Spirit Island: Nature Incarnate

Spirit Island: Nature Incarnate

Spirit Reveal: Dances Up Earthquakes
3 months ago
by Greater Than Games
Hello to all 9234 of you! We celebrate every morning with the number of you who keep wanting to back our campaign. Really, we can’t thank you enough. Anyone who’s ever felt the need to move and shake from joy will understand this spirit. R. Eric Reuss and Nick Reale tell us all about the story, design, and development of Dances Up Earthquakes! Of course, there is also a bonus card reveal at the end. Here are Eric and Nick with more!

Story

Dances Up Earthquakes is a Spirit of rhythm, inexorable crescendo, and the earthquake - a sudden unleashing of ground-shaking energy. It is patient, but nearly always in motion; it exults in movement, movement grounded in the earth, but so powerful that eventually the earth itself also moves to the dance, becomes a dancer partnered with Dances Up Earthquakes.


The earth is hardly the only thing it dances with: it will dance with the swaying trees, with the pounding ebb and flow of the surf, with the flickering flames of a wildfire, with humans who shuffle and stomp leap to the beat of drums and hands. It may leap atop a cliff's edge as gulls cry overhead, or pound across sand dunes under starlight. But the living earth and stone beneath seem to be the partner it circles back to, time and again.

It is rarely not dancing.

The Dahan observed long ago that where it went, earthquakes tended to follow - but that if it was dancing with things upon the earth that its devastation rarely touched the area. (It would be a poor dancer that harmed its partner or bowled them over, and Dances Up Earthquakes does not dance poorly.) So if it approaches one of their villages it is made welcome; if it is observed nearby then fires are lit and a dance started in hopes of attracting it - and if that does not work, preparations are made equally swiftly for the quake which will quite likely follow.

Dancing with it is exhilarating, wild, and exhausting; a physical meditation of motion where nature is experienced-but-not-contemplated as movement drives out conscious thought. Its presence may allow humans dancing with it to surpass their usual limits of endurance and grace, though even so, no flesh-and-blood being can hope to match it for sheer indefatigability.

It does not (or will not) command others to the dance, only inspire them. It has tried to dance with the Invaders, multiple times, and has found that as more of them gather together, the less they heed the call to motion. After being fired upon by guns as it approached an Invader City, it has decided that they no longer belong in the dance here.

It has a much more nuanced view of what may be meant by "dancing" than many Spirits (or Dahan) might realize. Even though most of its dancing is the direct, individual, physical sort, it sees greater dances in all aspects of life. There's a story among the Dahan about a time it was found standing perfectly still, limbs outstretched, speaking, and making a dance of its words and its stillness, with the same sense of timing and grace and rhythm and crescendo that it usually has for the physical. The story may or may not have actually happened, but it rings true to the Spirit’s nature.

Design

Dances Up Earthquakes was a later Jagged Earth design - by that point we didn’t really need more designs, but sometimes I’d be in a headspace where doing initial-design work let my brain take a break and recharge. And that timing was a good thing, because this Spirit’s core mechanical conceit needed loads of iteration: it never made it into Jagged Earth testing at all.

That initial mechanical conceit was the idea of Impending power cards.

Earthquakes have massive, incredible power, which builds up slowly over time and is released in an instant. Dancing involves deliberate movement/stillness, very often with considerations of timing or coordination (dancing with others; dancing to music; internal rhythms; orderings of motion determined by choreography, tradition, or the instinct of the moment).

Time, timing, crescendos, building power, sudden release.

Instead of playing a Power Card normally, Dances Up Earthquakes can set it aside (optionally putting some of its Energy on it) to dance it into happening on a later turn. Every turn, each such Impending card accumulates Energy from the supply - and all Impending cards which have Energy meeting their cost are automatically played.

So it might have only one or two Power Cards in play for this turn, but also have accumulated three or four or more Impending Power Cards off to the side that it’s in the middle of dancing up power for, which come into play in future turns. And if it has enough cards in play on a single turn, it can make a really big earthquake.

(This mechanic also means that Dances Up Earthquakes can play Majors of arbitrarily high cost without any Energy, it’ll just have to wait a long time for them to take effect.)

A lot of the early iteration was about “can this even work at all?”, followed by “...and can it be fun?” / “...and how does it impact other considerations in the design?”

Before talking more about some of those initial factors, let’s look at its panel for context:



(This panel references a new icon:

This icon is for Quake tokens, a Spirit-specific token. The dev team came up with these to solve some mechanical issues while simultaneously supporting the Spirit’s main theme, at which they work beautifully - they represent that same “build up potential then unleash it” dynamic as the Impending mechanic, but in a board-focused way rather than a Power Card-focused way. I’ll let the devs talk about the mechanical problem that the tokens solved.) 

