Designer Diary: Relic Knights Activation
Relic Knights Activation
Activation has always been a tricky thing in Relic Knights design. In first edition, the game used a queue. The players would line up their unit cards and activate them one at a time, in order. This was a novel way to do activation, but it led to some issues. Once the queue was set, it couldn’t be changed. This meant that if the battlefield changed, a player could not react to it by activating the unit he or she wished. Also, in first edition the entire cost of an action had to be paid from the player’s hand, so there were turns a unit would come up in the queue and it simply couldn’t do anything except build up esper for a later turn, which was a bit anticlimactic. Most problematic of all, it led to balance concerns, where a player could abuse the queue by having only a single, powerful model in play that activated over and over again, or abuse special rules that let multiple units go at once.
When the game was updated to 1.5, there were some tweaks to the queue that attempted to alleviate some of these problems. The special rules that allowed multiple units to activate at once were eliminated, and all players were allowed to activate two units at once: one hero and one minion. These changes certainly helped, but they did not address many of the issues. Players still could not react to a changing battlefield, and there were still turns when units could activate and be unable to do anything. It was also just a lot of tracking and upkeep. In effect, the queue was a side game that distracted from the miniatures on the table.
With Relic Knights: 2nd Edition we tried a number of tweaks to make the queue work. Most notably, we made it so units flipped cards when paying for an action, so if a unit came up in the queue and you didn’t have the proper cards in your hand, it could at least try to do something. However, no matter what we did, the queue still felt like a clunky side-game. Finally, we decided to cut the Gordian Knot and remove the queue. This was not an easy decision but, after many iterations, it was what we felt was best for the game.
Initially, we replaced the queue with an activation token system. A player would have a set number of activation tokens (some for heroes and some for minions) and on their turn, they could activate one hero and one minion. In this way, it mimicked the double-activation of the 1.5 queue, which we had grown to enjoy because it allowed two units to coordinate and set up fun combos. However, we found that forcing a player to activate one hero and one minion was still clunky. It shoe-horned list building into cadres that always contained one-half heroes and one-half minions, which were rather arbitrary distinctions. And it caused problems when players lost all of one type of unit (either all their heroes or all their minions).
Finally, we moved to a command token system. On a player’s turn, they can place two command tokens to activate two different units. That’s it, no complication or limitation. There is no need for a distinction between heroes and minions, and no shoe-horned list building. This gives players the freedom to activate the units they need when they need them. Some people may worry that this is a “reduction of skill” because it’s an easier system to get used to. However, all we did was remove the arbitrary confines the rules were placing on players, and allow them more freedom, more choice in what they do. A system that allows for more choices actually requires more skill, because instead of simply adhering to the strict patterns the rules force you into, the player who wins will be determined by who made the best choices throughout the game. The more choices the players have available, the more skill is required to make the proper choices. The fact that it is easier and less clunky is also a huge bonus.
Getting activation right in Relic Knights was a long road that required some tough decisions, but we ended up with a fun and elegant system that allows players to build the lists they love while also making interesting and important tactical decisions.
Relic Knights is returning with a brand new edition!
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