Gregor Smith - Game Designer

Schemes: The Last Card

I was the Game Director on Schemes: The Last Card' alongside a team of 12, 3 designers, 4 artists and 5 sound designers. Schemes is a card game with a unique bluffing element and a humorous anime theme. Players select a series of 5 cards without knowing what cards their opponent has picked. Then their choices play out against one another complete with dialogue, music, and visual effects. The trick is to anticipate what your opponent will be playing and counter it as best you can!

Gameplay Design

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The root idea behind Schemes gameplay came from the genre-mashup of stealth and card game. This hooked us to the idea of a game where two players are playing a card game but do not know what their opponent is doing. While the idea of hidden information exists in most card games we aimed to make it the key component of Schemes.

Extrapolating from the idea of a stealth card game we decided that players would decide what cards they were playing without their opponent knowing. Then at a certain point the game would play out with each players cards facing against one another. Like most card games the players would have a choice of what cards to play on each of their turns, the twist was that they didn’t know what their opponent was playing until they had locked in a certain number of their turns. We decided that 5 was a simple and satisfactory number, thus both players would select what card they were going to play on each of their 5 turns, then their stack of planned card (which we called a Scheme) would play out against one another as if they had played those cards simultaneously.

The question then might be what is the experiential benefit of waiting 5 turns? Aren’t you just removing the interaction between players?

This was a difficult question to answer. We struggled to come up with an alternative to the ‘Create your scheme -> Watch your scheme play out’ system so instead tried to make it so that the latter half of that section, the one without interaction, was enough of a spectacle that it didn’t matter. I don’t know if this was a great idea, but in the end Schemes was an experiment that we doubled down on. By this point the theme of the game was beyond the actual gameplay. Players could select characters with a deck of unique cards. Those characters had voices, art, personalities, and their own signature ability they could play on any of their turns. We felt, and hoped, that watching these characters interact in a ‘duel’ would be entertaining enough to make the game fun.

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For the cards themselves we decided to go with two fairly simple systems that we were confident worked. First off, a simple life system. Cards would deal damage and at the end of the match the player who had taken the least damage won. Secondly we gave cards a simple rock-paper-scissors type system. Attacks, Defenders, and Spells. How they countered each other came from a chronological idea of how they resolved.

Defenders would go first, so as to block Attacks, however Spells didn’t care about defenders (i.e. the magic just goes around the defender).

Attacks would resolve second so as to hit the player before they cast their spell (i.e. breaking their concentration so that can’t complete the spell).

Spells would resolve last, allowing them to be countered by an attack.

This order of resolution was not ideal for how the ‘Reveal’ phase was meant to feel, however.

In order to make the playback phase entertaining we needed the cards to be revealed in a certain order. If we revealed the winner’s card first the second half of that reveal wouldn’t be as exciting. However, if we revealed it with the loser’s card first then both sections of the reveal were interesting.

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“I play this powerful card!”

“Oh, damn my card does nothing against that.”

isn’t as fun as

“I play this powerful card!”

“HAHA! I countered that!”

With that we had the basics of a game. At this point the game is essentially writing rock/paper/scissors on a bit of paper 5 times then comparing with another persons piece of paper. You can’t change what your next choice will be based on what your opponent played last time. To try to alleviate some of this issue we also made the game a best-of-three. Thus the choices a player made last round can influence what you do in the next.

A big concern I had was that players would pick cards randomly, especially for the first round, as they had nothing to base their decisions on. I compared it to the experience of playing a game of Magic: The Gathering with someone but not knowing what kind of deck they are playing. Your only option is to do the things your deck does to the best of their ability but you cannot adapt or plan for their strategy until you get some indication of what they’re playing. A fairly brute-force attempt to fix this was made by simply allowing your opponent to see all of the cards in their opponents deck. So while they do not know what cards they drew into their hand and do not know what cards they’re playing, they do know what all of their options were. At this point we had settled on decks consisting of 5 cards so that was 5 options that a player had to take into account. We went forward with this as the majority of the team felt it was satisfactory.

