Management of limited resources is central to every collectable card game. Choosing which limited resources players must manage, and what tradeoffs players must make in deciding which cards they will have access to, is at the heart of each game’s design, and a lot of what makes different games unique.
In Emergents, you learn by doing. At the end of your turn, you choose a faction from among the cards you’ve played or scouted this turn, and gain one resource of the chosen faction, along with a resource that represents the growth of your general abilities. If you do not play a card, you do not learn, and you get nothing. Then, each turn, you generate the resources you have permanently built, plus you get one temporary generic resource, and one temporary faction resource that matches the faction of the new top card of your deck.
We also have a way out for when you don’t have any cards you can pay for, called Wild Carding, which the next article will explore in detail – for now, know that if necessary or desired, you can attempt to play a card without paying for it, and sometimes it will even work. This post lays out the origins and motivations behind Emergents’ resource system, and explores the strategic implications.
Non-Stop Faction Resource
Goals of the System
One of the central goals of the resource system was to ensure diversity of gameplay experiences. Along with the deck you design and the particular cards you draw, those resources are also a big part of what makes each individual game you play unique. When players can always play all their cards on the same schedule each game, thanks to a system like those in Hearthstone and Shadowverse that give 1 mana on turn one, 2 on turn two and so on, planning becomes straightforward and the games start to blur together. That does not mean that there can’t still be interesting resource management and sequencing questions, or that the game can’t find its uniqueness elsewhere, but it forces other areas to work harder to compensate.
The flip side of a system without variance is a system filled with variance. When you sit down to a game of Magic: The Gathering, a lot of things can happen. Each game, the players face different mana constraints. Many games, one player will fail to get a playable hand, and either mulligan into oblivion or be forced to keep a risky hand and fail to find what they need. A lot of building a good deck is finding ways to manage this variance, and still play well when you draw more or less lands than you’d like, or the wrong ones. A huge portion of the interesting choices in both play and deck construction involve navigating your lands. Players trade off consistency for power, but there’s no way to avoid these risks.
This cornucopia of different experiences and situations, and the need to adapt to them, is one of the best things about Magic. Games are unbalanced, there’s lots of great tension, and you have to deal with it. It keeps the game exciting and fresh even after decades, and I’m very happy as a Magic player to pay the price of sometimes having non-games. Those non-games and late game floods even serve important purposes, including allowing every player a chance to win any given game or match. Magic is able to pay this price because it is already ‘grandfathered in’ and everyone knows how amazing it is.
A new game like Emergents doesn’t have the same affordance, and couldn’t afford to use lands and risk giving players dead games and dead card draws. Yet we knew we needed to make players deal with unique situations, and have to deal with not knowing exactly what they’d be able to do in future turns. They needed to balance risk versus reward, both during play and in deck construction. A fully ‘guaranteed’ system was right out. Yet we couldn’t have any non-games. Both players need to be able to play, no matter how awkward their draws.
Strongarm Faction Resource
Our answer was to make generic resources safe and reliable, so long as you kept playing cards. You learn by doing. That in turn required wildcarding, to ensure that everyone could keep playing cards, which I’ll talk about next time. Then, make faction resources uncertain in any deck with two or more factions, as it relies on playing cards of the appropriate faction, and on the whims of the top of your deck. The top of your deck providing a temporary resource ensures there is almost always crucial uncertainty in the first few turns, unless you’re only playing one faction. You need an ‘in’ to start playing cards in each faction, and you only get one such opportunity per turn at most, with no indication of when the next opportunity will come around. Thus, when such opportunities arise, it will often force you to make a choice. You likely had a card you planned on playing, that you already laid the groundwork to play. It’s usually the card that costs more and is likely to impact the game more right away. But you could always play that next turn. If you don’t take this opportunity to establish a permanent resource in a second faction, who knows when that opportunity will come around again? And if you pass up this chance, you don’t know what you’ll draw, but you do know you often won’t be able to pay for it.
