Ameritocracy: Evolution

by jimphd

Ameritocracy is a non-collectible, strategic card game I’ve been working on for the past two years with a friend of mine.  In the game, you are running for President of the United States.  You have to get supporters, money, political operatives, zealous but perhaps naive volunteers, and out maneuver your opponent to get enough votes to win.

The first version of Ameritocracy wasn’t politics-themed.  Its beginning was a game you could play with Tarot cards.  We liked the idea of what the four suits in a tarot deck could represent, each could work as a type of power a government or institution might use; swords were military power, coins were economic power, cups were religious power, and rods (turned to crowns) were political power.  We talked a lot about what those types of power represented and eventually turned our game into one about building a city.  Each player built a deck, representing all the potential resources in their kingdom that could be used to build their city.  Each turn, they drew cards and constructed buildings to make their city more awesome or to attack their opponent’s city.

There were two main resources in the game, gold and population.  Gold could be generated each turn, but it didn’t stick around.  Also, if you ever needed to pay a gold, but didn’t have any “floating”, you could discard a card for one gold.  Population stayed from turn to turn.  The goal of the game was either to amass enough culture, represented by a boxy icon on the bottom of a card, or to use military cards to attack your opponent.  When you attacked your opponent, you did damage, and for every 1 point of damage, the opponent put a card from their deck into their discard pile.  One cool twist was that each card could be played right-side up, as whatever it was named, or upside-down as a generic population.  Population could be turned sideways to indicate they were “working” on producing something.

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Bank was one of the first cards I designed.  It takes an investment of 3 gold and 0 population, and returns 1 gold per turn.  It provides 0 culture, but if you turn it into a worker, it has a population of 3.  The population numbers originally ran from 1-3, with a few 4s.  Each turn, you could choose to either draw a card, or “populate” by flipping the top card of your deck over upside-down and using it as population.

This card seemed to work ok.  We thought the best cards should all be 1s and the worst cards should be 3s.  We thought Bank was a fair deal, but nothing special.  Part of why you would play this card was that it was worth 3 population.  The problem was that the military cards were way to good.  Our mechanics around combat sucked, and the game was really unfun.  Still, the basic resource mechanics seemed to be ok.

We play tested quite a bit at this stage.  We decided to first focus on just the “coin” cards and try to make those work.  We envisioned that these cards would “ramp” up their production, produce a lot of culture, and win the game that way.  We thought it was more straightforward than the military costs, and we could do some math to figure out how much stuff should cost.  Since it was relatively simple to figure out how much culture was needed to win and how many resources a player could generate each turn, we could just do the math based on how many turns we wanted the game to go.  After about five major iterations of the game where we completely revised everything, we arrived at a new version.

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In this version of the game, buildings required you to pay costs to use them.  We also removed the idea that gold could “float”.  In this new version, gold costs were always paid by discarding cards.  We decided we wanted everything in the game to be represented by a physical object, a card, a deck, a counter, etc.  We didn’t want anything that players had to actively remember.  Bank now required 2 population to work to produce it and 2 gold.  Then, once it was built, you could spend 1 gold (discard a card) and have 2 population work in order to draw 2 cards.

This version of the game seemed to be more stable, but it was lacking something.  Although a game could be played, it wasn’t much fun because there wasn’t any player interaction.  We imagined that some of the other suits, like swords and crowns, would be more interactive, but we didn’t know how.  We moved on the designing the cup cards, and since those cards were based around religion, we wanted religions to be represented somehow in the game.  It felt weird to build them like buildings, so we created a new card type, Movements.

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Movements went into your deck and you played them like other cards.  The difference was that instead of being just in your city, they went into the middle and both players could use them.  The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth is a good example of an early movement card we had.  The three boxes affected players differently.  The first box was general text about the movement itself, the second box was just for the person who played it, and the third box was activated abilities any player could use.

We really liked how each player could use the movements.  It added some interaction to the game because now one player’s cards could really affect the other player’s, but there were problems.  First, these cards were pretty confusing.  We could have maybe solved that with better graphic design or smarter text, but they weren’t just hard to understand.  Play testers wondered why they would use a card that that opponent could use.

