by Aislyn Hall
One of six standalone Ivion gamesHey, folks!
To start, a quick intro: Hi, my name is Aislyn! I’m the designer of Ivion: The Herocrafting Card Game. I’ve been designing games since 2015, independently with my work on Ivion and professionally as a game designer at Bungie Studios working on Destiny 2. Also, if you’re reading this during Gen Con 2023, I hope you are having a wonderful time! Stop by the APE Games booth and say hello!
I’m here today to lay out some concepts that have guided my design style throughout my career. Let’s talk about games. More specifically, let’s talk about how to design games and how breaking the game makes the game.
This article will explore subtle tools us designers use to make you, the player, feel like you’ve succeeded, played well, become overpowered, or even broken the game, all while maintaining the game’s balanced ecosystem.
First, this thought process is founded on the idea that feeling powerful in games is fun. We all want to feel like we’re accomplishing something meaningful, impactful, and powerful while we play. Our decisions need to matter, and we want to see them affect the table. Conversely, feeling too powerful too frequently, especially compared to other players, can lead to a diminishing return on that feeling of strength. You may begin to question whether your accomplishments are your own or simply a design failure.
Creating a system in which players feel this sense of overwhelming strength seems contradictory to creating a system in which players exist on a level playing field, but they can — and should — coexist in harmony!
How can we accomplish that? We will examine five pillars that work in tandem to provide this experience, turn to various examples in the tabletop space that employ these pillars, then compare them directly to our designs in Ivion.
Asymmetry is the intentional imbalance in gameplay mechanisms, resources, abilities, or objectives between different players within a game. It adds variety, strategic depth, and the opportunity for players to feel overpowered.
As the most popular design tool, asymmetry can be found in every single genre of tabletop game. And the best testament to the power of asymmetry is the world’s progenitor card game: Magic: the Gathering. Magic is the masterclass example of how asymmetry allows players to feel unstoppable while in their own element.
I assume anyone with even a pinky toe dipped into the tabletop industry knows about Magic, but here’s a quick explanation: In Magic, there are five colors: White, Blue, Black, Red, and Green. Players can make decks from cards of different colors, but having a deck with more than two is difficult. Every color can do different things, so your deck’s strengths and weaknesses are determined by which colors you pick.
Magic instills a feeling of immense power in its players by assigning unique strengths and weaknesses to each color. This, in turn, grants each color access to exclusive effects that cannot be replicated by any other color. For instance, red excels in being aggressive and dealing direct damage, while blue specializes in strategically controlling the game to ensure safe wins. As a result, both players have access to distinct abilities that the other cannot imitate in a match-up between a red and blue deck. This means that both players get to feel powerful in their own way.
In Ivion, we accomplish this asymmetry differently. Players construct their decks by combining classes and specializations. Each class has 60 cards, and each specialization has 30. Players get to pick two classes and one specialization, then create a 45-card deck from the 150 cards available.
Our archetype system is comparable to Magic’s color system. Due to the restrictions on the number of archetypes from which a deck can draw, players can’t just use the best Ivion cards to create a powerful deck. Choosing the right archetype is essential for strategic gameplay.
The opportunity cost of selecting an archetype also means that we, as designers, can give each one access to a few cards that are far more efficient than similar cards in other archetypes so that when you directly compare two archetypes, each will excel in different ways. This means that a skilled deck builder can focus on maximizing their archetypes’ strengths and synergies to craft a hero that feels overpowered!
While randomness in games is often blamed for our gaming woes, its presence is critical to keeping experiences fresh, unpredictable, and exciting. It’s also an essential factor that contributes to us feeling overpowered, of course. A great game that exemplifies this is Dice Throne.
Dice Throne does not hide its variance. It’s a game that revolves around its dice — which you roll! But that keeps the game fresh and exciting and allows the designers a lever for balance.
In Dice Throne, the skill you use each turn is decided by the rolls and re-rolls you can take. This means that harder-to-roll results can have more potent effects. The Samurai’s Masamune, despite its strength, can exist in a balanced competitive ecosystem because it is uncommon to roll — but every time a large straight comes up, you, as the player, get to feel that rush of power.
