In case you're reading this and weren't aware: as touched on in my last post, the Battleground: Fantasy Warfare* Dark Elves are (mostly**) out, and have gotten some player feedback on the Battleground forum and are my first lead designed gaming project. So, I'm going to tell the tale of how this came to be, my thoughts on the experience, what went right, what went wrong, and what I feel like I've taken away from it thus far. (End of post note: this is really long, so be warned.)
Initial Design 1 - Flavor
I at first thought I'd be co-designing the Dark Elves with Rob Dougherty, the initial designer of the Battleground rules. Not long after the project started, though, he got caught up in work on a different game, and I ended up pressing on alone.
Something I did here, on his advice, that I sometimes don't do, is that I did a very detailed overview of the flavor I wanted to convey before I even started writing down anything about the mechanics. You can't really ever go in to a game or game product without some idea of what the flavor is going to be, but I often find myself starting to write with only a general idea, rather than having all the details fleshed out. In this case, though, Rob essentially told me "we're doing Dark Elves, come up with some good flavor for them, and we'll go from there," so I wasn't able to start doing mechanics until he OK'ed the flavor, or at least, it might have been a big waste.
So, I was restricted to Dark Elves, but that was all I had to go on. I don't know if Rob had already decided to do Dark Elves next, or if he decided to ask me to do them because I'm very fond of the other two Battleground factions, High Elves and Elves of Ravenwood (Wood Elves.) In any case, since we already had the two elf factions out of what was at that point nine factions, I wouldn't have picked Dark Elves if he'd just said "make me a fantasy faction." In retrospect, though, there were several reasons that it was helpful to use the Dark Elves for my first faction. The first is that they're in a nice flavor place. Everyone has a general idea of what Dark Elves should be - something about elven character, but turned to maliciousness. They need to be both recognizable as elves but also twisted and perverted from the good elves you know, which is a nice mix of restrictions and possibilities. They're also a faction that lots of games have a take on, but those takes aren't unified enough, and no take is dominant enough, that everyone expects them to be just-so. This was good because I think Battleground's early factions were often a bit too generic. With a fantasy game you don't want people to buy the product and be disappointed because the factions are unrecognizable, but I think it is important to present a take on each faction that adds something to the idea of what a race can be, which Battleground wasn't always great about early on, at least overtly.
So, when I sat down with the Dark Elves flavor, my goal was to do something that was neither D&D's Drow nor GW's Dark Elves take. My first attempt was to base them on the same Celtic fae mythology that helped inspire Tolkien's own elves. There's a lot of meat there, but unfortunately Celtic fae (and Tolkien's elves, for that matter) are significantly more powerful compared to humans than most fantasy elves have become, primarily I think because people like to play elves in RPGs and so they need to be mechanically balanced with humans. There was also a problem where I was having trouble figuring out what their armies would look like. Celtic fae are often threatening (and that was the side I wanted to exploit for these Dark Elves) but not because they march armies on humanity or take cities, they're frightening because they don't; they bring travelers into their mysterious world, seduce them to fall, mock or curse their hopes and dreams, or so forth. Trying to imagine how or why armies of these creatures would show up on a battlefield wasn't working right for me.
So, for the second attempt I decided to focus on a couple of traits that define elves in most fantasy fiction: arrogance and doom. Arrogance is a great meaty trait; most people these days agree that being proud of your legitimate achievements is desirable, but also that some level of humility and not rubbing it in people's faces is good manners, so we tend to be conflicted on the idea of arrogance as a virtue, vice, or something else. That makes it a great trait to unify the good and bad elves. Doom is something Tolkien built heavily into his elves, and that tends to persist to greater or lesser degrees in other interpretations. "I shall diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel," is one of my favorite expressions of quiet defiance, and I think there's something noble and romantic about that kind of fading glory. But of course, there's also something admirable about seeing doom approaching and giving it the middle finger. This seemed like an appealing angle - you've got this super arrogant race, and their doom is approaching, seemingly inevitably. What might the less scrupulous of them do about it?
