Captain's Log: Drain

Balancing Drain has been by far the hardest part of designing Captain’s Gambit. Since the very beginning, Drain was meant to serve three main functions:

1) Allow passive captains (i.e. Puck, Rosalind, etc.) to “attack” other players without actually attacking them;
2) Prevent players from stockpiling too much energy (this really matters for keeping Prospero in check); and
3) Disrupt other players from executing their plans

This was our first attempt at making a permit that met all three of these goals:

 
Drain I:    Take 2 energy from another target captain. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Drain I: Take 2 energy from another target captain. [Negated by Drain and Network].

 

Seems good, right? Well…not so much. While it might seem fine at first glance, we quickly discovered two major problems with it: The Vampire Effect and The Lockdown Effect.

The Vampire Effect: After a player is drained (i.e. they didn’t successfully block it by declaring they have a Drain/Network), the rest of the players target them for the rest of the game because they know they are a “safe” target to steal from.

The Lockdown Effect: An inescapable loop where a player loses all their energy, cannot do any actions on their turn except Charge up to 2 energy, only to have their 2 energy immediately drained away again.

Being on the receiving end of these effects feels absolutely terrible. You feel powerless, and you get extremely frustrated because you feel like you are unable to play the game. So we knew we needed to fix these issues, but we weren’t certain the best way to do it. Here are all the different solutions we tried, but none of them quite worked:

_Draining.png

Drain II: Take 2 energy from another target captain. That player gains a drain protection token. [Negated by Drain and Network].
[While you have a drain protection token you cannot be drained again. The token goes away when you start your turn with 3 or more energy.]

Why it didn’t work: This solution is what I like to call an “inelegant solution.” While it completely fixed the problems with Drain when done correctly, players found it too convoluted and were constantly forgetting to remove their drain protection tokens.

remove background drain2.png

Tax: Steal 2 energy from another target captain. That captains draws a Permit card, and then shuffles any of their permit cards back into the deck. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: The idea with Tax was that since the drained captain got a new Permit card, there was a chance they could draw (or bluff that they drew) a Drain/Network permit to protect themselves from being drained again. But like Drain II, players found this solution way too confusing and were always mixing up which player was supposed to draw a permit card.

symbol_siphon.png

Siphon: Take 1 energy from another captain. If they have 4 or more energy, take 2 instead. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: This version was actually really close. By scaling the amount of energy that gets drained, players were encouraged to always target the captains with the most energy (which pretty much eliminated the Lockdown Effect). Unfortunately, it didn’t quite do enough to discourage the Vampire Effect and the player with the most energy could very quickly lose it all.

Reconnaissance: Take 1 energy from another captain. That captain may show you one of their permit cards. If they don’t, take 1 more of their energy. [Negated by Drain and Network].

Why it didn’t work: This version was only ever internally tested, but we learned very quickly it wasn’t going to work. While Reconnaissance was supposed to give players a choice about what to lose, no one ever chose to give up 2 energy. While this felt great for the player getting drained, for the player using Reconnaissance it felt way too weak and unsatisfying, especially since it could still get blocked by Drain/Network.


Finally, after many attempts, we found a version of Drain that solved all our problems:

 
Drain III:    Target another captain with 4 or more energy. Steal 2 energy from them. [Negated by Shield].

Drain III: Target another captain with 4 or more energy. Steal 2 energy from them. [Negated by Shield].

 

Here’s why this version works so well:

  • The 4 energy threshold completely eliminates the Lockdown Effect;

  • By reducing the number of permits that block Drain, more players become “safe” drain targets (which essentially eliminates the Vampire Effect);

  • Shield is now the only permit with a reaction, which makes Drain and Network much easier to understand;

  • Drain can still be used to prevent Prospero from stockpiling; and

  • Drain can still be used to “attack”/disrupt other players

This is our current (and hopefully final) version of Drain. While this version may seem like an obvious solution, I can’t even tell you how many hours of discussion and playtesting were needed to get there. It just goes to show that sometimes the best solutions are deceptively simple.

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Cadence of Hyrule II?: What I'd Want To See In A Sequel

Let’s get this out of the way: Cadence of Hyrule is awesome! On the whole it does an excellent job combining the rhythm-based movement and combat of Crypt of the Necrodancer with the items, characters, and art style of The Legend of Zelda. On top of that, the soundtrack (consisting of Necrodancer-style remixes of classic Zelda songs) is straight up amazing. If you haven’t played the game yet I highly recommend you try it out.

