Privateer’s (Among Others) Problematic Powers and Game Design

June 10, 2018 in Uncategorized

This isn’t a post complaining about how Boon and Discord are OP. This isn’t a post asking for a nerf to these powers because of their hard-to-respond-to nature.  This post will make an argument that Blast of Discord and Firstmate’s Boon existing in their current forms is bad game design. If, as I posit, these powers exemplify bad game design, we must ask, what is good game design?

To address this we need to look at another game: Magic the Gathering. The lead designer, Mark Rosewater, frequently addresses how one of the core principles of good Magic design lies in maintaining the balance and health of the “Color Pie.” Much like how pirate has 5 classes, Magic has 5 colors. Each color, like each pirate class, is defined in a certain, very specific, way. Why does Mark give the health of this “Color Pie” utmost importance? Moreover, do these 4 arguments have merit when applied to Pirate?

Rosewater’s first argument is that the color pie creates restrictions. According to him, this essentially means that every color has certain things it cannot do, creating puzzles or obstacles for the player. Overcoming the weaknesses or inabilities of a color is at the heart of the game. It makes sense that if, in the game, if every player had access to every type of effect at any time, the strategic aspect of the game would disappear, or at least be mitigated. This argument extends to Pirate101. One frequent demand I see on the message boards is for swashbucklers to receive more team buffs. Team buffs, however, are not something in swashbuckler’s wheelhouse. Privateer is primary in unconditional team buffs, with buck secondary, and musket tertiary. Giving swashes team buffs would mitigate one of the main problems of the class: How do we maximize the value and durability of our companions without a variety of buffs to extend their lifespan and/or damage output?

Similarly, the color pie creates game balance. It tells each color what it can and cannot do, and hence, what it can and cannot deal with easily. This creates a sort of “rock-paper-scissors” metagame where a certain color or build counters other builds while being weak to a third set of builds. These built in weaknesses prevent one setup from running rampant on all others. Every setup should theoretically have certain opposing playstyles it cannot address easily, as well as certain intrinsic weaknesses. Looking at the buccaneer class, we see that it likes to rush early. A build with a variety of htl summons (privy or witch) or a build with traps and movement-based epics (muskets with many overwatch units or overwatch 5) is difficult for buck to address. They must adjust their playstyle to respond. Buck’s intrinsic weakness is their reliance on chains for their damage output. If an opponent creates a situation where the buccaneer cannot chain, the buck is helpless.

Rosewater’s next argument goes hand in hand with the first two. The color pie creates flavor. Flavor can be defined as, simply speaking, the story behind the cards (or in Pirate’s case, powers/epic talents). Rosewater states, “[Flavor] clarifies each color’s philosophy and then extends them to the game by bending mechanics around it.” With a well-defined color pie, each color has a certain philosophy or set of ideals. These ideals form the design of cards. For example, one color may emphasize aggression and direct damage. This would translate to design by having that color’s abilities give the player an early game, offensive advantage. That color would then be generally restricted from having defensive, stalling abilities. The player would then have to address and solve the problem of how to survive in the mid to late game on their own. Let’s go back to the question of swashbucklers and team buffs. Team buffs are not in buckler’s wheelhouse, as stated before. But do team buffs make sense from a flavorful standpoint? I do not think so. The buckler class is supposed to represent a rogue or assassin. Rogues and assassins generally work alone, as stealth is hard to maintain in large numbers. Thus, the rogue would see any helpers as expendable allies whose lives are all but meaningless to him. Why would he be a team player? Therefore, team buffs don’t make sense for bucklers.

On the same token, Rosewater also believes that the color pie creates personality during gameplay. This argument is a simple one. Imagine that you were playing Pirate and every player had access to every power and epic ability. Build variety would decrease, since the players would just use the most powerful abilities and talents. Sure, it would be fun to be all-powerful, but that fun would shortly get boring. Having 5 distinctly defined classes in pirate gives each class not only a specific flavor (ideology outside of gameplay), but also a distinct personality (the “feel” during gameplay).

I’ve addressed why the balance between the 5 classes is necessary, but every rule has exceptions. Rosewater addresses these exceptions, calling them either bends or breaks. A bend is an effect totally out of a color’s wheelhouse that doesn’t completely nullify or counter one of that color’s key problems. A bend also should feel like it still belongs in that color by somehow attacking it to the color’s flavor. Bends should show up infrequently on powerful, rare cards.  A break, however, is an effect equally out of a color’s wheelhouse that does nullify or counter one of that color’s key problems. It is much more egregious, and may not seem like it still belongs.

How does the philosophy of bends and breaks mesh with pirate abilities? I said before that bucklers, rightfully so, don’t receive team buffs, but Black Fog is a team buff. How do we reconcile these two things? I believe that fog is a good example of a bend. Hiding is clearly mechanically and flavorfully in buckler’s wheelhouse. Hiding your team doesn’t necessarily address the problem of companion survivability, as they can still be hit with aoe’s, or lose the hide from scent. Another example of a good bend is Buccaneer’s “The Reaper.” Aoe attacks are not in the buccaneer’s wheelhouse traditionally. However, by making the aoe limited range (only affecting adjacent tiles and not allowing movement) and flavorfully dependent on his weapon (the attack does more damage with a stronger weapon and represents the buck wildly swinging the weapon to knock back attackers). It also plays up to their mechanical strengths, forcing units to walk into their hold the line again to attack or pass them.