First I had to decide what kind of doom it was. For Tolkien, the elves just have a call to return to the heavens in the West, to return to paradise. This didn't seem right for lots of reasons; Battleground's elves don't have that kind of Christian background, for one, and for another that isn't the kind of doom people would be inclined to fight; Tolkien's elves are sad to go because they've come to love the world, but they could choose to stay, they leave by choice out of a combination of wisdom and longing, and the way magic changes in the history of his world. Instead I took a pretty traditional tack: elves live a long time, so their birth rate is probably quite low. That's fine if you take normal losses, but pretty catastrophic if you're getting into frequent wars with people that replace their losses a lot faster. Demographic issues aren't as romantic as Tolkien's, but they're more sensible for a game that focuses on warfare in a historical style.
Having decided that the problem was shrinking population, and that the solution was a ruthless application of arrogance, I pretty quickly came on the idea that the Dark Elves would split off from the High Elves when they decided to supplement their war losses by enslaving other races. This slaver mentality is shared by the Warhammer Dark Elves, but they do it for religious reasons and because they enjoy it, so to me the idea that the Dark Elves began doing it out pragmatic necessity seemed a good distinction. That idea gripped me, and helpfully provided a nice difference in army composition: whereas the High Elves in Battleground consist entirely of elven units, and the Wood Elves are helped by woodland allies, the Dark Elves would be supplemented by their enslaved troops.
Eventually I decided to shift the Dark Elf/High Elf split far into the past, so that the faction presented would be a society fully adapted to a large enslaved underclass. I decided that after so many generations interbreeding would have gone on to a pretty serious extent, especially with the dwindling numbers of true elves, and that an aristocracy would have arisen that was obsessed with the purity of elven blood. I modeled the society pretty heavily on a couple of historical periods I'd studied - the old antebellum American South, and Europe in the time of aristocratic monarchies. This ended up with the stratification of units you see in the final product: slaves, lowbloods, halfbloods, highbloods, and purebloods.
Initial Design 2 - Mechanics
I sent off that flavor brief to Rob, and he liked it a lot, and asked me to go ahead and make some units. (This was about the time he ended up leaving the product entirely, so I was expecting to do an initial unit list and then have him change a lot, whereas most of my initial design stood, and when it didn't, it was because I or sometimes Chad changed it.)
Battleground factions are quite small designs compared to the kinds of things I've designed as a hobbyist. My major projects that have gotten to the playable stage in the past have been RPGs or fan Magic sets, both of which are vast and sprawling things that take forever to get even an initial design done. By contrast, Battleground sets are practically haikus: 12-14 unit cards, 5-10 unique command cards (10 total cards, but some number of them will have two copies in the deck), and a faction unique ability, maybe two. That means the scope of design has to be pretty small, but being just one army means that usually happens naturally. The big upshot is that if you want your audience to "get" the design, you need to use every bit of that aggressively. As opposed to Magic sets or RPG powers where you want to convey a sense of vast possibility, in a Battleground design every single component needs to work together to show what the faction is up to.
So I made a couple of decisions about what the Dark Elves would and wouldn't be good at. Because they have vast number of repressed slaves and serfs, led by a small cadre of powerful and arrogant masters, I decided I shouldn't restrict them to either only cheap or only expensive units; this distinguishes them from the High Elves, who don't really have cheap guys, and is a similarity with the Elves of Ravenwood, who have some animals and forest spirits filling in their cheap dude ranks, and a giant treeman capping the curve. I also decided to take a cue from European nobility and alter a traditional Battleground trope. In most Battleground factions, the basic troop comes in a sword version and a spear version. This helps to give good anti-cavalry options, but in fact in a lot of medieval European warfare, the spear was regarded as a weapon for lame peasants, with noble foot generally using swords. That seemed like something the arrogant Dark Elf nobility might be on board with, so I decided to make all of the cheap (halfblood and below) Dark Elf foot spear-only, and the noble foot sword-only. This helpfully distinguishes them from both Ravenwood and the High Elves, both of whom have elven spear infantry as well as sword. I also decided that the arrogant Dark Elf nobles wouldn't wear armor to speak of, giving them a defense profile heavily loaded to dodging out of the way rather than soaking hits. Meanwhile the halfblood foot could wear medium armor. I also decided to turn on its head the concept of elven archery: the Dark Elves would use magic rather than bows for their ranged attacks, as it seemed very fitting for their opulence and arrogance. Finally, both of the other Elven factions had strong cavalry options, which seemed a good thing to have in the Dark Elves as well, since aristocrats throughout history have traditionally enjoyed fighting mounted.
