Lorc Blog

A public dumping ground for words and pictures. Contact me at ThomasTamblyn@Gmail.com

Sunday 7 July 2024

 Obviously I've not posted on here in a while.

If you want to see what I've been up to lately, check out my itch page where I've been posting RPG stuff. Notably What Big Teeth, my game of minimum wage werewolves.

What Big Teeth

Friday 28 November 2014

Resource systems in card games

I want to talk about resource systems in card games. I apologise that there are no pictures. When I say "card games" I mean games like Magic and all its spinoffs and clones. I'd call the genre CCGs except there's no reason they have to be collectible and no reason collectible games have to work like this.

For my purposes I’m going to define a genre like so: “Having a hand of unique cards that you pay costs to play.”

The traditional system is that on turn N you can spend up to N energy. Next turn you will have N+1 energy to spend. Most games tweak how exactly your N rises turn to turn (in Magic you play lands, in other games you play cards face-down as resources, in still others it goes up automatically) but the fundamentals are consistent. And anything so uniform across so many games is very successful; functional and robust but also boring. This is a challenge.

General features of the genre:* Having some cards stronger than others is fun and cost is a good balancing factor for that.

* Keeping the early game simple is fun.
* Ramping up to play expensive cards is fun.
* Drawing cheap cards late-game is annoying.
* Making a deck with the correct ratio of cheap to expensive cards is far more important than it is fun.
* Successful games find ways to work around those issues, usually with card mechanics.

Interesting exceptions:
An outlier I enjoy is Fluxx. The rules of Fluxx are “on your turn, draw a card then play a card”. All cards have the same cost – one play. And some of the cards you play will increase the number of plays that can be made on subsequent turns.

Epic was a short-lived magic-clone with one interesting feature: Like Fluxx you played one card per turn; any card. There were also some cards with lesser effects that didn’t cost a play. That was interesting.

What I like about those two games’ model is a hand of any random cards is always playable. There are duff hands, but none that leave you unable to play the game.

Resource systems:
I have some mechanics that I think would make resource systems for a “hand of cards with costs” game.

Debt system:
By default you have 1 energy on your turn. You spend energy to pay cards’ costs. Your turn ends when you have no energy left to spend. However you are allowed to overspend and go into debt (this will always be the last play of your turn as it leaves you with no energy left). Any debt is given to the next player as free energy.

So, if you have 1 energy and play a 6-cost card, your turn ends and the next player starts with 5 extra energy.

* Maddeningly difficult to explain concisely.
* Difficult to track energy in play (counters that go back into a shared pool? Player positions on a wheel?)
* For more than two players, it needs to be played all-against-all with no alliances.
* Not as much sense of escalation when you can play anything on turn 1. I have thoughts on this, but I won’t ramble.

Charge meter system:
Cards have two modes, free and charged. You play one card per turn. When you play a card for free, after it’s done its thing it becomes a charge in your charge meter – a row of cards in front of you. You spend charges in order to play a card in its charged state, which has a bigger effect than when it is played for free. For example, a card might let you draw 1 if you play it for free, or draw 2 if you spend a charge to play it.

In this way, you never have enough resources to play everything in its charged state, and it requires a lot of decision-making.

I think there would be colours of card, and cards would usually require charges of the same colour. There could also be cards that have no effect when played for free, but add special effects when spent as a charge. Eg: a creature paid for with this charge comes into play larger.

“Creatures” and other cards that stay in play would only go into your charge meter when destroyed. Or perhaps you can spend them from play? This system has a lot of room for fiddling. Too much to cover over all the possibilities. But I’m excited by it.

Quite a few games have tried putting two effects on each card, but I’ve never seen it pulled off convincingly – usually the minor/secondary effect feels stapled on and unrelated to the flavour of the card. I hope that this system makes them closely related enough to feel natural.

Yin & Yang:
Every card has two modes, a yin and a yang mode. Each turn you play exactly two cards, but one must be the yin mode and the other in the yang mode. This gives you a large number of potential plays even with a small hand of cards, and every play has trade-offs.

There’s a few ways you could take this. If the yin mode was always a small effect, and the yang mode a major one then it would play out like a simpler, faster version of the charge meter. But I think it would be more interesting if they were roughly equal in impact, but different in type. For example:

Give/take –Give something to the opponent vs gives something to you.
Help/hurt – Helps you vs hurts an opponent.
Macro/micro – Improves your resources vs affects the board directly.
Fire/ice – Speeds the game up vs slows it down.
Reap/sow – Harvest crops vs plant new ones.