By giving players these temporary opportunities to establish permanent resources more efficiently, we encourage players to change their plans as often as possible. The thing you didn’t think you could do, that you didn’t want enough to ensure you could do it, is exactly the thing you need to do right now. On the first turn of the game, when you’re choosing which permanent resource to build, you’re forced to think hard about all these decisions. What would you do on the second or third turn, depending on not only what you draw but what is waiting for you on top of your deck? Do you want to build in the way that lets you know you can play a card on turn two or three, or do you want to intentionally avoid that and hope to get lucky, because that would be so much better? In our early test games, there was enough going on, and those choices were so different than they are in other games, that I could have gone into the tank for several minutes on the first turn.
Acolyte Faction Resource
Balancing the Scales
The system naturally did a great job of making two or three faction decks full of choices and interesting to play. But that was also a big problem. A one faction deck didn’t have to make these choices, so it had a very large advantage, a much larger advantage than exists in a game like Magic. A two color Magic deck will usually be able to operate mostly normally. A two faction Emergents deck doesn’t have that luxury.
The solution we are currently testing is rather extreme. For each faction in a player’s deck (minimum 1/3rd of the deck for 2 factions, 1/4th for 3 factions, and so on), the player starts the game with an additional card in their hand. Is this too much, not enough or about right? We don’t know yet. Until we put the game in front of players that aren’t us, it’s too soon to know. I can imagine one, two or even five factions being a powerful sweet spot that’s better than the other choices. If that happens, we’ll need to tweak things to avoid that. While the games have been great fun so far, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and there’s still time to make radical changes if needed. Our goal is for two or three faction decks to be the most popular way to play Emergents, because we think those games are more interesting than single faction play, although we want single faction to be a viable option. We also want five factions to be a valid choice, as it has some fun interactions with wild cards.
The Name of the Game
Tinkerer Faction Resource
More time than most people expect is spent naming things. We are confident we have the right faction names. But for over a year, we’ve been back and forth on what to call the faction resources and generic resources. There’s a lot of different intuitions and equivalencies between such things, and every naming convention proposed has its problems. A big one is intuitively saying ‘how many resources does this cost?’ without generating confusion, and another is avoiding having to say or write mouthfuls. And there’s the question of whether there could be something more flavorful and evocative. We’ve considered using the word mastery. Through it all, we’ve stuck with generic resources and faction resources, but we still wonder if there’s something better out there. If you want to accept the challenge, we’d love to hear your suggestions.
- There are faction resources and generic resources.
- Each turn, you replenish your permanent resources, both faction and generic.
- Each turn, you get one temporary faction resource and one temporary generic resource. The temporary faction resource matches the top card of your deck.
- After you’ve had your chance to play cards, if you have played at least one card, you choose a faction from among the factions of cards you have played this turn. You build that faction resource and one generic resource. Those are permanent and you can spend them every turn for the rest of the game.
- If you haven’t played a card, you don’t build. If you can’t play a card, you can always wildcard instead.
A Short Summary
- You build one faction resource at the end of your turn, based on one of the cards you played.
- You build one generic resource at the end of your turn, as long as you played a card at all, and you get one temporary one each turn.
- You get one temporary faction resource each turn, based on the top of your deck.
- If you need to play a card and can’t, you can always wildcard.
Sculptor Faction Resource
A key implication of our system is that if you play multiple factions, it is unreasonably difficult to ensure that you’ll have a card to play other than a wildcard on turn one. Not only do you need to draw something that costs only one generic resource, you’ll need to match it with the top of your deck. That’s (almost) never going to be that likely. But when you do have one, it will often mean you are ahead by a card. If, that is, you can get value out of your one drop.
A good intuition pump is to consider this possible card:
Draw a card.
In most games that’s rather terrible. In our game, it would be so good we do not expect to ever be able to print it. Next time, we’ll explain how wild carding works and fits into all of this.