More playtesting last night with the card game, and it revealed a few interesting things. The main one is that a handful of persistent small issues were, in fact, persistent, but not small. We were able to try an alternative mechanic, but unfortunately, it didn't feel as good.
What was interesting, though, was that with a little bit more thought, an unpalatable solution turned into something not just palatable, but critical to integrating some of the systems in the game that we hadn't intended to prototype through the card game.
Essentially, the card game was intended to prototype a combat mechanic - a way to resolve conflict between two players. Who the players were, at this point, was largely irrelevant, but one thing that had been lingering in the back of my mind was that the two players would not be the same. That is, each player would come to the table with different stats, equipment, play styles, etc.
This is one of those places where it's really easy to "handwave" away your concerns. Yeah, they'll be different. Yeah, we'll make it balanced. But how? And more importantly, why? If you're tacking on "character differences" on top of an already balanced card game, then you're just tacking it on and it'll feel tacked on to the player. If, on the other hand, there's a compelling reason to have all these mechanics tied together (other than "these mechanics should be tied together) then you've got a better game.
That's one of the great things that came out of the playtest last night. Solving the problem of communicating what the mechanics of conflict mean (what is an attack? What is damage?) actually meant that we had to take the next step in the prototype & figure out what a person is. That is, how is a character defined? What about them matters? How is one different than another?
This is a very simple way to describe a character (Attack, Health, Priority), but it's enough for the card game. Next up is to playtest it and see if different characters actually feel different. After that, can you compensate for those differences through the "modifier" cards that are part of the combat scheme, resulting in characters with different stats fighting using different methods, ultimately creating a more-or-less balanced but fairly asymmetric experience?