The Cursed Treasure 2 Remake is a Bit of a Mess

Cursed Treasure 2 was a flash game that was released almost a decade ago. It’s a tower defense game of the predefined path type, meaning that the enemies move along a road while the towers built on the sides shoot at them. The overall theme of the game is that of traditional fantasy heroes trying to steal treasure from the forces of evil, with the player taking the role of the forces of evil.

Said forces of evil come in three distinct lines, each with their own kind of tower, terrain, universal upgrades, and spell. The first line is the orcs, the most mundane of three. Their basic tower is built on grass, and simply shoots an arrow every so often. The second force is the undead, associated with cold and fear. Their towers are built on snow, and can store charges that can be launched at the enemy all at once. The third is the demons, whose element is fire. The demon tower is built on desert, and shoots a constant stream of damage.

You may have noticed that I spoke of basic towers. Each tower can be upgraded using money, but before they can do this, they need to build up experience. This experience is acquired, as usual, by killing things. This need to gain experience is mostly a way to pace the game, making sure that the player has an incentive to build around the map, rather than just maxing out every building they place down. At the same time, the highly restricted ability to place buildings and the fact that some places a tower can be built, like a U-turn in the road, are more valuable than others, means that the player also has plenty of reason to save money for specific buildings, providing an interesting tension I rather enjoy.

Each building has a tree of possible towers they can become. When a tower would be upgraded a second time, the player is provided with two options. If the tower is an orc tower, it can be upgraded into a form that can cause splash damage, or one capable of critical hits. The undead towers choose between freezing enemies, making them move slower, or frightening them, making them move backward. The demons can either gain the ability to shoot at two enemies at once, or to turn the entire area around them into lava for a moment, hitting everything in their range. There are also two options at the fifth and final level, between a form that doubles down on the first upgrade, and one that’s shared between the two forms.

The player can also upgrade themselves between missions. There are three upgrade trees, again associated with one each of orcs, undead, and demons. The upgrades are a bit of a mix, usually making the related towers and spells more useful, or helping you get more money, mana, or making it easier to keep treasure at the end of the path. One interesting feature is the every point spent in a tree gives a small boost to attribute for all towers: rate of fire for the orcs, range for the undead, and damage for demons.

I wanted to explain all of that to illustrate how much of the game is built on this tripartite structure. Spells, in the original version, also came in three, each associated with a species and following their themes. The demon spell was Meteor, a giant flaming rock that was dropped on enemies, dealing direct damage. The undead had Frighten, which had the same effect as the frightening branch of the undead towers. The orc spell was Cut Out, which was mostly used to free up space for new towers, and with a certain upgrade, get a quick infusion of cash. But Cut Out isn’t a spell in the remake.

Instead, Cut Out is now a special action, performed by clicking on a tile of trees that are scattered around the map, and selecting the Cut Out option. This change might have something to do the changes to capturing buildings, which was Cut Out’s secondary function. Some maps have buildings, like gold mines or towns, that can be captured, either giving a benefit to the player directly, or to keep them from aiding the enemy. In the old version, capturing was done by casting Cut Out on the building, while in the new, you click on the building and selecting capture. The changes to capturing probably has something to do with it now having a variable cost of mana, or even sometimes costing gold.

Still, even with the aesthetic problem of broken symmetry, Cursed Treasure 2 is still worth playing. I didn’t get to mention the skulls, which are used to power what are basically cheats, or the fact that the changes to the layout of the upgrade screen made it stop making sense. Still, thanks for reading my ramblings on an old browser game I like.

On the Difficulty of Making 4X Players go Tall

The 4X genre of games is defined by four activities: exploration of the map, expansion of territory, exploitation of resources, and extermination of enemies. The expansion and exploitation phases of the game depend on the player creating settlements and using them to collect resources. Space-based 4X’s usually only allow a player to create settlements in particular places on the map, representing inhabitable worlds. Terrestrial versions generally allow settlements on any land tile. However, both kinds have two basic strategies for settlement placement: going ‘wide’, creating as many settlements as possible, and going ‘tall’, putting all of your resources into a small number of cities.

Typically, every settlement has a number associated with it, representing the number of people that live within that settlement. This population number determines how many workers a settlement has available, either gathering resources in the surrounding territory, or making secondary resources in the settlements various buildings. A settlement’s population tends to increase slower as it gets bigger, as well. These two attributes of population, determining the number of workers and naturally slowing growth, combine to make going wide the correct strategy in nearly every situation.

If you need an example, consider a region with some amount of resource spread over a four by four area. This four by four area consists of sixteen tiles so a single settlement would require a population of sixteen to work every tile. For simplicity, let’s assume that this settlement’s population starts at one, and increases after a number of turns equal to it’s population, so that the population becomes two one turn after creation, three after three turns, four after seven turns, and so on. The end result is that it would take 136 turn for the settlement to reach sixteen population and work every tile.

