Purging

I sent a snippet of this article – http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/44 – to the Jyhad newsgroup to comment on the issue of complexity in V:TES and CCGs in general.  Most of Mark Rosewater’s articles are interesting, but I especially enjoy these articles that discuss design principles as they are often just as valid to other CCGs and possibly to other games.

There are a number of different points he makes that I could comment on.  Some, I already have on the newsgroup.  I don’t hold out much hope for V:TES becoming a less complicated game, so the one exercise I find more interesting is the theoretical one of what mechanics I would remove from the game to keep its complexity in check.

Unfortunately, complexity is a significant problem with V:TES.  It was always a hard CCG to learn.  But, one of my groups is less enthusiastic now that they’ve seen a lot of newer sets that the core members never bought.  I just today talked to someone I used to play with who doesn’t think he and his wife would get back into the game because of all of the newness.

It’s easy to decide to remove Imbued from the game.  There are plenty who wish they could.  I’m more in the camp that believes that it wasn’t a good idea to introduce them to the game rather than the hater camp.  Still, that so many ally hosers have been printed since they were printed only aggravates the problems they caused.

I’d remove Red List and Trophy as mechanics.  One of the tests of whether to remove or change a mechanic is to play without it or with it changed and see what difference it makes.  Many of the changes coming with Magic 2010 proved to have virtually no impact in the grand scheme of things.  I feel this will be true with removing these mechanics from V:TES.  Not only are Trophy decks extremely rare everywhere except where Norm plays, but I hardly ever see Red List vampires get marked.

I could imagine removing the grouping rule.  I already think the basis for the rule – to stop dial-a-crypt – has had its legs cut from underneath it by Anarch Convert.  The weaker decks that try to do difficult discipline combinations are hurt considerably where the strong archetypes can mostly get the crypt they want.  However, while the game might function right now with no grouping rule, its existence does help in the long term with keeping the game in check and helps with playtesting.  As well, the grouping rule is not terribly complex.

Lots of mechanics aren’t complex by themselves.  But, taken together, the complexity in the game skyrockets.  Bloodlines are cool.  I wouldn’t remove any bloodlines even though the various bloodlines radically increase the complexity of the game. 

However, some of the mechanics just aren’t pulling their weight.  Cold iron vulnerability is ludicrous.  Scarce is excessively harsh and easily simulated by just not making many vampires of the scarce clans in particular groups.  The slave rule is complex, but it’s flavorful and interesting and can’t just be eliminated unless Tupdog is changed.  Sterile is fine.  Infernal being cut would be fine with me.  There are 19 infernal crypt cards by my count.  If infernal were simply removed from the game, only eight of those would, in my opinion, need some additional drawback to rebalance them.  Of course, one could argue that the likes of Cybele and Nergal aren’t currently balanced.  Circle and Flight aren’t mechanics, just traits that cards key off of.

There’s certainly room for reducing the number of traits in the game.  Chris Shorb is bothered by the fact that Government means nothing.  Skin does mean something, and I still don’t see the point.  But, anyway, these don’t involve rules.  While I’m fine with decluttering the game in other ways, I’m more interested in what rules can be eliminated to make the game more accessible to new players.

Blood Cursed is worth taking a look at.  There has been much discussion by Assamite lovers on its problems.  It does little, when it does matter, it matters too much.  It’s not even necessarily appropriate (the idea of wasting a slot on Tajdid to simulate the removal of the blood curse appears to not be one commonly embraced).  Nice flavor, but I can easily see cutting it.

Anarch vs. Black Hand.  Black Hand is just a trait.  Anarch is a bit more.  There are minor rules implications with vampires gaining anarchdom.  Still, these two mostly only make the game more complex by adding new cards just as adding any new cards make the game more complex.

Events.  I’ve said that I like the mechanic of using discard phase actions to pay for cards; it was a nice spin on master phase actions.  I don’t like the concept of events, though.  Global effects often work badly in CCGs.  While it’s fine to have cards where players can break the symmetry, global effects tend to randomly screw decks.  Looking at events from Gehenna, only Absilimiard’s Army and Dragonbound have effects I’d find valuable additions to the game.  The Unmasking is way too good for allies.  Most of the rest are just hosers.  Of the ones printed after Gehenna, only Inconnu Tutelage (interesting design) and NRA PAC seem justified to me.  Then, with how few cards interact with events, I find that the whole concept has problems integrating into the game.  While clearly different, it reminds me of how new victory conditions in CCGs rarely work well as they integrate poorly to the core of playing the game.

