Inside Project ALPACA: “Manipulate”

As Project ALPACA reaches its Kickstarter release, a few cards still need tune ups. I want to share some of the decisions we made on card design and how those cards may change upon the game’s release. If you have an interest in game design or are just curious about some of the choices that we made, hopefully this will provide some insight.

First, a brief overview: In Project ALPACA, players try to win rounds by having the highest Strength value. The players will play Ability cards in an attempt to leverage the outcome of each round in their favor. Dominance is the tie-breaking mechanic that is passed between the players when certain cards are played. The player with Dominance wins all ties and chooses the order ability cards are resolved.

One card that was a local favorite during my game store play-tests was Manipulate:

manipulate.png

I definitely understand why people liked this card. It’s sneaky, it’s powerful, it’s subtle, it’s got it all! This is also probably the most complicated card in the game and the rules text reflects that. It’s chunky. To break it down from top to bottom:

  1. First, you get to make your opponent put their ability card back in their hand.
  2. THEN, you get to look at their hand.
  3. THEN, you get to choose what card they must play instead.
  4. If you don’t have Dominance (the tie-breaker mechanic) to activate this effect, you will take it from your opponent instead.
  5. Finally, you discard a card, because this is a bonkers card that will mess up your opponent’s day. The discard is an attempt to balance the cost of playing the card with the power of the card.

In fact, Manipulate is one of the two ability cards in Project ALPACA that requires the player to discard a card from their hand as opposed to drawing cards (the other being Eclipse, which outright wins you the round if you have Dominance). The point of these “discard” cards was meant to be two-fold: to be extremely powerful and to hinge on the ownership of Dominance. Now as previously mentioned, the player with Dominance wins ties, but also has the benefit of choosing which order the Ability cards resolve. Ideally, in a world where players want to win, Manipulate will always be resolved first to prevent whatever your opponent was going to play from ever happening in the first place. HOWEVER.

Good play-testers never quite do what you want them to do. Or even what you EXPECT them to do.

In rare cases, the person with Dominance will choose to have Manipulate resolve AFTER the other player’s ability. This essentially results in, well, the non-Dominant player playing two cards. This is problematic and unintended. And of course, my play-testers decided to do this. Several times. So, gentle reader, I pose you this: Based on how the card is written, how would you deal with this card resolving after another card has already resolved?

One pseudo-logical argument: since Ability cards resolve one at a time, the person who Manipulate is being played against gets to have their first card resolve, then a second card of the “Manipulators” choosing. Using this logic, the person will also draw from both of the played cards. So what’s the point of doing such a thing? Well, if the person playing Manipulate is in a leading position, I suppose it’s a very roundabout way of forcing their opponent to play two cards. This in turn would reduce the number of good cards the player has. I guess? Currently this is the only positive thing I can imagine. Of course, my play-testers just wanted to see what happened and how it worked out because it was complicated. Again, this issue does not come up if the card is played as intended, which is to say, it would be resolved first and prevent the opponent’s card from resolving in the first place.

So the solution?

OCCAM’S. RAZOR. It’s my belief only one change needs to be made. Simply include the line “This card always resolves first” on Manipulate, just like the card Riposte:

Riposte

This is because the intended effect of Manipulate is to act as a counter to the opponent’s Ability card, not just as a powerful card. So slap a concrete statement on it. No questions asked. If the card is intended as a counter-play, it should be treated like a counter-play. And just like that, Manipulate is one step closer to being resolved, but not without first teaching a valuable lesson. If you give players the freedom to do things, eventually, they will do everything. I cannot design games with the assumption that everyone’s intention is to win, as bizarre as that might seem. Which means I cannot have players assuming the intention of how a card should be played. If intentions cannot be assumed, they need to be clear to the people involved. Plus, I feel like discarding a valuable resource like an Ability card is enough of a player cost without them having to worry about playing the card sub-optimally. I can simply remove the option.

So if you are making something and someone is playing with it wrong, who would know more than you? The burden, however, is on you. You have to make your intentions known to the player. We can never assume that people are going to play the way we think they should. (This is also advice for things outside of games, too.)

So go out there and play great games, but make sure everyone is on the same page.

The irony is not lost on me that this is the one card with the artistic flair “UPDATE.”

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