March 23, 2018

A deep dive into the design of True Messiah

As an independent developer with a board game, I sometimes find myself traveling to board game nights and events to demo True Messiah and build interest. At these events, I’m often asked: “What other games does True Messiah play like?” I often respond with something like, “Go meets Magic the Gathering meets Dominion meets Conway’s Game of Life.”

This is a lie, however: for as far as I am aware, True Messiah plays like nothing else in existence. This article will serve as an in-depth exploration of True Messiah’s design, exploring both what makes it tick and what makes its design so unusual.

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True Messiah and the Four Virtues of good turn-based combat

Let’s start with the basics. You may recall the Four Virtues that make a turn-based combat system fun, satisfying, and elegant:

(1) Emergent complexity. The game generates a complex play space out of a comparatively simple set of rules.

(2) Clarity. The immediate consequences of various tactical decisions are made clear to the player.

(3) Determinism. Reworded to account for the board game context: the game’s systems are sufficiently deterministic that the victor will nearly always win due to skilled play using a proper strategy, and not due to luck.

(4) Tactical tools. If there is some randomness in the game, the player has sufficient tactical tools at her disposal so that skilled play will almost always trump bad luck.

Looking to True Messiah, we see that it incorporates all four of the Virtues with gusto! In order:

(1) True Messiah was originally designed as an exercise in emergent complexity, intended to produce a huge possibility space out of the interaction of a few simple (but highly interrelated!) systems. These are:

  • money determines both your ability to afford new miracles
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    and your capacity to take priority in choosing the new miracles you want.
  • miracles impact every other system in the game: your available money, as well as your options for movement, combat, building, and/or recruitment. Playing miracles requires praying, which itself impacts other systems, restricting your movement and making some of your followers temporarily helpless should they become involved in combat.
  • movement determines what miracles, building, and recruitment activities you can perform, as well as how combat will play out.
  • recruitment produces new followers, which are themselves necessary for playing miracles, engaging in combat, and building. Having too few followers is a game-ending condition.
  • building produces the temples necessary for playing miracles and recruiting, as well as increasing your income.
  • combat allows you to wipe out enemy resources (followers in particular, but potentially also buildings, money, and miracles). Combat is central to achieving each of the game’s win states.

Individually, each of these systems is quite straightforward, governed by a small handful of simple rules–but because nearly every system has an impact on multiple other systems, their effect is combinatorial, producing a huge amount of strategic depth relative to the number of elements in the game. In other words, True Messiah is elegant.

(2) True Messiah benefits from clarity. Opaque rules and high levels of randomness can impair a player’s ability to make meaningful decisions. However, True Messiah’s rules are straightforward and its mechanics deterministic. Thus, the immediate results of any potential move will be crystal clear to the player.

(Note that while a player may be uncertain about what their opponent’s response to a move will be, here we’re concerned about how clear it is what their own move will do. As we’ll discuss below, uncertainty about an opponent’s response to a move is actually a sign of good design!)

(3) Player actions in True Messiah are 100% deterministic: there are no randomized results anywhere in the game, with tension instead driven by second party uncertainty, hidden information, and scenario randomness of the deck-shuffling sort. (If you’re uncertain what these terms mean, I discuss the difference between “randomized results” and “scenario randomness” here.)

Bottom line: if one player is markedly more skilled than their opponents, they are very unlikely to lose a game of True Messiah through bad luck.

(4) Finally, we have tactical tools. In True Messiah, the player has some simple but potent unit-positioning tools (such as guarding and flanking) supplemented by a huge number of possible tactics via the game’s dozens of different miracles.

The miracles are worth a special note here. Unlike many other games which use cards to influence combat, the vast majority of the miracles in True Messiah are designed for tactical versatility, with multiple different uses depending on when they’re used and how they’re targeted. Because of the interrelatedness of True Messiah’s systems, a well-placed miracle affecting one system can produce a cascading effect onto other systems, providing the potential for big plays!

