Behind the scenes with Prismata: a new strategy game that's here to challenge the status quo10 Dec 2018 0
You won't fall in love with Prismata in your first match. It seems to clean, too simple. You spend resources to build units, some of which generate damage and others which absorb it. At the end of each turn, the player taking damage assigns it to their units. That's pretty much it. First to clear the board wins. But like the classic abstract board games of old, this game is deceptive.
The original codename for the project was MCDS where the "C" stands for "Chess". Its simple rules hide a wealth of mathematical complexity. The "M" is for "Magic" and the "D" is for "Dominion". From these deck-building games, Prismata gets a wealth of different units and resources that you'll need to use efficiently. And the "S" is for "StarCraft" which seems to have inspired the game's building model.
According to Elyot Grant, the founder of Lunarch Studios who make the game, those games were the genesis of Prismata: "We became very frustrated with how a lot of Dominion games were decided because of randomness," he explained. "It was the seed that birthed the idea of creating the ultimate 'pure-skill' strategy game of perfect information and no randomness."
Like many digital games, Prismata started life on pen and paper:
"We came up with some ideas, designed some units on index cards, and played the first prototype in August 2010. We actually thought we would just solve for a winning strategy for one of the two players. So we were really surprised and delighted when we found that even in a version with only about 6 different units, there were a lot of different viable openings and sophisticated combat tactics."
Although Prismata clearly owes a debt to collectible card games, Grant is dismissive of that business model. "So many design concessions are made in acquiescence to the demands of the business model," he opined. "The endless piles of filler cards, the high impact of randomness to allow bad players to scapegoat their losses, the pay-to-win aspect and the unwillingness to fix problematic cards because of the need to maintain customers' confidence in their purchases."
This seemed an odd attitude toward a game with a codename derived from Magic, the parent of all collectible games:
"Originally, we had quite a few CCG mechanics in Prismata. We sort of bred them out during a lot of playtesting during those early years. We discovered that alternatives just made the game more fun. I don't think any game should make a player regret their decision to play it because they didn't realize how expensive it would be to have the experience they really wanted to have."
Removing collectible and random elements from the game does, however, make it very puzzle-like to play. Much of the strategy is in looking at the resources and units at your disposal and inventing the optimal model to generate and absorb damage. Given the number of units in the game - Grant says there are over 150 trillion possible combinations - that must make it very hard to balance.
Grant doesn't disagree. "I think this is the main reason why a Prismata-like game has never really been made before," he told me. "It took about 2.5 years of playtesting before we really thought the game was in a good position balance-wise. There were multiple viable openings in every situation and none of the units led to auto-wins for either player. We had to learn a lot of things about what kind of units we should absolutely never create."
But with as a multiplayer game with a growing community, it's a process that never stops. "We track the statistics of every unit in the game and listen very closely to our community for feedback," Grant enthused. And he's adamant that the upfront nature of the game helps this process. "Because our game is non-collectible, we can issue balance patches without worrying that we're nerfing our players' favourite decks," he said. "Or destroying their faith in the game's business model."
Another issue with puzzle-like games is that they can become stale very fast. But Grant insists that the head to head nature of Prismata helps it avoid this trap. "Your opening choices are strongly dictated by what your opponent chooses to do," he explained. "The decision of whether to rush out damage, or go high econ, or tech to a specific unit quickly. It's tremendously deep and intertwined with what your opponent is pursuing."
That's marketing hyperbole, to a degree, of course. But after spending time with the game it certainly doesn't feel like a flat puzzle. It's rich and satisfying and very difficult to play well. But after getting beaten over and over by some of the game's veterans, I began to wonder if it might actually be too rich and deep for more casual players. There seemed to be quite a lot of maths in trying to work out the optimal moves.
Grant was quick to explain that this, again, is deceptive. "The amount of calculation involved is actually far less than most other CCGs," he told me. "It's not a game like chess where you're thinking 5-10 moves ahead. You can become a master-tier player just by thinking 1 turn ahead and getting very good at what the Prismata community calls set-reading. That's the process of looking at the available units and deducing which strategies will beat which other strategies."
Over the longer term, it's possible that the game's pool of variety and statistics could grow thin. But that cuts both ways: perhaps it's the price players pay for a non-collectible strategy game. It's certainly a bold experiment to try and move away from that much-hated model. "There's a fundamental ethical problem with this business model," Grant said. "The user acquisition processes rely strongly on player ignorance of the "true cost" of experiencing the game. If they knew this on day one, many of them would have chosen to spend their time with a different game." If that sounds like you, perhaps Prismata is the title you've been waiting for.