Synergy, OverRealm, and Oreos


First it was beef. Then we added bread. And veggies. And condiments. And bacon. This is the proven history of the burger. While cooked beef is good, it’s way better with a bunch of other tasty stuff. New food pairings are revelatory, like truffle oil and french fries or cinnamon bun Oreos.

Food pairing is like the concept of synergy in board games, minus the need for napkins. Synergy is when you have two separate things work better when paired together. Synergies, and also referred to as a combos, go hand-in-hand with value – the more you synergize, the more value/reward you receive for your effort. Combos aren’t explained to players, players discover them as they play. Finding them is half the fun!

Each playable hero in OverRealm features their own unique synergies that form their playstyle. However, synergy wasn’t something I had designed before. Sure, I’ve played tons of games with them, but that doesn’t mean I know how to make it myself. When I started playing some early builds of OverRealm, I started to realize this. Sometimes minions would do all sorts of crazy awesome things. Other times they would rarely interact with one another. I needed to have combos happen consistently, as this is an important component to OverRealm.

That’s when I discovered the magic of flowcharts. I mapped out how synergies progressed for each playable hero and found how disorganized and random it all was. One hero, Lilith Grimoire, was so convoluted that I had to start her from scratch!

How do you build synergy? I’ll explain by using OverRealm as an example, followed by three important learned lessons.

In order for a synergy or combo to occur in OverRealm, you need to have a minion in play that looks for something specific to happen. I’ll use these two cards to help illustrate:

You start the game with Unholy Channeler. Its triggered ability–deal one damage to an enemy minion–occurs whenever you summon an abomination minion or an abomination minion implodes. On your first turn, you summon Skinrot Viscous. It’s an abomination minion, so Unholy Channeler gets excited and lets you use his ability. Every time you summon a new abomination minion while Unholy Channeler is in play, he’ll let you damage a minion. The longer it stays in play, the more damage it does, therefore the more value it provides you.

Unholy Channeler also likes it when your abominations implode! Lilith’s hero card makes you place blight counters on your abomination minions, making them stronger. When abomination minions have a certain number of blight counters on them, their bodies can’t handle all of the power Lilith keeps giving them, so they use their implode ability and die. Whenever an abomination minion implodes when Unholy Channeler is in play, BOOM!, more value and damage directed at the opponent.

Lilith’s synergies are all formed around abomination minions and implode. Then there are minions that care about abomination minions and implode. That’s it. Lilith’s flowchart looks like this:

Untitled Diagram

The key and start to her synergies are abominations, so it’s first. 10 out of 16 of her minions are abominations, so you’ll definitely play some every game. Next come minions that care about abominations, of which there are 5 out of 16. All abominations have implode (that’s why they’re abominations!), so there’s 10 instances of that as well. Lastly, there are minions that care about implode, of which there are 3. It’s the fewest because it’s the furthest down the flowchart, which means it’s the least likely to happen (your opponent might kill some of your abominations before they implode!).

Lesson #1The further down an action occurs in your flowchart, the less frequently it will happen. This means there should be fewer cards rewarding that action.

Lesson #2Have cards occupy more than one space on the flowchart. If you look at Unholy Channeler, it occupies both 2 and 4 on the flowchart, which helps both synergies from happening more frequently. Adding more new cards to increase synergy can hurt overall synergy, as it makes drawing certain enablers less frequent.

Lesson #3The action(s) you’re building synergies around must be fun without synergies. Abominations are a little stronger than your average minion because they don’t have as much staying power, so being able to play fatties that get bigger is unique to Lilith. Having your minions blow-up for benefit is cool too! Even if you don’t have minions that care about abominations or implode in play, they’re still fun to play by themselves.

While all of OverRealm’s heroes share similarly simple flowcharts, it’s the variety of different actions amongst them all that makes exploring the synergies fun. The eat-an-entire-package-of-cinnamon-bun-Oreos-followed-by-intense- disapproval-of-your-life-choices kind of fun.

(For more information about OverRealm, including print-and-play PDFs for all six heroes, click here!)


Pillars of Design

My father is an avid cigar smoker and tends to listen to music when he banishes himself outside to enjoy his tobacco bliss. One Christmas I decided to buy him a portable bluetooth speaker because he had been cranking tunes on his crappy internal iPhone speaker. At first he didn’t understand its purpose. Now he can’t live without out it!

