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Mechatrap Artificer Design: Part 2

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

Welcome to Part 2 of my Mechatrap Artificer design stories. In Part 1 I introduced the team and gave a high level overview of our design process. Today I’ll cover why that process ended up not being as we intended for the Mechatrap Artificer, I’ll discuss some of the mechanics we explored in early design and the reasons for why we did or did not pursue them further, and I’ll show off a few cards from the class.


Unexpected Arrival

As I mentioned last time, the initial design plan involved two design teams (Team Blue and Team Black) working in parallel with one another. I was to captain Team Black while Sean lead Team Blue. In the middle of the Mechatrap Artificer’s design, my wife and I were expecting our second child, a girl. About a week or so into the design schedule, my wife went into early labor, and our daughter arrived over two months sooner than expected. In order to take time to be with my family, I decided that Team Black (myself and Aidan) were required to pause, while Team Blue (Sean and Pete) forged ahead. I sent Team Blue some notes, then prepared for our newborn.


One of the notes was an important distinction that Aidan pointed out to me early on - that we needed to distinguish mechanically between a trick and a trap. Where a trick was an “aha gotcha!” vibe, a trap should feel more like a “you fool!” vibe where the enemy messed up. There needed to be a sense of the opponent knowing something bad was going to happen before they made a decision to risk triggering the trap. I thought that was a particularly astute observation, and made sure to communicate that to Team Blue before pausing.


The most interesting part of this is that Aidan’s answer to the “you fool!” design problem was to use face-down cards. Their design involved planning actions that were hidden from the opponent to create that mix of known and unknown and capture the narrative. I really enjoyed this mechanic but found it was rather difficult to get it to work correctly within the Varia rules. It forced us to answer questions like “what is a face down card while it is face down?” and “what happens if I plan something as a combo with a face down card?”. I purposefully left it out of my notes to Team Blue because I didn’t feel like it was in a functioning spot yet, and I only wanted to share complete mechanics in order to save on time.


Fast forward a few months, and I joined Team Blue as the primary tester of Sean and Pete’s designs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had agreed on the notion that the “you fool” feeling was important to capture and that they had independently arrived at the idea that a face down card could deliver the narrative. What's more, they presented a way to do it that worked within Varia’s existing rules and mechanics framework, so nothing new had to be established (we thought).


In exploring the narrative of a trap master, the team identified a second narrative that we could highlight - that of the mech pilot. Sean and Pete felt that the fact that this character was riding inside of a construct was too strong of a hook to ignore, and they felt that the best approach was to do a “dual narrative” if possible. If you remember from last time, I mentioned how in Step 2 of the design, we tend to look for an accompanying mechanic to go with our core mechanic. Basically the team was communicating that in looking for the “core trap mechanic” for Step 1, they kept getting a ton of ideas for “mech pilot” mechanics, and were already leaning toward the dual-narrative approach for step 2 as a result. They went ahead and designed a bunch of cards to pitch as a way to further illustrate to me that the mech pilot narrative was strong enough to pursue. Below are some of the mechanics that the team pitched to me upon my return from leave with the baby:


Amplify with Action Points. We called this the “MOAR POWER!” mechanic. This would bring amplify back with a twist (we first did amplify in season 2 with the Deathblood Sorcerer and the 4th Blade). The main idea was that you could amplify your actions by spending more AP than the action’s base cost.


On-Hit Effects. The main idea here was to put the spotlight on the On-Hit trigger, something that we had yet to focus a class around, and leverage that as the feeling of touching a trap and setting off something nasty.


Pick & Choose Items. We called this “Build a Bear” after the chain of build your own teddy bear stores. The idea was that via your items, you could somehow make selections from a list, so that each time you played as the MTA, your item loadout would be different.


Face Down Items. The main idea where was that your items started the game face down, and were only revealed once used. This mechanic only really had legs when used in tandem with the Pick and Choose Items mechanic, as I’ll explain below.


Face Down Actions. Sean and Pete had (in parallel with Aidan and myself) played with the idea of face down cards as a means to capture the trap idea. Where we were trying to care about the entire card being face down, their method focused on only leveraging the rules text of the face down card, which I thought was a genius way to avoid all of the issues that Aidan and I were running into. More on that later also.


