The Masters’ Trials: Design Diary Part 2 – Achieving Mastery

This is a continuation from last week’s article.

Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): With the game’s “basics” in place, it was now time to deal with the difficult part: the details. The first thing to do was “define” our setting and the exact way the resources would work. Having played a lot of Magic: The Gathering I was aware of the importance of a “color wheel”. Each type of mana should have its own identity. It would be associated with certain things and the various classes would have different access to it.

For example, fire mana would be used mainly for abilities that caused damage. On the other hand, water would be used mainly for healing. The earth mana would be associated with mana generation/conversion while air would be used to stun/disorient the opponent along with searching the rooms.

Since we had shifted to elemental warriors, we spent quite some time examining what the races should be. At some point we realized that in the theme we had chosen, it made more sense to go with monastic Orders instead of races.

Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): Every resource should be used differently inside the game but at the same time they should all have equal value (Fire=Air=Water=Earth). In the color wheel no resource is above any other. All are equal but at the same have a different impact on the “world”. Also, based on the wheel we could safely say that:

  • Fire is the opposite of Water
  • Earth is the opposite of Air.

VB: What we needed to settle on pretty early, was how the “mix-and-match” of the boards was going to work. In other words, what was each part of your board (class/order/weapon) bringing to the table? What abilities would they have?

This was very important because we wanted every combination to be viable. However, that was harder than it sounded. We had assigned some characteristics to each type of mana and as a result, each class was focused on one of them (based on the same characteristics). But what about the Orders? If we also focused the Orders on the types of mana, then there would be certain combinations that would be way more advantageous. The other important aspect that we needed to nail down, was what exactly their abilities would be. The abilities between all 3 separate boards needed to be distinct – to have their own identity. If we were going to focus the damage-related abilities on the fire-class, then what would go on an Order ability? And how would we make them feel different?

After a lot of brainstorming and many playtests we settled on this: What would define each character would be the class. That’s where most of the abilities that would determine each strategy would be. Then, the Orders would all have the same abilities but in different quantities. Each Order would be focused on 2 of the mana types and it would offer higher quantities of the abilities that required them. It would still have the rest of the abilities though (in small quantities), to give access to everyone if they so wanted.

This solution offered some important advantages:

  • The Orders had focus but were not limiting the class you could match them with.
  • Having the same abilities in all of the Orders made learning the game easier. Less information to overwhelm you with when trying a different combination.
  • It gave us more flexibility with the design of the classes’ abilities. We didn’t have to worry about putting a new ability on an order.
  • When combining a class with an order that focused on other types of mana, it allowed you to play the same character differently and do new things. That was exactly what we wanted in the first place!

AG: In the RPGs the races are actually templates that can be used to alter the way classes are played, for example Elf Warrior and Half Orc Warrior. This was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the Orders. In our game our heroes are trained differently in each Monastery Order. They all share a basic training but focus on a different path and obtain a different mastery. In game terms we needed to create a pool of abilities that would be bound to a certain color and then distributed to each order based on their focus. It was again harder than we thought because we needed to create 4 universal (for our game) thematically driven powers. If I remember correctly, all but one changed – some of them more than once!

We also did another cool thing with the Orders. We added a static (“ongoing”) ability to each of them, which we called “Masteries”. Each Order’s mastery is unique and they give a special ability that actually changes the way a player interacts with the game.

VB: The next problem that we had to solve was that of scaling. Changing the numbers of minions drawn each round or the seals that the players would have to break was the easy part. The biggest problem was elsewhere and it was rooted in the game’s design.

The “threat” in the game consisted of mainly 2 parts: The minions drawn each round and the boss at the end. The minions would have to take damage in order to be defeated which meant having the fighter-class (which we ended up naming “Avenger”) crucial. The boss on the other hand was made powerful through the seals that needed mana in order to be broken – that also made the mana generating-class (a.k.a. the “Mystic”) very important. But what about the other two? What were they adding to the game? Moreover, if the first 2 classes were that crucial, was there a point into playing the other two races in a 2-player game?

We considered various solutions to this problem. One thought we had was to dictate the exact classes that the players would get at each player count. Unfortunately, that was a very bad solution – it meant that certain classes would never be played in a 2-player game and it made them feel like lower-class citizens.

What we needed was for the classes to be equal. Each of them should be able to hold its own and be fully playable, offering a different experience/playing style. They should all have equal chances of beating the game, regardless of the players’ combinations.

