A Gnu CCG

I had a dream recently where I was playing a card game at a big table with a bunch of other players.  I had a strong hand that consisted of a forest, snow, polar bears (no gnus!!, though), and something I’ve forgotten (I think it was interior decorations) strategy.  This game, of course, doesn’t exist.  Or, if it does, hopefully, someone lets me know so that I have further proof that I’m psychic (but, then, so is everyone else, so it hardly matters).

It got me to thinking about how I would approach CCG design these days.  The more I thought about writing a post about how I’d step by step approach designing a CCG, the more I thought of two things:  one, I don’t know that I could design one step by step; two, there’s no point in designing one.

Why the latter?

Magic is the industry standard for mechanics even if other CCGs outsell it.  There are plenty of ways to do CCGs differently – see hundreds of CCGs that have been printed (and probably died).  But, many designs lack the elegance that Magic has.

For instance, one of the most defining elements to a particular CCG is one’s faction.  Whether race in B5, clan in V:TES, side in Star Wars, and on and on and on – factions provide structure.  What of Magic’s factions?  That would be colors.  Mark Rosewater often comments that the most important thing in Magic’s mechanics is the color pie.  Numerous games have identifiable factions and can expand the game with additional factions, providing important hooks for fans of the genre/source material, magic has its 5 colors (and some colorless “factions” like land and artifacts).

Why is the latter so much better?  Elegance.  Control over mechanics.  It’s not strictly better, of course, as I don’t find strong attachments to the colors (“I play green!”) in the same way that we see strong attachments to various CCGs’ more specific factions.

Elegant in that it’s both consistent and simple, with a lot of natural ways to build into greater complexity.  With just 5 colors, you get 10 two-color combinations, 10 three-color combinations.  Ultimate Combat!, with its 4 foundation types, loses a lot of variety in potential cards, yet still has a much more coherent structure around which to build a game.

On the flip side, games with factions often get out of control with the number of factions.  Though B5 limited its playable races, it still added Psi Corps, home factions, Drakh, corporate (well, would have if our set got published).  V:TES has over 30 clans.  Other games, such as VS, had to keep adding factions.  I even sort of forget how many allegiances Wheel of Time got up to.  Not only is this a headache for things like maintaining balance, but it’s a disaster when trying to sell sets.  With only five factions, you will build decks of every faction and every card is theoretically useful to you, but with some indeterminate/expanding number of factions, most players will get cards that are UOA (useless on arrival, ignoring that there’s such things as trading and selling singles).

As to controlling mechanics, one of the more frequent complaints of players of CCGs is that the distinctions between factions blur as more cards get made.  I heard this all of the time when I talked to Shadowfist players.  I get this a lot with V:TES even though my top suggestion is to open up a mechanic to everybody (and not just two discipline “factions” and an underpowered disciplineless card).  Naturally, the larger the number of factions, the less specialties each should have.  Overlap becomes inevitable as more and more cards see print.

So, Magic is it?  No, for the reason I often comment upon, even Friday when I had lunch with an old gaming buddy at work – Magic is not fun to play, not in comparison to other CCGs at any rate.  I’d so much rather play B5, which I often had terrible games of, Wheel of Time, which had virtually no playerbase and severe balance problems initially, and, of course, Ultimate Combat!  Hell, I’d probably rather play Dragon Dice.

Where does Magic go wrong?

I can bring up previous comments about strength of permanents and whatever, but I think I narrowed it down to one overwhelming factor, and it’s not lands/mana (which UC! also has).  Drawing one card a turn, while incredibly intuitive and quite elegant, is amazingly bad design for a CCG.  Drawing two cards a turn seems pretty bad as well, but it’s worlds better.  With such a low replenishment rate, card advantage simply becomes too important and playing off the top is too prevalent.  More than anything else, this is why Ultimate Combat! is so much more fun an experience (on average).

I have a hundred or so Type P Magic decks and I pull them out at times and goldfish them, though I don’t think about how I want to evolve them like I once did.  I tried playing some of them with a mechanic of refilling the hand every turn.  Of course, it was a problematic experience – Magic wasn’t designed to work that way, so the costing of cards would be way off.  Decks with more cheap cards would just overwhelm slower decks automatically.  Now that I think about it, maybe I should try playing them with a draw 2 mechanic to see how that would work.

So, yes, I think a much better CCG can be made than anything currently being played.  Unfortunately, I’d go with something akin to Magic’s five colors, something akin to Magic’s turn order, something akin to how a lot of Magic cards work (though very possibly without a land mechanic), etc.  I would just start with the concept that either the normal draw in a turn was refill, immediate replacement a la V:TES, or multidraw of some sort of fixed number, probably starting at 3 cards a turn and tuning from there.

This theoretical game fails on two obvious accounts.  The first is that it wouldn’t survive because people like Magic and there are simply not enough people who want to play a better version of Magic.  The second is that it would infringe upon intellectual property rights.