Low threshold, High thresholds: One thing that became clear early on was that the Spirit wanted some low, easy-to-hit innate thresholds (for turns where most of its plays were being used to make cards Impending) and some high, hard-to-hit thresholds (to reward timing everything well to a coordinated crescendo-turn), ideally with the lower thresholds helping stall and survive until the big thresholds could be hit could go off. Having really useful middling thresholds encouraged players to mostly ignore the Impending mechanic and just play it like any other Spirit.

The two innates serve these two purposes, and the devs have crafted them so there’s this really lovely dynamic for how the first (Land Creaks With Tension) flows into the second (Earth Shudders, Buildings Fall), both in theme and in multiple mechanical ways: Land Creaks checks Impending cards, leading to Earth Shudders checking cards-in-play; Land Creaks adds Quake tokens, that are used by Earth Shudders; and Land Creaks provides Defend, to stall until Earth Shudders can go off. 

Impending Energy: Another early design question was “how much Energy per turn should get put onto Impending cards, and how strong is this ability?” My first stabs were informed by thought-experiments around concrete examples: I’d specify Effect X and Effect Y, with Y worth 1 or 2 or 3 more Energy more than X, then ask myself (and others), “generally speaking, would you rather have X now or Y next turn? How about if Y was in 2 turns?” This methodology isn’t perfect - humans have a cognitive bias to prefer rewards now over better rewards in the future - but it got me in the ballpark, indicating that +1 Energy/turn was roughly balanced but added little strength, +2 Energy/turn was roughly balanced and added notable strength, and +3/turn was almost certainly too much but might be needed to make Impending cards worthwhile towards endgame (when the value of “do stuff in the future” starts falling off precipitously).


I experimented with both +1 and +2; either seemed plausible, but the latter felt more awesome and better incentivized Impending cards, so I went with that as a starting-point, trusting the playtesters to figure out if it was too strong (which it was) and, if so, the devs to fix it (which they did). You start at +1/turn - but the Spirit now also gets other benefits from having Impending cards, so the value/awesomeness of doing so is higher than my design testing for +1/turn indicated. And you can get to +2/turn as a Presence track reward, which helps with that future-value falloff towards endgame.

Dancing: As discussed above, some very deep fundamentals of this Spirit’s design were informed by thematic truths about both Earthquakes and Dancing. However, it’s also good to try and convey themes closer to the surface, in a more direct/obvious/representational way. “Earthquakes” was the easy part here: damage, perhaps done over a wide area, perhaps to buildings only. “Dancing” is trickier: there are a limited number of ways to represent that in-game. Unsurprisingly, they nearly all involve piece movement.

The two you can see here are the first space on each Presence track: easy access to both “Move your Presence 1” and “Gather 1 Dahan”. The first has always been a part of the design; the Spirit dances across the land. (Not in a singular spatially-limited form, though - it’s not an Incarna Spirit.) I can’t honestly remember if the second was or not - I know its relationship with the Dahan was originally the focus of one of its Innate Powers, but there have been so many iterations I forget exactly what happened when.

4 of its 6 Unique Powers also involve Gathering or Pushing in some way - in two cases as the card’s only effect, in two cases as an addition to some other effect. (One of them lets you Push Quake tokens, which can be important when you’ve wiped out everything in a Quake-riddled land.)

Some of this was part of the initial design; other parts of it came mid-development when tester feedback indicated that ‘dances’ wasn’t coming across strongly enough, whereupon the dev team looped me in and we figured out options.

Timing Adjustment: Growth 3 lets you add or remove 1 Energy from up to two Impending cards, which gives you some ability to adjust timing on the fly. From the earliest days of the Spirit’s design, it was deeply clear that such a thing might be needed, and deeply unclear how much it was needed - if you give too much ability to adjust timing, it undercuts the entire timing game, but if you don’t give any (it turns out), it can be frustrating.

This may be a good place to mention that while the Spirit is Very High complexity, at lower Difficulties the timing game is somewhat forgiving: you can play a bunch of stuff and then figure out how to use it when it comes into play. Even at higher difficulties there’s some of this dynamic: it’s quite rare that you’ll know exactly how you’ll use a Power 4 turns down the road, but it’ll be more worthwhile to set up combos between Powers coming out together on a single turn, and to think about the overall timing of big turns vs down turns. (Plus it’s a trickier balance between short-term survival and long-term impact.) Its Complexity rating is primarily because many players find the additional dimension of “tempo” to be really brain-burning - it can explode the decision-space - and even outside of that, the Spirit has a fair bit going on.

