An Ascension Design Inspiration Story

Last week I posted an article on the first part of the Core Design Loop: Inspiration.  Today, I wanted to add a personal story about my own design inspiration that lead to the founding of my company, Stone Blade Entertainment.

Deck Building vs. Company Building

It was 2009 and I had recently quit my job to start my own game company.  The funny thing about starting a company is that until you start making money and working with other people, the difference between “CEO/Game Designer” and “Guy Sitting on his Couch” is a very subtle one.  Its more attitude than reality.

In any case, I had spent some time playing the deckbuilding game Dominion.  OK, some time may be an understatement- I played hundreds of games in a few months.  Dominion introduced the deckbuilding game category, which itself is inspired by the collectible card games category.  It’s elevator pitch is something like “The fun of deckbuilding, without the hassle of collecting cards” 

I liked that you could get the feeling of constructing your own deck and strategy without all the hassle of buying packs of cards and filtering through a collection.  After playing a bunch of games, however, things became pretty predictable.  Once the available cards are determined at the beginning of the game, there was very little variation in how a game would play out and thus optimal strategies began to emerge.  This reminded me a lot of playing a “constructed” format of a collectible card game (where you have a fixed set of cards to build your deck from before the event begins).  At first, there is a lot to explore, but over time the same strategies emerge again and again. 

One way collectible card games solved this problem is by introducing “limited” formats, where players receive a random set of cards that they must build their deck from at the event itself.  The random assortment of cards both serves to make the game easier to access (I don’t need to build a collection from home) and forces players to adapt to different situations every time, making the game more varied and fun.

Just like Dominion got the fun of constructed formats into a single boxed game, I wanted to get the fun of limited formats without having to open random packs of cards.  Thus, the main mechanic of Ascension, the center deck, was formed.  At first, I took exact Dominion cards with only a few variations and just shuffled them up and dealt them out in an ever changing set of available cards.  By not changing much, I was able to test my idea quickly to see if it worked.  I played this just for fun with some friends and got a great response.  I made up my own set of cards and rules variations and tinkered with it for a few weeks.

A Whole New Ballgame

Despite having a fun to play prototype, it never occurred to me to turn this into my first self-published game until a close friend, Rob Dougherty, smacked some sense into me.  “You have the ball.  Run with it!”  I didn’t feel creative enough just combining two things I loved into something new.  I didn’t think that it was “ok” to make a game like that. 

Once I removed that mental block, I could really start to work on something special.  Months of work went into designing new cards, prototyping, refining mechanics, getting feedback, and repeating the cycle, but it all began with one basic concept, and the realization that one great idea well executed is all it takes.  Ascension has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in both physical and digital form.

Don’t be afraid to run with the ball and make your dreams come true.

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