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Mage Knight - Lessons from the Tabletop

What can a video game designer learn from a board game? I walk through some key design decisions made in the recently released Mage Knight the Board Game as examples of how the constraints of tabletop game design help foster innovative design solutions.

[The following is a repost from Glen Cooney's personal game design blog Glenalysis. Originally posted February 16, 2012]

What? A Board Game in a Video Game Design Blog?
       As much as I have devoted the last several years to the study of video games and how they are made, I have come across certain board games that have also caught my attention. Not the Monopoly or Scrabble games everyone knows about, but the kind found only in specialty shops, alongside Warhammer figurines and D&D manuals. They are the kind of games that I feel don't get enough love these days.

      Consider this: video games have been steadily evolving over the past several decades, but this evolution has been held back by technological constraints. Alongside those technological constrains are the rising costs of utilizing these new technologies, driving the cost of developing video games up higher every year. What this means is that as games get more expensive to make, you start to see less variety and experimentation in the medium, as an ill-fated risk can mean a death sentence to a development studio, or a major loss the stockholders of a major publishing company.

      By contrast, the board game industry has been steadily growing. While remaining very much a niche market, they are able to thrive and grow without the constraints put on video games. The costs of development are very low, and a game prototype can be whipped up by a single designer working with a team of dedicated testers. And since the technology never really changes (aside from making pieces look fancier, etc), board games are able to enjoy a steady and constant forward momentum toward innovation and new creative frontiers.

      Mage Knight the Board Game* is an example of some truly excellent game design to come out of the board game world. It's one I felt like highlighting here to show just how much video game designers can learn from our board game designer friends.

      *Not to be confused with the earlier miniatures game set in the same universe.

      Mage Knight is a fantasy conquest game where you take on the role of one of four Mage Knights and battle your way across the map, acquiring Fame, loot, and conquering various holdings across the map. All of your actions are dictated by a deck of cards, and gameplay is all about careful management of your cards and how to maximize the effectiveness of each turn.

     The game is far too complicated to go over every rule in detail, so I highly suggest watching this video demo of the first round of play to get an idea of how the game is played. If you want to learn more and/or put your reading comprehension skills to the ultimate challenge, both the Rulebook and Walkthrough book are available through Fantasy Flight Game's official website (be warned, though, the books are not very well written and can be very confusing). Hopefully this will make enough sense as to not be too confusing should you not choose to look into those things, but just thought I'd give you a heads up.

     So without further adieu, lets take a look at the game's various mechanics.

Put on your robe and wizard hat!

      Mage Knight has a lot of interesting mechanics that interact together in fascinating ways. It strikes a strong balance between randomness and predictability that allows for deep strategies to emerge and for fun surprises to happen over the course of the game. Below are a few highlights of the system I found particularly compelling:

  • The Deck
         Each player starts with a deck of 16 cards, with one card unique to each character that is a stronger version of one of the standard cards. Considering that you draw up to five cards each turn (or more as you level up), this seems like a small number, especially for those used to games like Dominion or even Magic the Gathering with large decks. Unlike in MtG, you are most likely to be able to use every card in your deck each round, which affords you some strategy to complement your turn-by-turn tactics, rather than crossing your fingers and hoping you draw that one kickass card you stashed in your giant deck.

         Tied to the deck is the idea of rounds in the game. Each player takes their turns during a round until one player is unable to draw cards at the end of their turn to put into their hand. Note that decks are only shuffled in between rounds, never in the middle of one. Now, if you compare this to traditional deck building games like Dominion, where reshuffling your deck isn't a particularly huge deal, this creates a very different dynamic. In Mage Knight, how fast or slow you draw new cards has a strong impact on how long the round will go and what you will be able to accomplish, and even what you and your opponents will be able to do.

         Consider this: Suppose you used the Regenerate Card to draw 2 cards. Now, this means that not only do you get 2 cards, but that also means you deck is going to run out faster, which can potentially mean that other players will not get to play all of their cards.

         At the same time, given how wounds effectively shrink your hand size, it is no coincidence that the regenerate card, your main way of healing, has the choice of Heal 2 (trash two wound cards from your hand) or draw 2 more cards. It makes even a single wound a potentially major liability, and one to be dealt with as soon as possible.

         This creates an interesting system where even though you may not be able to predict what you will have from one deck to the next, you have a good idea of what you will be able to do over the course of a whole round, so there is the right balance between randomness and deterministic strategy.

         One could draw parallels to this in RTSes like Starcraft 2, where there is also a mix of determinism and randomness at play during a multiplayer matchup. A player is in full control of what they make, and can make predictions of what their opponent is going based on how quickly they get up certain buildings or what kind of army compositions they go for. Aside from the choices of the players themselves, and arguably the AI of the units, Starcraft is far more on the deterministic side when compared to Mage Knight, given that it is played on a computer that can handle all the number crunching behind the scenes. Board games, by contrast, rely on randomness as a shorthand simulation of complex deterministic algorithms behind these games, so generally the outcome is comparable on some level.