All right - time for some developer notes!

Dev Notes, by Nick Reale

Dances Up Earthquakes was one of the trickiest Spirits to develop, since it had all of the development problems of a normal Spirit on top of having a completely different value for Power Cards, Energy, Plays, and Elements. Rather than attempting to cover the breadth of challenges that we faced, I’m just going to examine the most persistent one: stopping a particular dominant strategy that isn’t fun to play.

The strategy: On each of Turns 1-3, use all of your Plays for making cards Impending, starting with your most expensive Unique Powers, then on Turn 4 resolve 7+ Powers for a monstrously strong single turn. Though the exact details of the strategy changed as we tweaked the Spirit (e.g., there was a while where the most expensive Unique was usually played on Turn 2), the core idea remained remarkably resilient.

There were three reasons we wanted to stop this strategy from being the strongest one (and thus the one that a lot of players would feel compelled to use):
  • It’s basically impossible to balance around. If it’s just strong enough to be viable at high Difficulties, the difference between a blowout victory and losing to Blight is just 1 or 2 Towns in inconvenient locations when Turn 4 rolls around. Also, the strategy would then trivialize lower Difficulties.
  • It bores everyone in the game. The Dances player can write their entire Turns 1-3 on a notecard before wandering off to play video games for half an hour, and then everyone else takes a snack break when that player comes back on Turn 4 to take a turn almost as long as the prior 3 combined.
  • It isn’t fun to play Dances multiple times with this strategy, since it can be played by rote rather than responding to the Invader, Fear, Event, and Power Card decks.

Weakening this strategy by nerfing the Spirit’s Powers directly would hurt other strategies just as much, if not more. And so came the biggest question in this Spirit’s development: how could we incentivize players to have cards in play before Turn 4? It took all of the following changes (listed in roughly the order we started working on them) to get players to get cards into play early.

Make Impending cards arrive more slowly. Impending cards getting +2 Energy/turn made it trivial to get high-value Power Cards into play for an incredibly strong burst turn. We both cut this down to +1 Energy/turn and decreased how many cards the third Growth option could affect. With expensive cards taking longer to arrive, there was more incentive to resolve cheaper cards in the meantime.

Reduce the cost and board impact of Unique Powers. The first version of this Spirit released to playtesters had 6 Unique Powers with an average cost of 3.5 Energy. Getting all of those effects on a single turn was simply too much value, so we steadily cut the costs of the Uniques down to an average of just over 1.5 Energy. We also changed the effects of those Power Cards so that they were all individually useful, but collectively didn’t add up to much progress towards winning the game outright. Playing some of them early for board control would then be stronger than saving them up for a single big turn.

Require playing cards to get Defend via the first Innate Power. Early versions of this Spirit had early on-track Elements that let it Defend with Land Creaks with Tension as early as Turn 2 without playing a single card. Changing Element positions and thresholds encouraged players to get at least one Power Card with Earth into play on both Turn 2 and Turn 3. However, high-experience players would still make the calculated risk of taking extra Blight on those turns to line up their perfect Turn 4, so we needed a more drastic change.

Add Quake Tokens. With the Turn 4 earthquake still having too much value all on its own, even with less game-ending strength in Power Cards and fewer early Dahan counterattacks, we finally took on Earth Shudders, Buildings Fall directly. We needed a way to make its Damage low if rushed without playing cards, but high if used later after playing several cards on prior turns. Adding Quake tokens to Dances Up Earthquakes worked perfectly, since we could use them as an incentive to keep a balance in the early game between cards in play and cards impending. They also made early-game positioning matter quite a bit, since all but one Power that Adds or Moves Quakes does so at Range 0 – even if early turns are simpler than for other Spirits, the player still needs to pay attention to the island.

And that’s how a single degenerate strategy defined the development of Dances Up Earthquakes more than any other single factor.

Major Card: Rumbling Earthquakes

Players have wanted an earthquake Major Power for a while, and Nature Incarnate includes one that Dances Up Earthquakes loves.


Not only can this Power Destroy multiple Cities spread across several lands, but it also gets around the pesky English and Habsburg Health bonuses. Though it’s expensive enough to get played only once or twice a game, even a single use can be decisive, clearing out Cities from multiple lands to win the game outright.


Thank you both again for the updates! And thank you to our backers for supporting us all throughout this campaign. Wednesday brings us our next update to cover the rest of the aspects featured in Nature Incarnate! We’ll see you then, so we hope you’re ready!
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