Zarcana to Gnostica

One Thursday evening at Wunderland, sometime in April of 2000, John Cooper came to Kory Heath, Kristin Matherly, and me and suggested changing some of the rules to Zarcana. Fear and disbelief quickly appeared on our faces, and I held up both hands to ward off the danger, saying, “whoa, John, Zarcana works. Why do you want to mess with it?” We had been playing and enjoying Zarcana for eight years, and in fact I learned to play it before learning to play Icehouse, the game for which the pyramids had originally been created. Most of my favorite times at Wunderland were playing Zarcana. We all felt that a game evening was rather unsatisfying if we didn’t get to play Zarcana at least once. Besides, the rules were already published.

“I just want to try a few things,” John suggested. We drew in deep breaths, hoping that he would abandon this absurdity once we proved that Zarcana needed no more work. We had to get back to playing Zendo and thinking about Zagami, Pantopia, RAMbots, and other games that still needed work. Besides, years of enjoyable play proved quite well that Zarcana was fun and replayable. Each game was different, as we always saw something new with every one of them. But John was the game designer, and we had to at least humor him.

“Let’s try this”, he meekly offered, “cups don’t grow, they only clone a new piece in the territory you are pointing at, so you can play them even when your piece is lying down. When you use a rod on a piece that is standing up, it gets bigger. I don’t want any restrictions on the wasteland, so you can use a cup or pentacle out there if you want. I also don’t want royalty to be wild from the hand anymore.” Ah. John didn’t just want to change the initial layout of the cards or something easy like that. He wanted to tear at the fabric of the game itself. We all activated our open minds as well as possible and played that game. It wasn’t too bad, actually.

Then we talked about the game we just played, about what worked and what didn’t work. I suggested that I really wanted swords to be a bit stronger, and that perhaps we could allow them to hit several targets, shrinking each one by a total number of pips that attacker had. That way a large piece could kill three small pieces or shrink two large pieces to one small and one medium. Kory finally admitted that he liked Zarcana on paper but that he just wasn’t getting into it nearly as much as he thought he would. Kory had moved across the country to play Zarcana, among other games, and was finding himself disappointed in it. Kristin was happy to try out different versions, being the most open minded and flexible of us all.

Slowly we found ourselves criticizing this game that we had enjoyed for so many years. We all hated how cups were so important, and that you would never start on a rod or sword on the board unless you had no choice. We didn’t like stopping to count points near the end. We didn’t like all the exceptions about the wasteland, royalty from the hand, cards that were useless on the board but great in the hand and cards that had the opposite problem. Then slowly we found ourselves offering ways of dealing with these problems.

After one evening of discussing the too-powerful cups, Kristin drove home and had an epiphany: pentacles needed the kick more than rods, so make pentacles grow and cups clone, so that both suits would be important. It made more sense that pentacles would grow both pieces and territory, just like swords would shrink both. Later Kory suggested that rods allow you to move one, two, or three spaces based on the size of the acting piece, not just one space, and end in any orientation once it reached its destination, not just stand upright. As I pushed to play my more powerful sword variant, I also suggested that to reorient all your pieces, you actually had to play a rod. All of a sudden you needed to hold a rod on the board, you wanted both pentacles and cups, and a sword was a dangerous neighbor. John had started a fire, and we began to question every single rule about the game.

By the summer, we put together our current rule set and took it with us to Origins, the yearly game convention that we enjoy so much. We taught several people how to play our new version of the game. Players who loved the old game were loath to try the new one, and even several who did felt that we had made bad decisions about our changes. Andy Plotkin enjoyed the slow building nature of the old game, and he didn’t like how aggressive it became. Lee Moyer felt that pentacles were already a powerful suit in the game, giving players a chance to come from behind, so making them grow pieces as well was just too much. Other people, some old players and some new, enjoyed aspects of our new game. Some people still play with the rule set we had offered there.

