The reason I’m posing this question is because the idea of early access or an open beta is to have players play the game early and give feedback about how the game could be better or to find and report bugs. While it would be helpful is this is how it happened, should players be obligated to complete these extra tasks? The answer that is obvious to me, is no. Players should be able to play the game without having to do anything else if they don’t want to, especially if they paid for it. Even without an obligation though, is there an expectation? I personally feel a bit of guilt thinking back on certain situations playing early access games and offering no feedback or not taking the time to report a bug I ran into.

Effortless Feedback

The best example I can think of where I don’t feel guilty is playing during the early access period of Slay the Spire. This is because I found out that the developers were tracking/collecting user data to help regarding balancing the cards. Card pick rates and event choice pick rates from all players gave them a lot of data to make balance changes to cards that were too strong or cards that were rarely picked. If providing helpful feedback is effortless on my part, then merely playing the game is enough to do my part.

Playing the game and running into a problem while playing is a different story though. It would make sense to report a bug so that one doesn’t have to run into anymore after it gets fixed. The issue here is that I never ran into game breaking bugs that prevented me from playing the game, just weird niche bugs that don’t matter that much. As a result, I took the lazy route and went about playing the game, putting thoughts of the bug out of my mind. I have two examples of such bugs.

Minor Bugs

The first was found playing Hades many months ago. The developers had added a system to the game that allowed experienced players add modifiers to the game that made it more difficult before they started a run. The bug was related to these covered statues of Skelly the skeleton that are awarded to players who complete the game with specific amounts of these modifiers turned on. In this courtyard area where the statues are located, the player can attack with the various weapons and use them against Skelly as a means of testing them out before starting a run with them. I had decided to attack the covered statues, because I didn’t know what was under the coverings until later, in a pretend attempt to try and force my way into finding out what the secret reward was. Doing so ended up crashing the game. This has long since been fixed, and since the game could still be played without issue if I didn’t attack the statues, so I did nothing.

Image of the Courtyard with the covered statues of Skelly in various poses. 8 Heat (the flaming skull) is the modifier threshold needed to unlock the first one.

A more recent example involves graphical issues playing Legends of Runeterra. These issues often happen when a leveled-up champion card Karma is in play. When leveled-up, Karma essentially plays a second copy of the same spell card you’ve just played with the same targets. The bug I experienced recently was playing a Shadowshift card on one of my units with a leveled-up Karma on board. Shadowshift brought the targeted unit back to my hand and left a Living Shadow in its place, but then the second copy of Shadowshift repeated the process on this newly created Living Shadow. The rest played out as expected except I realized that my recalled unit and the recalled Living Shadow were both invisible. They became visible when I hovered over them and were still playable on future turns but were otherwise empty spots in my hand that took up the expected amount of space a card would take up. It looked interesting after I drew another card and it was visually separated from my other cards by the two invisible cards. Again, since it didn’t break the game, I did nothing.

Games Collecting Dust

Something else that I derive a bit of guilt from is not playing very much of games that I paid to get early access to. I’ll admit that maybe I’m confusing buyer’s remorse for guilt in such cases, but I knew that I would want to eventually play the finished version of the games, so I bought into them. I Kickstarted a game called Roguebook because it had some of the features Slay the Spire had, along with some new ideas and because it was being made by the developers who made Faeria. After playing a bit of it after getting access to the playable alpha, I haven’t played much of it since. Perhaps I feel bad about not playing it because it is a wasted opportunity to help make the game the best it can be, but I end up playing other games because there are so many to play and I only have so much free time to play them in.

Image from the Kickstarter page. A lot of what drove my decision to back at this tier was to get access to the playable alpha right away.

I’m still convinced that consumers can do what they want with the games they purchased and that there is no obligation to do anything after that transaction, not even play the game. However, I’m still perplexed by the feelings of guilt I’ve discussed here, because while it doesn’t seem to be strong enough to change my behavior, it is somehow strong enough to make me want to write about it here. Perhaps an expectation can be formed through the framing of how feedback is solicited. I’ve experienced both, developers who are eager to get your feedback as listening to the community is something they care about, while others frame it as backing the game at the required Kickstarter tier lets one into a sort of exclusive club where you have the privilege of giving feedback to the developers. Perhaps the latter example is more likely to expect their backers to respond, and I feel guilty for not doing so. Regardless of these negative feelings, I do still enjoy playing games in early access to not only spend less time waiting to play it, but to also follow its development progress and weigh the pros and cons of major changes to work on improving my own game design knowledge.

