The Long Journey Part 2: The Many Designs of Gordian Layers

I am unbelievably grateful to say that we actually had a game store open up a half-mile from my house. One that was halfway between school and home. This became a spot where many of the people I knew would wind up spending a lot of time. I believe I probably spent more time than most there. I devoted endless hours and monies that I did not have into making and testing silly decks that might beat the people with jobs at tournaments. I would use the small prize I would get so I could continue to feed my hobby (or addiction, whatever you want to call it!). One thing was certain, however; I made a lot of friends there and it kept us all out of trouble.

When Jack and I started designing Gordian Layers in high-school, we sat down and listed everything we loved to play that did not have a card game made for it already. Our list was pretty long but we settled on one based on JRPGs. Our initial designs had each player controlling a team of three characters, and a deck full of monsters and abilities to throw at your opponent. Meanwhile, items would be available to help you as well as playing support NPCs to a back row that would soak damage for you or become combo pieces.


This system was rife with gotcha moments and lucky draws. There were a lot of flaws with our design though the biggest flaw is that the snowball effect was extremely present here. The first player to lose a team member lost every time. When we introduced healing and revive strategies, the player that drew the most of them tended to win. Cards were difficult to balance because A) we were still just dumb kids and never thought about how to design a card as part of a whole and B) we were stuck in our biases about the games we have already seen and played. We were getting to a point where we felt the fun factor was definitely there but that is when we realized; our game felt too much like the JRPGs we designed it after. After a brief moment where we daydreamed about contacting a company like SquareEnix to ask for rights to a game, we decided we had to scrap the whole concept and start from scratch. We also had no clue about trademarks or copyrights so we kinda scared ourselves out of sticking with this design.

Shortly after high-school, we started creating design documents for what would eventually become what we are selling. This time, we decided to start with what we like about the games we were currently playing. Our list went something like this:

  • Something that we can play a lot of games in a short amount of time (`20 min)

  • Something that let us be creative in play styles

  • We wanted faction based abilities

  • We wanted alternative win conditions

  • We wanted something that was more about choice and less about luck

One of the things we would keep from the first design would be the resource system, pulled from a card game I made based on the anime phenomenon from the 80s Akira. At the time, resources were being experimented with by all the games coming out, each trying to strike the same gold as Magic: the Gathering did and trying to compete with them with the same random pack business model. Instead of having complicated systems, mine was simply to play a card you must discard cards. That was it. This system would prove both flexible and deep enough to keep.

Slowly over time, we came out with more and more cards. Even at this early stage, we generated hundreds of ideas. We were sitting on a deck size of 50 and that felt the most right. The resource system was one where you would draw back to 8 cards every turn. This felt like you never had to feel bad about making crazy plays because you and your opponents were back on equal footing at the end of every turn.

After our falling out of College in 2009/2010, our days were spent fruitlessly applying for jobs and scrounging around our parent’s furniture for enough change to go out and buy $4 bottom shelf alcohol from the local liquor store. Our nights were about getting together with friends to play old SNES games, and a variety of board games together. We had a huge DnD crowd, some 18 people broken up into sub-groups of all sorts of people. Our free time was pretty full so designing Gordian Layers took a back seat to a lot of other things in our lives.

It was then that Jack and I had made some big decisions about our futures, he would stick around and finish college at a local community one, and I joined up with the Air Force. We promised each other to never quit working on Gordian Layers and indeed right before we left we tried to recruit some of our friends on the project to give it some fresh ideas. This time, the game looked more like this:


You would have only one main character this time, but your additional characters would fight along side him. Location cards would represent the places you’ve been and how it has changed you. Support cards acted as passive buffs but challenge cards were kind of like traps. We had kept the gotcha style gameplay while still giving players some information on what they were dealing with.

Players would attack on their turns in groups, attempting to eliminate your opponent’s Hero. The alternate win condition we introduced was called influence, which acted like an inverse life system in the end. Any overkill was turned into influence and the first player to 30 would win. Here’s the beauty of this design, we had eliminated all but one stat on the cards, something we called Combat Prowess. This one stat would determine everything in the game. This was a fun system, but still was plagued by snowballing, the inverse life system felt bland and gotcha moments were still really depressing to play against. However, the game did play in 20 min.

Daniel fell in love with this system and came on board as our *competitive* advantage. He helped us zero in on the cards that felt the worst to play against and why. However, he too was moving to a different state, relegating our entire project to being performed over long distances and over the internet. Then came the boot camp.

By: Jonathan Hansen

To be continued in Part 3: Leveling Up Our Designs

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