Gaming Trent

I run the tabletop gaming website I cross-post many of the articles I run here on BoardGameGeek, but sometimes the articles really don't match up well with any specific game forum here on the 'geek. That's where this blog comes in.

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The Pandemic Disaster: Some Thoughts on Game Versioning

Trent Hamm
United States
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See this text? It's a gratuitous waste of GeekGold.
The game itself isn't important. Spending time intellectually jousting with likeminded folks is the real reason to game.
Recently, the very popular cooperative game Pandemic was reprinted in a new edition. This "second edition" of Pandemic included an extensive graphical overhaul, including a redesigned box, redesigned board, redesigned pieces, and redesigned cards, both front and back.

While the gameplay of the new edition is identical to the old, the cards themselves are incompatible with the previous edition of the game, which is particularly frustrating for three reasons.

First, the original release of the On the Brink expansion is incompatible with the new version (and the upcoming On the Brink reprint is incompatible with the original). If you own the new version and decide to expand it with the original version of On the Brink, you're going to find that the new cards have different backs than the old ones and that the role cards have different backs than the ones in the base set.

Second, the upcoming In the Lab expansion is incompatible with the first edition of the game. There will be new cards introduced using the new card backs, which causes incompatibility with the original game which has the original card backs.

Third, the new base game includes two new role cards that don't exist in the first edition of the game. While this is a very minor issue, a greater variety of roles adds to the variety in the gameplay and not having these two roles in the first edition feels like a shortchanging.

There are several solutions to these problems, of course, but all of them feel like swallowing a bitter pill. Original game owners can simply buy "upgrade packs" that will fix the card compatibility problems, but that involves additional expense for the original game owners. Alternately, original game owners can trade their original edition for the new one, but the new one actually includes a major misprint that changes the functionality of the game in a significant way. You can, of course, acquire a new board via the manufacturer, but that requires yet another jump through yet another hoop.

In my opinion, the redesign of Pandemic was bungled in several ways. It has frustrated me enough that, even though I love Pandemic, I won't be picking up the new version or the In the Lab expansion.

The thing is, other games have executed a visual redesign in the past with few problems. It's not that hard to make a series of choices that will lead you to accomplishing what you want with a visual redesign - more sales - without alienating a significant portion of your existing customers.

If I were considering a visual re-theme of a game, here are the questions I'd ask myself.

Is it expandable?
The first question I'd look at is the expandability question. Is this game expandable? Has it ever received an expansion? Will it ever receive an expansion? If the answer to that question is "no," then a re-design is essentially a non-issue. Manufacturers can issue whatever visual edits to the game that they wish.

Examples of games without expansions that have had redesigns in the fairly recent past include Diplomacy, Acquire, and Betrayal at House on the Hill.

Is the ruleset functionally different than the previous rule set?
In other words, are you making enough rules changes so that cards or components from previous versions of the game are functionally incompatible with the new edition of the game?

A good example of this is Twilight Imperium, which basically morphed into a different game between the second and third editions. While there was some controversy over the change, it was widely understood that the third edition of TI was and is a functionally different game than the earlier editions, which somewhat minimized the controversy.

One good way to handle this type of situation is to simply re-theme the game, essentially making the new game one that was effectively "inspired by" the earlier game.

Another solid way to do it is to integrate earlier expansions into the new base game, as was done by Fantasy Flight's excellent Game of Thrones: Second Edition, which incorporated almost everything worthwhile from the first edition and its two expansions.

In both of these cases (and many others), the transition was aided by having a long period between the previous edition and the new edition, often letting the previous edition go out of print for a while prior to the new edition. There were rarely people who picked up the previous edition on a game store shelf, only to find a completely incompatible revised edition a few weeks later.

Is the ruleset functionally identical to the previous version of the game?
In other words, if it were not for graphical differences, would the old cards and components almost entirely work with the new edition of the game?

If this is the case, the best route is to maintain functional compatibility with earlier editions. Magic: the Gathering executed a major facial redesign of the cards in 2003, but maintained compatibility by maintaining the reverse side of the cards. Other collectible card games have made similar moves, redesigning the card face but keeping the reverse the same.