I may or may not have listened to this song on repeat while writing this blog post…

All that being said, if I’m being completely honest there are a few things about Cadence of Hyrule that I found a bit disappointing. Not with what was included in the game, but rather by what was left out of it. See, whenever you combine two games some of the original design elements aren’t going to work well together. As a result, some of these elements end up cut or scaled back. Cadence of Hyrule’s movement system is a pretty clear example of this. In classic Zelda games you can move fairly freely around the world, but in Crypt of the Necrodancer movement is locked to a grid and must be done in time with the music. Since these two movement systems are incompatible with each other, Cadence of Hyrule chose to ditch Zelda’s movement system in favour of Necrodancer’s (a decision that was obviously the right call).

But now that the core gameplay of Cadence of Hyrule has been created and tested (and we know that it’s excellent), I think that Brace Yourself Games should consider revisiting some of these design decisions. Specifically, I think there are three main areas that Cadence of Hyrule’s sequel could (hopefully) one day improve on:

The Items

One of the key elements of Zelda games is their toolbox approach towards item design. In most Zelda games, as you travel through the world and complete dungeons you collect various items to aid you on your quest. Each of these items can be thought of as a new tool for your toolbox, something you will inevitably (and often repeatedly) call upon to overcome any obstacle that comes your way. One of the biggest strengths to this approach to item design is that all your items feel valuable, and you always have this feeling that everything will eventually come in handy.

Cadence of Hyrule does feature this to some extent, since you do have access to a plethora of classic Zelda items. However, the problem is that the most items are entirely unnecessary for completing the game. In my playthrough I literally never used the vast majority of the items available (specifically the Bombchus, Boomerang, Deku Leaf, Din’s Fire, Fire Arrows, Fire Rod, Ice Arrows, Ice Rod, Lightning Arrows, Pegasus Anklet, Poison Arrows, War Drum, and any of the Scrolls). This wasn’t a conscious choice or challenge I set for myself, I just never needed them.

You really only need Bombs, Bow, Hookshot, and Power Glove. Oh, and stabbing. Lots and lots of stabbing.

You really only need Bombs, Bow, Hookshot, and Power Glove. Oh, and stabbing. Lots and lots of stabbing.

Does this mean that these items should be cut from the sequel? No, absolutely not! While I never used those items I’m sure some players loved using them. But what I would like is for the sequel to add in more enemies, obstacles, and puzzles that force me to use them. How about adding in switches that you can’t hit unless you hit them with a returning Boomerang? Or maybe add some enemies that are only vulnerable to specific types of arrows? Or what if you needed to use the Ice Rod to freeze a waterfall so that you could jump up it using the Rito Feather? Cadence of Hyrule has already created a fully stocked toolbox, I just want the sequel to make me use it.

The Dungeons

Cadence of Hyrule features four main dungeons where you fight your way through several floors of enemies, culminating in an epic boss battle. These levels feel like they were ripped straight out of Necrodancer, save for one key difference: the level timer. In Necrodancer, each floor had to be completed before the song ended. If you didn’t find the exit before the song finished, you’d be forced to start the next level anyways (with a bunch of extra monsters to fight as a penalty). This gave Necromancer’s levels a great sense of urgency where you both wanted to fully explore the level for gold/items, but also find the exit as quickly as possible.

In Cadence of Hyrule this timer was removed completely. Instead, songs loop endlessly so that you can take as much time as you want. For the overworld sections of the game this makes perfect sense since you want players to take their time exploring. But within the dungeons you don’t want your players to feel safe enough to explore every nook and cranny. Rather, you want them to feel like they are in constant danger and that they need to keep pushing onwards. But if you can spend literally an unlimited amount of time ransacking each floor it’s hard to feel that way.

Link is looking pretty calm considering he’s in a volcano surrounded by monsters.

Link is looking pretty calm considering he’s in a volcano surrounded by monsters.

So what should the sequel do? Honestly all they need to do is bring back the timer for the dungeons. Not only will this bring back a sense of urgency, it will also complement the procedural generation. Speaking of which, this brings me to my last point:

The Roguelike Elements

Like Necrodancer, Cadence of Hyrule is technically a roguelike. But unlike Necrodancer it doesn’t really feel like one. Broadly speaking, roguelikes use design elements like permadeath and procedural generation to make every play session feel completely different from one another. Every time you play a roguelike you never know what items, enemies, or environments you’ll encounter, so every playthrough feels fresh. But with Cadence of Hyrule there really isn’t much of a difference each time you play. While the overworld and dungeon levels are randomly generated each time you play, you won’t really notice this unless you die a lot (which, honestly, I only died one time on my entire playthrough so I barely noticed). The items and bosses you encounter are also the same, so it’s not like each run will offer unique tools or challenges. All of this adds up to Cadence of Hyrule not really feeling very replayable when compared to other roguelikes.

I had to kill myself just to get this screenshot. I hope you appreciate it.

I had to kill myself just to get this screenshot. I hope you appreciate it.

