Tag: games

Magical Storytelling Revisited

Last time I wrote about storytelling in Magic the Gathering I had only just started playing and I had only played with the core set. I said at the time that the rules didn’t really tell a story.

I still stand by that, but I’ve modified my stance a bit since I’ve been playing with expansion set cards (the first two Tarkir sets) and some of the other products (such as duel decks). There is a lot of story in Magic, but it’s setting for the game rather than being told by the game itself. The story then influences the mechanics within a set and the flavour of the cards.

Let’s take the Khans of Tarkir set as an example.

Tarkir is a world of harsh environments and conflicting peoples. The story is about two planeswalkers who visit Tarkir. One of these was born there and is appalled to find that the dragons he remembers are extinct with the world ruled by five warring clans*. These clans each have their own colour identities and their own styles layered on top of long-standing styles of cards associated with individual colours.

And this is how the world of Magic the Gathering goes: each year is a new season with an overarching story arc and theme. Last year it was Theros with a Greek myth theme, and in a previous year we’ve had Innistrad and its invading undead. Within these themes, different mechanics are available which are consonant with the theme – Theros had mechanics like heroic and the bestowing of enchantments, while Innistrad had cards that would transform from human to some monstrous form.

For Khans of Tarkir, the mechanics are related to each clan’s style: the necromantic Sultai get Delve, which makes casting expensive spells easier by the disposal of expended spells; the skillful Jeskai get Prowess, which strengthens creatures when spells are cast; and the ferocious Temur have the Ferocious mechanic, which strengthens creatures when you have a powerful creature in play. The Abzan and Mardu clans have Outlast and Raid mechanics which similarly fit the clan personalities.

The creatures allied with each clan reflect its personality also. The Abzan have durable creatures, the Mardu have aggressive creatures, and the Sultai have snakes and zombies.

So it seems I was looking in the wrong place for the story – I was looking at the cards, when the narrative is on the web sites and the trailers, the spoilers and the novels. While there are fragments of story on the cards, it is at the level of flavour text rather than narrative. Where I’m usually looking for the story to be formed by the mechanics, in Magic the mechanics are shaped by the story.

Interestingly enough, Planet Money did a podcast this week on how the designers of Magic managed to deflate a bubble before it popped, and it relates directly to the way that new sets of cards are released at regular intervals. When Magic was first published, it started to form a collecting bubble almost immediately. But the designers introduced their own economic mechanic to change that narrative, to make a game people would play for decades to come rather than a bubble that burst explosively and suffered complete collapse.

And maybe that’s the most interesting thing about Magic the Gathering, ultimately: building a game hich is still played more than twenty years after its release. That’s a story worth knowing.

[*] there are a lot of fives in Magic because there are five colours of mana.

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Testing Magic

So, you’ve built a deck (perhaps following some of the previous statistical guidance). How do you know if it’s any good?

This post is about testing to see if the deck you’ve built behaves consistently, and whether it’s actually competitive. It’s basically expanding on the closing points I glossed over in the second Magical statistics post.

Draw Testing

The first thing to do is to shuffle and draw a hand to see if you got the land proportions right.

  1. shuffle
  2. draw seven cards
  3. is the hand playable? If not, then mulligan: back to step 1, but draw one fewer cards this time.
  4. If you have a playable hand, then play it – put down a land for your first turn, then draw and play another land and a spell, and so on. Imagine how your opponent would respond; imagine the results from your actions.

The goal here is to get a playable hand in the first draw or the first mulligan, and then to continue to have land to cast spells and things to do each turn. If it regularly takes more than one mulligan to get to a playable state (and winning from an opening five card hard is way more difficult), or if you are regularly left with nothing to do on a turn, then you should look at the reasons for the unplayability and adjust things in the deck:

  • too much land, not enough land, or the wrong colour mix: look again at the number of land cards. If this is too hard to get right, then maybe that five colour deck is just not going to work out.
  • too many expensive spells: look again at the mana curve for your deck.
  • not enough creatures: look again at the mix of creatures to non-creature spells

Pilot Testing

Once you have a deck that consistently makes playable hands and draw sequences, you should try playing it against other decks.

If you’re building a limited deck at a draft event of some kind, that testing will be done against other players and the decks they build in the course of the event.

However, if you’re building at home for later play, then you’ll want to play the deck against another baseline deck or two to see how it fares.