Now, if the player decided to create four settlements in the region, all of them growing at the same rate, so that their combined population is four at creation, eight a turn later, twelve after three turns, and reaching sixteen population, working the entire region, after only seven turns. The resources from the region can then be used to create other settlements elsewhere, limited only by the chance for a settlement to take more resource to maintain that it can collect.

Given this, wide strategies will always be stronger than tall strategies. The only way for tall strategies to compete is for them to use completely different population mechanics, which probably requires a faction that has going tall as a gimmick. This is a shame, because the designers of these games always seem to want tall to be a viable strategy. Whether it’s how the Civilization series programs it’s AI, or the empire sprawl mechanics of Stellaris, they always seem to want tall to be a strategy that can be usable in at least some situations, rather than needing the entire game to be built around it.


Incremental Games

Incremental games are a class of resource management games where gameplay consists of the player buying small upgrades that allow them to collect various kinds of resources. These resources are then used to buy further upgrades, completing the loop. They suck.

A large part of this is that there are usually ways to make the resources go up over time, effectively buying them with an out-of-game resource. This also makes a good chuck of the game nothing more that waiting to be able to afford the next upgrade. And the part that isn’t is trying to figure out what to spend your resources on to get the best return on investment, meaning that the game is a giant exercise in accounting.

And most of the designers of these games realize how boring they are. That’s why they let resources accumulate while the program is closed, effectively rewarding the player for not playing. But that’s not the worst part.

No, the worst part is that trying to find all of the upgrades the developers put in the game is fun. There’s a wonder of exploration there, always looking forward to what’s over the next hill. Unfortunately, actually climbing the hill is a tedious loop of waiting and bean-counting, and at the end of it all, you want the last six hours of your life back.


40k With the Serial Numbers Filed Off // The Knights of the Lost

I have confirmed the existence of a third branch of the Knights of the Lost. Unfortunately, that branch is trying to kill me.

I’ve been reading the 9th Age forums recently, or rather, I’ve been watching people complain about that game not being exactly like its inspiration. Such a reminder of the differences between result and inspiration brought me back to a particular obsession of mine: what the T9A team (or a similar project) would do to the 40k universe. In particular, I wonder what they would do to the Space Wolves, the Dark Angels, and the Blood Angels, three Space Marine chapters that have traditionally gotten their own books.

The Knights of the Lost originally came from the Chaos-wracked planet called Logress, which was, tragically, destroyed around the time of the Second Empire. Before the Light reached that benighted world, the predecessors of this chapter of Bellatores, the Knights of the Round Table, would ride out from their citadels, slaying the monstrosities that infested the wild. In this way, the what little civilization that existed on Logress could survive.

The Knights of the Lost still honor those ancient warriors, and their elite super-heavy infantry still bears their name. If you find yourself on the same battlefield as these modern Knights of the Round, you can be assured that no behemoth, made of either flesh or steel, will break through that wall of heroes. Just be aware that they are wont to keep to themselves outside of combat.

Introduction to the Galaxy, 9994 Edition

I am not, of course, suggesting that the T9A team actually do anything like this. They’ve already got their own project to work on, and they already seem stretched pretty thin. I am simply wondering what would happen if somebody made a universe based off of 40k, using a similar set of constraints used for creating The 9th Age. I’m not sure it would be possible.

When the pincers arrived, I thought we were all dead. I could barely get a request for help through the comm, busy as I was staring at those blood-soaked chitin blades. I heard something about someone ‘being right there’ over the comm, and then there was a crack like thunder. I looked up, and saw about a dozen men, in white armor so heavy I didn’t think anyone could move in it, facing off against those giant beetles. The streets ran with blood tonight, but it wasn’t the red blood of humans.

Journal of Galen Koizumi, 08.03.9985

The very fact that there are sub-factions with their own books in 40k points to why. T9A is intentionally designed to be played in tournaments, rather than the half-narrative, half-simulation with vague gestures toward tournament play the 40k has been for most of its life. T9A’s design paradigm is a lot less amendable towards letting books share most of their units. Strengthening or weakening a unit in one book can have knock-on effects in the books that share that unit, making the game harder to balance overall.

The refuges stood in the rain, waiting for the day’s rations. The Knights of the Lost stood guard, watching for the enemies beyond the camp, and making sure that there were no problems inside of it. So long as they behaved themselves, they payed little attention to the displaced civilians in their mist.

Sarah was grateful for that. Being ignored was much better than getting the attention of armed men, even if they were supposed to be here to protect her people. As it was, she didn’t dare let Andre, her young son, out of her site for minute, not when she had lost so many other children. So it was that she was taking her rations back to their tent, keeping a hold of Andre’s hand, dragging him along and trying to keep away from the guards. When they paused to let grav-lift pass in front of them, Andre asked, “Hey mister, why are you wearing a robe over your armor?”

