We’re glad to present an interview with David Sirlin, a famous video and tabletop game designer and fighting game player, the developer of Codex: Card-Time Strategy.
The interview features the captivating story of the 10-year history of Codex and problems it tried to solve, as well as answers to the question why this game is so successful and which faction David likes best himself. Read on!
Hi David, to the people who don’t know about David Sirlin, who are you? What do you do?
I’m a game developer and former pro fighting game player. I wrote the competitive gaming book Playing to Win and I was lead designer of Capcom’s Street Fighter HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter HD Remix.
I’ve designed and published several tabletop games, including Yomi, Puzzle Strike, and Codex, and I’m currently working on a video game called Fantasy Strike.
How did you start designing games and board games in particular?
I worked in the video game industry for a long time. As I worked at several different companies, and did consulting for lots more companies, I saw so many of them make bad games.
I started to realize one of the reasons they made bad games was each company’s “burn rate”. That means the amount of money they have to pay employees every month. If a game needed, say, 8 more months of development, maybe they could only afford 1 month of salaries, so they’d have to finish and release it anyway.
I wanted to make a game that I thought was very good quality, so I started thinking about how to not fall into the burn rate problem.
By developing a card game, I wouldn’t have to pay a team of programmers every month for a long time. I could do all the graphic design myself. For character art, I could pay contractors. If such a game needed more months of development, I’d only have to worry about my own expenses, rather than the expenses of a whole team. This way it could take as long as it needed.
This is how I developed Yomi. It turned out that getting the art I needed for Yomi took so long that I developed Puzzle Strike and Flash Duel while waiting for the Yomi art to finish.
You have a long experience with developing video games. Which kind is hardest to make: video or tabletop games? And how is design process different in these cases?
Video games are much harder. It’s because they are inherently so much more expensive, that they really do require a team (which then involves lots of coordination, communication, and staffing issues), and on top of all that, they are software projects. Developing software of any kind is difficult. In addition to all these headaches and expenses, you also have to make a game that works and is fun, too.
We’ll get to your recent tabletop game Codex in a minute, but now tell us about your other board games: Yomi, Puzzle Strike, Flash Duel, Pandante. They all seem to borrow concepts and ideas from fighting video games and share the same universe, correct? How did experience with them help you design Codex?
As I mentioned before, I was lead designer of Street Fighter HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter HD Remix.
Yomi is sort of like Street Fighter in card game form. And Puzzle Strike is sort of like Puzzle Fighter in tabletop form. So I was definitely inspired by those games. Both those games, and Flash Duel as well, feature the same 20 characters from the Fantasy Strike universe. So you get to see each character express their personality and playstyle across the mechanics of many different games.
My game Pandante is sort of close Texas Hold’em, but to me it’s the bluffing mechanism at the center of the game that it’s really about. Pandante is kind of a spin-off game in that it’s the game the pandas (such as Lum) in Fantasy Strike play.
Codex also features Fantasy Strike characters, though its theme is like real-time strategy (video) games. Think of Starcraft or Warcraft 3. The needs of this style of game were different enough that I couldn’t quite make my standard cast of 20 work, so it features 11 returning characters and 9 new ones.
I don’t know if there was any particular thing with my earlier games that helped me design Codex. I just had more practice with graphic design by then, and more practice designing and balancing things. Hopefully I get a little better at these things over time, but I don’t know.
It says on the official website that it took over 10 years to design Codex. How did it start? What was the hardest thing to design in Codex?
Yes it took over 10 years. I wasn’t working on it as a main project that time, so I would take breaks and come back to it, but it was ongoing over that long of a time. It started out very different.
Originally, it was sort of like a set of pre-constructed Magic: the Gathering decks that were all tuned to play well against each other, plus the idea that hero characters should be more prominent in the design.
The central design problem that I aimed to solve though, is why you’d want to play such a game for years and years even if there were no new cards. CCGs generally rely on constant new cards to remain interesting and they do not even attempt to do otherwise, nor claim that they even would be interesting to play for years without buying new cards all the time. But in my world, people play Ken (Street Fighter character) for 10+ years. So why can’t they play a given deck in a CCG that long? Because there just isn’t enough to these games without a constant influx of cards. Their matchups are not really deep enough to play the same ones for 10 years.
