Designing Yomi

Yomi is a fighting game in card form. It's a tabletop game, an online game, and it's on iOS too.

My original inspiration for creating Yomi was my extensive experience as a tournament fighting game player. I like the interesting situations and dynamics that come up in fighting games like Street Fighter, and I like the idea of having lots of characters and lots of matchups that play differently. I wanted to capture the essence of that for people who don't have the dexterity to play fighting games. (And as an alternative game for those who do!)

I also wanted to create an efficient game. A good strategy game that could be played at a tournament level, yet at the same time as simple as it can be and with as few components as possible. That meant focusing on just what I needed to make the game work, and removing everything else that I could. For example, it would have been natural to give each character at least 15 different abilities, but I chose to limit it to just 3 or 4 per character. I could have used more components than just a deck of cards, but I limited the design to just one deck per character with no other pieces.

And yet, I also needed the game to be such an excellent strategy game that experts could play it thousands of times at the tournament level and not get tired of it. I'll explain what went into making such a game.

Rock, Paper, Scissors: Everything Has A Counter

Yomi uses a core mechanism of rock, paper, scissors to resolve each combat. You might be thinking that rock, paper, scissors is shallow and so it means a game that uses it wouldn't be interesting, but that's not a fair statement. Just about every competitive game has a form of rock, paper, scissors in it. All that means is that things beat each other and everything has a counter. The alternative would be...some things don't have a counter? That would be a problem.

In Starcraft, individual units counter each other in a rock, paper, scissors-like way. Also, various strategies such as early rush, heavy econ, and moderate builds counter each other in that same way. In a first-person shooter such as Halo, rifle (rock), grenade (paper), melee (scissors) counter each other. In a fighting game such as Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter, attack (rock), block (paper), and throw (scissors) have a similar relationship. That's exactly what I used as the basis of Yomi. I also added dodge as an option similar to block, but with different payoffs.

One reason you might have the connotation that rock, paper, scissors is bad is that if you literally play a game of rock, paper, scissors, you have very little to go on when you decide which move to use. Every option is functionally the same. You can look for patterns your opponent might unconsciously fall into, but that's all you have to work with. In competitive games like StarCraft, Halo, Street Fighter, and Yomi, you have tons of information to work with though. There's a lot of tells, there's a lot of reasons an opponent might choose one option over another in a certain situation, and there's a lot of nuance.

Using this core mechanism really just means that we know each basic type of move has some counter and that we can communicate to the player an easy way to resolve combat. If we had 20 types of moves that require looking up a chart to know what beats what, it would no longer be easy to understand and it wouldn't necessarily add any strategy anyway.

Double Blind

Play your combat card face down, at the same time as your opponent.

 Your card

Your card

 Opponent's card

Opponent's card

A double blind decision is one where you decide something at the same time as another player. Neither of you know what the other will do until you're both committed. Double blind decisions are a very useful tool in fighting against solvability in games. Games with perfect information and no randomness inevitably degenerate into more and more memorization until they eventually become 100% memorization once they're completely solved. They "break" more easily and sooner than games with some hidden information, randomness, or something to break up the rigidity.

Reveal Simultaneously
(attack beats throw)

Double blind decisions are generally a good idea in a competitive strategy game for those reasons, but that's not the only reason to include them in Yomi. It's also very fitting for the fighting game theme. You might think that fighting games have perfect information because both players can see the same screen at all times and there's nothing hidden. You always know exactly which options and resources your opponent has and they know the same about you.

Fighting games are actually double blind though because of the speed of the gameplay. At the moment when you do a move, you usually do not know what the opponent is doing exactly. Human perception is only so fast, so you’re acting on information that’s a few sixtieths of a second old (fighting games are measured in frames, which are sixtieths of a second). At the exact moment you jump, you do not know if the opponent threw a fireball or not unless they threw it several frames ago. Some of your moves are made on reaction, but many of your moves are essentially made in a double-blind situation.

Rock, paper, scissors is inherently double-blind, so that's a good fit here. But we really need to add something to make this all actually interesting. You need more to go on to have reasons to do one option over another and to have some basis of predicting how your opponent will act.

Unequal And Unclear Payoffs

The first step to making a rock, paper, scissors mechanic interesting is to have way different payoffs for winning with each option. For example, if winning with rock gives you $10, winning with scissors gives you $3, and winning with paper gives you $1, there's a least a little more to it. Your personality (or your opponent's personality) is more likely to be a factor. There's also risk management to consider. Imagine if you play a series of rock, paper, scissors with those payoffs and that you'll lose when you drop to $0. Now imagine how you'd play if you only had $10 left. If you lose to the opponent's rock, it's worse than just losing $10: you also lose the entire game. So now you have to adjust how you play to protect even more against the possibility than you usually do. But you can't just play scissors 0% of the time there either; that's predictable and exploitable.

It's a lot better if the payoffs for each option are unclear. In the example above, it's trivially easy to know how much better the payoff is for rock than paper: it's exactly 10 times better. To make it a lot more interesting, the payoffs should be extremely difficult to compare or even to compute in the first place.

You'll need to use a skill called valuation: the ability to judge the relative value of pieces and how they change over time. The ability to make on-the-fly judgments about what things are really worth is an interesting skill to test in many competitive games. Ideally these judgments are so complicated that you must use your intuition to solve them and knowing the exact answer is virtually impossible. The alternative would be that you pre-compute everything and rely on memorization. Using intuition is just more fun though. Also, the harder it is for people to ever compute exact answers to what various moves are worth, the better job we're doing as designers to prevent or delay our game from being solved.

The Yomi: Fighting Card Game System

Now we need a system that is so complicated that its exact paper-rock-scissors payoffs can’t even be calculated, and yet so simple that anyone could play it. Here's how that's possible.

Each player has a deck that represents their character. These are fixed (non-customizable) decks with 52 poker-type cards, 2 jokers, and one character card. These decks use standard playing card notation and they have extra information on them for the Yomi game. The numbered cards represent normal attacks, the face cards are special attacks, the aces are super attacks, and the jokers can rewind time to undo a combo that would hit you.

Established Conventions Convey Information Quickly

I deliberately used the conventions of a poker deck in order to instantly convey a lot of information to the player. When you see a queen that is a Dragon Punch card, you know right away that that there are three more of them in your deck. You also immediately know how likely you are to draw a super move (there are four aces in your deck). You probably also have at least some intuition about how often pairs and straights come up if you’ve played any other cards games at all.

