The Origins of the Card Crafting System

Designer John D Clair has kindly provided us with a look into the creation and development of Mystic Vale.

I was taking a walk in my neighborhood on a warm Los Angeles evening in 2013.  The goal of the walk was to brainstorm, bouncing around in my head anything and everything game related to see if I could come up with an original and good idea. Original ideas show up now and then.  Good ideas are rare; I often mistake original ideas for good ideas.  An original and good idea is an exceptional find. If we assume card-crafting meets the original+good criteria, I’ve probably hit on between 1 to 5 original(ish) and good(ish) ideas; the jury is still out on 4 of them.  Sleeves and transparent cards have been around for a long time, but (I think) I’m the first one to stuff them together into a game.

On my walk I got halfway to that concept. I was trying to think of new ways to use various game components: dice, cards, game box, game board, dice tower, cubes, meeples, bags, dials. When I hit on card sleeves, it occurred to me that, to my knowledge, card sleeves had never been used as an essential component in a game rather than just as an accessory to protect one’s cards. If sleeves were used as an essential element, what might that look like….?  I had hit on the idea of sleeves as a meaningful game component, which I see as the core of the innovation, but not yet thought of combining them with transparent cards, which is what dramatically opened up the design space.

The first prototype was a wonky deck builder. Imagine a deck builder where every time your deck runs out of cards you take the discard pile of the player to your right and shuffle it to create your new deck. That way all the cards are in constant cycle around the table. Moreover, all the cards are in sleeves with identical backs; each player has his own special set of sleeves with the same back as all the other sleeves but with a player-unique insignia on the front.  When you buy a new card, you put it into one of your player-unique sleeves. Since the cards cycle around the table, other players will draw and use your cards, and every time they do, your cards give you a special “owner’s bonus”.

fig 1It was a decent concept, but, after several iterations, I still couldn’t get it to click.

When it comes to the difficult transition from functional prototype to enjoyable game, brute force with occasional breather is my design strategy. Run into the wall and if it doesn’t break, back up a few steps, take a breath and hit it again.

After iterating unsuccessfully for four months, I backed up and took a breath to work on Downfall, a 4X design I’d been trying to turn into a good game for years. In terms of brute force design, Downfall was a bloodbath. I spent four years turning a terrible game into an awesome game, leaving behind a trail of prototype corpses along the way to ultimately signing with Tasty Minstrel Games (TMG) at the end of 2013. I couldn’t be more proud of the design I ended up with in Downfall, and TMG has really enhanced it with some fantastic art, making one hell of a nice looking game—I’m eager to see it finally released in the not too distant future.

The new year was upon me, 2014, and with Downfall signed, I set the goal of turning this “Card Sleeving” concept into a good game; I planned to have a pitch-ready game for BGG.con 2014 in November.  The game hadn’t worked yet and there was the clear concern that a “Card Sleeving Game” might sound more like a fiddly chore or a gimmick than a game, something I thought might turn away publishers and gamers sight unseen. But I was confident that the concept could turn into a good game, and one that could offer a new, fun experience.

I took the best twenty-percent or so of my old design and started work on a new design. This time, there was a single central deck and all the cards were double sided… yada yada yada (avoiding spoilers).

fig 2This design was ultimately thrown on the scrap heap after three months of heavy iteration. It was, however, the origin of a number of key concepts that ended up in the final design of Edge of Darkness, about which I will avoid spoiling too many details here.  Additionally, this design is where I first added transparent cards into the mix. However, the transparent cards were used purely as modifiers players could occasionally add to otherwise complete cards.  It wasn’t until later that I realized the combination of sleeves and transparent cards was the significant innovation, and thus, should be the primary mechanism.

fig 3I took the forty-percent or so that I liked from the prior design, and what followed were a couple variations of what could be called “Card-Crafting” games before I settled on a what turned out to be the first decent game of the batch. I still get comments now and then from friends about this design and questions about whether I’ll ever go back to it, which is quite possible.  Essentially it was an asymmetrical semi-cooperative game—one player was the “Demon Lord” while all the other players were powerful families or guilds (or whatever) vying for power and trying to stop the Demon Lord from winning. Either the Demon Lord would win or, if he was stopped, the player with the most victory points would win. Many players told me they greatly enjoyed it, and we did have a lot of great playtests with this design, but in the end I wasn’t happy with it. I didn’t like the semi-cooperative aspect and I couldn’t get the balance to feel right. Most importantly, I had, at last, refined the card-crafting system to a point where I could now see all kinds of design potential. I felt like I’d be missing an opportunity by making the first card-crafting game a niche (albeit cool) design like a one vs. many, semi-cooperative game.

fig 4

I spent about three weekends in a row doing my brainstorming walks, rapidly creating, playing, and scrapping prototypes, and, in general, contemplating what direction I wanted to take with this design.  That’s when another original and good idea occurred to me; yada, yada, yada (avoiding spoilers), and Bang! the design clicked and Edge of Darkness was born. It was well short of perfect, but now I finally felt I had something special on my hands.  For the next four months, I worked intently on Edge of Darkness and ended up having a pretty slick pitch-ready game for BGG.con in November.

Pitching Edge of Darkness was interesting. I got a range of responses, from (paraphrasing here) “I see what you tried to do there; hard pass,” to “Interesting! Looks fresh and innovative.”  That said, the interest outweighed the disinterest which, in this highly competitive endeavor, is a win in itself.  In the end, I signed with AEG. Among other factors, they had the advantage of being headquartered near where I live in Los Angeles and, more importantly, expressed a lot of excitement about expanding the card-crafting idea to more games than just Edge of Darkness.