This was an incredibly difficult problem to solve. I tried at first to add new layers on top of standard CCG stuff that allowed players to express more nuance. I knew from the start that making a complicated genre even more complicated was probably a bad idea. What I quickly found is that my early attempts succeeded at adding tons of depth, but were almost unplayable due to how overwhelming they were. Analysis paralysis in the extreme.
I then changed course to try to go “wide” instead. That is, offer the player a much wider set of strategies than they would normally have access to in this genre of game, so that you can play differently every time you play (even with the same “deck”). It took me quite a while to realize that this approach was going to be very good. At first I was too cautious about the number of cards you should be able to build from as you play, but as soon as we started using card binders (the “Codex” the game is named after), it really started coming together.
So while the core concept of the game is to let you build your deck as you play from your own pool of cards, there’s something unrelated to this that I think ended up being the hardest thing to design. It started as an experiment one day of the form “what if the game was completely asynchronous?” That term means you’d be able to play through your entire turn without the opponent doing anything. Asynchronous games are really great to play online because you can take your turn while you’re waiting for a bus or something and your opponent doesn’t need to be there. Codex was massively synchronous at the time, like Magic is, such that your opponent interacts with you 100 times per turn or something.
The first experiments with making the game asynchronous were very interesting and unexpected. Very quickly, we were able to make the game “mostly work” where your opponent made no decisions. We actually assumed the game would be worse and too shallow. What we found instead was that something like 90% of the interactions we removed didn’t affect the depth of the game at all. All it did was change situations from one thing being the optimal play to some other thing being the optimal play. The striking thing was how much FASTER it was to play. Our playtesters really liked it a lot, more than I would have expected, simply because it felt better to play.
The most difficult thing to design in making the game asynchronous is how you handle attacking and blocking. It’s easy enough to say what you attack with, but difficult to have the opponent say what they block with if they aren’t allowed to make decisions on your turn. I had many, many attempts to handle this. The problem is far more difficult than I would have guessed, and many of my systems would mostly work, but ultimately be broken for some reason, or have rules far too complicated if they were not broken.
Codex on Tabletopia
It took at least 1.5 years, if not more, to solve just this one problem. The ultimate solution is something called the “patrol zone” in Codex. This allows you to set up your defenders in a special zone, and give each one a different bonus. It’s simple, elegant, and it works. It worked so well that when we asked our testers “What if we didn’t care about the game being asynchronous anymore? Should we get rid of the patrol zone?” They all said NO. They really loved how it worked, regardless of if the rest of the game supported asynchronous play or not, so I knew we were really on to something.
For those not familiar with the game, please tell a bit about how it’s different from other customizable card games out there?
It’s quite different actually, but it’s a bit hard to explain because it’s different in so many ways at once.
The central concept is that you have a Codex (card binder) full of cards that represents everything you could possibly do. Think of it as “all the things Zerg can make in Starcraft.” You wouldn’t build all of that every time you play Zerg; instead you’d choose a different subset of things each time you play. And you don’t choose that subset before the game starts. No, you choose it on the fly as you play the game, based on what your opponent is doing.
The way it works in Codex, your opponent doesn’t know which cards you’re pulling out of your binder and putting in your deck until later when you actually play those cards. Often that’s about 2 turns later. So this is kind of like the fog of war in RTS games, where you don’t have perfect information about what the opponent is building towards.
The card draw system and resource system are a bit unusual too, and all of this is related. For the resources, I very much wanted them to be non-random. I find it stupid if you win or lose a game because you or your opponent didn’t draw enough land cards or something. In Codex, you can build a worker up to once per turn, and you have to PAY to do that. You pay 1 gold and 1 card, then that worker will produce 1 gold each following turn of the game.
So you really want to build workers, but the part where it costs 1 card is a big factor because of how card draw works. You have a hand of 5 cards, and you discard your hand every turn and draw new cards, but you don’t just draw 5 again. Instead, you draw the same number you discarded, plus two, but capped at 5. For example, if you have 5 cards, then play 2 that turn, you’ll get to draw 5 the following turn. But if you play *3* that turn, you’ll only have 2 left and thus you’ll only be able to draw 2+2 = 4 cards next turn. Often, you’ll find yourself in a position where you need to play 2 cards to the table, but you also really want a worker. Will it be ok to hurt your card draw next turn in order to do that?