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Card Design

With this set up we got to begin the designing of individual cards! This was, ideally, where the game would stop being rock-paper-scissors and become something more interesting (No offense to rock-paper-scissors).

We came up with a view simple variants to Attacks and Defenders that could be common across all the decks.

Damage over Time Attacks are fairly self explanatory. After the initial hit the target would take additional damage for a number of turns after. This was interesting as it was a card you wanted to play early (Otherwise you would miss out on damage if one of the DoT triggers occurred after all 5 cards had been revealed.

Piercing Attacks would ignore defenders but had to have lower damage generally to mitigate how effective this was. The most interesting Piercing Attack we developed was called ‘Dark Lance’ and caused above average damage while also piercing, but took up two slots in the player’s scheme. Essentially meaning they skip a turn. So a Dark Lance could be very effective but had to total more damage than the opponent was going to do to you in two turns, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. Interestingly it was also very beneficial to play a Dark Lance as your last card in your Scheme, as the skipping a turn clause was irrelevant in that case.

Pain Attacks would be the highest damage attacks but also cause damage to the user.

Persist Defenders would stick around for more than one turn, blocking damage on all the turns they were around.

Each character had a theme with their deck that was most encapsulated in their Signature Spell, which they always had as an option to play.

The Protagonist character, Hiro, was all about justice and excitement. A lot of his cards were flavored as paladin-like, with his two defenders encapsulating this most succinctly.
Radiant Paladin (Defender) - 4 Defense. Negates any damage from spells (They still have an effect).
Hero of the Realm (Defender) - 2 Defense. Persists for 3 turns.
His only spell was set up to prepare him for an attack, setting him up as a character who is on the defensive and only attacks when he’s ready.
Seal of Light (Spell) - 1 Damage. Next turn, your attack is unblockable.
Sword of Justice (Attack) - 5 Damage.
His signature spell riffed on the idea of an incredibly lucky protagonist always getting the right tool for he moment.
Destiny Device (Sig) - Select any card and play it in this card’s place.
This ensured that Hiro was almost guarenteed at least one perfect play in his Scheme. It was also one of the first cards we designed that allowed the player to interact during the Reveal Phase.

The Villain character, Vincent, was incredibly aggresive and so his deck was mostly about damage.
Entropic Strike (Attack) - 2 damage this turn, 2 damage next turn.
Dark Lance (Attack) - 5 Damage. Piercing. Skip your next turn.

His spell, then, simply amped the effectiveness of his attacks.
Demonic Decay - 1 Damage. Your next attack deals double damage.
Finally his defender was a fairly straight forward but effective card.
Death Blackguard (Defender) - 5 Defense.
His signature spell acted as a trump card to whatever your opponent played and set them back if they were on the defensive.
Purgatory of Shadow (Sig) - Destroy all enemy defenders, and negate all damage you take this turn.
As a defensive strategy was one of the best option against Vincent, this card acted as a way for him to counter that. In case the opponent had played an attacker this turn, it also negated that damage so that playing this card was always effective.

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KiraKira, was a pop idol character who was centered around the idea of collecting a legion of fans. Thus she had mostly defenders with persist and cards that cared about defenders.
Guard Pup (Defender) - 4 Defense. Persist for 2 turns.
Adoring Kitty (Defender) - 2 Defense. Persist for 2 turns, enemy defenders have -2 Defense.

Her Spell buffed her defenders.
Strong Song (Spell) - 1 Damage. Your defenders have +2 for the rest of the round.
And her Attack was based on how many defenders she had.
Sic ‘Em (Attack) - X Damage where X is the total Defense of your defenders.
Her Signature Spell mostly reinforced this idea by taking control of any defenders the opponent had, either in play with persist or played at an early point in the round.
Sugar Sonata (Sig) - Take control of all defenders your opponent has in play, make a defender card with defense equal to the total Defense of their defenders. It persists for the rest of the round.
For funtionality reasons we made all of their defenders into one card, rather than have all defenders in play at once.