There's a lot of patterns in Yomi decks that help you learn the contents of your deck very quickly. Your 2 attack does 2 damage, your 3 attack does 3 damage, your 4 attack does 4 damage, etc. There's also a speed stat. For several characters, their 2 is speed 2.6, their 3 is speed 3.6, their 4 is speed 4.6, etc. The .6 part is consistent across all their normal attacks. A different character might have the same pattern, but .4 instead of .6.

Because I need to convey so much information and make it seem natural, it was very useful to piggyback onto a structure everyone already knows—two of them, actually. Yomi contains Street Fighter-like moves/characters as one bundle of information that a lot of people are familiar with as well as the playing card structure that almost everyone is familiar with.

Two Options Per Card is Efficient

It's comfortable to hold a hand of 7 cards, and to maybe go up to 12. Sometimes you'll be down to very few cards though, like 3 or 4. How can we make sure you have access to enough moves at any given time with that number of cards? Yomi cards usually have different options on the top and bottom. For example, Grave has 24 block cards in his deck, which is 44% of his 54 card deck. That's really high and ensures you'll have blocks when you need them. But every one of those blocks can also do something else: either attack, throw, or dodge. Having two options on most cards is an efficient way for us to give you access to enough moves.

Double-blind Combat

Each combat, you play one face down card at the same time as your opponent. The side of the card closest to your opponent is the option you chose (if your card had two options). I already covered why double-blind combat matches the flavor of fighting games and why it helps prevent the game from being too solvable.

Combos

Combos are a big part of fighting games, and they're a big part of Yomi too. Yomi has a combo system where normal attacks chain to each other in increasing sequential order, such as a 2, 3, and 4. Normal attacks can also generally combo into special and super attacks. That's governed by each move's combo type: starter, ender, linker, and can't combo. A starter has to be at the start of a combo—you can't use it if you already started your combo with something else. And ender will end your combo, not allowing you to play any more hits. A linker is very versatile, allowing you to combo into it and combo after it. A can't combo move is basically a starter and and an ender: it has to be the first hit of your combo and it's also the last.

Finally, each character also has a certain number of combo points. Each move says how many combo points it has (each move also says exactly what it combos into, by the way). Combo points limit how big your combo can be. Some characters can do big combos while others can't.

The combo system is fun and flavorful. It gives you a goal as a player to build up to a big combo. It also creates a lot of hand management decisions so there's a lot of skill involved here. Should you use a dragon punch move in a combo or should you use it as your combat card? Should you do a full combo now to maximize your damage, or a smaller combo that lets you keep more cards in hand? The right answer depends on a whole lot of factors.

Powering Up

The power up mechanic also adds difficult decisions to the game. At the end of each turn, you have the option of discarding pairs, three-of-a-kinds, or four-of-a-kinds to search your deck or discard pile for either one, two, or three aces respectively. Is it worth it to break up a pair of fives to use one in a chain combo instead of trading in the pair for an ace? The answer is unclear and depends on a lot of things about the current situation.

Attack, Throw, Dodge, and Block Have Unequal Payoffs

1) Attack

Usually, the best way to deal damage is to win with an attack. (If you both attack at the same time, the faster one wins). When you win with an attack, you can then perform a combo by playing more cards from your hand.

2) Throw

Winning with a throw is very similar to winning with an attack, except that your resulting combo is usually not as good because of the way the stats on the throws are designed. Also, throwing a blocking opponent is the only way to get rid of their block cards.

3) Dodge

Winning with a dodge lets you avoid an incoming attack completely, and then lets you hit back with any single attack. You can’t do combos though, so do your strongest attack, hopefully a super.

4) Block

Winning with a block lets you return your block card to your hand and draw an additional card. This is your best way to build up more cards in your hand.

Unclear Payoffs

As I explained earlier, the payoffs are unclear. How good is drawing an extra card when you block an attack? It depends how many cards you have and somewhat on how many cards the opponent has. It depends on which character you are too, and what your life totals are, and a lot more. How good is winning with an attack? It depends on how big of a combo you can do. How bad is it if you try to throw but get hit by an attack? It depends on what kind of combo your opponent has built up, and you only have indirect information about that. Would it be twice as bad to get hit by their combo compared to letting them draw a card? Three times? One half times?

Players Naturally Develop a Pattern

Even though the payoffs are unclear, a definite pattern develops in how people tend to play. This exactly the property we want because it sets up the mind-games perfectly. If you are low on cards, I know you want to block to draw more, and you know I know. If I just traded in several pairs for aces, you know I’m itching to dodge so I can hit back with a super attack, and I know you know. Will you follow “the script” and do the obvious thing? Or will you go to the next Yomi layer and do the counter to the obvious thing? Or to the Yomi layer after that and counter the counter? These types of mind-games occur in just about every worthwhile competitive game, and the Yomi card game lets you practice these situations and practice reading opponents.

In case you think you can "just play optimally" and ignore what the opponent is doing, please read this article on solvability in games. It explains exactly why high level Yomi play always involves reading the opponent, even if both players are extremely good. Especially if both players are extremely good.

Special Abilities Make Payoffs More Unclear

There are more nuances. Each character has a special ability on thier character card as well as two more special abilities that appears in the deck. For example, Jaina's character ability lets her pay 3 life (starting life: 85) to return most kinds of attacks she played that turn to her hand. This is yet another valuation test, constantly asking you how much you think each card is worth. Also, Jaina's Unstable Power ability lets her gamble with an increased chance to win combat and a great payoff if she does, but she'll get burned if she doesn't.

 
 

These abilities make computing the exact payoffs even more difficult because they manipulate so many different kinds of things about the game. Some improve the quality of cards in your hand, others make the opponent discard, others increase the speed of your attacks, others let you teleport out of a bad guess, and so on.

I could have put special abilities on every card, but I don’t want the game to be overwhelming. Even with just one ability on your character card and two or three others in your deck, there is enough going on to make it very unclear what the smartest thing to do at any given time is, while keeping the game easy to play.

20 Characters

It's challenging to balance different characters such that they're all fair against each other, but it adds so much when it's done right. Players can identify with a certain character because they like that character's personality, the way they look, the playstyle they offer, or a combination of those things. Having characters that all play differently also creates a many different possible matchups, each with their own dynamics to explore. 

