A Critical Look At Skytear’s Design

Image credit: Skytear.com

This is a review of the boardgame called Skytear, by PvP Geeks. You can play Skytear for free on Tabletop Simulator or purchase a physical copy at Team Covenant’s website.

Introduction

Given the popularity of Dota-style games (often referred to using the misnomer “MOBA”1), its not surprising that more than a few tabletop designers have attempted to recreate the objectives, mechanics, and possibly even the thrill found in said genre via the tabletop medium. Guards of Atlantis, Rum and Bones, Cloudspire, Battle for Biternia, and Skytear are a few standouts in recent years. I have decided to focus on Skytear, however, because it presents itself as a competitive tabletop game, with lofty intentions for organized play. Since I, like many others, love organized competitive tabletop gaming but have grown disillusioned with Magic: the Gathering, any game attempting to fill that void is of great interest to me.

I originally intended to play at least ten games of Skytear before writing a review. I knew that Skytear is a deep game, and I truly hoped to get to know the heroes and cards well enough to start to appreciate its depth of strategy. I figured that this would be particularly easy because I was so drawn to the strong community built around the game. Needless to say, I played Skytear three times and simply could not motivate myself to play it again. I wanted to find a hook that would keep me coming back for more, but the convoluted action system turned me off.

I know part of the reason why this game has caught on with many: it is beautifully illustrated and produced. As any honest person in this industry will tell you, great art and cool minis will cover a multitude of design sins. Indeed, entire studios have thrived on the simple premise that the tabletop community has a disturbing obsession with miniatures (e.g., CMON). As I’ve argued elsewhere, from a commercial perspective, art and production are far more important than game design. Good design might keep people in your game, but it is art that gets them through the door in the first place.

Is art the only ‘pro’ of Skytear? Absolutely not. Aside from art, the game has deep lore, strong customizability, fun abilities, and a high skill ceiling. Landing a big ultimate feels great, and I think the designers struck a good balance between skill and randomness.

Now let’s take a look at my criticisms of the game’s design.

Convoluted Action System

Most combat games use a combination of built-in actions and card-based actions. Magic: the Gathering is a good example. You have a few built-in actions that you must memorize, like being able to play only one land per turn and being able to attack once per turn, but beyond that you are simply doing what is stated on the cards themselves. On rare occasion you will see a game that is only built-in actions, like chess, in which you can only move and capture. Most successful games have this in common: they minimize options for the player and allow other elements of the game to create depth.

Dota is no exception. In Dota, you have these main actions available to you:

  1. Move
  2. Attack
  3. Use ability

Yes, there are many other “minor actions” you can perform — buying items, picking up items, using the courier, etc., but for the most part the core gameplay can be described using the actions above. I love the simplicity and elegance of this trifecta of built-in actions, which is why I’m using the same system in Legacy’s Allure. Skytear, however, misses this completely. Instead of giving you a simple list of core actions you can perform, limited only by mana or a set number of possible actions per turn, you’re given this:

  1. Five built-in actions, three of which may be used during a hero’s turn.
    1. Move – self-explanatory.
    2. Lead – flip a card from your deck in order to increase your lane advantage.
    3. Skirmish – move and attack a hero only.
    4. Attack – attack a minion or hero.
    5. Worship – use an ability unique to each hero.
  2. Card actions – use the mana of a hero (exhausted or unexhausted) to perform the card action. (Note: What’s weird is that the rules specifically state that cards don’t require action points even though they are, effectively, actions.)

Too many built-in actions, redundant actions, exceptional actions (i.e., cards are basically actions that are exceptions to normal action rules) — this action system is a mess, and I’d be beating around the bush if I said otherwise. Unlike some reviewers, I don’t think that the inclusion of cards in this game was forced, but I do think that the action system should have been exclusively card-based actions, just like Gloomhaven. Each card should have provided a movement option, an attack option, and an ability option. A major streamlining of the action system would likely also require scrapping the skirmish action, which feels ad hoc.

Anti-Thematic Objectives

The simplicity of the objective in a Dota-style game is perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the genre. A billion and one possibilities can unfold in any given game, and yet only one thing matters: will you destroy their base before they destroy yours? Every game of Dota 2, for example, tells a fascinating story of how this happens. Will you form a deathball composition and barrel your way down the lanes as soon as possible? Will you play four-protect-one until your hard carry is an unstoppable force? Will you sneak Roshan early and hunt their carries? Will you wait for a team fight to break out and send your pusher to the far lane to destroy towers?

Skytear, on the other hand, makes these fascinating micro-objectives the macro-objective itself. At the start of each game, three objective cards are flipped over to reveal ways to win the game in addition to destroying the enemy base. For example, “destroy the left tower” or “control The Outsider” or “kill three enemy heroes”. The thought of playing a Dota-style game with these as game-ending objectives is nothing short of perverse, yet this is what Skytear has done in an effort to shorten games.

Therein lies the problem: the designers did not build a game around the objective, they built the objective around the game. If you’re going to call your a game “tabletop Dota”, then you must bring over its sine qua non: heroes joining never-ending waves of minions on their quest to destroy the enemy base. The result, unfortunately, is that Skytear isn’t a tabletop Dota-style game at all, its just a skirmish game with some Dota-style features tacked on. The essence of Dota-style games is not heroes casting spells and hitting each other. Plenty of other brawl / arena games do that, but Dota-style games are deeper, which is part of why the genre has been so wildly successful.