As one, the Knights of the Lost turned and glared.

Pushing against this, however, is the second constraint, that every model used in the WHFB needs to continue to have a use in T9A. Strictly speaking, this constraint exists because T9A was created as a replacement for a game that had ended, and the creators wanted the players to be able to use the models they had bought, assembled, and painted over the years, which wouldn’t actually apply in the case of doing the same to 40k. However, this constraint, along with the third constraint of the fluff having to be different enough from the inspiration to avoid legal troubles, results in the kind of fiction that I’m actually interested in.

Interrogator Bedwyr stared at me through his skull-faced helmet. He asked me about my past, about my work, trying to dig up whatever contradictions my mind could spit out. I lied, of course, or at least I deceived. I wasn’t going to admit that I was there to investigate the rumors of strange technology that followed the Knights around. I made myself believe what I was saying, too, as much as I could without forgetting my mission, at least. That was the only reason I was able to redirect the violation from the psychic from behind the glass, channeling him into the lies I told about myself rather than letting him get to the truth.

It seemed that their suspicions were not put to rest by the attempted break-in on my mind. They brought me to a small chamber, containing nothing but a bed and a toilet, and barely large enough to fit both. Everything was going exactly as I planned.

Another thing to consider is the sheer size of the Space Marine model lines. This is the natural result of them getting a disproportionate number of releases for over thirty years, and at this point, army composition is a bit unwieldy. GW has tried to differentiate the lines at points, but that, in the end, didn’t seem to take. Part of this was for fluff reasons. Why was it that the Blood Angels and their successors alone, out of all the chapters in the galaxy, knew how to put their librarians in dreadnoughts?

I have a spatial compressor in my stomach lining, you know. It was most useful in escaping; I just shrunk myself down and went into the vents. I made short little trips, at first. There wasn’t much energy in the device, and I wouldn’t be able to maintain that size for long. That lasted until I caught a flash of green cloak in the vents. I was worried that I had been found, and that the Knights of the Lost had the same technology, and at any rate, I wanted to know where they were going. I gave chase.

Although it might be possible that using the Blood Angels as an example might be unfair, because the basic concept of ‘noble heroes with a dark curse’ can be pretty effectively represented by one or perhaps two units (one for the curse, one for the nobility), but might actually make things worse. The fluff tells us that the Blood Angels try to be as much like a normal marine chapter as possible to keep people from asking to much about their curse; why would they have enough special equipment for their own book?

I managed to get out of the tunnels just as the energy of the compressor ran out. I found myself in a dark chamber, with machinery and the faint smell of solder filling the room. I crept forward, doing everything I could to stay out the sight of anyone that might have been looking. Eventually, I came across some of those small, cloaked creatures that are sometimes seen after the Knights have a battle.

They were working a piece of armor. I smelt the soldering, and I saw a glow in front of them. I stood up, trying to get a better look at what they were doing to it. It seemed that they were attaching something that resemble an Elethar soulgem to the metal. That’s when the man in black armor came after me.

The Dark Angels might be even worse. Like the Blood Angels, they, too, have a dark secret that they try to hide by being like a normal chapter. The actual secret, that half of their original legion turned traitor 10,000 years ago and have a tendency to still show up by means of time travel, has very little chance of affecting gameplay directly, and if it did, the Dark Angels player probably worked something out with their opponent. While I can see the merit in the actual secret being less important than what keeping the secret has done to the chapter, I’m still annoyed that so much of the Dark Angels equipment is just supertech that they happen have lying around.

I activated my temporalizer, and as time slowed, I managed to grab his weapon, point it into his neck, and pull the trigger. While the body of a Bellator might be able to sustain that kind of wound, I didn’t stay around long enough to find out. I made my way out of the compound.

I didn’t think I would be able to hide from them forever, and I wasn’t. All I could do was hide behind the lip of a crater, and listen to the sounds of pursuit. I heard some kind of engine approaching me. I activated my temporalizer again, and through myself into the open. The black-armored biker reacted fast enough to notice me, but not fast enough to stop me sticking a sharp piece of shale in his neck. I threw the corpse from the motorcycle, and rode off on it.

But I digress. The real reason I made this post was to sketch out an idea I had to file the serial numbers off the Dark Angels. The basic idea would to be integrate the various gimmicks they have into a single, connected whole. I didn’t cover everything in I wanted to in the essay, like how works that aren’t intentionally consistent with each other naturally diverge, simply as a result of being worked on by different teams. I’m also a bit curious what would happen if I fed the basic concepts of the 40k universe into a text predictor, simply because I’ve been following the development of Novel AI. Anyway, this is an interesting subject to think about.

I can’t imagine that the Knights of the Lost haven’t noticed their missing brother, and I rather suspect that they have a way of tracking their bikes. By the time anyone reads this, I’ll be dead. But if I do this right, no one will be able to tell that I sent it.