Burn option, Trifle.  I like them.  CCGs often have the problem that certain effects are appropriate but too weak or too difficult.  Burn option addresses the latter.  Trifle is a good mechanic for addressing the former.  Neither is elegant and I still find a lot of people don’t understand how burn option works since most decks don’t need to worry about it, but they are clever.

Draft text.  The concept of draft text is clever, though it does confuse people as to what requirements need to be met.  I find the execution to have been quite poor, though it seems like some of that had to do with a learning curve.  But, that’s not an argument for getting rid of it.  Unlike events, draft text doesn’t cause game play problems besides the trouble with reading certain text heavy cards.  Applied well, it’s a great boon to the game.

Old school time.  Out of turn masters – yea or nay?  The game has built itself around the ability to cancel cards, especially other master cards.  I don’t know that the game would be balanced at this point without Sudden Reversal and Wash as checks on master play.  I could much more easily see eliminating out of turns if the game was just reinvented.  Other than master counterspells, I don’t really care about any of the other out of turns existing.  Boons are flavorful but possibly could be done without the out of turn mechanic, something like put this card in play and if such and such happens you can do whatever.

Contestation.  I find constestation when it happens to be dumb.  Nothing screws up a game like early contestation of a key vampire.  More relevant to my subject, it’s also relatively complicated.  Yet, how do you get rid of it?  You can come up with a rule that prevents playing another copy of a unique card that you control, but how do you handle unique cards others control?  Is it okay for other players to control the same vampire?  That would give some players fits and doesn’t make any sense if they go into combat with each other.  In some CCGs, and with some cards in this CCG, unique things are broad enough and abstract enough to have multiple players control them, but that doesn’t work so well with an individual vampire or an Ivory Bow.  Some cards are balanced to a degree by their contestability, cards like The Barrens, Information Highway, Dreams of the Sphinx, The Parthenon, Heidelberg.  Do you let everyone have them?  Probably not.  What mechanic do you use to restrict to one in play at a time?  Magic uses destruction – incoming copy nukes the existing copy, which is hardly fair in the case of vampires and other cards that acquire permanents but may work for things like locations and equipment.  What about creating auctions?  Well, that just means trading one complex rule for another, which serves no constructive purpose.  I’d love to get rid of contestation, but I don’t know if the game becomes any easier with whatever would replace it.

How combat works.  Combat is often simple because many constructed decks have one basic strategy for combat, but it’s easily made complex when players get fancy or have less focused decks.  That, in itself, is reasonable.  I don’t actually have a lot of problem with how combat works conceptually so much as how poorly defined the timing windows in combat are. 

I could see dropping first strike from the game as it does very little and too often people want to argue that it should beat combat ends or dodge. 

Speaking of which, dropping combat ends from the game would be very interesting.  Combat ends isn’t nearly the problem it once was as the game has grown more interactive, but it’s still a bad mechanic that has a lot of card interaction issues.  New players often don’t intuitively understand that combat ends beats cards like Carrion Crows or that sometimes it’s worth dodging a combat ends that does something annoying – Catatonic Fear, Blissful Agony, etc.  Combat ends is a huge frustration for people who want to play combat but don’t have the right cards to beat it.  Then, people who rely on it get hugely frustrated when someone’s deck consistently beats it.  It’s just so swingy.  But, then, combat in general has the problem that you usually end up with extreme results where either nothing important happens, one minion blows up, or both minions blow up.  Without combat ends, decks should need to find less effective replacements that are more interactive and lead to more interesting fights.

I play with a group that didn’t understand the premaneuver timing window until I started playing with them.  Reading the online rulebook on White Wolf’s site, I don’t see how I’d understand it, myself.  There are lots of little timing windows for when particular things are played that just seem like something is needlessly complex.

I’ve considered the possibility of removing combat from the game all together.  That would simplify it like mad as not only combat cards and combat timing could be eliminated but torpor, diablerie, et al might as well go too.  It’s not as different a game as many people would like to think it would be as we’ve seen that it’s quite easy to win without any concern for combat.  Would it dumb the game down too much?  Could, if all you did was take the existing game and remove combat from it.  But, by eliminating combat, expanding in other areas has plenty of room and new mechanics would arise that might make for an interesting game but one with less complexity.  I should suggest a variant tournament where combat doesn’t occur – it should be wild.

Blood hunts.  Quite involved and hard to understand perfectly, yet a central mechanic/theme to the game.  I’d never get rid of diablerie and blood hunts (though Carlton should have already have done that) without getting rid of combat, but it would be nice to simplify the blood hunt rules.

Withdrawing from the game.  Gone.  This was never, e-e-e-ver worth being a rule in the game.  Good riddance to Brinksmanship at the same time.

Prisci block voting.  Gone.  This mechanic just doesn’t pull its weight.

