After the extraordinary Star Realms sat us all down and said in the kindly Gandalfian voice of White Wizard Games, "Listen, this is how Deckbuilders are done..." I found myself breaking one of my sacred rules of commerce. The moment I saw Epic, their newest title, in the GDC store I snapped it up. I didn't check reviews, I didn't check gameplay videos. I bought it on faith alone.
I was surprised at what I found. While Star Realms is a study in elegance, Epic is "swimming upstream". This means that the design is set up in a way that inherently makes the designer's job harder.
Core mechanics are like the foundation for a building. Ask an architect to build a house on a slope and they have to compensate for it. If you ask them to build it on quicksand while obeying restrictive zoning laws and make it so the house can double as a jetski, you’re going to run into some problems.
Epic is an extraordinarily ambitious game. Its creators are trying to build a skyscraper on a cracked foundation. Whether they pulled it off is subjective, but their efforts are definitely worth a look.
Let's take a look at some of the challenges that Epic has faced. Then we'll take a quick look at how they designed their content to work around them.
1) Serving Many Masters
It's hard to design a great game. It's a lot harder to design a great game where all the pieces simultaneously have to work just as well in a dozen different game modes. Consider the demands for Epic's card base:
Players must be able to deckbuild, without any faction restrictions, freely in a way that creates a balanced competitive environment. The designers of Hearthstone, Magic the Gathering and similar titles have trouble creating a balanced and varied competitive environment even with the benefit of faction restrictions (which prevent a player from putting all the best cards into one deck). Accomplishing the same task with fewer tools is always going to be harder.
Players also need to be able to randomly deal out 30 cards from the box to each player and have an engaging, fun experience.
Players also need to be able to combine multiple sets together to create a great "draft" format.
Players also need to be able to separate the core set of cards by their faction colors and have four balanced, fun preconstructed decks.
There's even more than this, but that's just the start. The demands of each format are also very different. You might discover that a card which is fun in most environments breaks down once you can build around it in the full constructed format. Or you might discover that cards which are fun and fair when you can build a whole deck focusing on them are useless draws when playing the 30 card random format.
Creating cards that are balanced in all these formats at once is obviously a huge challenge. However, things are about to get harder.
2) Minimal Balance Flexibility
Epic's resource system is designed so cards have only two costs, either 1 gold or 0 gold. Each player resets to 1 gold at the start of each turn. A designer attempting to balance a card can't easily tweak its costs. She has only two options.
This makes balancing each card more difficult than a more flexible resource system. Considering the demands of cards to be balanced in multiple formats, this is a developer's nightmare.
3) No Climactic Structure
I've mentioned before that good games tend to be built on a core emotional structure of events. You can read about the full thing here, but the basic idea is simple: Alternate positive and negative events so each is felt more deeply due to contrast, and have each event be bigger than the one that came before so that the game builds towards a climax. Unfortunately, Epic falls down in both places.
Normally turn-based games can't really mess up the basic alternation of positives and negatives. Your turn is a positive for you, while your opponent's turn is a negative. However, a huge chunk of Epic’s cards can be played on your opponent's turn. The core mechanics also force you to do it as much as possible, as not spending gold gained on your opponent's turn is a crippling waste of resources. This means that the core positive/negative event structure tends to break down.
The climactic escalation is warped even further. Players have access to only 1 gold each turn, they don't get more as the game goes on. This prevents an easy sense of escalating events. In fact, the off-turn demands for cards to be played often pushes hand sizes lower over the course of the game so your plays get less impressive as time goes on. You start with a bang and end with a whimper. Not ideal.
4) Lack of Comebacks
Games rely on hope to keep losing players engaged until the end. The tension that your opponent might still come back also helps keep winning players engaged. Epic has some inherent problems here.
Epic’s core mechanics mean that players can play one high-impact card each turn. If a player stumbles due to a bad draw and can't play a gold card for a turn or two, it's very difficult to come back. The game requires the designers to make cards that can be worth more than multiple cards your opponent has already played. This is tricky to do in a balanced way.
5) Weird Rules
Epic's rules are often unintuitive. For example, the fact you lose unspent gold at the end of each turn. Where does it go? Players are more willing to accept something insubstantial like "mana" behaves in an unusual way. We don't inherently feel like we know how magical energy is supposed to work. Gold we have a working real-world knowledge of. This is valuable when the game mechanics fit with your pre-existing knowledge. It's a disadvantage when they don't.
Attacking and blocking is odd as well. In Epic, Champions attack and block in groups. If one attacking Champion is blocked, all attacking Champions are blocked. It doesn’t matter if one of them couldn’t be blocked normally. If you're attacked by a high-flying dragon and a bull charging on the ground, blocking the bull also somehow blocks the dragon. However, the dragon couldn’t have been blocked if it had attacked alone. Bizarre.
Unfortunately, many of the rules are necessary byproducts of the other issues. Group-based blocking clearly favors the defender, as it punishes a player for attacking with too many things at once. It helps the player at board disadvantage get some extra time. The price is making the game more difficult to understand. When a game’s rules are harder to understand, you need to make the cards simpler to compensate. This exhausts a significant portion of Epic’s complexity budget.
