Getting the hunter gameplay just right in Seventh Cross has been a long-standing challenge of this project. It's involved two major decisions which haven't been easy to make: turn structure and action selection.
The first is the decision has been in how to structure the turns. For large portions of the project, it was very tempting to take the Gloomhaven/Spirit Island approach (which I've also used extensively in BattleCON and Exceed) and let all players act simultaneously, then resolve the turns with a priority system. After a lot of consideration, however, we made the choice to move to a turn-based system, where hunters and monsters alternate turns back and forth, and hunters take turns around the table.
The main reason for this system was to balance monster turns against hunter turns. While a game like Gloomhaven adds more monsters per player, or Spirit Island adds more ground to cover per player, we didn't have such a luxury in Seventh Cross. We knew that encounters would be against one monster at a time, and so the monster needed to scale naturally in terms of threat with the number of hunters in a battle. If hunter damage increased, we would have to scale monster hit points with the number of hunters, which just led to battles taking three or four times as long without actually being any more interesting.
At the same time, giving the monster more complex attack routines to deal with larger player counts wasn't an acceptable solution either. There's a lot of wisdom to the simplicity of monster behaviors in games like Kingdom Death and Gloomhaven. But minimizing the monster turns isn't the only option.
Could a better alternative be to make the Monster Turns just a different kind of player turn?
A Better Way
At least half of the fun of a challenging game should be in preventing the monster from killing you. We wanted monsters in Seventh Cross to be dynamic, dangerous, and lethal–not just blobs of HP that you carve away at until they're defeated. We accomplished this by scaling the monster's damage output–increasing the number of turns they take with the number of players in the game.
Then, rather than giving the players more tools to kill a monster, we gave hunters more tools to not die, and worked to make not dying as interesting a puzzle as killing the enemy.
Each hunter that comes to a battle brings more Curses into play. When these cards are drawn, they create a Curse Token–which prompts a monster attack next turn. these Curse Tokens can stack up, giving a monster a 2 or 3-hit combo between hunter turns. And most monsters swing for 60-100% of a hunter's life pool with each attack, so you can't afford to drop your guard or ignore the danger facing your allies.
Each hunter joining a party generates a few more Curse tokens than they're really worth (from a strictly numeric standpoint). This is offset by the increased survivability that cooperation creates. As more players join a battle, staying alive becomes more and more important and requires increasing cooperation and aggro management, as monsters may take many actions between your hunter turns. A defeated hunter generates extra attacks consistently during their turns, which will quickly overwhelm a party.
The monster's life pool does not increase at higher player counts, but the extra attacks mean that their threat does increase dramatically. This means that when there are more players, they all take more turns playing the survival game.
The other challenging aspect of designing combat in the new Seventh Cross was how hunters will choose their actions. It's an important problem, because we wanted players to be consistent, but not limitless, in their capabilities. It's also wrapped up heavily in the game's progression and narrative systems.
Consider a hunter with a sword. You would imagine that you would be able to block and strike consistently with that sword. But what happens then? When the monster attacks, you block with your best block. When your turn comes, you strike with your best strike. Without some limitation, that becomes monotonous. Even adding a stamina or a cooldown system of some sort will not encourage players to do any real thinking or valuation. You use the most efficient strike available, then the most efficient block available, as the cooldown or rotation allows.
Alternatively, consider a deckbuilder, where cards come and go. It also doesn't make sense that, if I haven't used my block yet, that when the monster attacks, I might not be able to do it. On the other hand, having many copies of a specific card in your deck just swings back to the other problem?
We knew that we wanted a large variety of skills and items in Seventh Cross, and we wanted to make the game about discovering and puzzling out the solutions from these disparate parts. For these reasons, and logistical ones, having several copies of a skill card in the hunter's deck wasn't really an option. On the flip side, as hunters build more complex decks, they need to be able to rely increasingly on the consistency of their attacks and defenses.
How could we create a wide array of choices without removing consistency? And how could we make combat about divergent strategies, and not just optimization?
Dividing and Multiplying
We tried many different kinds of systems. To facilitate the dual-nature of the two kinds of turns (hunter turns where you attack, and monster turns where you work to survive) we split each card into two options.
On most, the top option is an attack or tempo-focused action that improves the hunter's position. The bottom option is a defensive mitigation or control effect, designed to help you or your allies survive enemy assault.
To give hunters consistency, we introduced what I'm fairly sure will be the final form of stat cards. These cards have two features: one is a universally useful action–something that anybody could appreciate in their deck. The second is a duplication ability, allowing the stat to copy any skill matching its type.
For example, if you have a Strength-based card with both an attack and a block on it, you could use the stat card to copy the attack, then hold the original in your hand to use as a block when needed (or to press the attack when the opportunity presents itself).
If you have two Strength-based attacks, you suddenly have a very simple but meaningful choice to make. Do you spend the Strength Stat card to activate one or the other? Or do you use the actual card now, so that you can save the stat and double-up on one card or the other later? More options, or more consistency? You can use these big choices to adapt to the needs of the fight and your immediate circumstances.
Raising the Bar
Finally, we wanted to try something unique among deck-buiding games, to really make Seventh Cross stand out. We wanted to create a deck-building game where having a larger and more complex deck was necessary and a matter of course as you progressed through the game.
In most deckbuilders, players attempt to build the smallest deck possible, so that they can consistently take optimal turns. We felt that such an optimization would be too easy in a game where players can freely modify their decks between battles (much like Millennium Blades). Curses provided the answer we were looking for in resolving this challenge.
Each time hunters defeat monsters, they gain more Curse Cards in their decks. These Curses make Monsters attack more often, but also raise the hunter's deck limit, allowing the inclusion of more cards. In order to minimize the threat posed by monsters, hunters are encouraged to expand their skill sets and purchase more stat cards in balance to create a diverse, consistent deck that grows in complexity as the adventure continues on.
The growing number of Curses hunters have to contend with create an interesting puzzle to solve in deckbuilding. It also gives high-level hunters deeper choices during a late-game battle, and a reason to keep improving even after you've built the 'perfect' deck.
These systems are just a few of the steps we've taken to ensure that Seventh Cross provides a novel, unique challenge to the solo and cooperative gaming experience!
If you have any questions or things you'd like to hear more about, post them here and I'll try to address them in future articles!