Reflex – I just don’t see it being necessary.

Play as announce timing window.  I find the play as announce timing window to be a pain that offers little.  Would it screw up the game if Seduction was played as a normal action modifier?  Of course, if Direct Intervention and similar counterspells were eliminated, it wouldn’t be as problematic.  Then, one could argue that the vague timing windows for normal action modifier and reaction play are the real problem and creating more distinct timing windows like the as announced window would be better.

Of course, there are other mechanics, many of which are central to the game, that I wouldn’t consider eliminating and very well wouldn’t consider changing to simplify the game.  My hope is not to change the game, I think that ship has sailed.  Magic may have the resources and customer base to survive substantial changes, but I doubt V:TES does.  My hope is to provoke some thought on what really is necessary and how that sort of thinking can be applied in the future whether it’s not creating unnecessary new mechanics or whether it’s creating a cleaner version of some other game that comes along.

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4 Responses to Purging

  1. Bill Ricardi says:

    Though I agree in a lot of places, I just don’t see it happening. Realistic retooling of a CCG means phasing out entire groups of cards. It is a step Whitewolf isn’t willing to take.

    They’re idea of errata is stupid: List all of the rulings ever made on the card? That is NOT what I asked for. I asked for the NEW text of the card under unified rules (AKA Oracle rules). But they can’t do that, because their conflicting rulings would suddenly leap into the spotlight, and they would rather bury those.

    They have NO INTEREST in decluttering the game, they can’t even come up with standard ways to say the same thing! Lazy design. If they can’t get that together, they won’t be able to wrap their head around decluttering the game.

    Its a good effort on your part, but sadly, more effort than WW will ever make.

  2. extrala says:

    Very interesting article. While I can agree with you on some of your points, I wholeheartedly disagree on others:

    Contestation: Contesting vampires early often leads to both players being ousted, so I could live with a rule that prevents vampire contests. On the other hand, contesting library cards (for me) is an essential part of the game, especially when it comes down to high powered cards like “Heart of Nizchetus” or “Fame” or even “Pentex Subversion”.

    Clan specials/disabilities: Most of them actually are not really necessary (as keywords), but they add significantly to the flavour of the game.

    How combat works: This is one of the most complicated part of the game, and therefore the one part with the most need for cleanup. But signficantly reducing or changing the current “maneuver – strike – press” (plus many more things) mechanism would instantly wallpaper literally hundred of cards.

    But as Bill already commented earlier, this kind of cleanup will never gonna happen. Not with White Wolf’s policy of not having card rotation in VtES.

  3. iclee says:

    Again, I’m not trying to fix the game. I couldn’t do that with games I was designing for. The intellectual exercise is to think about which mechanics would get cut if it were necessary to cut mechanics. The point of the exercise is to get out of some sort of unproductive line of thinking of what’s acceptable with CCG management.

    I’ve been crusading to get things fixed in CCGs since at least 1999 and possibly since 1996. I just don’t care anymore. The industry is mature enough that best practices (aka steal your competitors good ideas and eschew their bad ones) should have been adopted. If the game can’t even get a rarity indicator, it’s not going to get good card templating.

  4. Azel says:

    yeah, VTES isn’t gonna change anytime soon from these musings. but it does bring up a glaring issue for me:

    as the plethora of flavor traits and keywords grew in the WW sets, and as combat has exploded in complexity (with some useless things that should just be tossed – first strike – and other things that should just already be cleared up as an actual step, a la pre-range, pre-strike, post-strike, pre-combat ends) the actual interaction between bleed and counter-bleed has stayed very stagnant.

    stealth and intercept is a whole separate realm that’s already well fleshed, but bleed and counter-bleed is still anemic. why hasn’t it been complicated as other sections of the game? i think that’s why stealth bleed still retains such ease; it has been barely touched since WotC. now, i understand complexity can be a problem, but i’d give anything for more “complications” (i.e. options) than a fistful of bounce cards and some barely coping bleed reducers. in fact, i’d sack most of the new flavor ideas for at least a set where there’s at least as many bleed funkiness cards as there are combat junk in each set.

    actually, think of the major lost opportunity w/ Aye/Orun and Ebony Kingdom. imagine if a bounce and big bleed reducer w/ burn clauses came out for each respectively? imagine if you could tap Ayes/Oruns to tinker with bleeds crosstable. did we really need another fistful of complicated combat cards with them?

    my argument: mechanics become needlessly complicated when opportunities with them are wasted and they (the mechanics) are allowed to languish. further, certain areas of the game are still left too simplistic and similar to the original Jyhad set, while other periphery areas are cluttered needlessly.

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