The Masters’ Trials: Design Diary Part 1 – The Designers’ Trials

Read the introduction of this article series.

Vangelis Bagiartakis (VB): With the goals set in place, I started exploring how the dungeon-crawling aspect of the game would work. Around that time, my friend Tassos (full name is Anastasios but we call him Tassos) got the chance to see the rough prototype in action and loved the idea. He has a vast (and when I say vast I mean vaaaaaaast) experience in role playing games so, when he expressed interest in helping with the game, I immediately agreed to bring him on board. His experience would prove to be very important while designing the game.

Anastasios Grigoriadis (AG): I’ve loved the idea of dice crafting since the beginning. I’m a huge fun of Dice city and I’ve worked successfully in the past in many projects with Vangelis. So, when I actually put into the basket the words – Dice Crafting – RPG – Bagiartakis – I knew that this would be an awesome journey.

prototype 1 enemy card

prototype 1 player board

VB: For our first attempt, we took the rough version I had initially made and tried to adapt it. Since we were working with cards, the “dungeon” became more abstract. The enemies would be cards they would be placed on rows, simulating enemies coming to you in a dungeon corridor.

The player boards represented the characters and the first problem we had to deal with was what the players’ “resources” were going to be. In the first rough prototype I had gone with Strength, Dexterity, Mana, Cunning and Movement. For this version, some changes needed to be made (like the removal of the movement – it no longer made any sense) and we ended up with Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Mana and Defense. The goal was to have each player be able to specialize in one and pursue a different strategy.

Regarding the enemies, each monster would give you XP after being killed and you would spend those to upgrade your character with new cards (abilities).

AG: Basically we needed to create a board game that would simulate an RPG session in an hour. You live your adventure, you gather experience and you upgrade your character. Sounds simple but it is not.

 

VB: We did some playtests with this version and while there was some potential in it, there were many things bugging us. The most important one was the resources.

AG: We knew from the beginning that Melee Damage, Ranged Damage, Magic & Defense were not working as resources but we had to start out of something to reach our goal. The basic problems were:

  • Melee Damage and Ranged Damage were almost the same thing.
  • Magic essentially was the only attribute that you could call a resource as it was producing mana but again, only to do damage.
  • Defense had the same problem as Damage, it was not a resource to be spent.

In other words the main problem was that there was no economy based on the resources that players gathered and needed to spend in order to achieve goals and upgrade their player boards. In a sense, we only had 2 types of resources, Health and Damage, which essentially were not enough or interesting to build a game around.

 

VB: Defense was the most awkward of them all. It didn’t help you win – it just prevented the damage you would be getting. While it could be important in the game (for example a character could play the role of the “tank” and absorb damage while the rest of the players would attack the enemies) it wasn’t very fun to play with and it also wasn’t a viable strategy on its own – you couldn’t play solo and win just with a “defender”.

This inconsistency in the resources also made creating new abilities problematic. While it was normal to say “I have 5 mana” it was weird to say “I have 5 Melee Damage”. Damage should be the outcome of your actions, not something you accumulate to spend. Moreover, the way mana worked, also had some issues. The spells you had on your character required mana to be used. That meant that not only did you have to land on them, you also had to land on mana producing spaces with your other dice, to cast them. Double the work for something that should be much simpler.

We knew we could do better so we decided to start from scratch and try a different approach.

prototype 2 enemy card

prototype 2 player boards

prototype 2 cards

VB: For our second attempt, we decided to examine everything from the beginning. The basic goals were still there but the approach could be anything we wanted – we wouldn’t be tied to the previous version. The brainstorming started with what was creating the most problems last time: the resources. They had to be thematic and fit with the dungeon-crawling theme and they had to allow for different strategies. A fighter and a wizard for example would focus on different ones but they should both be able to defeat enemies and win the game somehow.

