The Beginnings of Wiccage
Once things had moved along well with Wozzle, my co-designer Grant Rodiek suggested that I look at designing another game to go in the package. I'd get to use the same basic deck, the markers and whatnot (including the Mana tokens), and have a budget of 20 or so special cards for the game. This was a challenge right up my alley, and I started thinking about it.
My immediate thoughts went to Cribbage. I've been playing Cribbage since I was in elementary school, a game that most of my father's family played. It hadn't occurred to me until the moment Grant asked me to start thinking about another game, but there are no modern Cribbage variants that I'm aware of. It suddenly seemed like a ripe area for exploration. So, I had a starting point: "Cribbage with spells."
But where to go from there? Where would the spells fit in? There are a fair number of moving parts in Cribbage, which basically breaks down into several phases: discard phase, play phase, and show phase. There were farily obvious manipulations that could be performed in each of these phases, which meant that it would be straightforward to come up with spells. But that's not enough to really distinguish this new game from Cribbage.
The next thought was to consider simplifying things. Cribbage can be a little difficult to learn for new players, so where could things be simplified? What about the scoring? Cribbage has the somewhat fussy part where you're constantly accumulating scoring through the game, a complex enough procedure that most people use a specialized piece of equipment to solve it. While cribbage boards are nifty, they're also kind of a kludge.
I started daydreaming about scoring systems that I like. Many scoring systems, particularly in modern board game designs, are designed to have a fair bit of gravity built-in. There are mechanisms for trailing players to catch up, and breaking away can be difficult. Cribbage, my inspiration, has what I would describe as a neutral scoring system, where the current scores of the players have no influence on future scoring. What about the other direction? What about a game with a positive feedback mechanism, such that a player in the lead actually gained momentum.
Roma is a game with an example of what I was thinking about. While the positive feedback doesn't strictly come from scoring as much as from the board position, it still embodied the dynamic I was hoping to create. Roma is a game of unsteady equilibrium, with the players jostling for position against each other, each move carefully countered. At some point, the circling ends and one player gains a dominant position and the game usually rapidly reaches a conclusion. That knife-edge balance is something I've always admired about the design, and I decided that I'd try and seek out that same feeling in Wiccage.
What I came up with was having a limited number of scoring tokens, in the center of the table. Players would compete to get all five of them on their side of the table, with each scored point either pulling one from the middle to you or from your opponent to the middle. That was broadly similar to the way Roma worked, with the exception that it was all-or-nothing, with victory only coming once you had all the scoring tokens. What I decided to add to that basic framework was to have each player's Mana income be based on their points. That meant that whoever currently had the edge in scoring would be favored to continue to win the game. The goal wasn't to make it an absolute, but to make a comeback also feel special. I thus decided to go with a formula of one plus the number of owned runes, such that a 4-1 lead would lead to a 5-2 edge in mana, which should be a big edge, but a 3-2 game would be a much closer 4-3 edge in mana, which could be overcome.
With the scoring figured out, or at least a proposal, how the player gained those points needed to be sorted. I kept the basic structure of Cribbage intact, but simplified things a bit. Basically, each combination hit during the play phase scored a point, with the player ahead in the phase gaining a Rune. Similarly, the show phase would earn the player with the better hand a Rune. Finally, the crib would earn the dealer a Rune if the hand was better than a certain threshold. Since there were three Runes in play in each hand, it would take at least two hands to win, but would likely take more.
What was left at this point was to figure out spells. I added spells to change the rank of a card as it's played, change the target number of 15, manipulate the up card, draw replacement cards, and even gain a Rune. This last rule seemed like a nice one, reminiscent of Coup, although I hadn't had that in mind when I made the rule. The menu of spells, paid for with mana gained for Runes, seemed to be powerful without being overwhelming, and seemed a decent way to translate a player's progress into power at the table. It also targeted most of the areas of play in Cribbage, with the play phase in particular subject to more control by the players.
My "Cribbage with spells" (which wasn't yet known as Wiccage) was ready for a first test. And that first test was a total mess.