In terms of weaknesses, I decided the Dark Elves' arrogance would work against them, and I made their units, particularly the highbloods and purebloods, generally brave and skillful, capable of hitting hard and unlikely to out and out flee from their "lessers," but quite fragile for their cost, and unlikely to stand up to the rigors of prolonged combat or especially to unfortunate positioning, like getting hit on the flank. Both the High Elves and Ravenwood were on the more finesse-oriented end of the Battleground scale, and I felt it was important that the Dark Elves be similarly reliant on finesse, but I felt it was important to do it in ways that were similar to the other elves but importantly distinct. High Elf finesse comes from their extreme maneuverability, Ravenwood's from their ability to concentrate force where it is needed. I decided that, in keeping with their evil nature, the Dark Elves would turn these on their head and base their finesse on disruption of the opponent and throwing wrenches into the enemy plan. To these ends, I made three units to drive this aspect of Dark Elf strategy: the Lashmistresses, a powerful melee unit with a siren song ability that can drag enemy units into combat, the Pureblood Coven, mounted witches with spells that slow enemy movement or weaken their attacks, and the Drake Riders, flying cavalry that can land behind enemy lines and threaten devastating rear charges if the opponent doesn't keep an eye on them. These three units combined would allow for lots of cunning plans, and give the Dark Elves a feel of not respecting their opponents much, which is something they needed. Finally, I made the higblood and pureblood units fearsome, which means their opponents fight a bit less effectively on the first round of combat. This was a neat thing to do because previously only large monsters were fearsome - it made the highblood and pureblood units feel like a suitably big deal without actually making them that much more effective in combat (and therefore not making them prohibitively expensive.)
I did similar things with their command cards, emphasizing arrogance, dirty tricks, and hitting hard. In keeping with their weakness on the line, I was quite light on the defensive-minded cards, leaving them almost as attack-oriented in the command deck as the Orcs, the most beaty of all Battleground factions. I was very proud of the design, and since Rob had bowed out, Chad Ellis (Rob's business partner and developer of the initial game and all the previous factions) and I moved to playtesting with my list as I'd written it.
We did a lot of playtesting with the Dark Elves, both Chad and I, and external playtesters. I'd also grab games against people in the store or at cons when it came up. Every project like this sees big initial changes, and the Dark Elves were no exception, in fact seeing perhaps more than most because they have more special units than most prior fantasy factions. I also wasn't yet very comfortable with the formula used to cost Battleground units, so hadn't picked up some of the tricks for estimating the value of special abilities. Compounding this, we'd long known the formula was questionable for troops that had both good ranged attacks and good melee attacks, which several of the Dark Elf spellcasters do. As a result, many of the units were heavily overcosted initially, and the Dark Elves lost the first four or five playtest games we played, regardless of general. We pretty quickly got that under control, though, and after that, there were few changes.