The first version of Yomi had 10 characters, which creates 55 different matchups in the 1v1 mode. There's currently 20 characters, which creates 210 matchups. How to balance all that is the beyond the scope of this article, but you can read about it here.

Conclusion

Yomi simulates a fighting game by having you decide your move in a double-blind fashion with your opponent. It has unclear and unequal payoffs so it's very hard to compute perfect play, and it rewards your on-the-fly skills at valuation (knowing the true value of various cards as the game progresses) and yomi (reading the opponent's tendencies). It also lets you do fun combos.

Because Yomi is so boiled down to the essentials, I think it’s an interesting way to learn about valuation and yomi (as in reading others, pattern recognition). I think these are the two fundamental skills of competitive games, so I hope that whatever you learn from playing Yomi will help you in all your competitive gaming exploits adventures.

Yomi has been played online and in person for many years and in many tournaments. It ended up being all that I hoped for. It remains a great strategy game at the highest level of play. If you're interested in how well balanced it is, check out this article about the game's balance.

You can play it in tabletop form, online, or on iOS.

Game Balance and Yomi

I'll tell you two myths about game balance, then about how to measure balance with tier lists and matchup charts, and then about the long process of balancing Yomi over the years.

 

Game Balance Myth 1: If it's too well balanced, it's boring.

 

I understand where this one comes from. Game balance is really hard, so if you had a cast of characters (or RTS races, or card decks, or whatever) and some of them were too good vs other ones, what should you do? The easiest thing is to smooth out anything that's too different from everything else. Make things more and more homogeneous until it's fair. Yeah that's one approach, but it makes things boring because you're losing out on the fun asymmetry is supposed to offer. The harder way is to try to preserve as much asymmetry as possible AND to make it fair. When we do things the hard way, the good way, it doesn't make things boring. Furthermore, balanced just means the matchups are fair. It doesn't say anything about the dynamics of how interesting the game is. A balanced game could be boring or interesting and if you had a really interesting game, it's better if it's balanced well than if it isn't.

 

Game Balance Myth 2: Sirlin only cares about balance.

 

From the outside, I can see why someone would think that because I work on games that require a lot of balance work. But the testers who work with me would laugh at this. I'm the one always pushing back on balance changes because other things are more important: good flavor (mechanics expressing the right personality), good dynamics, and elegance. I want fewer words, fewer elements, things to be as simple as we can get away with, and for characters to feel right. If you allow balance to rank higher than those things, you get a terrible feeling game. You get stuff like the huge guy made of rock having fewer hit points than the young ninja girl. If you make only balance changes that respect all the constraints I mentioned, it's hard work but you can still have a balanced game.

Measuring Balance

At first, I think it's best to get tier lists from testers. That where they put all the characters in a few tiers (groups) to say which characters are all pretty much tied for strongest, which are tied for next strongest, etc. The goal isn't to eliminate tiers, because even you had a 100.00% perfectly magically balanced game, testers would still say there are tiers because of their imperfect perceptions, and that's fine. Tiers help you get a sense of what's going on with balance though.

A helpful format is:

God Tier (S rank). Any character here is brokenly good, above the maximum level that should be allowed, and obsoletes the other characters.
Top Tier (A rank). The group of strongest characters. Being here doesn't mean there's any problem.
Mid Tier (B rank). These characters are noticeably weaker than the top tier, but still very useable.
Bottom Tier (C rank). These characters are noticeably weaker than the mid tier. They are still useable.
Garbage Tier (F rank). Any character here is too weak to bother with. Something really went wrong and they need a boost to become a real part of the game again.

Players are going to disagree and argue, but there will also be some low-hanging fruit here. Even if everyone is arguing about whether CharacterX is high or mid, they might pretty much all agree that CharacterY is garbage or CharacterZ is God tier. The first thing to fix here is to nerf anything in God tier (since even a single thing there ruins the game). The next thing is to buff anything in garbage tier. After that, try to compress the tiers so that being a tier below only means you're barely worse, not like hugely worse.

Matchup Charts

The next level of zooming in on balance is a matchup chart. (I think many asymmetric games don't even do this part?) That's where you create a grid of every character vs every character and then give a rating to how difficult the matchup is. The notation is stuff like 6-4 or 7-3 which means if two experts played 10 games, we expect the expert using CharacterA to win 6 (and opponent using CharacterX wins 4), for example.

It's actually best not to use numerical data to determine these numbers. Yes, really. It's faster and more accurate to get to the bottom of things by relying on expert opinions, and then having those experts argue and then play each other to sort out disagreements. Think of matchup chart numbers as a kind of shorthand for this:

10-0. Not possible to lose when you play how you should, which you can always do.
9-1. Horrifically bad matchup. Impossible to lose unless something very unlucky happens.
8-2. Really hard for the other player. Multiple "miracles" required each game for the disadvantaged player to win.
7-3. Very hard for the other player. Clear disadvantage for them, but they can still win.
6-4. Somewhat advantage for you. Pretty close overall.
5.5-4.5. Very close match, but you can slightly detect an advantage.
5-5. No advantage to either character.

I want to emphasize just how important it is to get expert opinions on this, rather than adding up numbers from matches. Experts can get a good sense of what's going on in a match much, much sooner than data will reflect. I mean like months or years sooner, even. Imagine two experts played a certain matchup 20 times and the more they played, the more unfair it got. In our example, there is a certain way of playing that the other character just can't deal with and both players are coming to realize that truth more and more. It's entirely possible that they (correctly!) declare it an 8-2 matchup even though their results are no where near that bad. Lots of their games were played before they fully understood what's going on. And if we lump in the data from anyone other than experts, it's likely to be worse than ignoring it because they probably aren't playing the match well enough.

With 20 characters, that's 210 matchups (190 non-mirror matchups) so if every non-mirror matchup was played 20 times, that's 3,800 games. Wow is that a lot to even do a first pass with the numerical method. And you get extremely bad data if you do. Let's say a matchup is really 5-5 and you're lucky enough to have found two expert players of those characters with about equal skill. The chance that result will be 10 games to 10 is just 18%. Finding catastrophically wrong results (the chance of a player winning 14 games or more, indicating a 7-3 MU or worse) is 12%. You're really better off just asking the experts, letting them argue, and letting them sort it out by playtesting, and that's what we do. Also, game balance changes a lot during development and the intuition of experts can keep up with that, but a numerical method would need to keep starting from scratch after every change. That happens hundreds of times.

