Alderthe: The Card Game – Vivisection II (First Blood)

As I’ve described in the first part of this blog series, I had just began building my first prototype for Alderthe: The Card Game. And, like any half-decent game designer knows, you better test early. So I slapped together some factions, wrote info on a bunch of cropped post-it notes, and found a willing victim to play against: fellow Game Baker Tony Fial of Sfinx Games.

Soon, I’d have a better understanding of what worked, and what definitely didn’t.

I hastily created an Orc and a Human faction, based on my preliminary ideas on how these factions would function in the greater picture. Humans focus on coastal units and mounted combat. Orcs ravage and pillage, and gain control over the opposing units’ actions.

Here’s the full Human unit list:

NameLevelAbility
Fisherman1Fish (1); Hurl spear (3)
Trader2Trading (2); Sail (4)
Scout2Mounted (2)
Priest3Bless (2); Heal (4); Seer (5)
Sailor4Trading (2); Sail (4); Nautic (5)
Knight5Mounted (2); Armoured (4); Trample (6)

And here are the Orcs

NameLevelAbility
Hunter1Hunt (1); Archery (3)
Spearbearer1Polearm (1); Hurl Spear (3)
Pillager3Ignite (2); Pillage (3)
Slaver3Trap (3); Enslave (5)
Siege Master4Ignite (2); Sabotage (3); Crush (5)
Warchief5Hurl Spear (3); Cleave (5); Intimidate (7)

Here’s what units looks like as prototype cards:

At the top you see the name of the unit. On the left you find the unit’s starting level. On the right are the abilities associated with each level as they rank up through (combat) experience.

The back of the card shows the unit’s starting level as well. This is what a card looks like when it is played. It also should have an 8-sided die on top of it, that is bound to the unit. This die tracks the Hit Points (HP), whereas its level indicates the unit’s amount of Attack Points (AP).

The bottom left and right unit cards are flipped face up while the dice remain on their respective cards, aligned with their current level. The bottom left card (Hunter) has its die placed along the 2-tier, meaning that it has levelled up. Its HP and AP have scaled accordingly, so that Hunter now has 2 HP and 2 AP instead of its starting value of 1.

The bottom right card has its die placed along the 7-tier, so it has levelled up twice since recruitment. In doing so, it has also gained the Intimidate ability. However, as indicated by the number 6 on the die, it has lost 1 HP along the way. It could be healed to its max HP of 7, the same value as its current level. Whatever the current amount of HP is, it retains an AP of 7 until it is defeated.

I scribbled some letters signifying the six different regions on my triangular map tiles. Here’s what one side of the battlefield looks like.

You can move between two fields that share a border between them, so you can’t move from the P-region on the bottom triangle to the H-region of the upper-mid triangle.

The letters on the triangular map indicate these types of terrain:

  • Plains (P)
  • Forest (F)
  • Hills (H)
  • Swamp (S)
  • Coast (C)
  • Mountains (M)

The goal of the game is to occupy the spawn points of your enemy. Spawn points are fields that are on the ‘points’ of the field, so in the example layout, they are the C-region in the bottom triable, the F-region in the upper left triangle, and finally the B-region in the upper right triangle.

Here are the rules:

  • Start with 5 gold
  • Collect phase: gain 1 gold per turn, and gain additional gold according to the abilities of units in play
  • Recruit phase: pay gold equal to the level of the unit, and spawn them facedown on a spawn point.
  • While units are hidden from your opponent, you can browse your own faction cards to inspect and pick the unit you want to play.
  • Units may move around while on the board facedown, but need to be revealed and turned faceup before using any abilities. Being attacked also forces a reveal.
  • Move and battle phase: every unit may move to 1 adjacent region per turn.
  • Units have health and attack power equal to their level
  • If you defeat a unit, the victorious unit that survived receives the opponent unit’s level in XP points.
  • If you’ve gained a number of XP equal to your own level, you gain a level.
  • Lost health is indicated by the d8.
  • Win by occupying every spawn point of your opponent

Here’s what a game situation may look like:

The XP tokens and gold chips are not included in the photographed scenario.

Here, Blue (Orcs) have invaded the Green (Humans) side of the battle field. The revealed Siege Master has levelled up twice, but is down one HP. Blue probably recruited two units in their last turn, since both their lower and right spawn points are occupied by unit cards placed facedown.

Meanwhile, Green is moving up a level 5 unit facedown, probably with the intent of surprising their opponent with the unit’s identity (and abilities). The Fisherman in the middle of the board, which is gathering resources for Green, will probably be defeated by the approaching Pillager, netting a huge Gold gain for the Orcs.

After testing a few games, I almost immediately discovered a few flaws with the design.

  • First of all, the intended effect of defeating units and then gain levels was impossible. If you attack one or more units to gain the amount of XP required to level up, you’d always end up losing your own unit first.
    • If I have a level 4 unit and I defeat another level 4 unit, I am dead.
    • If I defeat two level 2 units, I am dead, despite retaining 2 XP from the first defeated unit.
    • Only if I could heal in between attacks, I might be able to level up. But Orcs had no means of healing, and Human require a levelled up Priest unit.
    • Attacking same-level units and losing both in the process felt incredibly disappointing and unrewarding when the goal is to occupy the opponent’s territory.
  • Secondly, movement proved to be the decisive factor for victory. The ability to intercept any attack made it impossible for the Orcs to launch any actually threatening assault on my spawn points.
  • Several Orcs have the Pillage ability. If this unit defeats a resource producing unit, they gain a massive amount of resources in return. It proved to be very hard to actually get these units in position.
    • Doubly so because the Human units simply have full map-control thanks to their mobility skills.
  • Tony said he never felt constricted by the recruitment cost. He could buy any unit he wanted at any time.
    • Keeping the gold/recruitment mechanic as it currently is would render it irrelevant. You might as well just play whichever card you’d like, with maybe an added restriction of a maximum number of units recruited per turn.
  • As Tony put it: he, as the Orc player, had no way to counter what I, playing Humans, had. My units could move around the map with great ease, neutralising his units effortlessly.

In conclusion, the appeal was there and the game’s concept was perceived as enjoyable, yet there were still too many things broken or flawed in practice. I knew what to change as I prepared for iteration 2. My first priority was to fix the broken core mechanics of levelling units and of using gold to recruit units. I will describe the results of the next iteration in another post in this series, coming soon.

In the meantime, I’d love to read your thoughts on this first pass at the game. Did you spot the design flaws right away, even before reading the findings list? How quickly do you test your concepts and design hunches? Feel free to leave a comment and discuss!

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