Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sirlin Games Week - Day 1 - Interview

Hello everyone and welcome to a very special week on How Lou Sees It! This week I will be reviewing and discussing all David Sirlin games; Yomi, Flash Duel, Pandante, and (spoiler alert) my favorite - Puzzle Strike. I will be posting something everyday this week and I was lucky enough to get David Sirlin to do a little Q and A interview to start us off! 

I also want to let you know upfront that I was provided free review copies of these games. While I will try and cover the basic rules or gameplay of the games, my video reviews will focus more on what I think of the games. I highly recommend checking out the Watch It Played series on the complete How To Play for these games, but hopefully you can get a good feel of how the games play and can consider if you may or may not like the games yourself.

Also, during this special review week, my Featured Kickstarter is currently an expansion for Pandante called Light and Dark. I would invite you all to check out the Kickstarter sometime during this week - link provided on the right of my blog under the Featured Kickstarter section, or by clicking on this Kickstarter Link.

Let it be no secret going into this week that I really enjoy all of these Sirlin Games, and I am excited that I have the opportunity to review these games and introduce them to you now. I am very impressed with David Sirlin as a game designer and I can't wait for the future of Sirlin Games - come on Codex! :) 

Let's get the party started! You can read my interview with David Sirlin regarding his recent Kickstarters, updating his games, and more below!


Thanks for agreeing to do this question and answer session! I'm very excited to kick off my Sirlin Games Review Week. I have really enjoyed your games and I love that I have the opportunity to review them in succession over this next week.

(For those unfamiliar, you can check out to learn more about his games and keep updated with the latest Sirlin Games news. You will see quickly that Sirlin has done something pretty awesome and that is that pretty much all of his games are linked through the use of the same characters - all part of the Fantasy Strike universe. There is Yomi, Flash Duel, Puzzle Strike, and Pandante. You can play most of these for FREE online at to try them out!)

I really want to commend you on taking feedback from those playing your games and taking action to tweak and revise your games. I feel many game designers don't seem to have the humility (or perhaps the funds or resources) that it would take to do what you have done. I really appreciate that. With the updated revisions of your games, I do feel like there are some questions raised that I would like to provide an opportunity for you to answer.

Not too long ago, you had a Kickstarter for a previously published game of yours, Yomi. This revised some of the rules, layout of the cards, and balanced a few additional things. You now have a Kickstarter for an expansion to Pandante and a revised edition to that base game as well.

My first question is really a two part one. Why make all these changes? And can you describe the events or that decision making process that lead to these revised editions?

For Pandante, after demoing the game to various new players and getting feedback from players out there in the world, I wondered if there was any way to improve parts of it. Originally, I was very focused on making sure the game actually worked correctly and was rock solid enough to work even when played for money by super experts. I think I actually succeeded there, but in order to do that, I had to had various band-aids and exceptions here and there. For those who know the game, it's stuff like "can't fold during the splash," "highest claimed hand that folds must buy breakfast," "tied players receive challenges in reverse turn order," and so on. All this stuff was needed, but I started thinking more outside the box, like are there ways to change some core rules such that these exceptions aren't needed anymore? Those are all fixes to problems, but could some deeper change make there be no problem to fix in the first place?

At the same time, a couple of my play-testers suggested the idea of "casino cards" that change the rules each gambit. That sounded fantastic. So I started working on that as an expansion and I tried out all sorts of very different core rules. I finally found a set that removed all those exceptions I said, and removed a significant portion of waiting around time that happened during games, so they played faster. I liked it so much that I knew I had to somehow get that out to the rest of the world. I decided to develop even more new content in addition to the casino cards in parallel to adjusting the core system, so that we could make a fantastic new product that was both even simpler, yet also offered more content to those who wanted to add more elements to the game.

For Yomi, the first release of the game is seriously some kind of miracle of balance. The "best character" in the first release has to be the weakest best character of any game I've heard of. All 10 characters were incredibly closely balanced and I repeatedly asked people to find a competitive game with 10+ sides with that level of balance, and I still never heard of one. So my point is, it's not like I made adjustments to Yomi because it was bad or something.

There's a few things going on with the new version. One is that I added 10 new characters so that it has 20 total, just like Flash Duel and Puzzle Strike (the SAME 20 characters). That was the plan all along. And in doing that, some of the older characters had to be adjusted in response. For example, Jaina's block damage on her normal attacks prevented BBB from every working properly until we slightly adjusted Jaina's block damage. Next, I thought that changing one core rule might make the overall dynamics more fun or more interesting: when your normal attack wins combat or is blocked, draw a card. This makes normal attacks matter more, and because it results in people playing normal attacks (which tend to be slower than special attacks), it increases the total range of speeds played. In other words, a wider range of move speeds become relevant. Also, you overall have more cards so it allows for slightly more combos, and that's a good fun factor. Finally, I like the dynamic that blocking gets you cards in Yomi, and it's still the best way to get cards, but having at least some backup plan of doing a normal attack gives you more outs sometimes, which I think is good. So after extensive testing of that rule and slight variations of it, I went ahead with that system change. That requires slightly adjusting balance here and there to compensate.