This video discusses the various tactical uses of each player’s starting miracles. As you can see, every player possesses a substantial tactical toolkit from turn 1–a toolkit that will only grow with each passing round as they acquire new miracles:

True Messiah and tension through unpredictability

The year after I set forth the Four Virtues, I argued that a well designed turn-based game will produce unpredictability (and thus, tension) for each player not by leaning upon randomized results (i.e. die rolls), but rather, primarily through the combination of a large possibility space and a clever opponent. This latter combination of factors, I argued, gave rise to “second-party uncertainty”–that is, uncertainty about what one’s opponent(s) will do–thus providing tension without compromising player control and skill-based outcomes.

Rather than merely explore how True Messiah accomplishes this mandate, it strikes me as a useful exercise to compare and contrast it with another game designed around these principles: Telepath Tactics. For although both of these games are deterministic and turn-driven, they each have a very different focus, approaching unpredictability and tension differently:

1) A clever opponent

In any well-designed competitive turn-based system, one or more clever opponents must always be a key (if not the primary) source of player uncertainty.

By the standards of most strategy RPGs, the AI in Telepath Tactics is quite good. It knows how to navigate most of the game’s systems, it weighs a variety of factors when choosing among its options, and it will ruthlessly exploit openings presented to it by careless unit positioning by the player. It’s somewhat unpredictable, too–you’ll seldom see the AI take the same turn twice! So I don’t have any problem characterizing it as “clever.”

However…it’s not that unpredictable. The heuristic employed by TT’s AI is hard-coded; it will always assign the same weights to the same factors in every battle. Once you get a sense for how the AI prioritizes things, it becomes quite possible to reliably bait it into making bad moves. (This is a problem that I’ve made great strides toward fixing for future games–but of course, those games do not yet exist.)

Now, by contrast, we have True Messiah. There is no artificial intelligence governing your opponent in True Messiah; instead, you will be playing against human intelligence, an actual person who will be sizing you up, guessing at your strategies, and learning from past mistakes. Playing against a real human means modeling their thought process (something David Sirlin refers to as “yomi”), and not merely guessing at the workings of an algorithm. Successfully reading a human opponent will, I suspect, always remain the more satisfying accomplishment.

Admittedly, this isn’t really a design feature of True Messiah so much as it is a side effect of having made a board game–but I think it’s worth acknowledging as a benefit of the medium.

2) Resource management

In both Telepath Tactics and True Messiah, the player is subtly encouraged to accomplish various goals with limited resources while trying not to overextend. The nature of the resources in each game differs dramatically, however, and so does the way in which they produce in-game tension!

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For the most part, the resources of Telepath Tactics are simply your characters. Despite the presence of “strategy” in the “strategy RPG” genre designation, Telepath Tactics is in fact very much a tactics game, focused on the scale of individual characters–their distinct attributes, abilities, and positioning.

In Telepath Tactics, your characters are the near-exclusive tools of your agency as a player. What’s more, they’re persistent, used in battle after battle. Thus, the name of the game is accomplishing battlefield objectives with your characters while keeping them safe for future use.

There are sub-resources to consider: for each character, you’ll be managing their energy, their health, and their inventory, as these impact both a character’s available actions and the safety with which they can perform those actions within any given battle.

Money is another resource to contend with. You’re operating under tight monetary constraints for the entire campaign, and failure to collect enough gold or loot enough chests across fights will hurt you in the long haul. (This, as you might imagine, parlays into the mandate to accomplish as many battlefield objectives as possible.)

That said, you can only spend money on items or equipment for your characters, so ultimately it’s still all about them. Your characters are the necessary beneficiaries of every investment, and you must do your damnedest to keep them all alive in order to preserve your tactical flexibility from one fight to the next. (And let’s be honest here: for sentimental reasons, too.) This struggle between maximizing resources gained and keeping your characters alive is where the locus of tension in Telepath Tactics ultimately lies.

True Messiah flips this dynamic on its head: with the exception of the messiah, your units are all simplistic, expendable pawns of limited value, designed to be callously thrown away in the service of larger objectives. Can you delay your opponent from building a temple for one more round by sacrificing a follower? Definitely do it. Can you capture an enemy temple by sacrificing two followers, or three? Worth it!

