Today’s article is going to be a little different from previous weeks. The reason for this is, for the first time ever I am going to be talking about the design process of Vitae Quest, which is my first serious board game design, and my current primary design focus. Because this game is still in development I won’t be able to say everything about it, but it has been a long process to even get it to this point and I have a lot to say about it. Today I will mostly be talking about the very early design process – coming up with the idea, and the major themes and mechanics. I also plan to release further installments of this series as the design comes along.
I haven’t talked much about Vitae Quest in this blog so far (aside from my very early posts, which are garbage and nobody should ever read), so I’ll start at the very beginning. I have always been a huge fan of game of all sorts, both board games and video games, but when I was younger my drug of choice was trading card games. I especially loved Yu-Gi-Oh (like I said, I was young…), and would play it with my friends every day after school.
Playing Yu-Gi-Oh was perhaps my first experience with game design. While I loved playing the game, my favorite part was in between games, where I would get to build inventive, original decks. Many of my early decks were very basic, but the longer I played the more elaborate they became. Eventually I started designing my own cards to augment these decks, before creating entirely new decks of original cards from scratch. From there, I eventually moved on to coming up with ideas for my own Trading Card Games, with completely new rules and cards.
I stopped playing Yu-Gi-Oh for several years, but those ideas kept simmering in the back of my head. Eventually I tried to get back into Yu-Gi-Oh, but I found that the game had changed too much in the years since I had played it. Even so, it was the push that I needed to finally take my ideas off of the back-burner and start trying to make them a reality.
The Quest Begins
The early version of Vitae Quest looked much different than what it ended up being. I had a number of different design ideas floating around in the back of my mind, but the one I was most interested in was the idea of a Trading Card game that uses a board to keep track of the location of cards on the board. Then, instead of simply attacking your opponent you would have to maneuver your cards around the board in order to defeat them.
Starting with this relatively simple concept, I still had a lot of things to figure out. What kind of cards did I want to have? What sort of theme? What should the board look like? These are the questions that I will be answering in the following sections. Note that, although I will be telling them separately, many of these steps happened concurrently with eachother and are not necessarily in strict chronological order.
The Theme’s the thing
I started by trying figure out a theme. I figured that if I knew the theme of the game and the basic mechanics that I would at least have a direction to go off of. Because I was adding territory-capture elements to the TCG formula, I originally chose a theme that captured the political nature of these types of games.
The first version of Vitae Quest had a theme of medieval political intrigue, inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire. I was especially inspired by Varys’s conversation with Tyrion about the nature of power, and it’s many forms. Because of this, I decided to create seven factions – each represent a different source of power in a medieval fantasy setting.
The seven sources of power that I came up with were: politics, the military, religion, trade, technology, magic, and intrigue. Each type would have different resources, and have different play styles. The players would then use these sources of power to compete with eachother for control of the land.
While I ended up making some very rough prototype cards for this version of Vitae Quest, I eventually came upon a few issues. Firstly, I just thought that the market was too saturated with Fantasy style TCGs, with Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Chaotix, Kaijudo, Force of Will, Hearthstone, and many more already filling this space. I decided to change my theme to something a little more original in the space, and decided to instead to go with a science fiction theme.
There have certainly been science fiction trading card games in the past, but they are much less common, and I felt that there was a lot of potential in this space. At the same time, it also came with a lot of challenges. Fantasy is nice because it comes with expectations – people already know what a dwarf is, what a dragon looks like and how ogres tend to behave. When making a game set in space, however, I had the challenge and opportunity of constructing all of the worlds, creatures and technology myself.
Even after making the switch, I still enjoyed the idea of the “sources of power” that I had originally used. While I originally tried to directly port them over (basically, medieval fantasy in space), over time they morphed into the seven colors of Vitae that I am using today. Each of these colors (blue, grey, purple, red, orange, yellow, and green) retains the spirit of one of the original factions, but over time they have taken on a life of their own.
Putting the Board in “Trading Card Game”
Once I had a theme, the next step was clear. If the goal of my game was to make a card game that uses a board, the first thing I would need was … a board! The territory capture aspect of Vitae Quest is at the core of the experience, and so it was very important to get the right design.
