Spectromancer Endnotes


In 2001 (I think) Alexey Stankevich created a game called Astral Tournament. On the surface it looked like a simplified Magic:The Gathering clone. Once one started to play it was easy to see that it was much more original than that. After years of difficulty in adapting Magic to online play I deeply appreciated a game that was designed for computer play from ground up.

In Astral Tournament players played dueling wizards. Each player was dealt “cards” from a common deck of 60 cards, so that 20 went to each player and 20 were unused. Each turn players gained an astral power (mana) in 5 different types of magic – earth, air, fire, water, and death. Any card a player was dealt was available to that player the whole game provided they could pay the astral power cost. Each turn a player could play exactly one card – a spell or creature. A spell had an immediate effect – like damage or healing, a creature went into one of several slots in front of the player, and each turn would attack the creature in the opposite slot or the opposing player if it was unblocked. Players took turns playing cards until one of them had no more life – and thus lost the game.

I loved the game and spread it among my friends. We played the single player version again and again. Many months after having finished with it I found that the multiplayer version of the game had been finished, and fell in love with it all over again. As with many games AT was much more satisfying for me against other players. The AI was quite good but it couldn’t hold a candle to real players.

A couple years later I had an opportunity to meet Alexey and Ivan (a programmer who works with Alexey) in Moscow. I was there for the release of Russian Magic and they took a train from Minsk. We chatted for a couple hours about their new game Astral Masters and the possibility of working on a project at some point in the future. At the time my contracts with Wizards made it difficult but a couple years later I was contractually free and contacted Alexey.

The Project

At the time Alexey was interested in doing Astral Tournament II, and we decided that this was a perfect project for collaboration. It was easy – and we could figure out a working relationship for what we hoped would be more ambitious projects down the road. We decided to rename and considered changing flavor of the game – after all, Astral Tournament for all its’ excellent design was not well enough known that Astral Tournament II would draw in a lot of players. Although we considered science fiction to distinguish it from other games in the end we decided to stick with fantasy.

The agreement was that Three Donkeys would be responsible for funding, marketing, story, and campaign design. Alexey would be responsible for programming, game design, and art. Though that was the breakdown of responsibilities, both sides contributed to the other in many ways such as design contributions and critique from us, and story contributions and critique from Alexey.

Some may consider it strange that Alexey had final game design authority rather than a more equitable distribution since I am a better known game designer. However, it really made a lot of sense – Astral Tournament was entirely Alexey’s design and we knew he had a much better idea of balance from his years of working with that system. Also, I had the belief that despite the fact that he had final say with the design that he would weigh my design concepts and concerns seriously against others. This belief turned out to be warranted, Alexey drew on my experience and design sensibility and combined it with his own to make what I think is a very strong game.

Base Design

I was interested in a system where player’s had more to distinguish them than existed in Astral Tournament. Something analogous to “character classes”. We talked about many different ways of achieving this, ultimately settling on a system where all players shared fire, earth, air, and water cards – but each also chose a single category of cards from six specialties that would distinguish them from each other.

Making the specialty count for enough flavor difference was, at first, an issue. After all – if they are treated the same as the other spells then on average only 20% of the weight of a match would rely on the specialty. The idea of making the specialty spells more powerful was tried – and we were pretty happy with the feel this gave.

Alexey did the lion’s share of card design and all the card balancing. The most significant contribution from Three Donkeys was flavor direction and concepts for the specialties, as well as the general idea that we wanted more cards that cared about where on the board they were placed than existed in Astral Tournament.

One specialty in particular – the Insanians – were our attempt to make a more luck oriented specialty for players that like to “roll the dice”. I am not sure if Alexey likes the Insanians (I am sure he doesn’t hate them, or he wouldn’t have put them in), it is one example of where our design sensibilities differed. I tend to try to inject enough luck in games that – skill will win in the long run, but a given game can go any direction. Alexey is sensitive to the fact that this can frustrate players, if carried too far – and I certainly do err on that side from time to time.

Another, related, place where our design instincts differed was in how the cards were distributed to the players. Astral Tournament had a lot of restrictions to what was dealt to each player; there were guaranteed cards in several cost categories, cards that generated astral, cards that gained life, and so forth. The intent was to make each game fair and fun – players without any mass damage, for example, might have less fun or perceive the game as being less fair. My inclination was to get rid of as many of these restrictions as possible because they reduce the variety of possible deals. Also, every restriction that was added was something the veteran player would know about and use to defeat the beginner. It is one thing when a player uses a strategy to beat another player; it is another when fairly arcane knowledge is used.

