Fort | Development Diary 2 - Flow, Choice, and Conversion

Designer/Developer Diary, Fort -

Fort | Development Diary 2 - Flow, Choice, and Conversion

Last week, Grant talked about the creation of SPQF as well as his goals for the design as a whole. Today, I'll mainly talk about my relationship with card games, why I have such a passion for them, and how that translated into the development of SPQF into Fort.

As I continue to explore tabletop gaming, I still find myself drawn to card games specifically, and I believe the reasons have a lot to do with my upbringing. As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, a cornerstone of hanging out was playing card games. At family gatherings, there was always a group of cousins at the table playing trick-taking games like Sheepshead or 7-up 7-down. With my friends, it was Yu-Gi-Oh or one of the many dead TCGs we enjoyed collecting.

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To best understand how SPQF became Fort, I want to talk about the three major things I enjoy about card games: flow, choice, and conversation, and to explore how Fort has all three.

Flow can take many forms in card games. It may be as casual as following suit or as dynamic as windmill-slamming your perfect “out” in response to an opponent’s play.

Card games have a knack for drawing players into a rhythm of play. I’m not the only one that finds this phenomenon fascinating—an entire game has been made out of this concept in 
The Mind. In Fort, flow comes from the “follow” mechanism. On a player’s turn, they play one card and take its actions, but then any other player can discard a card of matching suit to “follow” the action, taking part of it themselves. While most deck-builders find their flow in a solitaire frenzy of drawing, searching, culling, and buying from a central market, Fort takes that engine and divides it among the players. You may not need cards that collect a particular resource if you manage to consistently follow your opponents. This means players are anticipating—even excited for—their opponents’ turns, which is quite rare in this genre.

Choice may seem more obvious. Of course you want players to make choices. But I believe that the “choice” moment in card games is even more important than in other genres since it directly opposes the other ideal game state (flow). If flow is a conversation, a choice is a difficult question. I’ve been getting into Legends of Runeterra lately, and it has reminded me of how card play and counter play is like a debate—with posturing, bold claims, bluffs, and rebuttals. Flow highlights these halts in action that demand attention. Again, we have the follow mechanic to thank for this in Fort. Because of the follow mechanic, you can no longer just play what's best for you—players will agonize whether a card is better for them or their opponents.

Other groan-worthy choices come from choosing special abilities and scoring objectives—perks and made-up rules. At the beginning of the game a random selection of perks and made-up rules are made available, and players need to advance their fort level in order to get them. Will you rush and grab the one you want, or bide your time and build up your engine?

Last is conversation. A great card game should promote conversation both within the game and outside of it. Working at Leder Games has taught me how important it is to give your players a language to talk about the games they play. The most extreme (and to be honest, best) example of this is 
Netrunner. In Netrunner, you don't “look at a card in the opponent's hand” in Netrunner—you “access a card from HQ.” At first glance this renaming of standard game terms can seem annoying and even a bit silly, but I find this choice helps all types of players. From the most casual to the most serious, everyone has to participate in the theme and world if they’re going to play.

Two seemingly small changes during Forts development blew open the conversation between players. One was giving each card with a unique effect its own art piece and name. The other was replacing some of Fort’s game terms. For months, Fort used standard game terminology—here were Starting Cards, Trade Rows, etc. But then the Starting Cards became Best Friends, Trade Rows became Yards, and so on. The playtesters responded immediately. Players no longer silently analyzed cards before they selected one. They’d hem and haw about “Is Spike better than Doc?” or scour the table asking “Is Thunder in anyone’s Yard!?” Prior to this language, cards were only remembered by their effects. Sometimes, the nicknames even let us better link theme and mechanics.

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For example, Munch has one of the more complicated actions. (I’ll talk more about the game’s icon system and its role in all of this in future entries.) In short, his bottom action pays pizza into the supply and you score points for doing so. Tying the mechanic of “spending pizza” to an image of a child eating along with the name “Munch” reiterates to players that they’re interpreting Munch’s effect correctly.

Giving names to the kids also helped spark post-game discussion. Players always wanted to talk about the game—we just had to provide the tools. In games immediately after naming the kids, I remember hearing my playtesters theory-crafting ideal starts and combos. These conversations also began to shift from strict analytical evaluations to stories about their game or preferred faction.

SPQF always possessed flow, choice, and conversation in spades, and I think that's why I was so drawn to it. Speaking with Grant and having the privilege to elevate a game I find so fascinating has only made me appreciate the design more. I’m excited for you all to come along as I retread the steps of Fort’s development. Next week I’ll be talking about the icon system, user experience, and how we optimized for flow.


- Nick Brachmann

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