AG: When something doesn’t work you go back to basics. The goal now was that each player would chose a different class (basic archetypes: fighter, wizard, cleric, rogue) and all together would fight the big bad boss at the end of the game. We agreed on Combat, Dexterity, Magic, Holy, and Cunning as the resources that would be used based on what the characters could produce and what they would need to defeat the monsters. Those 5 attributes could create various combos and thus different sets of actions for each class allowing each player to interact in different ways with the monsters.

 

VB: For the monsters, we decided to go with a very different approach. Enemy cards would be drawn each round and they would have 3 options on them: Evade, Push, Defeat. Evade (which would require very few resources) would just allow the players to prevent the damage the monster would deal. Push (costing slightly more) would be a temporary solution to the problem – you would scare the monster off but you would have to deal with it later on. Finally, Defeat would be a permanent solution – it would get rid of the monster forever but would require the most resources to do it. The concept behind this approach was that each monster would ask for different “resources” on each level which in turn would allow each character to deal with them differently. Some of the monsters for example would require a lot of Combat in order to be defeated, which the fighter would be able to easily provide. The wizard however would have a hard time defeating them through combat, but would be able to drive them away via magic or just evade them. On the other hand, against monsters like ghosts the combat would be useless but magic or holy would be very useful. Depending on how you dealt with each monster, you would draw cards that would be the upgrades going on the players’ characters.

When the final boss would appear, it would be accompanied by all the monsters the players pushed. It would have to be dealt with differently compared to the monsters but the players would still be provided with some options (so that each class would have a chance against it).

AG: This implementation was closer to what we wanted and the feeling was much better. Now the players were focusing on how to advance their characters and how to interact with the monsters which was closer to the basic concept of Dice Crafting: Roll the Dice, Do something (in our case: Fight the Monsters), Upgrade your character.

 

VB:  We did various tests with this build but once again, the actual game turned out differently compared to what sounded cool in theory. If you made the monsters easy to defeat for one class, the others would struggle too much. If we made monsters meant to be defeated by all classes (containing different combinations of all the resources) then every class would struggle since they wouldn’t be able to produce everything. Therefore there would be enemies that could not be defeated and would have to either be evaded constantly or driven away, only to make it harder at the end.

AG: Welcome to asymmetric balancing! In RPGs, every player usually has a different role that works in different ways from the others. Players should feel important during the game no matter the role they play and characters must be balanced and most importantly, feel balanced even when they do totally different things. RPGs usually are played in groups of 4-5 players plus a narrator and in my groups when someone is missing we play a board game or do something else because the absence of that player will have a significant impact in our game.

Board games of 2-4 players on the other hand must give the same gaming experience whether you play it with 2 or 4 players. That means that with 2 players you are lacking 2 characters and what they bring to the party. Usually this is not a problem but when a game wants to be theme-driven and has different roles, then you have issues that need to be addressed.

Another issue was the resources that our characters were producing. Although closer to our goal, the economy of the game was again not solid. Removing a class was weakening a resource. The classes that were played were trying to match up the lack of other classes but not very effectively and that lead to weaker characters overall, characters that could not interact in a proper way with the game.

 

VB: Essentially what we had was not necessarily resources but different types of attacks. It still was a bit weird to say “I get 5 Holy” but if everything else played alright we would have worked with it. Unfortunately, everything else didn’t play like we wanted. Players weren’t as excited as we’d like and it gave the impression that it was lacking something.

Back to the drawing board…

 

in progress!

VB: Once again, we started from scratch and again the brainstorming focused on the resources. We knew that it was the most crucial part of the game and if we could fix that, the rest would easily follow from the theme. We needed resources that you could gather. Resources that made sense having a lot of them, that it was intuitive to say “I have 3 of X”. Up to now, the only one that came close to that description was mana. With that as a basis we decided to explore the option of having different types of mana. We could go the “elemental warrior” path which would mean 4 different types of mana (earth, fire, water, air). The players’ abilities would then all be spells, each requiring different mana and focusing on different aspects. This also meant a change in the theme. Instead of “sword-and-sorcery” fantasy we would go to eastern fantasy with focus on the elements and different types of magic. That was not necessarily a bad thing since sword-and-sorcery has been overused in gaming and something different would look more appealing.

