The story of Challengers! started on May 29, 2020. Johannes and I were at our regular board game testing group in Vienna. At that time, we were only acquaintances who sometimes met there on Mondays. However, Johannes knew that I liked to play digital auto-battlers in my free time, and so did he. After we were done testing that day, I waited at the bus station when Johannes approached and pitched me his idea: He wanted to create a deck-builder auto-battler with me.
I was intrigued by the idea, although I had my doubts that this would work as an actual game. Nevertheless, I wanted to try.
A few days later, we scheduled a thorough brainstorming session. I created the first prototype by putting stickers on Hanabi cards. Cards with the same color would be part of a set, and some cards had effects that would strengthen other cards from the same set. In the picture below is the first draft of what would later become the Cinema Set. Three of the cards even made it into the final game.
First, we toyed around with a fixed number of cards, but then chose a hard limit of six different names in your deck. This allowed us to simulate the joy of finding duplicates, just like in our computer game inspiration.
However, the recounting and its error-proneness bothered me a lot. It felt clunky and inelegant. “The bench”, a separate game board with six slots that must not be overfilled, was the perfect solution to the problem: It brought in a press-your-luck element that was also very visual. In addition, it allowed for many new card effects: Either directly buffing other cards “from the bench” or reviving cards like the “Butler”, which allows you to remove cards from the bench and therefore indirectly increase the deck-size.
With 7-8 mini-match-ups during a tournament, it was extremely important to us that the match phase was short and exciting to watch. A match had to be playable in under two minutes because at this stage you have little control — especially in the beginning.
But this “sitting back” allowed a rare feeling of play: You could suddenly cheer for your creation – the team that you assembled. The bench makes this game phase easy to follow and thrilling to watch as the benches of both sides fill up.
When we decided on the theme of the game, it was important for Johannes that the matches were peaceful and that nobody would be harmed (contrary to our auto-battler inspiration), so we gave the cards animal names and made the match-phase a fictional sport.
At that time, we were already quite happy with the game. Therefore, it was a good time to dive deeper into the card effects. We wanted to create interesting and fun combos, but still make the cards easy to understand.
Our first priority was to make the timing of effects very clear. The way we achieved this was through key phrases like “Ball loss” or “From the bench”. This is something quite unique about Challengers!: All the key phrases are essentially just timings for when an effect is active and when it isn’t. When we made this change, the number of questions we got during gameplay went down to almost zero.
For a long time, the attacker also put all the cards which had not won the fight on their bench. This repeatedly led to confusion, effect timing problems, and draws since both players were able to lose at the same time. Markus is often the person who points out these things that are suboptimal, whereas I feel hesitant on spending a considerable and indefinite amount of overtime on improving something that is already fun.
It takes courage to throw previous work overboard in search of a higher level, but I think maybe the most important quality of a good game designer is NOT clinging to a dysfunctional idea – even if it’s a beloved mechanism. After all, as a player, when you’re in the flow, you don’t want to be held up by checking rules all the time, especially in a game that you play with eight people where everybody is enjoying the tournament-atmosphere. For us, rule clarity and accessibility were top priorities.
When we decided that the attacker didn’t bench their other cards, it led to another frequent question: Which card of the opponent needs to be defeated? A simple marker, the “ball” (which later on became the flag), was also a thematic solution.
All digital auto-battlers contain some kind of economy mechanism. Players usually must decide whether they want to buy new characters or level up to get stronger characters later.
Naturally, we started with an economic system in Challengers! as well. Players could add new cards to their deck or instead discard them to buy level points and thereby level up to tier B and C. This mechanism was okay; however, it was complicated and didn’t make the game more fun.
Ultimately, we decided to get rid of it and just print the available tier (A, B or C) directly on the tournament plan. When we made the change, it felt like a huge relief to the gameplay. All the unnecessary tracking of level points was gone, and players could fully concentrate on the fun part of the game – adding new characters to their deck and thereby building their dream team.
Although the game was accessible and fun, the mathematics “under the hood” were often not trivial. For some necessary calculations, a Google table — today it has 66 sheets — has proven to be invaluable, especially for working together remotely during the pandemic, for keeping notes, and for organizing our ideas of new cards.
Markus and I “met” there online, sometimes planned, sometimes by chance, often late at night. It makes you feel really old when spending a weekend (in bed and) in front of a Google table sparks so much joy…
Okay, it was less the table than what we did there: fantasizing about new strategies and new ways to play, reading up on your co-designer’s ideas and discussing them in detail. In short, we were hooked! Sometime after the sets were roughly finished, we also started to keep track of winning strategies there. As a result of these statistics, which would have been difficult for us to assess otherwise, some cards have changed their final value or effect.
By the time Challengers! was released, Johannes and I were no longer testing colleagues. We had become friends who love working on games together.
For my 31st birthday, Johannes made a special gift for me: A collage with all the different versions of the cards we had for Challengers! I still feel blessed and lucky that Johannes approached me at the bus station and that I got to work with such a great designer!
Markus (l) and Johannes
When you have been developing games for over fifteen years, you might find yourself daydreaming or imagining what it would be like to win a prestigious award like Kennerspiel des Jahres or As d’Or: Initié. When it happens, it feels almost surreal. I am grateful that I was able to share this experience with Markus because he is as thoughtful and gentle a person as you could wish to meet, and it is a treat to work with him.
Now we are looking forward to the SPIEL ’23 debut of Challengers! Beach Cup, especially the unique player powers that were a great joy for us to develop and play with. Have fun!
From left: Markus Slawitscheck, Julian Steindorfer (co-owner of 1 More Time Games), Roman Rybiczka (the other co-owner) and Johannes Krenner