Marius Kenzarian, sent 02.19.9985

Approaches to Factions

It has recently occurred to me that most strategy games take one of two approaches to creating asymmetric play styles for each player. They either give every faction units specific to that faction, and let the play style be determined by the specific abilities and interactions of them (the unit model), or they give each faction the same unit, and give the players the ability to change the abilities of the units before the game begins (the commander model). The choice between these models have deep implications for game design and balance.

The unit model is exemplified by Starcraft. While there are similarities between some units in different factions (for example, all three have a basic infantry unit), even units that fill the same role do so in highly differentiated way (the Terran marine has a ranged attack, the shield of the Protoss zealot makes them unusually hard to kill, and the zerglings are produced two at a time). This model can provide a lot of texture to the games universe.

The commander model is exemplified by Advance Wars. Here, each side can produce the exact same set of units, with the selected commander giving bonuses to their favored kind of unit. For example, Sami, the infantry specialist, has infantry squad that capture buildings faster, while Grit, the artillery specials, gets a range bonus. This model relieves the designers of having to create a dozen units for each faction; if they want to introduce a new one, they only have to think up a new commander.

Sometimes, a game will combine aspects of both models. This usually resembles the commander model, except that each faction will have one or two unique units, as in the Civilization series. Another way this can happen, however, is that each faction works as in the unit model, but there is also an ability to choose a set of bonuses after the player has chosen a faction. For example, Age of Mythology.

The choice of model has profound implications on how the designers deal with game balance. There are two kinds of balance to consider here: balance between factions, or external balance, and balance between units, or internal balance. This terminology of ‘external’ and ‘internal’ primarily refers to the unit model, where the game designers must both ensure that every faction has a reasonable chance of winning, and that every unit has a reasonable chance to appear in a winning strategy.

In commander model games, the need to have every unit be usable has a completely different interaction with the need for every faction to be usable. If the tank specialist tends to ignore helicopters in favor of tanks, that’s simply how things go. If the air specialist doesn’t have a use for helicopters, then you start to have a problem.

And then there’s Games Workshop. Games Workshop’s flagships, Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40,000, have strangely fluid faction systems. AoS book-level factions are divided into four meta-factions, called grand alliances. Units from a single grand alliance can be placed in the same army, but the player gets stronger bonuses from only using units from a single book. 40k now uses a similar system, but even before the adoption of this system, it had several sub-factions of the Space Marines broken out into their own books, with several units being shared between them and several units replacing one in the main book.

By choosing neither the unit model or the commander model, the relationship between internal balance and external balance becomes unclear. It becomes fully possible for a unit to be more useful outside of it’s faction than inside of it, which seems like a generally undesirable outcome. The fanbase didn’t seem to enjoy seeing a company of Astra Militarum infantry in every Space Marine army, at any rate.

Instead of clear compartments of balance, GW has chosen to give themselves a dizzying array of knob to turn on every unit – the unit stats themselves, the bonuses from having that unit in its native faction, the bonuses from running that native faction without anything else, synergies with other units, etc. The only reason I can think of why they would take on such a needlessly complicated task, is that a significant portion of their customers buy models primarily to assemble and paint, and don’t really care if the game is a bit of a mess.

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Card Engraving

The most fascinating thing about the Yu-gi-oh! cartoons is how card games are used as a substitute for violence.

The thing about the cartoons are that they’re wuxia and Dragonball inspired fighting series, that is, the kind of thing that Americans think of when they hear the word ‘anime,’ only instead of martial arts, there are card games. This can get rather on-the-nose, like when a character raids a monastery for their trading cards, like they were the scrolls that described their kung-fu techniques. This also explains why everybody only ever uses one deck: these kinds of stories progress around characters dealing with each other using tightly themed powers, and the ability to change decks would undercut that.

This brings me to the fluff of my YGO clone. To make the conflicts between the players both easier to take seriously and less on-the-nose, I would turn the cards into an actual magic system, rather than a game that everyone in the universe takes entirely too seriously.

To explain how this system would work, take someone stumbling into the plot, and acquiring a deck of blank, white cards. These cards would only remain blank until the new player learned how to engrave their soul onto the cards, at which point the backs would take on a design unique to that player. The fronts, however, would remain blank until the moment the card is drawn. This would be the moment of the second engraving, where the player imprints a particular piece of their soul on a particular card. There would be an element of chance to what card they would get, but with enough focus, they could get something near to what they wanted.

The short version of all of this is that the players engrave their souls onto pieces of cardboard, and then activate those pieces to manifest creatures and abilities that affect the world around them. Before the engraving, the cardboard is a blank white, and the specific cards available to a player at a given time is partially random, and partially determined by their desires and willpower. As an aside, it is possible for a person to engrave on other surfaces, but the cards are easy to carry, and I think I would have them be specially designed to be engraved on.

