September 13, 2013 5:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Following our preview of Chromancer, the online card game currently being kickstarted, here's an interview with developers The Started Hare. Have a read and find out about the intricacies of card game design, the genre's shift from analogue to digital, Kickstarter campaigns and, well, the game itself.
What is a Started Hare? Care to introduce us to the Chromancer team?
We've re-coined the phrase The Started Hare to recall the old English expression - it refers to the release of a hare at the start of a hunt. Basically it's a classical way of saying "the game is afoot!" quite literally, which we like as a gaming company. Plus, hares make for good mascots!
If that doesn't say enough about us, we're a group of (rather nerdy) professionals in different industries - software design, coding, market analysis, art and media management, fantasy writing - who share a lifelong passion for card games. We came together as a team specifically to launch Chromancer after years of design and testing of the product on paper and in fundamentals-only online versions.
And just to keep the basics covered, what exactly is Chromancer?
Chromancer is an online trading card game. It is browser-based with no download, so it runs perfectly well on any computer OS, any tablet or phone. The game is designed as a free-to-play game. We say designed because we believe that free-to-play is not simply a business-model decision, but is really a design decision. In Chromancer, all cards can be earned by free players at a reasonable rate of time invested, and moreover all the cards required to be truly competitive in this skill-based game are of "common" rarity, being easy or free to acquire. Chromancer is truly not a pay-to-win game therefore. (Another way to think about this is that rare cards do not confer an inherent advantage. Rather, they provide horizontal optionality in implementing diverse strategies and offering a different game experience rather than a "superior" one.)
Chromancer is the first adaptive strategy card game, taking advantage of a new paradigm in card game mechanics. We do away with the common trope of player life-points. Instead, players will first define the setup of the play area by choosing where they will stack their cards and their piles of resources; and then they will take turns attacking and defending these strongholds of play. So quite literally the goal of the game is to attack the opponent's piles of cards and resources (specifically the deck, discard pile and resource pool), and disable them. Once any of these is disabled, its owner is dealt a corresponding penalty: if his deck is disabled, he can no longer draw cards; if his resource pool is disabled he can no longer stockpile resources between turns, and so on. As such, the game plays out with opponents constantly having to adjust tactics based on the new rules of what is enabled or disabled of their basic capabilities. We call this adaptive strategy, and it breaks drastically with previous card games where a player typically arrives to a game with a basic deck strategy. The strategy in Chromancer is more about playing the player, and the setup, and the current game state, and less about following a rote plan of tactics.
Chromancer plays very much like a cross between the original old-school card games with actions and reactions (not asynchronous play), and a positional game like chess. The most remarkable thing about the game is that the rule structure is so unrestricting. Players can do almost anything (moving pieces around the play area, drawing cards, discarding, "burning" cards for more income, playing "instant" effect cards, and so on) any time they want, including on the opponent's turn. While positional, the game is not slotted such that only a single piece may occupy a space (cards can stack) and the result is a game that feels completely open-ended for players, able more or less to move any piece anywhere and to architect attacks and defense as if in a "sandbox" of unrestricted play. The depth of strategy is really beyond any other game currently offered in the genre.
I suppose Magic the Gathering is an obvious source of inspiration for most card games. What else influenced you?
We are all life-long card-game players. Magic was the first game that introduced most of us to the genre. It was truly ground-breaking, cleverly mixing collectability, trading, with an engaging and immersive gameplay experience centered around easy-to-track mechanics and good artwork. Over time we have of course played other games. Matt, our technical lead is an extremely competent card player (and that's an understatement, just try and beat him, seriously), and has been playing Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VTES) for years now. He is arguably one of the most highly ranked and recognized players in that game's enduring community. Beyond VTES, which was Richard Garfield's second project, we've played other games that we've appreciated over the years, including Legend of the Five Rings, Netrunner, Elements, and many others.
Significantly though, it's not just card games. We've played board games like Checkers, Chess, and Go for many years, and Chromancer carries a lot of that positional element, and deep strategic thought into it. We've also done our fair bit of poker playing, and the bluffing and baiting dynamic is something we enjoy and have tried to inject in our game as well.
Many of these games that we played existed originally in physical form, and some of them have made a transition to online. We've lived this transition and unfortunately a lot of elements are lost in that transition. Important things that define the genre, like collectability and trading. We firmly believe that a digital game that lives online should streamline the game experience and offer additional value and conveniences. Instead what often happens is important things are cut out, which we find to be a big miss in what is many times an otherwise great game. With Chromancer we not only intend to preserve and enhance things like trading, collection, socializing etc., but we've also explicitly designed the game to play as a digital game. This means quite simply that the mechanics take advantage of this (one example would be creatures playing invisibly on the game board from your opponent).
What made you design a CCG that will be playable online? Why not follow the more traditional (and physical) route?
