This is part one of a five-part series of articles on the design of the cards for The Shipwreck Arcana: Stars Below expansion.
Stars Below began its inception on the drive home from Gen Con 2018, with a van full of game nerds and one question: how many more arcana cards can be designed for The Shipwreck Arcana? During the game’s initial Kickstarter run, we dug deep and exhausted our pool of ideas (several times over) while coming up with stretch goals, but a year later we were refreshed and ready to tackle the challenge anew.
What makes a good arcana card, mechanically speaking?
Range: It eliminates some, but not all, possibilities.
Context: Its value changes based on the cards around it.
Uniqueness: It doesn’t overlap heavily with an existing card.
Reliability: It’s never completely useless, and rarely a complete freebie.
Requirement #1 tends to be the easiest in a vacuum, and they get harder as you try to meet #2, #3, and especially #4. Given that we’ve already made 31 cards, Uniqueness is also a particular problem. There’s also an unspoken #5: it must fit in the text box!
So where do we start? How about with something that arcana cards have never cared about before: the “hour” pips on each fate token. This idea became The North Wind:
The key to this design is that behind the novelty, it also satisfies the other requirements, carving the number line up in a way that past cards haven’t. Because playing a 4, 5, or 6 on this card always narrows your fate down less than playing a 1, 2, or 3, it gives you some simple strategic thinking and room for optimal play.
The effect ends up being simple, yet always useful. This makes it a point of reference when you don’t play on it in favor of a more complex card. We think of these as building block cards, which are critical when someone plays on a more complex card. “Why didn’t she play on the North Wind? I guess we can rule out 7.”
It turns out that building blocks are way harder to make than complex cards, so this — along with the Musicians — proved vital during design and playtest of Stars Below.