  1. clear a space large enough to layout two board positions close to each other.
  2. roll to see whether left or right goes first.
  3. lay out the cards as you would normally, but if they’re side by side then I would recommend mirroring the two.
  4. play each hand in turn. Stick to the normal phases of play* on each turn. This isn’t just good practice, it will also help you to not forget anything – the phases are a checklist for each player’s turn.
  5. keep notes of how the test hand performs.
  6. make adjustments if appropriate or possible.
  7. test again.
  8. and again. Normal matches are best of three, so you want to run each iteration of a deck against the baseline at least three times.


  • use all the paraphernalia you would use in a normal game: life dice, tokens, and counters – the more authentic you can make it, the more thorough the test is.
  • try to play each hand based only on what that player can see. Try to ignore the knowledge you have of the other player’s hand.
  • if you have trouble separating the two in your mind, try putting the different board positions on opposite sides of a table so that you have to get up and move to the other side in order to play the other hand when the turn changes. This physical change can reset things and help with mental separation.
  • if there’s an instant response which one player would likely make, leave a marker visible which will remind you to glance at the other hand at the proper time.
  • don’t be afraid to go back and fix something if you made a mistake playing one hand because you forgot something the other player would have done, but only do this retconning for situations where there is a response the defensive player would have made based on the information at hand rather than because you’re rooting for one side or the other.
  • be honest, and be brutal. Your opponents won’t cut you any slack because it’s a new deck, so don’t soft-pedal your baseline deck to give the other deck a chance.

Or, of course, get a friend to play against you instead.

Different Tests for Different Contexts

So far, I’ve only really played limited formats with (what should usually be) 40 card decks. In that context, I have kept my first limited deck intact as a baseline deck: it plays fairly consistently, it has multiple win conditions, and it has actually won quite frequently during my play tests**. What I’ve been testing are different clan decks*** drawn from a sealed pool.

If you’re playing a constructed format (whatever the deck size) you should consider pulling together archetypal builds for test purposes. These are the kinds of decks you will encounter at competitive events, so if you new deck can’t beat them then you need to rethink.

… and by “pull together” I don’t necessarily mean buy all the cards for those builds, but rather find a deck list and print out proxy copies of the cards. Unless, of course, you like those decks and want to start playing with them.

For the Modern format, Red Deck Wins or Mono Blue Tron seem representative. If you’re playing Standard then this budget Mono Red deck will be a good test bed. Those are all Tolarian Community College videos because I find the Professor’s presentations easy to understand.

Good luck with your decks, and may the statistics be supportive of your plan.

[*] untap, upkeep, draw, main, combat, second main, end of turn, cleanup.

[**] originally it was a 60 card deck which consisted of all my relevant picks from the booster draft, but that was a mistake. Trimming it to 40 made it good. If that’s not a metaphor for the value of editing, then I don’t know what is.

[***] these being the clans of Tarkir, the current play set as of this writing.

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The Statistics of Magic the Gathering, part 2

Last time I talked about building your deck to have things to do: this time is mostly about having the right stuff to power those things.

Having the Right Mana

In talking about the mana curve last time, the focus was on having cards with the right total mana cost at the time you can cast them. The other part of this equation is making sure that you have the right kind of mana.

Land, and therefore mana, comes in five colours. There are some spells which don’t care what colour the mana used to cast them is (artifacts in particular), but most spells you cast require some component of the casting cost be in a specific one of those same five colours.

Broadly speaking, you want the proportions of your land base to match the proportions of different spell colours in your deck. For single colour decks this is quite easy, but multi-colour decks need a tiny bit of calculation as follows:

  1. count the number of mana symbols of each colour on your deck.
    • ignore cards which have no specific colours
    • count only casting costs (some cards have abilities which require mana, but they’re not relevant here)
    • some cards will have more than one of a colour, or multiple colours. Count all of these.
  2. add all the colour counts together to get your total specific mana requirement
  3. divide each colour count by the total to get the proportion of mana for each colour
  4. multiply each colour proportion by the number of land cards you plan to have in your deck to get the number of each you will need.

For example, I have an Temur deck (white/black/green) from a sealed draft I did which has the following proportions:

Red6 1/3831%5
Blue10 5/61142%7
Green5 5/6727%5

The fractional spells are ones which have more than one mana colour. For this deck these are:

  • Secret Plans costs one blue and one green
  • Snowhorn Rider costs one each of blue, red and green (plus another three colourless)

These land totals are suggestions rather than hard and fast rules. I especially find that a very small land count (if I’m splashing a colour) may need to be increased for it to be viable. Also, if the spells which need a particular colour are all late game then that count may be reduced.

