ungeon Command is a new miniature combat board game that debuts in July with two faction packs: Heart of Cormyr and Sting of Lolth. In this, the third of four articles looking at the creation of Dungeon Command, designer Chris Dupuis talks about the fact that not every change makes it to the final version of a game and how iterations, even if they fail, always teach you something. Be sure to check out articles one and two in the series.
Entering the Dungeon
Hi. I'm Chris Dupuis, one of the newest designers in the D&D group. This is my first Design and Development article, so be gentle with the comments!
Let's flash back to July of last year. I'd just moved to Washington to join the D&D team. After Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee teased me with a quick play through of Lords of Waterdeep, they showed me the next game they had in the pipeline: Dungeon Command (which at that time was called "D&D Skirmish"). It was still in a rough state, but it was playable. PDFs were being created for the public playtest that was going to go live within a few weeks.
When Gen Con came around, Pete and Rodney packed up the latest version, took it to Indianapolis with them to show some of our freelancers, and left me alone to learn the game inside and out (when they got back, we needed to design sets for goblins, undead, and orcs). So in the ghostly silent office that was Wizards during Gen Con, I set myself to the task of roaming the empty halls, looking to introduce myself to new colleagues, and testing out this game.
I ended up playing a lot of Dungeon Command that week with Matt Sernett, James Hata, and Ryan Miller. James and Ryan are from the "card side" of R&D (which includes the designers of Magic: the Gathering, Duel Masters, and Kaijudo). Matt Sernett is a fellow D&D Designer.
After the games, we discussed what worked and what didn't, and what we would change about the game in a perfect world. I'm of the mindset that if you can think of something that would make a game better, you push to get it. If we in R&D aren't pushing to make the best games possible, then we're doing the fans (and ourselves) a disservice.
After a ton of games, the one thing we kept discussing was the lack of dice.
Version 7.2—Adding Dice Back In
I grew up playing Risk and D&D, and I cut my teeth as a designer on Heroscape. When I kill things, I want to roll dice. I want to hold my breath as a d20 bounces across the table and lands on that glorious "20," only to slide off of the sleeved card and come to rest on the "2." I want to growl, curse the die for betraying me, then pull out its replacement from my pocket. I love the tension that dice bring to a game. So it was a little weird to sit down to a minis game and not have a handful of dice to roll.
I knew the game had already gone through a revision to take the dice out, but at the time I didn't know the reason why. So I rebuilt the game using a d20 to resolve attacks. I gave each Creature card an armor class, and tweaked or cut many of the Order cards. Instead of just giving base damage boosts, the remaining Order cards shifted to attack enhancements instead. Because we were adding the d20 back in, I did away with most of the immediate actions in an attempt to simplify things.
While this version of the game was functional, after playing it for a while it became clear that it varied too much from the core of the previous iteration. It had lost its spark. While I love the d20, I had to admit that it just wasn't right for this product. Having satisfied my curiosity, I tossed that version out, and started rolling my playtest files back to the previous iteration.
Version 7.3—Let's Get to the Core of Off Turn Actions
Since my previous experiment had included cutting Immediate actions out of the game, I decided next to look at those specific actions. They were integral to the uncertainty of the game, but I didn't like that we were essentially encourage you not to play the game. By that I mean that on my turn I would move a creature up, then do nothing—either preparing an Immediate card for use against my opponent or bluffing that I had one in my hand.
At this point, some of the drow Creature cards had a power called Nimble that allowed them to untap. It was much easier (and more fun) to play with the drow faction because you didn't have to decide if you wanted to attack or wait—you could do both. We wanted all players to be able to do that without forcing them to stack their decks with drow.
So we played around with a version where you would untap at the end of your turn as well as the beginning. This way, any creature you controlled could perform an off-turn action in the form of an Immediate card.
As soon as we started playing with this new version, we were off to the races. The tension ramped up, trash talking erupted, and everything started to flow faster. While it seemed a bit odd that we had two untap steps during your turn, it clearly was better for the flow of the game, so this change stayed all the way through to the final version.
A game goes through multiple iterations from concept to final product, and even once you have a fully playable version, it still has a long way to go. Not every change ends up being a great one, and you often have to roll back to a previous version rather than continue forward. The trick is to avoid getting so focused on the changes you're making that you forget to step back and look at the game as a whole. No matter how well a particular mechanic is working, it may have to go if it isn't making the game more fun. In fact, it must. Remember, your goal is to make the product the best it can be.
Next week, I'll talk about why, in Dungeon Command, Morale is more important than gold.