Game School: Designing a heavier game with Magic City

Magic City

I’ve put together a few card games, some of which I’ve opted to sell the Print on Demand route and others I’m currently working with third parties to see what happens. There are also a bunch more that haven’t yet seen the light of day. I’ve been creating these card games for three reasons. 1. I love creating games. 2. Card games are (to me) easier and faster to create, prototype and design. 3. I wanted to teach myself some design basics and card games seemed like a good place to start.

So start I did, and I’m cranking through designs like nobodies business. Now that I’ve got a few games out, a few games skulking around other people’s business and 5 other designs still in the works, it’s time to move on to something a bit… more.

I still really enjoy the thought of deck building and using cards in games but I’m getting a bit frustrated with the old starter deck. I think the main reason behind this is the 12 or so Ascension games I have going on my iPad, plus the umpteen games I play there solo. I used to be enamored with that ‘fresh start’ feel. Then, thanks to my friend Mark, I got introduced to the game Seasons, and with that game, a form of card drafting I’ve come to love. The gears in my head started to turn a few months ago.

Early this week, they ground to halt and an idea was there. What if I made a game that incorporated a deck of cards – say 120 of ’em. 60 unique cards, doubled. In any given game you’d only use a portion of the full deck so every game would feature different cards. And rather than start with your basic 10 deck (2 of these here attack cards, and 8 money things) you just drafted a starter deck from the main deck of cards. Each player draws 10 (or maybe 8 – I’m still working on this aspect) cards. They pick one, hand the rest off in a clock-wise motion and do it again until everyone’s drafted a started deck of 10 (8?) cards.

I’ve also been toying with some simple worker placement, like that found in Lords of Waterdeep. So, thought I, what if each player not only had these cards to play, but could use workers on a board to affect the game as well? By this time I had finished my walk where I was thinking of all this and was on the train. I started making some notes and this is what popped out yesterday.

Picture this with a lot more in the looks department.
Picture this with a lot more in the looks department.

Working title: Magic City. Potential theme: You’re already rich, and already powerful, so what more could you want? Why full control, that’s what! Become the elected leader of Magic City (I already don’t like that name, by the way) by using your political advantage, the events of your times, hiring the right people and of course, a bit of the old magic. The prototype is just about the ugliest thing I’ve ever done. Although I will admit it has a certain Soviet-era architectural charm too it.

Here’s how it works

Each player gets a player track board thing – it’s got the meeples on it in the picture above. This is how you keep track of your hand size, your reserve size (more on that in a bit) and the size of your worker pool. As the game starts, every player is handed 10 cards from the Market deck. Depending on the number of players, this deck will be 60 – 100 cards in size. The market in Magic City (ugh) is where people meet, deals go down and anything can be had, for a price. Each player looks at their cards, chooses 1 that they wish to keep and then hands off the remaining 9 cards to the person on their left. This continues until the last card is handed off.

Cards come in four flavors. Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hirelings (D). Each card type allows you to do one of three things when you play them, depending on where you play them. If you play a politics card, you can either score a point or use the card effect. Events let you either remove workers from the board and return them to your pool, or they have effects. Magic cards simply have effects. Hireling cards can be used to place workers on the board or you can use their effects.

Bad board 1
The Market

Now each player has their starting deck of 10 cards. This gets shuffled and put to the side as the rest of the board gets set up. The remaining Market deck is put next to the Market. The market has 12 spaces for cards, divided into 3 areas by cost. The top four cards cost 3, the middle four cards cost 2 and the bottom four cards cost 1. What is this cost? Why it’s cards of course! I’m a big fan of making cards do more than one thing, so in this game, they are not only things that happen, but they are the game’s currency and allow for two ways to score victory points. The top 12 cards from the deck are used to fill in the 12 spaces in the Market, starting with the lowest cost spot on the right and ending with the highest cost spot on the left. These are cards you can purchase during the game. After all of this is done, the bottom 10 cards are removed from the deck, and the Election card is shuffled into them. They are then placed back at the bottom of the Market deck. When the election card is drawn from this deck, it signals the immediate end of the game.

Challenges and the score track

Each player now has their starting deck, and the Market is set up with 12 cards that cost between 1 – 3 cards. To pay that cost, you discard cards from your 5 card hand. Each player also has a pool of meeple workers provided to them. At the start of the game, that pool consists of 1 worker. The rest of your meeples are used to either keep score, keep track of your current game state or put off to the side where they wait desperately to be included. At the start of the game, each player not only has their 5 cards in hand from their 10 card drafted deck, but a meeple in their worker pool, a hand size of 5 and a reserve size of 3. Again, we’ll get to the reserve in just a bit now.

