasure, and I cannot wait for you to see what they did to bring SPQF out of antiquity and into the 21st century.

 

- Grant Rodiek

 

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