CCG Diagnosis

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Daniel Solis has been Tweeting about researching and designing a CCG lately. CCG stands for Collectible Card Game, which is similar to Trading Card Game, and somewhat similar to Living Card Game. No game better embodies this moniker than Magic: The Gathering, the gorilla of the table top industry. However, simpler titles like Pokemon and newer contenders like Android: Netrunner, bring in plenty of revenue and customer satisfaction for their publishers.

Me and Joshua Buergel have been emailing each other back and forth about CCGs in a private discussion. It's something we do often as a topic meets our fancy and this one, for once, seemed appropriate to write about for the blog.

What are the core elements of a CCG? What does one need to consider when designing one? I don't claim to be an expert on these, though I've played quite a bit of Magic, Netrunner, and games with similar to characteristics over time. Nor am I designing one myself. And no, I don't presume to write this to inform Mr. Solis. No, it just seemed like a fun topic and I haven't written in a week or so.

A few things at the top: I'm going to assume a basic familiarity with some CCGs. I'll be primarily using Magic and Netrunner as my examples, as those are the ones with which I am most familiar. I'm not getting into the business model, which for simplicity's sake you can assume is: players will buy more cards in some fashion. The goal of this article is to identify things that may be a smidge less obvious and pertain to the design of a CCG.

Tight Economy: Many CCGs have very tight, carefully tuned economies to limit player actions and gate strength of a single player over time. A well-tuned CCG provides a ramp as players go from insignificant to a crushing behemoth.

If I recall correctly, Mike Fitzgerald said the cost-curve was one of, if not the most significant decision in designing a CCG. If it wasn't him who said it, it was Mike Elliott. Both should know a thing or two about the topic!

In Magic, players can only place 1 Land per turn. Assuming a player's deck is playing nicely, he'll grow by 1 Land every turn until mana is almost irrelevant as a decision point. Hearthstone works like this: 1 more mana every turn.

In Netrunner, players begin with a small amount of money, which is used to fuel almost everything in the game. However, players are also limited by clicks, or actions. The corp player receives 3, with a free card draw, and the runner player receives 4.

There are exceptions to these rules. In Magic, there are more powerful lands and artifacts that provide bonus mana. There are elves and other creatures that will do such things. In Netrunner, players can play Assets that generate additional income every turn, or can score Agendas that will reward additional clicks.

The tight economy is not always strictly about money and resources. Summoning sickness gates the explosive growth of a wizard's army in Magic in order to give an opponent time to counter the play. Plus, this introduces the opportunity for exceptions, such as Haste (i.e. ignore summoning sickness). In Netrunner, Ice must first be installed THEN rez'd. Again, it gives the game time to unfold without slowly it in an undue manner.

A good CCG is a tense back and forth between players. It's not much fun if one player launches out the gate with the hammer of god. A tight economy restrains this and provides a nice ramp of complexity and threat.

Focused Deckbuilding

Either with implied rules or explicit rules, good deckbuilders require focus for success. This constrains the options available to a player and reduces the burden on design teams from having to tune so many combinations. CCGs need to have these limitations and rules in order to constrain their options.

In Magic, players CAN build with every color of Land and use all 5 spell colors. However, that is unlikely to lead to success. Now, I'm sure someone can (and will) point towards a 5 color deck that has worked, but by and large, players stick to 1 or 2 colors. Why? For one, with the exception of Spells that modify this, your Land draw is unpredictable beyond what probability dictates it should be. If you have 3 different colored creatures in your hand and need 3 different lands, you may find yourself in trouble. The rule is implied that you need to focus your deck to increase the probability of paying for the Spells in your hand.

In Netrunner, players must choose an identity upon which to build their deck. The identity will specify a minimum number of cards as well as a maximum amount of influence that can be brought in from other factions. This number is often approximately 15 Influence. Low value cards tend to cost 1-2 influence, with really potent cards costing 4 or 5 influence. If you only have 15, that's a careful balance of 5-10 cards from outside your core faction.

Be sure to constrain the deckbuilding properties with either implicit or explicit rules.

Factions

A good CCG supports multiple play styles and personalities. David Chott, designer and publisher of Lagoon, once said that he knew which friend designed which deck in college based on its contents. The deck's play style would have his friend's finger prints all of it. I think it is SO crucial that like a good RPG, or MMO, or Moba, a CCG supports different play styles through factions.

In Magic, blue, red, green, black, and white mean something. Blue is about control of the board. Red is about direct damage (fireball). Black is about trade-offs -- take damage for power (necromancer). Green represents life, druids, and the power of the forest. White represents health, buffs, and paladin-like powers.

Netrunner is no different. You have Shapers, Anarchists, and Criminals in the runner side. You then have four distinct corporations on the other side, who hate the runners and each other.

When a player picks up a new CCG, they're looking for a familiar foundation. This doesn't mean your CCG needs to have a black necromancer faction with a few renamed cards. But, you should fundamentally understand why each faction is satisfying and try to emulate those qualities in your design.

These qualities could be overt aggression, subtle and clever card play, setting up big combos, or nickel and diming someone with an efficient setup. I tend to prefer focused decks with 1 or 2 side tricks. Others love to find broken exploits they can somehow turn into a winning strategy.

Support this! Start from a high level position, then drill down and create content examples for each. Without good, clean factions and play styles, you might not satisfy your audience.

