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Avoiding special text abilities

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larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008

Special text abilities are awesome. It makes every card or component feel unique and ... special. They add a lot of flavor to a game.

But I am trying to realize that there are several draw back that could make those designs more complicated:

  • Games with text are abilities are harder to modify without having conflicts when making variants.
  • They are harder to learn, you need to read card, and try to memorize what they do.
  • They are harder to balance. Because it's hard to put a value on words and make sure every ability has the same power level.
  • It's hard to determine the possibility space (define all possible abilities that could be designed).
  • Sometimes there are tiny variations that could be done on an ability that looks the same (ex: Opponent discard a card: You choose, he choose, or random)

So this is why, I was thinking in trying to avoid designs that has unique special abilities. Any abilities must be part of the core rules (ex: roles in Puerto Rico) or could be expressed by using only number or icons (ex: Asset cards in elder sign almost give all a colored die)

I would also try to avoid them in my purchases too, as those game would be easier to modify and design variants since the number of conflict with components would be much lower.

The only drawback is that it would make those games look more ... bland. Not sure how it could be counter balanced

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Ability dictionary

(We used to have)
A dictionary in which every ability was placed in alphabetic order.
Also the explanation in how it works.
The Unit Statistic Cards (USC's) only had the ability displayed in a word.

Examples on the USC:
-This unit has the Seeker Piercing ability.
-This structure has the Ballistic and Chain Reaction ability.
-This unit has the Piercing, X-ray and Explosive ability.

Not all abilities can be combined. But that is up to the designer to keep track of. A simple checklist comes in handy. For example, I can pick only Ballistic or X-ray. Not both. It makes no sense, mechanically speaking. I also have 5 different Piercing abilities. Of which only 1 can be picked.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Abilities added per expansion pack?

I can't say much about this. Because my game is ridiculous by basic standards to begin with.
But what worked for me is to add the abilities one by one with each new session. So that other players could learn them.

To say that your game would feel bland. Perhaps you should see, what abilities could be added to the first game. To make it feel less bland.
Although, I understand what you are on about. Because when I tried to design a card game. I had the same feeling.
When I added some abilities though. The problem next was that I needed to much in the game.
So, what if you have a list of abilities. And you pick out those abilities for the first game, that aren't in need to be countered?

Jay103's picture
Joined: 01/23/2018
I think there are a lot of

I think there are a lot of ways to go.. special abilities certainly add the ability to make a game interesting. I have a design (which alas will probably never be made) where everything is a special ability. Well, there are categories of stuff and all that, but every ability is completely unique.

When I was in high school I played a game called Cosmic Encounter religiously (I bought a full original set on ebay a few years ago, actually).. it's based entirely on unique powers. So good.

Tim Edwards
Joined: 07/30/2015
This is a really useful

This is a really useful discussion which I'll follow closely!

I've been pondering this issue too and I'm starting to believe that if you want a game that rich in strategy AND very thematic, your choices are:

Use unique special abilities, or
Be prepared to write a very (perhaps off-puttingly for some) thick rule book

It's a sliding scale and I'm veering towards the special abilities end of things.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
Even when making a

Even when making a standardised list, designing that list is actually much more complicated than simply assigning combinations of numbers.

This is why I am thinking in discarding all my game design ideas that requires special abilities and only focus on games that can be played with numbers.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
An interesting reply I made

An interesting reply I made on BGG


1. Range (how far it can hit)
2. Blast (how wide a radius it hits around the primary target)
3. Damage (how hard it hits)

Let's take this example, let say that each of those 3 variables can take value from 1 to 5. That creates 5x5x5=125 unit combinations. Therefore, I know my possibility space has a size of 125.

Now when I design my game, I will choose in that pool of combinations of a dozen of units for my game, and I'll be done.

Since I know the extent of the pool, there is no possibilities that I forgot to explore certain areas of the pool. For example, I cannot forget to design units with blast values greater than 1, because I can clearly see that the variable is there. It's not hidden from my sight. So if no unit have better than blast 3, then it is my choice and not my lack of sight.

On the other hand, with text abilities, I do not know the extent of the pool because I cannot see the edges of the possibility space, it is hidden from me. Also variations can be made out of items already in the pool.


I just had an idea: What if we could represent both mathematically:

The number based mechanics, is a pool will be discrete values, made of natural number going from 1 to N where N is the size of the pool.

While the text based abilities, is a pool of real numbers going from 1 to infinity, while having an infinite amount of decimals between 2 numbers.

So yes, it's a weird comparison, but number based design, are like limited size integer, While text abilities design are like infinite size real number.


From my point of view, when designing in a discrete pool, it's much more easier.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Keeping track

Of what you designed so far. Is a good idea.
If everything has a value. You can easily sort the list. And check if you have designed it so far.

A list of 125 designs is even simpler. You simply choose from the remaining open spots.

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