Unlike Telepath Tactics, True Messiah is a true strategy game, with a strategy game’s scope and level of abstraction. While there are definitely tactics to consider, managing an economy and unit production are of equal (and sometimes, greater) importance.

The survival of any given follower matters little in True Messiah–what matters is the balance of power as measured by overall resources: number of followers, number of temples, number of coins, board position, availability of powerful miracles. These big-picture, structural advantages determine your options as a player, and are necessary to set yourself up for victory. Thus, tension in True Messiah is almost never about whether you can keep particular units alive.

So how does True Messiah generate tension around resources, then? Simple: by imposing scarcity and forcing trade-offs!

True Messiah limits you to 6 moves per turn. Because unit positioning has knock-on effects in terms of building, recruitment, the ability to play miracles, and success in combat, this move limit forces hard choices between numerous competing priorities. Should you focus on building temples; on generating money for a better shot at the miracles you want this round; on recruiting more followers; or on obstructing your opponent? You can usually do a few of these, but you can’t do everything!

Similarly, your ability to play miracles is limited by your temple capacity and the availability of followers to pray on them. Should you make everyone pray to maximize the benefit of the cards you have right now; or keep resources in reserve to weather potential aggression during an enemy turn, either via having people available to fight or via preemptive miracle play?

To make the right trade-offs, you need to consider how your choices will further your chosen strategy, and you must also guess at your opponents’ intentions. Therein lies much of the game’s tension.

3) Hidden Information

Scenario unpredictability is not used too heavily in Telepath Tactics: for the most part, you go into a fight seeing all of the characters, all of their equipment, all of their abilities, all of their statistics, and so on. There are exceptions, though: maps with fog-of-war and maps with chest-seeking thieves and enemy reinforcements add tension by forcing the player to account for conditions that could change at a moment’s notice.

While hidden reinforcements add some tension, the lion’s share of tension in Telepath Tactics comes from the AI’s competence and the dire consequences of a tactical error: permanent loss of a character, with subsequent loss of your investment in that character (and of the unique tactical options that the character afforded you).

By comparison, casualties in True Messiah are seldom so consequential, defrayed as they are by recruiting identical replacements on your next turn. The loss of characters in True Messiah only becomes truly consequential when you’re down to your last 8 or so, or when a loss produces knock-on effects for your other resources.

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In exchange for this greater flexibility to absorb casualties, True Messiah offers much more in the way of systematic obfuscation of resources. A player’s available miracles are kept hidden in their hand, forcing opponents to play close attention and guess at a player’s available options at any given point in time–and there’s always the risk that you forgot about an errant miracle! This heightens the effect of second party uncertainty and contributes significantly to the game’s tension.

Similarly, the miracles that players will be competing to purchase at the end of any given round are kept hidden until the market opens, forcing players to make a guess as to how important the available miracles will be to their strategy. This contributes to above-mentioned tension over resource management: give too little focus to generating coins, and the player might not be able to acquire a needed miracle (or worse, watch it go to an opponent); but focus too much on generating coins, and the player may end up with a smaller army and less capacity to generate income over the long haul.

4) Combat

“Craig,” you might say, “both Telepath Tactics and True Messiah have turn-based deterministic combat. How can this be a point of distinction?” Good question! I will answer this with one word: “miracles.”

Telepath Tactics’s combat involves a tense gamble when it comes to nailing enemies with (or getting nailed by) status effects–but otherwise, the tension of its combat arises mainly out of the cleverness of its AI, the large possibility space available for said AI to exploit, and the potential for the player to lose characters when the AI does so.

By contrast, True Messiah’s combat is comparatively simple, with a smaller possibility space. As we discussed at the start of the article, however, the addition of miracles–and the capacity to play them during other players’ turns–makes the possibility space positively explode.

