Jul 18

The Story of Legendary Creatures: Part Two

In The Story of Legendary Creatures: Part One, I discussed how Ed and I came to work together and how this game came to exist as project. In Part Two, I will delve into aspects of design and development that took place over the last year and a half that helped make Legendary Creatures into the game it has become. It has been a long and winding journey full of false starts and dead ends, but looking back now as we near the finish line, it easy to see that all of the hard work has been worth it!

Once I accepted Ed’s offer to work on the game, I received access to the files of material from years before when it was being developed as a Wii game. Ed was gave me a lot of space to sift through the contents of the files and formulate my own concept for the game even if it differed from the original idea for the video game. His primary commandments were to use what I could, focus on the creatures, and create a medium weight strategy game that captured the whimsical nature of the original project! No problem…I thought.

So the first problem was shaving down the massive number of creatures into a solid set to build a game around. Before long I had 12-14 I thought would work, but the real question was work for what? With my first to game, Strife: Legacy of the Eternals I had a very specific game idea and built a world around that idea with help from the publisher, but the game already existed. In this situation, no game idea and only the pieces of a half made world from which to work.  Good thing I like a challenge!

I knew the original game involved a number of islands, some kid adventurers, and the creatures. The problem with the creatures was that they were so diverse that it was really difficult to make them all useful and fit in one world. After all, how does one make a mermaid or a goblin have comparable power to a dragon or a behemoth? The problem with the kids, was what would they or could they be doing in conjunction with the creatures that would be effective as a strategy game?

My first concept was that the kids were royalty trying to restore magic to the land by allying with magical creatures. Each creature had an ability and the players would draft them from a common display. These abilities would help the players explore the long board islands and access the powers on the spaces in a manner akin to worker placement.

There were some really cool elements to this version and I was happy enough with the concept to build a prototype and begin playtesting. However, as I playtested it I was shocked by the fact that every change I made resulted in the game getting worse! I kept fighting with this design for a couple of months until April of 2016 when I made a fateful decision. I reached out to Ed and informed that I was scrapping everything that I had worked on for the last three months!

It was a very difficult decision, but I knew it had to be done. As daunting as it was to start over, the good news was that I had a plan…and a day off work!  In just that one day, I put into place the foundational mechanics that remain even now and built the prototype as well! By stepping away from the big picture theme for awhile I was able to design a game that made the creatures shine and could then use their abilities to create a thematic experience.

 

The creature cards have come a long way!

 

If creatures were to be the center of the game then players would have to use them a lot. I decided each player would have identical decks of creatures with that could produce Magic or activate an ability some of which would produce orbs. Initially each player had a deck of the same 16 creatures and the game was played over three game turns made up of four rounds each. Just like now, players selected three creatures from their hands to use during the round and the fourth was set aside to be used in the expedition. Players would the compare their expeditions and only the player with the highest total would receive a landmark which could be used by the player every turn for the rest of the game. Players would use their creatures to produce Magic and Orbs and by spending them and using other creature abilities they would race through the four realms with the leader in each realm receiving a gift.

To those of you familiar with the game, by having been a playtester, played at a convention or from any of the videos out there I am sure you can see how the current game emerged from that early version, but this story is about how that happened! Obviously I cannot cover every detail, but I will talk about the major turning points that helped turn that early lump of clay into the finished game of today!

Turning Point One: Jim Bennie

A big part of my design process is to play the game on which I am working over and over again, and to do that I require at least one willing partner in crime. Many of my dear friends and a number of local game designers playtested Legendary Creatures and all were truly helpful, but the lead playtester was my old friend Jim Bennie! I have known Jim since I was 17. We met playing Magic the Gathering way back in the day during Alpha, and we have been good friends now for over 20 years. Yes…we are old. Jim and I have played and discussed Legendary Creatures countless times since last April and his input has been invaluable! Bringing Jim on early in the process and his willingness to play my hideously ugly prototypes was one of the most important parts of working on Legendary Creatures! Thanks Jim!

 

Turning Point Two:  Amulets

Prior to the inclusion of amulets in Legendary Creatures, there was what amounted to dealer button in poker.  It rotated each turn and acted as a tie-breaker for any timing, turn order, and scoring issues that came up.  I did not really like it, but at that stage it was needed for the game to function well enough to test. When Ed was giving me feedback at this stage he asked if there was a way to step up player interaction.  That is when I created an early version of the current initiative system using Kajar’s Amulet as the tiebreaker. By making the button in to an amulet and creating three others, all of which float around the table when exchanged by players, helped increase player interaction. In addition, by making one of them a tie breaker that changed hands organically, it was a vast improvement on the previous system.

Turning Point Three: Reducing Decks to 12 Cards

At Ed’s suggestion, I reduced the creature decks from 16 to 12 in an effort to shorten the game. This cut three rounds out of the game, but also forced me to make difficult decisions about which four creatures to remove. There is no question it was the right decision, as it both dramatically sped up and streamlined gameplay! At first I was sad to remove some of the creatures, but this led to two major developments that vastly improved the game!

Turning Point Four: Two Abilities On Some Creatures

Removing four creatures from each player’s deck threw off the resource production balance and led to me adding a secondary ability to some of the creatures and adjusting the magic values of others.  This helped me see that previously a number of creatures were simply better than others and this did make “what to play” a very interesting decision.  Adding secondary abilities to some creatures and rebalancing of other aspects of their design brought almost all of the creatures on to par with each other or at least situationally on par with each other.  As a result, a myriad of new interesting decisions were revealed!

Turning Point Five: The Vast Expanse

The second side effect of removing the four creatures was that I had extra creatures and a few interesting abilities that were now not being used.  I decided to add a small deck optimization mechanic to the game where players could remove creatures from their deck and replace them with others from a market/display.  It took on a number of forms during development including one version where all of the wild creatures were available throughout the entire game.  Some players preferred it that way, but overtime testing showed that three creatures available per day was the better way to goIt led to greater re-playability and forced players to explore different strategies as the same creatures would not always be available at the same time each game.

Turning Point Six: The Kirin

As the number of creatures and abilities grew with the addition of the Vast Expanse the number of potential ability combinations went through the roof to level beyond my mathematic ability to calculate.  Fortunately I did not have to test every combination in every order, just every interaction.  At the time the Kirin could copy the ability or abilities of the creature or creatures beside it in a player’s display.  This was awesome!  It allowed for so many really cool combinations and exciting plays to occur that everyone loved it.  Unfortunately, Jim Bennie and I discovered after almost 60 games of testing that this allowed for a number of infinite combos to exist.  I tried everything I could think of to keep this ability in the game, and even found myself twisting other rules and systems to fit it, but sadly it had to go.  Purging that ability from the Kirin was a turning point because trying to keep it had become bigger than the game itself, and its removal made Legendary Creatures far healthier overall!

Turning Point Seven: Spells

By this point the game was tightening up quite nicely and Ed and I prepared to run some demos at Gen Con in the First Exposure Playtest Hall.  Nearly all of the feedback from both session was positive, but some players did express a desire to see more interaction.

In an effort to increase player interaction as well as enrich the theme, now that the mechanics were very sound, I created the spell system.  It made sense from a thematic stand point as the players are aspiring Druids and should be able to cast spells, and it presented the perfect opportunity to up the player interaction.  As the Trial of Nature’s Grace is a competition between classmates and not a battle against enemies, spells that interact with the other participants rather than attack or destroy them seemed a perfectly logical addition.

This led to the creation of Mind Link and Shadowstep which interact with players, at times out of turn, and force all players to remain engaged.  Amplify, was added not for interaction purposes, but allowed to remove a number of multiplying abilities on several creatures and replace them with far more interesting and thematic ones!

Turning Point Eight: Gift Assignment

Much of time following Gen Con involved the creation and integration of the spell system which led to tons of playtesting focused on that goal as well as honing any other small issues that remained.  One that reared its head was how the gifts were being assigned. Early in the design process the game was much simpler, as there was no Vast Expanse, no amulets, no spells, fewer landmarks, and most creatures only had one ability.  As a result, the original gift system where they changed hands within a player’s turn if their familiar passed that of the gift’s holder was not too much of an issue.  However, with the addition of all the new aspects to the game it seemed as though the gifts changing hands during a player’s actions created too much analysis paralysis as figuring out the optimal move had simply become too difficult.  James DuMond, a friend an aspiring designer in his own right, suggested moving the gift assignment to the end of each round.  It was difficult for me to consider this change as the existing rules had been in place for over a year, but I decided to test it despite my doubts.  Much to the surprise of my playtesters and myself, it really improved the clarity all players had about what was going on and sped up the game as everyone could determine what to do much more quickly!

 

The progression of familiars during the development process!

 

 

In Conclusion

As you can see, Legendary Creatures has gone through a lot of changes during the last year and a half. These are just the biggest and most impactful moments during the process, and only those related purely to design! It does not even take into consideration all of the art and graphic design changes that have occurred!  A tremendous amount of effort from not only the Legendary Creatures team, but legions of playtesters, friends, family and other members of the gaming industry has gone into making this the best game that it can be. We are grateful for your support as it is the final step in making Legendary Creatures a reality!

 

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