Dungeon Quest – Drafting Part 1

Alright then, so last time I mentioned that instead of the normal development chat that I usually talk about while the development is happening, instead I would write a series of designer notes to bring you up all up to speed on the design of Dungeon Quest (or, DQ as I am wont to do), so let’s start with the most basic foundation of what DQ is – deck drafting.

In genesis of Dungeon Quest began because I was playing Dominion – the original deck building game. For those of your that don’t know, in that game you build a deck around a very vaguely themed medieval township so that you can accumulate victory points. At its core, Dominion is an engine building game. Towards the end, when your cards are able to create combinations the game comes to a quick close based on the sequences of plays that you are able to make that score points. The other half is that, from my perspective anyway, half of the fun is looking at cards, evaluating them, and figuring out combinations of them on the fly.

But, and this is key, Dominion is boring. Like, I can play it and appreciate what it’s doing, but once you have that engine online, it doesn’t do anything more interesting than score you points. From a design perspective, it’s very slick. From this player’s opinionated perspective – l don’t care. The feeling that I get is, “woot.” There’s no drama, or story, that appears out of a game of Dominion, it’s just a thing that happens and then it’s over. Nobody has ever told a story that started with, “Oh my god, so me and the homies were playing Dominion and you’ll never believe what happened,” because we all know exactly what happened.

Now, I’m not here to harp on the shortcomings of Dominion, a game that has sold untold millions of copies. And, I came to these conclusions after playing a lot of it. But, I got to thinking, “what if, and this is crazy, the deck you built like, did something?” It was that question that got me on the road to Dungeon Quest. Now from here, I would like to say that I had a stroke of inspiration, but I can’t. Instead, I had a dream.

It’s possible that I had neglected the part of my brain that enjoys working in game design. We had a bunch of clients (#Humblebrag) and I was busy. But I had all of these ideas, just sort of rattling around up there and I guess that at some point my subconscious got the pieces to link together just so.

But this dream, 2 kids (one of them apparently mine even) were playing a card game. Laid out in front of them were cards in blue and green and red, and they talked about what monsters to attack, and what attack cards to add to their decks. Even (and we’ll get to this later) how damage worked in the game. I’ve always dreamed in an exceptionally vivid manner, and not to get all weird and woo woo about it, but this one seemed somehow more real than normal. When I woke up, the entire structure of how the game would play was right there in my mind still, like an afterimage from a flashbulb.

I know, weird. Doubly so since at the time I didn’t even have a kid.

But, like I said, the bones were all there, and the main insight that I was given was that if you build a deck building game, you can use that deck against other things. And, this was key, that different cards could be valuable for different deck archetypes.

Now that didn’t all work. Early playtests included an idea that the Rogue character could have cards that were based on the total cost of a card, regardless of type, but that didn’t play well at all. In fact, many of the gimmicks that different colors could use lacked enough design space to be useful for more than a few cards, let alone an entire archetype or character type.

That’s an issue I eventually solved by working out the Colors, but that’s a topic for another post. So drafting started with laying out random cards from a single deck of abilities and having each card have a gold value. Players would gain gold by defeating enemies. This had a couple of options – namely that you could be playing Rogue and get 0 Cunning cards for your deck. It felt bad, you win a battle and in return you get the shaft.

So the first change was to break the different types into their own shop deck. So now there is a Combat, Cunning, and Magic deck and after each battle cards are revealed from each so that no matter what deck you are building or playing, there should be something in there for you. Also, since I wanted different cards to be valuable to decks that were not playing those colors, Dungeon Quest has always included a way for players to play colors that aren’t what their character’s main strength is.

This ran into a problem – cash and Lightning Bolts. Let’s take a quick moment and talk about Magic: the Gathering. In that game there is a card called Lightning Bolt that costs 1 mana and deals 3 damage. There is another card called Shock, which is identical, but only does 2 damage. Dungeon Quest includes both types of cards. Now, since one is more efficient than the other when you are playing them, I made the more efficient card cost more gold to add to your deck. It sounds like a good idea, but makes the players feel really bad. The reason is that after the first few battles, the random cards come up and there’s a possibility that the players cannot afford any of them, even when they look at their character cards and know that could play them if they owned them. Turns out that feeling poor makes you feel bad.

So I cut gold from the game entirely, and switched over to a card based economy (different post). To attempt to solve the efficiency issue as I saw it, I introduced a mechanic called “Levels.” Basically, the more powerful your character became, the more efficient things you could add. It allowed the power curves to get all smooth and it played well with the playtesters. But, it was kinda fiddly, and even the playtesters forgot about it. It also had a weird effect wherein you would draft cards and they’d be dead in your hand since you couldn’t play them. It was overall, not great.

At the most recent playtest as the EsCon gaming convention, after the 3rd demo I stopped teaching it and Dungeon Quest just worked great. You see, there is one more knob I can turn to solve the efficiency issue – the number in the set. You see, if there are 5 Shocks and only 3 Lightning Bolts, that means that there are fewer of the more efficient cards in the set. It also did a cool thing to the drafting – those good cards don’t cost a lot of resources, so people playing the different characters can still use them, so they get drafted higher. It’s a solution that I’m very happy with, and so are the players. Sometimes letting your Fighter throw a Lightning Bolt and feel like they’re getting away with something is really great. This is especially true if that Fighter is being played by an exuberant 9 year old that makes zap noises with his mouth.

In any event, we’ll talk about the rest of the permutations that Dungeon Quest draft went through next time if only so I can keep this entry under 5000 words..

  • I use the term “Color” when referring to player cards in Dungeon Quest as a kind of shorthand. What I am referring to are Combat (Red), Cunning (Green) and Magic (Blue). The colors and descriptors might change, but it’s a nice way of thinking about it. Especially when you’re talking about a Green-Blue deck is different that a Blue-Green deck. But we’ll get to that.
  • So here’s a fun thing – seem to have a wild appreciation for short abbreviations with uncommon letter sequences. With Dungeon Quest we now have TTT, PZ and DQ. I’ll just leave the following here, like I do – SK.
  • Hey, now there’s an “About” us page. It’s in the header, and finally, after hundreds of posts, and thousands of swear words, you can see my picture. I don’t know if I should apologize. You’re welcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *