Scrap Heaps: To Be or Not To Be Collectible

Over the last couple weekends we’ve gotten some playtesting time on Scrap Heaps. Like last time on Scrap Heaps game development I’m continuing to file away the rough edges, with the help of playtest feedback.

In this post I’ll relate some of the recent changes and things learned from playtesting, and my thoughts on the big question of what kind of card game Scrap Heaps wants to be.

Simplifying and Streamlining

I’ll admit, the initial design of Scrap Heaps included more complexity than was truly necessary. Sometimes I just can’t help going overboard on a design, and it showed in this game. Some of the recent changes have helped reduce unnecessary complexity in spots and begin to streamline game play.

For example, in Scrap Heaps much of play revolves around grafting extra parts (“components“) onto your robot. Those components can be knocked off your robot when others dish out enough damage to equal the component’s integrity.

I designed three different types of damage: normal damage, penetrating damage (think: armor piercing, with a twist), and dismantling damage. The latter is treated like normal damage, except when it’s being assigned there’s a bit of math done, it basically counts twice to see whether a component will be knocked off.

Turns out dismantling damage, and its extra complexity, was unnecessary. So all cards dealing dismantling damage have been changed to deal normal damage. The other rules relating to how and when damaged components were knocked off and placed in scrap heaps have also changed, making the need for dismantling damage non-existent. Now when a component has damage that equals or exceeds its integrity it is placed in a scrap heap – the attacker can choose to put it in their scrap heap or the main scrap heap, another small incentive for combat as they may have the opportunity to pick it up from their scrap heap and graft it onto their own robot.

Also all references to power distribution are gone from the rules. Originally power (similar to mana in Magic) was allocated among all of your robot’s components at the beginning of your turn, then those components could spend their power for repairs, attacks, and other effects. Now power spending power is simplified to allow players to collect it in one pool for the entire robot and spend from that pool as desired.

Dice Roll Changes

Maneuvers changed slightly: botching a maneuver roll used to be the same as failing, but now it comes with a penalty to make the botching player lose any remaining maneuvers they had that turn. Since players normally get two maneuvers per turn it’s still not too harsh, a botched maneuver causes the player to miss another maneuver half of the time. This does begin to bring maneuver rolls more in line with attack rolls, which have a stiffer penalty for botching but also generally a greater effect on success.

Succeeding with an attack was too difficult, rolling 2d6 plus your weapon’s accuracy and hitting only on a 10 or better. While pretty much every weapon can be pumped up to increase accuracy and damage, most attacks were being made with zero or one accuracy and resulting in a lot of misses. That made attacking kind of lame, so I’m cautiously lowering the difficulty. I don’t want to reach a point where your opponent can consistently knock a component off your robot right after you build it, but so far we’re nowhere near that point.

The success threshold has been changed to nine or better. We played a game with that change and it felt a bit better, but I suspect I’ll probably need to update the weapon cards before long so their abilities are cheaper overall. Players just aren’t accumulating the high power levels I expected and no one is hitting repeatedly or for big damage, combat still feels a bit underpowered at the moment. This is the kind of balancing issue that simply needs playtesting to uncover.

Should Scrap Heaps be a CCG?

During playtesting it became apparent that there’s a fair amount of luck involved in Scrap Heaps, getting the right cards can be pretty important. Sure, there should be some luck, but it’s not fun if you really need a power source and all you can draw are weapons… which you can’t power. A bit like being land-screwed in Magic.

Since most cards in Scrap Heaps are components, most of the time players’ robots are getting bigger and bigger, acquiring more cards that stick around and provide long-lasting effects or capabilities. This often means a player who continues to lag in grafting power sources can get left behind in a hurry.

Then there are power types. From the beginning the design of Scrap Heaps included three types of power sources: pneumatic, fuel, and electrical. Almost all cards which cost power to use require a specific type of power, for at least part of the cost. Robot cores (which form a player’s starting card on the table) do make power each turn, at least one of each type; that’s a start but weapons, for example, usually want a lot of power in a single type.

The benefits of this approach include a varied design space. It’s easier to design different cards when they can require different power types; variations can be made by simply adjusting the costs a bit.

It also allows cards accessible to all, in a common area such as the main scrap heap, to hold different values for different players. A player with lots of fuel power might be more interested in the flamethrower than the player cruising on electrical juice.

Card Compatibility: Random or Designed?

Between the different types of cards – power sources, weapons, utilities, specials, etc. and the different power types, a player who is lucky enough to draw cards with the highest compatibility has a distinct advantage.

In a standard card game where all players get their cards from a single shared deck this can leave some happy and others upset. But in collectible card game like Magic where each player draws from their own deck, which is a carefully designed pool of cards selected for maximum compatibility, a measure of this luck is exchanged for deckbuilding skill. And the chance of drawing the right cards begins to shift to the deckbuilder, who at the very least is given some ability to influence the odds in their favor.

At first glance that seems like a good fit for Scrap Heaps. Players could, if they choose, focus on a single power type (again, as in Magic where mono-color decks are popular). It would also be up to them to determine the optimal ratio of power sources versus weapons and other cards to include in their deck.

Yet I’m hesitant to shift Scrap Heaps to the CCG side of the fence.

Still Non-Collectible, for Now

Some of the reasons go beyond simple rules concerns. The day Scrap Heaps gets released, even as a print-and-play game on this site (highly likely, I’ll say now), I want it to be relatively easy to pick up. Considering its current learning curve I think the ease of a single-box game (so to speak) is significant. No extra time spent building decks or amassing huge sets of cards should also lower the barrier to entry.

I’ve thought a bit about a non-collectible format that includes some in-game deck customization, sort of like Dominion, but I don’t know if it’s going to be necessary (or even a good fit).

Instead Scrap Heaps development is heading down the path of giving players options via some deck-searching. It may be a bit heavy-handed but so far it didn’t seem too bad in the game we played after this change. The added rule allows players, after drawing a card, to discard a card and empty their pool of power, then reveal cards off the top of the resource pile (the shared deck of face-down cards) until they find a power source, and place it in their hand.

It’s very important for players to have access to power sources when they need them, and this option does help address that need. The cost feels about right too, since they’re not gaining an extra card and give up most of their turn by going without power. The tempo loss seems to balance the guarantee of additional power in turns to come.

After our last playtesting session we decided to try a further modification: instead of searching only for power source cards, players could choose a card type they want to search for. Cards are keyworded with one or two types, corresponding to the general class of card and its power type (source/pneumatic, or weapon/electrical, for example), so players could decide to go for a power source or they could choose weapon, or just elect to find a special, defense, utility, etc. if they so desire. Either way they’re paying for it with practically an entire turn meaning it’s not rewarding to make this kind of “deep dig” (thanks Joe, for coining the term) all the time.

The upshot is that players who don’t draw the cards they need should still have an option, and get to do something useful one turn later.

Now with More Scavenging!

While writing this post, another thought occurred to me. Instead of forcing players to choose between drawing the top card of the resource pile or drawing the top card from a scrap heap, they could be allowed to do both.

Scrap Heaps is actually a game about recycling – whenever a component is discarded or knocked off a robot it goes to a player’s personal scrap heap or the main (shared) scrap heap. Players’ scrap heaps have a two-card maximum, beyond that cards get pushed into the main scrap heap. Then any player can draw the top card of either their own scrap heap or the main scrap heap, but only if that card is a component – special cards can’t be picked up, and they block cards below them. Thus there’s a bit of waste management going on, when you want to prevent an opponent from getting a component back you can play or discard a special.

By allowing players to both pick up a new card from the resource pile and a component off one of the scrap heaps, discards (and by extension waste management) should become a bit more important. You’ll be less inclined to drop a component that is valuable to your opponent. It may also provide more options and opportunities to players who would previously have skipped drawing a semi-useful card from the scrap heap because they really needed a chance at, say, another power source from the resource pile.

Finally, I like the fact that it can modify the one-card-per-turn growth limit that previously existed, but the extra growth factor is a resource which players compete for – a player may draw, and use, more cards than his or her opponents through a combination of luck and skill.

The Evolution Continues

That’s it for this episode in Scrap Heaps game development. While it still has a long way to go, I like where it’s headed.

To anyone reading this who’s not already in some way familiar with the Scrap Heaps prototype, sorry that it’s mostly insider-material for the time being; I promise to release a version of the game you can try… eventually.