Power Diversion. This mechanic was inspired by sci-fi movies, and created a feeling of diverting power around the mech to different areas. Rather than boosting the action in the moment, you would take a power hit to spread that power somewhere else or cause some other effect to occur.


We had a ton of other smaller mechanics, but the above are the standouts that we felt had some serious weight behind them. Each had the ability to play well and sell the class on being a unique and fun gameplay experience. What we needed to do was decide which ones best fit the task at hand (trap artificer) and which one (if any) would be the star. What I’m going to do now is dive a little deeper into each of the mechanics above, and discuss some of the pros and cons that we discovered in our testing and our internal discussions in an effort to simultaneously show off the mechanics that made it into the final design and explain why other mechanics didn’t make the cut.





Amplify with Action Points


Pros: This mechanic played great, and we really understood how it worked right away. This was mostly due to the fact that we have already used amplify twice as the mechanical core for both the Deathblood Sorcerer (amplifying with health points) and the 4th Blade (amplifying by discarding). Amplifying with additional action points just made sense as a logical step for amplify to take. We also loved the narrative and felt that it was spot on in terms of delivering that mech feel and especially making you feel like a pilot in control of the mech since you could precisely determine how much power you wanted to put out.


Cons: The biggest thing we didn’t like with this mechanic was that it was extremely aggressive in terms of narrative. The idea that you were dumping energy into something to make it “bigger” or “better” just wasn’t very intellect/subtlety for us. In an ideal world, this mechanic was on a mech with a giant laser beam so that we could crank it up to 11 and blast people into space. The other main issue we had with this mechanic was that it pulls a lot of focus. While we had used simplify to be the core mechanic of two classes, we had never tried to use amplify as a secondary mechanic before. We quickly discovered that amplify demands too much of the design and doesn’t work as a secondary feature.


Result: OUT. While it was fun and told a great story via gameplay, amplify with AP ended up being cut from the class because it wants to be the star of the show and not play a supporting role, and it also really wants to be in a deck that leans toward aggression. That said, it was a ton of fun and I can definitely see us using amplify with AP in the future.



On-Hit


Pros: This mechanic was already established in Varia, so it was something that we knew would work. We also liked that even though On-Hit already existed, we had yet to make it a core focus for a class. We loved the narrative it created and how well it communicated this idea of “I touched a trap and now bad things will happen.” We also liked how open-ended On-Hit can be, since the result of the trigger going off could be almost anything. Last, On-Hit is a great subtlety mechanic since it makes attacks less about the raw power, and more about landing the hit and causing some form of other determent.


Cons: Our main concern was that it wasn’t “new enough” to excite players. We weren’t convinced that a deck with an On-Hit focus alone was enough to sell the class as a fun and unique experience. While On-Hit communicated the “I touched a trap” part of the trap narrative well, it didn’t do a great job of communicating the “trap as an item” story that we were aiming for. It somewhat captured the “you fool” vibe I mentioned last week, but it was a weaker form since the On-Hit effect was known for the entirety of the planning phase.


Result: IN! While it wasn’t perfect, the On-Hit mechanic felt like the right way to represent tripping a trap. We decided that this mechanic would be a great focus worth exploring further. One key note was that we wanted to find a way to make items matter more in conjunction with the On-Hit, and we also wanted to find a way to make the On-Hit less of a known quantity.



Pick & Choose Items


Pros: By letting the player pick and choose aspects of the mech they were piloting, we enabled some really cool personalization and storytelling that you don’t see a lot of in Out-of-the-Box. Akin to choosing your deity in the cleric class, choosing what weapons and defenses made up your mech was super engaging and rewarding. The decision points surrounding the mech benefitted from meta-knowledge like knowing who your opponent was or what class they were playing, which felt very fitting for an intellect class.


Cons: Figuring out how to correctly communicate to the player how to select their mech parts when playing out of the box wasn’t easy. We were concerned that players would get confused and either not have enough items or they would have too many. We were also concerned that players would select combinations that were poor pairs and would lead to unsatisfying gameplay. It also pulled a lot of player focus, as the act of outfitting the mech became an important feature that wanted to be highlighted and thus the trap analogue was getting lost.


