Thursday, September 17, 2020

Card Game Confusion

Magic is sold in booster packs.
It's a collectible card game.

Once upon a time Richard Garfield created a game called: Magic the Gathering. Magic is really popular, (I played the heck out of it.) and it’s an important game. It’s important not just because of its innovative game play, but actually more so because it brought so many new people to the gaming hobby. Enough new people that it single-handedly kept game stores open that would otherwise have closed. It saved what was in the United States a dying industry. This allowed those game stores to import more and more European (especially German) made board games. These in turn created all kinds of innovation in game design and changed the way people see board games.

The board game industry wouldn’t be what it is today without Magic, and I believe Magic, along with Dungeons and Dragons, are the most important games in the hobby. Magic owes much to D&D. (5 colors of magic that are also the same 5 colors of D&D’s original chromatic dragons – coincidence? No.) D&D players formed a big part of Magic’s early core audience which gave it the foothold that it needed to find its way into stores. And find its way into stores it did … big time.

Trading cards are cards that buyers can collect and trade. The most common example of these is baseball cards. When developing Magic, there evolved the idea that it would be really cool if it was created as a set of trading cards. Cards that people could collect and trade, and also play a game with. This concept required Magic to have a modular design. Like kids bringing their own collection of marbles to the playground to play, Magic needed to allow every kid to play with their own personal collection of cards.

Each player in Magic comes to the game with their own personal deck of cards. Cards are sold in packs, and like in baseball cards, the best cards are made very rare to encourage players to buy more packs. The collectible card game is born. Players even “ante” a card randomly at the start of the game to create some sense of risk and reward. This was also like marbles where players gamble away their marbles as part of the game.

Magic’s design allows cards to be swapped in and out of a player’s individual card deck. This process, known as deck construction, is a large part of the game. This is done prior to play. Requiring careful planning and experimentation, one considers the best combination of cards to bring to the next game to battle an opponent who has done the same. Magic is a challenging battle of wits where that battle begins before the players ever meet across the table. As in war, each “general” prepares their “army” prior to battle. This is both Magic’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

The amount of commitment required to play Magic the Gathering has alienated both existing and potential new players. There is a learning commitment that requires players to understand each card and how it interacts with countless others. There is a time commitment as players consider these cards in their many combinations, and tries to determine the optimal combination with which to form a deck. Perhaps greatest of all, is the financial commitment. While people have developed the skill to win games of Magic with cards that are commonly available, it is sadly true that often the most successful decks are those with the highest monetary values.

Magic the Gathering was first published in 1993. Fifteen years later, 2008 saw the publication of another innovation in the modular card game. Donald X. Vaccarino thought that it would be really cool if players could have the whole modular card game experience that is Magic’s greatest strength, without all the time commitment and expense that were Magic’s greatest weaknesses.

Dominion has a bunch of cards in the box.
Players create decks while they play.
It's a deck building game.

In Dominion, like in Magic, players each play with their own personal deck of cards. But, unlike in Magic, players don’t construct their deck prior to playing the game. In Dominion constructing your deck of cards is part of the game. In fact, constructing your deck is the entire game. Dominion also did away with the “collectible” part of Magic.

In Dominion players draw from a shared pool of cards. Each player begins play with an identical deck of 10 cards. Players draw from this deck of cards to form their hand. Cards played from a person’s hand give them the resources they need to acquire cards from a central supply. This supply is shared by all players.

Cards acquired from the supply are not immediately available for use by the player. These cards are placed in the player’s discard pile. Once a player has cycled through their deck of cards – which doesn’t take long with a starting deck of only 10 cards – the discards are shuffled and made to form a new deck. Now, the player has the potential to draw the new cards into their hand. This process continues with the player cycling through their deck many times during play until they have acquired the most difficult to acquire cards, cards that have the points they need to win the game.

Dominion introduces players to an entirely new kind of card game – the deck building game. Deck building is one of the more popular mechanics of modern board gaming and for the most part all deck builders follow the same formula originated by Dominion. Start with a small number of “weaker” cards. Use these cards to acquire “stronger” cards and place those in your discard pile. Cycle through your deck to bring the newly acquired cards into your hand. Repeat this process improving your deck with each round providing ever increasing rewards until the game is won.

When I talk about board games, I worry that I tend to use a lot of jargon. There are a lot of terms and some of them are confusing. I have a lot of games that use deck building mechanics in my board game collection. The term “deck-building” is one of those that I think might be the most confusing. So, I thought a little “history lesson” might be helpful.

Deck construction is part of Magic the Gathering – but, it’s something that is done before the game is played. Because it is not part of the game play, Magic the Gathering and other games like it are NOT deck building games. Magic the Gathering is a “Collectible Card Game.” (Retailers especially want you to remember that “collectible” part.)

To complicate matters further, there is a third genre of games that I haven’t even talked about yet: the living card game. The idea of the living card game or LCG is to provide a game that gives players new cards on a regular basis (like Magic) but without the “collectible” part. An LCG releases all its cards as sets. There is no random distribution. So, the “pay to win” problems found with collectible card games is avoided.

Arkham Horror is sold in sets.
New cards are released regularly but not randomly.
It's a Living Card Game.

The LCG model is about the way the game is sold and distributed, not about game play. Some LCG’s require players to construct decks prior to play and some use deck building mechanics. If an LCG doesn’t specifically state that it’s a deck building game, expect that you will be spending time constructing your deck of cards before you can play.

All of these terms become tangled up because these card games share a common history. It confuses me, and I’ve been doing this awhile. Hopefully, this article helps.

No comments:

Post a Comment