That said, if you like numerical analysis of balance, there's like 35,000 games played in the dataset for the posts about Yomi Season 1 and Season 2 online rankings. (And many more than that since then.)

Here's Yomi's matchup chart as of today. Of course it slightly changes as players gain more and more understanding, but it's fairly stable:

This chart currently has 0 matchups of 7-3 or worse anywhere in the 210 matchups. The highest point total of any character is only +6.5 with a cast of 20, and the lowest is only -6. To put it into perspective, I'm not aware of any asymmetric game with 10+ sides that is even close to that. Let's develop some perspective about these kinds of numbers by looking at other games.

Japanese Super Turbo Street Fighter chart, Arcadia (source)

Note that this chart doesn't even have the character O.Sagat in it. It really should to give a more accurate picture, because O.Sagat is undeniably top tier and has a ton of extremely lopsided matchups. The US version of this chart puts him at +30. Even without those lopsided matchups that aren't in the chart, the top character here has a whopping +27 point total advantage, and the bottom character has a huge -22.5 point total disadvantage. That's with a game with 16 characters, so having more than +16 or -16 is pretty big. This is a from a beloved tournament game that's been played almost 20 years now and is considered pretty balanced. Balance is hard.

SF HD Remix Consensus Chart (source)

Here's a matchup chart for SF HD Remix. I was in charge of that game, and we improved on the balance of Super Turbo Street Fighter by making very specific tweaks based on the decade+ of tournaments for ST.

hd_remix_matchup_srk.png

So here, the top characters are +10 overall while the bottom is -16.5. (I actually really disagree with the bottom 5 characters' matchups there, all of them are generally more favorable than that chart says and I think the players polled there had not yet adapted to the many new tools of those characters).

Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike's matchup chart, according to Japanese players (source).

(It's very similar to the US matchup chart). 

ThridStrikeDiagramCropped2.jpg

Oh my, the top character is +32 points and bottom is -36 in a game with only 19 characters. Well that's incredibly bad.

More Than Just The Total

Even though so far I've only mentioned the overall point spread, it's important to point out that's not actually a good indicator. That just gives you a really zoomed out view of the whole thing, so a very bad overall spread does tell you something, but looking more closely can tell you a lot more. Do any characters have no bad matchups? What percentage of the chart is made up of lopsided matchups? Like imagine a game where the top character is +0 and bottom character is -0, but all matchups are 8-2. That's a pretty badly balanced game because every single matchup is incredibly unfair, lol. So you have to look past the overall totals. Lots of effort in the development of Street Fighter HD Remix was to specifically correct many of the bad matchups, and it worked out very well (example improved matchups: Guile vs. Dhalsim, Cammy vs. Blanka, Cammy or Fei Long vs Honda, Zangief vs. Vega, Everyone vs. O.Sagat.)

Guilty Gear Accent Core

For another example of looking at specific matchups, check out GGXX Accent Core. Here's Ogawa's ratings for the character Eddie as of July 2009 in Arcadia Magazine. Ogawa is the best player in the world of Eddie.

6-4 – Sol, Ky, May, Millia, Chipp, Faust, Baiken, Axl, Venom, Testament, Slayer, I-No, Bridget, Robo, Anji, Jam
6.5-3.5 – Zappa, Dizzy
7-3 – Potemkin, Johnny, A.B.A, Order-Sol
In other words, out of 17 non-mirror matchups, Eddie has four 7-3s and no matchup at all worse than 6-4. That's considered "way way too powerful."

"But these are all fighting games," you say. Fighting games are good source of data for asymmetric games with lots of characters. They give you a sense of what kind of balance or imbalance is still ok. But let's look at some card games now.

Summoner Wars

This chart is only for the first 10 factions, compiled from tournament players (source):

This chart used to have 36% of non-mirror matchups as 7-3 or worse. As of today, it's only 22% of non-mirror matchups at 7-3 or worse, so I guess some new gameplay tech was figured out in some matchups. That's sort of an unfortunate number of bad matchups still though. And +13 is pretty high for only 10 sides, but it's not as bad as +30 with 16 characters or +32 with 19 characters that we saw in other games, above.

Magic: the Gathering

I actually can't find data on this, but I would LOVE to see a matchup chart of the top 10 decks in a given type 2 format. Yeah I know what you're going to say to that. First, it's "not fair" to pick 10 decks when a format can really only support like 4 or 5 decks that have a chance. And second, that even if you were to restrict the chart to those 4 or 5, that of course they have lots of bad matchups against each other because it's the nature of customizable card games to have bad matchups.

The thing is, it's still fair to measure. If you sit down to the table in a competitive card game, or in a fighting game, or any game really and you already have a huge 8-2 disadvantage then that sucks. And it's nice to know just how much of that there is in a game. Furthermore, it actually really is fair to pick the top 10 decks. Yomi has 20 characters, but think about back when it had 10. That's 55 cards per character (or should we only count it as 14 different cards? I don't know, but that would make this even more favorable.). Anyway that's 550 cards total for 10 characters. If it's basically impossible to make a cardpool of a customizable game of 550 cards that results in 10 decks, NONE of which have 7-3 matchups against each other...then you can see why I made Yomi a fixed deck game. It's precisely to get such a large number of distinct decks that are all fair against each other.

So if someone can create an MtG matchup chart of the top 10 decks in a format, it would be really interesting to see. I actually don't know how many lopsided matchups it would have, so I'm curious. (Goblins vs a deck with protection from red that existed in the same format?) And incidentally, this is why I had to make Codex work differently than any other CCG, specifically to prevent the tons of unfair matchups that are common in the genre.

BattleCON

It's cool that there's another fighting game inspired card game out there. There's a whole lot of characters in BattleCON, almost 50. I was not able to find a consensus matchup chart for the game though. I did find this attempt by the player community to create one based on numerical data. It actually illustrates my point very well about why it's bad to add up match results rather than get the experts to come together. That chart has THE MAJORITY of matchups listed as 100% win or 0% win. Yes, really.

That doesn't speak to the balance being catastrophically bad though, it just means that mountains of more data would be needed to get anywhere with that method. (And even then, how much would be players playing those matches suboptimally?) So how many 7-3 matchups does BattleCON have? I honestly have no idea and I wasn't able to find information on this. Thing is, the only way to eliminate those is to have a whole lot of experts develop that chart and then start iterating on improvements. I can't tell you if that's a priority of BattleCON or not, but it seems like this data should be out there if it was? shrug.

