Draw, Lose, Win

I’ve now forgotten what got me to thinking about this, but I got to thinking about success and failure.  Oh, not in RPGs.  In CCGs, though the principle could apply to boardgames.

Not how to succeed or fail.  Not on the strategic level.  On the transaction level of the game.

I speak of transactions during CCG play because I needed some term to describe the events that happen during play that entertain me the most.  Results don’t generally entertain me.  Of course, a result can come from a transaction.

Anyway, I’m going to do my usual “here are the CCGs I played the most and why Ultimate Combat! is the best CCG ever” breakdown.  The general idea, to reiterate, is … wait, I don’t think I got to what the point of all of this is.  The point of all of this is that I enjoy CCG play when you have interesting, one might say compelling, successes and failures within games.  Probably, I’m also of the bent to be more interested in successes than failures.

Magic

I can say that drawing one card a turn is the worst thing about Magic.  But, that’s independent of actually enjoying playing.  I don’t enjoy Magic less because I draw one card a turn.  I enjoy it less because drawing one card a turn reduces how many things I do during a game.

Speaking of doing things during a game, this topic goes to why I enjoy Magic so much less than other CCGs.  I don’t feel like I succeed during play, at least not in any sort of compelling way.

What are points of success/failure in Magic?  My creature deals damage or not.  My spell is countered or not.  My counter counters your spell or not.  My removal removes or not.  I burn your brains or not.  I sac land to create mana to force you to draw your deck or not.

In a lot of ways, in other words, my cards do something meaningful or not.

Turn two, I tap two land and cast a 2/2.  Turn three, it attacks.  That is okay.  But, what if you cast an equivalent 2/2 on your turn before I attack and I decide not to trade?  That’s not succeeding at something.  Maybe that’s not failing, either, but nothing happening* is pretty boring.

*  Which makes one wonder why I spend so much time doing nothing during V:TES games, but I’ll get to that later.

So often, what happens in a game of Magic is something that doesn’t produce any sort of interesting, one might say dramatic, success or failure.  I bring out a 4/4.  It gets bounced, destroyed, even possibly buried since Type P still uses bury, or removed from play.  That’s a “removal success” on my opponent’s part, but it’s rather uninteresting to me.  Of course, the worst situations in Magic tend to be of the “I really need a card to deal with the board position, but I just drew a … land/card I can’t afford/other irrelevant card”.  Yes, mana screw is a variant of this, where I often see games where you don’t get one of your colors or enough mana to keep up.

It could very well be why I gravitate towards to fast decks with low mana curves.  You are more likely to play something early.  That early play may not win you the game, but it’s likely to do something.  Plus, shooting people in the noggin might make up for being in some sort of board position lock.

I’m probably not alone in the idea of wanting to DO THINGS when playing games.  After all, hand destruction, land destruction, and counterspells are three of the things players have expressed the most hate for.

Not to rag much more on Magic, but, even when I’m winning, I’m often bored with what is going on.  Oh, look, my auto creature generator keeps generating another dude my opponent can’t stop.  Or, whatever.  Not always the case, but far too often.

Ultimate Combat!

I don’t recall Mindslaver going off in any game of Magic I’ve played.  The older, yes, printed earlier, Mental Domination has gone off a bunch of times.  It would seem like the ultimate unhappinesser.  It’s weirdly not.

Actually, most of the time, Mental Dom just speeds your opponent towards decking.  The board impact is rather minimal as there’s little ability to prep or follow up with something nasty to an eight-cost play.

Now, Shake Up has to be a better card because it’s far more effective at deciding who wins.  But, I’m getting off topic.  Suppress is more like what Mental Dom would seem to be.  The ability to deprive someone of playing the game is, of course, not terribly enjoyable.

Attacks are far more interesting in UC! than in Magic.  Because techniques are one-shot plays, you lose something by deciding to attack or deciding to defend, unlike some 1/6 wall in Magic just sitting there sucking up damage every round.  Sure, Favorite Technique and weapons break this big time, though weapons are too unreliable or require too much effort in my experience, just leaving the potential for hideous lock situations with Drunken Favorite Techniques.