True Messiah’s combat lives and dies on the sneaky, last-second surprise maneuvers permitted by its miracles. Add in the versatility of the game’s miracle cards and the element of hidden information inherent to possessing a secret hand, and you’re looking at some significant potential to get blind-sided by a brilliant and unexpected move–and the concomitant tension that this potential produces.

True Messiah and win state

The final bits of design in True Messiah that we’ll discuss today concern the win state.

Win states are an interesting design topic in and of themselves, with most approaches offering a mix of both benefits and drawbacks. Unlike the two overarching topics above, I haven’t written about this one yet, so this will be our first foray into the topic!

Most tactics games feature a “last person standing” win state, in which victory means being the last player left alive. This is a classic win state, one which makes clear, intuitive sense for any battle-themed game; in battle, you want your enemies dead and yourself not-dead. So that’s how you win! Done and done.

Pictured: our glorious victor.

Unfortunately, the “last person standing” win state has a couple of really huge problems for a game with more than two players. The first problem is that it incentivizes turtling. When survival is the victory condition, the optimal approach becomes “hang back and quietly build up resources while the other players fight each other… and then, once the remaining players are too weakened to put up any effective resistance, swoop in and stomp everyone.”

By taking the initiative and actually engaging your opponents in a last-person-standing system, you’re merely volunteering to be one of the weakened players who is subsequently stomped. In this way, last man standing actively punishes players for engaging with one another, and tends to produce long, drawn-out, relatively uneventful games.

Even worse, last person standing ensures that anyone who is eliminated is now stuck with absolutely nothing to do for the remainder of said long, drawn-out game. (Even death is not an escape!)

To get around these issues, many contemporary board games focus on victory points, a sort of uniform currency of “winning-ness” awarded in varying amounts for accomplishing certain goals throughout the game, all of which are then tallied up at the end of the game to decide who won.

Victory points offer a number of distinct benefits: they permit fairly precise control over a game’s pacing and length; they allow precise balancing to ensure the viability of numerous distinct strategies; they can be implemented in such a way as to obscure who is actually winning until the very end; and–unlike last person standing–they don’t promote passive play.

However, victory points have a big problem of their own: they’re very hard to justify in the setting of most games, and so they come off feeling rather arbitrary. This is particularly true when they’re awarded for achieving differing, unconnected goals–as in: “I won 2 military victories and had two sheaves of wheat left at the end of the game, but you were more popular and you deployed four mechs and you controlled two mountain hexes, so you win.” Okay…but win what, though? These have absolutely nothing to do with each other! In this way, victory points have a bad habit of laying bare the artificiality of a game’s objectives and undermining immersion.

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True Messiah employs neither last man standing nor victory points. Instead, one achieves victory in True Messiah by being the first to defeat another player. One defeats a player by a) slaying their messiah, b) winnowing their followers down to the point that they cannot even build a temple, or c) razing their holy city. Each of these definitively exposes the victim as a false prophet–and by casting them down, you prove to the world that you are, in fact, the true messiah.

This “first to defeat” victory condition has some clear benefits over last man standing. It provides a compelling incentive for each player to actively engage with the other players early on (you can still turtle, but this becomes increasingly risky with every passing round, as it takes time to mobilize your forces across the board); and if someone is eliminated, there’s no down time for them, as the game is over already.

“First to defeat” also shares the primary benefit of victory points; as implemented here, it supports several viable routes to victory, rewarding long-term planning in the pursuit of one’s chosen victory condition(s). Unlike victory points, however, “first-to-defeat” condition enjoys a relatively tight fit with what you’re actually doing in the game’s universe. (Mind you, that fit isn’t quite as tight as it would be with last person standing–but it’s a price well worth paying to avoid its downsides.)

Conclusion

True Messiah is a tightly designed board game based around the same core principles I’ve been using to design video games for quite a few years now. However, it’s also very different from anything else I’ve made, and as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any other board games (or video games, for that matter) that work quite the way that True Messiah does. I do hope that you’ve found this review of the game’s design features interesting!

Craig Stern is a game developer based out of Chicago. His game True Messiah is currently on Kickstarter seeking funding for a limited print run. To learn more and help out, click here!