So what’s the solution? I think that Cadence of Hyrule’s sequel needs to lean a bit heavier into its roguelike roots. Maybe the game can still have four main dungeons, but they are chosen randomly from a pool of 8 possible dungeons? Maybe some items/weapons, like the Cane of Somaria or the Flail, aren’t offered every run so you have to make do with what you find. And maybe you could unlock more playable characters as you complete playthroughs so you have more incentive to play again? Any of these could help boost the game’s replayability and help keep it as fun on the 100th playthrough as it was on the first one.


So there are my thoughts on what Brace Yourself Games could do to make Cadence of Hyrule II rock! What do you think? What would you want to see in a sequel to Cadence of Hyrule? Let me know in the comments down below!

 

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Delving Deeper – The Evolution of Hearthstone’s Single Player Mode

Considering how many times I’ve brought up Hearthstone in my blog posts it should be no surprise to anyone that I’m a pretty big fan of the game. And while I’ve talked before about balancing cards and deckbuilding, I really haven’t talked about the game’s single player content. Honestly, at launch there wasn’t much to talk about. Initially the only single player content available was playing against the AI Innkeeper. And while I believe this mode serves a purpose (it acts as a good teaching tool for new players that feel intimidated playing against real people), it’s not a very challenging or compelling mode.

Thankfully, Blizzard took a massive step forward with the introduction of Adventures. Starting with Curse of Naxxramas (and continuing in Blackrock Mountain, League of Explorers, One Night in Karazhan, and Knights of the Frozen Throne), players could play through a series of boss encounters each with their own rules, mechanics, and encounter specific cards and hero powers. And these modes were a ton of fun (and are honestly still pretty fun today)! Each one did a fairly good job telling a story and offering unique and often difficult challenges.

…yeah, I’m doing great.

…yeah, I’m doing great.

However, these modes had two major limitations:

Replayability: On average, each adventure had around 10-15 encounters, typically with both a normal and a heroic difficulty. But once you’ve finished them…that’s about it. There really isn’t an incentive to play any of these adventures again after you’ve completed them.

Accessibility: Most of the boss fights in these adventures have players crafting their own decks to use (with a couple exceptions such as the Chess encounter in One Night in Karazhan). While this lets you flex your creativity, if you’re a new player with a relatively small collection some fights are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to complete.

This is where Dungeon Run comes in. With the release of Kobolds and Catacombs, Blizzard completely revamped their single player content into a deckbuilding roguelike mode similar to games like Dream Quest and Slay the Spire. Players would start off a run with a small deck of relatively weak cards, but as they defeated bosses they could add new cards and passive treasures to their decks to make it stronger. This gave an awesome sense of progression since you could feel yourself getting better as you got deeper into your run. Each run would end either when the player loses, or when they defeat 8 bosses in a row. Once a run was over you could then start again with a fresh weak deck of cards.

I absolutely adore Dungeon Run. It took massive strides in addressing both of the major flaws of the earlier adventures:

Replayability: Dungeon Run oozes replay value. While each run only contains 8 bosses, there are 48 different possible encounters you could get. On top of that you’ll be offered different cards and passives each run so your deck will be completely different. Add on the fact that you can play it with 9 different classes and you have countless hours of gameplay.

Accessibility: Since all the deckbuilding in Dungeon Run occurs during the run itself, you card collection is completely irrelevant. You could have a full golden collection or literally nothing but a few common cards and it won’t affect your ability to play the mode.

As great as Dungeon Run was (and still is), it had some room for improvement. Most notably in terms of its storytelling. While the old adventures featured interesting narrative arcs with the occasional twist (especially League of Explorers and Knights of the Frozen Throne), Dungeon Run didn’t really have one. You were just an adventurer looking for treasure. So with the next expansion, The Witchwood, Blizzard incorporated a much stronger narrative in its Monster Hunt. Now rather than taking control of the typical 9 classes you could choose from 4 classes unique to Monster Hunt: Tracker, Cannoneer, Houndmaster, and Time-Tinker. Each of these classes had a unique hero and story, culminating in a 4-on-1 battle against Hagatha the Witch. I really liked this way of incorporating story, plus it came with the added benefit of introducing some new classes!

Get wrecked by doggos, Hagatha!

Get wrecked by doggos, Hagatha!

But this came at a cost. Compared to Dungeon Run, Monster Hunt just didn’t feel like it had the same amount of replay value associated with it. Sure, you still had tons of different bosses to play against and plenty of ways to build your deck, but I think the drop from 9 heroes to 4 heroes hurt a lot. Plus, once you’ve completed the story the incentive to play through it again goes down a little.