Alexey humored us by trying out many very liberal reductions in deal restrictions. Many of his claims were borne out – for example – that a player really did need some cheap cards. Others I was less convinced of, but in the end I conceded to his superior knowledge of the system and many if not most of the old restrictions are in Spectromancer. The one change that I know we made – which I am particularly happy with – was the deal of a ‘wildcard’ in each astral type to each player. Formerly a player was guaranteed cards guaranteed of cost 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12 in the basic astral types. We changed that to a card guaranteed between 1-4, 5-8, 9-12 and one wildcard that could be any cost. This allowed many combinations of cards that couldn’t appear in the first system.

Solo Campaign and Story

The campaign was Three Donkey’s responsibility even though Alexey designed over half the scenarios. Skaff and I organized these, created most of the final structure – the 3 1/2 acts – and provided the remaining scenarios. The scenarios we provided Alexey balanced for us, we would often provide lopsided scenarios with the understanding that the Belarussian team would augment or reduce the opponent’s starting astral to make it work.

Giving exciting rewards while maintaining the integrity of the duels was a challenge. Some of the rewards were spells, of course, since those are exciting to receive and allow beginners to get accustom to a slowly growing pool of resources. However, even these weren’t straight forward – gaining spells increases your variance, and we were worried the advanced player would believe they were being punished rather than rewarded by gaining cards (and indeed they are from time to time). Eventually we decided to ignore the issue, since the campaign is still playable and fun even if you realize that a “reward” is not always good.

Many ideas for the story got tossed back and forth before we settled on the story we used. For my taste it is too serious and too wordy (though I am partially responsible for that), but there are some twists I like and amusing touches. I tend to like atmosphere in games rather than plot, and there are some atmospheric things I think work well – like the duel with Immelda the Beautiful being followed much later by a duel with Immelda the Scarred, the battle with Helga the Whale, the mysterious wizard named Clam, and the homage to Metropolis with Rotwang and the Helbot. I also liked the final battle against the council/council of liches which we managed to make feel somewhat like a real boss fight with limited mechanical changes.

Distribution Woes

Getting Spectromancer distributed was more of a challenge than we anticipated. Originally we were intending to put it up on the Gencon website, which we thought was a good place for it to live. Early on though it became clear that was not going to work, and then Hidden City – which publishes Bella Sara – was going to host it for us. Very close to the release of the game they pulled out to focus on Bella Sara. So then we were in the position of having a completed game and no one to host it.

We did have a growing number of websites that were interested in promoting and distributing it even if they didn’t host it and eventually we decided to host it ourselves (spectromancer) with Ivan administering from Belarus. Over time we got Penny Arcade’s Project Greenhouse, Paizo, Stardock, and Steam to sell the game for us.

The Future

Originally we planned to have frequent expansions and tournaments to promote them. The vision was a new wizards class or two and pack of scenarios every couple months. We also anticipated hosting a monthly “feature” arena which had special rules to mix up the game a bit – special rules like those a player encounters in the solo campaign. We have actually designed an expansion which should be playable reasonably soon, but the frequent expansions have, obviously, not happened. If over time we manage to grow our player base to a point it is warranted we will certainly do something like that.

Alexey and I have spent a bit of time talking about our next non-spectromancer project; we haven’t settled on anything yet. I am hopeful that we will find another project to work on, however. Spectromancer was a pleasure to work on after years of unfinished and cancelled projects with big companies and small companies with inconsistent vision. Ultimately our team didn’t have the resources to make Spectromancer the hit it ought to be (in my opinion), but I am proud of the game and enjoyed working on it.


8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I’ve played the Spectromancer demo and am really impressed, a sweet game that’s not too Magic-y! I’d buy the full version, but there’s this new MtG set coming out that I need to save up for… (look what you created! :P )

  2. Tyler,

    It is a game that I would play if I owned a PC. Do you know if anyone has ported it to a Mac or a way one could do that?

    Also, I really enjoy the blog and podcasts. If I had been able to go to PAX I would have said it in person.
    They have contributed greatly to my aspirations and knowledge.
    Thanks guys, keep it up!

  3. Isaac Romsdahl,

    I too, have always wanted to try Spectomancer, but unfortunately my current computers are 1) an outdated Mac and 2) An XBOX 360.

    This is 1 serious setback for digital games…they require you to have the appropriate hardware. Unless its written in java (go ecribbage.com!) you are always going to have potential customers turned away because they don’t have the right do-hickey to plug it into.

    Thankfully, I have never met a board game that has not been able to interface with my dining room table. Universal compatibility!

  4. FlipFlorey,

    I wasn’t too keen on checking out yet another game online, seeing as I suffer from the same thing most of us geeks suffer from. Too many hobbies and/or games!
    But after reading the article, and I am also a big fan of the podcasts, I think I will check it out. I don’t want all your hard work to go to waste.

