Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Designing Necromancy, Part 1: What is Dead May Never Die

So, most of my Audley Enough blogs focus on other games, designed by other people. Last December I had a brief stint that broke that trend where I talked about my Pokémon-esque pet battler called Tensai.

Today, I unveil my WIP Card Game, Necromancy.

Before I actually talk about Necromancy itself, I'm going to talk about what inspired me to make it, and how the game came together. If you're not interested in that, skip to the bulleted list down below.


Some time last year, I got gung ho about making a Tetra Master (the FF9 card minigame) inspired card game without randomness. It began with each player placing two cards face down on the 4x4 grid to act as “trap characters” that could be activated later. This would, in theory, encourage players to plan their actions around their pre-set traps.

I never finished Sortie, mostly because I felt that at its core, it was missing something (and, as is common with projects from me, I ran into a bout of depression that pulled me away from working on anything for a while, then just never actually got back around to working on it). However, I still felt in the back of my mind there was a market gap missing in the world for “a real life card game that plays like Triple Triad and Tetra Master.” But work was shelved.


The day before I actually began working on Necromancy, I was working one of those dreaded all-day shifts at my fast food job. Since the work there is mind-numbingly droll, I tend to distract myself by thinking about game projects. In my head, I was toying around with an idea for a board game in my head. The general concept of the game is that players would attempt to create a tower 8 units tall in order to win. Seems simple, right?

There was a catch – you could only build UP by also building OUT – in order to have a tower 2 units tall, you needed a stack one high adjacent somewhere. In order to have one 3 units high, you needed one nearby that was 2 (which meant you needed a third nearby that had to be 1 high!), and so on. You could build your stack on any tile, even if your opponent had already begun stacking there. (However, for you to place the third tile on a stack, you would still have to have the second tile on an adjacent stack, you couldn't just play a third tile on an opponent's stack next to a 2-stack also featuring only opponent tiles.)

I didn't explore the idea further, since it was just mulling about in my head while at work, but I liked the idea of stacking resources. And further, the idea that you and your opponent could stack on the same tile.

Mark Rosewater

If you don't know the name, you're missing out. While checking my phone at work, I saw Morello, a Lead Designer from Riot Games had tweeted to someone who was wondering about getting into game design from being an Electrical Engineer, recommending they read Mark Rosewater's blog for mechanics discussion.

Mark Rosewater is an employee of Wizards of the Coast, and has been a designer on many, many sets of Magic the Gathering over the years. For a long time, he ran a column on the Wizards of the Coast website discussing the design of Magic the Gathering (You've probably seen me link his Timmy/Johnny/Spike thing before.)

I buckled down and started reading some of his old, old articles (from back in 2002). I saw him mention cards that worked from the Graveyard. And I got to thinking...

What if there was a card game where the only playspace was the graveyard?


And that is when I took to Twitter and Skype, asking people for the first five things that popped into their head when thinking about Necromancy. Many people mentioned skeletons, or zombies, or liches, or ancient curses. A few mentioned the color green. Corpse Explosion was a recurring response from the friends of mine who knew Diablo 2 like the backs of their carpal tunneled hands.

When trying to concept the game, I thought over a few ideas, but there was one constant: the game would be based around players discarding their cards in order to be able to summon monsters.

Then I thought back to Stockpile, what if they could discard their cards onto a card their opponent discarded? Obviously, this would be a problem (with potential card theft, or simply confusion) if Necromancy were a deck building game, so when I got convinced the Stockpile idea was the right way to go, it was automatically decided that Necromancy would be a single deck game.

  • But what is the GOAL of Necromancy?
    • It's simple, to control more souls than your opponent.
  • What are souls?
    • Souls are the face-down cards discarded by a player onto the Graveyard.
  • How do you control them?
    • By summoning a creature on top of them.
  • How do you summon a creature?
    • Discard it face up onto the stack of souls!

From here, it was clear the stack of souls would act as the resource for the casting cost to summon stronger undead creatures. Using the Stockpile mechanic of being able to stack souls or summon creatures on your opponent's stacks means both players vie for control of the Graveyard simultaneously. Perhaps your opponent wants to summon a big creature somewhere, but you interrupt him by summoning a weaker one on top of it.

I definitely also wanted to include the ability to battle in the game. So I thought about the different types of undead. Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, Ghouls, Shades, Vampires, Mummies, Liches, and various other beasts. Skeletons and Zombies tend to just attack things. Ghouls and Vampires are more focused on consuming souls as they wander the night. But Ghosts seem more peaceful. Sometimes they just possess things.

So I divided the potential Actions creatures could take into three categories: Move, Attack, and Possess. The Attack command is divided into two further subgroups: Destroy or Consume. (Whether you may Destroy or Consume is determined by your card, not by the player.)

Creatures that are already summoned may spend their turn repositioning by using the Move command. This can be used to get in range to attack an enemy creature, or simply to pick up souls placed adjacent to the creature, increasing the size of its Soul Stack. (You may not add souls to a Soul Stack where there is already a creature.)

Adjacent Creatures may do battle by Attacking. If the creature is a Destroyer, it simply turns the opposing monster into a face down Soul on its Soul Stack upon a successful battle. If it is a Consumer, the target creature and its Soul Stack are added to the Consumer's Soul Stack to create an even larger stack, all under the control of one player.