I think that’s about it for my YGO clone. It’s been long and exhausting, but as least I’ve gotten it out of my head. It’s also given me other things to think about, and that will give me fodder for more essays.

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Currency Resource

One of the defining features of Yu-gi-oh! is that it lacks a resource system. Technically, that isn’t true. YGO cards frequently require the player to move cards around as a cost, so that anything the player does requires moving cards from the hand to the field, at the very least, with more powerful effects requiring movement from from the field to the graveyard, or from the graveyard to the deck. What is really meant by ‘lacking a resource system’ is that the game lacks currency – game elements that exist only to be resourced payed to activate cards and effects.

This lack of currency has profound effects on gameplay. Most notably, the lack of currency, combined with cards that reward the player for getting them into the graveyard from the hand, allows the player to activate a nearly infinite number of cards in a single turn. This means that the game can be decided with in a single turn, and all too frequently, that turn is the first.

I must point out that this speed is actually deliberate. It allows the show writers to portray a character as exceptionally dangerous by having them defeat side characters very quickly, or have the main character make a come-from-behind win off of a top-deck. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are terrible in a real card game.

One idea I had for a currency was inspired by monster levels in the original game – those stars above the art that theoretically represent the power of the monster. Level also determines how many monsters would need to be sacrificed as tribute to normal summon a creature. An obvious solution is to use the levels as number for whatever currency needs to be payed, but that sacrifice mechanic implies something a bit more unique.

The word used for the sacrifice action in Japanese is ‘release’ – a loanword from English. This isn’t a word used to imply the permanent destruction of something, like sacrifice or tribute, but merely letting something go. And the concept of letting go also implies the concept of holding on to something. So I think, what if the currency is what’s held on to while the monster is out?

Let’s call this currency ‘manifestation,’ on the idea that whatever is on the cards exist in potentia and manifestation is used to realize them. Manifestation is a currency that is committed when a monster is summoned, and is returned to the player when the monster leaves the field. For example, if a player has a manifestation pool of eight, they can summon a level one monster, a level three, and a level four, but not two level fours and a level one. If the level one and level four are destroyed, they can now summon a level five monster in addition to the level three monster they already have, but they cannot summon anything else without another monster being destroyed.

One advantage of such a system is that it gives a natural place to extra deck monsters, namely, that by using a fusion spell or other such method, it’s easily possible to have a monster that’s unusually strong for their level, and to have extra manifestation left over. For example, a level three fusion monster could have the power of a level five normal monster, and leave the player with two extra manifestation left over. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how manifestation would interact with the back row.

While I’m certain that I want the manifestation available to a player to grow throughout the game, I’m not sure when I want the manifestation to return to the player. On the first hand, allowing the manifest to return to the player immediately can allow players to smooth out their curves by finding a way to get rid of monsters they don’t need on the field, or even just letting them send them to the discard pile as a standard action, on the other, there would be no way to control the number of spells activated in a turn. I could add another currency to handle activation, but at this point, I start to think that I need playtesting to decide anything.

Card Game Grab-bag

YGO Combat Mechanics – Attacking in Yu-gi-oh mostly consists of comparing two numbers, with the which numbers being compared depending of whether the defending monster is in attack position or defense position. If the defending monster is in attack position, the attack values of both monsters are compared. If the attacker’s power is higher, the defender is destroyed and the excess is dealt as damage to its player. If the attacks are the same, both monsters are destroyed. I don’t exactly remember what happens if you attack into a stronger monster, I just know that there’s very little reason to do it.

If the defender is in defense position, the attacking monsters attack values is compared against its opponent’s defense. If the attack is higher, the defender is destroyed, but no damage happens. If the defense is higher, nothing is destroyed, but the attacking player takes damage equal to the difference. If the numbers are equal, nothing happens.

A problem with this system is that defense values are almost meaningless. Barring card effects, a high attack is just as good as a high defense at protecting the monster, while a high defense isn’t useful for anything else. The only reason combat involving a defense position monster even happens is that they can be put on the field face-down. No wonder they eventually introduce a kind of monster with no defense value.

Perhaps the simplest way to deal with this is to do away with defense position entirely, with the attacker’s attack always being compared to the defender’s defense, with the runover being inflicted as damage. However, setting monsters in face-down defense position allows for a particular scenario I like: throwing down a series of cheap, disposable walls while you desperately hope to top-deck something that can take out your opponents ace. I suppose one way to get that gameplay back is to allow setting face-down, in some kind of inactive mode. The face-down monster can serve as a wall, and the player doesn’t take damage when it’s destroyed, but at the same time, it can’t attack, and it can use it’s effects.

