This is the second in a series of articles tracing the design of Norsaga’s core gameplay loop and mechanical balance. To see where it ends up, check out the rules document on the main site.
Last time, we talked about the rise of Norsaga's core concept. Today, we'll explore how that concept was streamlined through the first rounds of playtesting.
"rCl" vs "rDr"
The original hero cards had "right-Center-left" traits. This gave us ~64 distinct hero cards, but playtesting showed the "feel bad" moments it creates when you've previously played a hero on one side of a pair, but now need to match with its "outside" recessive trait.
Normally, you can't move heroes around once you've played them onto your family tree. Rather than tack on exceptions, we made recessive traits homogenous; it no longer matters whether you match with a hero's right or left trait. This leads to the "recessive-Dominant-recessive" model of the final game.
7 vs 6
Originally, sagas required you to match 7 traits. But wait: aren't there only 7 different places to express traits on your family tree?
- Your youngest hero's dominant trait. (1)
- Parents' recessive trait + one of their dominants. (2)
- Each grandparent pair's recessive trait + one of each of their dominants. (4)
This meant you had to get a "perfect" family tree, which made winning nearly impossible (especially if other players actively thwart you).
Getting to 6 proved doable, though, so we figured we were close. We tried some variations:
- 7 traits were needed to win, but 1 was "free"; the moment you'd matched 6 of the 7, you won.
- 7 traits were needed, but you could treat your youngest hero's recessive trait as a second dominant.
- 6 traits were needed, and you had to match all 6.
Option #1 was way too easy. Option #2 was really interesting without being impossible, but required a weird rules exception. Weighing the pros and cons, we went with the slightly harder but simpler option #3 as our ultimate solution.
The first playtest deck features cards with "wild" recessive traits which could match against any hero. The problem? Managing your recessive traits is by far the most tactically challenging aspect of Norsaga--and also the most skill-expressive. Once you know what a "dangling recessive" is, and why it wins you games, I've got nothing more to teach.
"Wild" recessives turned that expression of skill into something trivial and easy. It only took one playtest to decide that the game worked better without them.
Some early playtest cards had a "P" (Power) instead of a dominant trait. Most cards have no game text, and create gameplay based on the embellishments they grant. With power cards, the idea was to have baked-in mechanics to spice up the normal embellishments.
During the first playtest game, the "P" cards were basically blanks. "Imagine them doing something cool," was the advice given to playtesters. After the game, one playtester said: What if "P" cards let you embellish again? A simple rule with a lot of built-in power, since it gets mileage out of the embellishment table as well.
We tried it, it worked great, and thus were skalds born. Interestingly, they're still "P" cards, but it now stands for "Purple."
If you check out the playtest decklist from last week, you'll see that ghosts didn't actually exist. The need for them quickly became apparent, though.
You see, even the prototype embellishments were broken into tiers:
- level 1 embellishments provided card filtering;
- level 2 provided acceleration, i.e. playing extra cards or removing your opponents';
- and level 3 provided true power, with abilities like mass removal and card stealing.
The problem? The first half of each game becomes solitaire. Players build up their own family trees but are unable to influence each other until they reach level 3. This also means that unless you hit level 3, you are powerless to stop someone who's thiiiiiissss close to winning.
Several playtesters came up with similar ideas: what if there were cards that didn't help you win, but stymied other players? This lead to ghosts, which fill exactly that niche.
The first version of ghosts caused a second problem, though. When you (invariably) ghosted someone's youngest hero, they not only lost tempo while they replaced the card, but they also couldn't embellish on their next turn because ghosts had no embellishments.
You can guess the solution: give ghosts embellishments!
The first versions were inspired by the "full blooded" bonuses you may have seen last week. Namely, "no one can mess with me for a turn." Unfortunately, this encourages the same solitaire behavior that ghosts are meant to break. After a round of revisions, ghosts landed close to where they are now, including the extremely efficient but potentially dangerous level 1 power which actually encourages other players to interact with you.
These "level 4" embellishments originally gave you immunity if you could get enough appropriately-colored heroes. But level 3 embellishments were more interesting, and these level 4 versions just encouraged the same solitaire gameplay that was already a problem elsewhere. They were ultimately scrapped for those reasons.
And that's how the infant game evolved into its final form! It took only a day or two of playtesting to uncover some pretty fundamental perceptions of what did and didn't work, and what was (and wasn't) fun. Some things (like level 4 embellishments) sounded great on paper, but became immediately expendable the moment we actually played with them. Others (like ghosts) were already vague ideas, but crystallized once we saw how the game played with and without them.
Check back next week as we discuss the details that weren't so easy to home in on: the final list of embellishments!