Monday, March 9, 2015

Game Stories: Keeping Tempo

This week, I'm talking about two games that I've enjoyed immensely: Star Realms and Hearthstone. They're both card games (although Hearthstone is primarily digital) There's a lot of little things that come together about these games, but there's one particular storytelling area that they both touch on: the concept of tempo. "Tempo" refers to the fact that, in a turn-based game, one player will be the aggressor, while the other player attempts to respond to them. If that player can turn the tables with their response, they seize tempo. So how does that work out in these games?

Hearthstone's Tug-of-War: Tempo on the Board
In Hearthstone, the main area of interaction is the board, where players use cards to put minions out to fight for them. Minions fight one another, die, get replaced, attack the players (each player has a "hero" that has to be protected; when it hits 0 life, they lose), and generally have at it until the game ends. And as games develop, they lead to some interesting patterns, which is where the concept of "tempo" in Hearthstone makes its appearance.

In the game, you have to start by playing weaker minions, because you can't afford to play strong minions yet. As turns pass, you're able to play stronger and stronger minions. Meanwhile, your weaker minions are getting destroyed as they do battle with your opponent's minions. So the minions on your board become a mix of stronger and stronger minions. But this can change if the tempo of the fight alters. "Tempo" is just a fancy way of saying "pacing"--the player who's first able to play minions on the board claims tempo. The other player has to respond to them, and then the first player gets to go again. But then, if the other player can play cards that get rid of enemy minions and put their own minions on the board, then the tempo switches. A key skill is figuring out how to seize the tempo and then keep it. You have to be able to answer your opponent and then make your own statement in a single turn.

Tempo is what leads to the excitement of the game, because it's a momentum that keeps swinging back and forth. When you seize the tempo from your opponent, it's a thrill, and then when you build on that momentum, developing a rock-solid board, it's a powerful feeling. Of course, it can certainly feel crushing to be up against a heavily-seized tempo, but when you can pull off a dramatic reversal, it feels incredible. That's the power of this narrative, two sides wrestling to build up a position of strength, and that's what drives the energy of Hearthstone.

Star Realms' Snowball of Fury: Tempo in the Deck
Star Realms seems similar to Hearthstone at first glance: you play cards to the field, then deal damage to your opponent. There's two major changes in the game which change how it flows, however. First of all, most of the cards you play don't stay on the board; instead, they get discarded. More importantly, the deck you start with isn't the deck you end with. Instead, you add cards to your discard pile as you play the game, and each time you run out of cards in your deck, you shuffle your discard pile into a new deck. This changes things massively, because instead of upgrading your board, you're upgrading your deck!

This leads to a very different dynamic from Hearthstone, because while in Hearthstone tempo comes from weakening your opponent's board and building your own, you can't do that in Star Realms, because you can't mess with your opponent's deck. As you gain better cards in your deck, you can do more powerful things on your turn, including getting even better cards. This effect tends to snowball as the game goes on and you accumulate momentum, doing bigger and bigger things on each turn. The players take turns hitting one another with increasingly-strong punches, until one player punches hard enough to win the game!

It's exciting, but it's a different type of excitement than in Hearthstone. Here, the tempo struggle is centered around that escalating damage, and it comes down to this question: who lands the last punch? If Player A hits for 5 damage, player B hits for 7 damage, player A hits for 9 damage, and so on, you can see who's going to win: Player A, because even though Player B is matching them, Player A is going to land the last hit. (Indeed, I've lost a lot of games of Star Realms the turn after I almost won.) A successful player is one who can disrupt that cycle. Some cards let you discard some of your opponent's cards in hand, and other cards serve as shields, requiring your opponent to blast through them. If you can couple that with damage, then suddenly you become Player A. You can also become Player A by quickly making your deck more efficient.

Compare and Contrast
The Hearthstone view of tempo is as a resource to be fought over, and it's a sort of dramatic struggle that you find, say, in a tense swordfight from the movies. Both sides are struggling to undermine the other, until one of them comes back with a position so strong that the other side doesn't have an answer to it. It gives the whole game a feeling of back-and-forth struggle because both sides are fighting over a volatile battleground that could change in a single turn.

In Star Realms, meanwhile, the entire game feels like an adrenaline-driven knockdown shounen anime fight, as both sides take turns escalating to bigger and bigger efforts. It's not a game of wrestling with your opponent, but rather a game of blasting them to bits in bigger and grander ways. Its own tempo gives the game a momentum that races forward to a devastating conclusion.

Ultimately, most games will have a sort of "tempo" mechanism, but not all games will make tempo feel the same. It's a powerful force in games, and the way you use it in a design will heavily impact the way the game feels.