Next, there's just standard iteration. Even though Yomi's balance was very good, anything could be a bit better. Also wording could be improved here and there, and I went on a crusade to greatly shorten the text wherever possible. I added niceties like timing tags that say exactly when every ability triggers, just because I thought of it while playing. Likewise, I added reference cards that show every move a character had because that's helpful too. And I fixed a few flavor issues like how Jaina the reckless fiery character actually played way too controlly and non-risky in version 1. So while the beginning of this whole mission was "add 10 characters, also change one core rule," while I'm working on something I tend to see many, many other ways to improve things, so I did.

Like I said before, I think it is fantastic that you are not afraid to evolve your games and make them better. What about all those who own the original versions? The original games are great (in my opinion), but with these revised editons are those who have the old versions going to feel like if they want the new and improved version they have to buy in essence the same game twice? How did you address this issue with Yomi and Pandante?

That's a real tough issue. The simplest way to handle manufacturing is to make a new thing and that's it. These print runs are really small, so splitting them into even more tiny print runs inside a print run to make an incomplete product that is like "part of the new product" has not been economically feasible for me on most products. Also, I think these products are worth paying for. Or at least, to the market I'm aiming for, they are. In some games, a competitive deck costs $300-$500. In Yomi, it costs $10. So buying a new set of Yomi decks years later when they come out, I actually think that makes sense in supporting the development of the game, especially when it's still radically cheaper than the CCG model. It's common to buy a new video game version too.

That said, I did offer a set gameplay-changed cards for Yomi v1 players who ONLY want gameplay changes and not any of the many niceties in art and design. $10 to upgrade the entire set of 10 decks with just gameplay changes (not art or other niceties). It was a hassle to create that set, it has issues like the difficulty of getting the card-backs to match the older versions (they do match turns out there are slightly different looking older versions, so maybe they match player A's Midori deck but are barely a different color than player B's.) It means some of your abilities will have timing tags and some won't. I actually recommended that people not even buy them because I think it's just a subpar experience. I'd almost rather they just use errata if they don't want to buy new decks (which is fine).

For Pandante, anyone who has the previous game can buy the expansion. You can use your existing deck and chips and get all the new content. I could have just made that and been done, but I really wanted new players to have an even better experience, so I made a new standard base set and new deluxe base set that contain all the new stuff stuff as well cards and chips, so they'll get the expansion baked right in.

This issue remains a challenge though. Players want to buy a part of a game, and depending on which game we're talking about, it's not always feasible. If players really believe that a game is "the same game over again" so they don't want to buy it, it means they don't value the work I'm doing with these editions, which is really unfortunate. Players seem fine new editions of video games, and it's actually very similar. When I bought Guilty Gear #Reload, I was incredibly excited to get it, even though it was "the same game over again" from Guilty Gear XX with various improvements. When "various improvements" make me go from "enjoy a game" to "enjoy it even more" that's worth a huge amount to me. Not less than usual, but actually more than usual because making a good thing great is pretty rare to me. So I hope some players see it that way, though I will continue to explore issues in how to handle this. As you see, it's not much of an issue for Pandante and it's cheap expansion (and free rulebooks:

You also have a new revised Flash Duel available with your currently running Pandante Kickstarter. Am I right in saying the changes there are much smaller than the changes made to Pandante or Yomi?

For Flash Duel, when the game is played at a high level, it's actually incredibly computation-heavy and mathy. It looks nothing like what you'd imagine. In case that sounds good, it's not. Thinking through a large tree of moves knowing that somewhere in there is a 100% guaranteed win means you're forced to do a bunch of work to play and that when you reach that point, there's no strategy left, just computation. Too much of the game was that at high level.

I tested a variant a long time ago to address this. It was successful at making the game play more like you'd imagine it would, as a thing where you bluff here and there and use intuition. Some computation, sure, but no more lengthy turns leading to checkmates 10 minutes later. This is supposed to be a fast game. Anyway after about year, someone thought of a way to streamline my variant even more. Even simpler logistics to set it up. Great!

The other system change sounds radical, and it's the removal of the "last hits" mechanic. That's where you check if you hit the opponent right after the final buzzer in the case where time runs out from drawing the last card. The game revolved almost entirely around this, and a) that is a weird thing for it to revolve around, b) that heavily contributes to the overly mathy nature and strategy-less guaranteed endgame situations, c) is the most complicated thing in the game to explain and d) happens too frequently in that you feel like you should have had more chance to win before time ran out. Finally, someone asked why we even have this mechanic. It was to make there be more to go on in tie-break situations than simply who advanced farthest on the field, but it really backfired. I removed it and the threat of knowing you will definitely lose if time runs out and you're too far back on the board forces you to act before time runs out and actually make some action happen. It's just simpler and smoother without last hits, and even though everyone was worried about this change, it seems no one misses it.

