You There, In The Woods

Perhaps a better title for a different sort of post.  If you’ve never seen the comic strip in Scrye Magazine about Dragonball Z where this comes from, well, missed out on hilarity.

Interaction.  Is a game a game if you don’t interact with anything?  Solitaire?  Interacting with random draws or layouts.  Too esoteric, maybe.  Interaction with opponents in a game with multiple people is a necessary element to a game.

As I often say, I once thought interaction was the key to making a CCG good.  Then, I realized just how much interaction in multiplayer CCGs is crap.  Player A trashes player B and either C or D wins, just because A’s deck only does the one thing of trashing another player.  If you did a cost/benefit table of two-player CCGs vs. multiplayer CCGs, I’d put something down on the two-player side about how two-player CCGs don’t have to worry about the kingmaking effects of negative interactions.

Which led to the idea of “quality interaction”, however subjective that is.

But, this isn’t a post about quality interaction.  This is a post about something I more clearly realized due to helping design a CCG/LCG style game.

You want to minimize m-… self-play.  The more time you spend dealing with your own “board” is that much less time you are spending engaging your opponent(s).  Seems obvious, but it also seems like designers forget about this when trying to come up with mechanics, especially when doing top-down mechanics, i.e. simulating the flavor of whatever the game is based on.

At least, if you are looking for enjoyable play.  For effectiveness, it’s something of a truism that the less you interact with your opponents, the better off you are.

I’ll run through the CCGs I know best.

Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

I hadn’t thought about this until yesterday.  The increased number of effects that happen during untap always struck me as being off, but it was only yesterday that I realized that at least part of this was because it was purely administrative functions that had no interactions with other players’ boards and card play.  (Burn option is not remotely interactive, just in case it bothers anyone I don’t mention this.)

To get kind of sidetracked already, people bitch a lot about Imbued, and a lot of the carping has to do with how long they take.  Then, you get counterarguments that people who know what they are doing don’t take very long.  It’s clearer to me now that it isn’t the actual time spent, but that the Imbued deck is doing lots of things that don’t involve other players.  Much like Freak Drive decks play with themselves for far too long.

There are some benefits to expanding the untap phase, such as helping people remember optional untap effects like taking pool for the Edge or using a hunting ground.  But, overall, it’s just more doing stuff that isn’t “playing a game” (interacting with people).  Similarly, expanding the master phase, the influence phase, and the discard phase all involve expanding phases where you aren’t playing with other people.

Which obviously brings up the minion phase.  The minion phase is the heart of the game.  A lot of people like combat because they see it being the primary interactive element to the game.  I see stealth versus intercept, bleed mods vs. bounce, actions vs. wakes being the primary interactive elements of the game.  But, I can see how some wouldn’t find those quite as compelling as the subgame that is combat as they like the feeling of more directly interacting.

Either way.  The point is that actions are where we engage other players.  Of course, it’s not just actions but the possibility of interference with actions.  Unblockability, such as from excessive amounts of stealth, is obviously less engaging.  I hate playing decks that don’t wake because being tapped out means not being involved in the game, even if all I’m doing is waking and bouncing – bounce is actually a pretty good form of interaction in the game, which is yet another reason I don’t see why people hate it so much.

Where Imbued are masters of the untap, Girls …, et al, are annoying for their abuse of the master phase.  No wonder people can find them more obnoxious than decks that do things I find far worse, like minion destruction.

Babylon 5

A lot of my observations about interaction have come from B5.  There’s no requirement that you interact with opponents, like there essentially is in V:TES.  B5 is a race game, so you can sit back and gain your influence/power as efficiently as possible and hope you outspeed everyone else.  This was one of the great criticisms of the game – that everyone could play multiplayer solitaire.

The whole beginning of the game, outside of some speed/hyperspeed openings was predicated on doing infrastructure work … which is why people so often hated the beginning of B5 games.  Sponsor, build, promote, build, build, build, build, okay … now we start interacting.

