Concepting Karta Machiton

I got a logo, that makes my game cool:

Karta Machiton logo

Next, I’ll proceed to write an abstract of the game and it’s relationship to Theomachia. I have a Finnish-language concept document for this one as well, but Jarkko Vuori told me that he actually got some points from the Theomachia abstract that he’d missed in the Finnish version, so I figure that it’s better if I write this one from my head as well.

So, this is a computer collectible card game. Meaning, the game uses the metaphor of cards and their manipulation to get across the rules and activities of the game that, themselves, are of course rather abstract. This is a very nice genre of computer game, I’ve always thought: collectible card games tend to be nice, bite-sized endeavours that produce a deepening spiral of strategic understanding when players gain new cards and make new decks, that kind of thing. A light layer of color material is easy to add in card images, static intermission splash screens and such. It’s a genre that’s still created today (or at least my brother was playing some Marvel CCG computer version the other day) , but it has that nostalgic feel of the games of yore.

The context and purpose of the game is to act as the combat system of Theomachia, the MMOG I told about earlier this week. Therefore it needs to be expandable and take all kinds of input from the larger adventure game structure. However, I’m creating Karta Machiton as a stand-alone game that could well be published as a nice little one-player product. If we actually manage to create a working team of game makers and get the game, card editor, some AI and art together, then I could see publishing a small KM-based freeware game. Perhaps something similar to Shadow of the Colossus in theme, I like the idea of heroes hunting and battling huge monsters. If such a game had content for around four to eight hours of play, I could see it being manageable, good practice in finishing projects, and good advertisement for the more ambitious MMOG to come.

Speaking of battling huge monsters, that’s pretty much the topic of Karta Machiton. Men fight men, men fight monsters, blood and sweat. Pretty straightforward. These are the overriding abstract ideas of the exercise, which differentiate the game from others that came before:

  • Move away from sequential, hitpoint-based combat model developed during the 70s for roleplaying games. This way of depicting fictional combat has become such a cliched standard for computer games that I frequently meet computer gamers who can’t conceive of a combat system without hitpoints. There are other things that can be done, both when emulating reality or movies and when creating an exciting game. Replace the traditional notions such as “my weapon determines how much damage I do” or “first I go, then you go” with concepts like initiative (the real thing, not the gamer notion of who strikes first), actions to set-up kills, synergy of activities, variable goals, breaking the flow of opponent maneuvers, anticipating opponent maneuvers… heck, even having maneuvers instead of the fight being a simple exercise in chugging a healing potion at the right moment is a huge improvement when it comes to tactical depth.
  • The card game metaphor is just that, a metaphor. It is an important and powerful tool for managing player expectations vis-a-vis the interface of activity, but the game structure itself need not be bound to it. Having a “deck” or “hand” or “discard pile” of cards is no more necessary than having card sleeves to protect the cards, as long as the positive benefits of the metaphor are retained.

Hmm… that’s actually it as far as theory goes. Pretty straightforward: I want a combat card game that handles combat more like Sorcerer than D&D. The difficulties of design are, of course, considerable: for example, I’d like my combat system to be contextual, so that most battles are not fought studiously to the death of one party or the other. Rather, I’d like it if the nature of combat interaction were different depending on your goals, as different goals would take different things to resolve; if one party wanted to just get past the other, say, then it makes no sense for the opposition to fight just as furiously as if the goal were the imminent destruction and death of the other side. Managing this stuff in creating the game can get pretty tricky.

Let’s set that particular question aside for now, however. I have pretty much figured out the basic round structure for the game, as well as some of the main points about the cards. The game’s much easier to understand if I’ll just outline that stuff here:

