In a previous post I wrote about my love of the miniature dueling game Unmatched, published by Mondo and Restoration Games. Well, imagine my delight when I learned that Restoration Games was sponsoring a contest that asked fans to design an original hero and possibly win an opportunity to see that character published in an upcoming Unmatched set. I will admit that when my friend alerted me to this contest, I thought, “That’s cool,” but did not give it much further thought as I did not think I could come up with an interesting character much less design their accompanying deck. I play a lot of board games, sure, but creating one from scratch is a whole other thing entirely. Nonetheless, my mind continued to dwell on the contest, despite my initial doubt in my own abilities to develop a character. Then, while exercising one day (a great mindless activity that can serve to spur creativity), I started thinking about the character of Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick. Specifically, I recalled this line of dialogue: “To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” This got me musing about an Unmatched card titled “From Hell’s Heart” and what it could potentially do. That in turn got me thinking about how cool it would be to see a miniature of Ahab defiantly brandishing his huge harpoon. From there, the floodgates opened.
I mentioned all this to the friend who initially told me about the contest, and he agreed that Ahab would be a great character (mostly because he too wanted to see a miniature Ahab with a big harpoon). That small bit of encouragement inspired me to try to flesh out my idea. Thankfully, based on my initial research, I discovered that Ahab fit the contest criteria in that he is both a unique character and in the public domain (the novel was first published in 1851). I immediately thought that Queequeg would make a great sidekick, which led me to start developing cards specific to both characters. I decided to look at all the Unmatched characters accompanied by a single sidekick to try to get an idea of how their decks were made up. How many Attack, Defense, Versatile, and Scheme cards did each deck contain, and how many of those cards were specific to a certain character? For instance, King Arthur boasts Merlin as a sidekick, and their deck consists of the following cards: eight Attack cards, three Defense cards, 14 versatile cards, and five Scheme cards. Of those cards, nine are specific to Arthur while seven are specific to Merlin. The rest of the cards can be played by either character. After looking at all the characters with a single sidekick and getting a rough idea of the makeup of each deck, I started thinking about the types of cards that should be included in an Ahab/Queequeg deck. However, coming up with ideas on my own proved difficult, so I decided to set up a brainstorming session with my friend and my partner, both of whom expressed interest in designing and submitting their own characters.
During this brainstorming session, we turned to Wikipedia’s entry on Moby-Dick to look up a summary of the book’s plot. Of the three of us, only I had read it, but I did not remember all the important events of the novel. We soon discovered that our process mirrored that of the game’s creators, who, in a virtual panel (embedded below) recorded for GenCon 2020, admitted that they often developed characters for the game based on an idea for how they might look or a line from a book (or other text), and then build from there. Reading the synopsis of Moby-Dick helped me come up with ideas for other cards, such as “Queequeg’s Coffin” (based on an incident near the end of the novel) and “Rig Temporary Mast” (inspired by Ahab’s backstory, which is briefly recounted in the book). I took notes based on this reading of the summary, and soon found that I had more than enough ideas for cards that could be included in the deck. Now came the hard part of figuring out what those cards did and how to subsequently balance the deck so that the character was neither too powerful nor too week.
This proved most challenging, as none of us are game designers (though my partner and I have taught classes on games and game theory). The contest stated that the folks at restoration were looking for “originality in both theme and mechanics and a cohesive, well designed, playable deck.” We had the theme down, thanks to the summary of Moby-Dick, but still needed to figure out the “well designed” and “playable” parts. We then took some time to settle on which cards should be included in the deck and establish what they would do. For instance, I knew that I wanted the “From Hell’s Heart” card to be Ahab’s most powerful attack, while “Queequeg’s Coffin” would serve to heal a character. As we worked on this, I came up with the idea that most Ahab’s Attack cards should also do damage to the player, as this would reflect the character’s obsessive and self-destructive personality. That in turn helped us develop the powers for each card. For instance, a player could use Ahab’s health points to boost the base power of “From Hell’s Heart” (which I initially set at 5 but dropped to 1 after playtesting), though after combat the card would do an additional point of damage to Ahab. This would hopefully inspire the player to think carefully about using this ability, as an opponent could defend for a certain amount of points, leaving Ahab vulnerable after this attack.
During this brainstorming session, my partner also suggested I design a cowboy character due to my love of Westerns. I was thinking that as well, so I decided to put together a deck for Wyatt Earp, who would be accompanied by his sidekick, Doc Holliday. The development process remained much the same, but I drew most of my inspiration from this deck from the film Tombstone. For example, I included an “I’m Your Huckleberry” card exclusive to Doc Holliday and named one of Wyatt Earp’s attacks “Skin That Smokewagon” after one of my favorite lines in the film. Once we finished building our various decks (my friend designed decks for Santa Claus and grey aliens, while my partner created Cleopatra and Jane Austen decks), we used the unofficial Unmatched Maker website to design our cards. The site mimics the look of the official cards, and even lets users add artwork or develop simple print and play cards designed to save on ink.
A few days after our brainstorming session, we started playtesting our homebrewed decks. Ahab initially proved too powerful thanks to the “From Hell’s Heart” card, which allowed me to defeat an opponent in the first turn. This inspired me to change the card’s base value, but also to change the deck so that it only included one “From Hell’s Heart” card rather than three. This seemed to increase the negative feedback necessary to the enjoyment of all games while also helping balance the character somewhat. After a few playtesting sessions in which we worked out as many of the kinks as possible from each deck, we decided to submit our contest entries. Now comes the most difficult part…waiting to see if we won! I know that I am incredibly excited to find out if I can officially pit Ahab against Bruce Lee or Buffy the Vampire Slayer!