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The Game Design of Zems Part 2





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Zems Development

The Game Design of Zems Part 2

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In my last post, I discussed how Zems development is on hold and how I have been spending the past year playing and following other online card games. The Zems Design Guide, which is the “bible” for Zems, is now part-research document as well as design specification. In this post, I intend to discuss the new game design of Zems based on the current Zems Design Guide.

Every Army Needs A Leader and Resources

Each deck in Zems will have a Hero. A Hero is a customizable card that each player will start with at the beginning of a game. If the Hero dies, the player loses the game.

Each player also starts with a shrine, which has two numbers: rate and health. The rate is the amount of resources the shrine produces. Resources in this game are called zems. If a shrine falls to zero health it is destroyed. If a player controls zero shrines at any point in the game, he or she loses the game.

By offering two paths to victory, we want allow players to create not just interesting decks with unique combinations, but decks with different game plans. Some decks will focus on destroying the opponent’s Hero, while others will try to destroy the opponent’s resources (shrines).

It’s Not Tapping, It’s Committing

Many other card games turn cards sideways to indicate a card has been used during a turn. Zems follows this standard – a card that has been used during a turn, such as a creature attacking or a creature using an ability, will be turned sideways. In Zems, turning a card sideways is called ‘committing’. A committed creature may not do anything else during a turn.

Some lesser known online CCGs use what is called an “exhaust” system and make a card that has been used have a certain highlight (usually red). As someone who has respect for the colorblind, I believe the system of turning a card sideways is far superior and more accommodating.

Everything Is In The Player’s Control

Unlike many other online CCGs, there are very few automated aspects of the turn. This means players do not automatically draw a card at the start of each turn, resources do not automatically accumulate and nor do they disappear if they haven’t been used. There is only one thing that happens during the start of each player’s turn: each creature and Hero that player controls becomes uncommitted.

Zems uses an Action System to dictate what a player may or may not do during a turn. At the start of each turn, a player is given 3 action points. These points are used to do a variety of things during the player’s turn.

Each of the following costs 1 action point to do:

  • Add one card from the deck to the hand. Unlike other card games, we’ve minimized the effect of RNG and want to make cards that would be”bad” in other games (too narrow in effect) to be inclusive. Instead of drawing a card from the top of the deck, a player selects one card from the deck and adds it to his or her hand. Note that this can be done multiple times per turn.
  • Play a card from hand. There are three types of cards: creatures, invocations, and environments. Creatures must be played to a zone adjacent to the player’s Hero. Invocations are the “spell” cards of Zems and are discarded after their effect takes place. Environment cards give a variety of bonuses to the player that controls them, and only for that player’s half of the board.
  • Gain zems from all allied shrines equal to their rates. This is basically resource acquisition. The reason why we don’t want to make this automatic is because we want to force players to have to balance resource management with board control and hand management (Netrunner players are familiar with this balance).
  • Increase the rate of an allied shrine by 1. This can only be done once per turn per shrine. Most other CCGs have automatically accumulating resources. Zems does not, and players who run decks where the average cost tops off at some number will see the temporary advantages of utilizing a capped strategy since their opponents will likely still have to invest actions into upgrading resources each turn. Note that shrines have a max rate of 5.

There is one thing a player can do that requires all 3 action points and a certain number of zems:

  • Build a shrine. This costs all 3 action points and zems equal to the number of current shrines that player controls times 5. So if a player controls two shrines and wants to build a third, that player will have to pay 2 x 5 = 10 zems.

Ideally we want games in Zems to not last too long, so we want to discourage the use of this last action.

There are three things that do not cost Action points:

  • Move an uncommitted creature or Hero the player controls. Creatures and Heroes move one square at a time on the field, and each creature or Hero can only move one square per turn. Creatures and Heroes may cross over to the opponent’s half of the field.
  • Attack with an uncommited creature or Hero. Attacking with a card commits the card. Combat is handled similar to Magic and Hearthstone – when a creature attacks another creature, both creatures deal damage to each other equal to their combat value. Note that there are two types of attacks in Zems: melee and ranged. Melee creatures can attack an adjacent enemy creature, whereas ranged creatures can attack the first enemy creature in a line.
  • Use an uncommited creature or Hero’s ability. Like attacking, using a card ability commits the card.

In other words, anything that adds something to the field, adds to resources, or adds to the hand will cost action points. Cards that are already in play that can interact with the opponent’s cards will not require action points to use.

It may be a lot to take in when reading, but on a visual interface where action point and zem costs are shown, it’s not hard for players to grasp, especially if they have previous CCG experience.

Note that creatures cannot attack or move the same turn they enter play. In Magic: The Gathering, this is called Summoning Sickness. We believe giving the opponent a turn to adapt is important in a game where military escalation is bound to occur.