Sad.  What makes this more sad than just the fact that the attempt wouldn’t work because of economics and legal reasons is that there’s no chance that a sufficiently established CCG will reboot itself to fix fundamental problems.  Magic reboots itself constantly to fix short term problems, a major help for keeping it lively for the long term, but the fundamental flaw of drawing one card a turn just isn’t going to be addressed, nevermind that most CCGers wouldn’t even consider it important to be addressed.  For V:TES, sure, Nights of Reckoning could be banned, Dominate cards could get nerfed, bounce could be opened up to a far greater percentage of decks, etc., but there’s no feasible way to reboot the game as it invalidates so much effort that was put into the game over the years by existing players while offering nothing special to new players even if the game could be radically simplified to be more appealing to new players.

Sure, L5R rebooted a significant number of years down the line and other CCGs have done reboots, but such occurrences threaten a DOA game when they come back online.  I could see Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! being able to survive a reboot, but where’s the impetus for it with those games?  When you are actually making a lot of money, are you going to remake your product?  For RPGs, which admittedly don’t make a lot of money, sure, as you need to have something new to sell always.  For CCGs, where a reboot eliminates all value of previous purchases, a painful sell.

Partial reboot?  Something more along the lines of Magic’s rotating formats?  I think the two are still fairly far apart.  Suppose, for instance, we partial reboot V:TES.  V:TES 21st Century has Brujah, Gangrel, Malkavians, Nosferatu, Toreador, Tremere, Ventrue and so forth with no Govern, no Conditioning, Deflection being disciplineless, etc.  You can still play any copies of the old game that got printed in the new; over time, the percentage will greatly increase.  Game expands to cover more clans/disciplines but not everything.  There’s never any sterile rule, scarce rule, events, Imbued, Red List/Trophy – the game contains mechanics to a much greater degree, has real timing rules, changes a bunch of wordings to make interactions clearer, rebalances cards.  In other words, it’s sort of a mass bannings/errata with some “you will eventually be able to play this, just not right now” thrown in to really irritate people.  In what way could this possibly sell to the numerous people who have kept the game alive by buying boxes of every expansion?  Even when many of the cards were reprints?  Who replaces those who leave?

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4 Responses to A Gnu CCG

  1. Brandon says:

    I think I’m ready for a test ban of Conditioning and Deflection, but not Govern. A game where bounce is hard to come by would be interesting and maybe more challenging. Bleed would be more expensive and difficult to get.

  2. finbury says:

    First: it hasn’t happened yet, but print on demand could be a powerful tool in completely changing the CCG world.
    If you did design a CCG, getting it out the door in fixed sets is a lot easier than it used to be.

    Second: while I would expect Wizards to have some pretty strong IP protections around the Magic color pie, I don’t think the concept “five is the right number of factions” could be protected. I think it’s a consequence of number theory. I mean:

    Assume you have N factions. Assume that playing 1 or 2 factions at once is the standard way to play the game – ie, that the “feel” of a deck is primarily chosen by selection from set K. Call the number of 1- and 2-way combinations of factions K. Thus:

    N K
    2 3
    3 6
    4 10
    5 15
    6 21
    7 28
    8 36

    K needs to be big enough to provide deck variety. It also needs to be small enough to allow playtesting in all sections. And N needs to be big enough to fit all of the mechanics you want, and small enough that you can meaningfully describe what those mechanics do. Trivially, N should not be 2 or 3; it should probably also not be 7 or more. That leaves 4, 5, and 6 as your options.

    That’s all assuming you have just a single “faction”. The VtES approach adds a dimension to that.

    – The equivalent of a “faction” here is a discipline.
    – A single deck uses 2 to 3 of them in the normal case.
    – You can use a clan and get a “pre-selected” discipline set, or you can choose your own.
    – the game designer has the option of declaring certain disciplines off-limits, and not printing crypt support for them.
    – a secondary overlay of faction cards are provided by clan and/or sect cards.

    Clearly, you can’t test things as tightly in this environment as you can with Magic, but VtES is a less tight game overall anyway. I don’t think this would work for a game with cards like Lightning Bolt and Terror. (I really like the amount of indirection there – it makes play more strategic and less tactical. It also slows things down a bit, which is nice for a multiplayer game.)

    There are missed opportunities here. Clearly the design space was constrained by the lore of the CCG. Without that limitation, it might actually have been possible to choose discipline sets for clans that provided a reasonable strategy for each clan. But RG was limited to what he could thematically link in with the existing disciplines. There were also some mistakes made regarding the viability of certain strategies, and I think the game overall has one too few win strategies – I’d have liked one more.

    There are other approaches, too. A CCG could use an “adjective/noun” approach, where deckbuilding involves selecting one item each from two lists. Or you could base things around a “theming” card, that sets overall rules – like the L5R stronghold cards.

  3. Azel says:

    Forest, Snow, Polar Bears… reminds me of Krill, the game of ocean ecology. There were whales and salmon that feasted on the krill, who in turn feasted upon the phytoplankton and zooplankton. If I remember correctly, Killer Whales were one of the trump cards to get rid of pesky whales eating all your krill.

    There’s probably an Arctic ecology one as well.

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