a quick look at a card game I’ve been working on in recent months.


1. Game Overview

In HookUp Heroes, 2-4 players compete to be the most successful dating agency in a land of might and magic. Each player starts off with a number of clients and items. Each turn begins by revealing a number of eligible heroes from the Hero Deck (1 per person playing) and placing them face-up in the middle of the play area. Players then pick a client to try to match up with one of the eligible heroes, based on compatibility mechanics (described later). They may also equip their “suitor” with an item from their hand in order to aid them on their date. Suitors and items are placed face-down next to the desired eligible hero, and all revealed at once. Compatibility is then calculated, and pairs of heroes with the highest compatibility score become happy couples who are retained by the owner of that “suitor”, for scoring. A new turn begins, players draw new cards from the Hero and Item decks, and new eligible suitors appear.

(1980s kitschy dating gameshow colours + Diablo font. MY WORK HERE IS DONE)

Note: for prototyping and testing purposes I am using (non-licensed!) character portraits from Obsidians’ Pillars of Eternity, with the intention of replacing these within original art at a later date. I hope no-one at Obsidian or the original artists have a problem with this, but will make alterations if requested.

The traditional D&D style character art used in games like PoE and Baldur’s Gate is exactly the sort of thing I would like to have in the finished game, but may be inhibitively expensive with 50-60 unique characters plus items.

2. Compatibility: Traits and Desires vs. Likes and Dislikes

system comparison

Each Hero’s card contains a list of Traits and Desires. Traits represent what the character is like (a wealthy, studious hard-worker) whereas Desires represent the Traits they desire in a partner. Each Trait/Desire is represented by an iconic image of an object as well an accompanying term. I have learnt from experience with games like Elder Sign that if you have odd stat names (ES uses “terror”, “peril”, “lore” and “investigation”) then most players will just default to calling them by their icon (skull/tentacle/scroll/looking glass). So I’ve opted for including both. (These change literally every time I write them down!)

Brave (shield)
Wealthy (coin)
Powerful (crown)
Studious (book)
Nature-Lover (leaf)
Party Animal (tankard)
Refined (mask)
Musical (lute)
Believer (ankh)
Tinkerer (hammer)
Brooding (hood)


In the older version of the game illustrated above, compatibility is calculated by adding 1 for each matching Like or Dislike and then subtracting 1 for any Likes/Dislikes that clash. In the initial testing I found that having to deal with subtraction made the whole process a little slower than I would have liked. The new system of Traits/Desires allows for characters who desire a different type of person from themselves, whereas in the old system, a homosexual or bisexual character’s ideal partner would be a clone of themselves! In the Likes/Dislikes system, every rogue would have liked Wealth, making them attracted to other characters who like Wealth, but with no way to actually track which character is Wealthy. In the new system, we can have a character who wants a Wealthy partner, and a partner who is Wealthy but happy to go out with someone who is not.

There is still the opportunity to include one deal-breaker “dislike” which will render a potential pairing completely incompatible (for example, a necromancer might have this in relation to “Believer”) but this may do more harm than good to gameplay.

in early iterations of the game, with doubled-up cards, Garth the gay orc kept getting paired up with himself!


3. Gender and Sexuality as Mechanics (-eek!)

From the get-go there have been questions about how I am going to approach this.

First, there’s the issue of visual gender coding. I’m currently going with coloured borders around a character portrait to represent their gender. While I’d like to keep away from pink and blue, it’s also what people know, and adds to the overall aesthetic of the game (I kind of like the idea of tricking Magic the Gathering player dudes into playing something that’s pink and lilac and sparkly). I’m using violet as a rather ambiguous inter-gender marker; this could represent a number of things, but at the moment it’s used to mean “all/both”; a character who is attractive to anyone regardless of their orientation. It can be used for characters with masks, helmets, hoods, and maybe some races which are androgynous such as golems etc. I appreciate there are some issues with this, but I also want some of the characters to be fixed genders (what I want to create here is like a micro-version of the sorts of romances that occur in BioWare games!) while having some characters that are explicitly non-binary.

