I first became aware of Carl Chudyk through Glory to Rome. I had heard about its notorious art and packaging, but also that it was a great game if you could get past the graphic design. It came in an unorthodox plastic clamshell and the cards were garishly coloured. It was pretty baller. And the game, oh what a game. Glory to Rome has such a rich system with multiple uses for each card and a really cool card flow where cards can be used to execute actions but then become materials which can then be collected to construct buildings. I really like the game and how all its pieces work together, and it’s still a game that I come back to from time to time.
The next Chudyk-designed game I played was Innovation. Glory to Rome’s building powers were pretty powerful and it felt really great to complete a building and pull off some crazy actions. Innovation took this idea and ran with it. Each card in Innovation is unique, and they let you do a lot of things that can feel downright unfair, until your opponent then turns around and does something even more ridiculous. The game could feel like dueling with ICBMs, but again it had a system of using cards that was pretty novel with the scope of your actions being dictated by icons on the cards you had played and allowing splaying of the cards to reveal additional icons.
The latest of his designs that I have played is Impulse. I’ve only played it three times so far, but I really appreciate its design. It is another card game but this time it also uses spaceship pawns as it is themed around space exploration and combat. It also has pretty swingy powers, and I’ve had a game where a player went from 4 to 14 out of 20 points needed to win in a single turn. It still uses the cards in fairly clever ways and shares some elements with the design of Glory to Rome and Innovation.
After playing Impulse, I was left with a deep impression of it being a “very Chudyk design”. I understand that Carl Chudyk has designed other games, and it sounds like FlowerFall at least is a major departure from the three games that I’ve mentioned above. However, I do feel that my enjoyment and appreciation of Glory to Rome, Innovation and Impulse is based on some common mechanical themes. I don’t actually know much about how Carl Chudyk came up with these three designs, and I have a suspicion that the genesis of the games could have been quite different even though they ended up sharing some mechanics.
Aside: I actually really like the idea that you can tell a designer from their games. Reiner Knizia’s games usually utilize some clever auction or scoring mechanics, and are usually extremely elegant to the point of being themeless. Uwe Rosenberg designed the “harvest trilogy” (or is it quadrilogy now?) where he used the harvesting/growing mechanic to support different game designs. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that every designer is pigeonholed and sometimes the hallmark of a designer could be non-mechanical. Friedeman Friese usually incorporates a green colour scheme into his games and likes alliterative titles using the letter F. Vlaada Chvatil’s ruleboooks are usually set out in a way that separates gameplay guidance and rules reference and often incorporate some humour. I do like it when an artist’s (and I do consider game designers artists) personality shines through their work.
Having played all three games, I wanted to take a look at the mechanical themes that I enjoy in each of the games and discuss how they have been used. I think it’ll be a good exercise to explore the themes and design and see what I can learn from them.
Multiple Uses/Contexts for Cards
All three games are almost purely card games with a playmat that acts as more of a reference sheet and to help you arrange your cards (with the exception of Impulse, which has powers on the playmat and uses plastic ships in addition to the cards), so it’s not surprising that they try to maximise the utility of each card. It is seen most clearly in Glory to Rome, where each card has 3 distinct uses: as a building, as a material and as a client/role. A key part of Glory to Rome is interacting with and taking advantage of the card flow, as cards that get used to lead a role enter the common pool to be collected as materials or clients which can then be used to complete buildings and boost roles.
The cards in Innovation are primarily used for their dogma powers, but also can be evaluated based on the icons that they provide when splayed. However, splaying is not easily controlled and the icons are considered as part of the dogma action so this could be considered still the same use of the card. A clearer example in Innovation is the use of the cards as score and as domination markers. Domination markers don’t really count since it doesn’t really have any reliance on what the card is, but the game allows various ways of interacting with scored cards. In the expansions, the utility of the cards is further increased through the forecast and echo effects.
In Impulse, the cards provide actions that can be activated in various ways such as through the common Impulse track, your personal plan track, your personal technologies, and the common play area/star map. Each card also has a colour and rank denoted by the icons on the card which are then referenced in various ways throughout the game, especially for boosting your actions. The cards also function as the hex tiles that make up the playing area, and there is an interesting mechanic when you explore a tile where you get to take the card from the space and then replace it face up with any card from your hand to be activated.
The common thread between the three games is economy of components through compression, where a single game piece (cards) is used in various ways. From a publisher’s point of view, this can be convenient as you can reduce the costs of producing different components for the game. For a game, it makes it difficult to have “strictly better/worse” cards since you can appreciate them from different angles and makes it easy to provide more options to a player although the downside is that it can be overwhelming until you’ve played a few times. It also presents more opportunities to make choices, if the cards have exclusive modes, or to build up more varied advantages, when the modes are not exclusive. As an example, in Glory to Rome the building option is an exclusive one as it rarely gets to be used as anything else once it’s built. However if you use a card to lead a role, it enters the common pool as a material or a client to be collected.
Compression can lead to incredibly complex interactions which are trickier to balance, and this is a common criticism leveled at these three Chudyk designs. I feel like they are balanced in such a way to quickly escalate the game to a clear conclusion, which is impacted by the amount of randomness in his games. However, without some randomness I fear with experienced players the path of the game could be set based on the order of play. The philosophy of game balance is something that is quite interesting which I think warrants a separate discussion, so I will leave it at that for now. In other games, I think Lewis & Clark and ZhanGuo do a good job of compressing multiple uses in their cards. I like the interesting choices that arise from compression and the ways you can tie them together, but I’m still quite wary of using it as it carries a heavy development burden.
