I am often asked when designing a new game, do I start with the theme or the mechanics. The answer is ‘sometimes mechanics and sometimes theme. Sometimes a great game mechanic sparks joy and inspires a new design, and then a theme is added later to give the design context for art. In these cases, there is the risk that the theme can feel ‘pasted on’. That’s not always a bad thing. If the game is interesting and well-made, then it can still be a great experience, regardless of the theme not being well-integrated into the gameplay.
However, it is often much more satisfying to play a game that has gameplay and mechanics that feel very organic to the theme. My newest game, Lizard Wizard, was inspired by the title. I was thinking about doing a sequel to the very successful game, Raccoon Tycoon. Raccoon Tycoon was designed as a ‘gateway game’, one that was primarily appealing to entry-level gamers. More dedicated gamers have also enjoyed it, but it wasn’t always ‘meaty’ enough to satisfy them. Therefore, I wanted to offer them a game that had everything that Raccoon had, but more.
Raccoon Tycoon has a very catchy title, and a sequel should have a similar sounding name. So, I started the process by trying to imagine what the title for the next game should be. After a short brainstorm session, Lizard Wizard popped out and immediately struck me as a fun-sounding title. The theme was obvious: Lizards who were obviously magic-users…and in this case, the ‘Lizards’ could be anthropomorphic dragons. It was a hand-in-glove fit with the world of Raccoon Tycoon, which was populated by anthropomorphic animals. But in this ‘magic age’ in the land of Astoria, the Lizards in question were wizards competing to become the most powerful magic-user.
Now that I had the theme, the context for the game, I was ready to dive into the deep end of all things wizardly. Given the volume and popularity of the topic these days, reference material and inspiration was plentiful. For inspiration, I looked at the worlds of child-wizard novels, other more obscure fantasy-themed novels, role playing games, wizard-themed 4X strategy games, magic themed collectible card games, and traditional wiccan/ wizard lore.
These bits of inspiration told me that the game definitely needed to include the following:
Wizards that could be collected as ‘followers’
Spells that gave the player powerful abilities
Seven schools of magic (Druidry, Enchantment, Sorcery, Thaumaturgy, Necromancy, Conjuring, and Alchemy)
Magical Ingredients for those spells
Mana as the primary ‘currency’ in the game
Wizard Towers and other magical places on the game board as the setting for the various actions
Familiars that could aid in actions like ingredient (reagents) gathering, spell casting, and other wizardly tasks
And a dangerous dungeon full of monsters, treasures, and magical items
Once I had the ‘stuff’ of the game, I had to start working on how all of it would fit into the game: the mechanics. This is the hard work of game design, and took me more than a year with a dozen ‘iterations’ of the game, each changing how everything worked together, and working a little bit better as a game.
As the design matured, it became clear that the players should have interesting options, and on their turn, they would choose one of those options:
1) GATHER REAGENTS
Just as there are seven schools of magic, there are seven magical reagents, or ingredients, that fuel the magic of Astoria. Knowing where these natural wonders can be found is the essential starting point for every young wizard. Sometimes they use familiars to perform this errand, but it is still very common to find even the most powerful arch-mages lurking in the Enchanted Wood, searching for the most pure reagents.
2) CONVERT REAGENTS TO MANA
Long ago, the wizards of Astoria learned how to convert reagents into mana, the magical energy that powers all things. The process is no longer dangerous, but it still takes great focus and knowledge.
3) RECRUIT WIZARD
The Arch Mages of Astoria are vying for ultimate power, which can only be achieved by drawing several lesser wizards into their circle of influence. They do this through demonstrations of their magical ability. Occasionally, their attempts to recruit a wizard are challenged by one or more rivals, and a Wizard’s Duel occurs. These contests of magical power can drain even the most powerful mage.
4) RESEARCH SPELL
Arch-Mages have the ability to learn spells from any of the seven schools of magic. Once they have researched a new spell, it still must be cast with reagents (and the help of a familiar) before it takes effect.
5) CREATE A TOWER
Magical Towers amplify the power of wizards of each school of magic. Towers may be created through powerful magic, or built by workers who must be paid.
6) SUMMON FAMILIAR:
Familiars are magical spirits that are summoned and inhabit the bodies of mortal creatures. They are essential servants who perform many vital services for wizards: They can be used for simple errands, such as gathering reagents or gold. They are the only ones who can locate the ever-shifting entrance to the famous Dungeons of Astoria. They are also essential assistants in the complex rituals required to cast spells.
Use the Card for one of four purposes:
The Dungeon is a fun little ‘push your luck’ sub-game where the player turns over cards in the dungeon deck. The cards are either treasure or monsters. If they flip over two monsters (more if they have protective spells), they are defeated, and leave with no treasure. If they stop and return to the surface before that, they can keep all of the treasure that they have gathered.
So, at the end of the day, Lizard Wizard stayed true to its Raccoon Tycoon roots, while offering deeper, more strategic gameplay, lots of magical theme, and beautiful art by Annie Stegg, the artist from Raccoon Tycoon.
The creative process started with the name of the game, which inspired the theme, which led to lots of research into that theme, and finally the mechanics that could bring the theme to life in the context of a fun and competitive game.