Balance and Affordances: Designer Notes 4

Hey y’all! We had a blast at Wiscon, Visby’s local gaming convention last weekend! With some fresh tester blood, we realized we needed further tuning to our Bandit starter deck, and got some really useful data for what kinds of new neutral cards would make a good fit to buff out our base game. Let’s take these items in some semblance of order.

The Bandit Starter Deck Needs Tweaking

One of the first things I started noticing during the three days we were at Wiscon was that new players were almost always losing to the Bandit starter deck. Even when a new player would lose to the Bandit deck, swap decks with their match mate, and play again, the Bandit deck would still win. This means even with the opponent knowing what was in the deck and how to win with it against the Templar deck, the Templar player was still losing. This was a problem to me, as it happened to every single new player during Wiscon. Sometimes multiple times in a row.

After discussing with Van, the Lead Designer, we quickly identified some key facts complicating this issue. The Bandit deck is not over-powered. In fact, if both players play “correctly,” ie using build order to its fullest and playing the right counters at the right time, the Bandit starter deck cannot win against the Templar starter deck. I know this is true because we tested it amongst the dev team multiple times. We tweaked some cards and variables and still the Templar starter can beat the Bandit starter every single time.

So why wasn’t this happening among new players? Even if they played rematches or swapped decks?

Some more observations were made. New players tend to play the game with very passive, economic starters. They’d usually open with a Gold Mine. And then build another Gold Mine on their next turn, followed by a defensive Fortification. Sometimes even a third goldmine! Now, the hyper-aggressive Templar starter deck is not designed for passive play (trust me, I was part of the inspiration for it!). The gold-thieving Bandit deck, with its dual Highwayman’s Hideouts, isn’t meant for passive play either.. but benefits from such a starter, particularly the opponent doing such a starter, far more than the Templar deck does. So what was happening was players weren’t utilizing the Templar deck as it was meant to be. They never found out the Templar deck was a trump to the Bandit deck because they didn’t seem to change their strategy. Why was this happening?

Affordances.

In game design terminology, an Affordance is using non-verbal, non-explicit indicators to suggest actions to your players. Gamasutra describes affordance as “the quality of an object that communicates a way to use it.” Extra Credits did a great video explaining the details of this powerful design tool:

Basically what Ponyus and the team deduced was State of Wonder’s affordances were suggesting players play that goldmine, build a wall to defend it. We attribute this first of all to the existence of gold mines in the starter decks, our visual and gameplay parallels to Age of Empires, the experience of many card players with lands/mana in MTG, the importance of early game economy in RTSes, and the structural set-up of three rows of card placement in our game: your city state, your fortifications, and the front line. I feel that there is a compounding of learned and suggested indicators tricking players of State of Wonder into thinking they should build gold mines, then a wall around them, and then units.

The fact of the matter is that only after your fourth turn after playing a gold mine have you gone plus in gold. They cost three, so it takes you three turns to just break even. At the start of your fourth turn you have gone plus one gold. That is a lot of dead time for very little effect – at least for these two starter decks.

So at this point in discussion we’d identified a couple likely reasons for this phenomenon during Wiscon, but we still had two problems:

  1. The Bandit Starter Deck was actually underpowered
  2. But new players kept losing to it.

We couldn’t just buff the Templar deck – remember, it was actually a complete ace in the hole and the Bandit starter could not win against it if played to its potential.

We needed to improve the Bandit deck so it was viable against the Templar deck for experienced players – but at the same time help new players not lose repeatedly to the Bandit deck. Balance is a complex issue, my friends!

Van and Kuri had the same suggestions for tweaking the Bandit starter: firstly, paring down the two Highwayman’s Hangouts to just one, and removed the Rough Riders from the deck. This would prevent new players from being rushed or locked down as easily. We replaced the cards with Footmen, Mauraders and Garrisons.  This change actually worked with a new player as soon as we tested it – he won with the Templar deck facing the augmented Bandit deck. This change was also intended to make the deck more viable against the Templars for experienced play, placing two Garrisons with the ability to spring 1/3 Veterans if besieged. But the Bandit deck still would need a powerful 2-cost card to make it more of a force to be reckoned with for those savvy in the ways of combat and build-order.

Why don’t you just remove the gold mines from the Templar starter deck?

A few reasons. Firstly, our basic design of the starter decks utilizes a structure that combines secure income cards with uncertain income cards. It’s true that the Templars should never really have to rely on a goldmine to secure a win. However, Van raised an interesting point. The Templar starter deck demands players really have a tight grip on combat. Morseso than the other starters, it’s what will win or lose them a match. Van liked this aspect of the deck: making players learn the finer points of build order and combat, rather than having us as designers really force their hand, “preventing” them from making any build order mistakes at all. We don’t want to mislead players – but we don’t want the game to prevent them from making any wrong calls entirely.

And it’s not necessarily always wrong to build a gold mine as a Templar player. It really depends on circumstance – it just may not be the best opener against the Bandit starter.

Another reason is the deck-building component of State of Wonder. We want players to go over to our stacks of cards on the adjacent table and build themselves a new deck, or tweak the starter. We had great success with this during our own local playtesting session at the university: seeing new players go off after a match and build a custom deck, play a rematch, then return to tweak their deck some more is a great pleasure to us as designers.

So what did you do about those Affordances?

This is a bit of a tricky one, since a large portion of this we feel comes from a player’s learning history with other games. Not to mention, as Van pointed out to me, losing with the Templar starter deck is sort of part of the learning curve – that ah ha! moment, where the new player realizes they’re actually sitting on a bomb, and now that they’ve gotten down combat and build order, they can paste the deck that had been defeating them six ways to Sunday? We do want that.

But we are still keeping our potentially misleading Affordances in mind. It’s not an issue that can be hot-patched away.

What’s next?

We’ve got a long list of new cards posited by Lead Van, and I’m really eager to start testing them tomorrow. Duelists, Hedge Knights, Spiked Moats, Standard Bearers – the list goes on, and even a new keyword: Worker, a unit that can fight or defend.. or be exhausted to drop the cost of the next building or fortification constructed.

Stay tuned for our next blog post to hear more about these new cards, and how they pan out in testing!

/Exa

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