Why is this preferred? The best way to sell an expansion is to make it as easy as possible for older players to dive right back in. A player who hasn't played Magic since 1994 can go pick up a current booster and immediately combine the old cards with the new ones.

What happens if you don't do this? Simply put, you lose expansion sales. I have a third edition copy of Settlers of Catan. The fourth edition expansions are incompatible with it from a component functionality perspective. Thus, I won't be upgrading Settlers - which is a shame, because my son particularly enjoys the game.

Obviously, this is the group that Pandemic falls into. Their solution has been to offer "upgrade packs" to fix these compatibility issues, but it simply adds more hoops for their already-existing fans to jump through.

What's the best route forward from here for Pandemic?
For Pandemic, two steps would solve most of their problems.

First, include the appropriate "upgrade pack" in the new edition of On the Brink. It's really a small number of cards, so just include them in the box. Mention on the rules sheet that some of the cards are for the first edition and some are for the second edition.

Second, include the "upgrade pack" in the In the Lab expansion, plus "original style" cards for the two new roles from the revised base game. In other words, make it so that owners of either edition can just buy the same In the Lab expansion without worrying about versions or buying "upgrade packs" or anything else.

This would create at least one immediate buyer for In the Lab - and I suspect many other buyers as well.

There are two key principles here that game manufacturers need to take away from all of this.

One, making incompatible expansions costs you sales. If you have two functionally identical versions of a game that have recently been on the market (within the last several years) and you make an expansion that works with only one of these versions, you are shooting your own sales in the foot. Even if you offer some sort of separate "upgrade pack," you're essentially forcing original owners to buy two expansions in order to play just one, which is often enough to convice gamers to take their dollars elsewhere.

Two, if you want to functionally redesign a game, either a re-theme or a period of the original being out of print will make the market more receptive to your new version. Fantasy Flight does this often and it rarely causes problems for them. If they bring out a functionally redesigned version of a game, they usually wait a while, incorporate expansion content into the new base game, and/or retheme it.

And then there was Sirlin
A final example of how not to handle re-versioning is Sirlin Games, who has made a difficult mess out of the various releases of Puzzle Strike. A quick review:

The first edition of Puzzle Strike came out as a set of wooden chips, followed fairly quickly by a second edition in a pink box that used cardboard chips.

During 2010 and 2011, Puzzle Strike continued to be tested online and a few game balance issues were discovered. Rather than issue an immediate third edition of Puzzle Strike, Sirlin Games offered an "upgrade pack" that fixed a handful of egregious chips and offered a few other minor upgrades to the game. This was accepted with a bit of grumbling.

In 2012, however, after continuing to re-balance the game, Sirlin published Puzzle Strike (Third Edition), and oh how the rage did flow. The third edition of the game mostly involved revised editions of many of the chips from the first and second edition of the game. There were no expansions for the second edition of the game, so there were no expansion compatibility issues, but people were mostly bothered at the speed at which a revised version of the game had come out.

The interesting part is that Puzzle Strike (Third Edition) is far and away the most enjoyable version of the game, but it will likely have a hard time ever climbing as high as it should in the BGG rankings due to the rage of gamers upset with how the compatibility concerns were handled.

What could have been done differently? A lot of things. A true "conversion pack" could have been made available. The PR of the switch could have been handled better. A better "upgrade pack" could have been sent out, as the people that were particularly upset were those who bought the "upgrade pack" thinking it fixed the balance problems, only to have the third edition hit a year later.

Final thoughts
For me, the best way to handle a revision to the game is to either simply re-theme it or drastically alter the game, or to make it possible for me to upgrade in the future via a single purchase without additional "upgrade packs" being necessary.

These options may not always be reasonable for game publishers, however, who are dealing with backlogged product and a relatively small budget. However, making product choices based on those factors rather than serving the customer will always cost you sales in the long run.

Readers, what do you think are the best ways for game companies to handle board game versions?