People are predictable and it’s fun to predict others’ reactions. Gift giving, like the bluetooth speaker, and the act of recommendation are done under the assumption of having an understanding of another’s preferences and, when correctly assumed, provides both people satisfaction. So when a friend describes a board game to me, the best thing they can do to pique my interest is by saying it features:

1) Quick Setup

2) Simple to start yet deceptively deep

3) High replay value

4) Zero customization outside of play

Because those four features are so vital to my enjoyment of any given board game, I’ve made them my “Pillars of Design.” Any game I produce will feature those four things. Why the hell would I make a game that doesn’t appeal to me? And if I were to, that would be a brutish, tortuous task.

Let’s dive into why these are important to me.


Quick Setup


The length of time it takes to setup a game may seem nitpicky, but it’s essential to accessibility and replayability. If setup is a detailed process, you’ll probably have to look at the rulebook a few times to make sure you’ve done everything right. That’s not fun for anyone involved, and since that’s the first thing you do before playing the game, it could prevent you from playing it more frequently.

Puzzle Strike, easily the best deck-builder out there, has a decently long initial setup time (which is especially noticeable if you’ve played the online version because that’s probably the optimal way of enjoying the game), and changing the bank of chips after someone wins is a pain too. I single out Puzzle Strike because that game is a blast, but this prevents me from playing it as much as I ought to (I’d have a dedicated Puzzle Strike table if I had the space!).

On the flipside, Settlers of Catan can be kind of a chore to set up if the pieces aren’t locking together, but its modular, randomized board makes the process of setup exciting. Revealing the placement of each tile keeps players engaged, and then once all are revealed, players can formulate strategies. This makes setup a fun and active component to the design, rather than a solitary act done by your friend-group’s martyr.


Simple yet Deep


Games must be fun the first time played. If that first game doesn’t captivate a player in any sort of way, it’s unlikely they’ll return. You can’t blame them – they invested the time to learn the game and feel that it wasn’t worth the effort. The basic, surface-level fun must be felt immediately.

Carcassone’s scoring system is tricky enough to not be fully comprehended during your first playthrough, yet placing a randomly drawn tile somewhere is a simple choice that’s reminiscent of snapping puzzle pieces together. Packing that one choice–where do I put this?–with nuance and strategy is why the game shines. You don’t need to be able to do a million things in a turn to have depth. When turns are packed with options and limited choices, it has the benefit of reducing turn length. The shorter the turn length, the easier it is for players to grasp a game’s structure and flow.

If the core choice you ask players to make each turn is understood quickly and is fun (even when losing), future rematches are inevitable.


High Replay Value


The two biggest methods of increasing replay value are through mastery of mechanics and variance.

The former is when players don’t have to think about each possible choice, they instead instinctually know what the best couple of options are. This is achieved when players have a stronger understanding of the value of their options. Understanding value is an essential skill to mastery and every new game presents value differently. If a game reveals itself to present players one optimal option each turn, then your game has degenerate strategies, which betrays the notion of depth.

The latter is when there are features in a game that change how subsequent games play. Selecting a new fighter in a game like Street Fighter changes not only how you play, but also how your opponent plays. Then there are randomized features, like a shuffled deck of cards or dice, that make future games less predictable. Puzzle Strike features both – character selection, shuffled chips, and a randomized bank of chips – all of which force players to adapt their strategies.

If you feel as if you’ve seen everything a game has to offer after a few plays, it’s unlikely you’ll return.


Zero Customization Outside of Play


Magic: the Gathering has built a huge following around the concept of crafting your own deck of cards. Players keep buying more new cards to improve the strength and strategy of their deck. That level of customization is certainly interesting, especially when looked at as an unconventional method of self-expression, but also hurts the game experience. Magic asks players to build the best deck they can, or in other words, invest more money to have a higher chance of winning. Customization before play encourages players to stack the odds of winning in their favor, all before the game is played!

This also creates a strange meta-game of rock-paper-scissors at the competitive level. Most decks occupy a known archetype that is strong against some archetypes and weak against others. Knowing this, players try to anticipate what types of decks they think they’ll see at any given competition. Once again, this places more emphasis on the “pre-game” than the actual game.

Zero customization outside of play doesn’t preclude giving players a choice or two before the game begins, as long as those choices don’t drastically stack the odds in one player’s favor. Choices before a game inevitably give one player an advantage, but the extent of that advantage should be minimized with strong design and lots of playtesting, because balanced play is pretty darn crucial.


What About OverRealm?


OverRealm has been designed to feature all four of these pillars. Setup takes about a minute. Turns are semi-simultaneous–players each have their own minion phase, where they can summon one minion from their hand of four, which presents players a simple yet important decision every turn. Combat is simultaneous and happens each turn, further lowering downtime. The replay value is quite high due the six playable heroes and their own unique cards and strategies. OverRealm features zero customization and is all the better for it!


