Fighting Game Devlog #1: Why does this game need to exist?

So I’ve been writing my devlog on BGG, but wanted to try out BGDL too. I’ve been working on this game since 2018, and it has evolved so much. From an amateurish clone of Megaman Battle Network to its own, to its own unique thing.

It’s no secret that there are already a handful of board games that try to emulate fighting games on the market, and the first question any Designer needs to answer is

“Why does this game need to exist?”

Why shouldn’t players just buy Battlecon? or Yomi? or Combo Fighter? Don’t misunderstand, I love and respect those games, but it’s exactly why I want a unique hook. Because I think so highly of these games, I want to strive to beat them (or at least stand on equal footing).

1. It’s More Visceral

I don’t mean “blood and gore”, I mean “you feel like you’re throwing a punch”. Most fighting board games involve you playing a card to do X. I liked how visual Onitama was, where instead of cards saying it’ll hit these spaces, it shows you.

A fireball attack doesn’t just say “oh this attacks has a range of 2-4 and a power of 2”, it visually shows you how much damage you deal to which spaces relative to where your fighter is standing. It’s scientific fact that the human brain processes visual information faster than text.

The visual nature also makes it incredibly easy to read from across the table.

2. Less Cognitive Load

Fighting games as a genre have always had this difficulty. It has to frontload knowledge, and although hardcore players have no problem memorizing cards, it can be a turn-off for new players. Personally, I hate having to remember things, whether it be what a card does or what my opponent might have in their hand. How did I fix this?

  1.  No hands, just fists. It’s a perfect information game, so instead of a hand of cards, everything you’re able to do is visible to your opponent at all times. No topdecking, and no guessing what your opponent has in hand.
  2. Fewer cards in general. Whereas most fighting board games involve a big deck of cards, each fighter has a grand total of 5 double-sided Strikes – a unique Special side, and a simple Normal side that’s the same across all fighters. Memorizing 5 cards is a lot less taxing than 20.
  3. Less numbers to keep track of. I personally hate hate hate that most fighting game cards are basically a pile of stats. “Range X, Power X, Speed X, Armor X, etc”. Here, range and power are visual, and there’s only two speeds: Fast Normals and Slow Specials.

This has the added benefit of fitting into a Small Box.

3. Not just Rock, Paper, Scissors.

I don’t want a game where my attack wins against yours just because the rules say it does. It should happen naturally. I move back to dodge your Punch not because “the Move card wins against the Punch card”, it’s because I literally moved out of the range of your Punch.

There’s a Rock Paper Scissors relationship in there, but it’s more nuanced than “I win because the rules say I win.” For example, let’s say you’re standing two spaces away from your opponent…

  • Are they throwing a Fireball? Jump over it.
  • Are they Jumping? Uppercut them.
  • Are they using an Uppercut? Wait, let them whiff, then dash in afterwards.
  • Are they waiting? Punish it with a Fireball.

…and that’s only if you’re standing two spaces away from your opponent. This RPS-esque relationship dynamically changes depending on positioning, what Strikes you have face-up, health total, etc.

If your a fighting game fan, you’ll understand when I say: Yes, this game has footsies.

4. A Bluffing Mechanic / Conditioning

In fighting games a Mixup is when your opponent has to guess what attack you’re going to do. “Sure a Punch may be the obvious choice, but because it’s an obvious choice, maybe they’ll Kick me instead.”

That’s where Conditioning comes in. “They chose to Punch twice in a row, they’ll probably do it again.” That’s when you surprise them with something unexpected.

The problem is, real fighting games are fast. You make 100s of moves in a match, and you usually play more than 1 match, so the process of reading your opponent’s behavior happens fast. In a board game, things are slower. A match in a video game might take 30 seconds, but a board game takes 30 minutes. So I needed something else, that’s why that…

On top of choosing your two actions each turn, you also place a Combo token on one of your Strikes / Basic Actions. If your first action has a Combo token, you get to keep that Combo token for this turn.

Combo tokens allow you to use another Strike after your damage your opponent, so there’s actually a reward for telling the truth. However, if you always tell the truth, you become predictable. You need to tell the truth sometimes.

This adds a new layer of psychological gameplay. “Is my opponent lying? They bluffed twice already, no way they’re gonna bluff a third time right? Riiiiiight?”

It also helps with Analysis Paralysis, because instead of considering every single possible action your opponent might do, you can instead focus on what happens if they bluff / told the truth. “If my opponent is using Punch I should Block, but what if they aren’t? Do they want be to Block?”

Recommended2 recommendationsPublished in Designer Diary, Prototyping
Design Theory
Carla Kopp

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  1. Hi Nikita. I’ve never played a tabletop game in this genre, but this sounds great. I love all of the design choices and the reasons behind them. Sounds like you have reduced the cognitive load and learning curve by removing the need to learn a lot of cards up front by reducing the number of cards in play and keeping them visible. The bluffing/telegraphing mechanic sounds like it fits the theme and adds another layer of fun.

    To keep the complexity, but with fewer cards, it sounds like you have used mechanics with “tight coupling”, where each action and its consequence is strongly dependent on other actions and their sequence. I heard this concept described in the Ludology podcast (Episode 172 – Odd Coupling).

    What are the biggest challenges you have faced due to these design choices? I would guess that having multi-use cards and tightly coupled mechanics could make balancing difficult and if a mechanic is complicated it may be difficult for players to remember (i.e. higher chance they break the rules or skip a step).

    1. > Regarding balance

      At this point I’ve only made 4 basic Fighters, and so far balancing doesn’t seem to be an issue. I’m not saying it’s perfectly balanced, but it feels balanced. I think it’s because no matter how OP I make a card, everything has a counter.

      A card could deal 2 damage or it could deal 20, but a Block nullifies everything.
      Or a card could deal 2,000 damage to one spot, but you could still dodge out of the way.
      So the balancing process right now is, “make sure there’s ways to not get hit by it”, which is relatively easy.

      > Regarding difficult to remember

      Boy was this an issue indeed, so much so that during one playtest, a player equated it to “paperwork” haha. That’s why I heavily simplified the steps you need to remember. A player has only so much attention to spend.

      Even now, something as simple as “after you deal damage, gain Advantage” is occasionally forgotten, because the focus is so much on the actions themselves. I’m still finding ways to make that less painful, options include:

      1) Make it so that “after you deal damage, you may steal Advantage”, putting the onus on the player to remember, because if they forget they’re not allowed to mulligan the turn.
      2) Instead of putting the Advantage token to the side, have it move with the Fighter. Think of it like a soccer ball that goes back and forth. If it hit you, I take that ball away from you.

      “Making it easy to remember” has definitely been the driving force behind many mechanics, but I think that’s how any good designer comes up with elegant solutions, by making the game as intuitive as possible.

      1. Awesome! I’m pretty new to designing, but there are two aspects I think about to make sure actions in my game are intuitive:

        (1) Does the action you are expecting players to take make sense within the context of the theme?

        (2) Do the physical components act as a reminder through the tactile experience they provide?

        For example, in my game players take actions (complete a quest) by using an attribute of their choice (e.g. wisdom). Initially, there was no physical component involved with this choice, but through testing I found it worked better with a card to represent your choice of attribute. Then in a later iteration, they became tiles instead of cards because I found a way to streamline and combine a few other mechanics by using tiles. I now have a physical representation (the tile) for each ability (choice of attribute used for a quest) your character can use to take an action on the game board (complete a quest).

        I’m sure I will continue to iterate as well 🙂