Furthermore, we were beginning to feel dissatisfied with the resource system.  With so many cards on the table, it was hard to remember which population was working where.  We wanted to try some new things, to try to push ourselves past our comfort zone.  We’re both Magic: The Gathering players, and so having our population “tap” to play things felt a lot like lands.  Since the beginning, like many other designers, we had been tempted by trying to improve Magic’s resource system.  I think it’s more difficult than it seems at first.  Still, we had some ideas.  First, we changed the way activated abilities worked.  In Magic, and many other card games, a player pays a cost to get an effect.  This is usually written like “<cost> : <effect>”.  Although we were still in that mode of thinking, instead of paying work, our equivalent of mana, we instead required players to move a population to the building, which we called “specializing”.  You could only specialize a building so many times, and we noted that by having “S(X): <effect>” where X is the number of times you could specialize a building.  Now, each turn, you either drew a card or populated, then could either specialize or despecialize, and then built buildings.  You also didn’t tap population to play cards.  If you had enough population, you just played the card.  Theoretically, you could play infinite cards with the same population if you could draw them and pay any other costs.

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 4.12.01 PM The second major thing we did was change the way movements worked.  Movements were removed from the kingdom deck and placed in their own deck, and instead of having to pay costs to use them, you simple specialized them.  They did different things either when they were specialized or when they hit a certain threshold.  This change was huge.  They created a neat tug-of-war mechanic where players battled over the cards in the center while trying to build up their cities.  However, the game was still pretty complex.  There were often cascades of triggered effects that were hard to remember and sort out.  There was a ton of board complexity.  The biggest culprit were buildings that either did stuff automatically or triggered off of something else.  A seemingly straightforward card that read “When you populate, draw a card” would combine with a card that said “When you draw, populate” for infinite loops and other problems.

Around this time, we were play testing the game with some friends, and one of their roommates said, “Hey, you know what your game kind of reminds me of?  A political campaign.”  We looked at the cards, looked at each other, and started brainstorming about this new theme.  Although the medieval town/city theme fit some stuff, it was pretty cliched.  This new theme was inspiring, and wasn’t territory any similar card game had gone to our memory.  It also helped us finally abandon some things that we thought were important about the game, but really were not.  First, the suits were extraneous.  Although they had been a useful guide in the beginning to get some stuff down on paper, they had no actual effect in the game.  We had talked about ways to make them more like colors in Magic, or limit the number of suits you could have in a deck, but we never got a solution we liked.  In the new politics theme, there were no suits.

Also, the game had been moving farther and farther from the original play test, where the knights would ride over, destroy parts of the kingdom, and put some cards in the discard pile.  Counting your deck to see how much more damage you can take was a chore.  Although I loved the idea thematically, because it felt right that when your kingdom was attacked you lost potential future resources, it never played well.  So we sent the knights home.  In a city building game, there is a real expectation of warfare.  Most fantasy games have some sort of combat mechanic, and it’s part of what makes the fantasy genre exciting.  Moving to a political theme fit our new direction.  It matched our desire to have a game based more around building an economy and using subterfuge, dirty tricks, and soft power to outmatch your opponent.  The political campaign fit that idea quite well.

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So Bank became Political Action Committee.  A lot of other mechanical changes happened too.  First, the upper left now has a number that shows how much support (the new word for population) can be staffed (the new word for specialize) to a team (new word for building).  This was a great change.  Instead of limiting the number of times you could staff a team, we limited the total value of supporters.  This created a cool dynamic where supporters with a value of 1 became a lot better.  You could activate a teams ability no matter what value supporter you staffed to it, and so you didn’t want to spend a 3 on it.

We also cut all the cards that triggered automatically and removed the option to despecialize/unstaff supporters during your staffing phase.  This simplified the game greatly.  In this new version, teams only had an effect when you staffed them, and you only could staff to teams, never unstaff them (with a few exceptions).  In addition, movements were now headlines, and they all worked similarly.  You staffed them and when either you or your opponent got enough support on them, you won a certain number of votes.

Playing this version was the point when it started to feel like a real game.  It had been playable before, and we had enjoyed it, but when we watched other people play it, we saw them get confused and/or annoyed and/or sad and/or quit.  This new version seemed fun for people to play.  We play tested it a lot with each other and with our friends making tweaks, clarifying text, adding/cutting cards to balance the game.

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Here is Political Action Committee and an example headline now.  We have printed cards for our first blind play tests (where we mail cards and the rules to someone who won’t have us to explain it) and are going to expand our play testing more broadly.  The game feels pretty fun to us and most people who’ve played it seem to enjoy themselves.

It’s interesting to me to look back and see what never changed.  If you look back at the first version of Bank, it has the same mechanic of the upside-down number in the lower right.  In a lot of ways, the evolution of this game was about peeling back layers and finding what was actually interesting about that idea.  In a follow-up blog post I’m going to expand on this idea more, explain our recruiting and staffing mechanics, and this idea of refining the core mechanic of our game.