Lately, I find myself playing a lot of card games. Every now and then I stop and think about the possibilities of new cards for a game that it currently doesn’t contain. I try not to think about it for too long to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible ideas. I think that the vast design space for card games comes from how many mechanics there are related to the cards. Cards could do something when drawn, when played, when discarded, or maybe even do something while it’s in one’s hand. A hand might have a card limit and drawing a card when one’s hand is full may discard or destroy the card. Cards are often drawn from a deck that can be shuffled, added to, looked at, and specifically arranged to just name a few mechanics. This doesn’t even cover any mechanics that may be specific to a game, i.e. the mechanic may or may not make sense in another game. When a card could be designed with any combination of these numerous mechanics, it’s easy to see the possible number of options skyrockets.

While there are a great many card games that I could draw examples from, I’m going to discuss three rogue-like deck-builders that I’m rather fond of.

Slay the Spire

In Slay the Spire, there are currently four different characters to play as and each character has a different pool of cards that they can make use of over the course of a run. The cards that make up these pools are focused around a handful of archetypes that are generally unique to that character. The Ironclad is good at gaining strength, sacrificing health for a benefit, and exhausting (removing for the rest of the battle) cards that are less useful to focus on damage to name a few things. The Silent is better defensively by gaining dexterity, yet also dealing damage through shivs or poison. A lot of the fun of this game is finding the synergy between cards. A potential card design I’ve come up with is a 2-cost Ironclad skill called Inner Strength that gives strength for every card in your hand. I’m not sold on it though because the Ironclad has other cards that give strength with an easier condition to meet, and generally is not very good at getting a large hand of cards. Certain relics, objects that give passive abilities, like Runic Pyramid: you no longer discard cards at the end of your turn, could make it better, but even though strength is a core mechanic for the ironclad, this card doesn’t really fit.

Nowhere Prophet

Nowhere Prophet has similarities to Slay the Spire but sets itself apart with its unique theme of playing as a prophet leading a caravan of people, in a doomed world, to salvation. The mechanic that really makes things different is that these people are cards in your deck that are played onto a field to fight in battles. If a person falls in battle, they are wounded and if a wounded person were to fall in battle again, they are killed and permanently removed from your deck for the rest of the game. There is another related mechanic where if a wounded person deals the killing blow that causes you to win the battle, that person becomes blessed, which not only heals their wound, but also gives them plus one attack for future battles. I’ve wondered about having a card that has 1 extra health for every blessed person in your deck. My initial reaction is that it could be too strong, as it rewards the player too much for already doing well. A win more or win harder card like this could be tricky to balance.

An example Convoy Deck. The red slash on Cutthroat denotes being wounded. The skull denotes units that have died and are no longer available. I could click on them to make them disappear, but I like to leave them there to remind me of who I lost.

One Step From Eden

One Step From Eden is a game I’ve often heard described as Slay the Spire meets Mega Man Battle Network. For those of you who also have never played any of the Mega Man games and have never heard of this one, the important point is that combat happens in real time on a grid that is split into a player side and an enemy side. Since cards are played in a real time fight, it’s tough to simultaneously plan out how to strategically use your attacks while also dodging attacks from the enemies. Because there are a lot of cards and they can be difficult to parse without a visual I will show you a picture of a card that is like the one I’ve come up with: Ion Cannon.

This game has GIF-like previews of each card in action so the player can see what it could do before they add it to their deck.

My idea is a card that fires an orbital beam at all four corners of the enemy grid and cracks tiles called “Cornered”. This card has a flavor that doesn’t feel out of place for the game, given its sense of humor that really shows through the flavor text cards can have, but its use cases are narrow. How often would a player choose to put this card in their deck?