Finally, there are a number of smart phone apps and web pages you can use to do the division and multiplication for you. I use MTG Mana Calculator on my Android phone, but a search for “mana calculator” will turn up lots of current results.

Fetching Mana

When I first started learning about Magic the Gathering I was very confused about these special cards called “fetch lands”. These are land cards, but they don’t yield mana. Instead, you sacrifice one of these cards, lose a point of life, and then get to search your library for a land card.

However, these cards do several things that are interesting:

  • they get you the land that you need, potentially at the exact time you need it
  • they shuffle your library (which if you’ve just been forced to put good cards to the bottom can help bring things back)
  • they increase your chances of drawing spell cards

It’s the last one that is most significant for competitive play, but how does it work?

Given a 60 card deck (and this is definitely a 60+ card deck technique – it is much less relevant in limited formats) you might have 24 land cards. Of these, let’s say eight are fetch lands. What happens when you draw one of those?

  1. your initial hand is three lands and four spells. What’s left in the deck is 21 lands and 32 spells. You have a 32/53 chance of drawing a spell – 60.38%
  2. your next draw is a fetch land. The chance of your next draw being a spell is now 32/52 – 61.54%
  3. you use the fetch land* and play out a new land card. Spell chance has now increased to 32/51 – 62.74%

So, drawing a fetch land even very early in the game can increase your spell draw chance by more than 2%. The swing is much bigger later in the game.

So that is why fetch lands cost so much, and why it was such a big deal that they were reprinted in the two latest play sets.

When To Hold And When To Fold

As I noted last time the heuristics for card type proportions in a deck are to increase the chances of an ideal initial draw: three land and four spells in a seven card hand. In most games, if you don’t get a playable draw, then you have the opportunity to take a mulligan: shuffle your hand back into your library, then take a hand of one fewer cards. So, if your first hand is bad you can mulligan down to six cards, then five if that is still bad, and so on.

But when should you consider taking a mulligan?

The basic heuristic is that if you don’t have anything in your hand that you can play then you should mulligan, but these are the likely scenarios:

  • not enough land – no land means a redraw.
    If your draw has just one or two land cards in it, then that’s likely to be a pretty easy mulligan also, although if the spells in your hand are all very cheap to cast it might still be playable. This is especially true if your deck trends very hard towards cheap cards (eg an aggro build).
  • not enough spells – if all you have is land, you need to redraw.
    If your opening hand has just one spell you should probably mulligan too, unless it’s good and cheap. Two spells… well, that’s tricky. Are they playable soon? Is one of them your win condition card? In those cases you could consider keeping, but this is where your experience will tell you what to do – experiment with different approaches in different games.
  • the wrong kind of mana – if all your drawn spells are red but you only have white mana, then you could think about a redraw because at that point there are no plays. There is a good chance you’ll draw into something you can play later, but the risk is that if your opponent has a fast deck you could be dead before the good draw happens.
  • bad mana curve – having talked about the mana curve of your deck, you also have a mana curve in your hand. Ideally, you would be looking for cards with mana costs that progress so you can play something on each turn. If all you have are huge beasties, that you can’t play until turn six, then consider a mulligan. You might also want to look at how many huge beasties you have in your deck.
  • no creatures – your hand has spells you can cast, but they are all removal spells. The obvious benefit here is that you can kill anything your opponent plays as they play it, but without creatures or direct damage spells, you can’t hurt your opponent. Probably time to mulligan.

If you six card hand is bad? Well, that’s unlucky – but generally it has to be much worse to consider mulliganing down to five. Starting with five or, even worse, four cards is a bad situation to be in, and if that happens you could have some deck design issues.

What’s Next

Once you’ve built your deck, you need to test it. Doing a couple of quick test hands on your own, drawing cards to see if the deck produces consistent results, is a good place to start and is the basic level of testing you should do for any draft. For my own purposes I also have a baseline draft deck that I play against decks I am trying out.

But play – learn how these guidelines work, and whether they work for you.

Enjoy the game!

[*] which can be done at any time, as it happens.

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January Games, part 3

The final part of this series of posts on January games arrivals is about Small World.

Small World

Small World is a game of conquest – building an empire with one race, but then jumping to another new race when the first over-extends themselves.

Small World is like Risk, but fun.