Roshan Has No Purpose

The developers of Dota recognized that games could devolve into passive farm-fests in which neither team was willing to engage. To combat this, they added Roshan — a huge mythical beast that acts as a secondary objective in the midst the game. When Roshan is defeated, it drops the Aegis of the Immortal, which is an item that lets the holding hero resurrect the next time the hero dies. The purpose behind Roshan (and League of Legend’s anagram counterpart, Baron Nashor) is simple, and the implementation is effective.

Skytear does not involve farming items and the game’s maximum length is guaranteed, therefore Roshan (or “The Outsider”, as they call it) is nothing more than another hero you can control depending on whether you rule “the dome” in the center of the map. My question is this: what does this add to the game because simply being cool? It is not necessary to progress the game or prevent stalemates. Practically, The Outsider just results in more components and more rules.

The Outsider is an example of how some designers create depth of gameplay by just adding Lots of Stuff To Do rather than exclusively delivering a small number of interesting, fulfilling interactions within a simple gameplay loop. The analogy in Magic would be if players were allowed to apply their extra mana each turn to charging a weapon card that they pick before the game begins. Is it cool? Yes. Does it add depth? Yes. Is it needed to deliver the core experience to the player? No.

Inability To Destroy Buildings

In Dota-style games, you can attack buildings, and you must attack buildings, because the sole objective of a Dota-style game is to destroy the enemy’s base. In Skytear, a player cannot attack buildings. Why, you ask? Because, as I mentioned earlier, Skytear isn’t actually a Dota-style game. Had they removed The Outsider and focused on making pushing interesting, they could have opened the design space and preserved Skytear’s allegiance to Dota-style games.

Specifically, one minion could be added to the start of the lane each round. If a hero wishes to use an attack an enemy minion, so be it, but that will have an opportunity cost. Whenever a minion would have moved into the next “zone” along the lane, that minion should have been removed from the board and converted into tower damage. Heroes, of course, should also be allowed to damage towers, which should have their own HP track and which perhaps should do damage to heroes. This would have also removed the component clutter than Skytear struggles with.

Other Minor Complaints

I have certainly covered the most notable flaws I see in Skytear’s design, but I want to point out a few other complaints that did not merit their own section:

  • Ties. Though they might be rare, Skytear allows for ties. A competitive game that allows for ties is a game that is willing to break its promise to its players, as I discuss in more depth in my critical article on chess’ design. No one ever sits down to a game of Skytear hoping for no conclusion, but a tie is exactly that: a non-conclusion. Again, part of the beauty of Dota is its inevitability: someone’s base is going to perish.
  • Too many game modes. Currently the game has three modes, played on three separate maps. The mode chosen dictates the length of the game: three-lane map for a long game, two-lane map for a medium game, and one-lane map for a short game. Like Dota-style games, I think a regular and turbo mode, both played on the same map, is appropriate. This would have reduced components and further simplified the game.
  • Too much fiddliness. “Fiddliness” is a consequence of too many components, too small components, or too many interactions of components. I could give countless examples, but a consequence of the morass of stuff you can do in a game of Skytear is that the game has far more components and component interactions than it needs. Much of this is due to how minions are implemented, but part of it is also due to faction-specific abilities like marking, pillars, and illusions.

Closing Thoughts

PvP Geeks noted in a podcast with Team Covenant that they spent an amount of money equal to a house on developing Skytear. I hope they recoup those expenses and build a dedicated community around Skytear, but my feeling is that this community will be quite tiny. The game is simply too fiddly and too inelegant to draw competitive tabletop gamers away stalwarts like Magic: the Gathering and attract the countless newcomers to the space.

Image taken from BGG on April 9, 2021.

Skytear is also a reminder of just how questionable the rating system on Board Game Geek is for new and niche games. Skytear’s top-heavy rating is clearly boosted. Few games with a significant number of ratings has a graph like this. A game with this kind of graph and 2,000+ ratings would be sitting firmly in the top 5 on BGG. In reality, if this game had 2,000+ ratings within the target audience, I imagine its rating would be between 6.0-7.0. Personally, I would give it a 5.0.

I think that Skytear had the potential to enter the tabletop landscape as one of the first and only competitive tabletop games, but it’s inelegance prevented this. At the end of the day, it is not tabletop Dota, it is a skirmish game with a highly convoluted action system and nice art. If Skytear is the best tabletop Dota around, as I have heard some people claim, then the genre still has set to see a good tabletop implementation. Personally, I would be quite interested in Skytear 2.0 addressing my concerns.

Further Reading

Elegance In Game Design

Footnotes

  1. “MOBA” stands for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. This is misnomer because an arena game treats the player-controlled characters as the driving force of the game and defeating other characters within a certain number of rounds or a certain time limit is the primary goal, whereas in a Dota-style game, the lane creeps are the driving force of the game and the main objective is to assist them in their quest to destroy the enemy’s base. Quake 3: Arena and Starcraft 2 are examples of arena games. Since “MOBA” doesn’t capture the essence of the genre, I will refer to these games as “Dota-style” games.