A public dumping ground for words and pictures. Contact me at ThomasTamblyn@Gmail.com

Friday 28 November 2014

Resource systems in card games

I want to talk about resource systems in card games. I apologise that there are no pictures. When I say "card games" I mean games like Magic and all its spinoffs and clones. I'd call the genre CCGs except there's no reason they have to be collectible and no reason collectible games have to work like this.

For my purposes I’m going to define a genre like so: “Having a hand of unique cards that you pay costs to play.”

The traditional system is that on turn N you can spend up to N energy. Next turn you will have N+1 energy to spend. Most games tweak how exactly your N rises turn to turn (in Magic you play lands, in other games you play cards face-down as resources, in still others it goes up automatically) but the fundamentals are consistent. And anything so uniform across so many games is very successful; functional and robust but also boring. This is a challenge.

General features of the genre:* Having some cards stronger than others is fun and cost is a good balancing factor for that.

* Keeping the early game simple is fun.
* Ramping up to play expensive cards is fun.
* Drawing cheap cards late-game is annoying.
* Making a deck with the correct ratio of cheap to expensive cards is far more important than it is fun.
* Successful games find ways to work around those issues, usually with card mechanics.

Interesting exceptions:
An outlier I enjoy is Fluxx. The rules of Fluxx are “on your turn, draw a card then play a card”. All cards have the same cost – one play. And some of the cards you play will increase the number of plays that can be made on subsequent turns.

Epic was a short-lived magic-clone with one interesting feature: Like Fluxx you played one card per turn; any card. There were also some cards with lesser effects that didn’t cost a play. That was interesting.

What I like about those two games’ model is a hand of any random cards is always playable. There are duff hands, but none that leave you unable to play the game.

Resource systems:
I have some mechanics that I think would make resource systems for a “hand of cards with costs” game.

Debt system:
By default you have 1 energy on your turn. You spend energy to pay cards’ costs. Your turn ends when you have no energy left to spend. However you are allowed to overspend and go into debt (this will always be the last play of your turn as it leaves you with no energy left). Any debt is given to the next player as free energy.

So, if you have 1 energy and play a 6-cost card, your turn ends and the next player starts with 5 extra energy.

* Maddeningly difficult to explain concisely.
* Difficult to track energy in play (counters that go back into a shared pool? Player positions on a wheel?)
* For more than two players, it needs to be played all-against-all with no alliances.
* Not as much sense of escalation when you can play anything on turn 1. I have thoughts on this, but I won’t ramble.

Charge meter system:
Cards have two modes, free and charged. You play one card per turn. When you play a card for free, after it’s done its thing it becomes a charge in your charge meter – a row of cards in front of you. You spend charges in order to play a card in its charged state, which has a bigger effect than when it is played for free. For example, a card might let you draw 1 if you play it for free, or draw 2 if you spend a charge to play it.

In this way, you never have enough resources to play everything in its charged state, and it requires a lot of decision-making.

I think there would be colours of card, and cards would usually require charges of the same colour. There could also be cards that have no effect when played for free, but add special effects when spent as a charge. Eg: a creature paid for with this charge comes into play larger.

“Creatures” and other cards that stay in play would only go into your charge meter when destroyed. Or perhaps you can spend them from play? This system has a lot of room for fiddling. Too much to cover over all the possibilities. But I’m excited by it.

Quite a few games have tried putting two effects on each card, but I’ve never seen it pulled off convincingly – usually the minor/secondary effect feels stapled on and unrelated to the flavour of the card. I hope that this system makes them closely related enough to feel natural.

Yin & Yang:
Every card has two modes, a yin and a yang mode. Each turn you play exactly two cards, but one must be the yin mode and the other in the yang mode. This gives you a large number of potential plays even with a small hand of cards, and every play has trade-offs.

There’s a few ways you could take this. If the yin mode was always a small effect, and the yang mode a major one then it would play out like a simpler, faster version of the charge meter. But I think it would be more interesting if they were roughly equal in impact, but different in type. For example:

Give/take –Give something to the opponent vs gives something to you.
Help/hurt – Helps you vs hurts an opponent.
Macro/micro – Improves your resources vs affects the board directly.
Fire/ice – Speeds the game up vs slows it down.
Reap/sow – Harvest crops vs plant new ones.

