Designer Insights - Genesis of a Genre
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Hello, my name is Anthony Tessitore, and I am one of the co-founders of Guildhouse Games LLC (GhG). Welcome to the first installment of what we are calling Designer Insights. Basically, Designer Insights will be a place where we will discuss game design, and provide you all a window into our design process.
Today I am going to talk about Varia, and how we went about approaching the blank canvas and designing a brand new genre of trading card games.
Meet The Designers
Varia was designed and developed by two people. Myself, and GhG co-founder Sean Dunn. Sean and I met while we were both attending Villanova University. I was a resident assistant and Sean was the head resident assistant for the dorm I was assigned to.
Sean is actually to blame for all of this, because he is the reason I got back into card games in the first place. You see, the summer before we met, I had sold my entire trading card collection in the parking lot of the King of Prussia mall. But that is a story for another day…
All you need to know is that this meeting took place ten years ago, and Varia’s creation journey began shortly after.
Identifying the Constraints
When designing Varia it was important for us to have a set of constraints. Sean and I both got our degrees in mechanical engineering, and as any engineer can tell you, whenever you are attempting to solve a problem the first thing you do is identify what your constraints are.
Put another way, the first thing you do is you figure out what cannot be changed, so that you can you solve around those things.
Here's an example. Let's say you were tasked with building a table. One constraint might be that six people must be able to sit around said table. This will inform your design, as both the shape and size will be a factor in ensuing six people will fit around it. No matter what shape, size, or material you choose one thing is certain - six people need to be able to fit.
Constraints help you as a designer because they allow you to keep the end goal in sight. It can be very easy to get lost in the weeds while working a project, so having boundaries helps keep everyone moving in the same general direction.
It can also be equally intimidating to create something from an entirely blank canvas. Constraints offer a starting point by creating the first marks on that canvas. Marks that cannot be erased, only incorporated into the final product.
Here are the three constraints we worked under when designing Varia. We refer to them internally as “Varia’s Three Laws of Design":
1st Law: The Player is the Star of the Show
2nd Law: Story Narrative = Game Narrative
3rd Law: For Every Action There is Time for a Reaction
Let’s unpack each of those.
Varia's 1st Law: The Player is the Star of the Show
If you look out across the pool of trading card games that exist, you'll notice that most of them follow a similar play style. We referred to it as the "RTS" or "Real-Time Strategy" model. Take Starcraft for example. Starcraft is an RTS where you (the player) are living the fantasy of a space-general. The main way you win is by commanding a bunch of troops to fight on your behalf. Games like Magic, Hearthstone, Yu-Gi-Oh & Keyforged all follow this same general narrative. You are summoning a bunch of minions to fight for you. We wanted to design something that offered the player a new narrative experience to explore, not more of the same. When we set out to design Varia, we wanted you to do the fighting, not a minion. How did we approach this? By dialing it up to eleven (obviously).
Varia would have no minions.
This crucial decision is what ultimately led us to the Varia we know today, with cards centered around the actions you perform, the items you carry, and the stacks (buffs and debuffs) that have been applied to you. Everything that happens in a game of Varia is done by you, comes from you or happens to you. This is why we refer to it as a "First-Person Card Game" because the player is always at the center of Varia's gameplay.
Varia’s Second Law: Story Narrative = Design Narrative
This constraint came more from a pet peeve of mine than anything else. If there is one thing I despise more than anything in gaming, it's ludonarrative dissonance.
In short, ludonarrative dissonance rears its ugly head whenever conflict occurs between the narrative being told by a game’s story and the narrative being told by the game’s mechanics.
I'll give you a simple example. Imagine I am showing you a new game.I tell you that the goal is to collect ten gold coins. Once you have ten gold coins, you win. All the mechanics in the game are about gaining coins or storing coins in some way. The narrative that the mechanics are communicating is “you are someone who wants to collect coins”. So you say to me “Hey Ant, what is the story behind this game? What am I supposed to be?” I dive into the lore, explaining how you are a goblin who has loose pockets and wants to spend your newly inherited fortune as fast as possible. The story, in this case, wants you to get rid of coins, but the gameplay wants you to keep them. The story and gameplay are fighting, and it is not only distracting, but confusing, especially for new players who may be unable to see past this conflict. A better narrative fit for this game would be a story about a young dragon who is looking to start their first hoard. This narrative goes hand in hand with the gameplay, and as you collect your coins you will feel like that dragon who is trying to collect their first pile of gold.
Every design decision made for Varia kept the narrative in mind. Whenever Sean and I needed to work out a particular gameplay problem we would always ensure that the narrative of the gameplay matched the story we were looking to tell. From day one our narrative was simple. We wanted players to feel like two fantasy characters who got in a fight. What would happen if the wizard in your party faced off against the barbarian? What if an assassin and a monk dueled to the death? Varia looked to answer these questions through its gameplay.
Varia’s Third Law: For Every Action There is Time for a Reaction
Most trading card games are turn based. You take a turn, then I take a turn. This naturally creates a narrative where you (the player) have a lot of time on your hands. You have time to build and collect resources, summon minions, organize them into groups, or order them to attack. Our narrative was two individuals fighting, so it felt wrong to have turn based gameplay as it existed in most other TCGs. We kept asking ourselves “While your character is punching me, slashing their sword at me, casting fireballs at me, what am I doing? Am I just standing there?”
Questions like these eventually lead us to Varia’s unique timeline-based play style, where literally every action planned by one player affords a moment of opportunity for the other player to respond. When you punch me, I can block, dodge, run away, or punch you back.
We still ended up using turns to track larger gameplay aspects like switching who the active player is, or determining when resources are replenished (action points, cards in hand, etc), but I think you’ll find that when playing Varia the concepts of “my turn” and “your turn” are blurred.
I've had plenty of games where my opponent has killed me on “my turn” by planning their perfect attack combo in response to my own, or by exploiting my attack pattern and using it against me. These concepts cause you to approach Varia differently than you might otherwise approach combat for any other card game.
This is all very high level, and obviously there was so much more that went into the design and development of Varia, but hopefully this gives you an idea of the thoughts going through our heads as we created this new take on the trading card game genre.