Design Article #5: Pony Powers

by N.A. Larson

Co-written by N.A. Larson and Ithry Skylark

Over these past few weeks we’ve delved deep into the anatomy of a Pony card, exploring such topics as name, symbols, and keywords. Now, we conclude our discussion of Pony cards with the topic you’ve all been eagerly awaiting: Pony powers.

Pony powers are the main, non-italicized body text on a Pony card. They usually have the format "Power Name (Type): Rules text". The power name is used to explain why the power makes sense for the character portrayed on the card. The power type is a shorthand for the rules text, and the rules text of course explains what the power does. Changeling powers do not use this format, probably for historical reasons, and the clarification text above the power does not count as a power.

A Pony card’s power normally activates when it is played on the grid with Ship card, or when a Pony card already on the grid is shipped with an adjacent Pony card (in both cases, the Ship’s power activates first, if it it has one). Powers that don't activate this way must say so. Common examples are powers that can be activated while in the player’s hand, like Replace, and powers that are triggered by other game events, as with Mrs. Robinson Cheerilee.

So how do you choose a power for your Pony cards? A good option is to choose one of six standard powers, Copy, Draw, New Goal, Replace, Search, or Swap, as these are the backbone of the game, and can fit a wide array of thematic interpretations. But if you want a power that does something else, to add new dimension to the game, or because none of the standard powers fits your character quite right, you can come up with your own Special power. In the remainder of this article, we will discuss the design considerations of Special powers.

There are three basic guidelines to follow when designing Special powers. First of all, a power should be useful, that is, it should help the player, or hinder their opponents. You should be able to answer how the power serves either or both of these functions. If a card is not useful, or is actively harmful to the player who plays it, it will likely not see much play. Second, since TSSSF is a game of shared resources, you must consider the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you, because they will, with the very cards you designed. Therefore, you should design powers that you wouldn’t mind playing AGAINST. Finally, you should actually play a few games with your card in the mix. It is surprising how differently they can work from what you expected, especially when other people use them. Of course, how much playtesting is required depends on how different your power is from existent powers, and how powerful it is.

While these guidelines may seem rather open-ended, there are certain kinds of powers that can cause problems and/or make the game unfun:

Skipping Player's Turns

It's a general unwritten rule of card games that powers that skip player's turns are not a great idea. Powers like this basically read "Certain players don't get to have fun." Coupled with the fact that SOME players get to play their turn normally would make a power like this one even more unfun. Players are here to play the game, so that much should be respected at least.

Long Resolution Times

When designing a power, consider what the implications of performing the actions dictated by the power, especially how long it will take. Everyone at the table is trying to have fun. While some players might consider cards that take a long time to resolve a fun challenge to resolve properly, the other players at the table will likely not agree with them.

Counts As More Than 2 Ponies

This usually isn't a power, but it's worth mentioning. There are many Goals that require multiple Ponies. Cards that count as two ponies are powerful enough. Any more than that makes these Goals completely trivial. Ponies that would normally count as 3 or more usually just count as one for mechanical balance (ex: The Wonderbolts).

Poor Wording

It should be clear what a power does. Anytime players have to stop playing and figure out how a power works, the game isn’t fun. This is especially true for new players. Examples include incompletely specified effects, like a power that says “remove this card from the grid,” but doesn’t say where to put it, or effects that aren’t covered by the game rules, like copying Ship powers onto Pony cards, or playing cards on other players’ turns (if that card meets the requirements of a Goal, who wins it?). That is not to say these effects themselves are bad, but that their interactions need to be spelled out in the power’s text. Wording issues can usually be resolved by proofreading and playtesting.

Searching the Goal Discard Pile

Since there are powers that allow you to search the Ship and Pony discard piles, it may seem reasonable to do the same for the Goal discard pile. However, the Goal discard pile often has high point-value Goals that are easy to achieve given the right cards, so searching the Goal discard pile can result in lots of points for a player with little effort.

Additional Game Elements

TSSSF is intended to be a self-contained game, that is, you only need the cards to play, there are no additional game elements, like notepads, dice, or chips, required.

Powers That Require Skills Not Usually Needed for TSSSF

Meta mechanics vary in popularity from player to player, but you should be wary of powers that require skills not required for TSSSF. For example, a power that makes players do jumping jacks would be unfair to a player in a wheelchair.

Powers That Depend Upon Past Game Events

This follows directly from the last two points: expecting players to remember things that happened in the game before the current turn is not usually required for TSSSF, and recording these events would require addition game equipment such as a notepad or tokens. Examples include powers that need to know how many turns a Pony card has been on the grid, who played it, which Pony cards it has been shipped with, whether it’s symbols, keywords, or rules text has been altered, and so on.

Indirect Triggers

Powers that last as long as their card is on the grid, or powers that trigger when something happens to the card itself, are usually fine. However, powers that trigger when something happens somewhere else on the grid are often forgotten by players.

Objectively Worse Than Standard Powers

Powers that are like standard powers, but with restricted usability, should be avoided. TSSSF is a very flavorful game, and a lot of times one might be tempted to translate flavor very directly into mechanics. You could make a power that allows you to swap an Applejack and a Rainbow Dash, and while this might make sense flavorfully, it isn’t as good as a standard Swap power. The player that draws this is at an immediate disadvantage and might not ever get to utilize this power. Another example is a Pony that can only be played with certain other Ponies. If the required Pony isn’t on the grid, the card gets stuck in the player’s hand.

So, these observations are based on our experience playing TSSSF (and tabletop games in general) and designing TSSSF cards. What constitutes as “fun” varies from player to player, and the nature of TSSSF changes based on which cards are being used and even who is playing, which goes to show why playtesting is so important. Also, playtesting may reveal pitfalls other than those highlighted in this article, or maybe that one of them actually works in some special cases. The bottom line is, there is no equation for making “good” or “fun” powers, and the only way to know for sure is to actually try them out, and get feedback to see if your wording needs to be clearer or the effect needs to be adjusted. Adding new powers to TSSSF actually changes the game itself, so let's make TSSSF the best game it can possibly be!

That’s about all we have to say on Pony cards. As usual, you can ask us questions at, @KefentseTSSSF, as well as on the forums. Join us next time, when we move on to Start cards!