The story of how to make a tabletop version of a digital game, what are the main problems and our solutions.

Lasse Hirvonen, Blogger

October 7, 2015

In the first part of this story we pinpointed the problems of transferring the rules of the digital game to the tabletop game and in second part we solved all of those problems. In this final third part I discuss about the design principles of these games, think what parts of the game work in both versions and then, find the main reason behind all of these problems. In case you missed the previous parts you can find them here: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LasseHirvonen/20150528/244540/Back_and_forth_from_digital_to_physical_game_dev_blog_Part_I.php and http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/LasseHirvonen/20150603/245021/Back_and_forth_from_digital_to_physical_game_dev_blog_Part_II.php.

# Design principles

When we started to design the tabletop game our first task was to pinpoint the design principles that makes Cabals: Magic & Battle Cards a unique game. We had some of the design guidelines written down from the beginning but along the way we discovered a couple new ones as well - something we hadn’t stated explicitly. When the digital game came out there weren’t any similar games around and only afterwards, when comparing it to the new wave of card games, the implicit choices we made become apparent.

One principle that we have in Cabals, the most important guideline, is the Depth vs. Complexity, or Depth without Complexity as we took it. The idea was that the game doesn’t need complex and difficult rules to have deep gameplay. We wanted to avoid the mistake of some games where the problems of the core game were covered up with a bunch of extra rules, making playing unnecessarily complex.

To avoid such extra rules we started to investigate other games to unearth them and find the reasons justifying them. We also included the rules that were counterintuitive or worked against the theme of the game to this category of rules.

I claim that there is no game without such rules. Tic-tac-toe doesn’t have any of those rules but then again, there isn’t a game either. Chess has a couple, promoting and castling for example. From which the latter is a jungle of regulations when it can be done and when it’s illegal. So, as we tried to avoid them we knew that having these rules is inevitable.

The digital Cabals has three of this kind of rules; first is the victory by domination points, second is the minimum deck size of 30 cards and third being the limiting the maximum copies of any card in a deck to three. We were very happy to notice that with our unique resource mechanism of the game there wasn’t a need for a mulligan.

The victory condition of collecting 60 domination points was added to resolve deadlock games. The other option would have been to end the game once one of the decks is empty but that felt a bit more arbitrary than collecting domination points. We didn’t have any ways to remove cards from the opponent's deck before the expansion and even with them the ‘empty deck’ winning condition would be more of a one sided race. Now both players have equal possibility to accumulate domination points, with some cards giving just marginal advantages if the deck is built correctly.

The minimum deck size and maximum copies of a card in a deck both increase the variety of gameplay by ensuring a certain level of randomness in games. This is rather common in collectible card games and taken more like a standard instead of limitation.

# Random

The role and amount of randomness is one thing that we had long discussions about. Sometimes randomness is increased to promote more casual gaming, meaning that less skilled players can win the game with a stroke of luck. It is sometimes added to a game to provide catch-up -mechanisms, effectively keeping the game exciting until the very end. As Cabals is made by gamers for gamers, the amount luck plays a part is rather low. The only source of randomness is the shuffled deck of cards. Adding dice rolls to the combat would make fighting unpredictable and while that might lead to interesting situations the link between the cause and effect would get weaker. The theme of the game doesn’t support the idea that all the decisions, movement and tactics are finally reduced to a single roll of the dice to decide who wins.

Sometimes Cabals is criticized for having a rather small pool of cards. This is not because of laziness or a lack of support but more the opposite. Cards that are so bad that they are never played are the waste of our and player’s time and money. Our philosophy of avoiding filler cards forced us to push card design a bit further, keeping the card pool small, understandable and strong.

One big difference between digital and tabletop Cabals is how the player gets new cards. In the digital game there’s random boosters whereas the tabletop game contains full set of cards and expansions are sold as complete sets. Why are these platforms treated differently?

This comes into question how we can distribute the cards. For the tabletop game the most reasonable way is to sell boxed content. Just buy one box and you can enjoy with your friends without further visits to the game shop. In the digital environment, expansion based distribution of content would lead to a diminishing variation of gameplay as cookie-cutter decks take over and make advancing in the game meaningless. Also, in a digital game it’s easy to give out single cards and in-game currency as rewards.

# Standards

In physical card games it’s common that players can act on the opponent's turn, saving creatures from dying, banishing opponents denizens before they can activate their abilities and ping that one damage at the end of the turn. Unfortunately, even remotely usable digital UI supporting this is yet to be invented and therefore we limited player actions to the player’s own turn. This has become a standard in the digital card games and well accepted by players and developers alike. When we moved Cabals to the tabletop environment we suddenly worked against the standards of the physical games where players expect to be able to react to opponents actions. We have received some feedback from our playtesters about the issue and began wondering why this is such a big problem on tabletop if it’s barely noticeable in the digital game. The root of the problem must be in the way we play the games, tabletop games are highly social and during the opponent's turn all players comment on situations, move the tokens and keep the status on the board updated. In digital games it’s not unusual to Alt-Tab to continue reading that interesting article and at times it’s not easy to know if one is playing against a human or AI.

Other standards that affect game design greatly is the expectations of a learning curve. The patience we have for board games is something extraordinary - at least compared to mobile games. On mobile platforms there must be a tutorial that tells every aspect of the game but doesn’t irritate the player. Every option that the player has at any given time must be highlighted and basically we expect the machine to tell us what to do - bit of a frightening thought in general. In a board game, players spend a considerable amount of time reading and understanding the rules, often revisiting the rule book during the play.

What I’ve noticed when playing games that have physical and digital versions is that when a board game is moved to the digital world it loses a lot of readability. In most cases the requirement of a comprehensible tutorial and array of playing aides moved the focus to making directional heuristics clear. The options the player has are made very clear with bells and whistles. What is lost is the positional heuristics - in many games it’s hard to know how I’m doing before the game ends.

# Organisation of the information

The games we researched were all midcore games that tend to have more complex gameplay and therefore also more information to show than the average casual game title. Many problems mentioned above are caused by the organisation of that information and the way the players read the game on different platforms. In a sense playing on mobile devices is like playing a board game on a table that is too small - there just isn’t room for all the information to be readily available. The restrictions of a screen force the developers to make decisions on what information is most relevant and at what phase of the game. What can be put behind the menu button and at what size the game board is shown. Usually these decisions are compromises that aren’t perfect for any purposes.

# What doesn’t work in digital

Now that we have moved the game from digital to a physical, with some changes, it’s interesting to see which parts don’t translate well back to digital. One thing that comes to mind immediately is the relics -mechanism. Creating an easy, usable and understandable user interface for relics is not an easy task. Dragging a relic from outside of the board to a tile is an easy solution but how about removing the relic from the board? In these situations there’s always an unit on the same tile causing usability problems.

One special rule we created for the tabletop game is drafting the board. In the tabletop game players are free to use the premade suggested board layouts, but in addition to this they can perform a collaborative procedure to create the board. Something that would be an UI nightmare to implement in the digital environment.

# Afterwords

So, this is the story of the Cabals: The Board Game so far. The project did give us insight on digital development too. Dissecting the game mechanics and finding the roots of problems gave us new ideas how to overcome them - something that we will surely use in our future projects. There is also motivation to find the parts where the physical and digital world connect and what mechanics work in both environments. From this common ground will arise the next generation of Hybrid Games, something that combines the two mediums in a natural way.