It's been several weeks since I started working on v10 of Seventh Cross, and I've been through two different versions of the game in that time. These two versions focused extensively on combat, with just a little bit of narrative linking the battles together.
These were interesting battle games, but after playing them for two weeks, I've been figuring out what works and what doesn't. In the process, I've come across a lot of good insights for combat games in general.
Problems with v10 and v11
In versions 10 and 11, I introduced unique abilities for each character. These gave them extensive and unique sub-systems, each its own complete game, in some sense. To give an example of how different these were, one character built poker hands to prepare attacks, while another created alchemic potions by mixing 2, 3, 4, or 5 different reagents together.
While these characters were interesting, and playtesters liked them quite a bit, they were rather complex to learn, and even when learned, took a while to operate. Battles lasted about an hour. In a game that wants to have 3 or 4 battles and to make losing a fight an ever-present possibility, this wouldn't really cut it.
In v11, I tried to scale things back a bit by giving the players shorter turns and more things to do on others' turns. Unfortunately, this backfired because it offered players too much control over the action on the table. Players were constantly asking each other what interrupt effects they needed and offering help to one another. The cooperative aspects were nice, but they undermined the threat the boss presented, and also bloated the turn structure a bit.
In both versions, bosses were a bit too easy to dodge, and the boss's minions clogged up the board without having a significant impact.
Positives from v10 and v11
These two versions weren't entirely without merit. I learned quite a lot. Players liked having vastly different abilities and roles. They also enjoyed having an ability to interact and help one another.
In v11, players also took to the quicker turn structure. I think that the idea was right, but there's still some work to be done refining that.
Also, players had fun. Even though personally I was not happy with the execution of some systems, playtesters were very excited about the core mechanics, and asked to play the game again after completing a battle. I think I'm on the right track! Once I integrate some story and character growth to create the larger metagame, I expect that things will improve even more!
Some Guidelines for v12
After playing v10 and v11, I put together a few guidelines for v12.
Turns should vary between Explosive and Quick - In a cooperative adventure game, it's important to let each player feel powerful and capable, but also not to make them too capable. A few high-power turns should define the game, and these should be punctuated with lighter, quicker turns that keep the action measured.
Simple, Relevant Minions - Minion effects should be very simple, and very dangerous. Minion effects are always activated only during the minion attack phase, or by the boss himself (they should never be passive or reactive, lest they be forgotten by the players).
Every Boss Attack should be potentially lethal every turn - A boss needs the threaten players with the possibility of death every single turn. These threats need to become more and more dire as time goes by, so that the players never have a chance to 'stabilize' their strategy.
Eliminate 'Background' and 'Gotcha' effects - Many effects in v10 and v11 were 'always on' types of effects, such as 'whenever a player moves, place a minion' or 'whenever a minion is destroyed, deal damage to each character in its space). These kinds of effects that break out of the usual turn structure were easily forgotten by the players, and also made planning your turn far more difficult. In future versions, we will try to keep effects compartmentalized into specific places in the turn structure. The kinds of effects that are passive will be limited to stat boosts and penalties, and these will always be tracked somehow in front of the player.
Simpler, more important effects - In the past few versions players had larger and more complex turns, with a lot of small effects and options at their disposal. However, many of these were not so relevant, and in the end, players really wanted to just deal damage. I've decided to try to make v12 simpler in nature. If it works out, I can introduce the fun and technical stuff when I put in character growth mechanics, hopefully in v13.
Experimental Content for v12
In addition to refining the game, I'm also experimenting with some new tech in v12.
Time Tracker - I've wanted to add time as a mechanic for a few versions. We found that letting players decide their own turn order added an inordinate amount of time to the play, while adding very little in terms of strategy. Instead, I've put together a system that tracks player actions and makes their turn order a result of how much they do in a turn. If players take longer turns, the boss will also respond with double- and triple-turn plays.
Stance System - Our previous board had 4 zones, each with 3 distances from the boss (Close, Mid Range, and Far). The distances were meant to track how aggressively players were fighting, but ultimately just made minions less useful. I'm reduced the board down to 6 spaces now, and given each player stances, which do the duty previously allotted to the distance spaces. Stances also allow for more complex dispositions than just "Aggressive" and "Cautious".
Skills & Focus - I've unified the deck mechanics for all the characters. We found that, while it was fun to do different things, having an entirely different turn structure for each character was too much. It made it difficult for the players to interact with one another, and for the boss to interact with the players, when 'Discard a card' could mean something very different for each character. Unifying the baseline systems allows for more design space and cooperative mechanics.
Stats - In an attempt to unify mechanics across all players, I've introduced stats to the game. Stances let you modify your stats to adapt to changing situations, while many actions provide simple buffs. Each stat has clear-cut uses, so players can instinctively know what they're getting out of it when they use one of these powers.
Wound Acceleration - In v10 and v11, the boss would retaliate with a small effect every time it was wounded. This worked fine, but it interrupted the flow of combat quite a bit. In v12, I've integrated the wounds into the Time Tracker. Each wound inflicted powers up the boss when he moves over it on the Time Track. The wounds also lock players out of spaces on the time track (forcing them to move further than they otherwise would), meaning that the boss will effectively start attacking faster and faster as time goes by. This also prevents the action from breaking every time a player attacks.
Transformation is Back - In v10 and 11, it was difficult to implement the transformation mechanics I wanted, because every character was so different. With things unified again, I'm happy to bring these back. Characters have specialized weapons that can change form during battle, and they are also able to transform into their more monstrous selves, which gives them access to a different stat spread and key ability.
In general in v12, we have introduced more elements of play, while taking care to tie all these elements into the core systems and flow structure of the game in order and eliminate incidental effects, and focus more on large-scale strategy.
I'll let you know how it goes once we get to play it a few times!