Yet another reason that UC! might actually be a better game without the expansion – Drunken Style is just way too much of a hose.  Whether it’s combinations, Adrenaline, doubled Speed/Strength, X advantages, or … well, other advantages are kind of too esoteric to worry about, Drunken techniques just fail too many “progress towards winning” plays.

Oddly, perhaps, you can get by with many fewer techniques than Magic decks will creatures.  Though removal barely exists in UC! and every use of a technique means it goes away, a lot of games are won off the back of three or so attacks.  Attack, combination, combination, with some help besides just a movement card can get you there, though probably have to do a bit more than just swing three times.

While Healing Mantra isn’t the best thing ever, it is rather discouraging on how it undoes successes.  It’s not like you really stop it from resolving unless you get into an unexpected Psychic Delay counter war.  On the other hand, for the more controllish player (in practice, but is this true in theory?), the success of getting back some hit points in a game that can often be – beat, beat, beat, over – may very well be an interesting success.  I know I’ve thought about holding off on attacks to choke someone on Healing Mantra until I could go over the top in one round.  That’s possibly interesting.

You rarely fail to play your cards.  They often do something.  Limited play has a strong technique management element to it that shows up very differently in constructed play.  Just putting out some random 3/2 technique may decide the game because so many UC! games come down to “if I don’t win this turn, you win next turn”.  When you do come up short because someone had the Speed/Strength to survive or had some bizarre play, like Banana Peel, to do so, that’s rather interesting.

Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

Every action is a possible success/failure.  Really, a hunt action can be quite dramatic, though usually just more setting up something down the road.  So much of my enjoyment in the game is seeing whether my bleeds will succeed or fail or seeing whether bleeds against me will succeed or fail.

But, tool up actions can decide games.  Votes are annoyingly swingy much of the time.  Though, to be fair to voting, I often have the view that most KRCs should succeed.  After all, someone invested cards and capacity into doing something, so it feels more failuretastic when a vote fails than when a bleed fails.

Combat is far less interesting to me than to others because I see it falling into a closer to Magic paradigm of success/failure not being all that interesting.  The best combats are the play a bunch of cards but little actually happens sort.  Those are pretty rare.  What’s interesting about “I rush you, Carrion Crows, Bats til you die”?  I still get beaten up by Trap decks, and it’s routinely boring as hell.

If Magic is a game where I feel more like the interesting bit is the result, V:TES falls into the camp, along with most other CCGs, where I’m living in the transactions.  (UC! tends to have fewer transactions and they tend toward being the same sort much of the time.)

Shattering Blow on Assault Rifle – yes, combat can be amusing – is living in the trees.  That should both be an interesting success for one player and an interesting failure for the other.

Masters and events – not really interesting successes and failures except in those rare cases when Sudden on a Villein is indecisive.

So, you may be wondering how all of this is any different from my going on about positive/constructive/quality interaction.  I guess it’s not.  I guess I’m repeating myself.  Well, on with the recursion.

Wheel of Time

Why WoT before B5?  Dice?

So, dice is not something I would go with in a CCG.  Oh, sure, die values on cards, like War Cry or 40k is really interesting and has rather sophisticated design space.  But, actually rolling dice?  That’s pretty ugly.

Made even more so by how important your rolls could be in WoT.  Prior to “Fixed Rand”, Lord Dragon giving you a big dice pool, and other expansion mechanics, WoT was way too dependent upon rolling specific things.  Even after the first couple of turns, after you burned Pattern just to bring out your Thoms or Liandrins, you needed certain symbols to continue your snowball of annihilation, your “I draw my deck” (but later errataed) advantages, etc.

Success.  Challenges didn’t become as important until later in the meta.  Suicide Dragon relied on them.  Maidens (not in playtesting where they were the most broken thing ever) relied on them, though that was long after the game had changed dramatically from Premier’s limited viable options.  So, what was success largely a matter of?

Recruiting, of course.  Card drawing.  Searching.  Yeah, there’s a reason WoT wasn’t one of the best designed games ever.  How about Overrun?  Succeeding at nuking characters or not nuking them with Overrun was a key feature of the game.  Last Battle event play to swing things just enough for victory was a key feature.