I like all these systems really. Just need an interesting board system for them to manipulate. The charge meter’s decision-heavy enough that it could make the start of an engine-building game

Sunday 16 March 2014

Drawing generic cards was fun

The CCG model of selling randomised booster packs of cards with some common and others rare is an exploitative one. Its exists to bleed money from you, creates competitive spending amongst friends, is poisonous to game balance and turns buying a game into an extended gambling session. If the game blossoms it creates predatory secondary markets and if it folds you’re left holding half a game that nobody plays.

I take all that for granted. It’s all true, but it’s old ground. What’s interesting to me is all the incidental positive features the booster pack model has.

Ease of stocking.

Random blind packs is a great way to distribute a large set of cards from the point of view of the shop.  There’s no danger of people cherry-picking the desirable packs and leaving them with half a box of shite they can’t move. It’s easy to order in and keep in stock. They’re priced low enough to be impulse buys, but big spenders will also buy them in bulk. And anything this good for the shop is good for the consumer that wants to be able to buy their cards somewhere.

Hiding complexity.

Specialised cards that only work in very specific decks, or deceptively strong cards with big drawbacks are fun, but you don’t want them in every deck. The common/rare model allows you to put your simple and versatile cards at common, and your weird stuff at rare. This ensures that people don’t end up with a collection of theoretically powerful cards but unable to build a playable deck.

(Yes, I know they also hide the most powerful simple cards at rare, but I’m concentrating on the positives, remember?).

No information overload.

A set of CCG cards can easily contain over a hundred playable cards, even after you discount the unplayably bad ones. That’s a lot to take in at once. Exposing people to a booster pack’s worth at a time lets you ease them in without scaring them off.

And duplicate commons mean that the amount of extra information you’re exposed to with each pack falls off, while at the same time the rare slot makes sure that at least one card in the pack might still be new to you.

Lowers barrier to entry.

To someone with a decent collection, the commons are worthless – they buy the booster for the rare, and maybe the uncommons. The business knows this and has priced the packs accordingly. The price is based on game value per pack, not just the number of pieces of cardboard. The commons are filler.

But to someone just starting in the game, every card is new and playable. Commons, even crappy ones, are freebies that fill up an otherwise empty deck slot so that they can get playing as soon as possible, even if their decks are a bit duff. New players get more value from each pack than experienced ones, allowing them to buy-in at a bargain price.

Duplicate commons also mean that the more you spend, the less value you get for your money. This monetises your biggest fans and makes sure that they spend ten times as much as the casual player, rather than just 2-3 times as much. Clever. Sleazy, but clever. On the other hand, experienced players with boxes of duplicate cards tend to donate them to new players to help them into the game. Which is nice.

Drafting/sealed deck (aka Limited).

These are a way to play that takes advantage of random boosters. They limit the card pool to a number of unopened boosters and test your ability to make a deck using a limited collection of uneven cards. And they’re really, really fun. And a huge skill-tester. The people who are good at limited play are much, much, much better than the people who are bad at it.

And it’s not like you just throw the cards away after you’re done with them. It’s a way to get extra play out of your purchases. In fact, some players like limited so much that they don’t even play the “real” game – they sell their cards on to pay for more unopened packs.

Limited play is a big enough deal that the makers of Magic: The Gathering design their sets around it. And if you’re really into the game, this can almost justify random packs as something other than a money-spinner. It adds that much play value, and it’s not an experience you can get anywhere else (deck builders like Dominion are inspired by drafting, but don’t scratch the same itch).

(But Limited is also a game that you have to pay to play *per play*. Ouch. Unless you play cube draft…)

There’s other pluses too, like how surprises are intrinsically fun, and randomisation encourages trading which builds community. But those are more obvious and so not as interesting to me.


 In my head the question is how you might use these good points without the exploitative business model. (I’m aware of living card games, where packs aren’t randomised and you expand your collection with honest, simple purchases. But I’m specifically talking about the randomised booster model, not customisable deck card games in general.)

The only thing I reckon justifies the random booster model is that without it some damn fine games wouldn’t be profitable enough to exist. But then there’s also shitty games that can coast on how profitable a CCG can be so flip a coin, omelettes and eggs.