Ghosts, Shades, and select creatures of the other types may Possess adjacent creatures. By Possessing a creature, they abandon their own Soul Stack and attach to the new creature (whether you do this to your opponent's creatures or your own is up to you). Possessing does not change ownership of the creature, so the Soul Stack still belongs to your opponent, but you gain control of the creature. You can move it closer to your own larger creatures to be destroyed, or simply have it build up to be really strong for other nefarious plans or traps.

Wait, did you say traps, Audley?

Of course I did. Did you forget the Sortie section already?

There's a trick to facedown cards. Although they are Souls that fuel the summoning of creatures... there is also a command I neglected to mention. Overtake.

If a Soul Stack exceeds the casting cost of a facedown creature (one used as a Soul to fuel a summon), and that facedown creature's casting cost is greater than the casting cost of the active creature on top of the stack, then the player who placed the card facedown may elect to Overtake the active creature, turning the old creature into a soul and summoning their facedown creature to take over the stack. (And again, it doesn't matter who originally summoned the creature. You may overtake your own creatures after having them “Pac Man” other souls by moving around the Graveyard. Wakka wakka wakka wakHOLY SHIT THAT'S A BONE DRAGON.)

That concludes the majority of the base mechanics, apart from one additional tweak I made that I'm still not sure about, it is simply something I'm testing to add further flavor – I've designated the first tile upon which a creature is summoned in the game “The Crypt” – each card has an additional effect for being on The Crypt. So, while you may want to quickly get out a creature in theory, you also want to try to get a strong creature on the first tile, as their Crypt effects are much stronger.

So, how did I create the cards?

Upon seeing how many different types of Undeads there were and knowing the game was going to be a single deck game, I had an idea. What if each class of Undead were a Suit in a regular playing card deck? That's right, Necromancy is a modified version of a standard 52+2 card deck. (Though, I don't currently have anything set for the Jokers. I'll come up with a plan some time.)

The base set's four suits are Skeletons, Zombies, Ghosts, and Ghouls. The other Undead types I've mentioned are pre-planned expansions, because I am a business man and hope to make money off this endeavor. ;)

Assuming the game reaches print, the cards won't have Spades, Diamonds, etc. – they'll simply be ambiguous suits that can be used in place of any of the standard suits. So if you have the base set, and buy one of the two-suit expansions, you could mix and match the suits as you please to make a standard 52 card deck to use for Poker, Blackjack, Spades, or whatever card game you prefer.

When does the game end?

Currently, the “end” conditions are:
  • When either the Graveyard is filled with 16 active creatures, OR
  • When there are no cards left to play.

The First Play Test

Today, I played against myself in the first test of Necromancy and it was illuminating. A few of the problems were execution-related. I made a few mistakes (I'm a noob at my own game).

  • Consumers were really strong and could snowball hard.
    • Part of this was because of one of the card's effects that made it get stronger as its Soul Stack increased. Part of this was because one of the Possessors also buffs a card based off the card's Soul Stack. So the big creature got really big.
    • Another part of this was because the creature was on the Crypt, so the Crypt filled its duty of being a focal position of the game. With the Crypt's location being variable, it means there is a lot of inherent variety in how each game can play out, even if players draw the same cards every time in the same order.
    • Although one creature got really big, there actually was an avenue of counterplay. Because the Graveyard is a 4x4 space, there are 7 spaces that the player controlling the Crypt cannot reasonably reach. As a comeback mechanic, a player can simply Pac Man souls on this L-shaped tile area until they can summon their own fearsome monster.
  • I probably made a mistake in deciding players may only take one Action per turn.
    • I'm still deciding whether to change it to “One Action per active creature” or leave it as-is.
  • Possessors make good Soul fodder and good Overtakers for the player with the lead.
    • If you have the lead, a creature that leaves a Soul Stack behind upon possessing another creature is less risky.
    • This is part of the execution error I had. I was playing myself, so I knew exactly what card was where, and I still moved one of the trailing player's creatures onto a stack with a Ghost that then managed to Overtake the lower cost creature that had moved onto it. That play essentially sealed the game away.
  • There doesn't seem to be enough encouragement to summon weak creatures. Not sure if this is personal perception bias from me playing against myself, or if this is an actual issue. Will have to find out when I actually teach other people the game and play it then.
  • The game had a lameduck ending.
    • Mostly this was because the Consumer got so far ahead that it was unstoppable, and the one creature that gave the trailing player a chance to come back was slain, but lameduck endings are no fun. I will attempt to find a way to make each game go down as close to the wire as possible.

Anyway, that's all I can tell you about Necromancy at its present state in design.

If you own a deck of standard playing cards, and are interested in attempting to teach other people Necromancy and playtesting it yourself, and can be trusted to actually share feedback on your own perceptions, game issues, potential balance issues, et cetera, please, contact me on Twitter @TiberiusAudley and I will be glad to share the info on the base set of cards, as well as a copy of the rules in order to fulfill your own desires to summon and control the undead.

Hope you enjoyed the read, and I look forward to presenting you with a well-polished, strategical card game some time soon!

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