Hidden Information – Face-down monsters brings me to one of the most conceptually brilliant parts of the game. YGO’s method of allowing players to respond to their opponent’s actions, equivalent to MtG’s instants, is the trap card. Trap cards are a type of card that must first be placed on the field before they can be activated. Usually, traps have conditions that allow them to be activated in response to the opponent’s actions, usually in a way that directly responds to whatever the opponent did.

There’s an elegance to making a player declare that they might be able to do something. It’s not clear what they could do, or what needs to happen for them to do it. This leads to tension as the opposing player attempts to play around the trap, slowly experiment to bait out the trap in a relatively harmless way.

Unfortunately for the physical card game, it’s a bit difficult to make sure a player is actually playing trap cards, and not monster cards. While monster cards can also be set, doing so takes up the player’s once-per-turn normal summon. This can cause issues when a deck rewards having no cards in hand, for example. This could be considered the real reason that the game should be digital only, with the computer only allowing cards that can be legitimately set to be so. After all, cards transforming and being created and destroyed are just gimmicks.

Traits – Before I continue, I want to take a moment to define the concept of traits. Traits are attributes of a game piece that exist solely to be referred to by other rules, like creature subtypes in Magic or keywords in eighth edition 40k. I bring this up because almost everything on a YGO card has been cannibalized for traits.

This is most obvious with defense, with lower values (specifically, 1500 or less) usually being better because that makes the monster easier to search. Another example is levels in the Zexal era: it didn’t much matter what the level of a monster was, it had absolutely nothing to do with the individual cards power, and a main deck monster was mostly just Xyz material, anyway.

You should keep this in mind, just in case I start talking about traits at some point.

Field Spells – Field spells have their own slot on the field, and because of this, feel like something bigger than a normal spell. There’s also the fact that there used to be a rule stating that there could only be one field spell on the field at a time. That change for much the same reason the legend rule in MtG did: it’s annoying to fight over who gets to use a particular card.

Field spells seem like a natural place for build-around-me spells, but the designers tend to use them to make old archetypes playable again. Early field spells, however, tended to affect both the player and the opponent, although in a way that encouraged symmetry-breaking during deckbuilding (ie, all Dinosaur-type monsters get 300 attack). But the really interesting thing is that field spells are an adaption of a mechanic that wasn’t a card at all.

In the Duelist Kingdom arc, before the series started to emulate the actual card game, there was a terrain mechanic. You see, the DK arc took place on an island with various kinds of terrain on it, and about the island, there were tables or arenas (depending on which version of the story you’re following) that had game boards based on the surrounding terrain. A monster placed an a particular type of terrain could get a boost to their stats, depending on if their type matched the terrain.

As for adapting the field spells, I’m not sure I should. I can see the use for marquee backrow cards, but I’m not sure that’s something every deck should have, or if I should give it a special slot and name. At any rate, I’m sure that I would have to figure out how everything would work with any kind of resource system I used, so I would have to figure out what that looks like first.

Xyz Summoning

Xyz (pronounced ek-ZEEZ) summoning is the third kind of Extra Deck summoning introduced in Yu-gi-oh!, and the one I’m having the most trouble thinking about. There are several aspects that consume my thought with regard to creating a digital YGO clone, and importing something like Xyz into it. First, there is the matter of the extra deck mechanics themselves and the differences they would have when transferring from physical and digital. Second, there is the matter of how the history of the original game, specifically, the constraints that the designers were working with, how the game and the cartoons are poorly aligned with each other, and the problems that causes. Finally, I will say something about why I want to see a YGO clone, and why Xyz plays into it.

To perform an Xyz summon, the player first needs at least two monsters with equal levels on the field. Xyz summoning physically consists of placing the monster cards on top of each other, and then placing the Xyz monster card from the extra deck on top of the first monster cards. The first monster cards are now ‘overlay units’ attached to the Xyz monster, and most Xyz monsters can use these units to fuel various effects, by detaching them and sending them to the graveyard. As Xyz monsters have ranks instead of levels, they cannot normally be used as material for an Xyz summon.

To understand why Xyz works the way it does, you need to understand why Synchro works the way it does, and to understand why Synchro works the way it does, you need to understand fusion. Fusion summoning is the original extra deck summoning method, in fact, the extra deck was originally known as the fusion deck. To fusion summon, the player needs a fusion spell and the monsters to be used as fusion materials in their hand or on their field. The summoning itself consists of activating the spell and sending the materials to the grave, and then placing the fusion monster on the field.

There are several issues with fusion summoning as originally implemented. The first has to do with the concept of card advantage: the fact that the player with more cards has an advantage. Fusion summoning needed the player to spend three cards to get one out of the extra deck, for a net loss of two cards. The other is that the early fusion monsters required specific cards as materials, rather than using any monster that fulfilled specific criteria (i.e., a fusion monster require two monsters of different elemental attributes), and that there was originally only one fusion spell in the game, Polymerization. I rather suspect that the reason the extra deck exist at all is that the designers realized that assembling four specific cards in your hand was simply too much.