The most major of these was the removal and replacement of one unit. Initially, a unit of Lowblood Archers was in my design file, because I wanted to make the point that the Dark Elves didn't much care for archery, so I made a unit of crappy troops using bows for contrast. Unfortunately, inaccurate archers are not very good in Battleground, and despite being the cheapest unit of archers we've ever done, the unit was totally useless. Sometimes Battleground factions feature units that are only occasionally worth having; this is fine, because you get all the units in the set, so you don't have to buy and assemble and paint them separately like in some games, and I find the challenge of figuring out if this is that 10% game where you want, for example, High Elf Scorpions, to be a neat thing. But these guys were a 0% unit, so they had to go. Meanwhile the Dark Elf lines were just too fragile. We wanted them to not be able to stand up to prolonged fights, but their guys were all either too expensive or too terrible, and it seemed like every other game someone broke or died on the first round of combat, leading to an uninteresting turned flank, a problem that was exacerbated by all the exciting spellcasters that happened also to cost a lot of points. So we made a Standard Bearers unit, a smaller sized unit of highbloods that had their decent defensive profile and an even higher courage, but very limited hitting power and not a ton of health. We also upped the courage on the slaves and lowbloods a bit.
The second major change was in command cards, where several of them were very annoying to play against. At the end of the changes, we'd doubled the number of cards that improved courage, and made the one we already had in better. This was fine on its own, but between adding the Standard Bearers, upping the courage on the slave and lowblood units, and adding the standard bearers, the faction's courage got a lot better than it was in the initial draft, of which more later.
I also did the art brief for the Dark Elves - they are really basically my faction, top to bottom. (In an amusing coincidence, I also re-wrote the Battleground rulebook, and my rewritten rules ended up shipping first with the Dark Elves, the result being that I wrote virtually everything in the box!) That said, Battleground uses 3D rendered art, both for reasons of expense and because the unusual angle on the top-down view is challenging for traditional illustration, especially since we want consistent lighting, scale, and so forth. Our current artist is massively talented, but he doesn't (yet) make his own 3D models, so our art is limited by what clothing, bodies, and so fort are available for purchase online. Basically, this means the art was a matter of me writing up what I wanted, Rich (the artist) finding models he thought fit, and me (with help from Chad and from Kaile, our graphic designer) sorting through and finding the ones I wanted.
The end result was fantastic, and I think the Dark Elves are our best looking faction to date. As a result of the limited models, however, and also to be fair as a result of me not pushing for it as hard as I wish I had and making a few decisions I'd probably change if I could, the faction ended up less feminist than I wanted it to be initially. Battleground has in the past been, as real warfare was, very male-dominated; the few women who show up are noncombatant spellcasters.*** The Dark Elves, though, seemed to be a great place to reverse that. Elves are generally seen as relying on speed and grace in combat over strength, so it is easier to counter people who want that kind of "realism" in their fantasy, and a major feature of racially repressive societies is often surprising equality in other areas, so it made sense to say that to them, if you're an elf you're awesome, and can do what you want, man or woman. So the highblood and pureblood units are gender balanced: either the unit is all one gender, in roughly equal numbers, or the unit is mixed gender. This part of the plan survived fine, but I also wanted all the Dark Elf nobles to be dressed, basically, in fancy clothes, which didn't survive so well. The Lashmistresses ended up basically in bondage gear, which to be fair was pretty much the plan with a name like that and an ability like Siren Song. Unfortunately, the vast majority of potential models weturned up for clothing for the rest were also really skimpy. I had him go back a couple of times, but either we didn't know how to look, or the Internet community is just really perverse, because we had a lot of trouble finding things that both looked like someone could move and fight in them, and also looked like someone couldn't have sex in them. As a result, several units that I imagined fighting in rich clothing or at the very least ornate leather ended up in bikinis. I'm still not sure to what extent this was my fault, as opposed to the models just not being there, but it is my one big frustration with the otherwise extraordinary art. (And to be fair, they're very nice looking bikini babes, full credit to Rich on that end.)
Release, Reception, and Lessons
The Dark Elves had one major misprint: one of the lowblood units was printed with slightly higher attack skill than we intended. I'm not sure if this is our fault or the publisher's fault; it is wrong on the proofs I have, but I remember noting some corrections and thought it was among them. I don't have any personal record, though, and ultimately it doesn't really matter; it is frustrating because people who don't read our web site won't know to play it differently, but ultimately the occasional misprint is hard to avoid in printing, and life goes on.
