Thursday, February 19, 2015

Design Lessons from Star Realms

I recently purchased the Humble Card Game Bundle (one of the coolest Humble Bundles in ages) and had immense amounts of fun with it. Mojang's non-minecraft game Scrolls, Magic 2015 and SolForge are all great fun for fans of card battlers (real card battlers, not the Rage of Bahamut inspired super casual crapware that's so common these days). 

But the game I'm addicted to right now is the fantastic Star Realms, a digital adaptation of the physical deck-building game from White Wizard Games.

Star Realms is available for free on iOS and Android.
It's a space-combat version of the familiar Dominion mechanic. I won't spend time discussing the basics of the game here. If you want to know more, there are excellent reviews here, here and here [video]. 

I'm more interested in examining the design elements,including some specific to the digital game, to try and understand what makes the damn thing so accessibe, compelling and addictive.

1. Simple to understand

You'll take five minutes to understand the game and start playing ( the digital version has an excellent tutorial to put you through your paces) . And well after a 100 games, you'll still be evaluating new strategies and tactics. This is what makes Dominion a gold standard, and Star Realms succeeds spectacularly in using the old design principle of "simple to learn, difficult to master" to create compelling gameplay.

Let's look at the core rules in Star Realms : 

  1. You draw exactly five cards from your deck and play them every turn. Every card you play gives you trade, combat or hit points.
  2. Trade is used to buy better cards to put in your deck and play in subsequent hands.
  3. Combat is used to attack your opponent and damage his hit points. Bring his HP down to zero and you win.
That's all you need to know to start playing the game.  It's even simpler than Dominion - which has limits on actions and buy per turn. In Star Realms, if you draw the card in your hand, you can play it. No further rules.

Simple, clear instructions on each card explain the effects of playing it

But what makes things interesting is the "faction"system. Most cards belong to one of the game's four factions (colour coded yellow, green, red and blue). Playing two or more of these faction cards together triggers additional abilities on the cards - giving you additional trade, combat or HP, allowing you to draw more cards, forcing your opponent to discard cards, acquire cards without paying costs and so on. Some cards are "bases"which stay on the board when played, providing the player persistent effects until destroyed by the opponent.

That's pretty much it.

By adding a few interesting interactions between cards using very few simple rules, the game delivers enjoyable emergent gameplay of great depth and complexity.

2. Simple choices with complex consequences

Every single turn of Star Realms proves Sid Meier's most famous quote right. When you're playing Star Realms, you're always thinking something like : 

  • Should I buy the most powerful card available or one that aligns with my existing factions ?
  • Should I attack my opponent or his base?
  • Should I scrap this card for a short term benefit or keep it to strengthen my deck ?
The simplicity of the rules ensure that the player is always focused on the decisions that feed into her strategy or tactics. Instead of worrying about figuring out complex interactions or obscure rules, the player's attention is always on simple choices which have complex consequences.

This also ensures that the players feel in control, that their choices matter. And delivers the critical freedom to the players to attribute it to skill when they win, and bad luck when they lose.

2. Clarity of information

Specific to the digital version - Star Realms has almost no hidden information. At any state in the game, you can clearly see

  • Your deck
  • Your hand
  • Your discard pile
  • Your bases
  • Your hit points
  • Your opponent's deck and hand
  • Your opponent's discard pike
  • Your opponent's bases
  • Your opponent's hit points
The only hidden information is what exact cards are there in your opponent's hand and which ones are left in the deck - and even this becomes easy to guess when there are very few cards left in the draw pile.

You can look through the cards your opponent has at any time.

Being able to see your opponent's build is something I've never seen in any card game before - and it has some very interesting effects on the gameplay. Because you know exactly what cards are in your opponent's deck, Star Realms becomes almost chess-like in it's strategic play. You are always seeing what your opponent is doing and responding strategically. Opponent stocking up on Machine Cult cards? Will you respond with a Blob rush or play defensive with Trade Federation and heavy bases ?

The whole idea of making all the information about the game state clearly visible to the player gives the player a strong sense of ownership over the outcome, and a much larger sense of satisfaction when victory comes.

However, there is enough that is down to luck : 

1. In what order cards from both players'decks are drawn into the hand.
2. Which cards become available to buy each turn
3. What choices your opponent makes.

Contrast this with Dominion, where all cards are always available to buy at all times - thus removing one element of randomness - making the game deeper strategically, but a little less fun tactically and less approachable overall.

So there is just enough randomness in Star Realms that I can attribute it to luck when I fail. This is absolutely critical - one of my favourite principles of game design is making the player attribute victory to skill and defeat to bad luck. Star Realms nails this.

3. Simple but effective UI feedback

Another design rule I often harp on is the "make the most frequently performed action feel juicy (Huzaifa Arab takes a pepsi-shot) and fun" chestnut.

And Star Realms actually is a superb demonstration of what to focus on to get this right. It isn't a superbly polished game like Hearthstone or Magic The Gathering, but it does a few simple things when you perform the basic action of "playing a card":

  1. Clearly indicate, with colour coded floating text, whatever resource (and how much of it) you got for playing the card - combat, trade or authority (hit points).
  2. Play a short sound for each resource type - trade has a satisfying "coin"sound, combat has a sharp laser blast and authority has some appropriate space blip.

Floating text and sound effects give the player great, clear feedback without being too fancy.

These two simple effects combine to do two things : 

  1. Even playing a fairly useless card like a Scout or Viper gives you at least SOME positive feedback.
  2. The act of playing monster card combos is doubly satisfying as the text and sounds combine into a deeply rewarding audio-visual cacophony that usually means a butt-kicking for your opponent.
There are also other touches - hitting your opponent for damage plays an explosion sound, but hitting him for more than 10 points in one turn plays a more explosive sound that lingers on for a few seconds, making it more enjoyable and rubs it in a little.

It's important to note that none of these effects individually are really very polished or exceptional in any way. But they're effective nevertheless - evoking the right emotions in the player even without offering any significant aesthetic value.

Design lesson - instead of obsessing purely about how your game looks, focus on whether the player is experiencing the right emotions frequently enough.

4. Short play time

The simplicity of the design and the elegance of the game's balancing ensures that the typical game is nice and short - typically lasting no more than 25 - 35 minutes for a 2 player game. And that includes time for thinking, and pauses between asynchronous turns.

Thanks to the simple, clear rules and uncluttered UI, the majority of the time is also spent thinking about strategy and then quickly executing your hand. No fumbling around in the UI or breaking your head over complicated rules.

Just fast paced, crisp turn based gameplay. So there's always time for one more quick game.

If you're at all interested in card games or turn based player vs player strategy games in general, Star Realms is an essential purchase. It takes the classic Dominion formula, makes a few tweaks and slaps on some cool space sci-fi fiction - making it far more fun and accessible for less hardcore players.

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