The game is set in a world of not enough space and too many people. Each player takes control of a race with a random supplemental attribute: the hill giants, for example, or the berserker elves. These races and attributes are shuffled at the beginning of each game so you don’t see combinations repeat often. The goal of each race is to capture and retain territory on the world map. Different races and attributes may confer skills that make it easier to capture territory, or bonuses for controlling particular kinds of land: giants find it easier to capture land next to mountains, and the attribute “hill” gives a point bonus for every hill territory held at the end of the turn.

However, not only is there constrained space there are also constrained resources for a race: you get a limited number of troop tokens when you get your race, and that’s usually all you get, so you’re not going to be able to hold more than about ten territories (spread very thinly) before you’re not going to any more conquering.

That is when you put your race into decline: the race stops conquering (usually) and loses their unique attribute (usually) and you pick a new race to conquer with. The game is over in at most turns, so you have time to cycle through three or perhaps four races – there is a lot of skill in picking when to go into decline.

There are several mechanics in the game that support the narrative:

  • limited space – it’s a small world, after all. There are different boards for each number of players, with about enough space for one race per player to fully extend themselves. However, when there are both declined and active races for each player, it’s easy to end up with crowding.
  • declining races – this is such an amusing mechanic. It nicely encapsulates the idea of a civilisation losing vigour and becoming decadent.
  • unique attributes – the races are well balanced, with different races and attributes conferring varying combinations of bonuses to help with attacks, point bonuses, durability, and other helpful properties.

Quite apart from the mechanics that reinforce the story, there are a lot of mechanical details that make the game better.

  • races are presented in a queue. The combinations at the head of the queue cost less, with the price paid being distributed across the races at the front. In other words, you can pay for a race with a killer property at the back, but that makes the ones at the head of the queue more lucrative to choose later. And you’re paying for your new shiny race with the profits that are supposed to ensure your victory later.
  • combat is simple. If you have enough troops, you win. There is a gambling mechanism to allow you to try and invade when you don’t really have enough troops, but it is (of course) a bit chancy. This is so much more satisfactory than the Risk combat, which is just grindy.
  • troops die when you are invaded. This aspect is like Risk, but it’s resolved instantly rather than taking a dozen turns.
  • you get fewer troops with the more amazing powers. This is one of the primary balancing mechanisms, and it’s tremendously helpful in keeping the game fun. There are killer combos, but they generally give you fewer troops to start so even though an empire might be forged quickly, there’s not as far to go with it.
  • the games are usually close. With one exception, the games I’ve played have had point spreads of no more then twenty points on scores in the 80-100 range.
  • it’s difficult to tell who is winning. The victory mechanic is earning coins, but since they are not spent much during the game then there’s little incentive to count them until the end. That means that the actual winner can be quite a surprise.

Overall then, an entertaining game suitable for families but with enough complexity to engage experienced gamers. The mechanics themselves are accessible to young children, but the game is made up of literally hundreds of small parts so that may mitigate against playing with the very youngest. For once, I think the box is about right with an 8+ recommendation (my 7½ year old was fine, but I wouldn’t have played it with him a year ago).

Go and play, and try to keep the ear worm from your head.

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The Statistics of Magic the Gathering, part 1

There are lots of cool things about playing Magic the Gathering: putting together a board state where you deliver six points of unblockable damage every turn; pulling off a nifty inversion of control that forces an opponent’s most valuable creature to block your tiny little death touch attacker; or fighting your way back from a huge deficit to claim victory over a formerly smug foe.

Oh, it can be an awfully satisfying game.

But that is playing the game with the cards you find in your hand. Designing decks is where you try to make sure that the right cards end up in your hand when you need them, and a great deal of the basic techniques of deck design are based on statistical principles.

These notes are aimed at relatively inexperienced deck builders with questions about why some of the guidelines for deck construction exist. I would be lying if I did not say that I am also writing these down here for my own reference.

Having Mana

Casting spells costs mana, and to get mana you have to have land on the table. Ideally, you want to be playing down one land card every turn for the first few turns at least.

Standard deck-building guidelines are that you should have 16-17 land cards in a 40 card deck, and 22-24 land in a 60 card deck. In each case this proportion is about 40%.

The reasoning for this is simple: on your first draw you will take seven cards to make your opening hand. This hand wants to have 3-4 spells and the rest land, just so you can have things to do early in the game. Three out of seven cards being land is a little more than 40%, so to have a fair chance of drawing the desirable amount of land you need that proportion of land in your deck.