The second portion of the board is where you’ll find the Challenges. Challenges come from a separate deck (which in a fit of originality I called the ‘Challenge Deck’) made up of 60 unique challenge cards. Right now the theme is non-existent so rather than have cool names and images, these cards have between 2 and 4 letters on them. These letters are in combinations of AA – DDDD. I’ve put the full list of combos at the end of this post. Each Challenge card is worth from 2-6 points. The way you complete challenges? You play cards to your reserve, rather than to the board. In most cases (a few cards break this rule) cards played to your reserve have no effect on the game. They can be stashed in your reserve to do one of two things.

Bad board 2
Worker placement and the public cards.

They can be added to your hand at a later time, or be used to meet challenges. Each Market card has a letter associated with it – Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hirelings (D). If you’d like to complete the AB challenge (worth 2 victory points) you need to have any A (Event) card and any B (Magic) card in your reserve to do so. Astute readers will now note that your reserve size is 3, and some challenges that are worth the most, take four cards.

Also along the edge of the challenge board is the score tracker. Ideally if this game makes it to a publisher and begins development, the board will not consist of three 8.5″ by 11″ pieces of paper and will have some art too. The score tracker would then go above 69.

Now you know that players have cards, and that there are challenges that need to be met. So what about those meeples? There’s also a portion of the board that has spaces for 8 workers to be placed. Each worker placement spot does something different for the player who puts a worker there. Here’s what the 8 spots do:

  1. Turn Order. Most workers placed goes first. If no workers placed, 1st player changes every turn, around the board clock-wise.
  2. Hand size increased by 1.
  3. Reserve size increased by 1.
  4. Hire a worker (4 max, 5 in 2 player game).
  5. Play an additional card.
  6. Take 1 cost 1 card from the Market.
  7. Remove and replace 1 challenge (your choice).
  8. Score 1 point.

You’ll also notice on the worker placement portion of the board, there are four more spots for cards, and these card have a cost of 4. These are generic cards, five of each available to anyone who needs to purchase them. They are basic Politics (A), Events (B), Magic (C) and Hireling (D) cards and are there should the deck not provide the cards you need to complete a challenge. But they’re expensive! Each player has a chance during the turn to place workers. When a worker is placed, it remains on the board, in that spot, until it’s pulled back into that player’s worker pool. Placing workers, and pulling workers back into your pool are both accomplished by playing cards (for the most part) that allow you to do so.

Now that you have the general layout of the game, let’s walk through a turn to see how all of these things mesh together.

Game Play

Each turn is divided into four phases, with every player going in player order during each phase.

Phase 1 -Draw cards up to your hand limit (5 without modification). You may choose to draw any or all of your cards from your reserve first, and then from your deck.

Phase 2 – You may play up to two cards and immediately resolve their effects or play them into your reserve. If you play no cards you may place a worker onto the board, or move a worker back into your worker pool. You must do one of these three actions.

Phase 3 – Resolve worker actions for all workers currently on the board. You may also resolve any challenges during this phase.

Phase 4 – Any cards played to the table are moved to your discard pile and the Market is refreshed.

That there is one turn. Lets dig a little deeper! The key thing to remember in this game is that to do anything other than resolving a challenge or playing a card, you must have a worker available.


In Phase 1, you draw up to your maximum hand size. The default hand size is 5, but certain happenings in the game can increase this. If you have previously played any cards into your reserve, you may put any, all or none of them into your hand before you draw from your deck. Then you draw from the deck you constructed in the draft that happened during the game setup. If you do not have enough cards in your deck to make a full hand, shuffle your discard pile and this becomes your new deck. If you still don’t have enough cards, you simply won’t be drawing as many as you have the potential to draw.

Phase 2 is where you get to play cards. Any Hirelings (D) card you have in your hand will allow you to place a worker on the board (it’s got a Meeple icon with a + sign next to it) or you may choose to do what the card says in the text. Early on in the game it may make more sense to place a worker. If you wish to purchase a card, you must place a worker in that space in the market. There’s only room for two workers per market space. If you choose to place a worker in one of the 8 other board spaces, here’s how it works. First player in that spot gets the benefit by placing 1 worker. Second player in that spot also gets the benefit by placing 1 worker. The third player who also wants to utilize that space must place 2 workers. There are only spaces for 4 total workers on each spot. The only exception to this is Spot 1 – turn order. There are 4 spaces available, and 1st player is determined by the player with the most workers on this spot.

Playing almost any Event (B) cards will allow you to remove a worker from the board and place it back into your pool, or use the effect on that card. They have a Meeple icon with a – sign next to it. Politics cards allow you to score between 1-3 points or use the effects on the cards. Magic cards have effects but do not allow you to use them in other ways. Cards played for effect go into effect as soon as they are played.