As the game went on, the designers realized that the extra deck was something unique to the game, and that the thought of monsters combining into bigger monsters was a cool idea. Through the GX era, they looked at various ways of solving the problems with the mechanic, like having fusion only requiring monsters. That particular mechanic is considered to be a precursor to Synchro summoning.

Synchro summoning depends on a class of monsters known as Tuners. Each Synchro monster has material requirement in the form of “One tuner and one or more non-tuner monster,” or something similar. To perform a Synchro summon, the player send materials to the graveyard whose levels exactly add up to the desired Synchro monster’s level, and placing the Synchro monster on the field.

Conceptually, Synchro summoning is still a form of fusion. Most Synchro monsters have visual cues linking them with main deck monsters, both tuner and otherwise. An interested thing about Sychros, however, is that because a Synchro monster can be used as Synchro material, Synchros can be used like steps on a ladder, with a succession of Synchro monsters repeatedly being combined with tuners to form successively higher-level Synchros. These means that they are intrinsically suited to having evolved forms that have transformation sequences that look good on TV.

As for the tuners, there’s no definitive quality to any of them, except their ability to be used in a Synchro. There is, however, a tendency for them to have low stats, abilities that help the player get monsters to the field, and be low-level, to help them make exact levels easier.

As for why Synchros call for exact levels, that’s probably has something to do with Normal summoning. Let me explain: a Normal summon is a type of summon that can be performed once per turn, and what needs to be done to do this depends on the level of the monster. A monster with level four or less can just be plopped on the field, while a monster with level of five or six needs a monster on the field to sent to the graveyard as tribute, while a monster of level seven or higher need two tributes. This means that, barring card effects, a level four and a level one have equal costs to summon, even though level fours tend to have much higher stats and much stronger abilities. Synchros needing exact levels, then, provides an incentive to use lower level monsters.

This need for exact levels explains why Xyz need matching levels, and why they have ranks instead of levels. The level matching is there to differentiate the mechanic from its predecessor, and the ranks are there to ensure that Xyz monsters can’t be used to summon Synchros.

To understand why the designers wanted Xyz to be incompatible with Synchros, you need to know that when Xyz summoning was introduced to the game, the fourth anime series, Yu-gi-oh Zexal, was beginning and the third series, 5Ds, was ending. That third series began at the same time that Synchros were introduced, and was the Synchro series. Every main character used a Synchro monster as their signature card, most minor characters used a Synchro monster as an ace, and most of the villains used anti-Synchro monsters, either in the sense of monsters that countered Synchros, or the literal opposite of Synchro monsters.

In the same way 5Ds was the Synchro series, Zexal was clearly intended to be the Xyz series. Every character uses Xyz monsters, pretty much every episode has a moment just to emphasize how cool the latest Xyz monster is, and the entire plot centers around collect 99 special Xyz monsters. The thing is, that the Xyz mechanic seems to have been created for the anime, and not the game.

It seems like the show’s producers wanted something for Zexal that Synchros were for 5Ds. It’s odd, how the cartoon and the game line up with each other, or rather, how they don’t. It’s like the two parts each want to be their own thing, with the game wanting the cartoons be nothing more than advertisements, while the cartoons want the game to be nothing more than merchandise.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that everything started with a stand-alone series, and only later did the card game overwhelm everything else. An effect of that is that the designers are spread out across three separate companies: the animation studio that’s making the current series, Shueisha, which published the original manga, and every comic later produced for the property, and Konami, the video game company that publishes the card game, and the only one that would regularly high game designers.

This strange system of the franchise consisting of several distinct sub-properties spread across three different companies has forced the game into a system of what I have seen called accretion: a game design technique where the designers, rather than perfecting or building on what is already in the game, simply add more subsystems, that have little to do with each other beyond the most basic of mechanics. In Yu-gi-oh‘s case, the subsystems are the summoning mechanics, and the basic mechanics are battle and the card stats. This isn’t a technique that can keep a game going forever, and has left the game in a place where it’s fully possible for a game to end on the first turn. Or at least, where every deck is trying to go into Accesscode Talker.

I suppose the reason I want to see a YGO clone is to see what happens when it has a design team that actually tries to make the most of the game, rather a bunch of people that seem rather bemused that it’s gone on as long as it has. Xyz summoning is one of the things I would be most interested in seeing adapted, especially if they kept to the implicit limits of ‘no laddering’ and ‘a monster with no overlay units has no special abilities.’ Xyz monsters can’t even be normally used for Xyz summoning (having no levels to match with anything), but the cartoon would have always needed the monsters to have impressive and dramatic transformation sequences. As for the second limit, while pretty much every Xyz monster has an ability that detaches as a cost, by the third booster pack, there were monsters with abilities that had nothing to do with overlay units at all.