After Origins, we had a lot of good feedback and data. I felt that we were close to finishing the changes we made, but that it just needed to be played some more to be sure. But Kory kept pushing to reconsider fundamental parts of the game that he felt were inelegant. He wanted all the rules to be cohesive, and quickly became the man who would veto rule suggestions that broke previous patterns or didn’t create new ones. Sometimes he was quite frustrating, and it became clear that he would not let us once again claim the game was done just because it was fun to play.

John continued to harp on simplifying the rules. He wanted the game to be easier to teach, even though it had 22 major arcana cards that all broke the rules, and thus every new player needed to constantly refer to the Zarcana cheat sheet until they finally learned all the major arcana. John didn’t push as much as Kory did, but he felt just as strongly that the game should have less exceptions and make sense so that players could pick it up faster.

I worked hard at breaking every rule set we created. If there was a rule weakness that a player could exploit, I would exploit it. If there was a suit that was too powerful, I would use it. I fought for game balance, feeling that each suit should be powerful, each major arcana worth holding, and that whoever won the game was the person who had played best, not been luckiest. I was particularly stubborn when a suggestion would limit my options in game play.

Kristin was happy to try out all these variations, but was quick to let everyone know if the game was unsatisfying. To her, the fun of the game was the proof she needed. When a game wasn’t fun enough, she often found the compromise solution that met all our requirements. She pushed us to try out everyone’s rules, to see how they felt, and to inspire a better solution. Many of her suggestions became final rules, and those that did not usually led us in the right direction.

So we had Kory “Elegance” Heath, John “Simplicity” Cooper, Kristin “Fun” Matherly, and Jacob “Balanced” Davenport. Sure, a good game has all of these things, and sometimes a simple rule set is elegant by design and cannot help but be balanced or fun. But because we each concentrated on one particular part of the game, we could really press on a rule from every direction. Many times we were dissatisfied with our attempted games. John often seemed depressed at how we had mangled his game, making far more changes than he had imagined that we would. Sometimes Kory felt that elegance was just too elusive, and that he would have to settle for an ugly rule set. Kristin disliked many of our games, and I broke many of them. But we kept at it.

Kory made some suggestions that fixed elegance issues that also made the suits more balanced, as he was trying hard to make all four suits very similar. He presented the idea that every action had an acting piece and a target piece, and that all suits were done on the target. It followed from this that you could use a rod to push the target piece away from you. While I was strongly against this action at first, it gave rods a needed boost to make them usable for defense. We had already ditched requiring a rod for reorienting all pieces, so this made rods worth holding again. It also followed that cups should clone the target piece, not that the new piece would come in the target territory, so cups could no longer be used as movement, which I thought was a broken rule. Making the suits similar was something John wanted so that the game was simpler, and Kristin discovered that pushing players with rods was lots of fun and created new dynamics that we had not seen before.

We started playing on Tuesdays at my place and on some Saturdays at Kristin’s place and some Fridays at John’s place. We traded many e-mail messages back and forth about changes we wanted to make for the next game. John decided that the game was so different from the original that we had to give it a new name, and after much debate we settled on “Gnostica”, suggestive of the old religion gnosticism which was often associated with the tarot. Before we played any game of Gnostica, we sat and discussed what rule set we would play. Kristin suggested that we call this pre-game discussion a game of “Gnomica”, since it was much like Nomic. We would alternate playing Gnomica and Gnostica for hours, playing three or four different rule sets in an evening. It seemed that the only rule that stayed the same was that we could not play with the same rules twice. Often we came to a rule set that we really enjoyed, and someone would say, “We’re really close to finishing this game.” By winter we started saying, “this game is done.” Even John said a few times that he thought that all we needed was a little more play testing to confirm that the game was working how we all wanted it to work.