Pirate also has the ability, through pets and gear, to get other classes’ powers. Although these powers are obviously completely unrelated to other class (a fort is not mechanically related to musketeers), they are restricted enough in number to make them balanced (privies are able to get more forts than all other classes) or they would put the user at a disadvantage (a musket using 4-5 absorb pieces is at a massive offensive and heal disadvantage).

Breaks, as Rosewater posits, are dangerous to the game and its balance. This philosophy is true in Pirate. The most infamous example of a break was the original Moo Robe. Now every class had access to powerful summons (I don’t count Stygian Chorus from the Hydra, its summons are extremely weak) with their own reduces. Lacking your own Moo robe meant that your entire team would be reduced for at least 5 rounds, allowing your opponent to run roughshod on your own team. This robe’s power level lowered the “personality” of pvp matches. Everyone had to run Moo Robe to win frequently. Another power that I think is a “break” for ranked pvp is Time Warp. Due to how pets work in rank, if your pet spawns in the first couple of rounds, you are guaranteed a 3 round highland’s charge along with 2 ranks of relentless. This power is universally available. Increasing haste only exists in buck and witchdoctor (witchdoctor gets longer term and smaller increases compared to buck’s short term and large increases) currently, and neither class can increase haste by 2x for this an extended period of time. This talent addresses other classes’ inability to effectively rush immediately.

Now we return to the original topic of discussion: Firstmate’s Boon and Blast of Discord. I believe that both of these powers (particularly Boon when paired with hidden pirates) are breaks in class balance and are thus bad game design. If Boon and Discord represent abilities outside of the Privateer wheelhouse, what exactly is within and without of their normal scope of abilities? Also, why exactly are these two powers out of the wheelhouse? The pirate website says the following about privateers:

“Privateers are born leaders, commanders who can rally their troops to victory through the most desperate of battles. Privateers can recruit more Companions than any other class, and their powers focus on boosting their Companions’ capabilities and healing them in the thick of the fight.”

From this we see that one would expect buffs and heals are within the scope of the class. In addition, one would expect the class to be primarily defensive and grindy. Most of their damage comes from keeping their companions alive and attacking throughout the fight. They have access to medium-low damage attacks in the Gunnery line, but burst damage is NOT in their wheelhouse (hence why many bring 1-2 Assassin’s Strikes as a finishing move). And that is precisely why Boon and Discord are so problematic. Privateers are given a way to obtain burst damage through these two powers, clearly a weakness of the class. They can access these abilities without sacrificing many of their naturally high defenses. These powers follow one tenet of a break, but I’ll further my case by showing they violate the principles of good design.

  • Both powers remove restrictions. Privateers are supposed to be controlling, slow players. Now that inability to burst damage out of nowhere is removed. Discord can do thousands of damage to the enemy team (although it does require adjacency and damaged units, which does give a decent restriction. It’s not enough to make it good design). Boon, when paired with a charging unit, can do burst damage from across the board. It is companion based, but once again, the damage is too high to justify it.
  • Game balance is violated. Privateers now have the best defenses in the game, coupled with the ability to do burst damage. An integral weakness of the class is removed through these powers
  • This is a bit of a weaker argument, since other classes aren’t getting boon or discord. However, the strength of these abilities makes them a must-use whenever one is given the opening. This does remove some personality from the matchup
  • These abilities also make little or no sense given the flavor of the class. Privateers are not known for being able to directly target (let alone essentially charm) opposing units. I understand the concept was creating a spell to represent a “mutiny” of sorts on the other team, but I feel that it fell short. The units should be turning on only the captain, not each other AND the captain. Flavorfully, the current blast of discord makes much more sense on witchdoctor. Charming is part of the witch class, as is doing it magically. Boon kind of makes sense flavorfully, as it represents the captain sacrificing his own offense to augment his firstmate’s. However, I view the flavor of the spell as the firstmate valiantly defending his friends from an opposing onslaught

With these critiques in mind, here is how I would redesign these two abilities:

  • Mutiny! (Formerly Blast of Discord)- All enemy companions run to their captain, attacking him/her once. This attack can critical, but will not trigger chains. This ability will not affect a hidden unit and will not affect hidden or undamaged units.

This ability does a better job at representing a temporary, magical mutiny, while increasing the spell’s defensive applications and decreasing its offensive value. It can essentially counteract a rush, while setting you up to use Emmett’s slows on the whole team or cast Big Guns the following turn.

  • Firstmate’s Boon- Increase target companion’s weapon power and primary stat, while decreasing your own weapon power and primary stat. This buff only functions in a three square radius of your pirate. If the unit leaves this radius, both the buff and debuff will disappear permanently

This tells a better story. The captain valiantly sacrifices his power to buff his firstmate’s, allowing the firstmate to drive back the opposing charge. This makes mechanical sense, as it focuses on the defensive nature of privateer (by restricting it to around the captain), while still maintaining some sort of offensive buff. This is a good “bending” power in my opinion.

What do you think? Do you think these powers are properly designed? Are there other powers that are breaks in class balance?

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