         There is a downside, of course, to having the computer do a bunch of heavy lifting so the player doesn't have to pull out a calculator. It can mean that the underlying systems of the game are more complex than the player could ever wrap their head around. You have to carefully balance the need for hiding info from the player with having just the right amount of mechanics to be interesting. I much prefer the route the Diablo III beta is going in, where by default descriptions of abilities are short and general, with the option to expand them. Dawn of War II, on the other hand, went about it the wrong way by hiding virtually every stat of every unit, to the point where you have only a vague idea of how much damage you are doing against particular types of enemies. Rather than being able to look at a number and say that its damage is good/bad, you have to just eyeball it or look over esoteric charts and stats created by fans on external websites.

  • Cards
         Each card in your deck can be played in three different ways. First, you may put the card into play normally for its basic effect. Alternately, you can spend mana of the appropriate type to use its more powerful ability detailed in the lower text field. Finally, any card can be played sideways to act as a Move 1, Attack 1, Block 1, or Influence 1.

         This system makes it so every card use has to be carefully considered, and there are tradeoffs for every choice. Do you spend a card for its basic effect to save your mana for later? Use its more powerful effect to pull off a killer turn? Or go all in and play a few cards sideways to pull off a turn you only barely have the cards for?

         The most compelling aspect of this system is that it gives players ample ability to make clever moves and pull off killer combos. Not only does it make the player that pulled them off have more fun, but other players can also vicariously feel the rush of a well-executed turn.

         The closest equivalent that comes to mind are the Tactical Marines squad of Dawn of War 2. They are the single most versatile unit in the game. They start out quite capable enough, but at tier 2 you can upgrade them (the squad, not all tactical marines) to be anti-vehicle, anti-infantry, or anti-heavy infantry depending on your weapon choice. This allows them to be adaptable to any situation you want, though there is always the sacrifice of resources and time should you need them to switch to a different weapon.

  • The Day/Night Cycle
         Each round alternates between day and night. During the day, it is easier to cross through forests (pretty common), harder to cross deserts (pretty rare), and you can use Gold mana, which is essentially a wild that can be spent as any basic mana type. You are also able to see what enemies are guarding fortifications from far away, making it easier to plan your assaults.

         During the night, however, it becomes harder to cross through forests, easier to cross deserts, and instead of Gold Mana you can use Black Mana, which allows you to use the enhanced versions of your spells. It also makes it so for most fortifications you can't know who is guarding it until you are directly next to the building.

         This works to create an interesting element of timing to how one should explore the map. Should you cross a forest and explore a new map tile, risking being stuck in a forest at night? Is it worth it to assault a Mage Tower in the middle of the desert when you are only a couple turns away from daytime?

         This is not unlike the Day/Night system of Warcraft III, though it has a bit more of an impact on gameplay. In Warcraft III the main advantage of night vs day is that at night neutral creeps would be asleep, allowing you to ambush them to gain experience for your hero easier, and the line of sight of your units was lower. If you were a Night Elf, you could also shadowmeld (turn invisible but take no other action), and moon wells (which provided supply and restored nearby units' health and mana) would replenish their mana.

         It worked well to create a compelling mechanic that encouraged timing of your attacks and creeping (killing neutral "creeps" to level up your hero between battles with your opponent). The one complaint I'd have about their implementation was that it wasn't a strong enough factor to make a huge difference at low-level play, and could be easily ignored after early game.

  • Location Cards
          Mage Knight features many different locations you can visit, from villages, to Mage Towers, Monastaries, and even Monster Dens or Ancient Ruins. Each location has slightly different rules about what players encounter at each place, what type of enemies they have to fight, and Influence costs for their various services. All of this could very quickly get confusing for a new player, but MK has a rather ingenious way to make this easier to grasp.

          Each location card has the full text description of what the location does, plus an iconographic representation of the rules on the left. This I think is an excellent design choice, as it makes it easy for a player looking to remind themselves of the rules of a card to just glance at these icons and grasp its at times complex rules in a fraction of the time.

          The most similar analog to this in the video game world would probably be the iconography used in such games as RTSes or MMOs, which rely heavily on complex user interfaces filled with different icons players have to be able to identify and understand at a glance. However, there is still a major emphasis on having to read or be told lengthy explanations of how to use the interface, with no quick and easy way to be reminded of what they do without cracking open a book worth of help text. The closest to actually iconographically explaining mechanics would probably be fighting games, which these days has training modes that let you see each character's full moveset.

  • Combat
          MK has an interesting combat system that simplifies and streamlines combat considerably, but without dumbing down the overall experience. When you attack a monster, there are three phases. First is the Range Attack Phase, where you may play any Ranged or Siege** attack cards or abilities. If you have enough points to equal or exceed the monster's defense, they are dead and you can claim your reward. If not, you enter the Blocking and Damage Allocation phase, where the monster gets to hit you, and you must either play a number of block points equal to the strength of the attack, or take wounds, allocating them to your hand or to one of your units. Finally, you enter your normal Attack phase, where you can play any type of attack to kill the monster (if you can).