I knew that I wanted the board to represent the country that the different factions were fighting over, but besides that I had absolutely no direction. My original idea was to have every space be a square, and have each square be large enough to hold a card lying down. The problems with this approach, however, quickly became apparent.
Firstly, making the spaces all regular shapes made it difficult for me to arrange them in an interesting, organic looking way without adding several dozen different squares. Having this many squares, however, would be impossible if each square was meant to be large enough to hold a playing card. Having both of these things together ended up creating a bloated, uninteresting board that didn’t play well.
I solved the first problem by creating more varied, organic shapes for the territories. Even so, I still had a conflict between wanting to create large spaces to hold the cards, and creating a large enough number of spaces to allow varied gameplay. My next big breakthrough came when I realized that the cards would take up much less space on the board if they were standing up vertically, rather than laying horizontally on the table. I quickly bought a number of small binder clips, and used them to hold the cards vertically on the table, and it worked like a charm. Not only did it reduce the amount of space needed for each territory, but it also created a very unique look for the game.
Early versions of the board represented a single country, and had a number of different topographical features such as water and mountains that affected gameplay. I thought that having a variety of terrain would improve the strategy of the game, but I soon found that these topographical features were not holding their own weight. I quickly removed all of them except for water features, which I desperately wanted to make work. I tried several different versions of the water mechanic, but I was never able to come up with an implementation that was mechanically and thematically satisfying, so several months later I also removed that feature.
The next major version of the board came when I made the switch from a fantasy theme to a science fiction theme. I discovered that my single-landmass design was simply not conveying the theme of the game, so I reworked it to instead have several planets connected with paths between them. This version of the board was much more flavorful, but was put together a little haphazardly. After some playtesting, I discovered a number of issues with it (mainly dealing with the connections between planets), which I fixed in the third major version of the board. This is the current version, and is shown at the top of this section.
But what does it…..do?
I had a theme, and I had a board. Now all I needed were some rules and some cards, and I could begin playing! For the cards, I tried to create a system of different card types that would encompass almost any type of effect I could need. Firstly, I created the unit card type to engage in combat with other players. I also created the action card type, which would be one-time use abilities or repeatable effects. Item cards would be used to modify other card types. Finally, structure cards would be used for continuous effects that changed the state of the game.
Although some of the specifics of these different card types would change throughout the design process, the basic division of abilities has basically remained the same since then (although I am considering making vehicles, currently a type of item, their own card type). In the same way, the major rules and mechanics of Vitae Quest have been remained pretty much intact since the beginning of design.
The main mechanics of Vitae Quest are actually quite simple. Each player chooses a space on the board to be their “base”, and then the remaining territories are split evenly among all players. Control of a territory is shown by a marker (currently I am using binder clips), with each player using a different color so that it is clear who controls what. From there, you use your Vitae resources to play units, actions, items and structures to try and gain control of the entire board.
To further your goal of controlling the entire board, there are two main objectives. First, your primary objective is to attack other players bases, because doing so gives you control of all territories that player controlled. The second objective is to capture planets, because controlling all territories on a planet allows a player to draw an additional card each turn.
This secondary objective was added after modifying the board into numerous planets, and serves several gameplay functions. Firstly, it creates strategic decisions – do I focus all my effort on trying to destroy my opponents as quickly as possible, or do I take my time and build up my resources? It also helps to distribute focus around the board, and gives players access to more of their resources.
Until Next Week!
That’s all I have room for this week, but I am barely scratching the surface of Vitae Quest design. If you are interested in hearing more of this design story in the future, let me know in the comments and I will try and post more about it in the future. And if you like this post, you can follow the blog on WordPress, Facebook, or Twitter so that you will always be notified when I post a new article. And join me next week, where I will be writing about the illusion of randomness in gaming!
Community Questions of the Week
1. Do you have any questions about Vitae Quest? Are there any aspects of this game that you would like me to write more about?
2. Do you enjoy these sorts of design stories, and would you be interested in reading more of them in the future?
3. What are your feelings about randomness in games?