I think I’ll end things there today. There are still things about Xyz summoning, but that needs to be said in a greater context, with my thoughts on the other summoning types, and the other mechanics of the game. In particular, I need to talk about the differences between an extra deck made out of physical cards, and cards simply popping into existence when specific conditions are met.

P.S. ‘Xyz’ is a ridiculous word. Did whoever named the mechanic only have five seconds?

An Unexpected Realization

I had been wondering why I had been thinking about Yu-gi-oh! recently, considering that I know the game is bad.  One day, while I was playing on an online simulator, and I was looking at a sequence of seven abilities being activated for reasons I did not entirely understand that I came to a sudden realization:

The reason I like this game is because it’s bad.

This wasn’t merely an effect of the fact that I couldn’t follow the game I was playing.  This also came from some of the thoughts I had about improving the game.  One of the easiest ways to improve the game would be to add some kind of resource that grew as the game went on, and somehow limited which cards you could play, and how many.  However, I realized that the lack of such a resource system was part of what fueled the creation of the extra deck summoning mechanics.

To understand how this works, I need to explain the summoning types.  The first type of summoning is normal summoning.  This was originally supposed to be the default kind of summoning, hence the name, and pretty much consists of taking a monster from your hand and dropping it on the field, and can only be done once per turn.  When the actual game was developed, the designers decided that they didn’t want the players to just be able to drop a 3000 attack beatstick on their opponent out of nowhere.

To keep the game from ending too quickly, the designers added a second kind of normal summon: tribute summoning.  While a monster of level 4 or less can simply be summoned at no cost (beyond the use of the turn’s normal summon), a level 5 or 6 monster needs one monster to be tributed (sent from the field to the graveyard) to be normal summoned, while a monster of level 7 or higher needs two tributes.  The problem with tribute summoning is that giving up two cards and the turn’s normal summon is actually a rather hefty cost, and besides that, anyone that can pay it is probably already winning.

The reason tribute summoning exists has to do with the fact that the game started as an element in a Japanese comic book.  A Japanese comic book written by a man that wasn’t particularly familiar with trading card games, and wasn’t particularly interested in accurately representing a real card game in the beginning, anyway.  This meant that in the source material, the characters could just drop 3000 attack beatsticks on each other’s heads out of nowhere.

A result of the tribute summoning mechanics is that a level 1 monster had the same cost as a level 4 monster, despite the fact the level 1s were much weaker than level 4s.  This meant that everyone just filled their decks with the strongest level 4s they could find, with the occasional higher level monster if they had a useful enough ability to justify their cost.  This pretty much continued until the introduction of synchros.

Synchro summoning, the first kind of extra deck summoning introduced after fusion, required the use of a Tuner monster (that is, a monster with the Tuner trait), and one or more other monsters.  To Synchro summon, the player sends the Tuner and the other monsters from the field to the grave, whose levels add up to the level of the Synchro monster, no more and no less.  This was the first mechanic to actually incentivize the use of a weaker level 1 or 2 monster over a stronger level 3 or 4 monster.  I believe that the main reason the designers required exact levels was because the original mechanic for pacing the game, tribute summoning, was too grainy.

Summoning types that would be introduced later, Xyz and pendulums, would also reference monster levels, but nothing innate to the mechanics would particularly encourage the use of weaker monsters.  In fact, due to the way the later summoning mechanics worked and because YGO doesn’t rotate cards, leading to power creep, the power of the main deck monsters, the ones that could be normal summoned, came to be useless as anything other than fodder for extra deck summoning.

Actually, now that I think about it, the ease of the later summoning types were also influenced by the needs of the watchable story.  Both came about because the writers needed a way for the villains to create seemingly impossible situations for the heroes to overcome, and to do so quickly, so that the audience doesn’t have to sit through several turns of players collecting resources.

The second bad thing I like about the game, the highly restricted archetypes, also come from the kind of story the manga series and anime series are.  Namely, they are typical Dragonball inspired fighting stories, the kind English speakers mean when they call a series ‘shounen,’ where all conflict is resolved through one-on-one contests, with the occasional team-up to break up the monotony.  The only difference is that instead of fight scenes with gimmicky fighting styles, there are card games with gimmicky decks.

This is why I want deck selection to be like character selection in a fighting game.  As a fighting game is equivalent to a fighting story, I want my game to be analogous to the Yu-gi-oh! series, although perhaps a tinge more serious.  But not too much.  It wouldn’t be as fun if people didn’t shout about every little thing that happened in the game, or do three backflips before drawing a card.

Now that I understand why I want to rework Yu-gi-oh!, I can follow my usual creative process.  I can take my inspiration and rework it into something unrecognizable.  I have to think things through, and make decisions about what I want from my work.  I think I would be happy to have you readers follow me along.