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Mon Feb 18, 2013 5:06 pm
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12 (Semi-)Controversial Predictions for Gaming in 2013

Trent Hamm
United States
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See this text? It's a gratuitous waste of GeekGold.
The game itself isn't important. Spending time intellectually jousting with likeminded folks is the real reason to game.
Over the last week or two, I've read and heard many, many different predictions for 2013 in the boardgaming hobby. Some of those predictions have been interesting, while many others weren't really predictions at all as they were things that I would just basically assume will happen.

Since then, I've been working on this article, jotting down things I predict will happen in 2013 and tossing out the ones that seem either very obvious or not very interesting. This leaves me with twelve predictions, about half of which will probably never happen and the other half of which will cause some real waves in the gaming world.

Ready to argue? Let's begin.

A high-profile game-based Kickstarter campaign will completely fail.
There have been several larger Kickstarter campaigns in other fields that have completely fallen apart or come ridiculously close to doing so (see this or this or this or this... the list goes on and on). Given the huge returns that some tabletop game projects have had on Kickstarter in the recent past, I fully expect that a well-funded Kickstarter in the tabletop gaming division will have one of these types of crises, with the backers likely left holding the bag.

What will be the long-term effect of this? People will quickly become much more careful about backing Kickstarter gaming projects and it will drastically slow down as a funding source for games. The organizations that still manage to pull it off will be ones with strong reputations beyond Kickstarter, not the bootstrappers that originally made Kickstarter innovative in the first place.

I certainly hope that I'm not caught in whatever project falls apart. In fact, some concerns about this type of failure have led me to actually back away from supporting at least two projects on Kickstarter already.

An "enterprising" game publisher will utilize distributed computing to cheaply "game" the BGG hotness list.
Given that it's extremely inexpensive to hire a "grey hat" (or, arguably, "black hat") computer programmer to do a denial of service attack against a website, it won't be long before a game publisher tosses just a few dollars towards a programmer to do this against Boardgamegeek itself.

The goal isn't to take the site down, of course, but to access the page of a particular game from a lot of different IP addresses, with the end effect pushing that game up to the top of the "Hotness" sidebar that appears on every page of the site.

Given the impressively low expense of hiring such a "bot net," I fully expect to see such a thing happen at some point in 2013. According to the back-of-the-envelope math I've been doing, it would actually be quite a bit cheaper to do that than to pay for an ad, and the effect is perhaps even more powerful than an ad.

Some "enterprising" and morally questionable publisher is probably looking into this idea right now.

A large board gaming company will sell to a very large media company.
One of the existing larger names in the boardgaming field will sell out to a large-scale media company sometime in 2013. As tabletop gaming becomes a larger and larger market, media companies are going to want a piece of the pie, and the easiest way to do that is to purchase a player in the field that already has processes in place.

My expectation is that from our perspective, the purchased company would change in some ways and not in others. The purchased company would probably make a much larger number of property-based titles, but they'd still continue making gamer's games and the licensed titles would be better than much of the dreck out there. Think more Battlestar Galactica and less The Hunger Games in terms of quality of licensed games.

Some purists - the type I like to call "hipster" hobbyists - will decry this change, but it will end up being a positive for the hobby as a whole.

Several more top designers will go completely independent, starting their own boutique companies.
Late in 2012, two top designers - Kevin Wilson and Rob Daviau - left the steady employment of a publisher behind to start their own boutique game design outfits. From what I've been hearing, they've both been racking up agreements with publishing houses and also potentially gearing up to publish their own materials.

If they prove successful - and I bet that they do - it will become a strong magnet for the many great designers that are tied to specific publishers, and I suspect that by the end of the year, some of them will leave to try their own hand at this. Boardgaming is going to become more and more of a designer-driven field and this is just another step in that direction.

A large number of "micro"-conventions will launch, and at least one enterprising person will attempt to network them.
I've seen many, many attempts at starting smaller conventions in 2011 and 2012, and I expect to see just as many (if not more) in 2013. These are smaller regional conventions where gamers in a specific area can get together without driving too far. Often, they'll be little more than several regular game groups having one large, shared meeting in a metro area.

