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Designer Diary: Quarriors – Rolling with Inspiration

Eric Lang
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(This diary is a companion piece to the one from Mike Elliott that ran on BGG News in early July 2011. Enjoy! —WEM)

One fateful evening in 2009, Mike Elliott called me:

"Dice-building game," he said.

"A mana pool that attacks!" I responded excitedly. And two days later, we had a game.

Okay, that's a stretch, but not too much of one. The term "dice-building" came very late in the development cycle, as "deck-building game" wasn't even part of common gamer parlance back then. We didn't quite finish the game two days later, but much of the game you may be playing soon came together over one amazing weekend and two excited designers in perfect sync.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My Quarriors design story is one about inspiration. Mike already wrote an excellent article about our collaborative process and our adventures in getting this baby published, so I thought to indulge in a more philosophical take on this game's design.

Prelude: An Ode to Polyhedrons

I'd been wanting to get serious about designing a dice game for years. I love the little guys; the sensation of rattling them between your cupped hands, the thrill of anticipating the result, the escalating drama as they clatter on the surface. Will they, or won't they?

As a gamer, few game components deliver an experience as visceral as dice. There's magic in them bones, and I love those primal gaming moments where everyone draws a collective breath while surrendering to the unknown. I wanted to make a game that delivered those moments exclusively.

Before working on Quarriors I'd been playing around with a dice mechanism that I called a "chaotic mana pool". I'm a big fan of old school D&D, and one of my big inspirations came from a book called The Tome of Magic that introduced my young gamer self to the idea of "wild magic" – that is, access to great power with the risk of quirky, random side effects.

The idea of a pool of dice representing a mana pool that could not be fully controlled was compelling to me. I'm a big believer in games as a vehicle for players to tell each other stories, and the aberrations generated by a mechanism like this would often be memorable. In today's saturated entertainment marketplace, I place a high value on that quality.

How's this, Eric? Pool-y enough for you?

The Shoulders of Giants

When Mike approached me with the idea of dice-building, I was instantly sold. Both of us could visualize the general play pattern within minutes, which I feel is very important to the success of a design.

And of course, a strong part of Quarriors' resonance stems from a degree of familiarity. In my opinion, we owe some good gaming karma to Dominion, which informed the backbone of our drafting and pool-improvement model. Without it, our game would likely have been a hard sell as it would have seemed too unfamiliar for many publishers to risk such a large production budget on.

I personally owe as much credit to Magic: The Gathering, one of my favourite games (and one that Mike was a lead designer on for ten years!), which influenced many of my ideas for how we'd tie together the summoning and combat system.

Both Mike and I had several other influences, but none were as direct as those above.

Eureka Moments

Quarriors is one of those games whose design process is almost boring to talk about chronologically because it came together so fast and organically. Most of our first ideas turned out to be the best, even after stress testing a bunch of alternatives early in design.

Mike wanted us to use a dice bag as the "deck" from which you draw and cycle through dice, and I must admit that I was a bit skeptical ... until two seconds after drawing my first "hand". Our game turned conventional wisdom on its head; the fiddliness of grabbing for your dice turn after turn was a feature, not a bug. After a ton of playtest games, neither of us ever grew tired of it – and we were playing with my awful photoshop-art stickered dice!

I pitched the "mana pool that attacks" mechanisms, and we immediately agreed they were a good fit. I loved the feel of creatures "popping" out of your mana if you chose to spend it, and the decision of "buy or summon" turn after turn played very well. Sometimes the choice was easy, at other times agonizing. I highly value that kind of variance in decision quality as I grow tired of games that are either always easy or always hard. Our pacing was greatly to my liking.

All of these design choices and their consequent executions came together in about six hours. I've been designing games professionally for about twelve years, and this seldom happens. (My last such awesome experience was with FFG's Warhammer: Invasion card game, and even there a few mechanisms needed significant change later in design.) Every time Mike and I strayed from our original path, we asked ourselves: "Is this more awesome, or just different?" The original game always held up as the better experience.