As far as the mechanics were concerned we also tried another approach. Dice City had a system with 3 resources and it worked. You would spend those resources to get new cards on your board (which in turn did not require resources to use them). You could also use those resources to get closer to winning (Trade Ships). The abilities you got on the other hand would grant you other things (like Army strength or VP) which would also lead you to win through other means. Was there a way this approach could be applied to this game? Why try to re-invent the wheel when you have something that works well?

We started with the abilities. Each would cost an amount of mana to “build” on your character just like in Dice City. Some of these abilities would generate damage which would be used against minions, a similar approach to the army strength and the minions of Dice City. This covered one way to win but there needed to be more. An interesting thought we had was that of large spells that in order to be cast you had to spend a big amount of mana and they would provide a big effect. This was something similar to the way Trade Ships in Dice City made use of resources. In the end we changed it a bit and instead of them being spells, we had the cards represent Magical Seals that granted abilities to the boss, making it uber-powerful. You would be able to break these Seals before reaching the boss, thus weaking it enough to kill it more easily. That added another strategy. Could we do one more?

Dice City also has the cultural strategy. Building locations that don’t do something when you land on them, they just grant you many victory points. Since we wanted to have a rogue-like character, we combined the two and ended up with another strategy: What if you were able to search the dungeon you were in and come up with magical artifacts? You would add them to your character and they would grant passive abilities (like deal 1 damage for free wherever you want, get free mana etc). It made sense thematically and it if you were to focus on it you would become powerful enough to overcome even the boss.

So, the basis of the game was this:

  1. Players explore a dungeon and each round they are in a different area/room.
  2. They are attacked by minions which they need to destroy.
  3. They can search the rooms they are in to find artifacts.
  4. They can break magical seals that make the boss very powerful.
  5. After a finite amount of time, they come upon the boss and they must destroy it.

AG: Abandoning the classic path of fantasy RPGs was the right call and it was not the only one. Keeping basic mechanics from Dice City actually solved most of our problems. This affected a lot the way we designed the game. If we wanted to have different roles, equally important in the game, we needed to create different ways to interact with it.

In the end, we had 4 different types of resources and 3 key characteristics that players advanced in to interact with the game: Damage, Insight and Health.  Based on that we instantly knew that we had created four distinctive roles in the game:

  • The character that would focus on damage. They would deal with the minions and apply a lot of pressure to the final boss, despite it being very powerful.
  • The character that would focus on gathering mana. They would break the boss’ seals and make it much weaker.
  • The character that would focus on items. They would search each room, getting a lot of magical artifacts that would “work on their own”. Effectively he would become “Robocop” (as Vangelis used to joke) before getting to the boss, dealing damage and generating mana without even needing to roll the dice.
  • The character that would focus on the Group’s Health. They wpuld ensure that the party would reach the boss in a good enough shape to have a chance defeating it.

Although this is almost the classic archetype of fantasy RPG (wizard, fighter, rogue and cleric) our characters were using different types of mana that they needed to produce and spend in different ways to activate their cool powers.

 

VB: After some tests it was clear we were on the right path. Going with mana solved all the problems we had with resources and the different paths to explore made each character unique and interesting to play with. That was obviously the way to go.

But there were still many things ahead of us…

AG: The theme was ready and now more issues needed to be addressed:

  1. Could we play without a class (a game of 2 for example)?
  2. Were all the classes fun to play with after several sessions or compared to each other?
  3. Were we going to dictate a certain setup of heroes based on the number of players or were we going to allow players to choose any characters regardless of the number of players?
  4. How were we going to address the character build up? Would it be totally random, totally balanced or thematically driven?

to be continued…

Check back next week for the final installment in this Designer Focus!

The Masters’ Trials: The Wrath of Magmaroth is a co-operative dice placement game for 1 to 4 players. On sale in November with Pre-release at Spiel Essen in October!

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