Card games seem to have so much design space because different mechanics can be combined on one card with a super large number of combinations. Each new mechanic added, multiplicatively increases the number of possible combinations. So, once the game has over 10, possibly 20, different mechanics to work with, the number of possible cards that could be made are so numerous it stops being worth it to try and count. The issue is that only some cards are worth designing. The ideas I’ve come up with for the three games don’t really fit despite using mechanics that are already in the game. So perhaps card games have limitless potential design space, but the actual useful design space is finite and likely harder to find.

There are a few games that I really enjoy and have put over a hundred hours into, but I’ve never actually beaten. These hours have been accumulated over multiple playthroughs and while I may know how some of these games end, I’ve haven’t made my own way to those endings. This is different than losing interest in a game and not finishing it as a result. It may be tangentially related, I’ve lost interest in my current playthrough, but then why would I want to start again. Wouldn’t I just get back to a similar point of progress and just lose interest again? That would seem to be the case, so what possesses me to keep starting over? I’m hoping a more introspective blog post will help me find out.

There is Something Compelling About the Early Game

Oxygen Not Included is a sandbox colony management simulation game where the player gives orders to these human clones or “duplicants” in an effort to keep them alive. This goal may seem simple and straightforward, but it ends up being dynamic with the frequent addition of smaller connected short term goals such as, the colony needs a food source or our oxygen production has stopped because we’ve run out of algae.

One thing I really like about the game is that worlds are randomly generated upon startup, so that every game is different. A fog of war style mechanic prevents players from seeing parts of the map their duplicants have not been to and as a result there is a lot to discover when playing a new game. Each world has a number of geysers or vents buried beneath various types of rock and it can be exciting to figure out what each one is and how you can use its output to your colony’s advantage.

Another reason I enjoy the early game is that I have played enough to learn and execute a strategic plan or “build order” for it. I know a fairly optimal way to play the early game and running through such a procedure is satisfying to me. It’s almost like it’s a way to demonstrate competence or mastery over skills that I lacked when I first started playing the game. Having proof that one has learned from their mistakes is powerful.

Building rockets is something I haven’t done because it’s a part of the late game. – Steam Page Image

Familiarity Brings Comfort

If I’ve gotten so good at the earlier parts of a game, it could be said that it no longer challenges me. Shouldn’t something that no longer challenges me leave me bored or less interested? Perhaps I don’t replay these games for a challenge, but to do something less mentally taxing, to relax. Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based Role Playing Game about the psychological stresses of adventuring. It is a difficult game that is likely supposed to be the opposite of relaxing.

However, I have played enough of the game to have a good understanding of how the enemies work so that I can plan ahead, and build good party compositions to counter the types of enemies and hazards each dungeon location has to offer. I can play through the early game without feeling the tension that comes from having one or more of your heroes coming close to death, and I’m able to keep the stress levels of both my heroes and myself low.

The halls of my lineage once familiar have become quite familiar to me. – Steam Page Image

Will I Ever Finish These Games?

Based on the historical evidence I have, probably not. The later parts of these games get rather challenging and while it is not impossible that I find myself wanting to brave and conquer those challenges, lately the being challenged isn’t really why I play these games. I think that as long as I’m still having fun there is no harm in playing these games in such a way.

There are other games that I’ve played significantly less of that I wonder if I’ll ever come back to and finish those games. Pyre is one such game. I do want to know how the story ends and I’ve yet to spoil it for myself. It’s been so long since I’ve last played it however, that if I do ever come back to it, I know that part of me will consider starting over from the beginning.

The potential of an unfinished journey, calls to me. – Steam Page Image

While I’m aware that this question is subjective, I think deck building games that have river-style markets are more enjoyable than deck building games that have non-river-style markets. This post is my way of exploring why I feel that way.

A Bit of Context

The premise of a deck building game is that players start with a small deck of cards that is fairly weak and over the course of the game they are able to improve the strength of their deck by acquiring better cards and potentially removing some of the bad starting cards from the deck. Different games may have players use their cards to pursue victory in different ways, but all of the deck building games I’m aware of have this basic premise. I want to focus on the mechanic of acquiring new cards and adding them to one’s deck. More specifically, the options available to a player when choosing which new card to acquire on their turn.