The Bend of the Mana Curve

Above I mentioned “having things to do”. This is what the mana curve is about.

Having land is great, but not very useful if you have no spells to cast. On average, with 40% land in the deck providing the mana, the other 60% should be spell cards which use that mana. So, you would expect to draw a spell every other turn or so*.

The trick is to make it so that you stand a fair chance of having spells to cast when you have the mana to cast them. Since you can put down one land card per turn you would expect to have one mana on the first turn, two on the second, and so on. Hence, you would hope to have a one mana cost card to play on the first, a two mana cost card to play on the second, etc (“mana cost” here is the total amount of mana to cast a spell, regardless of colour – this is often termed Converted Mana Cost or CMC).

This is where the mana curve comes. The mana curve for your deck is the number of cards playable at each mana cost. In particular, you want to have cards in your deck which will allow you to play early spells if they come up, but to raise your chances of having a strong card you can actually cast on the third or fourth turn**.

Let’s take a 40 card deck, the standard size for a draft deck, and consider a reasonable distribution of card casting costs. For this deck size the total spell card count of is likely to be around 23 while the number of creatures is going to be about 18, distributed thus:

  • 1 mana – 1-2 cards
  • 2 mana – 2-3 cards
  • 3 mana – 3-4 cards
  • 4 mana – 4-5 cards
  • 5 mana – 2-3 cards
  • 6+ mana – 1-2 cards

So if 40% of your cards are creatures, and more than half of those are going to be castable on turn 4 (assuming your land draws behave themselves), then the chances are very strong that that you’ll have things to do in the first few turns. Similarly, there are only a handful of cards that are very expensive because otherwise you run the risk of getting stuck with too much uncastable stuff in your hand.

When to Break The Mana Curve

The most common build for a deck has this kind of skewed bell curve distribution where there are a lot of medium weight spells and not much on the high or low end, but some build strategies will lead you to make different choices:

  • aggro – this is a fast deck where the goal is throw out lots of little guys fast that can attack your opponent early before any of his creatures are even our to defend. In that case, you’d end up with a lot of low end cards that can be cast in the early turns, but you never ramp up to larger stuff.
  • tribal – in these strategies, there are lots of creatures of a similar type. Elves, for example, or goblins – perhaps even squirrels. In this case the goal is to have creatures and other spells which have synergies, such as effects like “all warriors gain first strike” or “all slivers have flying”.
  • control – the goal with these kinds of decks is to delay the game until you can play a big creature which stomps your opponent. Here the creature base is going to skew big, but there would be a lot of smaller spells for removal and countering.

These strategies are all valid, but usually in a constructed deck rather than a draft simply because of the limited pool of cards available to you.

That’s the first part of this series on the statistics of Magic the Gathering. The second part will be along next week.

[*] the law of averages doesn’t exist, but regression to the mean does.

[**] third or fourth turn is important because many decks don’t really start being aggressive until this point.

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January Games, part 2

The second part of my short series about games arriving on or about the holiday season. Part 1 covered Forbidden Desert. Today I am writing about GadZOOks!, Dig Down Dwarf, and Iota.


I ended up backing several game products on Kickstarter last year, and GadZOOks! (née ZÜ) was one of those. It’s a game about building up a zoo collection, and the central element of play is bidding against other players for animals and resources to bring in the visitors your zoo needs to survive.

The mechanics back this story up quite well: each turn you bid on new animals, and try to breed from animals you already have (although not until you have at least one animal*). The bidding mechanics are not kind, either – you lose money you bid even if you don’t win, and there are cards you can draw to mess with other players.

Oh, and the art! The art is so darling… big-eyed animals in pastel shades with cute babies. It’s specifically to have broad family appeal, and it’s certainly cute enough for non-gamers to want to play just to look at the cards.

The game is quick to learn and play, but there is some pretty deep strategy involved in making good bids and so it has replay value even for experienced gamers. Beware that kids who get emotionally invested in winning the bid for the elephants might get upset if the bidding doesn’t go their way.

If you want a copy, you can go to the Sly Bunny Games Etsy store.

Dig Down Dwarf

Another Kickstarter project which turned up in time for Christmas was Dig Down Dwarf.

The premise here is that the dwarf king has died, leaving the players to stake their claim to the throne by mining as valuable a collection of gems as they can. Each character comes in male and female variants, and has different bonus goals.

