Game Critique: Microsoft Studio Stacker card game

I usually like to talk about parts of games that are well designed, or how they could even be made better with simple improvements. But today, I’m going to critique one that I do not believe accomplished its design goals. I will also provide my solutions for the issues.

Just before GDC 2019, Microsoft announced their game platform, Microsoft Game Stack. They were demoing and giving away free copies of a tabletop card game Game Studio Stacker at GDC in the first area (named the Game Stack Lobby Lounge) attendees enter before heading to the expo floor. So first off, I think it’s wonderful that Microsoft explored the intersectionality of digital and tabletop design with this game. As a professional tabletop game developer, I was pumped with medium-high expectations. Maybe this is why I was so disappointed and am confused by certain design choices.

I was told by the demoer that the goal of this game (in addition to promoting their new platform and draw attention to their lounge) was to “bring people together” at GDC. It’s important to know that this is where my expectations were set. If you know anything about GDC, you’re aware that conference goers are rushing around to meetings or sessions, or to grab food or go back to their hotel for a quick nap. The game defied these goals in two very large ways: the suggested playtime is 60-90 minutes and is competitive with minimal player interaction. There are of course other goal-defying issues, but I’ll analyze those later because I believe the aforementioned parts are larger issues and high level addressing/solving those first will let me better address the randomness issue. I’m going to do this by using the existing components and playmat, which btw, I think are beautiful and do a lot to intrinsically communicate what the players do. I’m also going to try my best to not address the rulebook document itself, because I write rulebooks and my company follows a different style than others and that’s okay (but I have opinions that it is Not Good™; there’s no components list and the setup is in paragraph format with no numbers/ordering and there’s sadly lots of screeching on my end).

Proposed design changes: make this a cooperative card game in which all players are working towards building a successful games studio with multiple successful games; give it a 10-15 minute playtime (maybe even less than 10 minutes of playtime, but that’s a stretch goal);

Solution 1: Make the game co-op

Player vs. the game: In order for the game to be co-op, I have to change who the players are competing against. What does it take to win and what elements prevent them from doing so? The primary goal changes from “be the first to make the most games” to “publish a game with your team”. They’re competing against the game environment instead of each other, and additionally all players are a team and can play cards to help each other.

Turn actions: Sharing game concept cards, giving event cards to others for their turn, off-turn assisting players with what they’re trying to accomplish, etc.

The goal: With a co-op game, the goal of being the first player to have 8 stars worth of games doesn’t fit anymore. The new goal is to survive your first five years as a new studio using a threshold mechanic. A round (each player taking one turn) is a year, and at the end of five rounds, if your group has a certain number of stars, you win!

Solution 2: Make the game shorter

Reduce the card count: The game combines event cards and team member cards into a “studio stacker” deck consisting of 119 cards. There are three types of cards in this deck that serve completely different purposes: team members (60 cards), publish events (23 cards), and studio events (36 cards). Instead, only have enough cards from each player to have touched maybe 10-12 cards the entire game. In one example, players go through two to three team members each, instead of there being 10+ for each player. Another example is that the game has 33 game concept cards. It’s good variety, but too much for a 2-5 players game that should only take 10-15 minutes (that’s 6+ game concept cards for each player in the largest game and 15+ cards in the smallest game. Both of those are too much). I propose bringing this down to 3 game concept cards per player (15 cards total) in the largest game. Still, a lot, but I want to be careful of players not feeling like there’s enough content right from the start because all this information with be shared in our co-op game.

Split decks and reduce turn actions: I would also split the studio event cards, publish event cards, and the team member cards. I was hoping to not have to change these components, but they all have the same card back and to make deck sorting easier, they should be unique. Splitting these up allows me to redesign turn actions to be: recruit team members (draw from the team members deck), play a studio event (from your hand, assuming you have any, then redraw), and work on a game (moves a game up the game concept track). Publish events are already build to have good and bad consequences, so when a game hits the “Publish” slot, players will draw from the publish event deck to see how their game does in the market place. I would want to put some other caveats on these as well, such as more senior team members working on the game means it’s less likely to be hit by a negative publish action. In this world, I’m unsure how to get players to engage with negative studio events, so that’s something I need to think about more, but I think the best solution may be to remove them or repurpose them to occur at some other time.

Misc: Max hand size may be good at three instead of seven, reset your hand instead of take a turn, give cards to others.

The changes are high level changes, ones that have an influence on everything else in the game. I don’t want to dive too much into the ruleset in this post, mostly because it took me a month to even have some time to write down these thoughts.

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