    Mike Says:

    I actually like the luck in a general deck, even though lately I seem to be the one hurt most by the randomness, heh. Creating our own decks may be fun, but it may present a whole new set of gameplay balance issues. Higher weapon costs and harder hitting percentages may work well with a constructed deck. But with the “big deck” randomness, I agree that we need to tone down difficulty.

    Given what I said, I think our idea of the “deep dig” will helps keep someone from getting to the point where boredom or frustration sets in.

    I like the proposed idea of a ‘2-card draw” with a random deck grab plus a possible component from the scrap heap.

    Scott, I emailed you an idea I bounced around with Joe last night regarding victory points via technological superiority. Let me know what you think. I admit to feeling guilty about throwing out so many ideas in a game that you designed, but I just want to help get the game to a point where we’d truly consider playing it a lot (even in place of some Magic time each week?) more often.

    This game is a lot of fun, even in it’s current beta state. I have no doubts it’ll be streamlined very soon, providing a faster and thoroughly enjoyable gaming experience.


    Thanks again for the feedback Mike. Since you brought it up, I’ll respond to part of your email here.

    On the VP tip, you were right in your email that Scrap Heaps is a game about adding components on to your robot as fast as you can, even when they don’t make sense. That’s pretty close to my original concept for the game. While you do want to attach components as best you can considering facing and proximity effects, someone who is picky and building the perfect robot will usually lose against someone on an all-out speed-building trip.

    The imperfections in your robot resulting from building quickly is a pressure, like building quickly and not repairing as you go which leaves your robot in a damaged state. And the pressure of decreasing mobility as you build more and more components, leaving you less able to maneuver around your opponents to an advantageous position.

    Through the interplay of these various pressures, challenging and hopefully engaging gameplay results. In its current state the game is more about “putting out fires” and racing to keep up than building the perfect robot… a properly taut game should play out with players continually trying to outdo each other while barely holding on to any temporary advantage they can achieve with any old junk parts they jam together. So goes my vision of Scrap Heaps.

    Not to say that I am unwilling to consider alternatives. Feedback is crucial to the playtesting and development process. By all means, keep the ideas and suggestions coming!


    Since it wasn’t mentioned directly (though perhaps hinted at) I feel I want to offer up a simple suggestion.

    A draft optional rule. Basically set the game up as a non collectible game but then have rules for drafting individual decks. Race for the Galaxy has a rule like this in the expansion (we tried it and found it a bit meh since having really specific decks in the game took away some of the fun for us) so this idea isn’t all mine but it could work as an option.

    While I have been dying to make a game that uses a draft where certain cards that are coming up later are more expensive (I always wanted to draft Jyhad this way but never got the chance) I feel that in Scrap Heaps a simple – everyone draws five cards at a time, choosing one and passing – style draft would work pretty well. It would allow people to focus on specific fuel types but it would prevent completely building the perfect deck.

    However, as I have only played the alpha version and have not even seen the beta version I can’t be certain if things have changed too much to make this idea work…

    Either way, good luck with the designing!


    I like the draft idea. Could make a nice optional rule, and with the game’s current form I think it might be a pretty good fit.

    Previously when I briefly considered some CCG-like options I had been thinking of dealing players a small number of cards (say, six) and having them keep half for their “deck” (their own resource pile).

    I’m actually a little surprised I haven’t written about dual-queue drafting in Jyhad, which is one of my favorite ways to play and also probably my favorite drafting game.

    Drafting didn’t occur to me, but in some games, like Jyhad, I do enjoy it. It could even work as an alternative to keeping half the cards you’re dealt. Instead just start a mini-drafting round whenever someone runs out of cards in their resource pile.


    Another thing to note, Race for the Galaxy normally (as in, not the draft variant) starts with you being dealt six cards and you discard down to four. Kind of similar to your thinking.


    Funny you should mention that. Scrap Heaps has a maximum hand size of six cards, yet in one of the early revisions I changed the game start rules to deal eight cards to each player.

    Thus a player starts with eight, draws at least one card at the beginning of their first turn, and hopefully begins the game with a few viable options. Plus they can probably only play one or two with the power they get on their first turn, so they’re almost forced to discard something by the end of their turn. This gets the scrap heaps started early too.