They've also been plagued with some interesting distribution difficulties; not sure why, but they're apparently going out to stores or distributors unevenly, with the result that some of our players can't get them at their local stores yet even though we got them a few months ago. Not my fault, as I don't handle that, but frustrating.
Nonetheless, we've played them at a few cons and in the store, and I've seen some talk of them on the forums, and reception has mostly been good. People seem to like playing with them a lot, and enjoy the neat tricks they can pull that other factions can't. I was very surprised, though, by one of our best players, who quickly became convinced that the Dark Elves are highly broken. I don't believe this to be the case, because I've watched many of his games against them and they seem to me to be results that are balanced with other factions, but one golden rule of game design is that player perceptions are always worth analyzing. In this case, the root of his frustration is a bit hard to tease out, because he's very forceful - if he becomes convinced that something is broken, he's less interested in making a judgment about how it happened or what the root cause is, and more interested in talking about what's currently frustrating him - a natural and understandable reaction, but not the one that's most helpful in me figuring out what design lesson, if any, to take from it. So, variously his problem has been the Lashmistress pull, the Drake Riders flying, the combination of the Lashmistress and the Coven, or the units seeming "min-maxed," which I guess is something about how their stats make the formula cost them. (For the record, I always write units first then plug them into the formula, and don't tend to mess with them after to try to lower point costs, because usually the flavor of the unit gives pretty tight constraint to the stats. Because I did flavor first for Dark Elves, then wrote stats for all the units, and only then plugged them in to the formula, that goes double for this faction.)
So, with the exception of the last point, the frustration seems to me to be with the core of the faction's finesse: the ability to mess with the opponent. This is primarily new ground for a Battleground faction, and while I am still confident that the faction is balanced in terms of chances to win, I think the novelty points to an important insight. I realized in design that this plan of finesse via disruption made the Dark Elves seem like jerks - they succeed by messing with you. But what I didn't quite draw the line to is that there are always going to be players that really don't like being messed with! A classic example is Counterspell effects in Magic: some part of the population finds having their cards sometimes not work when played so frustrating that Wizards doesn't print particularly powerful cards that do that very often, not because they would unbalance the game, but because they drive away some players. These effects are also especially dangerous because unlike other things that certain people dislike, they are things your opponent does to you, so you don't just have the option of not playing the cards that you dislike. Some people, for example, really dislike berserker-type units that aren't fully under control. But there's no problem with printing those, because you opt-in to playing them; if you dislike them, you just don't play with them. Dark Elf shenanigans, by contrast, aren't consensual. If your opponent pulls out Lashmistresses, one of your guys is going to get that berserker feel, like it or not. I think this expresses a key things to be careful of in design: be careful with non-consensual mechanics, especially with ones that cover new design space. In this case, players might be attracted to Battleground in part because they can control their forces with such precision; releasing a faction that disrupts that can be problematic, even if it is balanced, because it changes a core conceit about the game, and the player can't opt out of it.
On the last, the "min-maxed," complaint, I have a feeling this comes down to the suite of changes to units and command cards we made that combined to seriously boost the Dark Elf courage values. Again, I don't think it is broken per se; the faction pays for it, and courage is a value that has quite well established costs, so I don't think we ended up unintentionally costing this too low (which is a risk with the unusual disruptive units, even if I don't think it happened) but again, the impression is important, and the fact is that with 4 courage boosting unique cards, high overall courage, and a few units with outstanding courage, the Dark Elves are very difficult to rout. Combined with the other ways in which the Dark Elves feel "cheaty," this can, I think, lead to a frustrating feeling of helplessness. Sure, they're comparatively easy to just outright kill compared to their costs, and they're horribly vulnerable to getting a flank turned if even one of them dies, but up until the point that happens, they feel frustratingly resistant to the things that normally end up causing trouble for fragile units, like being forced to take rout checks. This is in some sense intended, but at the time I don't think anyone realized quite how much of a difference increasing the printed courage, doubling the number of courage cards, and improving the extant ones, combined to have. We tested a lot after that, but playtest games are tricky because the fact that you're testing in them means you aren't usually going to get frustrated by things that are balanced but annoying, since balance is what you're overwhelmingly looking for; you aren't invested in the same way in victory or defeat. So the critical lessons here are twofold: be careful that multiple changes aren't unintentionally linked and pay attention not only to balance, but to player impression. It is all well and good that you can come up with a list of a faction's strengths and weaknesses in your head, but your players need to get that, too, often with relatively few plays!