Types of Card Acquisition Markets

Dominion is a deck building game that has an open card acquisition market. During setup, players decide which unique cards will compose the pool of available cards to acquire or purchase during play. From the start, players know exactly what options are available to purchase and each unique card gets its own supply pile so that multiple copies of it can be bought over the course of the game. Clank! is a deck building game with a river-style card acquisition market. The difference here is that there is a deck of purchasable cards, but only six are available for purchase at a given time. If a player buys cards on their turn, cards are drawn to replace the ones bought at the end of their turn. In Ascension, cards are replaced during the player’s turn as they are bought so different games can vary in terms of rules, but the important part here is that new cards become available to buy that weren’t available before.

A Simpler Vocabulary

“Acquiring cards from a river-style market” is just too long of a phrase to use in common conversation. The group of friends I play games with had come up with the phrase “river drafting” to mean the same thing while being much shorter. It is important to note that “drafting” in card games is a completely different mechanic, but the appending of river in front of the word gave us the context we needed to understand the difference. I think the word river here is used because new cards are unveiled in a way that makes the deck flow like a river, but I always thought the term was a reference to the final card the dealer turns over in a hand of Poker, “The River”. Either way, river drafting is not a widely used phrase and there is no real companion phrase for non-river drafting deck building games. I suppose to keep the analogy going, it should be something like “lake drafting”. Perhaps if I use it enough, someday it will catch on.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Lake Drafting

The biggest strength of lake drafting is that the contents of the lake are known and available during the entire game. This allows players to make a plan of what they want to do in order to pursue victory, essentially develop a strategy. Executing said strategy can vary based on which cards you draw from your deck and when, but for the most part the strategy is sound and remains intact. Another benefit that Dominion capitalizes on, is that the contents of the lake can be changed from game to game to provide variety or replay-ability. Or it could be kept the same and players can play again to put their strategy to the test with the same starting conditions. This is sort of like replicating experiments to find out if the strategy is consistently good or not. The downside of lake drafting is that player’s purchases don’t directly affect other players. People who are less enamored with the game may describe Dominion as four separate games of solitaire that has one winner in the end. This isn’t really true as there are cards that have abilities that affect other players, but the purchases are a bit solitaire-like.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of River Drafting

With river drafting comes player interaction. Purchasing a card on offer means that other players won’t be able to purchase that card. Since the contents of the river are changing every turn, players have different decisions to make from turn to turn. I’ve heard it described that this is an example of tactics rather than strategy. Tactics involve making an optimal choice in the current situation while strategy is more about the overarching plan. Some people may argue that the ever changing river ruins the player’s ability to have a strategy and that one can only live in the moment. This idea stems from the notion that flipping over cards that were previously unknown makes this more luck-based than they would like it to be. I’d argue that one can still have a strategy and make tactical decisions to support that strategy, but some situations may lead to a pivot in strategy. I’d also argue that despite the added element of chance, there are still ways for river drafting to be skill testing. Sometimes it’s an obvious choice to buy the card that supports your strategy, while other times it may be correct to buy a card that doesn’t help you, but it does keep it away from an opponent who would get a huge benefit out of it, I refer to this dynamic as “hate drafting”, or perhaps the cards in the river won’t help you right now and it is correct to not buy anything this turn. Knowing which choice to make is a skill and I like the challenge of making the best out of a bad situation. If some lucky flips give my opponent first crack at all of the best cards in the game, I change my goal for the game to be to figure out how well I can do despite the fact that I won’t win, or perhaps I’ll find a way to stage a comeback and surprise myself.

Why I prefer River Drafting

I think that the extra layer of player interaction that river drafting provides keeps me more engaged when playing. One has to pay attention and watch what other people buy on their turns to not only monitor how they are doing, but to keep tabs on who bought the card that you wanted. In addition, the element of chance that it brings doesn’t have to be seen as a pure negative. It can act as a way to level the playing field between players of different skill levels. It has the potential to give less skilled players a better chance to win. With that chance, they may be more inclined to keep playing and with more play they can get better at the game. In this regard it could be argued that river drafting games are better for introducing newcomers to the genre.