I like all these systems really. Just need an interesting board system for them to manipulate. The charge meter’s decision-heavy enough that it could make the start of an engine-building game

Sunday 16 March 2014

Drawing generic cards was fun

The CCG model of selling randomised booster packs of cards with some common and others rare is an exploitative one. Its exists to bleed money from you, creates competitive spending amongst friends, is poisonous to game balance and turns buying a game into an extended gambling session. If the game blossoms it creates predatory secondary markets and if it folds you’re left holding half a game that nobody plays.

I take all that for granted. It’s all true, but it’s old ground. What’s interesting to me is all the incidental positive features the booster pack model has.

Ease of stocking.

Random blind packs is a great way to distribute a large set of cards from the point of view of the shop.  There’s no danger of people cherry-picking the desirable packs and leaving them with half a box of shite they can’t move. It’s easy to order in and keep in stock. They’re priced low enough to be impulse buys, but big spenders will also buy them in bulk. And anything this good for the shop is good for the consumer that wants to be able to buy their cards somewhere.

Hiding complexity.

Specialised cards that only work in very specific decks, or deceptively strong cards with big drawbacks are fun, but you don’t want them in every deck. The common/rare model allows you to put your simple and versatile cards at common, and your weird stuff at rare. This ensures that people don’t end up with a collection of theoretically powerful cards but unable to build a playable deck.

(Yes, I know they also hide the most powerful simple cards at rare, but I’m concentrating on the positives, remember?).

No information overload.

A set of CCG cards can easily contain over a hundred playable cards, even after you discount the unplayably bad ones. That’s a lot to take in at once. Exposing people to a booster pack’s worth at a time lets you ease them in without scaring them off.

And duplicate commons mean that the amount of extra information you’re exposed to with each pack falls off, while at the same time the rare slot makes sure that at least one card in the pack might still be new to you.

Lowers barrier to entry.

To someone with a decent collection, the commons are worthless – they buy the booster for the rare, and maybe the uncommons. The business knows this and has priced the packs accordingly. The price is based on game value per pack, not just the number of pieces of cardboard. The commons are filler.

But to someone just starting in the game, every card is new and playable. Commons, even crappy ones, are freebies that fill up an otherwise empty deck slot so that they can get playing as soon as possible, even if their decks are a bit duff. New players get more value from each pack than experienced ones, allowing them to buy-in at a bargain price.

Duplicate commons also mean that the more you spend, the less value you get for your money. This monetises your biggest fans and makes sure that they spend ten times as much as the casual player, rather than just 2-3 times as much. Clever. Sleazy, but clever. On the other hand, experienced players with boxes of duplicate cards tend to donate them to new players to help them into the game. Which is nice.

Drafting/sealed deck (aka Limited).

These are a way to play that takes advantage of random boosters. They limit the card pool to a number of unopened boosters and test your ability to make a deck using a limited collection of uneven cards. And they’re really, really fun. And a huge skill-tester. The people who are good at limited play are much, much, much better than the people who are bad at it.

And it’s not like you just throw the cards away after you’re done with them. It’s a way to get extra play out of your purchases. In fact, some players like limited so much that they don’t even play the “real” game – they sell their cards on to pay for more unopened packs.

Limited play is a big enough deal that the makers of Magic: The Gathering design their sets around it. And if you’re really into the game, this can almost justify random packs as something other than a money-spinner. It adds that much play value, and it’s not an experience you can get anywhere else (deck builders like Dominion are inspired by drafting, but don’t scratch the same itch).

(But Limited is also a game that you have to pay to play *per play*. Ouch. Unless you play cube draft…)

There’s other pluses too, like how surprises are intrinsically fun, and randomisation encourages trading which builds community. But those are more obvious and so not as interesting to me.


 In my head the question is how you might use these good points without the exploitative business model. (I’m aware of living card games, where packs aren’t randomised and you expand your collection with honest, simple purchases. But I’m specifically talking about the randomised booster model, not customisable deck card games in general.)

The only thing I reckon justifies the random booster model is that without it some damn fine games wouldn’t be profitable enough to exist. But then there’s also shitty games that can coast on how profitable a CCG can be so flip a coin, omelettes and eggs.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Pagemages and Boozehorns

These were me getting back in the saddle after a while away. They started with the pose, pulling something out of a book. The scarf was to add a little character beyond generic wizardliness. The robes are lazy I confess. I too often go with shapeless full-length robes, but I think the shading here gives them a bit more definition. I feel good about those creases. They're not great, but my first effort was so much worse. And I feel I've imrpvoed from recognising the problems and fixing them.

