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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