White Wizard clearly knows about all of this. They know they have serious issues in their core mechanics. However, core mechanic troubles can often be solved via clever design that dances around these pitfalls. Here are some of their attempted solutions:
1) Loyalty 2
In order to prevent players from just taking the best cards in each faction, White Wizard introduced the Loyalty 2 mechanic. When you play a card with Loyalty 2, revealing 2 cards of its faction in your hand provides you with an additional benefit. This naturally encourages you to have more cards of a loyalty card’s faction in your deck.
Loyalty is a soft requirement. Running a single-faction deck ensures that your Loyalty abilities will always be turned on, but running a 2 faction deck makes it reasonable to turn on both faction's loyalty abilities a good portion of the time. Spreading further among factions minorly reduces the consistency of your deck's loyalty options. This is a clever approximation of MTG's mana system (which also offers consistency in exchange for running fewer factions in your deck).
Of course, this mechanic makes the random "deal 30 cards and play" format extremely swingy. It also places a huge restriction on card design. Loyalty benefits need to be big enough to push their constructed use, but future expansions can't risk releasing too many of them. Filling your whole deck with powerful Loyalty 2 cards could easily put things over the top.
Meanwhile, the non-loyalty cards can't risk outperforming the loyalty ones consistently - or the delicate balance that makes factions matter collapses. It's possible to reach this balance in an initial release, but maintaining the right ratios to limit what's possible in a constructed environment over multiple expansions is much harder.
2) Card Flow
Players only draw 1 card each turn, but the core mechanics push them to playing more. The presence of 0 cost cards is one factor here. Players also need a steady flow of gold cards that can be played on their opponent's turns, in order to make use of the gold they gain then. This requires not only getting a lot of cards, but also the right mix of them. This means a lot of extra draws have to happen.
You can see the echoes of this realization throughout the card base. One example is how a huge number of events have a secondary mode where, for no flavor-based reason, they can also be used to draw 2 cards. Take a look at the first card shown in the rulebook.
Apocalypse huh? When I think of the Apocalypse, I don't imagine harmlessly drawing cards. The only reason this card has this unnatural ability is because the game needs it. The game has core issues that they're trying to solve within the card base.This leads us to another issue Apocalypse is tackling.
3) Comeback Cards
Apocalypse allows a player that is behind on the board to come back by destroying everything at once. Meanwhile, the limitations of Apocalypse make it bad at pushing an advantage.
Apocalypse is an obvious comeback card, but Epic creates many more subtle ones. There are a huge number of designs that answer existing threats while generating small advantages. Here's another:
Palace Guard gets rid of another Champion the moment you play it. While a 6/8 body is small, it gets rid of your enemy's biggest creature and leaves you with a little extra. Note that Palace Guard is useless when played against an empty board. It's naturally at its strongest when your opponent has a very powerful creature out, making it a subtle comeback design.
While Palace Guard can be used to press an advantage, good players naturally want to conserve such a powerful removal option for as long as possible. If you already have the advantage you probably want to save your Guard until it can deal with something that nothing else you have can.
The relative power of answers as compared to threats is one reason Epic works. You deploy threats blind, then your opponent picks the card that answers it the most effectively from their hand. You play an 18/18 Burrowing Wurm. They play a Palace Guard. Suddenly your giant creature goes away and they're left with a 6/8.
See what happened? That was a small piece of climactic event structure. Your positive was followed by a bigger negative, because the removed your creature and got additional value in the proces. This hopefully continues until one player is forced to use something like an Apocalypse effect (the climax). Afterwards both players are probably low on resources, meaning the game hopefully wraps up before it feels anticlimactic.
4) Balance Flexibility
Because of the limitations in balancing costs, Epic’s designers clearly chose to have massive base stats for each creature. While many games are built around 4/4 creatures as a middle size, Epic contains creatures like this.
That’s an 18/18 with an additional, positive ability. With such a huge range of basic statistics, Epic has a lot of flexibility when it comes to tweaking a creature’s statistics to make it just a bit stronger or weaker. An 18/18 is a rather unusual set of numbers. If I had to guess, this was either a 20/20 or a 15/15 at one point in development.
Mechanics like aforementioned Loyalty are another way to slip added power onto a card. After all, cards with Loyalty 2 have an additional deckbuilding requirement to pay for their power. This is effectively another cost you can fiddle with.
Likewise, the designers have tried working other soft costs into their cards.
Inner Peace returns to your hand from your discard pile if you play a gold card of the same faction. Like Loyalty, this mechanic is a soft cost. It becomes much stronger the more cards you play of a particular faction over the course of a game. This mechanic provides a lifegain and card advantage engine for constructed decks focusing on the Good faction, while the card less reliable in more random formats (like draft and sealed).
There are also other cards that cost small amounts of health to use, or offer the option to pay additional costs (often gold) for more powerful options. Epic's designers have some space here and they try to get as much out of it as they can.
In terms of its design challenges, Epic is aptly named. While Star Realms streamlined its genre and seemed to effortlessly soar, Epic feels much more like an underwater hotel. Trying to build a hotel underwater just makes the job harder. However, if you can pull it off you end up with something special.
Whether they managed it our not? I’ll leave that up to you. Considering the cheap price tag, the game’s worth picking up for the sake of exploring alone.
See you next time.