The Design Origins of Usurper
By Jesse Meunier
USURPER is a fast-paced, highly strategic dark fantasy card drafting and grid placement game for 2 players. You can totally back it on Kickstarter TODAY!
In this post, co-designer Jesse Meunier talks about how we adapted his initial weird as hell Kaiju body part removal prototype idea into something completely different…which would ultimately morph into Usurper.
Kaiju Limb Dismemberment…for the Win?
The earliest iteration of Usurper came partly from a scrapped card game idea of mine. The general theme was pretty macabre; players rolled dice and used abilities to defeat monster cards, then hacked off limbs and pieces from their fallen enemies to construct a horrible Kaiju abomination.
Defeated monster cards would be rotated 180 degrees and slotted in a 3x3 grid as gruesome “equipment,” giving players special abilities and bonuses to certain types of die rolls. Players would play parallel single player rounds against the monster deck before facing off against one another.
When I eventually started designing with my brother, we began the design session that birthed Usurper by pricing out various combinations of components. We find that placing constraints around various parts of the design process such as theme, components, and mechanics often helps to prompt creative problem solving and prevents a design from feeling bloated or unfocused.
After some deliberation about mechanics and component cost, we re-purposed the idea from the Kaiju game to arrange cards in a grid pattern to serve as a game board, limiting the components to 54 cards only.
Experimentation and Rapid Iteration
In one early pre-prototype design of the game, we hashed out the design details on rumpled scrap paper: players would score points by matching groups of symbols on the edges of adjacent cards on their 3x3 grid. In another scrapped version, both players took turns placing cards on the same grid.
“Rapid iteration and experimentation, (followed by obsessive refinement and testing,) is at the heart of our design process.”
While design decisions such as having 4 factions arose naturally out of the 4 suits in a standard deck of cards, the design process started to pick up momentum when we played with the idea that cards could score differently or activate abilities based on their relative positioning to other cards on the game board.
The idea of positional effects eventually evolved to include the creation of cards that interacted based on faction, victory points, card subtype, and even the contents of an opponent’s board.
Nate had been playing a lot of medium-heavy weight euro-games around this time, and we decided that we wanted to strive to capture a euro-esque level of strategy and depth in only 54 cards. While I was less experienced with both playing and designing tabletop games at that time, I have sunk many hours into roguelite video games during the past several years, particularly The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. In Usurper, I wanted to capture the variability of roguelites, where no two runs in a game feel identical.
I came up with the idea to create bonus scoring condition cards to add extra variability between matches, and to help with analysis paralysis in new players by giving them something to strategize towards in the early rounds of drafting. I also feel that the creative layering of card synergies (many of which we did not anticipate until we stumbled upon them in playtesting) are instrumental to both the strategic depth and replayability of Usurper.
Using Tabletop Simulator turned out to be an invaluable tool during the development process. Rapid prototyping became as simple as uploading the card art, diving in, making adjustments, and re-uploading any changes. It also helped us get a LOT of playtest reps in, since we lived a few hours apart during much of the early development phase.
Creating a variety of card abilities and archetypes that lent themselves to varied play styles necessitated adding flexibility in allowing players to choose how they wanted to play. Alternate card drafting seemed like an excellent solution to this issue. During that time period, Nate and I played a great deal of the card game Star Realms. We ultimately based our drafting mechanic on a simplified version of acquiring new ships from the shop in that game.