As these continue to proliferate, I expect many of the efforts to eventually network with each other and begin to share resources. I also expect that some enterprising fellow will attempt to create a shared branding and model for all of these events, enabling local small conventions to take advantage of a more sophisticated marketing plan and organization plan for a relatively low cost.

I've witnessed this happen in other fields, where groups have stepped in to organize things like Magic PTQs and sports card events, and I think with all of the self-starting that's going on with microconventions, people will begin to create a larger structure for them that will lead to much greater success.

Someone will make a card game based on MOBA-style computer games, possibly using the League of Legends license, which will be well-received.
I heard a strong rumor last month that Fantasy Flight was developing their next LCG based on League of Legends, so this may be the mere culmination of a rumor. However, if that rumor is false - and many such rumors tend to be - I still expect some company to take MOBA-style computer games (like the aforementioned League of Legends) and turn it into a card game.

Thanks to Jeremey Byrne for the image

Why do I expect this? The big reason is that League of Legends is huge with millions of active gamers involved, so transitioning that to another game type makes sense.

On top of that, I spent most of the last year designing such a game and so many pieces of it just quickly fell into place and worked really well that I'd be shocked if this isn't in development somewhere. There are many elements of MOBA games that just mesh up perfectly with the expandability of customizable games and the flexibility of the deckbuilding genre.

The "freemium" model begins to move in earnest into the boardgaming world, with print and play introductory versions of games inching toward the norm.
Again, this is something that I've seen hints of, with AEG producing a print-and-play version of their L5R card game. I fully expect it to continue in the future, as those types of things don't really cannibalize sales and draw in gamers that may have never otherwise given such a game a look.

The "freemium" model works really well for electronic games - witness the success of the aforementioned League of Legends and the newly-released Path of Exile. If you use the print-and-play idea, the same model works almost identically with tabletop games. Allow anyone to print off a simplified version of a game, then sell the complete game (with nice components and more cards and options).

For instance, a company producing a game with several factions could produce a print-and-play version with just two factions, allowing people to taste the game and move onto more factions if they're interested.

Several popular games will launch new editions, which will be met with muted enthusiasm at best and strong negativity at worst.
We've already seen the first example of this with the relaunch of Pandemic, but this is just going to be the first in a small flood of re-releases this year as companies try to put a sense of "new" on the same old thing.

Some new editions will be purely cosmetic. Others will offer minor upgrades but retain the same ruleset. Others will be complete rules overhauls.

Most of these will receive muted enthusiasm at best. A few will be perceived as failures. One or two will be seen as big successes, but not many.

The "lines" between board game types will continue to fall as designers get more and more creative with mixing known mechanisms and themes.
The idea of "Ameritrash" and "Euro" game will continue to disintegrate. During this year and next, more and more games are going to experiment with mixing game styles in ways that haven't been done before, taking the familiar and making it new.

Thanks to Henk Rolleman for the image

Copycat is a great example of this, mixing worker placement and deckbuilding together in a new game. I expect to see even more radical mash-ups in the coming months, mixing together dexterity games with various other game mechanisms, for example, or finding a way to sneak card drafting into a party-style game, or mixing deduction into role selection games.

A big sub-theme of 2013 is going to be the year of the mash-up, and I really look forward to seeing what some of the more creative game designers do with it.

Mobile and tablet boardgames will mature and users will begin to have much higher expectations of quality from the ports, causing many boardgame ports to be considered "shovelware."
This is already happening to an extent. Clearly, some board game adaptations are made with more care and thought than other adaptations. This has led to a phenomenon in which the quality of the tabletop version of the game only loosely correlates with the quality of the mobile/tablet version of the game. Without naming names, I can think of several very good boardgames that have disastrous iOS implementations, while I can also think of a few mediocre tabletop games with excellent iOS interpretations.

Eventually, the bad iOS and Android implementations are essentially going to be forgotten and ignored as more and more titles appear for mobile platforms. Gamers aren't going to invest their time and energy in bad boardgame ports when there are handfuls of very well executed boardgame ports out there.

