This is the second post in a series of design diaries about PostCurious' next game: a tarot-card-based narrative puzzle adventure created in collaboration with Cryptogram Puzzle Post. For a brief introduction to the project check out the first post in the series.
Disclaimer: These posts contain some (very slightly spoilery) details about the game--if you want to play it without knowing anything beforehand, it’s probably best not to read this!
A standard tarot deck contains 78 cards: 22 Major Arcana cards and 56 Minor Arcana cards, divided into four suits: Wands, Cups, Swords and Pentacles. The Minor Arcana cards are reminiscent of typical playing card suits, whereas the Major Arcana cards each have unique names and tend to hold a little more personality.
From the very first ideation stage I imagined keeping this structure and creating a puzzle for each of the Major Arcana cards, to be supported by cards from the Minor Arcana. With such a large deck and with all of the Minor Arcana cards being used for multiple puzzles, we had to create a system to make it clear which puzzles each card is used in. Thus, each Minor Arcana card contains indicators as to the puzzles it belongs to, and each Major Arcana card has indicators as to how many additional cards are needed to solve its puzzle.
This system is one of the first things discovered in the game, but with multiple elements meeting on each card, creating clarity between puzzle elements has been a challenge to tackle. One way this is addressed is by making sure the elements for each puzzle look distinct and cohesive, whether they are connected with color, style, or some other common feature. The other is by trying to spread out puzzle elements throughout different sets of cards, so that only one feature is shared by all the cards used in a puzzle.
For instance, Puzzle A might use 1-6 of Cups, and each of those cards is also used in other puzzles. 1-3 of Cups is used in a puzzle that features leaf shapes, and 4-6 of Cups is used in a puzzle that features animals. Since not all 6 cards have animals or leaves, it seems safe to assume that those are not the important elements for Puzzle A, and thus can be ignored for the time being. If all the cards featured animals, it would be easier to get confused and think that the animals are needed for Puzzle A, whereas the important elements might actually lie in the background, for example.
These are the basic steps to follow when solving a puzzle in the game:
Choose a card to solve and gather the other necessary cards.
Solve the puzzle to a keyword.
Find that keyword in the booklet index and read the associated piece of story.
Some puzzles allow you to unlock multiple pieces of story, and some may also grant you an item that will unlock an extra passage later, but the basic mechanics are quite simple as I wanted to keep “rules” to a minimum. Ideally, the mechanic would be understood by the time a player has reached the second puzzle, so that they wouldn’t need to keep referencing the How to Play section and take themselves out of the game.
Simply by the nature of being a card-based game, this project falls much closer to the EXIT and Unlock! brand puzzle games than my previous projects. Although The Tale of Ord and The Emerald Flame also included instructions, they were more like guidelines and information to help set expectations rather than a mechanic to be understood. The games themselves had letters included which led the charge of the actual gameplay, and one or two easier puzzles to create an entry point. Likewise, there had to be an entry point to the tarot deck, but before we even got there, the mechanic needed to be clear.
Originally, the story booklet started with the How to Play section, followed by a written introduction which led into the beginning of the game. However, after several playtests it became clear that having the introduction between the instructions and the beginning of the game didn’t work well at all. By the time players finished reading the introduction they had to go back to the instructions to refresh themselves on the next step. I wanted to smooth out the flow and eliminate this redundancy.
Starting with the introduction yielded more successful results, as players were invited to dig right into the story rather than starting out by reading rules without any context. Diving into the scene gave people the opportunity to get excited about what was to come, and when they hit the How to Play section they were more ready for the instructions. Then it was simply time to pick up the cards, figure out what’s what, and begin the game. This improved the flow significantly, but I probably would have never discovered the problem if I wasn’t observing the playtests.
After the rules comes the actual onramp. Since the player has immediate access to all the materials and there is no physical gating (such as locks or envelopes) I decided to make the first card into a tutorial of sorts. The Fool card acts as an introduction to the mechanic and contains a simple puzzle with an answer that brings with it a feeling of certainty once discovered. This is usually solved in 1-2 minutes. Then players look up the solution, read a little bit of story, and boom, they’re on their way! This brief onboarding has been an effective method of getting players started, especially with the rules more freshly in their minds.
What kind of structure or mechanic have you created for a game?
What sort of onramping have you found to be effective?
+++ Blog reader bonus: A peek at one of the cards-in-progress!
(Artwork by the fabulous Jack Fallows)