Enchanted Plumes, a 2-6 player card game that is one-part set collection, one-part press your luck, and a little bit of everything in between, is designer Brendan Hansen’s second published game, and his first with Calliope Games. In this Designer Diary, Brendan takes us through the development process of core aspects of the game.
How a game occupies the space where it is played is vital to our experience of it. Or, put differently, the shape of a game shapes our experience playing it. In the process of visual game design, the designer imagines how the game they’re working on will appear visually at different points in the game, and then designs the components and rules needed to guide their players to that destination. In Enchanted Plumes’ case, I imagined the player’s table full of vibrant peacocks, made of fanned out cards. I knew that differently colored cards depicting feathers would be the core component of Enchanted Plumes’ peafowl courtship theme, but I needed rules for arranging peacocks, e.g., how cards would be added in a systematic manner to create that shape.
I arrived at row-by-row construction of plumes, starting with the largest and tapering to one, one card at a time. This structure laid a risk and reward foundation—larger peacocks are more attractive, have more effort invested into them, and are therefore worth more points. But they are more difficult to construct. This row-by-descending-row mechanic accomplished something else for the design when I integrated a rule that each row can only have feather cards that share a color with a card in the row that precedes it (except for the first which may have any). Each new row, as it tapers down, has both one fewer card and one fewer color than the row preceding it. This rule forces consequential decisions each time a row is passed, ensuring meaningful decision points during the game’s core play loop.
Every card in a peacock is worth points (cards range in value from 0-9) equal to the value on the card, except cards in your initial row, which are worth negative points. This reinforces the risk and reward system that the row mechanic brought to the design. Sometimes, this system also meant that players surveilling their hand would have an obvious next move—a clear path to follow. These turns of obvious decisions, nestled between difficult ones, are a boon for the game. Functionally, they give players a small break and help players experience a sense of flow as their plan executes itself smoothly before them.
In any card game where there’s a mechanic of collecting differently-valued cards, there’s a tension between utilizing the cards you have versus spending resources (time or otherwise) to acquire better cards and utilize those instead. This is a design rule that can be broken, but even poker is made interesting by introducing tension between card quality (your hand) and time (how long your chips, which you trade to increase your card quality, will last). That core tension—working to improve what you have while also making do with what you’ve been given— makes for engaging games.
Tempo in card games represents an opportunity cost. From that conflict between card quality and card quantity, I integrated the rule for how a player approaches playing their cards: each turn a player plays one or two cards from their hand. This gave the player agency over how and when they would play cards, allowing them to trade time for additional cards, or different cards at the expense of tempo. In Enchanted Plumes, when a player decides to play only one card, they give up half a turn of tempo. Playing more cards does not mean that a player will win, as card quality is equally important to quantity in Enchanted Plumes, but it thrusts a core tension into the turn structure.
The scoring system in Enchanted Plumes was a particularly difficult design hurdle until I left room for the game itself to lead me in the right direction. Triangular scoring is a common mechanic in eurogames. The Castles of Burgundy uses a triangular scoring system (1, 3, 6, 10, 15, etc...) for completed regions based on their size, and Sushi Go!’s dumpling cards are scored using triangular numbers. I was working on a game where players are asked to physically construct triangles out of feather cards on the table before them. I realized the game’s form quite literally facilitates triangular scoring, and that each card in a completed peacock should count as a bonus point. Utilizing the physical shape to score was a harmonious design decision: there was a direct parallel between the system and the physical peacock arrangement rules that rewarded players for completing their peacocks, encouraging ambition without making it a dominant strategy.
The final, brilliant touch to Enchanted Plumes came after Calliope Games agreed to publish the game and came from Ray Wehrs and Chris Leder: the last card of a peacock is played facedown. This change made card counting more difficult, added some uncertainty to the system, and players who didn’t want to carefully track other player’s peacocks didn’t feel like they had to. It also brought the card design full circle; the cardback in Enchanted Plumes depicts a peacock’s body, finalizing the motif and rewarding the player with a moment of pattern completion for finishing a peacock, plumage and all. The concept of a table full of entrancing peacocks was fully realized through this rule change, and Echo Chernik’s beautiful artwork became another aspect serving the overall aesthetic goal of the game.
With Enchanted Plumes, my design goal was to create a whimsical card game that anyone could pick up and play. I’d hoped to craft something fun, rewarding, and at times a little heartbreaking (in accordance with its peafowl courtship theme). Enchanted Plumes is a harmonious 2-6 player card game that’s a joy to play from top to tail. It is available from Calliope Games this spring.
Brendan Hansen is a game designer in New Haven, Connecticut. Alongside his strategic wife and calculating cat, he can subsist for days on card games alone. Follow him at @burnsidebh.