Exception Driven

CCGs are complex and intensely inelegant. CCGs often have simple core mechanics, but a million exceptions, conveyed through every card. Although it has gone hog wild in the past, the Magic R&D team tends to introduce 1-2 new mechanics every new cycle and retire old ones. That means every cycle is built around 1-2 completely new mechanics, which are then introduced and twisted with decades of content and ideas.

Netrunner is full of exceptions, with the key being that it is full of knobs to twist. When you begin Netrunner, you must first learn a long list of terms, which are unfortunately asymmetric per faction. Yes, it's thematic, but it's confusing that a runner's hand is called a grip, and a corp's hand is called HQ. Here are some of the term concepts:

  • Click (i.e. action)
  • Credit (i.e. money)
  • Bad Publicity (Runner gets resources on a run)
  • Trace (an action in which each player contributes money, often to give a tag)
  • Tag (triggers many card powers, allows the corp to trash runner Resource cards)
  • Multiple card types, including Identities, Operations/Events, Resources/Assets, Upgrades, Hardware, Program, Ice, Agenda
  • There are also standard actions, like draw card, gain 1 credit, purge Tags, initiate a Run

Every Netrunner card tweaks how these terms mix and work.

If you aren't comfortable with exceptions, you shouldn't make a CCG! At the start, you must identify your core mechanics: how will a player take a standard turn? What does a turn entail?

Once you can answer that question, you need to list and design your standard terms. You need to work from a glossary that is crucial towards keeping yourself constrained and limiting undue card text and terms. Note: try to stick to standard card terminology. Look to Dominion here, not Netrunner.

If you can define a core term and have a list of core terms, you can begin making cards. If it typically costs 1 Click in Netrunner to gain 1 Credit, then a card that costs 1 Click and gains 3 Credits is valuable. Exception! If it typically costs 1 Click to start a run, then a card that starts a run AND lets you bypass the first ice on the server is valuable. Exception!

These are the obvious exceptions and therefore the simple ones. Often times, you can't create outstanding and devious ones until you're deep into the game. You need to know it. My best Farmageddon, Dawn Sector, and Sol Rising cards (all of which are exceptions!) were derived from testing, not a brainstorm.

Think of your exceptions like a sitcom: often, the first season is full of a few good jokes, but otherwise weak, forced comedy. However, the truly good shows often have incredible subsequent seasons as the writing team and actors really figure out their characters. Give your CCG time to grow into its exceptions so that it can be more exceptional.

Look to Similar Games

When designing a CCG, you should look to other games that are clearly inspired by CCGs. Why? They did something unique upon the foundation. Some examples that come to mind include Dominion, a game that took the pre-game deckbuilding and exception-based card combos to create a new genre.

How about Summoner Wars, which took head to head, asymmetric, exception driven card play and added a spatial element?

There's also Lagoon, which is all about combos and unique cards used on a shared spatial platform.

You should also most definitely play Innovation, which is one of the most phenomenal, absurd, and emergent card games ever. The game is defined by game-breaking combos, counter-moves, and exceptions.

Look to the Greats

There are so many CCGs it's difficult to keep track. When building a CCG, you should conduct research in the best. Magic: The Gathering is required reading for this course. It is a phenomenally influential and profitable design. You can experiment with the digital version for cheap.

Netrunner is also required. It's Fantasy Flight Games' best selling Living Card Game and also designed by master mind Richard Garfield. It introduces deep asymmetry, which is fun, and is incredibly thematic. It also has a steep learning curve, which you can learn from. You can get the base set for $25 on Amazon. It comes with 7 pre-built decks to learn.

Pokemon is a simple CCG that has been around a long time. This is a game that is beloved by children and younger players all around the world. You can pick up 2 starter decks at Target for not much at all.

Hearthstone is an emerging monster in the digital space. They have done incredibly well and have gained the attention of many people. Hearthstone takes many of the best elements of Magic, streamlines it (or improves it, depending on your view point), and takes advantage of its digital platform. They are able to do mechanics, like persistent damage, that would be tedious in a table-top CCG.

Other than these, go to your FLGS and find one that has a theme that excites you. If it's still in print, it's likely successful, and therefore worth a look.

Else

What did I get incorrectly? What did I gloss over? Share your thoughts in the comments below to counter my potentially poor blog play. Thanks for reading!

Comments

Hey Grant, great post! Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic, does a weekly article (making Magic) , twice weekly podcast (Drive to Work), and a daily Tumblr blog (Blogatog) about Magic's design that has a TON of amazing game design resources in general and ccg design resources specifically, including some mega-series like "Nuts & Bolts" that might interest you and/or your readers. One concept he's been talking a lot about lately that I find pretty fascinating is one he calls "Lenticular Design", in which you build into your designs concepts & game play depth for experienced players to find & explore that will be largely invisible to newer/less experienced players. I think it has a lot of applications outside the CCG design sphere (as do a lot of his articles!) so here's a link to one of the articles in which he discusses the concept and how it applies to Magic: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/293

These are good design comments for a large category of modern, usually card, games, but what is specifically "collectable"?

Exception games are well suited to collectability as are games with numerous stats and chrome (military, fantasy, sci fi), and then there is generative content like Pathfinder ccg.

So, perhaps, the collectability comes in 4 flavors:
1. Rules exceptions
2. Rich, variable attribute systems
3. Narrative rich content
4. Thematic chrome - in many games there is no game play difference between a fireball and an ice bolt.

Two other games worth checking out are Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (Garfield's OTHER other CCG) and Legend of the Five Rings (still going strong after all these years).