design of card dungeon

19 Mar , 2014 Game Development

Instead of talking about a specific feature or some exciting new screenshot I am going to deep on you this week and talk about how Card Dungeon works and the design mentality of it. It might get a little boring if you are not into that kind of stuff, so I’ll have something else for you soon.

Card Dungeon is a sine wave. Or rather, the core gameplay loop of card dungeon is designed to be a sine wave. “What?” you ask. Well, I glad you asked, voice in my head. You are very friendly sometimes.

There are, in my opinion, a few different ways to design the trajectory of a game. Actually.. many different kinds of ways, but I want to highlight a couple of of them and then explain how Card Dungeon differs and what makes the core gameplay unique(ish).

Many games are designed to have peaks and plateaus in player and avatar progression. When I say avatar I mean the little person on the screen you, the player, controls. Let’s start with a pretty regular progression seen in a lot of games.


The avatar starts out with very little on hand to overcome the challenges the game presents and eventually the game will hand the player a new tool to solve those problems. This tool can be a new, more powerful, weapon. A new ability or some new armor or something. This way of designing games is very popular with FPS games and other power fantasies as it can create a very hand held, “designed”, linear game experience. The designers know exactly what the player can do and, more importantly, when he can do it and will direct the events in the game after and for that.

A lot of games take the last few steps in that ladder and place them at the start to show the player “look how powerful you will become! Get to it! Don’t you want to be this powerful?” Like this:


If a game plateaus for too long then it starts to get boring even if the avatar has a lot of tools available. That’s why you see games try to shorten the time between plateaus all kinds of different ways. It could be a scripted in game movie, a variant of the same ability (new ammo!), or some other new thing. Some games, Skyrim comes to mind, where the skills of the avatar continually increase the more you use it, then the plateau is a much smoother curve upwards. Like so:


This, optimally, creates a feeling of growing in power and abilities. So when you return to the problem (a cave or a boss fight), the player can immediately sense that he has become better because the problem that used to be insurmountable is now much easier.

An interesting side note: the problem that Oblivion ran into with this kind of ability curve is that the problems to overcome (or rather.. the monsters to hit over the head) leveled with the player so you actually got this:


All the leveling and new abilities that the player achieved really didn’t mean anything anymore. I think it was a bold experiment, but in the end Bethesda removed this and returned to a more traditional way of doing things (the curvy upwards line).

Now there are games that completely avoid this step ladder approach and are tremendous, highly regarded titles. One of my favorite games of all time, Shadow of Colossus does a very interesting thing. There are no upgrades to be had ,what you have when you start is what you finish the game with. Instead of your avatar becoming more accomplished the game asks you, the player to learn the behaviour of the Colossus and the player “levels up” instead.

Like this:


Each peak is when the player beats a Colossus and heads off to the next one. When he reaches the next challenge, the player needs to learn a new set of behaviors and how to over come them. This provides the player with a fresh challenge for as long as the game goes on.

The extremely impressive Dark Souls have a similar ability curve, but it mixes avatar AND player progression in a kind of a crazy, amazing, hybrid. The avatar will indeed become stronger and have more tools. Eventually the player will become so powerful that he will be able to hammer in a round peg in a square hole. But that’s not the primary reason which draws people to the Souls games. It is the same reason Shadow of Colossus is so well regarded: them, the players, become better at the game by doing things over and over again, learning the behavior of the enemies. If I had to draw a diagram of progression, it would be something like this:


The black line would be the player progression and the red line would be avatar progression. What makes the Souls games so incredibly amazing is that the designers beautifully blend these two types of progression into a cohesive whole.

So this brings us to back to Card Dungeon. What kind of curve does Card Dungeon have? Ideally like this:


All cards that you pick up (attack cards, armor cards) degenerate after X number of uses. So when you get a new powerful card, you will, for awhile, be at the top of the wave and make excellent progress through the game until those cards starts to deteriorate and break. The challenge, for you, the player is to make sure your avatar breaks the downward trend, finds new exciting cards and move upwards again and to be on top of that wave when a the end level boss (which is harder than the regular minions) show up. In the end it’s a game of management and frugality.

Of course, this being a rogue like game, the game will try to force you into a downward spiral where cards break, you are surrounded, your mana is running out, etc etc. We just try not to be too awful about it.

As we built the game, we realized that we need to have a way of limiting the randomness or it will just turn into complete chaos that the player could never control. So what we randomize is: Level layout, monster and treasure (including cards) placement. The rest of the game is being carefully manufactured. We know which monsters will appear on which levels. We know how much damage they do and what kind of punishment they can take. We know what traps will be present on which level. This way we can create a random feeling game which also holds a sense of progression.


Finally I wanted to talk a little about where Card Dungeon takes it’s influences from:

First off, board games such as Dungeonquestheroquest and Descent. I love board games. Love them to pieces. I love the tactile feel of moving cardboard on other cards board. I love the randomness of a dice roll and I absolutely love the feel of cards in my hand and figuring out which tool to use at the right time. I wanted to bring that tactile feeling to a computer game.

Secondly, Dungeons and Dragons the role playing game. More specifically, we drew inspiration from Gary Gygax classic Tomb of Horrors. If you have never played it, it’s basically a machine for killing player characters. Every room is  deathtrap. Every corner a deathtrap. Every ceiling.. you catch my drift. It’s very rogue-like in it’s setup as players can simply generate a new character and try the Tomb again.

Dark Souls and Shadow of Colossus. I think games where you, the player, get better is much more interesting, design wise, than games where the avatar gets better. I am quite sure Card Dungeon doesn’t reach those lofty goals set, but there are reasons. Reasons, I say! Because Card Dungeon is a mobile game, meant to be played in short sessions, we can’t ask the you to pour hours upon hours of your time into CD to learn the behavior of the monsters. That’s why we’ve made it a lot easier for the you to learn the game and to overcome obstacles we throw in your way. A new type of monsters shows up? Doesn’t matter, because you have “Floor of Lava” and will just burn them to a crisp. BUT, if you are on the downward swing you will need to start paying attention to what monsters do and what skills they have so you can better defend yourself next time. Also, from Dark Souls we borrowed the idea that you have a chance to get your previous cards and inventory back if you reached it with your next character.

I’d be remiss not to mention Card Hunter here. The aesthetics they developed was a huge influence on us. When we started Card Dungeon we had a physical prototype cut out of paper and I had this idea in my mind of using a board game style for it. Instead of the silhouette of the monsters our monsters were square pieces of paper stuck in a plastic stand up and as soon as I saw how they did their characters I couldn’t help but be inspired by it. Amazing title.

100 Rogues. THE best rogue like game I’ve ever played on iOS. It’s design is so, so great and was a huge influence in many smaller decisions of CD, especially how the player interacts with the game.

Spelunky. It’s the perfect game. The controlled randomness of the level setup coupled with the progression of player skill is just unparalleled today and the main reason we designed the randomness of Card Dungeon the way we did. There’s a reason people get obsessed with this game.

Finally: This talk by Vlambeers Jan Willem Nijman was a huge influence on our design decisions and our way of thinking about games in general. If you don’t want to sit through the whole thing, it basically says “it’s a video game. It’s supposed to be fun. Make it fun.” After watching this we really started to cut loose with powers and crazy events happening. I am not sure we have gone far enough yet, but we’ll get there.

I hope this was illuminating for you and showed you how we hope Card Dungeon will turn out.

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