However, this was always a guarantee that we missed something. After finishing up a gaming night, claiming that we were done with creating Gnostica, Kory would go home with a nagging feeling about some aspect of the game. He kept at that nagging feeling until he could find the source, and would invariably suggest a major paradigm shift in the game to fix the problem he uncovered. By that time, we all knew how Kory felt about game elegance, and understood and often agreed with his complaints. We would offer suggestions that were still simple, fun, or balanced, often trying wild changes in the game mechanics to fix the problem. Some suggestions became the final rules, some were just weird variations that were ugly, difficult to explain, boring, or simply didn’t work.

Once we played that cups would split a target piece into equal pieces, rather than spawn, so a cup would change a large piece into a medium and small. Another time we played that any piece could kill any other piece with a sword. We played that you could reorient both the target player’s piece and the acting piece. We played without the ability to reorient a piece freely, so that you occasionally had to attack your own piece with a sword if you wanted to reorient it. We played that Judgment allowed you to discard to the draw pile and draw from the discard pile. We played that royalty would double the power of the suit and that major arcana would triple the power. We played that the Moon would switch two territories and all the pieces on them. We played on a fixed 5×5 board filled with face down cards, and to create more territory you just had to move to a face down card, which would get turned over. We played that if you attacked and killed a piece or territory, you could move into the space originally occupied by the target. The rules we suggested but didn’t play were much weirder still. But we had so much fun.

John really wanted to avoid any global actions. He wanted every action to be localized, and he wanted to get rid of the ability to reorient all your pieces at once. We were keen to make this happen, but we had a devil of a time finding a rule set that allowed enough orientation but not too much. Of course, whatever orientation rules we set on had to be simple, elegant, balanced, and fun. It was a big jump when we made sure that only one piece would be an acting piece every turn, rather than allowing cards like the Fool or Death be used by two different pieces. We later changed back to allow multiple acting pieces, but the idea of acting pieces was key. We alternated between allowing the target pieces to be oriented, allowing only your own target pieces to be oriented, allowing only your acting piece to be oriented, or other variations and combinations of those themes. Orientation issues were very subtle, and lots of thought and play testing were required to determine which one was actually better. Although each of us had favorite suggestions, and we felt strongly about them, we always approached Gnomica with a spirit of comradery.

We enjoyed playing Gnomica so much that we feared the actual end of redesigning Zarcana. Yes, we still had to get back to Zagami, Pantopia, and the rest, but we had no assurance that their redesign would be as much fun. By February of 2001, we had done enough work that an alpha deck was in order. I created stickers with one, two, or three circles on them, stuck them to an old Londa Tarot deck, and drew in action icons, coloring them appropriately. I was quite pleased with my deck, although I knew the eventual production run would be far more impressive and exciting.

A year after we started to redesign the game, we decided that there were too many plays that people would make that would break the rules without realizing it. Rather than cause unnecessary friction with the rules, we simply allowed those plays. Shortcuts that we were using became legal at all times, and breaking the rules unintentionally became very difficult. This became an important design goal in all our future games, to make rules hard to break.

We played for a long time with a rule set, but we found our games getting longer and longer. We tussled over the winning condition for months until we came to the final one, which we hope really is final. We made a few changes that really pulled together the four suits so that they were as elegant and cohesive as possible. Were we done? We are still scared to admit it.

Not only did we create a great game, we became great game engineers. After a year of work and thought about Gnostica, we all learned how to make any game more elegant, simple, balanced, and fun. Our communication with each other improved so much that we require very few words to discuss and debate complicated aspects of game mechanics. Every future game we touch will benefit from the time we spent on Gnostica. Now we cannot play a new game without discussing how to improve it.

Gnostica became Zarcana on speed. Gnostica is more aggressive, interactive, strategic, consistent, clean, exciting, and fun. We would never want to go back and play Zarcana anymore. In comparison, Zarcana was too stodgy, tactical, inconsistent, fiddly, random, and difficult. All of us contributed to the rule set, and all of us have reason to be proud of the result, especially John for having the initial creative spark which he would not let burn out.

Other documents:

Gnostica Rules
Gnostica frequently asked questions
Gnostica Strategies
Gnostica and Zarcana Differences