I don't want to speak on behalf of what BattleCON's priorities are or aren't, because I honestly don't know. But lots of games, such as League of Legends, put releasing tons of characters at a much higher priority than making sure all the characters and matchups they currently have are fair against each other. Is that "better"? That's up to you, but it practically guarantees lots of matchup problems and past a certain point, doesn't exactly improve things, in my opinion.

Yomi

Back to Yomi. Check out that matchup chart again:

yomi_matchup_chart_5-9_2014-04-16.png

No 7-3 matchups, in a 20 character game with 210 matchups. (Maybe a few players think there's 1 or 2? Even in that case, it's just very, very few and would still be fewer than games I'm aware of.) This doesn't happen by magic or even luck. It takes...years. We started testing the Yomi expansion characters online on fantasystrike.com on over 3.5 years before doing a kickstarter to print physical decks. We added rules enforcement for them about a year before the kickstarter. The matchup chart had a lot of bad matchups that we addressed one by one over all this time. Here's some stories so you can see some of the specifics.

Yomi Balance Stories

Bal-Bas-Beta, Pesky Balance Robot.

BBB is a really interesting character in that he's so different from all the others. He has a mechanic called Long Range that lets him push the opponent far away and then force the opponent to guess right just to "get back in" and be able to deal damage again. Meanwhile, BBB can still damage the opponent with a few moves from Long Range. Think of Dhalsim keeping you out in Street Fighter. All of this makes BBB the most complicated character to understand how he works, but he's not actually that difficult to play once you understand him. That said, he had various unfair matchups over the years and it's difficult to fix them because any change to how Long Range works affects a lot of stuff. Here's the current version:

_0013_bbb.jpg

There have been many versions of Long Range, different end conditions and timings for it. I'll skip the details of all that, but each one solved more problems than the previous one at least. But...

At one point, Troq (a grappler) had way too much trouble getting in. By giving him a new property called "Troq Armor" on his Jack which acts like "super armor" in a fighting game, it gave him one more answer to being at range. It turns out this makes a big difference and helps that match a ton.

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On the flipside, Jaina completely wrecked BBB. Specifically her ability to play her 2 over and over forever while buying it back and left BBB with not nearly enough options. It cost her the same amount of life to buyback her 2 as the block damage it deals. In the other 19 matchups in the game, this is pretty much ok, but not vs BBB. We had to change her block damage numbers just for this matchup.

Oh and also Long Range used to end if you dealt blocked damage to BBB. That was ok in pretty much all matchups except Jaina too. Now BBB simply doesn't take any blocked damage at range. And one more thing: Long Range used to end if BBB took damage from abilities, which means Jaina's Smoldering Embers ability wrecked him too. Keep-away robot hates fire girl. Or at least he did for a long time.

Zane

Zane is sort of like Bison in Street Fighter: all offense and bad defense. For this reason, he didn't have a fast reversal move like a dragon punch. In the Yomi game system, he really needs SOMETHING though to deal with fast attacks, so he has a move called Crash Bomb that can still hit the opponent even if the opponent does a fast move. It's a bad reversal basically. Except, it was accidentally the best reversal in the game because of how it worked.

That was a total failure of design right there. I fixed that to work how it should and be a bad reversal that you use if you need to, not your main source of damage every game. Wow did Zane players hate that. But Zane players didn't really understand that it's a bad idea to improve balance when it's based on a wrong thing to begin with. If you do that, you end up with a well balanced game full of really bad flavor (or bad dynamics). So step 1 is correct the design issue, which I did. Here's the current version:

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In order to give some power back, I then gave him "Meaty Attacks." That's a dumb term from fighting games that means attacks you do against an opponent who is getting up from a knockdown. Think of it this way: if you have a really slow move, usually you'd get hit out of it. But if you do that slow move as a "meaty attack" (while the opponent is knocked down) then you can get past the startup of it while the opponent is still on the ground. By the time they stand up, you're already to the point in your attack where you can actually hit them, so your attack FEELS fast to the opponent. They're forced to stand up right as your punch hits. Zane's meaty attacks ability speeds up his normal moves to a very fast speed 1.0.

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Here's the problem: how easily Zane can knock you down becomes hugely important. The more he can, the more he can do speed 1.0 attacks against you. Tiny changes in how much or little he can knockdown result in large swings in power. It was difficult to figure out the amount of knockdown he needs to be fair. (Answer: very little! It's super strong.)

Another problem: Zane meaty attacks vs. whoever is the slowest in the game. It turns out Gloria and Quince generally have the slowest moves. Gloria (a healing character) is one of the most complicated characters in the game. She needs to be slow to make up for the many various tricks she has. We tried some structural changes to help this matchup, but in the end, we just had to make her Queen speed 1.0 specifically for this matchup.

Quince is the other slow character. Like Gloria, he is complicated and has tricks to make up for that speed. It turns out that vs Zane, he can just use his tricks. Quince can literally do unavoidable unblockables against Zane because of Zane's bad defense, but it costs a lot and isn't that frequent. Zane can more frequently do fast attacks vs Quince that Quince has a lot of trouble with. That kind of evens out so no change was needed there.

Persephone. Persphone is one of the other most complicated characters to play (3 hardest are Persephone, Gloria, and Quince imo). Her Mistress's Command move was very, very tricky to get right in Puzzle Strike. It had more changes than most chips and was still changing right up until shipping. In Yomi, it started out controlling the opponent's entire turn when it hit. Over time, it controlled less and less. Now it controls just up to the point where they reveal their combat card; you can choose that for the controlled opponent, but you can't make them play a bluff card or a whole useless combo, or power-up for Aces for them. It turns out that despite all these nerfs, the move is still incredibly powerful.

The more powerful older version of the move cost two Aces to use. These days it only costs one Ace. She can do it more often, but it's not as crushing when she does. Also, there is kind of a neat property it has where if you happen to land it, yeah that's good, but if you really set things up exactly right (which takes work and requires backup from another ability) then you can completely lock them down. It's hard to really pull that off, but it's possible, and it seems fitting for a dominatrix. Her matchups are still pretty fair, it's just that when you lose to her, you REALLY lose hard. Here's her current Mistress's Command, by the way:

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Vendetta

Here's a simpler story. Vendetta's innate was kind of complicated. Then it was kind of complicated in a different way. Then in yet a different way. Then it was just too junky so I made it very simple by deleting most of it but keeping the part that lets him poke a lot because that's the point of his character. Then he was too weak for a long time. So we increased his damage, and now he's fine. Done.