Codex has another kind of unusual mechanic in your ability to deny the opponent from doing things. If they want to cast spells, they have to have the correct hero for that spell in play. If they want to build units, they have to have a building that produces the units. In both cases, you can directly attack those things.
So you can attack and kill a hero, and this will prevent that hero from casting spells next turn. Or you could destroy a certain building and prevent the opponent from making that type of unit next turn. This makes the game highly interactive, because you must carefully protect your own buildings and heroes while considering a surgical strike to disable certain weak points of the enemy’s.
The patrol zone, which I mentioned earlier, is another unique element of Codex. It’s a zone that lets you set up your defenders so that they can block attacks on your opponent’s next turn, even without your intervention. There are 5 different bonuses you can give your defenders, because each of the 5 slots offers a different bonus. So it’s pretty fun to set up the most clever use of your defenders this way.
What do you personally like the most about Codex? What are you most proud of?
I’m really glad that the original mission of the game finally worked out. That is, you really do have such a wealth of strategies to pull from your Codex that you can play the game for years and years.
That said, I kind of want to answer “the patrol zone.” It was not part of the original point of the game, it’s something I developed along the way that was very difficult to figure out, but turned out to be really fun and elegant. It was one of the most difficult game design things I’ve worked on so I’m really relieved it ended up working.
What’s your favorite faction to play and why? Can you share how you designed some of the factions and ideas behind them? Some of the cards seem almost a parody, like cute animals, etc. 🙂
There are many, many references in Codex. Cultural references, literary references, parody, even a few memes. I always liked how Blizzard did that kind of thing in their game so that it’s not all so serious and boring, ha.
My favorite faction is red. It was the first faction, and I’ve always liked the super aggressive style of play. The style where your defenses are falling apart and you’ll definitely lose soon, but all that matters is that the opponent loses first. I like the razor’s edge that you live on when you play that style. That said, I was careful to offer a very wide range of styles in the game overall. Red is very different from the other factions.
Codex was very well received by the playing community. It is currently in top 10 customizable games on BGG. What is the reason for such success in your opinion?
Yes it’s been incredibly highly reviewed and rated. The bar graphs of scores on BGG are just astounding, especially the high percentage that rate it 10. It’s actually only as low as 10th place right now because the not enough people have rated it yet (BGG’s rating system inserts hundreds of ratings of about 5.5, so you need thousands of people to rate your game to overcome that force dragging it down). It’s flattering to be in the top 10 though.
I think it’s been so successful because it’s not like anything else. It’s familiar in some ways to CCGs, yes, but it’s designed in this completely opposite way of most CCGs.
It’s designed to be mega deep and offer tons of strategies right out of the box, rather than relying on the usual system where have to buy new cards forever. It’s designed to make almost any matchup you can think of fair and reasonably close to even, rather than more usual system where you try to design a deck that is like 9-1 against some decks and 1-9 against others.
It has a unique mix of mechanics (Codex to build your deck from, investing in your economy, card draw system, buildings/heroes needed to make units / cast spells, patrol zone). And it’s also got so many years of polish behind it that I think people appreciate that it’s executed well and not rushed out the door.
As a video game designer and tabletop game designer what do you think about online board gaming platforms like Tabletopia and digital board games?
While some UI issues with playing Codex on Tabletopia still remain, I think that if a virtual tabletop system were good enough to use, then I think it could be huge. It could become the de facto way that a lot of people play board games.
Codex on Tabletopia
You do lose some of the social elements you get from in-person play, so I don’t think virtual tabletop systems threaten to make physical games obsolete. Rather, I think they are potentially really great because some board game players love their games so much that they just want a constant stream of opponents.
And they want UI that tracks a bunch of the fiddly bits for them in a clean way. I think there’s big demand for this and it all comes down to implementation and UI.
Thank you David!
Happy gaming, and see you at the table!