The Power of Variance

Back when we were designing the initial Quarriors prototype, deck-building games were a new concept. Mike had just finished Thunderstone, and I was working on a larger game with deck-building elements, but the marketplace was wide open. We both speculated that within a few months there would be a ton of short card games in this category and at least one "epic" game with roots therein.

My guess was that designers would be attracted to the strategic appeal of Dominion, and we would see more expert level games than casual. I strongly wanted a game that introduced more variance in game experience (which to some hardcore players would translate to simply "more luck"). Mike also strongly agreed, and we made a pact to hold true to our conviction.

Every time either of us would think of changing the game to be more purely skill-based, we'd ask, "Is it more fun?" The answer was always "No". We tried one variant that I recall was even more challenging than Dominion, but I found unexciting.

In Quarriors, those who play better will win more often, but we carefully engineered the game to avoid being "broken between skill levels". We wanted the game to stand out in the field as "casual-friendly, but surprisingly strategic". The occasionally swingy turn is a calculated part of that equation, and we were careful to try to make sure those types of games ended more quickly.

Game length, you'll find, is pretty variable as well. Apart from learning games, most won't last much longer than half an hour (not counting setup and teardown), but some can be over quickly. As expansions roll out – we are in planning for expansions through the end of 2012 as of this writing – this variance will increase even further. I feel this unpredictability adds to the excitement of the experience.

At the end of the day, we realized this game would not be popular with absolutely everyone, but our conviction was to make the most pure fun game in the category. I love playing it and can only hope you agree.

The Q in Team

I would be remiss not to talk about a critical part of the Quarriors equation: WizKids. As Mike wrote in his article, this game was shown to many publishers, many of who really loved it, but the challenge of actually producing it was daunting to say the least.

WizKids went crazy for this game from the first time we showed them the prototype at Gen Con 2010. I remember making the quip, "We love it, too, and good luck producing it!" Justin Ziran, our first champion of the game, smiled and retorted, "Leave that to us."

Sure enough, a few months later we got an email from Bryan Kinsella to say he'd figured out a way to make a product even more elaborate than my pie-in-the-sky prototype, and it would retail for less than $60 USD. I was stunned, and Mike grinned like a kid at Christmas. When they showed us PDFs of the prototype, my excitement level skyrocketed; after two years, this game would finally see the light of day!

Another thing that impressed me about WizKids was its dedication to the game itself. Two weeks after Gen Con, Wilson Price called to ask questions that arose during their first fifty games. Fifty games! We were immediately convinced to take their suggestions and comments extra seriously, and I think the attention to detail has really paid off.

I've been very lucky in my career, having worked with amazing publishers like Fantasy Flight Games and Wizards of the Coast that are staffed by talented and passionate people. WizKids was no exception; Mike and I thrived under its endless support, challenging us when needed but ultimately trusting in the designers' vision. Together, we made a game I'm extremely proud of and can't wait to get into the public's hands.

Game set-up

...Come out and Play!

I developed a generic fantasy IP for the game while it was in design, with the feeling that players would face a slight learning curve with the format (dice-building), and we did not want a complex theme to get in the way. One of us – I don't remember who, so I'll blame Mike – came up with the inspiring title "Fantasy Dice".

It was WizKids that gave us the Quarriors IP. And I have to admit that I, like many upon first encounter with the title, was skeptical. This changed rapidly for me when I informed my various playtest groups, and they adopted the name instantly. People who had played Fantasy Dice for over a year instantly forgot the old name and never went back, even those who didn't like the name at first! You can't buy that kind of stickiness, and I was unequivocally convinced.

The art style, however, I found to be almost universally loved. It fits the casual, fun-loving vision of the game to a tee and adds to the atmosphere in play.

Gen Con 2011 is right around the corner, and I can't wait to play this game in the "real world". If you are attending, drop by the WizKids booth and play. If you want to be challenged, play Mike (who is a beast at this game), and if you want to win, play me.

Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the game I've been going quazy with anticipation waiting for!

Eric Lang
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