The transition from physical gaming to online is a reality happening in every genre, card games included, and the reasons are many. There's just so much you can do online that you can't do in the physical world - things as simple as having certain cards that are invisible to your opponent, for example, all the way up to matchmaking instantly across continents so you can play an opponent on the other side of the world in real time.
There is, of course, a natural resistance of card games and of card gamers to migrate online because something is inevitably lost when the game is no longer played face-to-face, but as technology bounds forward many of those interactions online are becoming more and more like reality. The standard these days is for live-action play with your friends over voice-chat and sometimes even with cameras. As a team of card gamers, we have quite literally lived the transition from offline to online card gaming. We feel that a lot has been lost in translation from a game design perspective, however, and we want to remedy that.
Take the very basic premise of collection. It is in fact one of the two most fundamental aspects of a collectible card game! But it is lost in many new online titles, where trading is restricted or disabled and where cards exist as digital copies of an unlimited-sized set. Notably, in a well-run physical card game every card is in limited supply and every card can be traded (or given away) as its owner desires, with no restrictions whatsoever. We believe that if collectible card games are to transition successfully online, they need to embrace these two central concepts and enforce them online just as they exist offline.
Chromancer is a game that will be distributed exactly like a physical card game, in packs derived from limited print runs such that collectors' cards will retain value over time ... but with all the added advantages of being online such as the ability instantly to correct a mistake printed on all cards in the system, or adjust all copies of a card which is deemed unbalanced. People sometimes misunderstand why we are intent on limited digital print runs, thinking that the result will be certain cards are difficult to obtain for players. In fact the opposite is true: by allowing collectors to stockpile given editions of cards that they deem more valuable, and by printing newer editions (with different card art and design but identical card mechanics) for players who want to play the game, we successfully remove the annoyance of players who just want a card for its mechanics and who might otherwise be beholden to merchants that stockpile them, but we still preserve the game's collectibility. Far, far too often an online card game either sells players cards one month and then makes the same cards free or cheaper the next month, or a card game continually prints new sets of cards that are overly powerful and invalidate the old sets, forcing players to keep paying into the system to stay competitive. We are strongly against both practices.
Chromancer is being described as "adaptive". What would that mean?
There are several layers to answering this question. At its most basic level, you can consider Chromancer to be adaptive because as the game progresses, the rules of the game will change for each player based on how successful (or unsuccessful) s/he is at attacking and defending strongholds. If you suddenly find yourself in a position where you can no longer store resources from one turn to another, that means something. Perhaps you know you will never be able to play your big spells/creatures and can thus safely discard and "sacrifice" those cards in your deck during certain plays. Perhaps it means you need to play more protectively when it comes to your laid out fields. And so on.
But really, the game can be described as "adaptive" on more than just that basic level. Even from the beginning, as you set up the game and lay out the game board, you are observing what your opponent is doing and reacting accordingly. Did he place his graveyard far away because he seeks to defend it because it is a key pillar in his deck strategy? Or is that merely a ruse so that I go after it early in the game instead of focusing on other strongholds? In Chromancer, there is a strong element of baiting and bluffing, and this is certainly intentional and encouraged.
Lastly, you can think of the game as adaptive because so many things can be done in real time in response to an opponent's moves. Moving a game piece, for example, is an instant action. If my opponent plays a creature during his turn, I can immediately move my own creatures to counter him and put his newly summoned minion in a bad position.
You've decided to fund the game via Kickstarter. Why? How has the experience been so far?
It's quite difficult for a small company like us to compete with some of the bigger shops that are also using Kickstarter to fund independent games. We don't have the user base in the first place to convert, so our attempts to build a core of users from which to expand to others has been a daily chore we fight with tooth and nail. Further, the reason we are on Kickstarter is to pay for the flashier elements of the project - art and slick UI - which are often the selling points on which games are marketed to players. The industry mantra is "fake it to make it" which means quite literally that the wisdom is to show a lot of fluff and people will be interested, even if the mechanics of the game are what "matter" in the long run. So we're at a natural disadvantage in trying to market a game in an opposite state of completion: we have our game mechanics fully designed but don't yet have the art with which to advertise.
That said, overall the Kickstarter experience has been extremely positive, as the vast majority of card players who learn about our game and/or try it out for themselves (we do have a working alpha we invite interested parties to play) are blown away by brand new game play and the deep strategy. We're constantly looking for more exposure, and also fighting the clock to get better "flashy" imagery up so people can see the direction of the game rather than relying on us telling them about it. Fortunately the artwork we've already commissioned as a head start is adored hands down by those who see it. We have a good number folks following us and talking about us only for our art, in fact.
And when can we expect Chromancer to launch provided, of course, all goes well?
Since we've got all of the game design finished and we're just paying for and then plugging in art and UI elements, the game can and will launch as early as this December, assuming a successful Kickstarter. At the time of this writing we have 6 days to go and $16.5k to raise, so we definitely need the community's support to achieve this. At the same time, given the first reactions people have had with the game, there is ample reason to be confident and optimistic that we will make the goal.