  • Each round consists of several beats. During each beat all fighters play one card. The card itself determines a statistic of your own character that is compared with a statistic of the opponent, or perhaps a statistic of the environment (in case you play “climb a tree” or some such card). There’s a simple random factor involved, perhaps your probability of success is simply X/(X+Y), where X is your stat and Y is opponent’s. The important point is that your cards are played simultaneously and resolved independently, which may mean that both cards resolve, neither resolve, or only one resolves.
  • The cards to be played are chosen at the beginning of the round by each player without knowing what the opponent will be playing. The players effectively create a stack of cards they will be playing. This’ll probably be somewhere around 2-10 cards, but it depends on what cards the player has access to: each card has a row of symbols on it that have to be aligned correctly in relation to other cards the player is planning to play during the round. Thus each card you choose further limits or opens access to playing other cards during the round.
  • Various effects of the cards are mostly temporary in the sense that they go away at the end of the round. The “round” describes a furious exhange of blows between the fighters, after which they reorient and commit to a new course of action. To be successful in meeting your goals, mainly you need to be able to plan and execute a single round that allows you to deliver the decisive blow. Some key effects carry over, though, so the landscape of rounds evolves slowly.
  • Players may re-evaluate their goals and approach between rounds. Escape is simple, and players may negotiate with the opposition for the outcome as well; a wounded monster might allow the hero to pass without further violence after the first successful round, for example.
  • Cards do not come from a deck. Instead, characters have “nodes” of cards, perhaps 4-12 cards in each. These depict things like different fighting schools or states of mind of the character. There might be a “rage” node, for example, with cards that are only available for a raging character. All of the player’s cards are distributed to nodes all the time, there’s no separate card library and play deck. Which nodes are available to play from, and to what extent, depend on character state. A common strategic narrative for the game would be to “move” your character from node to node between rounds to reach the particular cards you need to defeat the opposition you face. Most of the time node play might be as simple as the player having full access to exactly one node, but a panicking character might only get a random half-hand from a node, while an experienced character might be able to draw from several nodes during one round. There might be nodes available with cards the player doesn’t even “own”, like battlefield terrain which can be used to the character’s benefit. It’s all a shifting function with output that ultimately determines the kind of combos and choices the player can make, round-to-round. Cards that can be put in the same node (not a given, as the types of cards determine in part where the player may place them) are reliable combos, while combining from several nodes is something the player cannot rely on for every battle.
  • This is an idea I like, but am not sure about as something others would like: normally, after you’ve determined your card stack for the round, you just sit back and see what happens. However, if a card of yours fails (we’ll call that “breaking the stack”), the execution of your cards is interrupted and you have to play the rest of the round in real time, potentially missing beats. The player could have a couple of seconds per beat to pick a card to play during that beat for the rest of the round. This is two-pronged: on the one hand you have to be quick in your thinking, but on the other, you also have a flexibility the other player doesn’t have as he executes his plan.
  • Of course it’s rather likely that players won’t have exactly the same number of cards in their stacks. I need some kind of elegant exit conditions for the round: it should be a major goal of a player to play cards that force the round to end whenever that player’s stack ends, instead of letting the opponent just continue playing. Some cards like “withdraw from battle” or things like that, I figure. Of course, if you have the larger stack and more compatible cards to combo in general, then you don’t have to worry about this as much. You can just play everything you have secure in the knowledge that the opponent probably won’t be using any beats after you’re done.

The cards themselves mostly consist of a row of symbols and a special effect text, I figure. The symbols are key, as they determine what the player may play during a round. I’m still to figure this out fully, but a player might be able to play however many cards he wants as long as they all share at least one symbol. This would be a “combo chain” in a sense, when the character does several related moves in the fight. A different distribution of opportunities would surface if I allowed the player to play as many cards as he wants, as long as they do not share any symbols with each other. Or I could go domino-style, with the previous card you played determining some symbols that need to appear in the next one. There are many ways of controlling how players have to construct their card stacks round-per-round, so I figure that I’ll be using a little bit of this and a little bit of that, with characters having different rules for their stack-building depending on played cards and other conditions. The important thing is that more cards in the stack should equal more limited choices in further cards, so that players can’t just play their full hand. But even if that happens (perhaps the player has tightly controlled nodes without excess cards), it’s not a big deal: the player still has plenty of tactics to figure out in the order of play.

Hmm… what else… I think that’s the main part of it, no need to go into specifics here. I’ve been really busy with other stuff this week, but I hope to get to do some concrete card and rules design next week. Perhaps I’ll end up writing about it in this blog if I stumble on some particularly impossible design challenge while doing it. If not, I have good chances to get to test the game in some manner next Friday with the local gaming club.


One Response to “Concepting Karta Machiton”

  1. IP wants to be owned « Game Design is about Structure Says:

    […] still needs a game designer. If anyone of you readers knows somebody interested in working with Karta Machiton, let me know; you’ve seen Jarkko’s deal in my blog, and while it doesn’t satisfy […]

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