Sponsored By

How Stacklands uses simplicity to create a compelling card-based village builder

Stacklands is a card-based city-builder built on simplicity and clarity, tasking you with stacking cards just right to keep folks fed and housed.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 1, 2023

6 Min Read
cards with berries, rocks, coins, and villagers lie on a beige table
Game Developer and GDC are sibling organizations under parent company Informa Tech

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

Stacklands is a card-based city-builder built on simplicity and clarity, tasking you with stacking cards just right to keep folks fed and housed.

Game Developer caught up with the lead designer and programmer for the Excellence in Design nominee, Aran Koning, about how the idea of mixing cards and city-building came from thinking about the creator's limitations, how a bouncing animation lead to the game's lively cards, and how they created a feeling of exploration within the cards players could discover.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Stacklands?

My name is Aran Koning, and I'm part of Sokpop Collective, a small game studio based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. We used to make a new game every month for our Patreon. I'm also the lead designer and programmer for Stacklands.

What's your background in making games?

I've always liked messing around on the computer and started making games at a young age. I used to do a lot of game jams, and that's also how we met each other at Sokpop. In 2018, we started a Patreon where we released a new game every month for about 5 years, for a total of 100 games. Now we're taking it easy and just trying to make another 100 games before we die.

cards on a light green field, and quests on the left

How did you come up with the concept for Stacklands? What appealed to you about turning a village builder into a card game?

I've wanted to make a village builder for a long time already, but I always struggled with how complex it would be to make one. There are just so many assets and systems you need to make. I figured turning everything into a card game would solve some of those problems and allow me to make a cool village builder faster! After prototyping an initial version of the game, it quickly showed a lot of potential!

What development tools were used to build your game?

Stacklands was developed in Unity.

Stacklands takes some of the physical properties of cards (stacking them, getting new packs) and turns them into an integral part of the game. What got you thinking about the properties of cards while you were doing the design for this game?

Stacking the cards to make things happen in the game was one of the first things I made for the prototype. It was inspired by solitaire and felt fun really quickly. What really got me thinking about other gameplay mechanics was when I made a simple animation of a card bouncing away. That made me realize that a Rabbit card could hop all over the place, and that Monster cards could slowly move to your Villagers to attack them. That's when the game got this weird mix of the abstract and physical elements of the cards [laughs].

Cards laid out on a beach setting

The game also simplifies the process of maintaining and building a village with its cards. What ideas went into making the gameplay simple, yet still deep?

I wanted the mechanics to be a bit of a hurdle at the beginning, but for them to be easy when you figure things out. For example, collecting food is pretty hard initially, but when you discover how to build a farm, you quickly have plenty of food to feed your villagers. Also, at first, you can only collect wood from the card packs. After a while you can build a Lumber Camp that allows you to get wood automatically. This way, there's always a new "problem" to solve, which I think gives it that feeling of being simple, yet deep.

What thoughts went into the art design for the cards and game? How did you design the art to make every card's purpose clear at a glance?

The most important part of the art design was that the cards shouldn't be too different and that they should be easy to add. I wanted the game to have a lot of cards, but I didn't wanna bother Lisa Mantel, the artist on Stacklands, to spend too much time drawing them all. I just told her to draw the first thing that came to mind, without any revisions. That worked really well and I think that's why the game's art is fun & readable.

What ideas went into the creation of the game's many cards? What went into creating so many things players could create or use?

The most important part to me was the feeling of exploration. It's a lot of fun finding new cards, so I wanted to make sure there was plenty of stuff to find. To achieve that, I just followed my intuition and quickly made new cards that I thought would be fun without giving them too much thought [laughs].

cards on a green field, depicting villagers and fruits

What drew you to add the card-selling system to get new packs?

One of the core problems with the prototype was that every card would follow from another card. For example, the tree gives you wood, wood allows you to build a House, the House allows you to get new villagers, et cetera. This means that the game would just have a perfect sequence to combine the cards, which wouldn't be that interesting. The card packs solved this by giving you random cards that you then have to use in a different order to get new cards. It's a fun little loop where you get resources within the bigger loop of building the villages.

How did you design the interactions (or recipes, ideas, combinations) that players could create with the cards? The ways they could use cards together to make something new or get some resources?

This was one of the harder parts of the design of the game. I wanted to give the player some guidance in discovering the various combinations, but not make it too easy either. Initially, players would have to rediscover the combinations every run by finding the Idea cards, but that made every run way too slow-paced. After that, I made it so that the players would have to discover the Idea first before they could make certain combinations. That felt inconsistent and unfair, because why could you now suddenly combine the cards that you couldn't combine before?!

So, in the end, players can just make any combination from the start, even without finding the Idea card. That felt the most fair even though it does lead to some weird situations sometimes.

About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like