The three games being discussed also each have in-built ways to boost the power or efficiency of player actions. In Glory to Rome, you only get to lead or follow with a single role, which usually only gives you one activation of that role. If you already have clients that match the played role though, you get additional activations for each of those clients as well which can lead to some downright unfair actions. Innovation uses it explicitly with some of the card powers where the magnitude of the effect depends on how many Icons you have or depending on the Ages of cards that you have. However, there’s also another boosting effect in amassing more Icons as it either allows you to affect more players or to exclude more players such that the action becomes relatively more beneficial. Impulse uses the icons or gems on the cards in a similar way to Glory to Rome, where certain actions can be boosted if you have amassed icons that match the colour of the card you use or commit more ships to activate those actions.
There’s a joke in the design of Magic: the Gathering that many mechanics designed for that game are variations on Kicker. Kicker is a mechanic used in Magic where an additional cost can be paid to alter the card being played, usually paying more to receive a stronger effect, which is a form of action boosting. Eminent Domain is another game that uses action boosting in the vein of Kicker, where a cost is paid at the time of the action to increase its effectiveness. Action boosting in Chudyk’s games are instead tied to investment, where you are rewarded for investing early on in ways to boost your later actions. This is actually prevalent in other games as well, but Chudyk really shines the spotlight on this aspect in his games.
The way that action boosting is used in the three games is always driven by player choice. In some games, actions will become more powerful over time regardless of player input. You see it a lot because it builds an arc of progression where you start of small and build up to bigger things, culminating in an eruption of points points points everywhere. However in Chudyk’s triad, you have to put in some work to get the more powerful effect. It gives you that sense of progression but also a sense of agency as you specifically chose to improve on the actions in that specific way. The implementation is also usually more open-ended than other games where the game design largely dictates how your actions improve over time. There’s also some positive reinforcement or resonance as your boosted actions could lead to even more powerful boosted actions down the line. This is probably why Chudyk games tend to feel a “snowball effect” or feel like an ever-escalating arms race, where powerful actions beget more powerful actions until someone ends the game.
The design of an action boosting mechanism will be closely tied to the progression arc of a game. You’ll want it to build up slowly and give the player rewards for their early investments, but not too quickly lest the games feel too short. The oft repeated adage is that well-paced games should leave you wanting “just one more turn” but no more than that. In this respect, I’m not sure Chudyk is the best practice to follow but his action boosting systems do make me excited for what I can do with them and that is a feeling I would like to duplicate in my own designs.
Sharing and Interactivity in Player Actions
Glory to Rome and Innovation are both considered to be “tableau builders”, which is a subset of card game where you lay down cards to form your own unique tableau or pool of special abilities. Probably the most well known tableau builder to board game fans is Race for the Galaxy. In Race for the Galaxy, one of the core mechanics is the simultaneous action selection phase, which has its roots in San Juan and Puerto Rico. In those games, players select an action which can then be taken by every player but with a bonus to the player selecting the action. Glory to Rome and Innovation both use similar mechanics to allow players to “share” in actions. The key differentiator from Race for the Galaxy and the like is that Chudyk imposes a barrier or prerequisite for a player to join in the fun.
In Glory to Rome, players take turns leading a Role action, which other players can then choose to piggy-back on if they have the same Role cards in hand or as Clients. In Innovation, other players can join in and get the same benefits as the player activating an action if they have at least the same number of civilization icons as the activating player. There is always a decision to be made by the other players to either invest in cards, clients or icons to be able to get “off-turn” actions. This keeps players engaged even when it isn’t actually their turn to choose an action as there are choices to be made.
Impulse uses a different system, but it also involves sharing actions. At the start of each turn, a player must add a card to the shared Impulse track which is then activated in order. You always have to choose an action that gets to be used by the entire group of players, but hopefully still provide the most advantage to yourself. It’s a more passive dynamic than the “lead-follow” and “icon matching” systems in the other two games.
There are other interactive features in Chudyk’s games, such as the Legionary action in Glory to Rome, demand actions in Innovation and glorious spaceship combat in Impulse. However, I like that core systems in the games already encourage player interaction, though less direct, and constant awareness of your opponents throughout the games. Interactivity is a trait that is commonly brought up in discussions of board games. The term “multiplayer solitaire” is commonly used in a derogatory manner, and while I don’t think it is always a bad thing, I do enjoy the interactions that Chudyk’s systems allow. Exclusive actions are usually something you have to work for in Chudyk’s games, and I think this is a good direction to keep in mind.
So here we are, at the end of this post. I’ve looked at what I believe are three commonalities between three of Carl Chudyk’s designs. The compression of game functions in the cards provide you with many tactical options to consider; the action boosting serves the progression arc of the game by letting you build up to more powerful actions; the sharing of actions keeps you engaged with your fellow players. Economy, accomplishment and engagement are my three takeaways from examining why I like his games. I understand that they are far from perfect designs and that his games are not for everyone. I think much of that comes from his philosophy of balance and the implementation of randomness in the games but there are still some wonderful systems that underpin his designs. Still, player agency is another key learning here, as the influence of randomness in each of the games undercut some of their enjoyment since you get the feeling that even with all the options available you can still get screwed over by some unlucky draws.With that in mind, I hope you do go out and try out some Chudyk games and I hope you are able to enjoy them and try to learn from them as I have :)