Spellstorm’s Breakthrough Rule

While it is occasionally possible to have a design come together right away, there are times when you need to toil over a design for some time before something changes, and only then will the system start to shine. Many times, this change comes in the form of a breakthrough rule that unlocks the potential of a system. With the Kickstarter right around the corner, I’d like to talk about Spellstorm’s breakthrough rule, one that made the game significantly more fun to play, and why that is.

Spellstorm’s Pre-Breakthrough Rules



I started working on Spellstorm in late 2021 – you can find a bunch of blog posts here about it. Over that time it has undergone a lot of different shifts and twists and turns. But sometime last year, it really became the game that it is now. However, there was still something not quite right. First, let’s describe the rules that you need to know in order to understand this.

At a basic level, Spellstorm has two goals that the player is trying to achieve: either be the first to obtain 8 Storm Shards, or defeat the other player(s). For this article we’ll be mostly talking about the Storm Shards part. The way you gain Storm Shards is through battles, which are:

  • Made up of four “rounds”, which you could also look at as “a combat round”.
  • Each round, players play cards face down and then reveal them simultaneously.
  • A bunch of things happen, cards resolve, they counter each other, you draw more cards, maybe you discard a card, gain some resources, etc.
  • You do that three more times.
  • At the end of the four rounds, the player with the highest BLAST SCORE gains 2 Storm Shards. If two or more players are tied for most, they all gain 1 Storm Shard.
  • BLAST SCORE is gained when you COUNTER an opponent’s card (I played water when they played fire, for example), and when cards explicitly say that you gained blast score.

The story of how BLAST SCORE was marked by the game is long and interesting. Actually, part of it comes from this game’s roots as “Dragon Bridge II” – originally the Blast Score was demarcated by pushing and pulling a token up and down a 1 dimensional track. Then, later on, we changed it to individual blast “tokens” that players would get, which helped support a situation where there were 3 or 4 players involved.

This worked… just fine.

The Breakthrough!

Before I go into the breakthrough rule, there is one more rule that you need to know about. About 1/3 of the cards in this game have a white border and a listed “discard effect” – something that happens when you discard this card. This is on almost all Earth cards (which give you “econ” type resources when you discard them), as well as the “wound” type of bad cards that players don’t want to get (which harm you in some way when you discard them). I mentioned the whole “battle” structure, made up of four rounds, right? Well at the end of those four rounds, you discard your whole hand, and that’s when these “discard effects” would go off. Notably, the cards that you actually play during the battle, are not considered “discarded”, they’re considered “played”, and their discard effect won’t happen if you played them.

An example. The first line says “get two Power” (the econ resource that lets you get better cards later). The grey icon on the 2nd line (also visible in the top right corner) means “discard effect”, and this card’s discard effect is that you gain 1 Power.

Anyway, onto the breakthrough. I had a playtest with a friend of mine one day, and he noted that we have a lot of resources and they are all kind of “similar”. We had gold, mana, health, storm shards, and blast tokens, and they all kind of felt the same in how they moved throughout the game. +1 here, +1 there, very incremental and similar to each other. I noticed this too – A good game design bit of wisdom is to make this not be the case: to force players to have to compare unlike resources, specifically. So I started thinking of some different ways it could work.

What I decided to try was to ditch “Blast Tokens” entirely, and just say, what if the cards in your hand are your blast score? But then I thought, well, it’d already be good to have a huge hand and win Storm Gems. It feels a little bit too strong to then get all the discard effects from a big hand as well (i.e. if you had a bunch of Earth cards with discard effects, giving you a bunch of “econ” type of resources on top of winning storm gems now). So, I thought, maybe the idea is that you don’t score your white bordered discard effect cards for blast score.

It was a huge success. Almost immediately, this rule worked, and not only did it work to solve the problem we were trying to solve, but it solved a different problem that I didn’t even recognize until it went away.

The Drama of Blast Scoring!

Before, at the end of round 3 of 4, you could pretty much tell who was going to win the blast battle. If your opponent had 5 tokens and you had 1, there was almost no way you were going to make that up in one round. All the info was out in the open. This seemed fine to me because it had never been any other way in the years of working on the game.

Having blast score be determined by how many scorable cards you have in your hand, on the other hand, creates a ton of drama. Because now you have SOME information about what the opponent’s blast score is. For example, you know it can’t be higher than the total number of cards they have – if they have 2 cards, they can’t have a blast score of more than 2. So there are some situations where you still might know who will win or lose. However, many situations are like this: you have 4 cards and the opponent has 6. You go through the battle thinking you’re likely to lose – which is true, you are likely to lose. But then, the opponent reveals their hand at the end, and they actually have only 3 scorable cards in their hand and you have 4, so you actually win! Huge upset! The crowd goes wild! This kind of hidden information is super important for any game that is trying to feel like a fight, and Spellstorm really does now, more than ever.

On top of making this resource more unlike the other resources, and making battles feel more exciting and dramatic, it also means that there’s one less “token” or icon to learn about. We already had a “draw a card” icon, so now we can just delete the “gain a blast token” concept entirely, making everything a little bit simpler. It’s a win/win/win!

Spellstorm was already really fun, but now it’s just a total (does this count as a pun?) blast. I also think this concept of a breakout rule is important. While you’re working on a game, it may offer you an opportunity for a breakout rule. When it does, make sure you’re listening.