Today I attended a Cleveland Game Developers Meetup where we did a workshop on rapid prototyping and playtesting. It was very successful and fun.
We workshopped the card game War. Standard War normally is not a terribly interesting card game, with rules that are deterministic, and therefore involve no skill or strategy, but it turned out to be a good starting point for the workshop. We broke up into two groups, each led by one of the organizers, and brainstormed ways to improve the basic game, then ran the game through several rounds of playtesting, tweaking rules and refining. In little under an hour, what we came up with was actually fun enough to share with the world.
There were five of us in our group: facilitator Sam Marcus, me, Steve, Nadja, and Melissa. Sam set up the exercise and we worked together to come up with the rules. Sam and I seemed to come up with most of the ideas, but everyone contributed to running playtest iterations and helped to make the game.
Here’s what we came up with:
War: Battle Lines
For two players.
War: Battle Lines starts from the concept of the card game War and makes it more interesting by introducing elements of choice and strategy.
Deal the entire deck between the two players.
Variant: Symmetric Start. Rather than dealing out the cards randomly, player one gets all the red suits while player two gets all the black suits.
To start a hand, each player deals themselves the first four cards from the top of the deck, called Skirmishers, and lays them out on the table in front of them in a horizontal line, like they were dealing Three Card Monte. Two of the cards must be face up, while other two must be face down. Each player may look at their own down cards prior to the round starting, or at any time throughout play, but may only see the other player’s down cards once they become involved in a skirmish.
A fifth card, called The Initiative, is played face up. The two Initiative cards are contested, and the player winning the Initiative round gets to make the first play.
The player who wins Initiative picks any one of their cards and may choose to “attack” any of the other player’s cards. The cards involved in the skirmish are compared face up, and the higher of the two cards is the winner of the skirmish. The winner of the skirmish adds both cards to their victory pile.
If the result of a skirmish is a tie, a “battle” breaks out. Both players immediately “call up reinforcements” from their deck of un-dealt cards, and these cards are compared to each other to determine who wins. The winner of the battle takes all the cards and adds them to their victory pile.
Players alternate turns until all four skirmishes have been resolved to complete the hand.
The game continues, with additional hands of four cards plus one initiative card dealt, and the process is repeated until the deck is exhausted.
Once the deck has been exhausted, the game is over. The winner is the player who has the larger victory pile.
In a 52-card deck, each player will have 26 cards to start out, and therefore would play through 5 rounds with their four skirmishers plus initiative card, leaving one lone card at the end of the game. In the event that a Skirmish turns into a Battle at some point during the War, there may be other endgames possible, with 1-4 cards left over at the end.
How we handle the last card at the end of the game is open for variation. In the “standard” game the last card is simply played at the end as a normal skirmish or initiative round. If there are 2-4 cards left over, they may be played out as a regular five card hand, merely short-handed. This is an area of the game that merits further play-testing and experimentation.
- Deuces over Aces. We felt this made the game more interesting as it gave the 2s some value, and made the Ace less of a super-weapon. 2s still lose to everything else, and Aces still beat everything else.
- Low card wins Initiative. We experimented with this rule to see if it made the game more interesting by providing some advantage to holding low cards. It was inconclusive whether it made a meaningful difference to the game. I kindof liked the idea, but since the player has no control over what card they are playing for the Initiative, it seems not to make much difference. It might make some difference in a game where the deck is recycled rather than played through once.
- What’s up? Initially I had suggested that the players could determine how many, or whether to play any, of their battle line cards face up. My thinking was that this might lend some element of strategy to the play, and that players might want to show strength or hide it, or show weakness or hide it. We ended up opting for a more simplified mechanic of “even cards down, odd cards up” in the battle line. But I think there is still some potential for this to be tweaked into an interesting mechanic. Further study is warranted.
- Recycle the deck. In this longer-playing variant, rather than play through the deck one time, the players would recycle their victory pile back into play. Play would continue indefinitely until some victory condition is reached. The obvious victory condition would be one player holding all 52 cards. But that would take a long time to play out. There could be other victory conditions for this variant, such as holding all cards of a certain rank, such as Kings.
- Ace in the Hole. In this variant, each player retains one of their Aces as the last card in their deck. They may opt to play the ace at any time in the game to “turn the tide” of a Skirmish or Battle that they otherwise would have lost. If the other player still has their Ace in the Hole, they may counter and play it, creating a “tie the tide” situation which then results in the usual Battle resolution. In practice, this seemed to offer no additional depth to the game’s strategy.
- Jacks are Spies. We talked about, but did not play-test, giving a certain card rank the ability to “spy” by looking at an opposing player’s down-card without engaging it in a skirmish. How this would be worked out in practice remains to be workshopped.
- Flanking. To make play with low value cards more interesting, we talked about but did not play test giving players the option to combine two low-value cards in an attack against one of their opponent’s cards. The exact conditions to allow this and how to resolve outcomes were not determined. Further study is warranted.
A few interesting/notable strategies were observed during playtesting:
- If you have a low-value card and have initiative, it may be worth attacking a high value card of your opponent, to “waste” their high value card by sacrificing the low value card. This is especially true if your low-value card is showing, since your opponent knows it is a sure victory and will likely send one of their low-value cards against it to defeat it.
Here’s some of the things I got out of this exercise:
- There’s still a lot of life left in a deck of cards. It surprised me that playing cards are so adaptable that we can come up with novel and interesting game ideas without a huge amount of effort. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me so much, a deck of cards is simply a mathematical system, which can be manipulated in so many interesting ways. Still, if you think that the only games there are to play with a deck of cards have all been discovered already, think again.
- War isn’t such a bad game. It might not have a great deal of depth to it like Poker, Spades, or Gin. But with just a few minor tweaks we turned War into a game that was pretty fun to play. If it’s not that far off from being strategically interesting, it’s doing something right. War is also a great game for teaching very young card players how to play games with cards, and the value of this is not to be under-estimated; it’s OK for introductory games to be trivial or even deterministic.
- Rapid prototyping and workshopping is a lot of fun. The best thing to do is to play ideas out and see how they work, not to argue merits for doing something one way vs. another. Our group didn’t argue at all, we just threw out ideas and tried them out and then it was pretty evident to all whether they worked or not. We kept what worked, and kept tossing out ideas until we felt satisfied that the game was fun. Working with the group this way made things very fun and we progressed very quickly. I’ve been in groups where endlessly arguing just results in ego clashes and slows things down and makes the whole project not just lose its fun, but often lose its chances of being successful.
- Sam Marcus is a sharp, likable guy who’s good at talking and listening, has good ideas and a good sense of judgment, and is therefor extremely easy to work with. I really hope I get to work with him again on future projects.
- I’m particularly strong when it comes to game mechanics. I have an intuitive grasp of what will work and what won’t, and how a rule modification will affect the overall system. While it always is necessary to test ideas out, most of my ideas turned out to test well, and worked much as I expected they would.