A strange game by the way I describe what it was like.  Actually, yes, it was just a strange game.  Recruit, recruit, recruit, draw cards to recruit some more.  Then, roll lots of dice.  Every once in a while play against some goofy kill character deck where you had to have your Guarded by Fates a ready or Healing Herbs.

There was certainly something going on during games.  Well, moving on.

Babylon 5

Expansions may have had a lot of bad ideas, but the most problematic environment (other than the Drakh/Ultimate Hoser environment or the “look at all my technomages environment”) was the Premier environment.  For the simple reason that success barely needed to happen to end games.

Sheridan gets a bunch of Doom that nobody can really interact with, Martyr, win.  Centauri/Narn win two conflicts and cheese to 20 power.  Alliance of Races, Forced Evolution, Order Above All just put a clock on the game.  Shadow Marks make Centauri Border Raids unstoppable … unless you You Are Not Ready something into oblivion.

Not Meant To Be could counter some stuff.  You Are Not Ready didn’t always hit “good” conflicts, it sometimes stopped annoying conflicts.  Level the Playing Field may have been annoying in how swingy it could be, but it did make success and failure more interesting.  There were a lot of events, at different points, that someone could play to suddenly be able to pop out a fattie or to buff someone.

Trade counters may not have made trade cheese all that interesting, but it did produce failures where you could expect only successes.

A lot of games weren’t really that good, certainly when it came to producing results.  But, tooling up certain characters or in certain ways was interesting to me.  “Adira Strikes” might have been intended for social play since the whole idea of Inconclusive Strike on Adira to make her bigger was not terribly productive, but the idea of pumping characters other than ambassadors with enhancements, aftermaths, marks, or whatever was a way to get some transactional success.

Unfortunately, the mechanic most intended for transactional success/failure – aftermaths – was normally a waste of deck space.

There’s a lot of B5 play I forgot.  But, for whatever reason, I tend to remember the positive – my amusement – a lot more than the games that just rather sucked.  Enjoyable card play must have been part of the experience.

Shadowfist

To me, Shadowfist is the CCG I’ve played a significant amount of that has the most transactions by far.  I can breakdown the important stuff in B5 games or V:TES games, even with a ton of cards played or in games where stuff happens for two hours.  I can’t ever seem to recall every little notable event in a Shadowfist game, unless the game is horribly unbalanced and over in 20 minutes.

But, are those transactions interesting?

Yes.  Shadowfist also happens to be the game where I have the least feel for what determines the outcome.  Because the outcome is largely removed from my experience, it is precisely the successes and failures in the transactions that I focus on.  Lusignan riding a Fire Horse and wielding the Boundless Heaven Sword is a success right up until he gets shut down by some cheap event, which can be an interesting failure.

Sure, Kinoshita House, Fox Pass, and whatnot make for less interesting failures.  But, there’s often so many things going on, a stack can just get insane, that I’m living in a world of transactional successes and failures.

So, why isn’t Shadowfist the best thing ever?  Because it can be too much to track.  V:TES has a much more manageable amount of effects in play at a time, to where I feel like I have some control over what happens.  I can determine success or, at least, predict it.

Having the player be in control has value.  I notice a lot more the sort of mistakes I make with other CCGs.  With Shadowfist, too often, it’s questionable the extent of a mistake.  I can look back at winning a V:TES tournament after letting Augustus Giovanni get torped right away in a prelim round as a mistake that probably didn’t hurt me any.  It improved the optics on my position of pathetic weakness.  With Shadowfist, I often don’t know whether overlooking something hurt more, hurt less, or didn’t hurt at all.

That lack of knowing does decrease the compellingness of successes and failures.

Maybe I just did rethink the whole concept of quality interaction.  But, I think there’s some point to trying to get at a bit more detail on what’s enjoyable about actually playing CCGs (there’s always deck construction and metagame analysis for other reasons CCG can be enjoyable).  It’s really Magic where I realized that I just don’t feel like success and failure in the transactions engages me that much, and that’s why I would rather play any of the other CCGs I’ve mentioned today.

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