Dev Diary—Fray: Design Goals

Dev Diary—Fray: Design Goals

Welcome to part II of this brief introduction to Fray and how it came to be. Last time we discussed the origins of the game and some initial thoughts that went into game design. This time, we’ll take a deeper look at the design goals. They are as follows:

  • Simplicity
  • Clarity
  • Interesting decisions

Game Design for Fray

Simplicity and clarity kind of work together. The former is a reminder to make the game simple to understand. This doesn’t mean the game is simple, but that the mechanics should be. When a new player picks up a deck of Fray cards, it’s our goal that they can—in most cases—learn how to play in 10 minutes.

This is important for a few reasons. People are busy, and don’t have a lot of free time on average. Even less to sit down and play some games with friends. While games like Paths demand at minimum a few hours of your time, we thought that people should be able to dip their toes into the world of Adia without the time investment larger games demand. Whether that be because of their limited availability, wanting to pass time during your lunch break, or just a preference for faster-paced games, we wanted to support those people. So, not only did we want games of Fray to take only minutes to learn, but we also needed rounds to take just a few minutes to play. On average, a round seems to take about seven to ten minutes. The shortest round we’ve ever timed lasted just four! This is perfect for Fray’s use as both a small card game and as a game within Paths. The fact we intended GMs to use this card game during a session meant it needed to move fairly quickly so that they could jump in and out of the card game easily.

Clarity reminds us to make those directions not just simple, but clear. We’ve spent probably the same amount of time working on the game’s mechanics as we have editing the instructions and card text. When we’re telling the player that a spell can draw cards a certain way, we want those instructions to be delivered in a way that prevents debates over the card’s meaning! A low barrier to entry has always been important to us.

Interesting decisions, the final tenant of Fray’s design philosophy, is where the game design gets a bit more complex. In designing card effects, each should present an interesting question. This is why the game instructs players not to draw cards unless otherwise instructed. Drawing cards is powerful, and not being able to do so forces you to think carefully about the order of how you play the cards you do have. Hand management in Fray is its own challenge.

This design philosophy is also inherent in designing abilities for the units, which scale depending on their power value—the number assigned to them. A higher number unit will better convert your opponent’s cards to your side. This is, essentially, how you win games. So, naturally, a higher number is more powerful. Knowing that, we can balance the cards and create interesting decisions by assigning different benefits and restrictions to certain units. For example, a 7 (our highest power unit) will naturally have an advantage over any number below. The 1 (our lowest value) will be at a natural disadvantage. So what do we do with that?

Cards above four power become increasingly more cumbersome to have or use. For example, the Ember Beard (above) is a strong 6 power unit which can help secure games, but by doing so you actively restrict yourself since its effect dictates that you can’t play spells on that turn. Knowing when to play a card like this is vital, since doing so greatly restricts your capabilities for that turn.

So what about our other units? The Dwarf Fire Breather is one of our least valuable cards in terms of power values, but we don’t want players who draw one to feel bad about it. So, naturally, we go the opposite direction and give lower valued cards a more powerful ability. in this case, we’re presented with a card that on its own can’t do much of anything, but the Fire Breather doesn’t arrive on the battlefield empty-handed. It allows you to play another spell on the same turn—or pull a spell from the discard pile and cast that. Having played a great deal of this game, I can tell you that cards like this will turn games in your favor, despite its lower power value. But when do you play it? Early to gain a quick lead, or late to close out the game?

Next Time

This pattern of balance and interesting decision making will carry forward through development of Fray. We’ve been testing it a great deal internally, and are having a blast. The game will be posted to Kickstarter on March 3rd. Until then, we’ve got one more update for you all—this time about the art of Fray—so keep an eye out for that.

You can learn more about Fray by watching Smunchy Games. Click here to visit our official page to learn the basics about it, or join or Discord server to chat with the team! 

Adam Bassett is a lead game designer at Smunchy Games (Fray), and a UI designer. He also volunteers with Worldbuilding Magazine, and works on a host of other projects.

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