Midori

Midori can transform into a Dragon, and when he does, his Dragon attacks beat all dodges. That was always fine until Quince came along and had special dodges that he relies on to even function. Remember, Quince is slow, so that means Midori's Dragon attack Queen being fast means "Quince: you basically can't do anything." Dragon Form now only turns off normal dodges, so it doesn't turn off Quince's special dodges. This affects a couple other matchups, but the main thing is it fixes the problem in Midori vs. Quince.

More On Gloria

The healing character again. This time, it's her move called Healing Sphere. This is an incredibly strong ability that buffs Gloria as long as she can keep her Sphere going. It's inspired by Dark Phoenix's similar move in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The ability lets her draw extra cards, but you should keep in mind that she can use those cards as part of her "engine" to recur previously used cards and to heal. Here's Healing Sphere:

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Gloria used to lose her sphere when she was knocked down. I fought long and hard to keep it that way. Some characters can knock her down more easily than others, which is exactly WHY I wanted it that way. It's good when matchups are different and things are more diverse rather than more homogeneous. There's a poisonous word in our testing community called "variance" though where testers frame boring homogeneity as a desirable property. Wow is that not the goal.

Ideally, some characters really are worse at removing her sphere but they are able to make up for it in different ways. In practice, this caused unfair matchups that we just weren't able to fix. So of the 100 times people wanted to make the game more samey, this is the one I had to give in on. It's now removed when she's thrown. Characters do vary quite a lot in how good their throws are so there is still texture that's different across matchups, but all characters can throw her one way or another. Some characters just had an awful time knocking her down. Also, after this was changed Gloria's Queen throw became absurdly too good. It was a fast throw, which is normally "very good" but in the hands of a character you need to throw to disable her incredible Healing Sphere buff, Gloria having a throw that always beats yours was crazy. So that's fixed too.

Lum / Argagarg / Persephone / Gloria

Here's a tangled mess, check this out. Argagarg's main thing is blocking. Even when he blocks, you slowly die. He has a super block that powers him up so you die even faster when he blocks some more. Lum is Gambling Panda who likes to attack a lot. Blocking beats attacking. That's a tough match. Lum can also do out-of-combat damage with his poker tricks, so maybe that can make up for the difference? Usually the answer would be yes, but Argagarg also has a counter. He can use that to prevent Lum from doing much with his poker abilities.

This was claimed to be one of the most unfair matchups in the game. Maybe we can buff Lum? Actually no. Lum is one of the best characters now. All characters are almost an identical power level because the tiers are soooo compressed, but Lum happens to be near the top of that very small range of power. So buffing him is kind of bad. Can we nerf Argagarg? His other matchups are currently fair, so nerfing them would make him too weak. So now we have to make Lum better in one match, but not better in any other? That's pretty hard to do.

Many things were proposed. Many problems with all of them (sometimes flavor problems, or elegance problems, or logistics, or balance problems in other matchups). Then more problems came up with Argagarg. People started claiming that Argagarg was too weak vs Gloria and possibly too weak vs Persephone. Gloria wants to build up a card engine that lets her heal a lot and then convert that to a win with her Overdose move. That's a super effective strategy against a stalling character like Argagarg. Remember, Gloria has a powerful Healing Sphere ability, so Argagarg wants to counter that. Except...even if he does, Gloria has the ability to fetch cards from her discard pile to get it back anyway. Persephone also has the ability to fetch things from her discard pile, making Argagarg's counter unusually weak in that match.

That's now THREE matchups that are all in trouble, all because of Argagarg's counter. But in one of the three (Lum vs Argagarg) we want the counter to be WEAKER. In the other two matchups (vs Gloria and vs Persephone), we want the counter to be STRONGER. This is the kind of thing that makes game balance truly tricky. It looks pretty much unsolvable. This constellation of issues came up for weeks and I kept reminding everyone, "currently, there is literally no workable suggestion on the table." When we finally had an idea that worked at all, it was immediately better than the literally nothing else we had.

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If Argagarg's counter sends the countered card to the bottom of their deck, that makes it much stronger vs Gloria and vs Persephone. They can no longer immediately recur that countered card to their hand, so that helps a lot. What about Lum? Well, it's actually barely weaker against Lum, which is what we want. Lum can't recur cards from the discard pile, so it's not about that. It's that he might draw that card again. It goes to the bottom of the deck, but he can reshuffle any time from powering up and he draws more cards than most other characters, so he has a better chance than most would of running Argagarg out of counters.

Lum could also choose not to power up and still get that card back. I changed his innate slightly so that sometimes it lets him draw the bottom card of his deck. Lum players can try to maximize that to get his previously countered back in their hand again.

We wanted another slight buff though, something that buffs Lum in a way that doesn't matter in any matchup except when he fights Argagarg. Does such a thing exist? Yes it does. Lum's 10 throw also has his poker ability on it, the one we just talked about. He doesn't really want to use it as a throw, but vs Argagarg he is ok with doing that. So we buffed the damage on the 10 throw only, giving it the name Extra Juice and allowing him to pump it up a bit more, so that he can sneak more damage in just for that matchup. So a player can try for either playing too many copies of the card per game for Argagarg to counter them all, or try for just more throw damage to make Argagarg block less, and to threaten dealing lethal damage a little bit earlier.

Conclusion

Game balance is hard, and it takes a long time. From tier lists to matchup charts, you have to iterate on it a lot to really have any hope of good balance. In Yomi, we did all that work and I don't really know of other games (with 10+ sides) with a matchup chart that close, though maybe there is one somewhere? I'm really happy with what we've been able to achieve, in any case, and I hope you all enjoy the results.

Balance itself doesn't make a game fun, though. We actually didn't talk at all about why Yomi is fun or strategic. I think it has a lot going for it both those areas, and that it's an excellent strategy game for tournaments and casual play, but it took all these words just to cover the balance part!

If you'd like to learn more about Yomi, here's some more resources:


Designing Puzzle Strike

Puzzle Strike’s gameplay centers around the crash gem system which was inspired by Puzzle Fighter (which I was also lead designer of). The dynamics that result from it are interesting when played at high skill level or a low skill level so that gives the game a solid foundation to appeal to hardcore players and casual players. I’ll explain much more about what goes into pleasing each audience, but first let’s examine the crash gem system.