Obviously both types of deck building games have their place in the world of enjoyable board games and I don’t dislike Dominion. As the deck building game that created the genre, it deserves a lot of respect. I just happen to derive more enjoyment out of playing deck building games with river drafting.

More Bang for Your Buck

There is this idea around games that some people think they should get a certain number of hours of playtime or enjoyment out of a game to justify its price. A one-to-one ratio of hours to dollars is not unheard of. This is a notion that I disagree with because there exists short games with gripping stories that make the games worth their prices. For example, I really enjoyed playing Ori and the Blind Forest. It is a twenty dollar game that I finished in nine hours and I have no regrets about the purchase at all, quite the opposite. In fact, I’m really excited for the sequel that will come out in March.

Ori and the Blind Forest – Steam Page Image

For some reason, however, I find myself falling into the trap of this idea when it is in the game’s favor. For instance, I purchased Slay the Spire for around fifteen dollars in 2018, slightly cheaper than the current price because the game was in early access then. I’ve since played the game for almost three hundred hours and one could say I’ve certainly got my moneys worth. I want to be able to just say that I had fun playing the game and so it was worth getting, but I can’t help but want to support my statement by bringing my hours played into the equation.

Slay the Spire – Summary of One of My Favorite Runs

There are also the occasional games that I feel guilty about how little I paid for a game compared to how much fun I had. One such example is Hollow Knight. This mostly has to do with the developers of the game releasing multiple extra content updates for free since the game came out. Those updates had so much content that I found myself thinking that I would have paid for these updates in the form of a DLC. I look forward to this game’s upcoming sequel, not only for what I imagine will be another great game, but also as a convenient opportunity to pay the developers for the work they have done.

Hollow Knight – Steam Page Image

The “Protest”

Terraforming Mars is without a doubt, my favorite board game. I’ve bought every expansion and played it quite a bit solo and even more with friends while I was in Undergrad. I played it so much with those friends, that one of them is near burnt out on the game, saying that we play it too much. At the time, once a week, every week was enough to tide me over. Now that I’m in Grad school and have moved away from those friends, I’m in withdrawal with regard to playing the game enough. Back in 2018 when we found out a digital version of the game was being made, we were optimistic that we would have a good way to play the game together without having to meet in person. Myself and another one of the friend group got access to a beta for the game and long story short, we found ourselves disappointed.

Terraforming Mars – Steam Page Image

A digital implementation of the base game, with no expansions, a plethora of bugs, only some of which were game breaking, and no draft variant implementation led to us making a sort of pact that we called “the protest” where we wouldn’t purchase the game until we saw some major improvements. Where it was at and the twenty-five dollar price did not match up for us. Something that was interesting was that the first time a steam sale lowered the price, we noticed that the base price was changed to twenty dollars immediately after the sale ended. There was a specific sale last year that had the game at eight dollars, the cheapest it had ever been and yet even with bug fixes and adding draft functionality since launch, neither of us purchased the game. The “protest” continues to this day.

Kickstarting Expensive Board Games

More recently, I’ve started Kickstarting board games I’m interested in. It’s been an interesting new experience for me, because instead of purchasing something and getting it right away or shortly after, Kickstarting a board game is more akin to putting money down on a distant preorder. Divinity Original Sin the Board Game is likely the most expensive game I’ve ever bought. Pledging for the definitive edition set me back over two hundred dollars. And since the game won’t be shipping until at least October, it will be awhile before I can get the chance to find out if my purchase was worth it or not. I have a feeling it will be, but I can’t yet know for sure.

Divinity Original Sin the Board Game – Kickstarter Page Image

Miscellaneous Musings

As a tangent to the hours of enjoyment to money spent idea, I could certainly pay the price of a game to see a movie in theaters, with popcorn, get far fewer hours of enjoyment out of it, and not question the decision, assuming I liked the movie. I’m not sure why, but at least for myself the idea or fear of buyer’s remorse is more likely to show up with regard to game purchases, even if I rarely regret purchases I make.

Another thing of note is that the bulk of my points have been made from the consumer’s perspective. The developer’s of the games will likely have different answers to the question how much a game should cost. I think it is likely a difficult balancing act. On one side, they need to price the game high enough to make enough money to cover the cost of paying the people who worked on the game, or the material cost of components for board games, while on the other side they need to price the game low enough that people will actually buy it. This balancing act will likely leave the profit margins small which leads to needing a specific number of people to purchase the game before it is successful.

