Everybody and their mom is trying to make collectible card games right now. Chasing the monstrous cash-cows that are Magic: The Gathering in the physical space and Hearthstone in the digital, company after company is trying their best to put out to find just the right combination of spices that can properly topple one of these giants, or at least firmly plant its own territory in the market. Some have managed to find their own way in this market: Eternal and Duelyst have seen success as digital card games alongside Hearthstone, and Fantasy Flight Games’s Limited Card Game model has produced several lasting hits to hit the table, most notably Android: Netrunner.
So, let’s say you want to stand on the shoulders of giants and create your own card game. By all means, you should! Just because a few games are currently dominating the space doesn’t mean that you can’t try to put your own spin on things. Gaming history, both physical and digital, is littered with examples of competitors rising in previously monopolistic markets and finding their own place, and even besides that, you should just make whatever games you want.
However, if you’re going to make a competitive card game, it’s worth learning from those who came before, because some of these games have been in existence for a while, and in their legacy you can find extremely valuable tidbits that can help your game, no matter what spins it takes on the model, succeed even more than it would on its own.
CCGs Need To Balance Their Game Value
More so than any type of game, CCG players are inherently always thinking about the money they’re putting into the game. This is to be expected; after all, trading card game packs are essentially the original loot boxes, with players dumping tons of money into packs only to get garbage cards. Where physical games have an advantage is that the cards being pulled are physical objects, which a person can then sell, trade, or do whatever they want with. Digital card games tend to not have that luxury, which means that the sting of buying a bad pack of cards hurts twice as much.
Random card packs are generally player-antagonistic to begin with, for all the reasons that randomized loot boxes are. By and large, they’re tolerated in Magic for two reasons. The first is the one I listed above: cards can be traded and sold, allowing costs to be recouped. The second is that Magic‘s player base is so large that there is a large secondhand market for cards, meaning players who don’t want to participate in random packs can simply buy all the cards they want.
If you lack these two key characteristics, your players are essentially forced to buy packs for the cards they want, which is problematic for fairly obvious reasons. If you need to buy multiple packs to get the card you want (if at all), the player’s buying power per dollar, measured as how many of the cards they want they can get for one dollar, is reduced immensely.
There are a few solutions to this which are floated around. The first is to offer players a constant drip feed of free cards. Many games do this as a reward for good play (packs are commonly offered as rewards at Friday Night Magic, and Hearthstone gives you packs as rewards for arena wins). However, I’m not entirely convinced by this, because it generates a positive feedback loop: players with good cards are more likely to win, and thus more likely to get these free card rewards, while those players with bad luck are forced to buy packs, thus making already frustrated players even more frustrated.
The other solution used to increase pack value is one popularized by Fantasy Flight Games: derandomize the packs. The smallest unit of Android: Netrunner cards is more expensive than a single pack of Magic cards, but contains four times the cards and, on top of that, the contents are completely transparent. Every pack for the same set contains exactly the same cards, and on top of that, contains enough copies of each card to run a full set in the game. Players in search of specific cards know exactly where to get them in Netrunner, and thus waste less money on packs full of duds.
Keep A Fluid Meta
I feel pretty comfortable saying that card games have probably the hardest time balancing themselves for competitive play of any type of game. Every time a set of cards is released, the number of potential interactions between two cards increases exponentially, let alone combos involving 3 or more cards. In this way, it’s almost inevitable that extremely broken card combos will emerge over time, completely missed by the original designers because it is simply impossible to consider every possible implication of a new card. Moreover, the competitive meta of a card game shifts over time, meaning cards that are bad at release become incredible in the meta five years from now, and vice versa. Consider Shivan Dragon, a Magic card that was a top-tier pick of its time now worth twenty cents, and Pot of Greed, a YuGiOh card with the simplest possible effect that is now banned in tournament play.
Because of the ever-expanding possibility space of competitive card games, it can be really easy for players to find a dominant strategy and have said strategy consume the entire meta. Magic‘s history is colored with numerous decks which have dominated competitive play for up to months at a time (see: Tarmogoyf, Necropotence, Jace the Mind Sculptor, Delver of Secrets, etc.) Hearthstone‘s player base was (is?) up in arms over the perpetual dominance of single strategies. YuGiOh is, well, balanced like a grand piano on a seesaw, but plenty of decks have see their time in the light for that game, including the pictured-above Six Samurai.
