Rules for Rare Situations
On boardgamegeek, there was an interesting discussion named Dishonourable abuse of the rules?
It mentions that the rule about pieces shortage, that allows you to pick a token from the board if there are none left in your reserve, can be used to withdraw your token that your opponent could use for completion of "Isolation", "Imprisonment" or "Envelopment" tasks. And asks whether this is or is not a dishonourable abuse of the rules.
Well, the true is the main intention of this rule was to cover the situation when all tokens of some type are on the board. It happens very rarely with common/heroic pieces (actually, it never happened in any of hundreds of games I have played myself - mostly against myself :), and we intentionally put enough common/heroic pieces to the game to make this situation really rare. But still, it has to be covered, because it is hypothetically possible.
When covering such a situation, the first priority is to cover it by well working, buletproof and not very game-changing rules. As if it would give a player big advantage/disadvantage, players could go for that situation (or force an opponent to that situation) intentionally. That's why there is not rule like "the game ends immediatelly."
The second priority is to make the rule simple, easy to remember and elegant, as I do not want to complicate the rules because of improbable situations. Well, I could go for obligate "tokens should not be limited, if you run out of them, find any suitable replacement". But it was more elegant to go for this solution, especially if it is same as with Legendary pieces.
(Btw: With legendary pieces, the tight limit is intentional. It reduces snowballing effect of legends - legendary pieces on the board are hard to get rid of, and having lots of them allows you to cast further legends more easily, so it would soon lead to a disbalance beyond what Flares can repair. On the other hand, I didn't want to remove option to cast legends once you have three on the board, so hence the rule.)
The third priority is theme. I am glad if even those bordering rules can be explained within theme of the game. Here, it is easy to imagine - when there is too much energy in materialized form and too few in environment, it may try to return to its free form. And lets say mage can affect which of the unstable pieces melts first. It si magic, after all :).
(It is easier with games that are sci-fi/fantasy, and especially those with humorous rulebook/world, as it is easier to introduce new facts that explain such rules. But sometimes, for heavily thematic games, I switch the second and third priority. I went this way sometimes in Mage Knight, where I wanted well working rules that make sense within the game theme even for the bordering situations, despite being a bit more complex.)
However, the first priority stays the first, and I am also trying to imagine all consequences of the rule. So, while it was not main purpose of the rule to allow you to get your token out of imprisonment, it is something I am aware of and okay with. It does not go against intention of the rule, it is just clever use of its side effect. Especially with the legendary pieces - legends like Hell Bull or Angel of Death tend to end up deep in the enemy territory. Getting them back by summoning of the fourth legend is pretty legal and smart move (not just because of imprisonment/isolation, but also to consolidate your powers, as too scattered tokens are disadvantage in the game).
We may say - rules are rules. Is there even something that could be described as abuse of a rule? Well, there may be some unintentional bugs in the rules, and I can even imagine in some games, priorities may be different - and a rule that allows to go against the spirit of the game was left there in sake of theme or simplicity, with a hope players will not abuse it.
It is then up to the player and his group how to handle it - you may take it as it is and play with that rule, you may obey spirit of the game and not abuse it, you may say it is broken and fix it by a homerule, or you may say it is broken and stop playing the game, whatever seems best to you. Or, you may go to boardgamegeek and have a nice discussion about it :).
Why I Created This Game
This is a story about why I created a game that players would probably not expect from me. Well, actually a game I would probably not expect from me myself. :)
First, let me say I do not play abstract games. And I do not play two-player games (except online). It was not always like that. When I was younger, I played lots of chess, checkers, go, reversi, etc. with my friends. But once I discovered modern games, I just completely switched to them.
As for the abstract, it is not about lack of theme. (To me, chess has a pretty good theme, which is strengthened by the historical value. :) It is about the perfect information that abstract games usually provide. I prefer it when you have to use your intuition instead of your ability to exactly calculate everything several turns ahead. That's why I did not hesitate to return to abstract games when Reiner Knizia created his Ingenious game. And that's also why I do not play two-player Caylus, although it is thematic.
As for the two player games, I started to treat the games with my friends more as a social interaction than as a competition. There was a downside of being relatively good at games. Defeating a friend repeatedly in a two-player battle feels a bit... awkward to me. I do play (and actually prefer) two-player games when playing online, because smashing (or being smashed by) a complete stranger is okay. I just do not enjoy feeling like I just destroyed a friend sitting right in front of me. I prefer when there are more players around the table, having fun together but concentrating on developing their own game stuff rather than on destroying their opponents' stuff.
