Alf Seegert, designer of the upcoming deckbuilder Fantastiqa was kind enough to give me this interview on the topic of deckbuilding games. He’s a six-time Hippodice game design competition finalist and the designer of the board games Bridge Troll, Trollhalla, The Road to Canterbury, and (now) Fantastiqa. You can find out more at alfseegert.com.
Fantastiqa itself is scheduled to be published by Gryphon Games in late 2012. It’s currently on Kickstarter.
With that intro out of the way, let me get to the actual interview …
An Interview with Alf Seegert about Fantastiqa
Shannon Appelcline: I’m always interested in origins, so could you tell me what your favorite deckbuilding game is, and why?
Alf Seegert: So far, Ascension is my favorite deckbuilder. It’s a very clean design, and I adore the quirky and imaginative artwork — it conveys a genuinely weird mood very effectively. Some people have complained about the unpredictability involved in Ascension’s constantly changing, multi-card draft, but so far I’ve only found this a problem with games involving more than two players. (Most deckbuilders I’ve played seem to
play best with two).
SA: What made you decide to use deckbuilding mechanics in your own upcoming game, Fantastiqa?
AS: Ever since Dominion came out, I have wanted to design a deckbuilder. I like how organically and elegantly deckbuilding works to “level up” your abilities over a short game session, without charts or clunky modifiers, etc. As I see it, all players and designers of deckbuilders owe a debt to Donald X. Vaccarino (and to developers Dale Yu and Valerie Putman) on par with the one CCGers owe to Richard Garfield: deckbuilding is a glorious evolution in design — and I wanted to become part of it.
SA: What does Fantastiqa do to expand the deckbuilding genre?
AS: Two things, I think:
1.) For several years I tried out different prototype designs for a deckbuilder. None of them worked well at all. I didn’t want simply to repeat the same “formula” I was seeing out there, so I looked to models outside of other games for mediating card interactions. For a long time I’ve wanted to make a game with a more “ecological” approach — where card interactions are completely relational rather than absolute.
Put another way, I wanted the value of each card to depend entirely on how it interacts with other specific cards. So I created a nine-symbol “Circle of Subduing” to represent how each card would subdue exactly one other card, and would be subdued by exactly one other card. (For example, a Wand subdues a Sword and a Sword subdues a Flame … and ultimately the circle wraps around so that a Club subdues a Wand.)
No single card is “best” except in particular contexts, and for that reason, you have to think hard on which cards to acquire, which to commit to Quests, and which to use to subdue other cards — constantly adapting to the ebb and flow of symbols in that particular game. The result is a deckbuilder that (to me) feels very Knizian in its simplexity — there are no numbers or complex “If … then” statements on the cards, but the decisions you have to make with these cards are still very demanding, often agonizing, and really fun.
2.) The second way I wanted to expand the deckbuilding genre was through spatial relations. I wanted to use a game board in a way completely integral to the game itself. (The board in Ascension is a nice touch, but it’s not really necessary for playing.) To that end, I created six separate Region tiles for the board, which change location each time you play. To acquire cards for your deck, your adventurer would journey around the board subduing Creatures.
As a result, the location of your playing piece matters: you have to consider not just which cards you want to add to your deck, but where your adventuring will end up taking you. Quests have to be fulfilled in specific Regions, and each Region has a randomly-placed statue on it indicating which cards you can purchase there (e.g., Artifacts and Beasts), so you have to simultaneously balance card acquisitions with other spatial effects, making for a tough tug-of-war of decisions throughout the game.
In this respect, it’s not exactly wrong to call Fantastiqa a cross between Talisman and Dominion (as one Italian blog conjectured): it has spatial adventuring (minus the random dice-throwing and chaotic card effects of Talisman) plus deckbuilding (minus the cards with complicated subclause-effects in Dominion and others). The spatial and deckbuilding mechanics in Fantastiqa are tightly intertwined, not just stacked on top of each other. The result is that it feels like neither Talisman nor Dominion, and I love how serendipitously this combination of effects turned out: a Reese’s peanut-butter cup.
SA: Those indeed sound like some far-flung extensions to the genre. Was Fantastiqa influenced much by existing deckbuilders?
AS: The main deckbuilding influence on Fantastiqa has got to be Ascension, partly in mechanics, I suppose (I liked Ascension’s variable display of cards that appear each turn) but probably for its fantastic sense of atmosphere more than anything else.
The non-deckbuilding influences on Fantastiqa are legion. In terms of mechanics, the big two would be Ticket to Ride (press-your-luck competition for scarce resources plus quasi-set collection) and The Settlers of Catan (variable setup and point goal). In terms of theme, Fantastiqa was influenced by many of the fantasy and RPG games I grew up playing: Dark Tower, Talisman, Dungeons and Dragons, and Tunnels and Trolls.
But I think that computer games probably are the biggest influence overall. King’s Bounty: The Legend and Heroes of Might and Magic III are both unbelievably good games, by which I mean that it isn’t graphical bling that keeps you coming back. Both create evocative fantasy landscapes through textured game mechanics as much as they do through visuals, and both require hard decisions, and strong “hand management.” And both offer a very potent “sense of place” – an effect mostly missing in card games, deckbuilders being no exception. I had wondered for years how one might make a fantasy board game as evocative and engaging as the computer game King’s Bounty, which lets you gather armies of monsters who follow you around and help you fulfill quests. When I stumbled on deckbuilding and applied the “ecology” mechanic, it all came together marvelously.
SA: How have you approached the idea of expansion, which seems almost a requirement for deckbuilders in the current marketplace?
AS: There are two bonus cards and two expansions already available for Fantastiqa (you can find them all on Kickstarter) and I have several more in the works. Fantastiqa is a very open-ended game, which provides abundant opportunity for both new themes and new ways to play. I love the modular possibilities of deckbuilders, to suit many moods and playing styles, and I’m grateful that I finally have a deckbuilding game of my own that feels worthy of sharing.
Thanks to Alf for offering a designer’s view of a deckbuilding game! If you found it interesting, go take a look at the Kickstarter!