I'm sticking with doing vector colouring/shading, and I made the linework for these with that in mind. So I knew I'd be putting a coloured pattern on the scarves, and that I could demarcate #1 and #2's hair without needing to blackline it. Which is new. I used the "spare" lines left in the budget to put a little more expression on their faces. Not sure about that. I wonder if it would be better to do it on the shading layer. I think it's only a matter of time before I give up on the no-mouth line-eyes look. Style erosion.

The unlined spell effects are also new and I can see myself doing a lot more things along those lines. For these guys I deliberately avoided any sort of elemental theming. #1 has flames, yes, but they're blue so they're passable as a generic magical effect.

Next there's these satyr things. I had something else in mind while sketching, but the drunken faun is far more interesting to me. Very fond of the various boozes and goat-beards. The horns were an enormous pain in the arse. One of the downsides of vector colouring - that horn texture would have been much easier in photoshop.

I think these satyrs are knights who have gone questing into the woods and been cursed for their unchivalric vices. In this case, the knights were drunkards. I could easily conceive of gluttonous pig-monsters and maybe slothful bear-men?

These cursed knights would fill a good niche in the theoretical game these are never going to be used for. I didn't feel like the forest witches were actually evil. Cursed monsters gives you something you can feel good about fighting, also making the witches more of a credible menace without making them evil.

Saturday 7 December 2013


Super-units in RTS games. They're tricky.

The units with strange or unique abilities/roles like super-artillery or cloaking fields or missile defence are fine. But the generic megabot that's just big and tough and covered in guns is problematic. Lovely idea. Giant stompy robot crushing lesser vehicles under foot. Spectacular. The questions is what function do they serve that an equivalent amount of regular units doesn't? Why build them?

The thor in Starcraft 2 is a lovely example of this problem. A large, impressive super-heavy mech. Like most megabots its primary function is looking impressive. The thor was big, tough and dealt high damage to ground and air targets. But they didn't do much that a bunch of marines couldn't do just as well.

In Supreme Commander 1&2, gameplay niche matters much less. But in general, the megabot units are a more concentrated way to deploy your resources. The megabots are so big and so powerful that an equivalent army of basic units can't be concentrated in a small enough area to be effective.

In the vanilla RTS paradigm units don't perform worse when damaged, so a megabot at 50% health is much stronger than an army with 50% of its units gone. And conversely, you can attack or defend with half an army of tanks, while a megabot that's only 50% constructed is worthless. (Supcom2's "launch half-baked" option excepted). But these differences aren't exactly tactically rich.

So I was thinking about this and I had a weird idea. What if megabots were cheaper than an equivalent army of tanks? Costing maybe half as much as the amount of tanks it would take to kill them.

But taking much longer to build. Really long. That way the megabot's strategic importance isn't what it can do in combat, it's what it requires economically. It requires a different resource to regular units - time rather than money.

So a megabot is an investment, or maybe a gamble. You're accepting a loss of resources with the promise of a massive payoff if you can survive. If other players can scout the in-progress megabot, then it becomes a strategic objective with a tim-limit.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

I think about games a lot.
Bioshock Infinite is much more linear than any of its predecessors. The flow reminds me of Half Life 2 more than any prior *Shock game and I wonder if it might have been a better game if they'd gone all the way. But they didn't.

Later in the game there's a few more explorable hub areas, but even then there's a ghost-town feel if you go somewhere before the plot needs you to. It's a little jarring after being otherwise rewarded for exploring every nook and alley.

Anyway. There's a trick they use to disguise the linearity that's quite interesting. It's this layout:

When you leave an area, you'll often find that the corridor forks into two, both of which have a sharp corner that prevents you from seeing down them. But if you backtrack after following one to try the other, you'll find that both corridors go to the same area. 

It's a truism than non-linearity usually equals skipped content. By keeping these corridor sections short, they minimise wasted level design. But by knowing that there's a corridor you could have gone down but didn't, it makes you feel like progress is down to your own choices.

