When you boil it down to the basics, games can be considered as resource management. Each player has their own set of resources and must use and manage them wisely to make the most out of them. For example, in a collectible card game, resources can include the cards themselves, your life point total, mana and board space (speaking specifically from Hearthstone).
Other games feature this kind of balancing act of resources as well, and this is common among all genres. A first-person shooter: ammo, life, sprinting energy and time are all common resources. With an RTS: your building resources, buildings, units and base health are your resources. Even something as simple as a mobile game often includes systems like energy, funds and various other currencies that you must manage.
For example, in my game Servants and Spells, players must manage their individual resources, including their health points, immunity charges and their deck of cards, all while trying to whittle down those of their opponents. Arguably, the most important resource in game of Servants and Spells, and most other games, is health; without health, the player is dead and can no longer play.
As such, many games ensure that there are several methods that the player can regain lost health. Health packs and regeneration in shooters, (protect the) healers in MOBAs, healing spells in card games. Servants and Spells is no different, with 4 cards in the 36 card set positively increasing the player’s health. A conditional spell card also adds new options to help recover your health. These cards are evidently quite powerful in the draft, making up just 11% of all the cards in the entire set. Obviously, each card varies in its abilities, otherwise it would just be 3 reprints of the same card. But, surely these healing cards would not break the game, being so thinly spread out, would they?
As it turns out, all it takes is one card to break the game. Enter Rejuvenate. Initially, this card was designed as a comeback mechanic. A player who is down can heal back to full Health, but at the cost of offering this card to their opponent. On paper? Seems reasonable (at least to a first year student). In practice? Well, let me tell you a story.
It’s the first playtest of Servants and Spells. I have two of my friends in the Game Design and Development program playing in front of me, Paris and Josh. I notice that Paris drafts Rejuvenate into his deck, and I’m eager for him to get low on Health so I can watch him use it. They play back and forth for several turns, each chipping away at the other’s Health pool. Finall, Paris reaches 3 Health points and decides to play Rejuvenate to heal back to full health. Immediately the next turn, Josh plays Rejuvenate and heals back to full. The game is now basically restarted, as Paris gets the card back. Then, their match devolves into just playing Rejuvenate back and forth without actually making any progress.
My professor, Dr. Scott Nicholson, has been quietly observing this senseless trade of a card back and forth, and approaches with a valuable piece of advice. He tells me to consider each card to have a value among the other cards. An example is to assign a value to the damage of a spell, or the amount that a spell heals. For example, consider 1 Health point restored to be worth 1 “Value”. A healing card with a Value of 2 should logically heal at least 2 points. This way, it becomes significantly easier to balance and create cards when you have a general sense of what each card should be able to do.
And one more thing piece of advice from me – never stop iterating. The main reason I decided to go digital on Servants and Spells so early (and actually skipped physical, analog prototyping) was because through this digital method, cards are much more easy to balance. I don’t have to worry about taking a card out of circulation, re-working it, making sure it is still visually in line with the rest of the set. I can just print off a new set and circulate it out to the playtesters. And believe me, there are plenty of changes still waiting to be made. I’ll just have to find them.