Crash Gem System

Gem Pile

Each player has a gem pile zone. Your gem pile fills up over time and if you end a turn with too many gems, you lose. Just before you lose, you’re usually at your most powerful though. You can use crash gems to break (remove) your gems and send them to an opponent. The more gems you have, the more ammunition you have. Also, the height bonus rule lets you draw more chips the more gems you have in your gem pile. Drawing more chips gives you a higher chance of drawing crash gems and other combo pieces that let you take more actions on your turn.

You always pass through a period of being very powerful just before you lose. Just before you lose is when you have the most ammo and the biggest height bonus to draw more chips. This specific way of handling the comeback mechanism tends to make games close and intense. This same mechanism worked great in Puzzle Fighter and my goal was to translate that to board game form.

Combine

You can use a Combine chip to join two gems in your gem pile together into a bigger gem. For example, combining two 1-gems gives you a single 2-gem. Combining a 1-gem and a 2-gem gives you a 3-gem. The largest gem you can have is a 4-gem.

Combining makes your crashes stronger. A crash gem only breaks open a single one of your gems. If you use it on a 1-gem, it only reduces your pile height by 1 and only sends 1 gem to your opponent. If you use it on a 4-gem, it reduces your pile height by 4 and it sends 4 1-gems to your opponent. Then your opponent will have to deal with combining those before they can easily crash them back.

Counter-Crashing

Counter-crashing lets you stop an opponent’s crashed gems from reaching you. This lets you control the pace of the game in a strategic way. If no one ever crashed any gems, the game would end after 10 turns. That’s because each player antes a 1-gem at the start of their turn and the game ends whenever a player ends their turn with a pile height of 10 or more. If you crash gems at someone, you might end the game sooner because you’re giving your opponent gems. That said, your opponent might crash gems right back at you later, so on average it still might take about 10 turns to end.

Counter-crashing lets you actually extend the game though because it removes gems from the system. Whenever an opponent crashes gems to you, before those gems reach your gem pile, you have the opportunity to counter-crash. To do that, you use a crash gem to break gems in your own pile and cancel out some of the incoming gems. For example, if 3 gems were coming at you, if you crashed 2 gems of your own, you’d cancel out 2 of the 3 incoming gems. That removed a total of 4 gems from the system (2 in your gem pile, and 2 of the incoming gems). If you counter-crash repeatedly, you’re buying yourself more turns. If your strategy involves getting lots of money and spending it later, or building up a powerful combo and unleashing it later, you need to make sure there is a later. On the other hand, if your strategy is all about rushdown as hard as possible, you want to end the game as soon as possible before other players build up powerful late-game combos.

This diagram shows how rushdown, economy, and defense strategies relate to each other as well as how good each of the 20 characters is at executing that kind of strategy:

Money System

The money system is related to the crash gem system. You use money to buy more chips to add to your deck. Some of those chips give you more money themselves. Having a lot of money chips means you’ll be able to afford other more powerful chips that actually do something, but it’s a common mistake to put too much money in your deck in Puzzle Strike. You need to have Combines, Crash Gems, and various puzzle chips that actually do things.

Crashing and combining gems affects how much money you have. Each time you crash a gem, you get an extra +$1 to spend that turn. (If you crash a larger gem such as 3-gem, you still get only $1.) On the other hand, each time you combine two gems, you get a -$1 modifier on your money that turn. Breaking open gems releases the gem power inside, but it requires energy to fuse two gems together. And if you counter-crash (break open your gems on another player’s turn while they’re crashing at you), you don’t actually get to used that released energy; the $1 bonus disappears before you get reach your next buy phase.

Here’s a short summary of that:

crash a gem: +$1
counter-crash a gem: +$0 (effectively)
combine two gems: -$1

What that means for strategy is that a rushdown strategy has a built-in drawback. If you want to be very aggressive, you’ll very quickly combine your gems into large gems and that will put you behind on money. You’ll then crash your big gems at your opponent(s) and hope to end the game very soon before your lack of money mattered.

The opposite strategy is to counter-crash a lot. That will remove gems from the system and give you more time (more turns) to develop a strong late-game deck. You’re still paying for the right to have more turns though in a way. At least you didn’t lose as much money as those paying for lots of combines, but you also didn’t gain the money you could have by crashing gems on your own turn.

Crashing gems on your own turn while only combining and counter-crashing the minimum amount you can get away with gives you the most money bonus. There are lots of tradeoffs here.

Tournament Level Play

It’s a good sign if a game is of high enough quality that it’s suitable to play at a tournament level. Even if you don’t care about ever attending a tournament for it, it means the game is solid enough to stand up to experts playing it. I find that reassuring because it means you can invest as much time in a game like that as you want and you don’t have to worry about it falling apart or becoming degenerate or boring if you ever get “too good” at it.

Here are the qualities I wanted, to ensure interesting play at high skill levels:

  • Strategically interesting dynamics
  • Player interaction
  • Asymmetric design
  • Getting to the meat of the game quickly
  • Exciting moments built into the system
  • Solid rules

Strategically interesting dynamics

We’ve already covered a lot of this part. The crash gem system and its interaction with the money system create unusual and interesting dynamics. There’s a lot for expert players to explore and a lot of ways they can express themselves in the game system.

Player interaction

A good competitive game needs lots of player interaction—the more the better. Games that are mostly solitaire that you play alongside other people and compare scores are really lacking in drama. They also lack in the primary skill test that you’d hope a competitive game would be about: how you act upon and react against an opponent.

Puzzle Strike’s core mechansim is inherently interactive. Crashing your gems at an opponent affects that opponent and they can counter-crash to interact back with you. Separately from this, there are also “attack” chips (red fist) and “defense” chips (blue shield) that add yet another layer of interacting and reacting to opponents. Puzzle Strike is not a passive-aggressive game of indirect interaction—it’s highly interactive so that there’s more ways to get advantages over your opponents and more ways they can avoid that, too. 

Asymmetric design

Symmetric games are kind of a flat experience after you’ve been exposed to just how rich and varied asymmetric games are. Puzzle Strike has 20 characters, which means there’s 210 different character matchups in just the 1v1 mode of the game. Different matchups play very differently, which is interesting. Different characters allow players to find ones that match their own personality and playstyle. Also, it’s a wonderful property in any asymmetric game that you can learn just one character (or perhaps a small number of characters) and yet still participate in a system far more varied and nuanced than one without different characters to choose from.