Dominant strategies are like death to card games, both in that they will bring unto them a decisive end, and in that they are inevitable. Pretending they aren’t going to happen is a fool’s errand, so having a strategy to deal with them is the only option. The most simple solution to this problem is a competitive ban on the cards that form the cornerstone of these strategies. This can backfire, however, since players might be pissed after spending a large amount of money to get powerful cards, only to have you deem them unplayable (especially if they paid that money to you).
Another option, much more easily performed by digital games than real ones, is a rebalancing of the cards in question. By tweaking the specifics, broken card combinations can be made more competitively friendly, but the art of game balancing is a difficult one, and decreasing a card’s potency too much is essentially equivalent to banning it: it’s just that the meta deems it unplayable, instead of you.
A third option available to you is to print a counter. Magic does this a lot: new sets frequently include cheap, easily-accessed cards which provide counters to dominant strategies from older sets. This strategy ties your game balance directly to your card release schedule, but is my generally preferred solution, especially in games like Magic that allow sideboarding. Players can still opt to play whatever deck they want, with players running powerful decks having to play around the gamble that their opponent hasn’t packed hard counters, and players running sub-powerful decks choosing whether to spend a sideboard slot on hard counters for a deck their opponent might not even be playing. This allows a competitive meta to remain relatively open.
The Barrier To Entry Needs To Be Low
Look at this YuGiOh card. What the fuck, right? I have a passing knowledge of how YuGiOh is played, and this card still completely confuses me. Look at all of this goddamn text. There are two text boxes.
This is bad, that goes without saying. An important part of competitive card games is ensuring that, at any point, new players can enter the game and feel confident in knowing how to play the game. A lot of digital card games offer tutorials or story modes to ease players into the systems, but not all of your players are going to do that, or pay attention, and even still said tutorials rarely include the more complex strategies included in play.
A lot of card games solve the issue of rules complexity by compartmentalizing and homogenizing their rules. The first word, compartmentalizing, refers to keeping certain rules or mechanics contained within a subset of the cards, meaning that if you’re playing in a format that only allows for a subset of available cards to be played, you’re dealing only with a subset of all of the rules. A player getting into Magic now doesn’t need to know what the keyword “ninjitsu” does, because all of the cards with ninjitsu were in a set from over a decade ago.
The idea of keywords ties into the second idea, homogenization. Most card games use keywords as shorthand for more complex rules, meaning that the player merely has to learn keywords, instead of the effects of individual cards. When a Magic player learns what “trample” does, they now understand what every card ever printed with trample does, at least in part. In this way, the game rules are sort of encapsulated as a language, and just like a language, you don’t need to learn all of it before you’re ready to speak.
However, rules complexity isn’t the only thing scaring away new players. The above two ideas, cost to play and strategic diversity, can also serve to draw or repel new players. However, another big component is the player base itself. Card games, after all, are inherently competitive, so ensuring that a player likes the people they play with is crucial. My personal experiences with the Magic community are about as mixed as a mixed bag can get, with some wonderful interactions and some absolutely miserable ones. Hearthstone tries to decrease potential bad behavior by decreasing vectors of player interaction: direct chat between opponents is largely only possible via a limited range of emotes. Legend of the Five Rings has had some missteps in recent years due to misuse of elements of Asian cultures, which have turned off some new players sensitive to those topics. If you let your community get toxic, the only people you’ll have left are the toxic ones.
Making a card game that lasts is hard, for all of these reasons and a million more that I would get into but am not because I’m coming on 2000 words and ain’t no one wants to read that much. But, despite that, I think making card games is still a worthwhile venture. They tap into the childhood nostalgia a lot of us have, memories of us as kids playing assorted, potentially bad, card games with school friends. They’re perfect breeding grounds for player innovation and creativity, with an open possibility space ripe for trying new strategies and building novel decks. Moreover, when done right, they can foster wonderful social spaces where people can come together, maybe even in person, make friends, and play games. That’s kickass, and I’d love to see people hit the ground with a running stride in making these things, because the world could always use more games.