A blog post on game design from D. Brad Talton, Jr., founder of Level 99 Games

If you haven’t heard of Hearthstone yet, I encourage you to give it a look. This online collectible card game from the makers of World of Warcraft does a lot of things right, and holds some excellent lessons for game designers.

Like zen, good game design is impossible to teach. It has to be experienced. I can tell you all about the great things in Hearthstone, but until you experience it for yourself, it won’t truly register. If you haven’t played Hearthstone yet, go try the tutorial, and maybe even put in a few dollars to see what opening packs or playing in the PvE segments is like.

Here are a few lessons about good game design that I learned from playing Hearthstone. See if you agree, and see if you’ve learned anything different. Keep in mind that these are lessons on design. Things like “have a good tutorial” and “balance the game thoroughly” are lessons in execution, not design, so I won’t be mentioning those here, though Hearthstone holds a wealth of lessons in good execution as well.

 

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Convention

Player expectations are a powerful thing. When you say “let’s play a new card game”, do you expect to draw a card at the start of each of your turns? Do you expect to spend mana to pay costs to play cards? Do you expect the bottom-left number on your creature to be power and the bottom-right number to be toughness?

Good design isn’t just about functionality–it’s about ergonomics too. It’s about making the player comfortable in the space you create. By using conventions like drawing cards at the start of the turn, expendable mana, and power/toughness on creatures, Hearthstone makes players who have played popular card games feel immediately at home in its space.

As designers, we often strive to make our games as novel and unique as possible. While card games like Netrunner and Doomtown are interesting, their unconventional mechanics, game flow, and terminology are a massive barrier to entry that have served to keep them niche.

There’s certainly a difference between doing what’s right for the game and cloning successful mechanics, but consider that player expectation as a strong guideline. The easier a time players have understanding the structure of your game, the faster mechanics will fade into the background and gameplay will take over.

Compartmentalize Game Effects

If there’s one thing that Hearthstone does well, it’s making each card do only one thing. No card has more than about 15 words in its text box, and so when you see a card, it’s easy to understand immediately what it does. Furthermore, when building your deck, its easy to understand the relative importance of each card towards your overall strategy.

In many of our modern card games, we want our cards to do double- or triple-duty, having several options for players. While this sounds like versatility on paper, it is poor design. If our cards are built correctly, then it should be immediately obvious to the player which situations he would want to use a card, and which he would not. 

A lot of this poor design comes from designers thinking of their cards as resources, rather than actions. If a hand of cards is a pool of resources, then making that resource as versatile as possible is important. However, if we view a hand of cards as actions to select from, it becomes apparent that the right move is to make more cards with less text, so that each card does only one thing. If a player needs more versatility in his actions, perhaps we should step back and offer that versatility in the game itself, rather than in individual cards. 

Another thing that Hearthstone does well to compartmentalize effects is to reduce the glut of redundant cards that appear in many games, especially when it comes to high-impact cards that will swing the game one way or another. There are many answers available and each card can answer many different threats (versatility!), but the number and kinds of threats a player can ask his opponent to answer are limited, creating a meta where certain answers are reserved for certain threats. In games with many redundant cards in a large card pool, it is impossible to anticipate specific threats, and thus difficult to play against the opponent’s deck (as opposed to simply playing your own deck, without consideration for the opponent at all).

Depth Comes from Versatility

Hearthstone is a game that, despite its simplicity, has a surprising level of depth. What’s even more interesting about Hearthstone is that a rank-20 player’s deck looks about the same as a Legendary-Ranked player’s deck for any given class. The difference in ranks comes almost entirely from the way that players of different skill play the same cards.

A card in Hearthstone is not only simple, but versatile. It gives the player several options, and it is the player’s understanding of the game state, of his own deck, and of the meta that informs his decisions on how to deal with the threats presented by his opponent. 

For example, if you have a card that does 3 damage, and you’re a Mage (who can use your class power to do 1 damage every turn), will you use your card to destroy an opponent’s 2-health monster right now, or will you kill it over two turns with your class power in order to save your spell card for something more threatening? 

This decision can be informed by a lot of things—will killing the enemy now protect my own creatures? Is my opponent playing a buff deck where leaving any creature alive is dangerous? Do I suspect that he’s playing aggro, midrange, or control? The tools at a player’s disposal allow us to respond to any of these suspicions correctly, but it is our own understanding of the game that will decide if our suspicion itself was correct in the first place. 

The game structure is such that any situation can be answered in many ways, and that victory is decided by the way you choose to answer your opponent’s threats, as well as how and when you choose to present your threats to the opponent.

Limiting Information and Decisions can Improve Play

Randomized effects are often looked down in card game design. I myself have often shunned the idea of including randomness in a game, as a player might gain advantages that he does not necessarily deserve.

However, random factors such as drawing from a deck or having an effect with an uncertain outcome can indeed improve gameplay and make a game better. Random factors help to remove calculation elements from a game, making it more fair for players who are unable or who choose not to do those calculations. 

For example, suppose a card exists that can counter my play, and my opponent may or may not have it. There are two scenarios now: one where I do not know of the existence of the card that counters me, and one where I do. In the first scenario, I will always make my play, because I don’t understand the risks. In the second scenario, I may still make the same play, because I judge the risks to be worth it. There is still a valuation and skill that is brought out by the random factors of the game, but it is a valuation of odds and a skill of risk-awareness, rather than the skill of pure mathematics. In a full information game, my decision is absolutely right or absolutely wrong. In a game with limited information, my decision is only wrong or right a certain percentage of the time. 

In Hearthstone it is often this way–cards exist to counter your moves, but judging by the meta, the opponent’s class type, their plays so far, and the state of the board, you can make an informed decision about how to answer a play or when to press the advantage.

Consider too, humans are better at doing risk-assessment than mathematics on the fly, and so asking players to put to use a skill that they are better-designed for helps to make the game more enjoyable and helps the game to play faster.

Conclusions

There is a lot that a designer can learn from playing a few hours of Hearthstone. A well-designed game offers familiar and intuitive mechanics and clear-cut decisions that generate depth by their versatility, rather than their complexity. Limiting Information does not reduce a game's skill curve, but rather changes the required skill set into something else. These are big ideas that we can build into the design of any card game, and which will make our games more accessible, and thus more fun and longer-lived for those that choose to play them.

 

Discussion Point: Would Android: Netrunner be a better game if the Runner was forced to draw a card as their first action each turn the same way the Corp player is?

Discussion Point: If you could only include one of these cards in your game, which would it be: Forked Bolt, Lightning Bolt, Chaos Charm, or Seal of Fire? Which has the greatest versatility?

Discussion Point: Hearthstone does not allow players to look at their own discard piles or their opponent's discard piles. How do you think this limiting of information improves or detracts from the game?

 

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