AG: One of the most important things that we try to keep in mind when developing a game is that “The number of players must not affect the experience you get from a game”. In RPGs the narrator reveals the challenge of the party following certain rules (how many are playing and what is their current level) thus keeping the session challenging. In board games we have plenty of examples where the number of turns, the number of VP that you need to score or the number of foes and obstacles are changing based on the number of players. In our case this was more complex since classes have equal roles in the game but are totally different at the same time:

  • All classes can do damage but none can be as good as the Avenger
  • All classes can generate mana but none can be as good as the Mystic
  • All classes can heal themselves but none can sustain an entire party as the Warden
  • All classes can try to search rooms and improve their characters with artifacts but none is as good as the Loremaster

We decided that since the class affects the way our players interact with the game then the challenge rating would be created by 2 things:

  • The minions (in quality and numbers) are generated by the classes that participate in a game
  • The seals (in quality and numbers) are generated by the number of players that are playing

VB: The main problem in scaling was the minions drawn. If the Avenger was in play, things were easy – he would deal with them and everyone else would be able to advance their character as needed, to achieve their own goals (the Mystic would add mana-generating abilities to their board, the Loremaster would generate Insight to search rooms and the Warden – the healer of the group – would work on those crucial healing spells). However, when the Avenger was not in play, the rest of the classes would have to compensate. The threat however was that big that everyone needed to focus on dealing damage, neglecting their previous focus. Even when they weren’t losing horribly, the experience was not fun.

Since the problem was in the minions, the solution that we settled on was based on them. The minion deck would change its contents depending on the classes present in the game. If the Avenger was present, it would include more difficult to beat monsters. If the Mystic and the Warden were the only ones playing, it would contain mostly small monsters, easier for the players to handle. They would still pose a threat, however not one that would distract them from their main goal.

Although we were a bit skeptical to try this solution, it worked like a charm. It achieved exactly what we needed and helped the different classes to stand out. We were no longer worried about the class combinations. Each and every one of them could stand its own.

While the Avenger and the Mystic were quite straightforward, the Loremaster – the character that searched the rooms – was trickier to design. We had settled on having another resource in the game, called Insight. Players would gather Insight and that would be used to search the rooms. It would work similarly to damage in that, if unused, it would reset at the end of the round. If a character was to match the room’s Insight difficulty, then they would draw Artifact cards that would grant them powerful ongoing abilities.

Even though the Loremaster would have no trouble gathering Insight and using it to get more artifacts, the other players would completely ignore it. That wasn’t necessarily a problem but it would get worse due to another factor: After a point, experienced players would become quite powerful and near the final rounds they would generate a lot of Insight, but they would no longer need it as much.

It was clear that we needed to find other uses for Insight as well.

Around the same time, we had another problem to deal with. They way the Seals worked, one player had to generate enough mana to break them. More often than not, that player was the Mystic. However, inexperienced players would have a hard time generating enough mana for the more expensive Seals. Since they were the more powerful ones, not dealing with them usually spelled their doom.

During development, we examined a solution that solved both of these problems. What if you could spend Insight in order to “unlock” the Seals and allow everyone to spend mana on them? That provided another use for Insight (which all of the classes could use on the small seals) it provided interesting options to the Loremaster (do I go for another artifact or do I help the group by unlocking a seal?) and made it less demanding for the Mystic who now didn’t have to generate all that mana on his own.

AG: Although this is a dice rolling game we love the idea of “tough” decisions. During your play you will always have to decide “Do I spend the resources I gathered to remove an obstacle or do I improve my character?” Insight was straight forward since the beginning and needed no alternative. You were generating insight to search the current room and there was nothing else to do apart from improving your character. We were also experiencing an issue with the Seals – players had problems dealing with 2nd and 3rd level Seals. The solutions to both problems combined and Insight became the party tool to deal with high level seals.  Insight was now an equal answer to threats and was helping the party to interact with the seals more efficiently.


VB: Near the end, most of the issues had been solved and we were very happy with how the game was playing. Although it was already quite challenging, we thought of some additional hurdles to throw to the players who wanted more.

There was now only one thing remaining: The solo game.

With the game being cooperative, we knew that it was suitable for solo play. The problem was that it would be difficult for a single character to deal with everything that was happening in the game. Not only that, but, since each class focused on different things, the experience would be different with each of them. If we were to make the game easier for example, one of the classes would still struggle while another one would find it way too easy. On top of that, we wanted the players to play differently with every class. If only one was present in the game, they would all have to play the same way to defeat the game.

That’s when it hit me. Why not change the requirements? For each character, the goal would be different. The Avenger (who could easily generate a lot of mana) would focus on killing minions and would have to kill the powerful boss. The Mystic (who could easily generate a lot of mana but had trouble with dealing damage) would not have to worry about killing the minions or the boss, but would have to break numerous Seals in order to win. The Loremaster on the other hand would need to gather as many artifacts as possible while the Warden, would bring a companion along but would have to make sure they stayed alive.

This way, not only would each character play the way they would in multiplayer, the game offered 4 different solo experiences. It felt very different with each class and we knew the solo gamers would absolutely love it!

AG: Regarding the solo version of the game I wanted 3 things:

  • to be fun and challenging for all classes
  • to be an excellent tutorial for new players that wanted to explore the game before playing with their friends
  • to give players the opportunity to explore all aspects of a class

I strongly feel that we addressed all the above.

AG-VB: All in all, we are very excited with how the game turned out. It went through a lot of rough periods, with many changes and complete overhauls, but in the end we created something that we are really proud of. The work we put into this game is probably more than what we’ve put in any other game we’ve worked on, but it was totally worth it.

As soon as you open the box, we are sure you will agree!

The Masters’ Trials: The Wrath of Magmaroth is a co-operative dice placement game for 1 to 4 players. On sale in November!

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