Last Will of the Emtar - mechanics postmortem

Typically I'm pleased with how game ideas turn out. They're fun either immediately or after a little work. This is the first time I was ever really disappointed in an idea. The final game contains significant compromises to the original idea. Many of the game's imbalances are the result of gameplay elements being affected by changes near the end of development, in order to salvage the overall experience.

It's a tile puzzle tower defense game. Tiles are active or inactive based on their orientation relative to adjacent tiles: all the contacts must touch contacts of the opposing color. This is where "nemesis" came in. Defensive towers only operate when their tile is active.

Quite early in the development I realized this is way harder to play than I expected. First of all, if you change one tile you affect all four tiles around it, like a huge Rubik's cube. Also, that sea of red and blue is disorienting. Just look at it. If they weren't highlighted, how quickly could you pick out the active tiles? I considered changing the rules so that you had to match colors rather than mismatch them. This is far more common in puzzle games, and it was slightly easier. However, since this was my main link to the theme, I decided to stick with the mismatching mechanic, come what may.

(I did, however, get a story out of it. The disorientation of mismatched colors became the central plot point. If you like stories like this, I think the payoff at the end of the game is well worth it. Among my games, this has one of my favorite stories.)

And that's only half the mechanics. Then you have the tower defense elements on top of it all. I originally conceived TD mechanics that made extensive use of the tile layout. eg, traps that would swap the tile the enemy was on with a farther back tile. Before I even implemented them, though, I knew it would greatly exacerbate the playability nightmare. So I quickly replaced those devices with more traditional guns and traps.

Still, in the middle of a wave, it was nearly impossible to recover if one of your towers became disabled. There was no point doing anything during a wave except sit back and hope your defenses hold. Obviously not that fun. I finally made several large changes to make it possible to recover from a few disabled towers.
  1. Added a device that changes the colors of any tile so as to activate it in one click.
  2. Enemies originally attacked by randomly changing the colors of a tile. I changed it so that they rotate the tile left or right (much easier to undo).
  3. Enemies used to remove any tower on tiles they attacked, now they leave the tower but disable it.
  4. Enemies used to attack (and rotate) tiles adjacent to towers. This would disable the tower without making it immediately clear which tile was attacked. Now enemies only attack towers directly.
With these changes in place, the game is playable, but about half the tools in your arsenal are worthless or close to it. You never need a different strategy than put a bunch of lasers, which is what players seem to be doing. So, the gameplay variety was hurt, but at least the game is playable.

In retrospect, I probably could have guessed early on that this would have happened. I think in the future I'll be more critical of complex game ideas. Thanks for reading!