Or to put it more bluntly, asymmetric games are just more hype in competitive play. The different characters in Street Fighter, the races in StarCraft, and the decks in Magic: the Gathering have all created tons of hype and excitement that wouldn’t have been possible with a single character, single race, and single deck that everyone plays.

Getting to the meat of the game quickly

This may not sound like an important property, but it really is in competitive play. The game needs to be as efficient as possible because if you have an event where you’re trying to get through many matches with many players (in swiss, or double elimination for example) then you need those matches to be as short as possible or else the tournament becomes too long to comfortably run. Every turn in the game should pull its weight. Even if you never play in a tournament, you should appreciate this anyway. Removing filler turns gets you to the fun that much faster.

Some deckbuilding games start you with what are basically blank cards in your deck, usually victory point cards that get added up at the end of the game. Puzzle Strike replaces those blank cards with your character chips. So your most interesting actions are there from the start, and you can actually start doing stuff on turn 1 and 2.

Exciting Moments Built Into the System

Any game that can hold up to competitive play is probably capable of generating exciting moments. That said, we can certainly influence how often these moments happen by adjusting the game design. Puzzle Strike is specifically tuned to intentionally create exciting moments often.

A lot of this is from the crash gem system, as described above. Players are inherently more powerful as they are about to lose, so close games are frequent. Another thing that makes exciting moments even more frequent is the way the game checks the lose condition. If you end your turn with a pile height of 10 or more, you lose, but you CAN have more than that during your turn. An opponent might send a lot of gems to you and you might start your turn with a total of 15 or more. Dire straits! But over the course of your turn, you might be able to do a huge combo that digs yourself down to 9 or fewer gems. The height bonus lets you draw the maximum number of chips in this case, so you’re actually more likely to pull off a spectacular turn that barely saves you.

Solid rules

This could be a whole article in itself, but basically game rules need to be very solid to allow experts to play as hard as they can. You can’t have rules that involve judgment calls of some third party. You can’t have rules that say you can’t make a certain kind of move “too much.” You can't require shuffling of cards that have different card backs. You can’t have rules about communication with other players that say “you can talk, but you can’t share certain types of information.” You can't have legal moves that make the game degenerate to play and then say it's "not in the spirit in of the game" to use those moves. There’s a whole lot of sloppy things you can’t do. Puzzle Strike is designed with serious play in mind, and has rules suitable for players who are trying their hardest to win.

Casual Play

For a game to have casual appeal, it actually needs some of the same things we just mentioned. Most importantly, it still needs interesting dynamics, it’s just that those must be apparent right away, even if you’re bad at the game. All the things that make Puzzle Strike interesting to experts still count here because even beginners can see how the crash gem system works.

Another element of casual play is being able to involve more players. Puzzle Strike has a 2v2 mode and a 3p and 4p free-for-all mode. The free-for-all mode is very interesting and I’d go so far as to say that it’s my contribution to the field of how to make free-for-all modes.

Free-for-All

A common problem with free-for-all modes is that they are too dominated by pre-game alliances. That means if you and a friend play with two other strangers, your ability to team up (even if it’s kind of unconsciously) with your friend can be too overwhelming. If a game is decided before you even start just because you have a friend in it, that’s poor design even for casual play.

Another common problem with free-for-all modes is that doing nothing is the best strategy. Let other players fight each other and weaken themselves, while you grow stronger. That’s really boring, yet it’s almost the default way that most free-for-all games work.

Finally, kingmaker and lame duck are common (and bad) qualities in free-for-all games. Kingmaker is when a player who can’t possibly win gets to decide who does win. Lame duck is when a player who can’t possibly win is technically still playing. This feels stupid and pointless to the lame duck player, and allowing this situation to happen at all greatly increases the chance of kingmaker situations.

Puzzle Strike’s free-for-all mode avoids and minimizes ALL of those problems. It works in a fairly unusual way. You are able to crash gems at any opponent you want, but you can’t actually gang up to eliminate someone that way. That’s because there’s no player elimination; instead, the game ends the moment that anyone ends their turn with a full gem pile. The player with the least gems in their gem pile wins.

Whenever someone is about to lose in this free-for-all mode, someone else is about to win. And anyone else playing has incentive to help the would-be loser to prevent the game from suddenly ending. They can do that by counter-crashing for that victim to help them out. To put it another way, whenever you’re about to lose, you always have at least one friend in the game whose incentive it is to help you. Who that friend is depends on the pile heights and what’s happening in the game, not on who you’re real life friends with outside of the game.

Furthermore, there isn’t really lame duck. If you’re still playing, you can still win. And the lack of lame duck means that kingmaker is minimized. There’s even a special rule to minimize it more: if you have a ton of gems in your gem pile and you’ll surely lose, you can’t just crash some in such a way as to decide the winner. Your crashed gems remain “floating” until you prove that you can dig yourself out below 10.

Components

I talked a lot about game dynamics that are fun in a casual setting, but there’s also a tactile and visual element to it all that’s really important.

Boards

The boards in Puzzle Strike help you organize your gem pile and other zones, and have some helpful reminder text. They also look like a video game (like Puzzle Fighter sort of) and that gets you in the spirit of things.

Screens

The screens (or “shields”) let you hide your chips from other players if you’re having trouble holding them in your hand. They’re pastel colored and they each depict a different game rule in Puzzle Strike in a fun way using 8-bit versions of the characters.

Chips

Most deckbuilding games are playing with cards. These types of games require a lot of shuffling though, and the form factor of chips allows you to draw them from a bag without having to worry so much about frequently shuffling cards. Players who are bad at shuffling, and even players who are good at shuffling have often said the unusual form factor is kind of charming.

The Box

It’s kind of bold to have a pink box! The cute characters and distinctive pink box have gotten a lot of people to try the game who would have been intimidated by a more serious looking box. Silly as that sounds, the packaging matters!

Conclusion

The crash gem system that’s the core of Puzzle Strike captures some of the best qualities of the Puzzle Fighter. It’s strategically interesting to experts, yet still accessible to beginners. Puzzle Strike is designed to be a solid tournament game, yet didn’t really have to sacrifice much of anything to have plenty of casual appeal too.

You can get the tabletop version here or play it online here.