Shadow Throne: The Evolution of Cards

Last week I discussed the design goals I set out for Shadow Throne. This week, I thought I’d discuss the game from a different vantage point: the evolution of the graphic design of the cards.

I really enjoy doing these retrospective posts. Working on a game, you make so many tiny changes, it can be difficult to remember where you started and how far you’ve come. Additionally, it helps show how the designer’s understanding and priorities shift over the design process. Plus, it gives me a chance to show off a really awesome card frame you’ll see in the final game!

So let’s get to it with a card from the first Shadow Throne prototype…

Initial Prototype

Trained Footman card from the first prototype of Shadow Throne.

A card from the first prototype of Shadow Throne.

Here you can see a card from the very first prototype of Shadow Throne, then called by its in-development name Factions. It was created on June 20th of 2013. I was able to create cards very quickly using Nothing Sacred Cards, the open source software I wrote to iteratively develop card games. Nothing Sacred Cards allows you to make small tweaks to all cards without spending tons of time tweaking every card, so you’ll see lots of slight changes as the game developed.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I’m well aware that this card is ugly. But for prototypes, especially early ones, you really shouldn’t care how your components look–you should care if they’re functional. My goal at this point was not to impress people with the game, it was to determine if the game had promise or not. To do that, I needed to create a playable game, not a pretty game.

The name is in the top center of the card; the 2 in the top left is the card’s rank (used for some special rules); the 0 in the top right is the card’s cost; the 2 in the bottom left is the card’s power (how much it helps its faction win a battle); the coin and crown in the bottom right are the rewards this card gives if its faction wins; and the border and symbols in the top left and bottom right indicate the card’s faction.

First Revision

A card from the second Shadow Throne prototype.

A card from the second Shadow Throne prototype.

You can see that the changes here, from July 13th, are generally very subtle. First, the rank (star) and power (sword) have switched places because the power is more important, so I wanted it more visible when the player holds his or her cards. Second, the faction icons are now in all corners because they kind of looked strange only in two.

Finally, this card now has a special ability. Now, truth time: other cards had special abilities in the first version, but Trained Footman didn’t. Still, this gives you an idea of what the special abilities were like. In case it’s too cryptic, this ability means that if the red faction loses, you get some money for having played Trained Footman.

Second Revision

Yet another version of Trained Footman.

Yet another version of Trained Footman.

Again, the changes remain subtle in this version from August 27th. Once again, the rank has been downgraded, this time shifted to the bottom right corner (the least visible for right handed people), letting the rewards take a more prominent position in the bottom left.

You’ll notice the special rule no longer has text, because the default is to just collect whatever is shown there. This is the beginning of the evolution that would streamline this particular special rule, loss gold.

I also added a (lousy) icon to indicate the rewards. I did this for two reasons. First, I wanted the rewards to be clear, not just icons floating on their own. Second, I wanted to make the rewards consistent with the other special rules, such as the loss gold.

Third Revision

An even uglier card from Shadow Throne's development.

An even uglier card from Shadow Throne‘s development.

Woah, what happened here! Well, first off, this version is from much later–November 6th to be exact. So there was a lot of opportunity for big changes to take place.

During that time, I also experimented with a game design strategy I probably should have been using from the start: I got rid of all the special rules for the cards, made all the factions symmetrical, and focused on the core gameplay. This was useful for two reasons. First, it proved that the game didn’t need those special rules to be fun. Second, it let me experiment with the base numbers to better understand the core game without the special rules throwing everything off. Because I didn’t need the special rules, I was able to make the cards symmetrical, so it didn’t matter which way you were holding them in your hand.

While working on the previous versions of the cards, I also realized that putting important information in each corner was a bad idea. While corners are easy to find, most of them are covered when you’re holding a hand of cards.

Another big change here is that the loss gold has become basic information rather than a special rule. I discovered that the loss gold is a very fun part of the game, so I wanted to simplify and standardize it, making it show up on more cards. I also didn’t want basic, common cards, like the Peasant (formerly Trained Footman), to have special rules that might confuse new players.

So, I’ve justified why I designed the cards this way, but why did I make them look so terribly hideous? That I can’t explain. I even thought it looked decent at the time. Just be happy that I’m working with awesome graphic designers and artists for the final version!

Fourth Revision

A much nicer looking version of Peasant.

A much nicer looking version of Peasant.

