Jan 14 2014

Balancing and Scoring in Nexus

When NEXUS was first brought up, it was as one of two games that we considered introducing as our first game from the company. After some discussion about them, we realized that NEXUS was not only the easier of the two to write, it was also the more complete of the two, and would be the sane one to begin with. Naturally, we started to design the other one.

Fortunately, a couple of weeks into this process Michelle — who had been asked to see what she could do about finishing up the cards and the basic playing rules — presented us with a home-made NEXUS deck. Made out of white shipping labels stuck to spare playing cards with the NEXUS card names hand-written in black marker, the deck provided us with the ability to immediately sit down and play-test the game.

So we did. And the immediate reaction was "Crap! I can do better than that! Let me try again!"

At which point we knew that we had a reasonably good game on our hands, and returned to the sane route of NEXUS first. We acquired a few more home-made decks (although these had printed labels, rather than hand-written ones), and proceeded to play at every staff meeting for the next month and a half.

However, the game was far from complete; worse yet, it was completely unbalanced. The first rounds of play-testing resulted in some truly amazing scores, both on the high and low ends. That event, along with all the testers rapidly acquiring all of the combinations available, led to several intensive conversations about the balancing of combinations and scoring.

When Michelle had written the play rules, she had come up with several card combinations that could be used one of two ways — either as thematic combinations that would be an alternate way of scoring, or as secret Achievements that would be awarded after scoring was complete.

The details of the secret Achievements are something we're keeping pretty close to our chest, but in essence, they're groups of cards that together tell a little bit of a story. When you've unlocked an Achievement, you receive the Achievement name as a title, to be used in the forums (when we have them) and in future games.

Basic scoring in NEXUS is pretty straightforward: You collect cards of the same type and get points for them. The type can be by number (Ace to ten and court cards, much like a standard deck, save that we have five court cards instead of three) or by Element and Arcana (our kind of "suits" — Jewels, Masks, or Archetypes, for example). The minimum collection you can have that scores points is 2, and the goal in basic scoring is to get the highest number of points possible.

Thematic combinations add in a layer of complexity that can be used or ignored, depending on the player's mood. These combinations are mostly built out of the Arcana (Archetypes, Artifacts, and Dualities), and originally had partially arbitrary scores assigned to them.

The first conversation involved laying out all the cards and brainstorming more Achievement and Thematic combinations. We were quite careful to make sure that all of the Arcana cards were included in at least one of each, and that none of them were used too many times (we did decide on what "too many" consisted of, but saying what that number is gives too much away). We determined what the minimum number of cards in a combination should be (3) and what the maximum number should be (6). We even agreed that having a set of court cards — Soldier, Sage, Mistress, Master, and Temple — should be considered a set, and that having them all in one suit should gain you a bonus. In the end, we wound up with 25 Arcana-based scoring combinations, 2 court-based scoring combinations, 5 bonus modifiers, and 2 penalties (which are easily avoided). We also had a respectable number of Achievements we were able to add to the list.

Once we knew what we were looking at in terms of scoring combinations, we were better able to approach the concept of balancing the scoring. Initially, all of the Arcana were the highest-scoring cards in the game, at 500 points each, with the 7 Element suits then between 100 and 400 points. With the bonuses given to the combinations, there was very little strategy to the game — always collect as many of the Arcana cards as possible, and then make the combinations you can at the end. The Elements would always be a secondary consideration. That needed to change in order to bring the strategic element forward.

Looking at the numbers, we decided the values for the Elements were actually quite reasonably laid out. The lowest valued Element, Jewels, is worth 100 points for each card. The seven elements then stair-step up by 50 points each to the highest-scoring Element, Masks, at 400 points for each card, giving an average, and midpoint, value of 250 points. We debated making the Arcana the lowest valued cards and giving the combinations a strong bonus to give an incentive to collect the combinations, but decided that was almost punitive — the combinations can be a challenge to collect, and if the needed cards are elusive too often, the player will become annoyed by a consistently low score. In the end, we chose to place the Arcana in the mid-range at 250 points each.

Once we balanced the individual card values, we had to come up with a fair way of assigning points to the collections that would not only give them a consistent value, but also make them worth collecting. To that end, we first chose to give them a bonus for each type of Arcana they came from. If a 3-card collection all came from Archetypes, for example, it would be worth 1,000 points — 250 x3 cards for a base of 750 points plus a 250 point bonus. If it had one of each type of Arcana in it, however, it would be the same base of 750 points, and 3 250 point bonuses, for 1,500 points. Once we tried a few hands, we decided that was not quite worth it. We made the bonus 500 points for every type of Arcana included, and added a x2 multiplier to the base points. So now, the all-Archetype 3 card collection is worth 2x(250x3)=1,500 for the base points, plus 500 points for the bonus, and if there's one of each Arcana in it, it's the same 1,500 base points, and 3x500=1,500 points for the bonus, for a total of 3,000 points. That makes collections very attractive, even if the individual Arcana cards are worth less than some of the Elemental cards. And that's where the strategy starts to come in — in order to get the collection you're looking for, do you throw away potentially higher scoring cards, and how many collections do you risk attempting at once?

I'll give one freebie away for the Achievements, because those will eventually also impact the strategy for some people — there are titles to be gained for getting all cards in each Element and Arcana. If you want those titles, you may have to give up points. Oh, and did we mention — each of the Thematic Collection names are also given to you as a title, the first time you earn them in the game?

Fortunately, on the days when you just don't want to think that hard, we made it easy — you can just play for points, too.

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