Result: OUT. Constructing your own mech out of the box was fun, but it proved to be too distracting and pulled focus away from the story of laying traps and defeating your opponent with them. It was a great mech-pilot narrative, but not the right one for this class.



Face Down Items


Pros: This mechanic did a fantastic job of capturing the narrative of an unknown thing that was revealed once your opponent made the wrong move. It had a great amount of secrecy and felt perfect for a subtlety class.


Cons: Where to begin. First and foremost, this mechanic had what I called a “who done it” problem. What I meant by that was that because Varia is played out of the box, and because there would only be (in theory) two items with this face down effect, then once the opposing player learned what those items were, then the secret items lost all their fun. The face down items demanded that there be quite a few to choose from and that they would not be the same every time, so they had all the same issues as the above Pick & Choose variant. In addition, they required us to define a face down item and what it meant from a game perspective. For example - what is the “value” for a face down item and how does that translate to a constructed build?


Result: OUT. For similar reasons to Pick & Choose items (and more), Face down items were dropped.



Face Down Actions


Pros: Similarly to the item version, face down actions fit subtlety well and were great at communicating the unknown plan, making the player feel like they were laying traps.


Cons: Also similar to face down items, face down actions forced us to try and answer questions regarding what exactly a face down card was while on the timeline. Was it an attack? A block? Could it be combined? When did it flip? Could you choose to not flip it? If you didn't flip it, was it magical? Physical? There were so many different unknowns and factors at play that we felt like we couldn’t adequately identify them all and account for all edge cases. The main concern here was “will we break the game?”


Result: OUT. Breaking the game, it turns out, is a bad thing. So we opted to find a different approach to “secret traps.” That said - face down cards are fun. So fun, in fact, that I would be shocked if they never make their way into Varia’s timeline.


Power Diversion


Pros: This mechanic played in a similar narrative space as Amplify with Action Points, in that it made players feel like they were the pilot in control of the mech, and were able to make snap decisions as to the best way to use a resource. In this case, the resource being spent is your own power, and the thing you are gaining is long-term benefits in the form of additional rules. Unlike Amplify with Action Points, Power Diversion really wanted to utilize effects that were less aggressive. Instead, power diversion created a great space to enable more subtlety and intellect driven decisions like reducing power to knock the enemy away or reducing power in order to be more accurate. Another plus for power diversion is that it is easy to understand and easy to write out on the card, making it both able to function without a keyword and able to function as a secondary mechanic.


Cons: Our only concern with this mechanic was balance related. We were concerned that if the effect was too weak, players would never sacrifice their power. If the effect was too strong, players would always sacrifice their power. The trick would be to come up with effects or costs that made both options equally interesting, or come up with ideas that were situational, in an effort to ensure that the choice remained relevant.


Result: IN! We quickly fell in love with power diversion, as we felt it did a fabulous job of evoking the mech-pilot narrative while simultaneously not pulling focus from the main event (traps).


Finding the Core

Once we had our main mechanics of On-Hit and Power Diversion, we moved forward with additional designs geared toward making those mechanics the heart of the deck.


We decided to have the On-Hit mechanic be the focus of the deck to highlight the traps aspect, and the power diversion mechanic be secondary to highlight the mech pilot aspect. That said, we loved how the face down mechanic played, and looked for a way to keep it.


Pete took it upon himself to capture and cement this core essence of the Mechatrap Artificer by distilling it all down into the two items that the player would have in front of them every turn. That’s right! On-Hit, Power Diversion, and the “you fool!” trap feelings all contained in the right and left paws of the mech. No easy feat! Lucky for us, Pete is such a strong designer that he was able to deliver - and then some!


First up, we have the power diversion paw. Crash-Bash Paw is a perfect example of the power diversion mechanic. A 2|2 for 3 baseline that lets you trade power for something else. In this case, you are trading power for an On-Hit effect.

Power Diversion? Check On-Hit? Check


Next, we have Varia’s second-ever double-sided card. The trap claw!


