Analyzing game design weaknesses in Card Crawl by Tinytouchtales

Card Crawl by Tinytouchtales is a great concept, combining solitaire, roguelikes, and excellent art into an elegant package. It was casual enough to appeal to a large audience, and the sales figures reflected that.  (IOS link here)

However, I didn’t enjoy playing it.

I tried, I really did. However, it was nowhere as elegant as Donsol or as addictive as Dream Quest. I tried looking at its game elements to understand my reaction, and I found several design choices which combine in unfortunate ways.

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1. The near-equivalence of all cards.
Despite having a variety of cards, they are more or less all the same. Monsters reduce your HP. Swords, Shields and Potions give you positive HP (i.e., reduce negative HP).  Everything can be sold for coins in a 1:1 ratio.  Once you figure this out, winning becomes trivial – it’s just a game of positive and negative numbers. Here’s the “health impact” of each card in the deck:

Health Chart

Without special cards and without selling anything, you will always win with 2HP. If you do a single reshuffle (costs 5HP), you die. If you sell a Shield(3), you die.

2. The learning curve is not a curve, it’s a plateau.

That’s pretty much the only key insight you need to understand the game.  From my friends, if they don’t realize this insight, their win percentage can be anywhere from 10-50%; everyone who realizes this has a win rate of 90% or more.

3. The only cards relevant to your score are special cards

Since the basic cards are deterministic, they’re useless when it comes to improving your score.  With only 5 special cards in your deck, much of the game is spent juggling and positioning the other cards to make use of the specials.  Which wouldn’t be so bad except…

4. Some special cards are obviously much better than others

… The special cards are also wildly varying in power! Compare these two cards, which are both used in the same way (when you are at low health)

  1. Sacrifice (deal damage to a monster equal to your missing health) – 1 to 12 points
  2. Blood Pact (pictured) – Gives you 0 to 18 points (if you swap at 1 health with a 10 health monster)

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Some cards, like Sap (push back a card into the deck) and Vanish (redraw all cards) actually give you a zero point swing.   This means there are only a few cards that you would ever think of using to get a high score in constructed, and…

5. The game is solvable, but getting the highest score becomes a question of luck instead of skill.

…To get a high score in Constructed mode,  I’ll get the highest potential gain cards (e.g. Morph, Midas, Swap, Betrayal, Lash or some other powerful ones) and just start praying to RNGesus.  No skill involved, just hoping that the cards are dealt in the correct order.

6. Counterintuitive unlock scheme to get high scores in Normal mode.

Furthermore, to get a high score in Normal mode, where special cards are randomly chosen, you have to NEVER UNLOCK any of the weaker cards (so they do not get added to your random pool.).  Just grind to get enough money using the basic cards, and only unlock the specials with a high potential life swing.

7. The value of cards are pretty much fixed.

When the game can be easily  broken down into a question of plusses and minuses, and when the “net gain” of each special card can be estimated, then the game design is exposed to be rather shallow.

Compare that to a game like Donsol, where the “life swing” of a basic shield card even varies depending on how many monsters you use it to kill, or Dream Quest, where a card’s value can fluctuate wildly depending on which monster I’m fighting.

6. Difference between an “ok” score and a “high score” isn’t all that large.

But is it worth it?  The difference between the theoretical highest score (something like 150) and my normal score (120)  isn’t, you know, all that much.

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I hope I wasn’t too harsh on the game.  It is actually quite good as a diversion for the first couple of hours; art style is excellent, and the quests are much, much more interesting than the basic game.  But when your core loop can so easily be dissected and broken down this easily, it had nowhere near the staying power I expected.  I can’t help thinking that maybe there should be a little more to crawl into.

So what now? Similar to Cellsweeper being a response to weaknesses in Mamomo Sweeper, I’m currently prototyping a game inspired by Card Crawl.  Here’s a preview:

Jack of Swords

Cellsweeper.xlsm: Dungeon Crawler RPG based on Minesweeper

Hello,

New game is Cellsweeper.xlsm, a dungeon crawling RPG. The link below contains two files – the Excel itself and the “Cellsweeper” font. You could play the game without it, but it would depend on your tolerance for fighting alphanumeric characters instead of monsters. 🙂

Here’s a link to the game – Cellsweeper 1.1 (last updated 9/2/2015)

v1.1 Changes:

  • Fixed the assassin bug that hurts you for every cell opened if you mis-backstab on a wide open space
  • Emphasized that backstab only works on monsters of the *exact* same level

Design Notes:

The game is inspired by Mamono Sweeper, and attempts to improve some design elements in Mamono I didn’t like:

  1. The game is a bit too abstract.  
    • I felt that the game didn’t fully embrace the “RPG” aspect, and could easily be an abstract minesweeper version with multiple mine levels.
  2. The difficulty curve is reversed.
    • Since there are many more low level monsters than high level ones, it starts off hard and becomes easier at the end, not the other way around.
  3. There’s no point to the level 1 monsters.
    • It’s obvious that the player can immediately click on any cell adjacent to a “1”, and it just costs the player additional clicks.
  4. The game becomes rote at player level 5 (and to an extent, 4).  
    • At high levels, it becomes clear which cells are clickable, giving the last part of the game less tension. The game ends on a low note by having to click all remaining cells.
  5. The “Second click” problem
    • The first cell is always free, but the player can frequently get a huge damage hit on the second click.
    • Also, players usually play by jumping around for the first few clicks to try to open a large space.
  6. A cell with a monster also has a helper number “underneath” that monster.
    • It’s frustrating to keep switching between the “number view” and the “monster view”, since the cell can’t represent both at the same time.
  7. The player has to keep referring to the legend to remember the monster levels.
  8. There’s little replayability once you’ve figured out the optimal strategy.

mamono


For Cellsweeper, I tried to tie my solutions to a strong “dungeon crawling” theme.  I find the result much more fun to play (hopefully you do too!):

  1. Difficulty curve:
    • When the hero levels up, there’s a 50% chance for weaker hidden monsters to level up as well.  The difficulty curve is now balanced – the player first explores an “easy” area, with the areas becoming more difficult as he becomes stronger.
  2. Little point to level 1 and level 5 monsters
    • Introduced a win condition: The player wins by defeating the necromancer, not by clearing out the board.
    • Fighting an enemy of the same level also damages the hero.  This means that bats (LV1) pose a threat at the start, and wraiths (LV5) are still a threat at max level.
    • The hero gains XP from exploring the dungeon.
  3. “Second click” problem:
    • The player can only explore cells adjacent to open ones, like a hero navigating an actual dungeon.  This also prevents information overload, as the player only concentrates on small parts of the map at a time.
    • The first cell is automatically selected for the hero and is always a “1”.  This prevents him from cavorting off and getting killed immediately.
    • Changed borders to look like the player is “carving out” the dungeon.
  4. Helper number underneath the monster
    • Removed this feature.
  5. Need to keep referring to the legend
    • Monsters are color coded with increasing color warmth; the legend is still needed, but it’s a bit more intuitive.
    • Originally, I thought of adding a subscript to the monster showing its level, but was worried that players might confuse this for a helper number.
  6. Replayability
    • Added high scores.
    • Added multiple character classes with different abilities – three basic characters (fighter wizard rogue), and three “advanced” classes (barbarian monk assassin).
    • Significantly tweaked the difficulty of the classes – now people of different skill levels can play.