Path to Victory – Scrap Heaps Game Development

Recently I dug up an old game prototype I made for a card game called Scrap Heaps. There were a number of reasons I liked the overall design, but looking over the game again after years have passed I noticed some rough spots.

In this post I’ll touch upon the design of Scrap Heaps and go over one of the problems I aim to solve as I take it through the game development process.

Scrap Heaps Overview

Set post-apocalypse, the players in Scrap Heaps control robots roaming the desolate, junk-ridden landscape looking to scavenge spare parts to attach to their chassis while fending off competitors in their quest to survive.

Scrap Heaps was originally designed as a robot-building and combat game, with the goal of utterly destroying your opponents’ robots. By grafting power sources, weapons, and other parts onto your robot you can maneuver around your foes and attack their unprotected components until they are rendered helpless and destroyed. Their dismantled parts form the scrap heaps that you search through in your continuous quest for augmentation and repairs.

Identifying the Roughest Edge

Game development (which, depending on your view, might be lumped in with “game design“) is an iterative process. A game prototype is going to have a lot of rough edges, and one way to shape it is to find the “roughest edge” and file that down or fix it, then go in search of the next roughest part of the game’s design and smooth that out, until eventually things are polished, highly playable, and fun.

Five years after my last work on Scrap Heaps, it took just a little bit of time running over the rules and cards, and, yes, even simulating several turns of a mock game so I could ask myself the question “but does it work?“, before I located the largest flaw: the goal of the game was virtually unattainable.

Essentially it boiled down to a conflict between the building and combat aspects of the game, as long as building and adding parts onto your robot was at least a little bit easier than combat, the positive feedback loop (build power source… next turn use that extra power to build even more components…) made it extremely difficult for players to destroy each other and left the game going on forever.

Focus on the Elements that Work

While the goal of the game was almost impossible to meet, playing Scrap Heaps just to build a bigger, cooler robot was kind of fun. As was playing for the combat, maneuvering around to your opponent’s unprotected side to toast them with a flamethrower, perforate them with a pneumatic drill, and other barbaric weapons that would feel right at home in the Thunderdome.

This seems to dovetail with nicely with something Josh began to describe, enjoying games that are more about being played than being won. Some games seem to play fine, until you pop your head up for a look at the status of the game as a whole and find out that all of the fun you’re having hasn’t helped you get any closer to winning.

Instead, wouldn’t it be great if, when you’re playing the way that feels the most fun to you, you’re also progressing directly along the path to victory?

Games that have a weak connection between victory and fun gameplay tend to stagnate.

Rather than beef up combat (despite my vivid enthusiasm for it combat definitely takes a back seat to building) as a set of game mechanics and allow it to overtake the building aspects of the game, I decided to realign the goals to reward players for doing what already works.

I changed the goal from “destroy your opponents” to “be the first player to reach six victory points”, mainly as a way to allow the game to conclude after a reasonable period (hopefully around an hour). Players are awarded victory points for doing the things that felt fun and that they were encouraged to do naturally in the space of playing the prototype, as follows:

  • 1 vp per component for Technological Superiority: On a player’s turn, if that player has the most components attached he or she can skip drawing a card to earn victory points for the number of components they have in excess of the next most “advanced” robot. By skipping the card draw the player gives up resources to build and expand their robot even further, which should give other players a better chance to catch up.

    With a good lead (two more components than anyone else), it’ll still take at least three solid turns of giving up cards in order to win. In that time others may be able to build their robot up with more components, or attack the player’s robot and knock pieces off of it to even the score.

  • 1 vp for Destroying or Dismantling Your Prey’s Component: When combat succeeds, it’s fairly gratifying. Players who successfully knock a part off of an opponent’s robot are rewarded, beyond the damage done to that opponent; combat is generally more resource-intensive than building but should be a viable option to keep bigger, slower, and overbuilt robots in check.
  • 5 vp for Destroying Your Prey’s Robot Core: The robot core’s destruction knocks that player out of the game. It’s also extremely difficult to achieve, but if someone can pull it off they’ve all but won the game.

The Technological Superiority route is potentially the easiest and the path I expect most players to take. This makes the game something of an arms race as players rush to build their robots in haste and become stuck dealing with damaged and broken parts.

Yet this change may also tie the combat portion of the game closer together with the building portion, as preventing another player’s points could mean building your robot up to match them, or trying to hack off one of their components with a carbide saw and drop their scoring potential (and by contrast increase your scoring potential, plus earn a victory point for your combat prowess).