Our rough, and rowdy sidekick character, Dustin, had pain cards to reflect his all-out personality and lack of self-restraint.
Volcanic Charge (Attack) - 7 Damage. Take 2 damage.
Titan Kick (Attack) - 4 Damage.

His spell was a twist on the pain mechanic.
Vulcan Laserblast (Spell) - 5 Damage, take 2 if this spell is interrupted by an Attacker.
His defender was a straight forward, effective card.
Mecha Dino (Defender) - 5 Def.
To ultimately capture Dustin’s lack of self-concern we made his signature spell risky to play.
Full Throttle (Sig) - Double all damage for the rest of the round.
The card was as likely to hurt Dustin as his opponent, but ideally Dustin’s cards would cause more damage so it would still be worth it.

There was a particularly effective strategy with Dustin to play defenders as the first 2 cards in the Scheme, then Full Throttle, then 2 attackers. Meaning any early damage was reduced and then 2 double power Volcanic Charge’s or Titan Kick’s to push Dustin into the lead.

Often Dustin players would only barely win, which felt pretty flavorful to the team.

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Our calm and collected teacher character, Howard, had cards that rewarded patience. His attack did more damage the later in the scheme it was and all his other cards either negated something of the opponents or buffed his attack.
Calculated Shot (Attack) - 2 + turn number Damage.
Visionary Monk (Defender) - 3 Defense. Next turn your spells can’t be interrupted.
Scry Weakness (Spell) - 0 Damage, your attacks are unblockable for the rest of the round
Blinding Beam (Spell) - 3 Damage, interrupts enemy spells.

Though Scry Weakness may seem powerful as it’s effect lasts for the whole round, in practice it was not as powerful as we thought, particularly as Howard had so few attacks. Those attacks were also not particularly powerful early on in the match.
Howard’s Signature was a tweak on Hiro’s as in the narrative he had trained Hiro to play.
All According to Plan (Sig) - Look at the next card your opponent has in their scheme, rearrange the remaining cards in your scheme.
This allowed Howard players to read an opponents strategy in their first few cards and then attempt to combat it by swapping what cards they have set up. This also worked very well with the attack as you could delay it to go off later if he thought that would be more effective.

Finally, our wacky mascot character, Felty, is all about chaos. His attack was fairly straight forward, and bear themed as Felty was an animated Teddy Bear.
Mega Maul (Attack) - 5 Damage.
His Defender was unique in that it also wanted to attack.
Grizzled Veteran (Defender) - 3 Defense. Deals 3 damage if the opponent has no defenders.

His Spells were where it got very confusing. We wanted his cards to disrupt the opponent’s strategy.
Lose Bearings (Spell) - 1 Damage. Reverse the order of your opponent’s remaining cards.
Pandamonium (Spell) - 1 Damage, switch all card types for the rest of the round.
His Signature Spell was a fairly straight forward disruption move, akin to a counter-spell.
Bearer of Bad News (Sig) - Replace a random card in your opponent’s stack with a dud card (The dud does nothing).
Interestingly there was a bit of strategy to how Bearer of Bad News was played. Playing it early meant there were 4 cards it could potentially nullify, whereas playing as the 4 card in a Scheme meant the last card in the opponent’s Scheme was guaranteed to be nullified.

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Schemes is a great example of a passion project. I’ve heard and believe that you can tell an idea is great by how many people it inspires to come up with other ideas. Schemes did exactly that. Within a short span of time our team went from 4 people to 12 because of how excited everyone was about the project.

I know Schemes is an anomaly in my portfolio and not the sort of project that many people will look at and care for but it was my final student project and one that the entire team was extremely passionate about. As the Game Director I felt honored to be a part of this team and direct peoples passion.