Nice Hat

I just took the multiple choice test for the current Magic designer intern exams.

Only 38 right, only maybe 2 I’d argue, so I guess it’s Sad Nature’s Loser* time for me.


Anyway, I can’t bring up the issue that question 50 addresses enough when I talk about CCGs. Okay, spoiler for those who want to take the test, so stop reading long enough to do that.

While wasting spoiler space, I can talk about my weekend. Drove an hour, half of that on a single lane road I’ve never been on before, driving so fast I couldn’t see the turnouts in time to get out of the way of the person tailgating me, to get out to P-town for some 4cl V:TES. Two fortitude decks and Enkidu. Not being the type to play nothing but combat cards, I eventually get beaten down. Four player game sees swinginess as I go from just having Elimelech and no ability to afford a second dude, to having Luna, Zelios, and a Graverobbed Aleph after my prey spends down way too low, only to get ground out because I choke on bleed bounce. Saturday, drive about 45 minutes, supposed to play Conan and, maybe run Solomon Kane, ends up turning into just running SK. Sunday, drive about an hour (in the rain), rushing around to finalize my San Francisco storyline decks and then have awful games dominated by bleed decks, mostly packing huge quantities of bounce. I keep imagining some sort of interesting metagame will develop in storyline events, when really, I should never run less than two Archon Investigations in any deck.

So, CCG complexity. This cropped up in the SF storyline, unsurprisingly. One of the reasons design is hard is because of the quest for elegance. Many folks can design cards. But, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen and had to suffer through with various CCGs where the cards made it to print is overly complicated text, usually because the CCGs I play are based on some material where the designer is trying to capture the flavor of something momentous – major character, unique item, major event, etc.

Take a look at Jyhad/V:TES cards. Yes, there are painful cards. Rotschreck was a disaster to understand. Then, there are cards that don’t have complex text, necessarily, but have complex interactions. But, take a look at Undead Strength, Enhanced Senses, Lost in Crowds, Boxed In, The Barrens, and on and on and on. The cards have straightforward text. Now, is Undead Strength elegant? I would tend to call it simple. The Barrens, on the other hand, is elegant. People use The Barrens wrong all of the time, so it’s clearly a skill card. It’s a terrible beginner’s card because newbs are more likely to think discarding is bad and just grossly undervalue the ability. In fact, my nemesis Sunday was a Dom/Obf deck that was pretty much just bleed, stealth, wake, bounce. It put The Barrens in play with the storyline rule for the Old Guard faction, and the player almost never used it, not even when I stole it. … maybe he had the goods all of the time.

Elegance is not about card simplicity, it’s about text simplicity. The goal should always be to only put in as much text as needed for the card to serve its purpose. This, of course, assumes the designers know what the purpose of the card is, but that’s a separate problem that CCGs tend to have.

Nor, is elegance about reducing text. Note that the use of keywords is not about reducing text. With Magic, yes, sometimes it occurs. But, if you read Rosewater’s articles enough, you know that the benefits of keywording abilities is not in text reduction – typically, Magic will explain what a keyword does on the card, increasing the amount of text. Keywords are to have consistency, to have something that you can reference, to have something you can easily modify, etc. In other words, they produce elegance as they make information to the players more digestible.

The downside of text complexity is that CCGs start complicated and grow exponentially more complicated as more cards are created and played. In my second round game Sunday, three of us lost 5 pool from Ancient Influence because we forgot that our Favor cards were tapped (can’t gain pool while they are tapped is a basic storyline special rule). The game state was not simple, the number of cards in play was large, and we were working under a rule we weren’t used to playing with.

What makes for a classic game? Chess – elegant (boring, but elegant). Go – elegant. Monopoly – not remotely elegant, but, then, it’s only argument for being classic is that it sells a lot and sees a lot of play (often incorrect play). Texas Hold’em is elegant; 5 card draw, deuces wild, not; 7 stud Baseball, not. Bridge – elegant. But, what about CCGs? Can Magic, for instance, ever be a classic game? Is Magic, overall, elegant?

Magic has such a major advantage over other CCGs because the basics of the game aren’t that complex, in fact fairly simple for a CCG. Whereas, the game becomes the most complex at its deepest levels. Now, a lot of that complexity is not from rules but from card text and large card pools. Though, the rules are actually extremely complex and pretty much incomprehensible before the 6th Edition cleanup of timing.

I can’t really see any CCG being elegant in a general sense, however, that just means that it’s essential to keep the complexity level under control. Chess can have Nightmare Chess added to it or be like Navia Dratp and people will still get it. I just gave up on trying to explain how the Babylon 5 CCG worked after around the Severed Dreams expansion. V:TES demoing? Can’t stand it. Pretty much at any point where the typical card has seven lines of text, the game has failed as a product marketable to the masses.

What’s so crazy about CCG design is that there are pretty much an infinite number of elegant cards. V:TES has no Celerity card that’s just maneuver at one level and dodge at another. Of course, there’s also a near infinite number of elegant cards that shouldn’t get made, whether for power reasons or because many variations on the same thing is deadly dull or because the effects simply aren’t needed. But, when talking about two nigh infinities, that still leaves no end to the number of elegant cards that could be made.

Not every card needs to be elegant. Some level of dense card text is not unreasonable. Spell of Life’s failure is not that it has a bunch of text and is complex in how it works; what makes it a failure is that it has draft text. Not because the draft text is broken, which it is, but because there was simply no reason to add draft text to a card that dense and that complicated. Most CCGs try to capture a specific flavor and sometimes the only way to do that well is to have some sort of unusual (therefore, probably complex) text.

Anyway, one can only hope that more designers and developers adopt a philosophy that card elegance matters. While the only CCG I play more than once in a blue moon is out of print, there’s still things like our storyline events where it would have been better if there was more editing of the storyline cards so that they weren’t overwhelming.


2 Responses to Nice Hat

  1. Andrew Haas says:

    A smart professor of mine once said “Good writing is good editing.” So many Vtes cards that I’ve seen are clearly not edited, the first text they came up with made it all the way through play testing and into print with nary and edit to be seen.

    The result? Confusion mostly, and consternation. The ally text has been pointed out many times but it bears repeating, the lack of keywords is reprehensible.

    Vtes suffers as much from bad rules design though. The way damage and agg damage specifically is handled never made sense to me. The combat timing mechanics are tragically arcane and never explained well anywhere except in Byzantine card text rulings.

    How the hell is a new player supposed to fumble their way through the clunky combat system of Vtes?

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