Then, as the card pool got bigger, it became easier and easier to spend more and more actions.  It wasn’t like those actions were increased participation in conflicts.  Those actions were often more infrastructure building.  It’s hard to choose one card as the worst card ever printed for B5 – too many options, but in terms of making action rounds as dumb as possible, Bogged Down has to rank up there.  The intention might have been noble – to force people to do important things, but the real result was to encourage people to do numerous trivial actions to prevent the inevitable Secret Strike that would guarantee a successful conflict if everyone else had passed.

Did B5 have a problem with too much administrative stuff outside of the action round?  I wouldn’t say so.  The game emphasized the action round as it should.  Possibly too easy to have a full hand of cards (20, 30), which slowed things down.  Probably too many ways to dick around for a while before doing important things.  And, often, lots of problems with conflicts being the focus of the game.

Wheel of Time

I enjoyed WoT a lot, so why don’t I ever try to argue for its greatness?  Because hardly any of the game involved interacting with your opponent.  Not to say that interaction never mattered.  Challenges could easily decide games depending upon deck matchups.  A basic Pattern Challenge contested might nuke enough resources to decide a game long before the Last Battle.  But, usually, the game was heavily oriented towards recruit, recruit, recruit, Last Battle.

It was particularly bad before the expansions added more brutal challenge cards.  Outrecruiting almost always won games.  The primary form of interaction was actually forced, random discard with Thom Merrilin, Liandrin Sedai, Sabotage (which I underplayed).  That’s not terribly fun, though Thom was the Light’s only hope.

Even after Invasion, Genocide, and the like got published, there were still many games where it was just recruit, recruit, recruit, Guarded by Fate not to die, see what happens in the Last Battle.

There wasn’t a lot of administrative nonsense.  However, there was a lot of time spent just on recruiting.  There was way, way too much time spent counting up symbols – an argument for turning WoT into an awesome electronic CCG.  Lots of card drawing and card searching.

Then, even if you did actually contest challenges, the system for determining who went to which challenges or wussed out was horribly clunky.  Possibly exciting in the rare cases it mattered, but just so clunky that playing with people you trusted was completely different from playing with strangers.

Magic: The Gathering

I think Magic “wins” this category in a couple of ways.  First, while there are ways to do things during upkeep or draw or end of turn, the game is focused heavily on the main phases and the combat subphase.  Second, Magic has lots of ability to interfere with what opponents are doing.  Counterspells might annoy me and be a general source of unfunnity … people like to have their cards do something … but they and things like instant speed creature elimination or responding to effects with card play or board effects all mean that the game has lots of ability to require players to be paying attention to what is going on.  Third, while I consider Magic’s draw one card a turn the primary reason it’s not as fun as it should be, limiting cards in hand does mean that each individual play has more relevance – compare and contrast with games where playing several cards might have no greater game meaning.

On the other hand, Magic does have interaction issues.  Creature combat may be far more important these days, but it’s historically been a minor part of constructed play.  My swarm of 2/2’s beat, your 5/5 flyer swings back, Bolt/Terror/Swords is more of an answer than Giant Growth.  Magic’s more open nature when it comes to card interactions also means far more combo decks than other CCGs, decks that just want to go off and you either can interfere or you can’t.  Can also be ground out by graveyard decks recursing creatures.  Can be hard locked or soft locked out of games a host of ways.  Armageddon or targeted land destruction to prevent being able to play cards, discard to destroy the hand, counterspell everything, whatever – all means games that suck.

In fact, as much as Magic should have better interaction due to its structure, it often has worse than other CCGs due to card effects.  Creature removal is far too easy, making any given creature unreliable.  Planeswalkers, which are awful for the game, become cardless ways that are hard to get rid (to the extent that anything in Magic is hard to get rid of) of that produce obnoxious, repeatable effects.  Equipment tries to solve the problem of creature enchantments being the suck, but they are a much more difficult way to interact with an opponent outside of environments where artifact removal is prevalent.

Ultimate Combat!

Why talk about Magic first?  Well, UC! is Magic.  UC! also has much less relevance to others.