Gems are mined by rolling dice. Different combinations of pips earn the gems that are revealed in the central pool (new gems are added each turn), and gems earned can be spent to manipulate the game – for example, to allow a reroll of an otherwise locked die, or add another die to the pool for that player.

For a game that is basically Yahtzee with a clearer scoring mechanic, it is a very engaging and story-appropriate game. I wouldn’t say that the mechanics reinforce the narrative as such, but they are consonant with it and since the game comes with a bag of gems** to stare starry-eyed into it’s a delightful game to play.

Gameplay itself is simple once you get past a large number of facts about the game you need to learn in one go, but as I say it’s basically rolling dice and collecting shiny objects. A two player game can easily be played through in fifteen minutes.

Grey Gnome Games is your place to go to find a copy.


Finally, we have Iota. This game has no story, it is just fun to play.

It comes in a tiny tin containing 66 square cards and a rules book. Apart from two wild cards, every card is unique: a complete permutation of three properties with four values each – number (1-4), colour (red, blue, yellow, green), and shape (circle, square, triangle, cross).

You play with a hand of four cards and try to lay down sets of cards with at least one property that is different on each card. So, you might lay down a set where all the cards are blue, but the numbers and shapes are different. Or where just the colour is different, or even where all the properties differ. A set can only be four cards long, and sets are played intersecting like a crossword. It’s a little akin to Qwirkle, but with more variables and fewer repeats.

The worst thing about this game is learning to see repeats in sets you or other players put down, but once you have your eye in there is a lot of interest in looking for the perfect card to complete two intersecting sets of four: you earn points from the numbers on the cards you play but your score for the turn doubles for every set you complete, which means a turn can get you anything from the low single digits to low hundreds in one go.

With it’s tiny tin it is of course madly portable, although you will need a decent-sized table to play it.

Recommended, and available where Gamewright games are sold.

Next Up

There’s one more post in this series to review games purchased post-Christmas.

[*] two are usually needed of course, but there are miracle cards that can change that rule.

[**] or more, if expansion gems sets are purchased. We have the Gems of Norcia expansion which means you will always collect something for your hoard.

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January Games, part 1

The holiday season is past and in the wreckage of wrapping and gaudy decorations lie four new games: Forbidden Desert, GadZOOKs!, Dig Down Dwarf, and Iota. Three of these have story attached, at least.

Today I’m going to look at the first on the list.

Forbidden Desert

I talked about Forbidden Island before, and Forbidden Desert uses many of the same mechanical concepts to bring the narrative to life.

The story here is of archaeologists searching for the components of a flying machine in the ruins of an ancient city – an ancient city buried by shifting sands in the heart of the desert. The desert is hot and dry, and the archaeologists are squishy and fragile humans. They must work together to survive.

The board is made of random tiles just as it is in Forbidden Island, but unlike the earlier game the tiles are obscured and will shift as the storm moves around the board. Tiles that move are covered in sand, so they are never entirely lost as they are from the island – they just need a lot of clearing to get at their contents.

Many of the mechanics of Forbidden Desert are familiar from other Matt Leacock games: the idea that things will tend to go badly in the same spots that they went badly before, and that the badness will tend to intensify over time. But there are new things too: limited gear (because you only go through the gear deck once), the roving storm moving tiles and distributing sand, and the primary death mechanism of running out of water (an ironic counterpoint to Forbidden Island where the main death mechanic was having too much). Also, the way to find the parts of the flying machine is ingenious.

All of these mechanics support the story of lost explorers trying to survive in a harsh environment, and it’s an exciting and challenging game to boot.

More To Play

I will cover the other three games I mentioned in a future post, but there were also more Magic cards. For me Magic the Gathering that is mostly statistics and flavour rather than story. I’m enjoying it, but not for the narrative.

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Unspeakable Words

I first heard about the game Unspeakable Words on Tabletop.

I am a sucker both for Cthulhu Mythos games and word games so this game really hits the sweet spot for me in terms of what I like.

Unfortunately, Unspeakable Words has been out of print for a while and getting hold of a copy takes $200.

Making A Pirate Copy

However, the letter distributions are available online. Obviously a copy like this would not have the marvellous card art, nor the delightful little Cthulhu figures, but the letters could be represented by tiles from another game.

Scrabble tiles are no good for this – there are 100 tiles rather than 96, but the letter distribution is different and the numbers on the tiles conflict with the scores for this game. Upwords tiles would be better since there are no numbers, but the serifs on the tiles add unwanted angles.

