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Dungeon Command—Luck and Uncertainty
Design & Development
Peter Lee

D 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 second of four articles looking at the creation of Dungeon Command, designer Peter Lee describes the changes that occurred when the die was removed from the original design. Be sure to check out last week's article.

Luck and Uncertainty

For a game to function, it needs uncertainty. Without uncertainty, it's simply a puzzle: once you've solved a particular Sudoku puzzle, there is little point in solving it again as the solution will always be the same. The simplest source of uncertainty is people. A game of chess has no traditional source of randomness other than your opponent. It also results in an extremely skill-based game. A good chess player will always defeat a bad chess player.

Skill base games are great, but in a small group, players get frustrated if they always lose. Game designers add elements of luck to mitigate this. Even the best Magic: the Gathering player will lose if all he draws is land. The best Risk player will lose if all he can roll are ones. This levels the playing field a little, giving a chance for a less experienced player to defeat a more experienced one. This is healthy for a game that is played for fun: it stops less experienced players from getting quickly discouraged.

Random events can be encountered in two ways in a game: before or after a choice. A game like Yatzhee features a random event before a player makes a decision. You roll the dice, and then you choose how to score those dice. Combat in Dungeons & Dragons features a random event after the choice. You declare that you are attacking the orc, and then you make an attack roll. You don't know if the attack will hit until after you roll the die. This difference has large implications on game play—a random event before a choice determines what you do, while a random event after the choice determines how well you do it.

At the end of preliminary design, Dungeon Command used random events in both ways. Drawing a card from the Order deck was a random event before the decision, while the attack roll was a random event after the decision. Since this was to be a stronger skill-based game, designer Kevin Tatroe and I did a lot to mitigate bad die-rolling luck with "+2" tokens you could spend after a roll. However, it was still possible to negate a powerful attack with a bad die roll, and having two major sources of luck took the game away from being a skill-based game. Designer Rodney Thompson and I had a long discussion on what would happen if we removed the die. It did mean a major redesign of the mechanics, but we were sure it would result in a better game.

Uncertainty Through Immediate Actions

We entered the next stage of design. By this time, Kevin was in the middle of moving away from Seattle, so it was unfortunately too difficult to work on the redesign with him. To remove the die, Rodney and I first deconstructed the game to determine exactly what it did. The die's primary purpose was to add uncertainty to attacks. If we remove the die, we'd need to add a different mechanic to provide uncertainty. Enter a new card type: the Immediate card.

Immediate cards provide uncertainty. The mechanic gives the defending player ways to react during his or her opponent's turn—the simplest being damage prevention. That little bit of damage prevention might be all that is needed to keep a creature alive for another turn, and that's all that might be needed to turn a losing game into a winning one.

After introducing Immediate cards, we ended up with three card types that would eventually be named Standard, Minor, and Immediate. We brought in the tapping mechanic from Magic as a convenient method to determine if a creature has made a Standard or Immediate action.

Uncertainty Through Attacks

Immediate cards that change damage amount provide some uncertainty for the defender, but not the attacker. To create greater uncertainty, we added more methods to increase the amount dealt by an attack. For example, the Shadowy Ambush card allows a Level 3 creature to shift 2 squares and make a melee attack dealing 50 damage. Other cards, like Quick Shot, give the player an additional attack during his or her turn. The combination of variable attacks and variable defenses makes the game surprising and fun.

Changes to Initiative and the Turn Sequence

Originally, Dungeon Command was a round-based game where players would alternately activate a subset of their creatures. Since we eliminated the die, we also eliminated the ability to make an initiative roll. Without an initiative roll, the round structure started falling apart—how did we determine who went first in a round? Addressing this question would ultimately change the structure of the game.

The solution we settled on was to make it a simple turn-based game: I activate all my creatures, you activate all your creatures, repeat. For miniature games, I typically don't like turns where you activate all your units at once. It's too easy to take out an opponent without fear of reprisal. Fortunately, Dungeon Command isn't your typical miniature game. By having creatures continually enter the battlefield, your forces won't all be on the front lines at the same time. Therefore, my biggest concern with activating all creatures at once wasn't as much of a problem.

Streamlining Creatures

There are other changes we made to the game that didn't have to do with uncertainty. We also tied the creatures to one of the abilities (Strength, Dexterity, etc.) in this iteration. This made it possible to have a deck-constructing aspect to the game: players could create their own mix of creatures and order cards. You could take your favorite two abilities and build your own deck around them. For example, you could concentrate on Intelligence and Constitution to create a deck of wizards and bodyguards.

Gen Con and the Public Playtest

Rodney and I finished up the revision and we sent it to be laid out for the online playtest. It was about this time that my new coworker Chris Dupuis joined the department. We showed him the game and promptly abandoned him for a week as we travelled to Gen Con in Indianapolis. Tune in next week to find out what he did while we were away.

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