Custom Card Game Design
Conquest of Orion is a space-fantasy trading card game. I started designing it around late 2009 after a friend of mine brought me to Magic. Having no experience with TCGs and having done only game projects based on video games so far, I soon fell in love with the idea of making my own card game. It started as what could be described as “Magic in Space”. Instead of lands you had planets and instead of creatures you played units. The main difference was that you didn’t have a life pool, but your planets were attacked directly and you had to position your units prior to the attack to guarantee the defense of each planet.
A planet had health points, and when those were depleated, you lost control of it and thus a source of your income (the health of planet here doesn’t embody the integrity of the planet’s core, but your settlements and mining bases on that planet). Each player started with three planets – additional planets could be conquered for a resource investment to increase your income. As in Magic, resources dissipated at the end of each turn – you couldn’t store them to use them during the next turn. So, if your opponent takes away your planets, you don’t just play less stuff – you can’t play anymore stuff. This was one of the most non-sensical designs in the game. So, I made a few cards and you could play some interesting games, but the design was fundamentally flawed. However, no one gets it perfectly right on their first try. Iteration is one of the most important aspects of design.
It wasn’t until a few months later, that I started to work on the game again. I decided to redesign the game from scratch and I sat weeks playtesting and carving out the rules with a friend. Now, the various resources from the previous version were removed and a single resource was added that could be stored to be used in later turns. To still allow for a difference of the early-game vs. the late-game, we added the Tiers. A player would start at Tier 1 and could spend resources to ascend to higher Tiers (up to Tier 4) and unlock more powerful cards such as powerful battleships or alien queens. It became clear soon that this approach was superior but still flawed. Players would often just sit on Tier 1 for most of the game because deploying resources to ascend a Tier which didn’t give you an immediate impact on the battlefield often meant you were overrun by the opponent because he played more units from his hand.
This led us to the current resource system. There are now two resources in Conquest of Orion: Minerals (blue) and gems (gold). Minerals are used on low-Tier units while gems are used to ascend Tiers and to play high-Tier cards. A player still starts with three basic planets which all produce 1 mineral a turn. Add to that the innate income of 1 gem per turn, and you get a total income of 3 minerals / 1 gem. Both can be increased by conquering new planets and by playing resource-production-units. Ascending to Tier 2 mainly costs gems and since most Tier 1 cards can only be payed with minerals, you get to Tier 2 almost automatically, thus allowing a natural flow of the game. Going to Tier 3 or 4 is more expensive, but the jump in the power level of the cards is more severe.
But enough talk about the game already, how about a card?
Alright, here is one:
The frame was created with Magic Set Editor and was derived from the standard Magic frame as I don’t have the required skills to make my own card frame from scratch. The information on the card shown: In the top left is the card name and next to it the set symbol, at the top right is the resource cost – this unit costs 2 minerals (blue) and 2 gems (gold) to play. Directly underneath the resource cost is the required Tier. Osiris is a Tier 3 card and can’t be played until you’ve reached Tier 3. Beneath the artwork (by Glenn Clovis) is the type line. This tells us that the card is a unit and which unit classifications it has after the dashed line. Units are either biological or mechanical. This unit is also affiliated with the human race and its type is a Spacecraft. At the right end of the type line is the race symbol, which I’ll discuss in a later post. The larger box below shows the card’s abilities and the box at the lower right-hand corner shows the damage and the health of the unit.
What you see is a card from the third iteration of the game. This new overhaul had mainly the goal to simplify the rules, clean up the wordings and to get rid, or fix some of the more powerful cards. I chose to showcase this unit because it has a very simple ability. When you play it (the in-play zone is the “galaxy”), you get to search your database (deck) for a specific card. All that utility comes with an awesome spaceship that can deal decent damage and take a good amount of damage itself.
There are five card types in Conquest of Orion:
1. Units: Units can attack and defend your planets. A unit is always located on a planet and to attack an opponent’s planet, it moves onto that planet temporarily (after combat it returns to your planet).
2. Planets: Planets produce resources and once you have no more planets, you lose the game. Units can declare an attack on a planet (this is called “threatening” a planet). There are basic and unique planets. You start the game with three basic planets, but you can conquer additional, unique planets by sending out a unit and paying some resources. Those planets are not part of a deck – they are rather the board.
3. Achievements: Achievements are cards you play to gain a beneficial effect for the rest of the game, for example increasing the health of all your units.
Also, there appears a flashy popup when you play them.
4. Attachments: Attachments grant a beneficial effect for one of your units or a disadvantageous effect for one of your opponent’s units, for example disallowing it to attack. The attachment becomes ‘attached’ to that unit, which is then referred to as the ‘affected’ unit. Some attachments can also be attached to planets.
5. Abilities: Abilities are one-time effects. You play them, the effect is applied and you put the card aside. For example, effects include teleporting units between planets or drawing additional cards.
So, the basic skeleton isn’t too crazy. You build a deck (50 cards) where each card can be in the deck only four times, you draw your starting hand (5 cards) and an additional card each turn, you play dudes, beneficial effects and abilities. Beyond this basic skeleton is where the interesting interactions lie – where Magic is about synergies, combos and complex interactions, Conquest of Orion is more about resource management and good positioning. Managing your economy and combat is very difficult and rewards good decisions.
In my next post, I will talk about the combat system in Conquest of Orion. Until then, I want to showcase some more cards:
I hope these previews give you a good feel for the game’s flavor. The card’s appearance may still change, some of the parts still don’t blend very well.
Until next time!