Devil’s Playground Design Notes
It’s been two years since the I designed the Dungeon Solitaire: Devil’s Playground game and expansion rules, as well as the rules for all the variations of Dungeon War included in the Devil’s Playground rulebook. Each game is its own design puzzle, as intricate and vast as the labyrinth itself. Many of the specifics concerning the design decisions are lost in memory, but in revisiting Devil’s Playground here, we will attempt to recover some of them.
Ever since the success of the Labyrinth of Souls game, I had in mind to make some kind of expansion or follow-up game. It took two years before Josephe Vandel and I teamed up again to make Devil’s Playground. With him in Germany and me in the US, our work process was carried out over the internet, in much the same way we did during Labyrinth of Souls development. And thinking back, the main issues we faced with Devil’s Playground — and how we dealt with them — are as follows:
Is it a stand-alone game or an expansion? Why not do both! That alone created a unique design challenge. However I designed the Devil’s Playground stand-alone game, it also had to work as an expansion for Labyrinth of Souls. This was pretty tricky, especially considering the numerous mechanics at play already, the balance of difficulty, and all the possible game variations. The key to this, as with all the Dungeon Solitaire variations, is thinking about the various game components as being modular. Then each step in the design is carefully considered and tested in the stand-alone game and as a modular expansion.
How do we thematically expand Dungeon Solitaire and the Labyrinth of Souls? The dungeon in Labyrinth of Souls is already vast, what new challenges could we add to it, and how would they come together as a stand-alone game? I imagined the Devil’s Playground to represent both the deepest and darkest reaches of the labyrinth and a kind of mystical conflict that permeates not only the entire dungeon but also the souls of adventurers. This sets the stage for the demons, sins, and graces in the primary arcana, as well as the thematic tone of the game. I had only to work out the mechanics, which in this case, took a fair amount of testing and retesting at table.
What should the new suits be in the secondary arcana? I knew I wanted to add two new suits and I kicked around a number of ideas. Eventually, to come up with the idea of a divided house of shields, united by a single ace, a number of factors came into play. Part of that decision was thematic, as it mirrored the overall theme of internal conflict. Part of it was guided by limitations in the numbers of cards in the deck. The color scheme played a role, and even the simple aesthetic of the French suits used in the Labyrinth of Souls deck.
What unique cards can we incorporate into the game? There were a few magic/cursed item and event card ideas I had left over from Labyrinth of Souls development. So I resolved to include cards for Mog’s Sword, Rizar’s Pole, The Dark Star, Portal, and Dungeon Plague. I needed one more for seven sub arcana cards. I was working on a short story about a time-travelling wizard named Malhak, who tries to change the past in order live a life with his first love. I liked the story and I liked this character Malhak, who lived in a tower, on a rocky precipice, at the edge of the Plains of Ektheon, ten-thousand years in the future. Hence was born the idea for Malhak’s Tome and the tone of the “Words of Malhak” that are found at the beginning of the Devil’s Playground rulebook.
How can we explicitly tie the new deck into the LoS deck? When we made the LoS minor arcana, Josephe went ahead and made elevens for all the suits. They weren’t part of the official deck, but they were kind of fun, like a boss card for each suit. So these were a natural fit for DP. I just had to come up with the titles and mechanics. As usual, Josephe did the rest with his incredible artwork. Once all the elements were in place, the remainder of the cards were made into dedicated hit point cards that could be used with DP and LoS.
Regarding the artwork, Josephe and I worked much as we did on LoS. We decided to do full color this time around for something new and to set the expansion cards off from the LoS cards. For most of the cards I just sent Josephe a title and game mechanic. On few card he asked for ideas and on a couple I had specific things in mind. For Goblin Market, I sent him photos of wall street stock traders, gesticulating wildly with contorted faces. From that, he made the post-apocalyptic bank facade artwork. For Oblivion, I sent him a 19th century photo of a woman in an opium den. The Wheel of Chaos was from a sketch I drew during LoS development, and The Watcher was from a terrifying dream I had many years ago. The end results were pure Josephe Vandel, and exceeded my every expectation. All the credit is his for the fantastical mind-blowing art in Devil’s Playground.
Regarding Dungeon War, I have to say this game was so much fun to make. I grew up playing games like chess, checkers, and Stratego. And for a while in the late 90s, I played games like Magic and Legend of the Five Rings. The idea of making a card-based wargame that used the Dungeon Solitaire cards was too tempting to pass up. I initially was aiming at something like the Legend of Five Rings gameplay, but this soon proved unworkable for various reasons. Like Dungeon Solitaire, I wanted the game to be playable with just an ordinary deck of cards at the most basic level. That meant the core game needed pretty simple rules. I took my inspiration from chess, really, and incorporated aspects of the classic card game War for combat resolution. I was and still am as excited about this extra game as I was with the actually game. Honestly, it could have been its own book, so making it a stretch goal added massive value to the Devil’s Playground rulebook.
When I consider the number of Dungeon Solitaire variants possible between the LoS and DP rules, I’m still excited by the unexpected possibilities that turn up in play. The modular nature of these games and the complexity of being able to throw all the cards into the same game or an extended campaign is pretty awesome. I feel like I could play these games my whole life and still be entertained and surprised by them.