That said, do these points mean I think the Dark Elves are a bad design?
The latter issue, certainly not. I think if I'd realized we'd messed with that many linked variables and was aware of quite how good we made their courage I might do only two of the three things we did, but all of them are balanced, and only one player so far cares very much. I don't want to marginalize the experiences of any player, of course, but it is the case that someone's always going to be a bit upset by any release, and that one seems to me to be within the level that's unavoidable. I also have a sneaky suspicion that in this case it is more the insult to the injury compared to the control issue; I think if they were unusually brave but didn't have the ability to ruin people's plans, no one would care even a bit.
So what about the second? Well, I certainly don't think it makes the faction a failure. As I said, I remain strongly convinced that all those abilities are, in balance terms, completely fair. I also have fun playing both with and against the Dark Elves, even in games where I am invested. Like any other Battleground game, a game involving the Dark Elves will be decided by skill and luck, rather than faction choice. I do think, though, that the fact that I was sitting there cackling about how much the abilities gave the faction the "these guys are jerks" feel that I wanted should have raised red flags. After all, people tend not to like to play with jerks! But, again, one player so far, out of a large number, has complained about this, as opposed to a lot of players who've had a great time with them. It seems like the response is much more good than bad, with lots of people enjoying the new options when they play Dark Elves and the new challenges when they play against them. So I think my not realizing this was dangerous territory was an instructive failure, but I think the results could have been much worse, and I remain unconvinced that I would have done it much differently if I'd realized it was dangerous ground, though of course we'll see how it goes. In some sense, then, it seems for now that this was lucky - I learned some important lessons, and even the player who is annoyed with the result hasn't been talking about leaving the game or the like. I will certainly be applying these lessons to my future designs though.
I also think it is really important to look critically at successes as well as failures - I've yet to see a project that's perfect, and you don't want to have to fail in order to improve! In this sense I'm grateful that our players are so honest with us, even if sometimes they could be a bit more diplomatic about their objections. I'd far rather be momentarily annoyed by a forceful complaint from time to time than never get honest feedback because the players don't want to offend me.
That leaves only my one true regret with the faction: naming the line-patching elite tank unit Standard Bearers. Everyone expects they'll have some effect that makes their friends braver or something, and gets confused when they're just some vanilla wall. I should have called them "Household Guard" or something like that. Curses!
The end! Footnotes follow.
* For those not in the know, BGFW is a card-based tactical wargame I've been involved with for some time now, first as a relatively serious player, then as a playtester and demoer, and now finally as a credited designer and developer. It isn't a very big game, but it is a very fun one, and of course being able to be involved in the production is a huge thrill for me. It is based on dry-erasable, non-collectible cards, making it cheap, portable, and no hassle, which is a big deal for someone like me who loves wargame gameplay but hates dealing with miniatures. I initially checked it out hoping to find a Warhammer/Warmachine alternative without the hassle of minis, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked the rules more as well.
** Apparently they are slow in getting to distributors so not every store has them for sale yet, though of course mine does.
*** The shining exception being High Elf Bowriders, my favorite unit in the game - sensibly clad High Elf lady horse archers, who bring ruin to my enemies and also have art that is both beautiful and not objectifying. Man they rule so hard.