In other words, 2013 is the year in which app developers either kick things into high gear or fade into the woodwork.

A game with an extremely innovative new mechanism will hit at Essen and be ludicrously hot to finish the year.
Roughly once every three to five years, a new game mechanism hits like a freight train, taking the tabletop gaming world by storm.

In 1993, it was customizable card games, pushed to the forefront by Magic: the Gathering. Later, role selection and worker placement had their day in the sun and, most recently, 2008 introduced us to deckbuilding thanks to Dominion.

It's been about four years since a new game mechanism has really appeared on the scene. I tend to be a big believer in creative cycles and it feels like the time is right for something significantly new. I expect to see it at Essen this year.

Prior to that, 2013 will be seen as the "year of the LCG," with at least eight such games churning out well-received expansions throughout the year.
Late in 2012, three new "living card games" launched - Android: Netrunner, Star Wars: The Card Game, and Mage Wars. This is on top of the continual thriving of other games in this vein, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, and Summoner Wars.

This format is popular for a lot of good reasons. It does away with the collectible nature of collectible-style card games while still retaining the customization that makes such games so highly entertaining.

The manufacturers of these games all have expansions coming in the first quarter of the year and seem to be indicating schedules full of expansions for the entirety of 2013. I also expect at least one more new one to appear this year. Retailer shelves will be weighted down by these games.

Those are my predictions for 2013. I think it's going to be a very interesting year.

Please, don't hesitate to tell me how drastically off base my predictions are. What fun are predictions without some debate?

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Wed Jan 23, 2013 8:13 pm
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A Critical Look at the Idea of a "Living Card Game"

Trent Hamm
United States
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See this text? It's a gratuitous waste of GeekGold.
The game itself isn't important. Spending time intellectually jousting with likeminded folks is the real reason to game.
Almost every gamer is familiar on some level with Magic: the Gathering. It's the grandaddy of collectible card games. First published in 1993, it introduced a lot of new concepts to the tabletop gaming world. The sheer idea that you can sit down across from someone and play a game with them where you truly didn't know the contents of the cards they were playing with opened up a whole new world of gaming. Not only that, by having a collectible aspect involved, players were actively encouraged to keep buying more and more and more of the cards to supplement their collections.

Not surprisingly, there were fifty competitors for Magic on the market within a few years. All but a few of them died a quick deck. Many of those deaths were deserved, but there were several gems designed, published, and failed in that era.

Why? The big reason was that the flaws of collectiblity came to the surface. Collectible games with randomized packs can be a huge money sink. To build a truly competitive deck that can consistently beat your friends, you have to either buy a lot of packs or pay a card dealer for the single cards that you need. To a certain extent, collectible games are won by the player that invests the most money into the game.

Several years ago, Fantasy Flight Games came up with a strong solution for this problem, which they dubbed Living Card Games. In a Living Card Game, there's a core starter set that provides the basic cards you need to play the game. On top of that, there are expansions that provide known sets of additional cards you can add to your game.

For the most part, LCGs revolve around games in which players assemble decks beforehand, then play against each other in a game of some sort where the players don't know exactly what cards their opponent is playing with.

Thus far, Fantasy Flight has released six games with this model: Call of Cthulhu, Game of Thrones, Warhammer: Invasion, The Lord of the Rings, Android: Netrunner (my written review, my video review), and Star Wars, with rumors of at least one more coming in the fairly near future.

Other games have slowly been adopting this same method, or variations on it. Mage Wars and Summoner Wars both employ modifiable player decks and both have non-collectible expansions that add to one's collection. One can look at Dominion's expansions (and the expansions for other deckbuilding games) as using this method, though in Dominion players aren't actually assembling their own decks of cards before they play. One could argue that role playing games have been doing this for years, with the core rules serving as a core set and scenarios and rules supplements serving as expansions with known quantities of information. Many miniatures games adopt this model as well.

