Custom Card Game Design
Note: This post is about my card game Conquest of Orion. It’s not a prerequisite, but if you want to read more about the game, you can browse the posts under the category “Conquest of Orion.” However, most of it is heavily outdated. I also prepared a new document that serves as an early overview. You can find it here.
Conquest of Orion is a game I have been working on for many, many years now. I put the game to rest several times, picking it up again years later, after I had increased my design skills and after I had learned lessons that I could apply to improve the game further. With each iteration, the rules changed significantly, as did the appearance of the cards. When I look back at my old Conquest of Orion cards, I cringe just as much as when I look at the first Magic cards I created. Let’s see them!
The first iteration
The first iteration of the game could be described very accurately with “Magic in Space.” I must have been a teenager back when I created these cards, and I didn’t have much experience with TCGs or game design in general. And when you don’t, you lack the insight to know what’s possible, what you can do differently, and what you probably shouldn’t do differently. Just like in Magic, there were five resources generated by five different planet types, and those resources would empty at the end of turn.
But at least combat was a bit different. Each planet could be attacked individually and units (creatures) could defend a planet or, when you’d rather keep the unit, escape from the planet when it was attacked. The combat system could be described as a hybrid between the Magic and Hearthstone systems. In Magic, you can’t attack a specific creature. You simply attack the opponent and he or she has full control over the creatures he or she controls that are entering combat with the attacker. The Hearthstone system is the polar opposite: You can attack minions directly and the opponent is unable to do anything about it.
Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. In Magic, you sometimes end up with board stalls, which can never happen in Hearthstone, and you sometimes lack the ability to do anything about a problematic creature. Hearthstone, on the other hand, is the most frustrating game to play when you’re behind. Every single minion you play gets taken out and there’s little you can do about it.
The Conquest of Orion system tries to find the middle ground between those two extremes. You can attack a planet which is defended by a unit that you want to take out, and the defending player can evacuate it, but doing so comes at a cost.
The second iteration
During the second iteration, I kept the combat system but I changed the resource system significantly. In Conquest of Orion, you don’t play the resource cards from your hand, but you conquer planets to gain resources – and you have to defend them. The amount of planets you control doesn’t necessarily increase throughout the game, so copying the mana system from Magic won’t work.
The resource system was scrapped in favor of a different system of progression. Now there were two resources (blue crystals and gold gems), which had a slightly different purpose. Crystals were accumulated faster and used to pay for low-tech “bread-and-butter” cards. Grizzly Bears would have costed two crystals. Gems, on the other hand were accumulated slower and used to unlock more powerful cards, which also require gems to be played. An Inferno Titan would cost say three crystals plus three gems. Cards also had a Tier requirement. You start at Tier 1, and you can pay a gem-heavy cost to advance to the next Tier, unlocking more powerful cards.
With only a single resource, too much strain would be put onto that resource. While you spend your turn advancing to the next Tier, your opponent just plays more low-Tier units and runs you over.
The cards also received some visual changes. The disproportionate card frame from the older version was replaced with a much slimmer and well-proportioned one. Still, I created them using primitive software and the formatting was a mess. Add that you couldn’t decipher some of the card texts even if you knew the rules by heart.
The third iteration
The game engine worked quite well by now. The game just needed to be cleaned up – heavily.
Luckily, I learned to use a very potent program for designing cards and card sets by then – Magic Set Editor. The card renders looked a lot more polished, although the template resembled the Magic template a lot since it was based on a few small edits of the Modern Magic template.
Gameplay wise, the third iteration largely focused on simplifying things and making them more intuitive. I think that “simpler is always better” is one of the most important lessons you have to learn as a game designer, and it takes a long, long time before you’ve learned to fully live by this rule. You’ll say: “But… but I want it to work that way so that in this super-narrow corner case X that comes up every ten years, you can have this cool interaction Y.” I have fallen into that trap many times, and I have seen plenty of other designers fall into it before. And it doesn’t only apply to game design: Frequently, I hear talks where the speaker presents a graph on which ten different data sets are plotted, and he or she talks about them in a blistering speed, while I sit there trying to figure out what’s actually plotted on the x-axis.
The fourth iteration
I made some desperately needed simplifications, but I was still too attached to many of the rules that were just not necessary to exist. I tried to come up with solutions to rules problems that were more intuitive, instead of getting rid of the problematic rules altogether. It is useful in such a situation to let the project rest for a while, so you can get a more objective view on it. You have to identify what doesn’t work and forego your emotional attachment to those parts so you can throw them overboard.
So, this leads us to the fourth and current iteration. I tried to move the cards away from these complex interactions, to simple and (hopefully) interesting combat-based keywords and I’m currently working on the batch of evergreen keywords for the game.
Meanwhile, I gave the card frame a few minor changes. I try to move it away from the Magic frame and give it its own style. The power/toughness box was replaced with icons representing damage, health, shields, and more. I’m not completely happy with it yet; I’d like to have them blend better with the rest of the frame, but I’m no graphic designer, so my amateurish attempts didn’t turn out too well so far.
Tell me what you think of this frame design and whether you want to hear me talk more about Conquest of Orion. Otherwise, I have plenty of Eldrazi and Pirates to show you. Here are some more cards: