Arena Robot League Introduction
A long time ago, I had an idea to make a board game.
I, like many others, had made small games as a kid - mostly simple things, which today would be called “roll and move” games. Even when I went to college, I had fun with making small video games as projects - usually nothing more than a console application with a few rules. Games are a fun and natural human activity, and many people like creating or thinking about games to pass the time.
Around 2018, I started getting more into the board game hobby and community. It was a few years since I left college, and I’d started playing a wider variety of games. Of note, I had discovered Ascension via an app, and seen how it related to Dominion. I had played some TCGs growing up, but the concept of building a deck during gameplay was novel to me.
I started to get the idea for a card game based on a theme that’s near and dear to my heart - robotics. I had a few overall goals in mind:
- Build a team, not just a robot
- Friendly competition - in other words, nothing malicious like breaking other players’ robots
- Strategic game
- Room for growth
A funny thing about game design is that it appears a ton of beginning designers want to make a collectable card game. Unfortunately, I was no exception. Fortunately, it didn’t last long. I had already learned what I did and didn’t like in CCGs - in particular, I hate random boosters, and see them as cash grabs. Games like Arkham Horror LCG and Ashes mitigate this by using a fixed pack model - what Fantasy Flight Games calls “living card games” and what some other companies call “expandable card games”.
The (very short-lived) initial idea was that you could build a deck from an available card pool. During gameplay, you’d play Student cards as a resource, and then use those resources to build robots by attaching various parts together. The concept would probably be sound, but at the time I hadn’t realized several things:
- Trading card games are a dime a dozen, and not at all maintainable
- My idea of assembling robots involved “get a drive train card, get at least one manipulator card, get at least one software card” - basically the concept of set collection. Which was fine, but it meant that you’d have to find parts that “matched” in some way.
- Since the game was nonconfrontational, there would have to be some sort of shared target. I briefly toyed with the idea that each player would bring a small deck of Goal cards representing their health, and the opponents would try to knock down the goals. This idea persisted in a way through the other designs, but lost the “custom deck” aspect.
Once I realized the folly of trying to effectively create an expandable card game on my own, I changed tracks to what I call my deckbuilder phase. I reasoned that a lot of the issues with a collectable card game could be mitigated by a deck building mechanic. This concept never particularly got off the ground, mainly because it was hard to conceptualize. Students would represent the cards in your deck, but you’d also be purchasing a second kind of card for robots, and I wasn’t sure if those would be permanent (like artifacts in Ascension) or part of your deck.
Finally I moved towards an “all in one” package. A game set that would support the appropriate number of players, without any need for deck building ahead of time. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but what I effectively came up with was a tableau building game. Thanks to a few suggestions that kick started my imagination, I even had some concepts that I thought would work well.
- Student cards as a “mana system” - you can only take as many actions as you have Students, and each round you could only play one, at the expense of using another Student to recruit.
- Robot cards can be partially stacked to reveal a segment of the card underneath, which meant that I could bring back the idea of “assembling a robot from parts”. To this end, I decided that each Robot would have two sections of effects. One would only be used if the card was played as the base of a robot, and the other would be used regardless of base or part.
- Students build Robots, Robots score Goals. Goals are worth points at the end of the game.
Those decisions form the basis of my current design, which is still in progress. Next post I’ll talk more about the current designm and the decisions I made before and after the first playtests.