:: Play and rate City-States here ::
And so goes my 5th Ludum Dare, with what is really a very new experience for me : inventing a card game.
City-States in action
The first hours, after theme selection
What is a 48 / 72 hour jam if not minimal already? As themes go I felt this was an incredibly poor one as it offers no particular guidance. I didn’t think there was a theme in the list that would have been worse than Potato until I saw the actual winner. My very first instinct was “I’ll just submit an empty page with a link to a 404. Total work time, less than 5 minutes. Minimal to the core.”
Fitting as that would have been though, it’s not the reason we take part in these jams. So I asked myself what I could do that would be minimal in the context of a video game. Then I realized that it probably shouldn’t be a video game at all.
Doin’ it old school
My original thought was to make a card game based on the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, but as I started to come up with ideas for gameplay I realized that the cards simply had too much personality and too many pre-conceived associations tagging along with them. The game was shaping up to be a narrative guided by random card draws, and I realized that I’d be spending all my time writing up how narrative flows for a ridiculous number of card scenarios.
That wouldn’t be minimal.
So I took it a step backwards and picked up a deck of 52 playing cards at the store. I looked at them and pondered the suits. I realized that there are a number of similarities in playing card suits and Tarot suits:
Diamonds easily translates in meaning to Pentacles
Clubs easily translates in appearance to Staves
Hearts easily translates in meaning to Cups
Spades has linguistic connections to the Spanish “Espada”, which is a Sword.
So I laid all the cards out in front of me and imagined what each of these things could really represent. It occurred to me that they all were elements of a State:
Diamonds / Pentacles : Riches, Treasury, Natural Resources
Clubs / Staves : Knowledge, Power, Skill, “Magic”
Hearts / Cups : Happiness, Bounty, Emotional contentment
Spades / Swords : Insight, Conflict, Tumult
I considered how states use these things to gain advantage over others, and how without one of the four states historically have trouble with continued existence. So the idea then is to get a lot of each of these and to steal them from your opponents. But how? There’s got to be some method to this or else you’d just aim for the one place your opponent has the least of at any given time.
So if the idea is that a state falls if it has no resources left in one of the four categories, perhaps there’s a way to make sure the category is well defended? That’s where the idea behind the advisors came in. The royal cards, rather than ruling the city directly, ensure that no matter what happens a city won’t be defeated by running out of their given resource. So a famous, skilled general (King of Spades) will ensure that no matter how battered your City-State’s military, it will never be an avenue by which the state will fall. In mechanical terms, this means the Advisor offers a +1 bonus, permanently, to their suit.
I wanted the actions to be highly constrained because of the “Minimalism” theme.
- You must attack some other player
- You must choose a means of attack
- You must choose a resource to plunder
I wanted attacking to be completely unrelated to plundering, and to make sure that attacking and plundering both are related only to one suit at a time. Therefore, if you use swords to attack, the defender must use swords to defend. Likewise, if your goal in victory is to gain Treasures/Diamonds, then you can’t just steal Guilds/Clubs and put them in your treasure column. If you want Treasures you have to take Treasures.
Base Game Complete : 3 hours in
Ummm… huh. Wow, it’s only 3 hours in and I’ve finished the game rules. Well, I guess I could submit it now!
But is that really why we’re here at Ludum Dare?
No, I don’t think so.
So in 3 hours I had the card game…
In 3 days I had the video game.
For a strategy game conceived in 3 hours, this actually is not that bad. I’ve played a few rounds with other people and while there are some balance issues with the rules as written there’s a really solid core idea. I think that had I spent more time on the initial card game rules and less on the video game, it would be a stronger concept… but then the video game wouldn’t have been completed. But again, maybe that would have been for the best?
It’s really interesting to build narratives out of the actions people take in this game. How do states use Guilds to steal Farmland? I can think of a few ways, and it’s fun to leave it to the imagination.
As far as the video game goes, my use of finite state machines made coding the game flow a total breeze. There’s a lot of content and a lot of states, but they are pretty well arranged such that it’s easy to keep track of the flow, or insert new states into the flow.
Balance. The 2 player version really isn’t well balanced at all. Would more rules help? I don’t know… more rules would surely break the “Minimalism” requirement…
Explanation. The rules are *really easy* to demonstrate because there are so few things you can actually do. On the other hand they’re *really hard* to explain with words alone. When I show people how to play the game face-to-face I can do it easily. With the video game though, I struggled hard to come up with a good way to explain the actions to someone not already familiar with the game.
Unity was kind of crashy and unstable. I don’t know if it was my project structure or if it was some combination of plugins, but when I tried to export for Android my Unity editor would crash and burn in a firey mess. I sent a bug report to Unity, and they actually wrote back with a workaround and also a note that the bug would be fixed in the next release. On the other hand, once Android did finally publish I found a rendering bug. Ultimately this meant that the Android release was not ready in time to submit… just the web player version. I have since solved the issue, however.
So, I’ve never invented a card game before. You can probably tell! This was a very different experience from my “typical” (as much as you can call them that) video game development. It surely did lead down a totally different path of ideation and implementation. I think overall it was good.
Also, I notice that when the rules of a video game are awful, people just complain about it. When the rules of a card game are broken, people don’t have to hack your source code to fix it… they just house-rule and experiment themselves and tell you what worked for them. That was the really interesting takeaway for me.
:: Play and rate City-States here ::