For Meteorfall, I wanted magic to feel really distinct from physical attacks, and I had to go through several iterations of different magic systems before I settled on one that I was
happy with. I wanted to share a bit about the design process I went through to end up at the current model that I’m pretty happy with.
The ‘Mana Token’ system
The first system I tried was a system used by Dream Quest and Monster Slayers which I call the ‘mana token’ system. In this system, there are cards in your deck which give you mana. A card for instance might read ‘Gain 3 mana’. Then, spells have a mana cost and if you have enough tokens, you can cast it. Mana is unbounded, meaning there is no max to how many tokens you have. The tokens reset between battle. The system is really easy to understand in practice.
One problem with the system is that it suffers from the same problem as games like Magic where you can end up getting ‘mana screwed’. In early tests of my game, I found that especially early on, I’d get stuck with spell cards and no mana, or too many mana cards and no spells, so I couldn’t do anything for my first few turns. On top of that, I ended up with too many ‘bars’ on the character cards and things got too busy visually.
The ‘Spell Slot’ system
This idea was a mix of ideas from D&D and games like Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game. In Pathfinder, spells are very powerful compared to the melee attacks but unlike weapons that can be reused automatically, you have to make a ‘spell check’ after casting the spell to add it back to your deck. Thematically, this means that the mages feel like glass cannons. There’s a tension in the resource management aspect of trying to manage your spells so that you’re able to beat enemies, but also don’t blow all your spells in the early game. I like this system because it makes sense to me thematically and it makes playing a mage feel very different than a fighter.
In Meteorfall, this system turned out to be a bit confusing. Spells would go into a special discard pile that wasn’t shuffled back into your main ability deck, but otherwise had no cost associated with them. This meant that mages could blow a bunch of spells and do a ton of damage, but then would be out of spells until they recovered them. Mages could use a staple card called ‘Meditate’ in order to add spells back to their discard. Because Meteorfall is built with mobile in mind, it means I don’t have a ton of real-estate to show different piles of cards, and it was difficult to add enough text explanation that would explain the system well enough.
The ‘Charges’ system
I eventually settled on what I call the ‘Charges’ system. I really liked how the Spell Slot system felt, but it was too confusing when I showed it to players. With Charges, each spell has a certain number of charges associated with it, depicted by blue dots (you can see an example in the picture in this post) Casting a spell consumes one charge. Then, you can use a staple card called ‘Meditate’ which allows you to recover charges for your spells. Meditate works kind of like the ‘Discover’ mechanic in Hearthstone. When you use Meditate, you get a choice of 3 spells in your deck that need to be recharged, and you can select one to restore charges to. In playtesting, I found players could easily understand this system, and it succeeded in my goal of making a system that makes magic fun and different from physical attacks.
There’s also some fun design space to play with – electrical spells for instance deal bonus damage if the spell has full charges. Other spells have bonus effects depending on how many charges or left. For balancing, I’m able to tweak the number of charges on a spell to make it more or less powerful by adding/removing charges.
It took a lot of iteration to end up with the system I finally went with, but I’m glad I put in the effort because I think the result is much better. It was painful to throw away literally hours of work, but I think the end product will be better as a result.