Unloaded Trap-Claw serves as a means to facilitate planning cards face down. First, you have to load the claw with an action in your hand. You do this by putting it underneath Unloaded Trap-claw face down. Then you flip the claw since it isn’t unloaded anymore. Now you have a Loaded Trap-Claw!


Loaded Trap-Claw enables you to take the hidden card and combine it with other actions you have planned. At the start of the moment you reveal the hidden card, and your action gains the On-Hit effects of the revealed card. In this way, you can surprise your opponent by taking On-Hit effects from an attack and sticking it onto a block (and vice versa), creating that “You fool!” vibe we loved.


Hidden Traps? Check On-Hit? Check


The right paw of the bear highlights the mech aspect of the Mechatrap Artificer, while the left claw highlights the trap aspect. Both do so using On-Hit - the core mechanic of the class.


On-Hit(ting) Our Focus

Speaking of that core mechanic, there’s one other aspect that I wanted to focus on today. Once we decided that On-Hit was going to be the star, we shifted our focus and started designing all sorts of different ways to interact with On-Hit. In all of that exploration one thing became apparent. On-Hit on didn’t really interact with items at all. Traps as a narrative felt their best when you captured the feeling through an item, as evident in the Trap-claw above. THis class is supposed to be an artificer, after all! Was there a way to leverage items with On-Hit triggers in the main deck?


One of the favorite On-Hit cards in an early version of the Mechatrap Artificer was this thing called “Throw a Net”. It was an attack that On-Hit applied stacks to the opponent. The stacks would make your opponent impaired until the stacks fell off. The narrative of this card was super fun, but the mechanics felt off. I decided to try and capture this narrative in a way that utilized items in some way. So (as I often do when I need to think up a solution to a problem) I went for a walk.


Back when we were designing the Season 2 classes for the Kickstarter, my son was a little over 3 months old. There is a canal with a long nature path next to it where I live, and so I used to wear my son on my chest in a baby carrier and walk down the trail with him. I would talk out loud to him and sort of talk through different design ideas. I found it really helpful to organize my thoughts this way. More often than not, by the time I would return home, I would have a new design idea or would have a solution to a problem we were having.


This time around it was my daughter in the carrier, and the problem to solve was the “throw a net” problem. I headed to the canal and started walking. I was hit with all sorts of nostalgia for when I used to walk with my son, and I started thinking about all the designs that never made it in the final Season 2 classes. One design that I really liked for the ranger class that didn’t make it into the final deck was this mechanic we called the Boromir. The way it worked was that your ranged attacks were themed as different arrow shots. When these arrows would damage the enemy, they would leave behind an item on the other side of the field under your target's control. These items represented the arrows that were now stuck in the enemy. The arrows themselves could be pulled out (leveraging the fact that items can be used as actions) at the cost of action points and health. We ended up cutting this mechanic because we didn't want to paint ourselves into a corner. We knew that shooting arrows was a common enough thing that we would have arrow cards outside of the ranger class, and we didn't want to create a mechanical identity for arrows that would require all future arrow shot cards to generate items for the opponent. We loved how it played, but felt the narrative wasn't the right fit. I started to think, what if when I throw the net, it has an On-Hit trigger of giving the enemy an item - the net! Then, the item itself can cause the opponent to be impaired (much like a stack would). Unlike a stack, the net wouldn’t just naturally fall off on its own - the opponent would have to rip it off! Where arrows were too common of a thing to be tied to such a complex mechanical narrative, traps were likely infrequent enough that we could give them the unique gameplay mechanic.


I pitched it to the team, and they all agreed. Throw a net became the following card:


The narrative of in-deck actions that have an On-Hit trigger which generates unwanted negative items became the core mechanical identity of the Mechatrap Artificer. It leveraged On-Hit in a new way to play up the trap idea, it used items in a way that played up the artificer idea, and the actions could be loaded into the trap-claw to play up the mech customization approach. Paired with the minor theme of power diversion, we had our class before we knew it!



Time To Go!

Thank you for joining me for this dive into our design process. If you liked these articles and would like to read more, please let me know in the comments!


May the dice always fall in your favor.

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