Bananagrams tiles, though, are ideal – there are a lot more than 100 tiles so the distribution can be made to match, and the font used is clear.

I made a cheat sheet to collect the scores for the letters and pulled together some poker chips to act as proxies for the Cthulhu figures. I of course have the d20 needed to roll to see if you lose sanity.

The Mechanics

Unspeakable Words is a game of sanity, like all the best Mythos games. You play cultists seeking to summon dread horrors from beyond space, and this is done by playing words with as many angles in them as you feel comfortable with. The score for each word is based on the number of interior angles on the letters – N scores 2, whereas O scores nothing. You are racing the other players to get to 100 points first.

The sanity loss mechanic is that you start with five sanity points, and after you play your word you try to roll at least that score on a d20. You lose a sanity point if you do not make that roll, and if you lose all your sanity you are out of the game.

In Play

I had the great pleasure to play this pirate copy with some friends at work the other day, and it played extremely well. I lost horribly in both games we played, and I haven’t had that much fun losing a game in ages.

I really hope this game gets reprinted. It’s not just that buying a copy now would cost so much, but if I bought it none of the money would go to the people who wrote it.

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Gathering Magic

Recently, I’ve been learning about Magic the Gathering.

I didn’t play Magic when it first came out because I was in a fearfully serious phase of my life – this was when I was putting all my energy into work, and when I was suppressing my urge to write. Whatever the reasons, the first time I really became aware of the game was from a passing reference in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon where one of Randy Waterhouse’s old roleplaying buddies says that he doesn’t do tabletop games any more and instead plays deck-building card games because there’s all of the combat and none of the tedious parts.

That didn’t sell the game to me, since combat is the part of tabletop RPGs that I enjoy least.

Anyway, I follow the Geek & Sundry web series Tabletop and saw this other show, Spellslingers, in the episode listings: it’s a bit like Tabletop, except that the game played is always Magic. I enjoyed watching it, however confusing it was at first.

Then my boys asked about the game, because they both have friends at school who play, and we went to get a couple of intro decks to play with at our FLGS*. It was fun, and well balanced – we’ve all won and we’ve all lost, but never so overwhelmingly that it was dispiriting.

There are also some players at the day job so I will probably go through a booster draft**. I have no intention of going much further than that with mass card acquisition because I have neither the time nor the funds, but it is a lightweight game with enough luck to give any player a fair chance but enough complexity to reward strategic thought.

Where’s the Storytelling?

I am always interested in the storytelling mechanics of a game, and one of the problems I have with Magic is that there really don’t seem to be any. It’s a combat game, pure and simple – there is a back story about planeswalkers coming into conflict and trying to stay ahead of some executioner-style figure who seeks out those who disrupt the walls between realities, but there’s really nothing in the game itself to reinforce that story. About the closest you get to in-game narrative is that some of the cards interact with each other to produce stronger effects, but basically you’re looking for tactical ways to remove your opponent’s life force in the game and the storytelling seems to be unrelated to the game mechanics themselves. There’s no requirement that decks be thematically consistent beyond using compatible forms of magic.

Having said that, the actual magic system which the game implements is quite interesting: land you control yields mana which you may harvest to cast spells. That’s a pretty strong mechanic, however isolated from the storytelling it may be (why do you control the land? how are the creatures summoned?).

Big System

Which brings me to the subject of magic systems in fantasy novels.

Most of my exposure to magic systems has been through roleplaying games. These give a structured framework for casting spells which usually have a cost in magic points or other components, and limitations like range, casting time, ritual elements, and so on. Then you roll some dice to determine whether and how successfully the spell was cast.

Magic in novels doesn’t need that level of detail (and frankly the explication of that level of detail is one reason why making fiction from the events in roleplaying campaigns tends to fall flat) but it does need some kind of systematic nature to limit the actions of spellcasters. If your protagonist can basically do anything at all with magic, then there is no constraint and no story. And the magic needs to be self-consistent also: if a character casts a shielding charm by smearing frog blood on their clothes in one scene but performs the same effect with a mere snap of their fingers later then there’s either a break in suspension of disbelief or the need for a very urgent explanation.

Magic in fantasy novels vary enormously.