Still Iterating…

Scrap Heaps is still very much a work-in-progress. I might talk about it more as the game development work progresses, but for now it needs more playtesting, which shouldn’t be too hard to convince my group to take on.

Until then, may you reward players on the most fun paths through your game!


    I remember playing Scrap Heaps at least once and as I recall after quite a long game neither of us were close to winning. I could be wrong, it has been a long time. These changes seem pretty nice.

    I have realized that another thing I like in games is a system that makes the game continue toward its conclusion at all times. This has become far more prevalent in modern games than in the Risk/Monopoly style games of my youth. Sometimes it is done through turns while other games have other mechanics that make them move toward a conclusion. Race for the Galaxy for example is all about building your tableau and the game ends when someone has 12 cards in theirs. This will happen eventually whether you like it or not.

    Perhaps a bit off topic but I purchased and played a little bit of Warhammer Online this weekend and it sort of ended up hooking with this in my mind. In both Warhammer and WoW there are these PvP scenarios (called Battle Grounds in WoW) that players can enter and fight. The early WoW scenarios had the problem that they could literally go on forever (though some changes have been made since the early days) while later WoW scenarios and those Warhammer have time limits. Knowing when (or at least having a good idea when) a game will end is pretty much always a good thing, whether we are talking about a board game or a video game.


    Agreed. I’ve played plenty of games in the past that had some enjoyable mechanics but did a poor job tying that enjoyment into winning the game. This can result in a game that fails to reward players for having fun, or at the least gives them little reason to advance the game to its conclusion.

    I think Scrap Heaps stands a chance, with these changes, of having some dramatic tension as players race to build the biggest and most sophisticated robot, while going big quickly will probably mean grafting damaged parts and leaving more areas vulnerable to attack. We’ll see after some playtesting.


    I would like to add that I’m toying with another victory point rule:

    • 1 vp for the first successful attack (aka “First Blood”), the player who is the first to successfully deal one or more points of damage to an opponent earns one victory point.

    It’s a bit of a boost to the combat aspect of the game, but it’s also designed to reward a player for building the first combat-capable robot (they generally start without weapons).

    Not sure about this one yet, hopefully my playtesters will help here.


    Pat and I have been meaning to get back into game design. The past few weeks have been rough however and I feel kind of behind on life at the moment. So, hopefully soon. We have been kicking around a couple ideas however.

    Good luck!

    ojiepat Says:

    I am a pretty big fan of games with either a set turn limit, or a fairly obvious mechanism to end the game. I like calculating my turns ahead of time, building in redundancies to my strategies, trying to read other players, and stuff like that.

    That said, it seems a little unbalancing to have a victory condition that give 5 points. Presumably you can get one point fairly easy, probably while building up to the point you could make an all-out assault on a player and destroy their power core. This rule seems to be a built-in “last ditch attempt” to Lucksack a victory.

    While this observation is based off a high level overview of the game, it triggered an alarm in my brain. If this rule was included on the back of a game box, with the usual high level description, it would hurt my first impression of the game before I even played it.

    Other than that one nitpick it sounds like an interesting concept and would love to give it a shot when you feel it’s ready. 😉

    Mike Says:

    Sounds like a neat game Scott. I can’t wait to test it out with you.

    In response to Ojiepat, Scott did mention the extreme difficulty in achieving that 5 point victory condition. Given that, I have to assume it would be an uncommon occurence in the game.


    As it stands right now in Scrap Heaps, destroying an opponent’s robot to earn five vp is in the “that’ll probably never happen” category.

    It’s the sort of thing I felt I should include as a possibility in the game, and indeed if someone achieves it they probably deserve to win (we’re talking serious effort over many turns, and not a small amount of luck), but realistically speaking the other ways of earning victory points will probably allow someone to end the game long before a player is eliminated outright.

    A very rough analogy is winning by decking somebody in Magic, without the Millstone or other degenerate milling capabilities. Of course if playtesting suggests otherwise, I may need to rethink it.


    Beyond that, I know I haven’t revealed a whole lot about Scrap Heaps in this short post. Perhaps more details as it develops.

    Josh, Pat- Good luck with your game design endeavors, I’m really excited to be getting back into it myself and would enjoy having more such material on the site!

    Joe Says:

    Can’t wait to try it out, Scott!
    I think the victory conditions that the VPs allow really enhance the game by limiting time while allowing for advancement toward the VP goals.

    Now all I need to do is totally annihilate you and Mike!

    Mike Says:

    Well, we finally got to try this Friday night. It was a lot of fun! After our play testing, and the tweaks that come from it, it will most certainly become one of my favorite games.