The Action Point System Is Confusing

For people who haven’t played Netrunner, it certainly can be. Here’s a gist of what I just said above, hopefully in terms that are easier to understand:

  • You have 3 action points a turn.
  • Adding a card from the deck to your hand costs 1 action point.
  • Playing a card from your hand costs 1 action point in addition to the cost of the card itself, which has a zems cost. Zems are the resources of the game.
  • Getting zems from all your shrines costs 1 action point. The amount of zems you get from each shrine is equal to that shrine’s current rate (shrines have a rate value and a health value).
  • Increasing the rate of a shrine costs 1 action point. You can only do this once each turn for each shrine you have. If you have 2 shrines and you want to increase both of their rates, you have to spend 2 action points to do so. Increasing a shrine’s rate value will increase the amount of zems you get from that shrine.
  • Note that all of the above are things that affect you: adding cards to your hand, acquiring resources for you to use, upgrading your resource sites (shrines).
  • Everything else does not require an action point – moving an allied creature, attacking with an allied creature, or using an allied creature’s ability. However, creatures can only move once per turn and can only attack or use an ability once per turn (but they can move and then attack in a single turn).

Hopefully this additional explanation helps clarify things.

Positioning Is Important

Zems takes place on a board. Cards are played to “zones,” with creatures and Heroes being able to move around.

Example from our unreleased demo.

Like Scrolls and to some extent, Faeria, we want board position to mean something. We think incorporating board position forces strategic plays other card games currently do not have.

We Don’t Want Games That Last Forever

Yes, players who jumped on Scrolls and have now left, we know what you mean. Each player gets 2 minutes to conduct a turn in Zems. In addition, the way we design our cards is based on some principles former Magic: The Gathering professional Zvi Mowshowitz has said – namely, any card that costs 4 or more should be game-changing or possibly win the game for you. Cards in Zems cost anywhere between 0 to 5 zems. There are no cards that cost more than 5. We understand that because Zems is also part “board game” it will take longer to close out games, so we have intentionally made “lategame” kick in at turn 5 for both players.

We expect games to finish by around turn eight. This means if both players decide to use all 2 minutes of their time for each turn, the maximum time for a game would be 32 minutes. But we know this isn’t realistic – players should be playing much faster than two minutes a turn, especially during their first turns. We expect the actual average game to take between 20 to 25 minutes at maximum.

Rethinking “Card Advantage”

In Magic: The Gathering, card advantage is king. To some degree in Hearthstone, it’s practically the same way (although tempo is more important). There are several implications of this, although the most notable one is that cards that are very narrow in scope become “bad” cards unless the meta specifically makes them good. In Zems, we want to turn this type of thinking on its head. Besides introducing a board and factoring in position, we’ve changed the draw step to one where the player can get any card from the deck and add it to his or her hand (see “Everything Is In The Player’s Control” above). This means if you add something powerful to your hand and play it, your opponent can also grab an answer to deal with it. It also means cards that would at first glance appear to have very narrow effects might be cards you want to include in your deck, even if it’s only a single copy.

I hope this summary of the new rules of Zems is exciting for both players new to CCGs and those with tournament experience. While Zems development is not currently underway, almost every other aspect of the game from artwork to cards is still being worked on. If you’re not a follower of us on one of the social media outlets (Facebook and Twitter), I definitely recommend following us:

Also, we have a new subreddit! Join us there if you want to discuss the game:


Happy Holidays!

  • user

    AUTHOR badivan1

    Posted on 7:24 PM April 15, 2014.

    Ever tried War Metal : Tyrant ?
    The gameplay is simpler, but the interface is a bit archaic.

    • user

      AUTHOR badivan1

      Posted on 7:27 PM April 15, 2014.

      Similarly, there is Rise of Mythos (formerly Kings & Legends).
      The gameplay is more interactive than Tyrant.

      • user

        AUTHOR Zemsai

        Posted on 2:58 PM April 17, 2014.

        Thank you for the references. I have not tried those games, but I will. For science!

  • user

    AUTHOR badivan1

    Posted on 7:35 PM April 15, 2014.

    I don’t like your generalization of Magic : the Gathering, which you characterize it as a game based on card advantage. Magic has a long history of combo decks and aggro decks – playstyles that don’t rely on card advantage. While card advantage is important concept in trading card games, I think you’re emphasizing it a tad too much.

    • user

      AUTHOR Zemsai

      Posted on 2:57 PM April 17, 2014.

      You have a valid point, and as a Magic player myself (and semi-grinder), I know I made a big generalization. Other types of advantage exist, but the main form of advantage in Magic is still card advantage.

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