Despite being a card game, our initial designs for Ivion actually ran into trouble with a lack of variance. Games of Ivion’s first edition often fell into the same gameplay patterns. Well-crafted decks would always have access to needed tools, so drawing those powerful cards left little impact.
Because of this, we intentionally go out of our way to introduce new features in each season of the game that increase variance for each character. This variance materialized potently in Season 1 with Relic cards.
These Relic cards are gained by playing cards that allow you to gain a random relic. You can’t pick which Relic you gain, but to counteract this limitation, each Relic provides quite a powerful effect.
If you draw the right Relic at the right time, it could be a massive swing in your favor!
There are more examples in the upcoming Season 3, but I’ll leave those for the reveals we’ll be showing in August and September 2023.
Contextual power explores the idea that abilities, cards, or any other form of player action can be contextually weak or contextually powerful. An ability to steal resources from another player is contextually weak if those potential player targets have little or no resources to be stolen. However, if one of those players wins the game on their next turn and you can steal just enough to prevent that, that ability becomes contextually powerful.
Root is a head-to-head game in which players take direction action against one another, intentionally diminishing their opponent’s strength. They seek to cultivate their own gameplan while minimizing the losses incurred upon them by their foes. It’s possible to exist in a state where your faction is effectively unstoppable, or a state where your faction has suffered so significantly from other players’ interaction that you can hardly compete.
This system would not function without player interaction. If any player in Root was allowed to exist entirely unopposed, they would flood the map and win quickly.
Enter the contextual power of Root. Even though these factions in Root would flourish in a problematic way unopposed, the game is designed this way intentionally; other players stand in their way and throw wrenches into their game plans. When a player successfully evades other players’ attempts to stop them, they achieve the faction’s true potential, which appears highly overpowered, thus achieving proper contextual power and making the player feel incredibly strong without the game being unbalanced or unfair.
The Eyrie Kingdom is a fantastic example of this concept. As the game continues, they can take far more actions in Root than other factions by adding new actions to their queue. However, if they cannot take one of their intended actions, their entire engine falls apart, and they must start building their action advantage again. Their engine is most commonly interrupted by other players intelligently putting roadblocks in their way to prevent them from achieving their goals.
Ivion has a wildly different means of achieving this contextual power as a game thematically focused on players taking on the role of individuals instead of factions.
Three different tokens apply to your opponents that limit their ability to play the cards in their hands:
• Slow, which prevents cards that would cause you or others to move or play interaction,
• Silence, which prevents all other kinds of non-attack cards from being played, and
• Disarm, which prevents attack cards from being played. Collectively, these tokens are called control.
Usually, players need to find ways to effectively remove control from themselves by spending resources on cards unaffected by those types of control. However, some cards ignore this restriction altogether: “heroic” cards!
These heroic cards generally have weaker-than-average effects to make up for the fact that they can bypass this control ecosystem. Contextually, they’re usually not that valuable or powerful when played without control in the mix. Still, heroic cards become contextually excellent to play when someone slaps you with a big pile of control tokens.
Inexperienced players will often play these cards to gain their effects, but as you gain mastery over the game, you realize you may want to save those cards for when you’re in a tight spot. It creates situations where players feel unstoppable, overcoming control that would have otherwise been crippling.
Players won’t always have those cards available, though. There aren’t many in the game, you have to draw them first, and you may have ultimately had to play them before you were affected by control for a different reason. That variance balances the contextual power dynamic between control tokens and heroic cards.
Strong Threats, Strong Answers
Our penultimate pillar is that when substantial threats exist to your opponents, strong answers can and must exist for them to overcome them. When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, what happens? We don’t know until they collide.
The same is true between potent threats and robust answers. One could create a game in which the answers to threats are subdued and so are the threats, creating a more predictable and less “swingy” game experience. However, time and again, these risk-averse approaches to design fall short of what we expect a competitive gaming achievement to deliver: a thrilling and sometimes brutal display of pressure and force that one player achieves to win a match.