It’s hard to be inclusive when you’re working with analogue rules, which have to be more refined and simple than vidya rules because players themselves have to remember them!

In addition to the gender-indicator border colour, each character also has an “orientation heart” which is blue, pink or violet. For example, a homosexual character has a matching portrait border and orientation heart. In the images below, Aradhel is a male mage who likes men, whereas Anastasia is a female mage who likes either men or women. One rare item might allow a player to turn a suitor’s blue or pink heart to a violet one.

anastacia aradhel

This brings us into another problem. The way that bisexuality is handled here potentially feeds in to dodgy ideas about bi folks being “lucky to have more choice” or “greedy”. Using the set of mechanics I’ve described so far, drawing a bi character is more ‘lucky’; characters with violet hearts (and indeed violet borders) are overpowered in gameplay terms. Do I let them be overpowered cards, or do I balance them by giving them different stats elsewhere? Only testing will tell. Because of these balance issues it makes sense to have a slightly lower distribution of bi characters (while homo/hetero-sexual characters are 1:1)

Of course, there’s the option of having a gender and sexuality free-for-all where gender is not recognized and anyone can fancy anyone if their interests match up. I imagine that how this would play out is that a fair share of players are likely to just read all of the characters in heteronormative terms, meaning that people play the game with entirely different sets of rules. Maybe ‘everyone has violet hearts’ should be an officially-encouraged house-rule, but not part of the standard game?Also, having pre-determined genders and orientations allows for more of a diversity in terms of the types of people players imagine when viewing the on-card info, allowing each card to stand-out as a richer, more specific character; e.g:

Garth is a gay male orc warrior; he is a Brave and Powerful Nature-Lover, looking for someone who is Studious and Musical.

4. Classes and Items

Each character belongs to one of the three core classes used in most RPGs; Warrior, Mage or Rogue. In gameplay terms, the only thing these classes affect is which items they can equip when putting themselves forward as a suitor. I’m currently working on this part (following a redesign of the Traits used for Compatibility), but the main aim of Items is to give some tactical variation to the game and to also change the way different character archetypes “feel” to play; e.g. how might these 3 base fantasy RPG classes differently negotiate a romantic rivalry? Items will generally be pieces of comically-named clothing, jewellery or perfume which a fantasy character might wear to impress on a date.

Overall, the general ‘flavour’ I have planned for the item cards is as follows:

Warrior: Warriors are the high-school jocks of the game, specialising in the elimination of other suitors. An example item might be a set of enchanted boots called “Sandcastle Stompers” which send a rival Rogue or Mage suitor fleeing out of the game and into the discard pile :(.

Rogue: Rogues are the suave smooth-talkers and rebels of the game, specialising in the manipulation of item cards. One rogue item may allow a player to take extra items from the item deck, to take items from another player’s hand, or to remove items equipped on rival suitors once they are revealed. The “charming” aspect of Rogues might be used by, for example, allowing a Rogue suitor to take additional Hero cards, or to cause break-ups between other players’ couples.

Mage: Mages are the quiet but intellectually-impressive geeks; specialising in the manipulation of other hero cards. For example, they may be able to swap the positions of two suitors once they have been revealed, resulting in worse or better outcomes for other players. Mages should be ‘glass cannons’, with some of the larger, more chaotic card effects but more lacking in certain traits such as Bravery. They should also have the sort of spying/knowledge abilities seen in CCGs like Hearthstone or MTG; the ability to look at other player’s hands etc.

Other cards might revolve around impressing an eligible hero by being the best at something, neutralising a Trait that rival suitors may have; for example an Tankard that gives a Warrior the “Party Animal” trait while removing it from a rival suitor. Alteration of Traits and Desires are probably less interesting mechanics, however.