Except that The Wizard trains you to look behind the curtain. Bioshock Infinite consistently rewards you for exploring with tangible in-game rewards, and offers no benefit for pushing ahead quickly. The same trained behaviours that give you delicious voxaphones, unstable tonics and loot, also reveal the illusion of your choice. And it was a bit frustrating every time I fell for it, going back and expecting a new area to explore/pillage and finding nothing but a switchback.

And it's interesting to me how a clever technique to make the levels feel more open, clashes with the way the game encourages you to play. 

It's more successful when the areas look like this:
It's almost the same trick - whichever way you go you'll reach where you need to be - but on a much larger scale. The corridors are long enough to be interesting, and exploring the alternative route will have enough action to be rewarding. These areas are also large enough that the circular layouts don't feel like corridors. And when they're used as hubs, with different exits unlocking one by one, you might be approaching the action from a different direction each time, which wrings more mileage from the same scenery.

Another game is Darksiders 2. It has a lot of mini boss fights. There's a small cutscene where a giant monster makes a dramatic entrance and then you have to murder them. But it does something clever.

Sometimes you'll get the little cutscene and slay the giant undead scarab hulk or whatever, but then two more of the same monster jump down, sometimes with minions. Holy crap - the game just served you up one as if it were a boss, and now you need to take on *two*? And it makes you feel like a badass when you win. It does this a lot, but it always feels good. 

Of course they're not bosses, they're just a new monster type that then gets added to the normal rotation. But what a way to introduce them! Great showmanship. 

And clever too. The first fight is exciting because of the uncertainty - you don't know what this monster can do. It's also a teaching aid that allows you to learn its attack patterns in a simple one-on-one fight. The followup monsters require you use those skills in a more dangerous and complex situation.

Like the *Shocks, the Darksiders games also reward you for compulsively exploring every corner. It's the Zelda thing where there's collectibles everywhere if you look for them. And finding collectibles is fun, but as a completionist I find myself compulsively looking behind me after every doorway, and carefully inspecting the ceiling of every room. Which is slow and not enormously fun.

Here's a thing:
The game is more fun to play when I'm not actively looking for shinies. And when I *do* find a shiny, it's more exciting when I haven't been compulsively checking every square inch. Obviously that would be the most fun way for me to play, except for the gnawing anxiety about missing shinies. And that's interesting to me.

Compare it with Minecraft. I get that same thrill when I see an emerald or diamond block. The layout of caves usually prevents 100% exploration - there comes a point where it's more efficient to find a new cave to explore. But I don't get that horrible feeling that there's diamonds left unmined. I feel no urge to strip-mine the map chunk-by-chunk down to bedrock. Why is it different?

I suspect that it's because Darksiders/Zelda/Bioshock are finite. I know that if I miss a voice recording or health upgrade, that's something lost to me forever. The game will end and I won't have gotten full value out of it. In Minecraft I know there's always going to be more diamonds in the next cave, so there's no stress. It's impossible to complete a collection so I feel no urge to try. It feels so liberating.

Of course the problem is one that exists inside my head. I couldn't argue in good faith that one way is better than another (or even perfectly analogous). But it's fun to examine these things.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Icon style guide

I've made a lot of icons, and I've tried to keep them to a particular style. That's a little pretentious - my style is a crutch to hide a lack of ability. Still, it's hard to draw over 1600 little pictures without getting better at making them, and so I've suffered quality-creep. The ones I make now are often more illustrative and less symbolic. I include details that, back in the first hundred, I might have abstracted.
  Every good icon I make makes its predecessors look worse, and as I get better I'm making more better icons. 

Still, there's some consistency. From the start I developed a set of unwritten rules about how my icons should look. There's a few exceptions, but they're almost all due to oversight or moral weakness.

White on black
Everything is white shapes on a black background. If I want to do something in black, outline it in white, or put it over a white shape. When actually using the icons for something I can invert them if necessary, but for consistency when browsing the base icons, they're all white on black.

Sharp black and white only
It seemed silly to bother with colour permutations (red heart on black background, black heart on yellow background…) for the icons when that's so easily accomplished in a paint program. I can colour, paint over, use as masks on a gradient or anything else. The simplest possible base icons enables the greatest freedom when using them.
This is why I'm always a little annoyed to see them used as-is; just white shapes on black squares. They were never meant as ready-to-use icons. They're stencils.

Nothing touches the edge of the frame. There's an invisible 1pt no-go zone. Again, this is just for consistency amongst the base icons and ensures I have some bleed when I cut out the icon to use elsewhere.