Alright, now we’re back on track. By this point, December 11th, I’d realized that my previous version had some major mistakes. Having the cards be symmetrical worked for the simpler version of the game, but for the full version, with special rules that couldn’t be symmetrical, the cards needed a single orientation. This also allowed space for illustrations that were sure to come soon.

Second, putting all relevant information in one corner was a good idea, but it didn’t have to be crammed. Here I spread it out along the left side of the card so it’s still apparent when cards are in hand, but it doesn’t feel cluttered.

Another change that made things feel less cluttered was deciding to put numbers over the icons rather than next to them. That limited what the icons could be, since legible text had to appear on them, but the change about halved the number of symbols on the cards.

A flip arrow was added to the cost to better differentiate it from loss gold.

The rank star was officially removed, replaced by a simple word, in this case commoner. This helps people talk about it, better differentiates it from vital information about the card, and adds to the theming.

Finally, you’ll notice that the power icon is now a fist. At this point, I was experimenting with making the game less focused on war, so I wanted power to include many types of power (economic, social, cunning, etc) rather than just military power. I knew the fist wasn’t a great symbol, but I had to make a choice and went with it for the short term.

Fifth Revision

A slightly different version of Peasant.

A slightly different version of Peasant.

There are no major changes between this version, from January 31st, and the previous one, but there are several small changes.

First, you’ll notice that the power icon is once again military themed. Sorry all you peaceniks out there!

Next, the rank and name have been shifted left so they are easy to see in a hand. The rank also has a symbol. Each of the three ranks has a unique symbol, making it easier to both tell which rank a character is and determine when a special ability affects a specific rank.

We’ve now gone back to two faction symbols in the top left and bottom right, because I apparently forgot how bad it looked from the very first prototype.

And finally, we now have some flavor text! At this point, I wanted to begin solidifying the theme and characters, so I started fleshing them out a bit. Ultimately, illustrations will help even more, but for the time being flavor text can help determine if the flavor is understandable and appealing.

Print and Play Version

A card from the glorious Shadow Throne print and play.

A card from the glorious Shadow Throne print and play.

At long last, the graphic design wasn’t being done by me… Slim Mittens, who helped me with Corporate America, took charge and created the  next card layout in time for the print and play, still freely available!

The first thing you’ll notice about this one, from March 7th, is that it’s just aesthetically much more appealing. Textures keep the solid colors from feeling flat, borders make the different card sections pop, and the icons look much more professional.

There is just one faction icon in the top right, and it looks MUCH better than previous versions.

Loss gold is now separated from the other card information, and in fact only appears when a card actually produces loss gold.

Slim came up with the very clever idea of having a light “plus gold” icon for characters that offer gold when you play them and a dark “minus gold” icon (not on this card) for characters that cost gold to play. This change made the number representing gold cost or income, which was pretty confusing, a little less so.

Oh, one more thing: even this card was made with Nothing Sacred Cards! The software was very useful throughout the entire design process, up to the point where we were ready to create the final, press ready cards.

Final(ish) Version

The very close-to-final Peasant.

The very close-to-final Peasant.

And now we get to the moment you’ve been waiting for–what will the cards look like, after all this iteration, in the final version of the game? Here you can see Peasant (with art!) from April 18th, when we ordered prototypes that will appear in the Kickstarter.

Again, most of the changes here are aesthetic, but boy are they nice! The banner holding card information looks amazing, and is unique for each faction. The loss gold flag is now an actual flag, not a floating box. And of course the illustration is phenomenal thanks to the amazing talents of Jesse Parrotti. The cards also have a decidedly dark appearance, which fits the theme of manipulation and war perfectly. All in all, the cards look great.

There are a few small functional changes, though. For one, the faction icon is now in the bottom left corner instead of the top right. This was partially changed to make the icon easier to see while holding cards, but also to give more room for character names.

Second, the flavor text is now snug in the bottom. Though the Peasant doesn’t have any rules text, this makes flavor text not only distinct from rules text by being italic, it is also in a different location.

Finally, the icons are now full color and have outlines to make them pop and show up on both light and dark backgrounds. I think this is a big improvement for the coins especially. (By the way, notice the difference between the “plus gold” and “minus gold” icons?)

Keep on Iterating

As you can see, every aspect of a game needs to go through many versions in order to make sure the game is as good as it can be. Shadow Throne has come a long way since its first prototype, slowly evolving into the awesome version we see now. I couldn’t be prouder of the game, and I can’t wait to share it with all of you!

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