Oh, and we made the deck bigger now so that time out happens less frequently. The irony is that more turns until the deck runs out sounds like it would take longer to play, but it actually doesn't because people don't need to think for 10 minutes to compute checkmate situations anymore.

Finally, while we're at it, I did a bunch of balance changes based on how the game has played out over the past years. Even with the system changes, we have a good handle on how each ability is used. I also updated a whole bunch of wording to be clearer to address various questions people have asked about how this card interacts with that one. I also made all the language gender neutral, so no more "he" and "his" in the ability text when referring to a player.

With all these new editions of past games, do you also have an update to Puzzle Strike in the works?

I don't. I'm not currently working on that.

Not surprised there! I LOVE Puzzle Strike. 

It seems to me that you have taken a lot of time to ensure the quality of your games and much of your visible work has been to revise Yomi and Pandante. Is there any new Sirlin games in the work you can or would like to tell us about?

That's a good question, I see you realize I must be doing a lot that you aren't seeing. ;) So Codex is the #1 thing. It's my take on the CCG genre, doing things way different and opposite of everyone else. I've been working on that 10+ years on and off and I'm really looking forward to finishing it after the Pandante kickstarter is taken care of. Codex has an RTS theme, and you can think of it a bit like Warcraft 3. You have heroes who cast spells (you need a hero to cast a spell!) and tech buildings that can produce units. Because your heroes and tech buildings are on the field, able to be attacked, you have to protect them or you'll lose the ability cast certain spells or produce certain units. It's highly interactive because of that, and you get access to more cards than just a deck: you get a Codex of cards. That means your bag of tricks runs deep enough that no matter what your opponent does, you probably have an answer.

Also, you build your deck as you play. Think of it this way: the cards in your Codex are analogous to ALL the units of an RTS race (like all Protoss units, or all Orc units). That's more than you'll use in a particular game. It represents everything you could possibly do. Each game, as you play you build your deck from that set. So you use different cards each time to enact different strategies, and which way you go depends on which way your opponent is going. It's kind of a dance. It works out so well, it's just delicious.

I'm also working on fighting game themed card game called Flowchart in collaboration with designer Tim Fowers. It's absolutely nothing like Yomi, and it's pretty mind-bending, yet easy to teach. Finally, I'm tinkering with another prototype of a fighting game themed thing that takes some concepts from Yomi, but that has distance and a linear board. Flash Duel has that, but Flash Duel doesn't really work like Yomi does. So this is a much more detailed game than Flash Duel. I can't say if it will work out, but preliminary tests look good so maybe it will!

Wow. I am VERY excited about Codex - can't wait to see more on that! I really enjoy Tim Fowers' Paperback game, so it will be cool to see what the two of you come up with for Flowchart.

What was your favorite game to design and which is your favorite to play (of your games)?

I think Pandante might have been my favorite to design. It's a "smaller" game than my others in that it doesn't have a million abilities so it's easier to fit it all in my head and focus on how the system works, and how to tune it. Also, the "high fashion" art style makes it easier to work with graphically, so I feel like I had better control over it as a whole.

My favorite game to play is Codex. I used to love Magic: the Gathering, and Codex is like my fantasy of how such a game could work. No losing to the randomness of drawing resources, more emphasis on cool characters, more tools available to you during a match than just a deck of 60 cards, and a lot of other good properties. I'm really into it and always enjoy playing it. Even though I've played it for years, after every match I feel like I could have done better in this way or that, which is what always kept me coming back to any good competitive game.

Really really really can't wait for Codex - even with the little that you have described, I see Codex being one of my most anticipated games.

You have 20 amazing characters that are so well developed and offer very unique game play and strategies. I think Master Midori or Jaina Stormborne are my favorites.  Do you have a favorite character from your games?

I don't really have a favorite. They all kind of exist independently in my head, like different aspects of a personality, or different sides of a story. Thematically, my favorite is probably DeGrey and his struggle against Quince when it comes to truth vs deception. I can relate a lot to DeGrey. Gameplay-wise, I've always liked grapplers, so Garus Rook stands out to me there.

Maybe a few other fun questions to get to know you better:

What is your all-time favorite game?

I feel like I should say the Street Fighter 2 series. Portal is up there too though.

If you could meet anyone and have dinner with that person, who would it be and why?

Richard Feynman. I feel like I could ask him how the universe really works and he'd give me the most straight dope answers.

Favorite superhero?

I've probably given Batman more thought than other superheroes, so I'll go with that.

Nice choice indeed. I would like to thank you David again for answering all these questions! :)


Thank you for joining me during Sirlin Games Week! Tomorrow I will be posting my video review of Yomi. See you all tomorrow!

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