  • in The Lord of the Rings it is difficult to think of a single spell that Gandalf casts, and Saruman’s great power seems to be in technology rather than sorcery. Even Sauron, arguably a being of pure magic, makes his greatest magic in artifacts rather than spells.
  • the Harry Potter books use wands and potions in equal measure, but the mechanics of magic itself are reduced to well-pronounced words and accurate hand motion***.
  • Chritsopher Paolini’s Inheritance series (Eragon and its sequels) use words of power, but they are words in a special language giving the true names of things.
  • Charles Stross’s Laundry novels use mathematics and computation as summoning spells, the mere act of executing certain algorithms weakening the walls of our reality.
  • in Michael Scott Rohan’s trilogy The Winter of the World, the MC’s magic is bound up in forging artifacts of great power, combining runes and the proper materials to make magical items.

This business of magic systems is a particular subject of interest for Brandon Sanderson as expressed repeatedly on Writing Excuses, so it’s worth trawling the archives for more.

As it happens, I effectively built a magic system for my science fiction novel last year, Shapes of Chance – the MC’s abilities were rooted in the concepts of quantum physics, but the effects needed to be proscribed so as to limit her capability. And now I am building a new magic system for this November’s story, since the one I used in its precursor is not really appropriate this time, so I need to think about what magic can do and where it comes from.

What magic systems do you enjoy in your fiction? How would you change them?

[*] Friendly Local Game Shop, in this case Other Worlds Games.

[**] getting lots of packs of cards and taking turns drawing from them, then playing with the decks that result.

[***} the question of where new spells come from is disposed of with throwaway remarks about “research wizards”, as if that is an answer.

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Accidental Worldbuilding

Apparently, I can’t help but do some world building.

Looking through the Savage Worlds Fantasy Companion, there is a lot to like: many weapons, interesting races, and a bundle of professional edges that emulate classes. All well and good.

What it doesn’t have is much in the way of setting – which is to be expected, this being a generic game, but it means I need to come up with something for a context within which my boys are going to play*.

Just Enough For This Story

I don’t need a deep story here yet. It’s not like A New Dawn where there is a plot to uncover: the game here is of ordinary adventurers in an extraordinary world. I just need some context for things like magic systems to function. To that end, apart from some broad concepts, I’m not going to define much about the world.

Magical Roots

Most fantasy games have at least two basic divisions of magic: the magic of humans, be it wizardry or sorcery or some other mechanism, and the magic of the gods, that divine energy called upon by clerics and other devout.

I don’t especially care for gods in my stories, though. Their use is essentially unsatisfying to me, moving the interesting parts of the story into an unopenable box: literally “deus ex machina”, the god outside of the machine.

So what basis shall I give for clerical magic? It still needs to be there, but who should the clerics appeal to for their powers?**

I’m going to use the classical elements of fire, water, earth and air. If I have those four in both positive and negative aspects then I have a pantheon of eight right there.

And look – no Cthulhu Mythos influence at all.

A Simple Start

But where are the players playing?

I can always come up with a new world, but I think I will reuse some ideas from both my work and others. I am thinking of an Atlantis-like place in the late prehistory of our own world, during the last glaciation.

  • most of the planet’s water is frozen in the ice caps, so sea levels are low.
  • the culture of the central land, a chain of volcanic islands in the middle of what will become the Atlantic, is an amalgam of various ancient cultures: a bit of Egyptian, a bit of Mesopotamian, a bit of Greek and Phoenician Mayan and Aztec. And so on. Different islands have different cultures, perhaps?
  • Hyperborea to the north is the freezing centre, the great enemy, of the world, seeking to freeze the world entirely.

The influences here are many: Pratchett’s Nation is critical, as is Michael Scott Rohan’s series The Winter of the World***. In both of these there are prehistoric civilisations which thrive during the last glaciation. Tales of Atlantis often speak of a land from which the founders of so many of the great civilisations fled, carrying the seeds of Atlantean knowledge with them. I also have a story [link to The Manx Connection?] which uses an Atlantean back story.

Anyway, it’s pretty derivative but that’s largely unavoidable. It’s also enough to be going on with. Time to be making a dungeon.

[*] not, I will concede, for their benefit so much as mine. Having some setting makes for an easier time coming up with stories.

[**] do these elemental gods really exist? Or are the clerical characters drawing on elemental energies using their faith as a lever to crack open the world? I don’t know, but it will be fun to find out.

[***] there’s also an interesting magic system here based around smithing which I did a bit of work codifying for a fantasy game many years ago. Might need to pull those notes out.

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