          **Identical to Ranged, except it can be used against Fortified opponents, which Ranged cannot.

          This system is interesting for a couple reasons. First, it is deterministic, rather than being based on any kind of dice roll. If you have the right cards, you will be able to kill a monster. No critical hits or percent chances of getting a wedgie. This makes combat feel much more like a chess move than a bet placed on a roulette table. I mention in my previous post how I feel the best way to create the thrill of skill-based play is to make in-game actions be based on the player's choices and actions, not the random calculations of the computer, and I think this accomplishes that quite nicely. Second, it is fast and easy to get through without sacrificing it's depth or strategic potential.

          The streamlined nature of combat makes a lot of sense for a board game, as unlike in a video game the players are responsible for all the number crunching. It also makes sense from a game pacing perspective. Video games with complex combat systems generally have either a turn-based combat system, or feature encounters with only a few opponents. This makes it so the player can easily see when their dismembering, or stun attacks, or parrying, etc are making a difference, and the added realism makes for a compelling fight. Perhaps the best old-school example of this is the combat system of Prince of Persia 3D, which featured vertical attacks, left and right horizontal attacks, as well as the ability to feint, parry, or block as you saw fit.

          Cool mechanics and such may be cool in a game with a few opponents, but if you are mowing down waves of dozens or even hundreds of enemies in a game like Dynasty Warriors, it can quickly become chaotic. Not only does it pose a risk of confusing the player, but it could also very well just be completely ignored, given the pacing of the combat.

  • Character Advancement
         Each time a player gains enough Fame to level up, they will either gain a new command token or gain an Advanced Action card (and new skill), alternating between the two each level. Gaining a command token raises your unit allowance by one and will increase your defense, hand size, or both. It is a nice, incremental bonus that gives you just a little more power.

         Gaining new Advanced Action card is a bit more dramatic. Most advanced action cards give you great benefits, and are sometimes powerful enough to really change the course of a whole turn. Yet for all their power, in the grand scheme of things they actually don't affect the game as dramatically as you may think. Rather than giving players a power to call upon at any moment, players are given a new ability that must be carefully and wisely used during the game round. This creates more punctuated moments of power, making the player feel stronger without dramatically effecting the balance of the game. It is more like improving your critical hit chance than your base damage.

          The new cards are further balanced, paradoxically, by how powerful they actually are. Because they can have such a dramatic effect on your turn, they have to be used very carefully. Many can be made even more potent if played at the right moment, making its use a very careful consideration for the player. They are powerful enough to be consistently useful, but not so useful that they become a "no brainer" ability.

         One could compare this system to the ability system of Battlehearts, where you gain new abilities every couple levels, but those abilities tend to have significant cooldowns. There is a decent variety between abilities that are "no brainers" that you want to use at every possible opportunity, and situational abilities that can be dramatically more powerful at the right moment. This is to be expected, of course, given the large market the game is targeting.

         Skyrim, on the other hand, went about this wrong, and it is one of the big reasons why I lost interest in the game after a while. There are really no situational spells or abilities in the game to speak of. All of them are useful and with the right specializations can be freely and arbitrarily chosen on a whim. The elemental system of ice being effective against warriors, lightning against mages, and fire against everybody goes a little way toward alleviating this, but not far enough.

         The result is that battles have very little in the way of true strategy or tactics, and your choice of what kind of spells to hurl at your opponent or weapons to use are pretty much purely arbitrary, with no clear reason to favor one over the other outside of personal preference. Again, this make sense if you are appealing to the casual crowd who perhaps isn't a Rhodes Scholar in the Art of War, but it needlessly sacrifices some satisfaction to your more hardcore players.

  • Variant Rules
         Finally, I would say one of the best features of the game is the fact that there are so many different ways to play. Contained in the rulebook are numerous variant rules and scenarios which let you tailor your experience to the preference of your players. Do you want to play a tooth-and-nail competitive brawlfest for the conquest of the continent? Or are you in a more touchy-feely mood and would rather play a cooperative game? Hate everyone and want to just play by yourself? Or are you and your buddies a bunch of stoned druids that think that wandering around the forest and summoning dragons to fight is a great way to pass the time? (see the "Druid Nights" scenario on page 17 of the Rulebook).  All of these options are welcome and embraced.

         In all honesty, I can only speculate on this chicken-or-the-egg conundrum of whether video games or board games started offering different modes for different players first. I am inclined to say board games, since we have had complex tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer 40k stretching back to the 70s and 80s respectively. But who knows?

         Regardless, the benefits of offering many modes and variants makes the game much for appealing to a bigger audience of gamers, both in terms of their tastes, the amount of friends they have available, how much time they have, or how much of a challenge they want to take on. Video games have only started to scratch the surface of the potential of offering such diverse choices.

Banding together with our Board Game Brethren!

     Sure, great board games like this one may not pull in the money or have the name recognition of video games, but ignoring them would be a big mistake in my opinion. There remains a vast treasure trove of great design decisions and discoveries and concepts borne out of board games that most video games today have not even considered.

     To me, good game design is good game design, whether it is on a table, TV, or computer screen. I hope that in some small way I can help bring more attention to great board games out there and foster a greater bond of mutual collaboration between the board game and video game industries. There is much we can learn from eachother, and even more to gain from it.

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