This brings us to Rastakhan’s Rumble’s Rumble Run (geez that’s a lot of Rs), which if I’m being honest I was really disappointed by. This time you play as a troll named Rikkar who is competing against 8 other challengers to become the champion of the Gurubashi Arena. The biggest addition to this mode is the shrines, which are semi-permanent minions that appear on your side of the board and give you powerful passive benefits. Your opponent also had a shrine of their own, so you’d need to come up with a plan to play around it. This was a neat idea, and really changed up the way you play your run. However, Rumble Run took a lot of really significant steps back:

Replayability: In both Dungeon Run and Monster Hunt you had dozens of possible encounters. But in Rumble Run there are only 27 (3 possible shrines for each of the 9 classes). While that is a decent amount of variety, after a couple of runs you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen most of what it has to offer.

Agency: To offset the number of bosses, player gained a lot more variety in terms of how to build their deck. After all, you can choose any of those same 27 possible shrines for yourself. However, at the start of each run you are only offered three of them at random. This means you lose the agency you had in Dungeon Run and Monster Hunt to choose the class you want. For example, let’s say you were offered Druid, Warrior, and Hunter shrines. If you hate playing those classes, that’s too bad because you’re stuck with those options until you play one of them. On top of that, if there’s a specific shrine you really want to try you only have a 3/29 chance of it being offered on any given run (technically the odds aren’t quite that clean but you get the idea).

…sigh, still no Paladin…

…sigh, still no Paladin…

Narrative: Rumble Run’s story is about as deep as Dungeon Run’s. There really isn’t much more here than “a troll fights a bunch of other trolls until he becomes the best.” This is a huge step back from Monster Hunt, especially in terms of the finale. Even in Dungeon Run the final encounters felt special compared to the earlier bosses, but in Rumble Run you were just facing off against another normal contestant.

With the latest expansion, the Rise of Shadows, Blizzard took all the lessons they learned and made what is currently in my opinion the definitive “Run” experience. If Monster Hunt and Rumble Run were like versions 1.1 and 1.2 of Dungeon Run, The Dalaran Heist is like Dungeon Run 3.0. It pulled out the best parts of each of the modes that came before, ditched what wasn’t working, and piled on a bunch of extras. In The Dalaran Heist you play as one of 9 different henchmen of the League of E.V.I.L, a nefarious organization made up of Hearthstone’s greatest villains. Over the course of 5 different wings you help them achieve their master plan of literally stealing the entire city of Dalaran.

What a nice city…I THINK I WILL TAKE IT!

What a nice city…I THINK I WILL TAKE IT!

Here are all the elements that The Dalaran Heist improved upon:

Replayability: The amount of replayability in The Dalaran Heist is kinda ridiculous. When you add up all the classes, starting decks, and hero powers there are 108 different ways to start off your run. Add to that the 5 different Twists for each wing, Anomaly mode (which adds a random extra mechanic to your run), and Heroic difficulty there’s a stupid amount of stuff to do.

Agency: In the previous “Runs” the only way you could modify your deck was by adding to it. This meant that while your deck at the end of the run was very powerful, it was often bloated with some bad cards you gathered along the way. In The Dalaran Heist they added in Bartender Bob, a friendly encounter that allows you to modify and/or remove cards in your deck. I adore this addition because it gives the player even more control on how they want to shape their deck.

I’d straight up give up villainy for Bob if he asked me to.

I’d straight up give up villainy for Bob if he asked me to.

Progression: I’m a huge fan of Roguelikes in general. They give a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you successfully complete a run. However, one of the biggest “feels bad” moments of a Roguelike (Hearthstone’s “Runs” included) is the “bad run.” By bad run, I mean the ones where you don’t get access to the items/upgrades/cards you want and lose early on. These runs happen from time to time and they feel awful because they make you feel like you wasted your time. But The Dalaran Heist alleviated this a bit with unlockable content. Initially when you start the mode you only have access to one hero power and one starting deck per class. However, as you defeat bosses and play specific strategies over multiple runs you can unlock additional hero powers and starting decks to use in the future. This really helps give a sense of progression and reduces the negativity of “bad runs” because even if your run isn’t successful you still made progress towards unlocking more content.

Storytelling: Each of the five wings of The Dalaran Heist focuses on one of the leaders of the League of E.V.I.L accomplishing their part of the heist. At the end you get to see it all come together as you successfully kidnap the city. While this is a nice bit of storytelling on its own, Blizzard has stated they plan to have the next two expansions this year build off of The Dalaran Heist’s story. This is a great way of expanding on the worldbuilding and lore of Hearthstone.


So what can we learn from all this? I think the biggest takeaway is that game design is an iterative process. Making something as fun and robust as The Dalaran Heist just wouldn’t have been possible right when Hearthstone was launched. Blizzard needed to first test out their boss battles in the early adventures, take a big chance with Dungeon Run, and then finally experiment and refine the formula with Monster Hunt and Rumble Run. Not every step in this progression was perfect, but that’s kind of the point. It’s okay to make the occasional misstep as long as you keep running forward.

 

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