As I further developed Edge of Darkness with Mark Wooten and other members of the AEG team, I went back to the drawing board to see where else I could take the card-crafting system. The design space this mechanism opened up was huge and entirely untapped. It seemed like every other day I had another concept for a game, and the challenge became picking which idea to go with—what concept made the most sense to prioritize and run with. John Goodenough and John Zinser of AEG specifically suggested that what they’d really love to see is a simpler game than Edge of Darkness, one that would hit a wider range of players—easy to learn, easy to teach, quick and addictive to play.  I would argue Edge of Darkness falls into a medium-weight euro-game range, with worker management, economics, and combat in addition to the core card-crafting mechanic.  The idea was to create a simpler game that emphasized the unique card-crafting system. So with that guidance, I moved this concept to the top of the design agenda.

I figured a pure engine-building game would fit the bill—a game that was essentially a race to take balanced cards and combine them to craft totally broken cards, then covert them into points faster than other players.  I wanted the game to be pleasant and non-confrontational, where players can admire the kick-ass broken cards they’ve crafted, even if they didn’t win.  I wanted to hold up card-crafting as the innovation centerpiece of the game, and placing it within the framework of a classic deckbuilder seemed like a good starting place. But I did want to throw at least one other layer of differentiation.

I wish I could claim to be the first person to have thought of using a blackjack-style hand draw in a deck-builder, but I believe that credit goes to Chih-Fan Chen in his brilliant little game Design Town (reprinted by TMG as Flip City and worth checking out if you haven’t already!). This is also a fairly untapped mechanic with a lot of potential design space. Playing Design Town six months earlier had gotten me thinking about ways of using similar push-your-luck, blackjack-style mechanics for drawing hands in CCG style games. So when I set to work on a simpler card-crafting game, it occurred to me that combining a blackjack-style hand draw with a card-crafting deck builder could result in a very cool and different take on deckbuilding, while still being simple, intuitive, and familiar for most gamers. From that starting point the design of Mystic Vale fell together with uncommon swiftness.

fig 5The first versions of the game were enormously broken because the card balance and scoring was way off, but the core mechanics proved crisp and effective.  Major changes in the first few weeks included the addition of the “on-deck” card mechanic so that you would know what bonus you could gain by pushing your luck and, more importantly, know what card you would start your next turn with if you didn’t push.  Vales were an early addition to add variety to the available strategies and the types of cards players would want to construct. Guardian symbols came later as a way to ramp up the power of good card-crafting.  The heavy lifting was in the card balancing and refining, which was a matter of playing over and over again and iterating toward what felt right.

Rather than go into all the details of the design choices we made, let me take a deeper dive into one example.  Runaway leaders were a problem early in the development as the significant majority of a player’s points used to come from end-game points on cards. There was essentially no slow down mechanism as players transitioned from engine to points. Good engine and lots of points was a 1 to 1 ratio. Moreover, if a player broke out into a huge lead, there was no game clock that would then result in the game rapidly ending—it would just drag on and the lead would grow bigger.  I had no desire to introduce a pick-on-the-leader element—that wasn’t the kind of game I was designing.  So to deal with the issue I turned to card rebalancing and a change to the game clock.  First, I dramatically cut end-game points on advancements, instead increasing the emphasis on in-game point-tokens and pairing decay with abilities that got you point-tokens (for those of you who have not played, decay is bad for your deck). Thus, a player picking up advancements that generate points will, at the same time, put a dent in his or her engine (unless of course care is taken to craft cards particularly well, which is the skill of the game). Second, I made the point tokens the game clock, so that (among other reasons) if a player starts scoring a ton of points and breaking away, the game rapidly ends. Runaway games can still happen, especially if only one player gets a jump on collecting spirit symbols and the other players don’t make it hard for him or her to get more, but the issue was greatly diminished. Interestingly, a Mystic Vale game often will end with a lopsided score while, in actuality, the game may have been very close. This is something I had to make peace with as a designer. Point collection in Mystic Vale is heavily weighted toward the end of the game, and players will commonly score 30-60% of their points on their last two turns, making for some explosive and fun finales. Essentially, if your opponent gets his engine to pop 1 turn before you do, that could be the difference in the game. You may have lost by 15 points, but you really lost by only 1 turn.

My fiancé Csilla Balogh, the project lead John Goodenough, and the development leads Mark Wooton and Bryan Reese, were huge contributors to the development of Mystic Vale, along with the dozens of other great playtesters who pounded through too many playtests to count. With direction from the great Todd Rowland, the art has given the game an awesome look and feel. And finally, AEG’s top-dog John Zinser shouldn’t go unmentioned; the excitement and heart that he has put into this game has really made it come to life.

I’m thrilled about the game we ended up with in Mystic Vale and the excellent production the AEG team has pulled off, and I’m excited and anxious to see how it’s received. Not without some obvious bias, I will say Mystic Vale is one of only a few games that doesn’t get old for me, no matter how many times I’ve played it (hundreds of times at this point). Beyond Mystic Vale, I can’t wait to get Edge of Darkness out there in 2017 (which will showcase a couple more design mechanics I’m particularly proud of); and I’m eager to find out if the card-crafting system passes muster for gamers.

Thanks for your interest and for taking the time to read my account of the creation of Mystic Vale and the origins of the card crafting system!

John D Clair

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