Fill the frame
The icons are always as large as I can get them within the frame. They'd be much less useful as a set if they were all drawn to different scales. If I need a small heart (for example) I can just scale down a large one. If I really wanted a small heart icon I'd give it some kind of framing detail.

Left to right
Consistency. If an icon has a direction, it's going left to right. Up vs down is more flexible, but when it's isn't common sense I tend towards top-to-bottom.

No lexical symbols
These are meant to be illustrative. No letters, numbers, currency symbols or overly specific symbols. If I needed a letter or a number, I could raster it from a typeface. And if I do one digit I should probably do all of them. Likewise letters. Hash marks are illustrative enough that they feel ok. There's an omega too.
Not too specific
I don't want twenty different flavours of axe. If I need a specific icon for a specific variety of thing, I can make it to suit. One or two axe icons will fit most needs. And the icons are supposed to be symbolicaly illustrative rather than perfectly specific anyway.
I've bent this one a lot, but I ration myself. There's a lot of different swords and botles for example, but I only do them every now and then so they don't take up too great a fraction of the total. And I try and make sure they're all sufficiently different from each other to be worthwhile. I'm not interested in doing ten different helmets with only slight differences.
I suppose this one includes other people's trademarks and logos too. No Samus helmet, no buster sword and so on. For several obvious reasons.

Not too abstract
Counterpart to the previous rule. If I need a circle I'll draw a circle. Likewise an arrow, a diamond or other simple geometric shapes. The icons are meant to be illustrative and there's a point at which a shape is too simple to illustrate anything. I've done a few miscellaneous weird shapes, which could be glyphs, thingamabobs or jewellery. The problem is that they're so easy to do I could easily churn out a hundred of them. But even if they're pretty, they're meaningless. There's not much difference between having a half dozen available and having a hundred. They're not challenging to make and usually a waste of time, so I don't let myself do many.

Definition and resolution
This is the most important one and the biggest pain in the arse. There's a minimum line width of 1pt. And that includes negative space - two separate white shapes need to have a 1 pt separation between them. This is my minimum "resolution" for detail. No bumps smaller than 1pt, no shapes smaller than that.
There's necessarily a little leeway where two shapes come together to a point, but I stick to this rule hard as I can. It puts a hard limit on the level of detail I can put in and keeps things consistent.

Line standards
Lines get squared-off ends. If the icon really needs it they might get a taper. But usually not. And no taking the piss either - If there's a taper then it should be a short taper. Sometimes there's a drawn element that is only the width of a line, and then I might round off or taper the ends but, again, usually not.

By the way 
The coloured icons in this post are just sloppy five-minute jobs to make a point.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Game concept braindump

Simple three-player game. Each player secretly picks a number from one to three, then all are revealed at the same time. Each player who picked a number that nobody else picked gains that many points. Everyone else gets nothing. First to 7 points wins. Would probably work with 4 players too.

Thinking about a modular roguelike that is expanded by people playing it, which isn't new by any means. Maybe some kind of "deck-building" game where you're a summoner building up a synnergistic horde of minions from prefixes, suffixes and modifiers that you gain as you progress through the dungeon. If you reach the end of the game, then your "deck" becomes a blueprint for a dungeon floor. ie: come up with a good ice "deck" and maybe the next player will have to travel through an ice level populated with those monsters.

Or maybe the visuals are the customisable part? Make a card game ala magic that starts out with all the cards blank, but players get to draw their own art as they play, slowly collaboratively illustrating the game. After playing a round you're presented with 3 different illustrations for the same card and you vote for your favourite. The exact voting mechanism will be a bitch to design, but it's one hell of a gimmick that is sure to garner public attention from game sites.

Inspired by Star Guard, a 2d scrolling shooter where you die in one hit but have infinite lives. A meatgrinder of a war where wave after wave of disposable soldiers with increasingly outrageous prototype guns are sent to the front lines in desperation.  Each life is a new soldier and carries a new experimental gun. You are given brief uninformative instructions on your weapon when you spawn. Some will be useless in the situation where you are, others will be overpowered, others will be suicidal. Short bursts of discovery and fun, where every failure is a new opportunity. Grenades that bounce unpredictably. A fantastic plasma gun that kills you if it overheats. A super-rocket that only has one shot, leaving you unarmed afterwards. A boomerang gun whose shots you DO NOT want to catch. A nuclear grenade launcher whose blast radius is greater than its maximum range. All mixed in with varied but more mundane weapons.