UC! had far fewer effects to interfere with opponent card play, but it did have a lot of lockdown effects.  It had Time Walk.  It had a Time Walk variant.  It had Mindslaver.  It had Winter Orb (as a “sorcery”).  It had Armageddon.  It had lots of scary, scary things it could do to you and very little ability to stop those, mostly “Memory Lapse”, … in theory.

In practice, aggro plays are so strong that a lot of the control mechanisms just aren’t reliable enough.  One wonders whether it would be fair to compare UC! to a Magic format more like Legacy, even given the differences in curve and options, just because of the brutal nature of how decks won.

One thing I vastly prefer about UC! is that “creatures” are one-shots.  It may seem odd that I hate creatures in Magic as much as I do because of how easy they are to remove, but an undealt with creature just wins, often in a tedious fashion.  At least with UC!, you feel like you can recover permanentwise.  Though, I do find that Favorite Technique undermines this immensely.

UC! has about as many administrative needs as Magic, so nothing much there.  The combat subphase is far more important in UC! due to how few other ways there are to win and technique interaction is the norm rather than an accident.  Giant Growths are ubiquitous, which is a lot more interesting to me than Swords to Plowshares effects.

While I concede that proper Magic play requires a lot of thinking and that my numerous bad experiences often come down to poor planning (deck construction metagaming) or huge discrepancies in player skill, I’m quite the believer that proper play in UC! is a massive factor.  So, while the interaction may seem more limited and just generally less present, I find that I have to pay a lot of attention to the game state and making good decisions does get rewarded.

Tomb Raider

Sure, why not?  So, I didn’t play a lot of this game.  Who has?  I probably played my share through playtesting.

Two-player Tomb Raider never felt all that interactive.  Well, maybe starter versus starter was okay, though it wasn’t that hard for one player to get locked on one side of the board.  Multiplayer had a very different problem.

We often playtested multiplayer scenarios where you had to return home with your prize.  Not unexpectedly, it ran into the problem of people behind just waiting for someone to return and ambushing, much like you might see in RoboRally.

In addition, much of Tomb Raider had nothing to do with your opponent.  Getting stuff, overcoming board effects, deciding where to explore – the game was probably much better suited to solitaire play since decks designed to nuke your opposing adventurer(s) weren’t exactly fun for people who wanted to do things like tool up.  The balance of adventurer destruction just wasn’t really there.

Even worse was the intended interaction of card play obstacles.  A core mechanic of the game was supposed to be to throw obstacles in front of your opponent(s).  But, as with other games that had similar mechanics, like Shadowrun, obstacles didn’t do anything to help you and may just end up helping an opponent.  Nevermind that it was a major hassle to even be able to play an obstacle.  Again, I can think of how the game could work better as a solitaire game with there being an obstacle deck that randomly spit out additional obstacles to add to inherent ones on locations.

Just a strange entry in the history of CCGs.  I’m sure a far better game with much more appeal could have been created stealing a lot of elements from Tomb Raider.  Even reasonably likely such a game already exists as TR always reminded me of random dungeon games.

The Next Big Thing

So, if going to try to make some money off a new CCG/LCG or any sort of game, it may not seem like a key concern, but I would pay attention to just how much of the game is not designed around doing things that opponents are involved in.  Bookkeeping – bad.  Lots of plays that can’t be affected – bad.  Lots of phases to a turn where things must be addressed that don’t really engage the players – bad.

“Liveliness” in a game is tied to enjoyment.  I can think of boardgames that have similar problems, in fact very possibly a greater issue with boardgames, where there is lots of dead time for other players, but I think I’ve hit a reasonable word count limit.

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2 Responses to You There, In The Woods

  1. Daniel Couture says:

    Hi!
    Ever once and a while I stop by to see how UC! is doing. Years back I bough a couple starter boxes, and have never been able to find people to sell the starter decks to and play against.

    Do you want them?

    I play Munchkin with my wife and I find that game, even though VERY simple for a “ccg”, very interactive.

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