You can also skip playing cards in this phase and choose to either place or remove a worker.

Playing cards or using workers happens in player order, around the table. Any cards played to your reserve, sit in your reserve. Any cards played to the table for effect remain on the table, visible, until Phase 4.

Phase 3 is where you resolve what all those workers on the board are doing, again in player order starting with player 1. If they have placed 1 worker on the Market spot that costs 2, and one worker on the Hire a Worker spot, they’d take one of their spare meeples and add it to their worker pool, plus they would discard 2 cards and select one of the cards in the Market that costs 2. The card they bought would be placed in their discard deck. As soon as a card is purchased from the Market, all of the other cards move down the line to fill in the blank spot, and a new card is drawn off the Market deck and added to the highest cost (3) row, on the left. Cards move from left to right, top to bottom.

Workers placed to purchase cards in the 1-4 cost slots allow players to discard cards to purchase them, but do not require players to do so during this phase. Other workers will automatically do what their board spots say they will do.

Remember, unless you remove a worker from the board (or someone else does it too you) they’ll remain in their spot, allowing you do take whatever actions they’re triggering.

Phase 4 is the cleanup phase. The card in the right most slot of the 1 cost area in the Market is discarded. All other Market cards are moved forward on their track, and a new card is drawn from the top of the Market deck and put into the 12th space (the left most top space in the Market). This means that regardless of whether or not any cards were purchased, the deck always moves closer to an Election at the end of every full turn. It also means that higher cost cards will eventually become lower cost cards as they are cycled through the Market on their way to being discarded.

Also in this phase, any cards played to the table for effect are placed in their player’s discard piles.

Third turn!
Third turn!

And that’s where I stand with this right now. The picture above shows the 2 player play test I did last night, which was the first time this game has ever been to any table, anywhere. I should note that I was playing both players. So far things are going well! There’s a hell of a lot of play testing in my future with this game, as there always is. This will be a bit of a challenge for me as well as it’s the first fairly deep game I’ve ever designed. I’d class it right now as a middleweight game, a bit heavier than my Upgrade Wars or Lords of Waterdeep.

There’s a lot going on in this game, which is something I was looking for so I figured I’d just build it. There are multiple paths to victory, with a bit of a “point salad” thing going on where doing lots of things can earn you points. It’s also going to be a slightly different game with every play, as the cards will not be the same – there will always be at least 20 cards from the full Market deck left out in every game, and the Challenges will change with every game as well.

I’m hoping there’s enough player interaction to keep everyone on their toes throughout the game, with tension rising as the Market deck gets thinner and the election comes closer. I’ll have to keep an eye on kingmaking though. I don’t think there’s a runaway mechanism in the game but I won’t find it if there is until I do a lot more testing. I was also toying with the idea of throwing in some secret agendas but I think there’s enough moving parts right now and adding more into this game may take away from the game play rather than add to it. As it stands, you have to build your card engine, keep your workers where they need to be, watch out for other players doing nasty things to you and your workers, spend cards that could be very useful to you to purchase other very useful cards, put cards out of play temporarily to overcome challenges and score points.

Now, about that theme….

Also, for those interested in the Challenge card breakdown, here’s the list I went with, followed by their victory point value if that challenge was met.

  • AB 2
  • AC 2
  • AD 2
  • BC 2
  • BD 2
  • CD 2
  • AAA 4
  • AAB 3
  • AAC 3
  • AAD 3
  • ABB 3
  • ABC 3
  • ABD 3
  • ACC 3
  • ACD 3
  • ADD 3
  • BBB 4
  • BBC 3
  • BBD 3
  • BCC 3
  • BCD 3
  • BDD 3
  • CCC 4
  • CCD 3
  • CDD 3
  • DDD 4
  • AAAA 6
  • AAAB 5
  • AAAC 5
  • AAAD 5
  • AABB 5
  • AABC 5
  • AABD 5
  • AACC 5
  • AACD 5
  • AADD 5
  • ABBB 5
  • ABBC 5
  • ABBD 5
  • ABCC 5
  • ABCD 5
  • ABDD 5
  • ACCC 5
  • ACCD 5
  • ACDD 5
  • ADDD 5
  • BBBB 6
  • BBBC 5
  • BBBD 5
  • BBCC 5
  • BBCD 5
  • BBDD 5
  • BCCC 5
  • BCCD 5
  • BCDD 5
  • BDDD 5
  • CCCC 6
  • CCCD 5
  • CCDD 5
  • CDDD 5
  • DDDD 6


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