Unfortunately, I’m left thinking that the cost of games should vary depending on the game. I know that is essentially a nothing answer, but it is the best I have; a sort of gut feeling that can be put to the test by playing the game. I do think that this conclusion does bring into question why most console games are exactly sixty dollars. I think this one price fits all model is likely one that should be moved away from. Some games might need to cost more, while others have no business costing sixty dollars. Personally I think the collection of mini-games that is 1 2 Switch is still overpriced at fifty, which is probably why I never bought it.

1 2 Switch – Box Art Image From Nintendo’s Website

While I cannot currently remember where I first heard it from, sometime last year I heard the line “our game respects your time” as one of the selling points of the game. Essentially, it was designed in a way to allow players to play the game for exactly as long as they wanted to. Whether that is an extended multi-hour play session or a brief half-hour distraction is up to the player. Most games nowadays allow the player to save and quit or at least pause the game and leave it suspended whenever they want so they can continue playing later. This quality of life feature could lead one to believe that games clearly respect people’s time and that there is no issue here. My main problem with that line of thinking is that when a player is having fun playing a game, they are not going to want to stop playing until they really have to.

People who have played a Civilization game have probably heard of the phrase “just one more turn”. It is a good example of how fun keeps a player playing irrespective of how much time has passed. Turns in Civilization are relatively short, they can get long if you’re involved in a war, bits of playtime that the player can partake in and stop on any turn whenever they are ready. Perhaps because the turns are short, players think that just one more won’t add too much more time spent to their current play session. It is when this idea is repeated that players suddenly have the urge to look at the clock and find that hours have passed.

Another thing that makes it difficult to put a game down is the idea of being at a good stopping point. Over the past few years I’ve played a handful of rogue-like games. These types of games have their core gameplay loops set up to be relatively short, perhaps a half-hour to an hour, and repeatable. I like to think of these loops as “runs”. To me, and likely to many others, the natural stopping point in a rogue-like game is after one has completed a run. Many of these games allow the player to save and quit in the middle of a run, but I find myself not taking advantage of that feature. I find that the experience of coming back to the game after a few days of not playing and finding myself in the middle of a run to be a bit unpleasant. There is a period of confusion as I have to remember what was happening during this run and re-acclimate myself to whatever play-style I was engaging in at the time. While this is generally not that big of an issue, it is enough to make me get into the habit of finishing runs when I start them.

Something that is tangentially related to the above point is that there are certain games I have that I know I will get very invested in and play for significant amounts of time. Knowing this actually causes me to be hesitant to start or avoid starting to play these games in my free time because I know they will take up so much time. This behavior leads to me not playing certain games I really enjoy and want to play more of because I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have time for them right now and it disappoints me to think that I don’t know when I will finally get back to them.

Some games do put in extra effort to try and respect the player’s time. I’ve played a game called Book of Demons that has a built in system called “Flexiscope” that allows the player to choose the length of a stretch of content they will play before they delve into the dungeon and play it. Choosing small might be 18 minutes while big could be 41 minutes for example. These are time estimates that will become more accurate the more the player plays, because the game has more data with which to analyze the player’s play-style. I originally thought this system was mainly meant for respecting the player’s time, but on further research it was actually designed to allow players to tell the game how long they want to play and the game, in response, generates an experience that still flows well in that given length. The flow increasing with moments of tension where there are many enemies to fight at once and decreasing when there are moments of reprieve with few or no enemies to fight. This makes sense as I could often find myself choosing to play another small experience just after finishing one, so it still has the just one more aspect to it.

I suppose what it really comes down to is the self-control of the player. Games give them the power to stop whenever they want, so the ball is in their court. When a player finds they are having fun playing, they are less likely to want to stop and since games are designed to be fun, I lean towards thinking that they can’t respect your time and I think that is okay. From a business perspective, games want as much of your time as they can get. In today’s day and age businesses are competing with each other over people’s time and attention. I think the lesson here is that it’s up to the individual to respect their own time.