Video Game Preferences


Speaking of preferences, there’s a great online survey from Quantic Foundry that approximates your gamer profile (I’m not sure how applicable it is to board games). They’re, as they put it, “a game analytics consulting practice… [that combines] social science with data science to understand what drives gamers and how to make game experiences more engaging.” You can take the survey here. I took this thing and got these results:

Quantic Foundry Profile

What I like:

  • Action games, specifically the kinds that are “…fast-paced, intense, and provide a constant adrenaline rush”
  • “Competing with other players, often in duels, matches, or team-vs-team scenarios”
  • Challenge, so “games that rely heavily on skill and ability”

What I dislike/don’t desire:

  • Power, or amassing crazy amounts of strength and ability that makes me feel unstoppable
  • Immersion, whether that be through role-playing as a character or a game’s narrative
  • Expressing my creativity or individuality, whether it be making stuff in Minecraft or changing the appearance of in-game characters/locations

This is spot-on. Bloodborne, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Devil May Cry are probably my all-time favorite games, all of which fit neatly into those first three bullet points. Role-playing, stat optimization, creating character builds, creating content, and even narrative all take a backseat to action, challenge, and competition for me. If a game doesn’t satisfy at least one of those itches, I probably won’t like it. So it’s of no surprise at all that I’m absolutely adoring the new DOOM. It feels like an FPS made for me.

I think you all have a good idea of what kind of a gamer I am, which begs the question:

What kind of gamer are you?


Playtesting is to games like proofreading is to writing: essential and usually painful. Playtesting is the culmination of all your integration of disparate systems, your thematic relevance, and your initial idea of how you wanted your game to play translated as best as possible to an actual, playable design.

This is an exciting part of the game design process but also the most brutal, especially early on. My first experience with playtesting was in 2012 when I had the horrible idea of making a collectible card game. This thing quickly transformed into a behemoth–over a hundred unique cards, a multitude of card-types, an insane amount of mechanics, and a ton of text per card. Some of these cards were double-sided and featured so much text that they wouldn’t fit on a standard 3.5” x 2.5” playing card. I had convinced myself that in order to see the true depth of the design, I needed to design a huge amount of cards.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 11.31.21 AM
Actual card from my first design. SO. MUCH. TEXT.

After a month of designing cards, I printed them out, sleeved them, and subjected a friend to my creation. It failed before it started. Convoluted doesn’t even begin to describe the month-long mess that lay before me. I was crushed and rightfully abandoned the game.

I learned a huge lesson: playtest as early as possible. Throw your idea together as quickly as possible, play it, and see what works. You’ll see very quickly what falls apart and what is fun. This first playtest doesn’t require other actual players–play it by yourself. I say this because the objective of early testing isn’t to have fun, it’s to figure out what works. Asking a friend to play your game is somewhat deceptive if they don’t know what a playtest is, and is a lot more work than it is fun because you’re asking for opinions, design advice, and how they feel. Most first playthroughs are wrought with problems and are totally unfun. You’ll want to change rules on a whim. Many initial kinks can be fixed by soloing your first game (but it is a total bore).

After your first playtest, go back to the design, tinker around with it, and solo it again. After repeating this process a few times, it’s in a much better position to be played with actual people. However, I think it’s important to properly incentivize your players, because your design is still relatively new and untested. How do you do this? Easy: bribe them. A large pizza and a 12-pack of beer goes a long way to ensuring your friends will enjoy the experience. This approach is far more successful than promising a thank you in a rulebook that may never come into existence.

A useful tool for continued testing is Tabletop Simulator. It simulates a virtual table, allowing you to upload cards, dice, tokens, etc., which you can then play with other people online. Set up a time once a week with a few friends and now you have a reliable weekly playtest (I highly recommend you buying them the software!). I found this great for solo testing too.

When playtests start yielding incremental and small adjustments, you know you’re on the right track. And when your testers want/ask to play another game, that’s when you know your design is now a game.

Holtfork Games!

My name is Calvin Holt, and let me tell you:

Game design is not easy. I stumbled into it back in 2012 and discovered its thrilling sense of logical creativity as well as its punishing iterative process. That loop of highs and lows can be infuriating but pushing past it and embracing the process has been a whole lot of fun. I have around a dozen botched/shelved game designs that did not endure that process. With each new failure brought new techniques and realizations that I took with me to my next project.

My first success story is OverRealm, a competitive two-player card game deep in development. I have learned a lot bringing this game closer and closer to reality and I’m excited to share all kinds of fun details about the project from all kinds of perspectives.

Thanks for visiting and I can’t wait to share all that I can about the crazy process that is game design.