  5. I personally felt in love with this game since the very first time I played the demo.
    It wasn’t only because of the (brilliant) game design. It was also because of the game mood.
    The visual style, the pacing and, of course, the music build the atmosphere that creates, I believe, a flow state.
    I set the campaign to the maximum difficulty level, but I finally managed to finish the game.
    I also tried to fight several ai wizards in order to get some of the achievements (by the way, much more difficult fighting against archimages). I think that both the campaign scenarios and the achievements explore many of the game dynamics and I found myself playing one time and another against the ai (we should try to recommend this game instead of the mine sweeper…)
    I also tried the PvP battles, but I usually prefer playing against friends.
    At the same time I purchased Spectromancer I was preordering World of Goo, Multiwinia and buying Braid. I don’t understand yet why I didn’t found more fans, press announcements or reviews about this incrediblely solid turn based strategy game.
    Hope you continue working together and bring us (in the future) more great games like this.

  6. Spectromancer is a great game. I would probably say it’s the best I have ever played, and I have played a lot of games. So yeah, good work.

    I don’t understand why it isn’t more of a success. I think it’s mostly a problem with the distribution, because people who like strategy games will like it if they give it a good try. It’s better and a lot cheaper than Magic Online. It’s faster than Settlers of Catan, and Battle of Wesnoth. It’s far superior to a lot of other quick strategy games that have received a lot of circulation, such as Castle Wars and Dice Wars. I have introduced the game to 4 friends, and all 4 of them now play it regularly.

    The only reason I know of the game, is because I read an old interview with you, and you mentioned that you like Astral Tournament and Quadradius (another good game.) This lead me to play Astral Tournament, and later Spectromancer. I have not seen anything about it apart from that. Maybe some more energy could be put into marketing? It somehow has to reach the crowd of people who like strategy games, and not just those who like collectible card games. A well written review on a major gaming site, or something.

    Also I think vital that some misconceptions are adressed. Reading around on various message boards, there are two major complaints. (1) There is no card selection, and (2) the game is very unbalanced. (1) is a strength in many ways, but many people seem to think that it’s just because the game is designed badly, by lazy people. (2) is directly wrong, but people don’t necessarily have a way to know that, and I can understand why they don’t want to play a game they think is unbalanced. I hear you are changing the free class from Holy, which might also help a lot in keeping new players.

    Anyway. I think there is massive unfulfilled potential in this game, and that it can be reached.

    Thanks for the kind words about Spectromancer! We have some plans for marketing and an expansion coming – so that may help. The marketing is a non-trivial issue, it is hard to draw attention to anything these days without big financial backing – so we were hoping to get as much as possible by word of mouth, which feels inadequate…

    I think you are right about people being turned off by the lack of deck construction. Unfortunately I think the many players who would appreciate that don’t give the game a second look because they assume it is there and those that come to the game enthusiastically also assume it is there and have a tendency to be disappointed by its absence. Well – our next project will probably have it and we will continue to try to enlighten people that there were many good games before deck construction even existed :-)

  7. Jay,

    Spectromancer is the first magic card game I really enjoy! I feel that not having deck construction is a good thing. The random deck makes a player use thinking skills and luck. It creates an interesting and surprising battle. I hope you continue to support and expand Spectromancer. I just bought the full version yesterday and plan to buy the expansion when you release it.

    I ask you not to cave to the people demanding deck construction for your next project. If you do add that “feature”, it might end up being just like MTG or Pokemon where everyone has the same l33t decks. How is that fun? Random deck and surprising battles will keep a card game from getting stale. Just look at random card games like Poker and Uno.

  8. Steve,

    Love the game Spectromancer.

    Ive played MTG for years and sunk $$$ into MTGO and i have to say i enjoy this more – much more – far more balanced than MTG (or at least what MTG has become). Unfortunately it is all…
    Luck of the Draw and
    He who has the most $$$ wins in MTG

    My Pro’s:
    - There is no mana drought or excess in this Yay!
    - It is still a fantasy combat card game.
    - No planeswalkers worth $90 a card – lol
    - Very balanced game play

    My Con’s:
    - Needs some more expansions (i am using the latest expansion) on a regular basis – say 1 or two factions/clans every 3 months.
    - Needs a greater player base.
    - Needs some sort of better online play and features like Urban Rivals integrated into it. Maybe as a style playformat of sorts.
    - Simulate a World Tour/Pro Tour sort of tournaments with AI
    - A “Run the Gauntlet” statistics format for play. Longest winning streak etc. Prizes, Unlocks

    Great game!

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