Villainous! Another excellent example of a game where left unopposed, players would be in a race to victory. Left to their own devices, most villains can achieve their win condition in scant few turns — and the designers can make these villains this powerful by opposing them with powerful heroes.
Each villain deck has an associated fate deck. These fate decks are designed to limit the capabilities of their associated villain. However, each villain deck is designed to ultimately defeat its fate deck; they can slow you down, but you’ll always come out on top.
Villainous works as a game because it brilliantly supports the power fantasy of its players; it feels great to progress your evil scheme unhindered, and it feels even better to overcome any heroes who try to get in your way!
In Ivion, we have systems that may be familiar to players with experience in competitive card games.
Quite directly powerful cards will threaten your opponents while you play, like Fiendslayer. When played at the right time, these cards will go unanswered and deliver a brutal blow, dealing significant damage to your foes’ health pool and their hand of cards.
Cards like Spurn, however, can and should exist to answer these significant threats. Players must commit many resources to play cards like Fiendslayer, which makes them susceptible to a card like Spurn. It isn’t contextually powerful when Spurn is played against a player with abundant resources, or against a card that isn’t terribly important to them. But when played against a card like Fiendslayer, it becomes incredibly potent.
Depending on these competing players’ answers, the Fiendslayer or Spurn player will feel powerful in these circumstances. Their threat or answer came out on top, leading to a significant game swing.
Not all answers to threats will always be created equal, nor should they be. This doesn’t mean they should appear worse on paper or even play out worse on average over thousands of games. But specific answers and interactions should be mutable by players with experience manipulating the game in their favor. This helps to soften the blow of variance for heavily invested players, giving them tools and knobs to mold the game’s outcome how they wish.
For this final pillar, we’ll be focusing entirely on Ivion.
In the scenario above, Player A has Player B adjacent to them in the next tile over. Let’s say Player B has only 6 health left, precisely the amount of damage Player A’s Rime Shock deals. Perfect!
Player A could play Rime Shock and most likely win the game. It’s up to Player B to have an interaction that would prevent Rime Shock from resolving.
Player A knows that Player B is playing the Warrior class and that they have access to an instant card called Pommel Strike that could prevent their card from resolving with its Disarm tokens.
It’s not a guarantee that Player B will have Pommel Strike in their hand, but Player A has enough resources to move one tile away, taking advantage of Rime Shock’s more extended range. Pommel Strike can only be used against an adjacent enemy, so Player A moves away before playing Rime Shock.
At this point, with a Pommel Strike in hand, Player B has no recourse, and the Rime Shock resolves unopposed.
In this example, Player A has used its potential range advantage to evade Player B’s answer. This can add another layer of depth and strategy that helps more competitive-minded players feel powerful during gameplay.
Just because Pommel Strike wasn’t helpful in this situation doesn’t mean it’s not a sound card! There are other situations where Pommel Strike can lead to brutal and overpowering situations of its own.
Each Ivion boxed set can be combined with others
In competitive games, we should strive to make our players feel overpowered at key moments during gameplay. There are ways to create this feeling while keeping the game balanced. We can accomplish this by:
• Allowing players to asymmetrically experience the game, with different archetypes and playstyles excelling in different aspects of the game.
• Creating enough variance that randomness can aid players in creating a solid scenario for themselves.
• Making players feel that if they could escape their opponent’s meddling, their effects would be overpowered, while also creating contextual situations in which those meddlings see players gravitate towards a central — and balanced — average.
• Introducing both potent threats and strong answers to those threats, letting either situation play out over many games.
• Making it feasible to sometimes efficiently evade your opponent’s interaction, lending importance to strategy and experience.
Everybody shines at different times throughout the game, good memories are created, and the experience is fun!
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in Ivion: The Herocrafting Card Game, find it at your local retail store as Season 2 will be hitting shelves in September 2023! Additionally, check out our Season 3 Kickstarter prelaunch page to sign up for when the project goes live on September 5, 2023.