Like many other designers headed to Unpub 4, I got excited when DiceHateMe announced the 54 card challenge. Since this is a very short development period, I thought it was a great opportunity to write some design notes to document my process. Singe the game is still in early design stage, details will change. And since I haven’t finalized the theme yet, so I will post everything under the heading of 54 Card Challenge tag for now, and collect it later when it has a name.
It took me a while after hearing of the contest to come up with a workable idea. My first thought was a more casual party game about collecting sets, but I didn’t go with that for two reasons. One, I only had a single mechanic and a loose theme, but not enough to make a complete game out of. And two, I didn’t think I would have a chance to test it with enough people. I also considered doing something using cards to track resources, but figured that was more appropriate for square cards, and would require too much testing for balance.
So I went back to the drawing board, and dug around in my inspiration files for anything that might work as a card game. At the same time, I started thinking about mechanics, and started with adding cards to a shared playing field. That reminded me of something I had recently read about the Carnac Stones, rows of stones in a field in France, of unknown origin and meaning. That makes it a fairly light theme, but one that is easy to apply to a new game. The cards become the stones, being placed in lines in the field.
With the theme and general mechanic in place, I decided that points would come from matching patterns. The front of the card would be the patten, and the back would be either light or dark, so players place cards face down in the field. I wanted there to be two copies of each pattern in the deck, one for the light cards and one for the dark cards. This meant I could think of my game as two groups of 27 cards, instead of 4 groups of 13, which gave me a little more flexibility. I came up with a number of patterns, mostly in arrangements of 3×3 or smaller. Next, I added some special abilities, letting players draw more or play more cards, or move existing cards around.
Before finalizing the cards, I worked out the scoring. I started with the simplest method, of one point per card in the pattern. So a plus (+) was 5 points, a 3×2 arrangement was six points, while a big U was seven points. Some of the small patterns were contained within other patterns., which created an interesting trade off. Since larger patterns are worth more, you could potentially score both a small pattern and a large pattern for a lot of points for little effort. The risk is that it also gives your opponent a chance to score the larger or smaller pattern. This made me realize that if players could just put down existing patterns, it would be too easy to build a pattern, then play several cards and score. So I decided that patterns had to be played first, and completed later to be scored. This meant that blocking would be a part of the game, since you would be able to see what your opponent was trying to complete. To balance this, I made some of the simplest patterns worth fewer points (only one point for a line of 3) but larger patterns worth more (eleven points for a full 3×3 box).
This gave me three possible actions for each turn (and three is a good number of options–not too many to remember or too few to limit choice): Play a card face-down in the field, play an ability card and discard it, or play a pattern in front of you to score. I also decided that players should start with three cards in their hand, and play one and draw one each turn. I took these actions and scoring methods and added a few related abilities, and a few bonus scoring abilities. If you could get five cards in hand, you scored a few points, since it’s harder to do, but gives you more choice. If you had only one card in your hand, you scored more points, since it limits your options. I selected the best patterns and abilities, and got ready for my first playtest, which I will cover next.