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As mentioned in previous articles (Design Diary #1 and Design Diary #2), I believe that one of the most distinctive aspects of any card-driven game (CDG) is the set of historical events that are featured on the operations cards used in the game. Not only should the events provide players with interesting alternatives to the standard operations points offered by the cards, but they should also evoke the correct historic setting for the game as a whole. These points equally hold true for deckbuilding games as well – the events on the cards players choose for their decks must be interesting in play and must also fit the game’s theme.
Designing the events for a card-driven game can be a very difficult balancing act. Of course it is important to make sure that no event has a disproportionate effect on the game, and it can take a great amount of playtesting effort to properly exercise candidate events. However, the events in a deckbuilding game can be an even greater playtesting challenge. While events in CDGs tend to be a) unique and b) drawn randomly, events in deckbuilding games are frequently purposely selected by players in multiple copies. This means that the relative effect of events in deckbuilding games can be greatly magnified, and any issues that may exist with combinations of certain events will most assuredly be found and exploited.
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The first question a lot of people ask about Time of Crisis is, “How does it compare to other deckbuilding games?” This is something Wray and I thought about quite a bit throughout the development process. When we first conceived of the base design for Time of Crisis, deckbuilding was still a new mechanic on the scene and we were clearly not the only ones who were intrigued by it. Since that time, many new deckbuilding games have come into existence, many exploring new territory. We knew we had to give Time of Crisis its own fingerprint, to make it distinctive in some way among games that utilize a similar mechanic.
First, what exactly is a deckbuilding game? We need to begin with the first real ancestor, Rio Grande’s Dominion. There may have been games in the past that used a deckbuilding-like mechanic, but Dominion is the one that really gave it an identity and turned it into a genre. I suggest that the essence of what makes a deckbuilding game, as seen originally in Dominion, can be captured in the diagram to the right. The main “loop” of actions in the game is to draw new cards and play those cards, thereby generating points that can be used to purchase new cards, and repeat. Some of the cards that you buy are worth victory points (VPs), the accumulation of which is necessary for winning the game. To make the game interesting, most of the cards allow the players to perform special actions, which may modify or enhance virtually any element of the game. Seeking ways to exploit combinations of these special actions is a big part of the game, but it doesn’t change the fundamental core of the game, which is to create an engine that can buy victory points more efficiently. Note that all of the action in the game is entirely encompassed within the scope of the player’s deck of cards. Every action is about simply moving cards, from supply to deck to hand and into play.
The design of Time of Crisis started with one fairly simple idea. Wray was living and working in Chicago, so I was lucky to be able to meet with him in person fairly frequently. At one game day at my house, we were discussing possible game design projects, and I related my interest in the (at the time) relatively new deckbuilding concept that had been made popular by Donald Vaccarino’s Dominion. Wray and I were, of course, both fans of the card-driven game (CDG) framework, especially from our work together on Sword of Rome. So I asked, “What if we designed a game that combined the best features of deckbuilding and CDGs?” Wray was immediately interested, and this became the focus for our next project.
We first agreed on what we felt were the most salient characteristics of these two styles of games. We believed that a CDG must have cards that are the primary driver for players’ actions on the board; additionally, the cards must have multiple uses, providing a choice between some type of action points for performing “standard” actions, and a historical event that typically provides a more powerful, but more specific or restricted “special” action. The on-board action of a CDG typically involves moving and battling with discrete armies or units, overlaid with some kind of area control system. Some CDGs provide a single deck of cards that all players draw from, while others provide a separate deck for each player. A deckbuilding game must provide players a relatively weak set of starting cards that can be expanded and/or upgraded over the course of the game, as the player wishes. So the hybrid game we were looking for would ideally be a CDG where each player would have a unique deck that they could build during the game, rather than being fixed at the start of the game. We had other constraints in mind, though, as well: we wanted to design a game that would be easy to learn and playable in about 2 hours, so it would be a fairly light wargame, accessible to a wide variety of players. Put another way, a blend of “Euro” game and wargame design principles. This balance point would become an ongoing consideration and touchpoint in our design efforts.