Well, never say never. Every year, a few weeks after the Essen show, I attend a gaming event called "Severské hraní" (Northern Gaming). I love it, as it is the only event where I do not work and just explore and enjoy the Essen game harvest. Many years ago, at this event, I got up early in the morning. The gaming room was empty, except for two guys. They were playing an abstract game I didn't know. Next morning, the same two guys, just a different abstract game. They were obviously enjoying it (even though one was obviously better than the other) and it kind of reminded me of an oriental master and his apprentice playing a game of go in the lotus garden at dawn. :) This quiet thoughtful atmosphere was very inspiring, and I soon went for my diary to write down a few ideas – ideas for a game where you deploy your minions in patterns to summon other minions that then serve as parts of patterns for even mightier creatures. Thank you, Slavek and Jirka, for the inspiration. :)
The event passed, the mood faded, and I had other work to do... and the idea remained in my pool of unused ideas for a long time. Until spring 2012. That was a time where we at CGE started to seriously consider implementation of our games for mobile devices. And you know, most of my games are a bit too big and hard to implement on a smartphone screen. I started to wish I had a more suitable game. And that's when I pulled out this old idea from oblivion, just to see whether it couldn't be such an easily portable game.
At that time, I was facing the biggest decision – the level of abstraction. In my original idea, the stones retained their identity. A knight was a heroic piece, but it was also a knight with some permanent abilities... But I saw it starting to turn into a very complicated game. I could either limit the amount of possible figures (and go for something like a combination of chess and go) or forget what creature was summoned and concentrate on the variability of summon effects. I have decided for the latter, and although I was not sure at that moment, now I am glad about that. (Well, I still love theme in games, so I probably would have hesitated more without a visual idea of how it works, but then I recalled the first Harry Potter movie with those big stone chess figures. I imagined all the beings as magical stone golems. After they perform their effects, they fold into generic pawns – pawns that may come to life later, if revived by another being.)
Also, I have to admit, at the start, I had no idea what I was really doing and why. I started it as a two-player game, and since this is a type of game I play online only, I supposed it would end up as an online game only. I developed it as a virtual prototype. (I almost always do, these days. I am too lazy to print and cut the cards again whenever I change them.) I have to say, I started to quite enjoy placing and pushing tokens on the screen of my computer, and I have spent much more time than expected with the game. I was adding more creactures, improving the visual aspects, programming a better prototype, and playing it against myself over and over.
(Just a note: Since the very beginning, I kept the cards closely tied with the theme. Even for my own virtual prototype, which no other player has seen, I googled and adjusted a picture for each card, and with every creature I created, I imagined how its effect would look and why it has such a pattern. I admit it is my own thing, and the players can't see what I had in mind. So if the game feels purely abstract to you, you have full right to feel it like that. On the other hand, I am very glad some players see and feel the theme, and I will love sharing my point of view with you on this site.)
Anyway, then I printed the prototype for the first time and brought it to our Brno gaming club and let two players play the game. And... I didn't know. They said they really liked it, but I still had this bad feeling about the player who lost... Have I told you I am not comfortable with direct two-player face-to-face conflicts these days? :)
Two things convinced me the game was worth working on: The fact that the players kept asking to play again at the next meetings of our gaming club (and were sad if I didn't bring it) and the reactions the game got at our CGE internal playtesting event – most of them were so positive it was hard to ignore.
When Petr Murmak told me he would like to have this game for Essen 2013, a long development work started – creating the decks, three- and four-player game, team game... dozens of hours discussing the beings art... hundreds of hours of balancing everything... But that's a different story I may tell you later. This was a story of how I created a game I thought I would not like.
As a conclusion, I add what happened cca ten days ago, at our Brno game evening. We unpacked many new games from Essen, Tash-Kalar being one of them. Some players learned the game and played a three-player melee. Then two of them had to go home and the third one asked me to play theTash-Kalar High Form with him. He assured me he was okay with losing. He just wanted to try it again. Since all the other players were in the midst of their games, I agreed. We had a good time, and I had no bad feeling about wining my own game against a friend who was playing it for the second time in his life. Weird... :)
PS: No, I am not planning to switch to this type of game. Actually, I do not plan to switch to any particular type of game. My next game will probably be very rich and dripping with theme. And the next one ... I do not know yet. :) But I had a good time developing Tash-Kalar, and I will surely return to this game here and there.