LCGs do several things very well. They take the variable and asymmetric gameplay from the best collectible card games. They do away with the collectibility chase. They provide a very straightforward way for new players to get involved, via the "core" or starter sets, and they make it easy to expand your gameplay in small steps at a very low price.

Now that we've seen the "LCG" model in play with a variety of games, it's worthwhile to step back and take a critical look at the challenges with using such a model.

Expansion Overkill
Currently, Fantasy Flight Games is using a model of releasing small monthly packs to expand their LCGs. In some ways, this is brilliant, as it allows players to explore the game at a slow rate as the game grows, and the expenditures along the way are small. The individual LCG chapter packs cost $10 to $15, which is low enough to qualify as an impulse buy for most gamers, and they each do provide an interesting expansion for the game.

The problem comes in when the game matures a bit. When new players dive into an LCG that's been around for a while, they pick up the starter set, as might be expected. What comes next, though? If packs come out every month, that means there are thirty six expansions out when a player is ready for more. That can feel like an insurmountable wall.

For me, Game of Thrones is the poster child for this problem. Game of Thrones is currently on its ninth cycle of small expansions, with each cycle including six small expansions. That's 54 small expansions. Add on top of that the six larger expansions that the game has seen and you're looking at sixty expansions to catch up.

Now, for a player already into the game, that amount of variability is intoxicating, and it's certainly attractive to me on some level. However, it's intimidating on several levels.

First of all, it's expensive. If you can get each expansion for an average of $12, that's $720 to catch up on all expansions. Now, most players aren't going to do that - they're just going to pick and choose. However, picking and choosing is still quite expensive.

Second, it can turn into a scavenger hunt. Your local game store will almost assuredly not have all of the packs on hand. Your typical online store will be missing some as well, particularly those with in-demand tournament cards. It can be hard to find the packs you want.

Unlevel Playing Field
The "expansion overkill" problem extends to the gameplay as well. Many of the best decks in the more established LCGs draw on cards across expansion cycles. In order to reconstruct the top-tier decks from tournaments, you have to hunt down a wide variety of packs. If you don't do so, you're at a competitive disadvantage in any sort of competitive play.

If this all sounds a lot like a recreation of the CCG problem, you're right. In order to play competitively, you have to invest a lot of money and do a lot of shopping around.

Lack of Organized Play
Thus far, the makers of LCGs have shown limited initiative in terms of getting organized play started up. There is no overarching structure to get people involved in playing LCGs at local stores.

Magic: the Gathering and, to a lesser extent, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and World of Warcraft TCG, have seen success thanks in large part to their efforts in terms of organized play.

This does not exclusively refer to tournaments, either. Although tournament play is a big part of the equation with those games, much of the success has come from introductory events such as "Friday Night Magic" and prerelease tournaments.

In those events, the competition level of the game is toned way down to make it as friendly as possible for new players. There are also a lot of desirable small prizes given away, such as unique foil cards and other game tchotchkes.

These events really succeed, though, because they allow players to meet each other, congregate, and form a stronger community. It can be very difficult to find new players of an LCG in your community outside of the game group you already have without the active support of a local game shop. Events such as Friday Night Magic make it very easy for a local shop to provide that sort of community building and player interaction that makes a game thrive.

LCG players have almost no way of meeting up unless they happen to find each other online or their local store is incredibly active in making it happen on their own. This makes it very hard for local communities to thrive, and it is those local communities, where you play against a variety of players and face a variety of challenges, that make customizable games really thrive.

Lack of "Limited" Play
One of the truly clever things that Magic: the Gathering has pulled off is to turn one of the big negatives - randomized packs - into one of its big positives through the growth of sealed and draft formats.

These formats thrive on the randomness of Magic packs, as it turns the contents of those packs into a skill-testing adventure. You have to be able to properly evaluate the cards in the pack and make selections out of that very limited card set.

Sealed and draft are both competitive environments that require very little investment for players to get involved with. For the cost of three booster packs (roughly $10), players can have an evening of fun and still end up with the cards themselves. This drastically increases the value that players can get out of boosters.

LCGs, where the contents of the packs are known, make this type of play extremely difficult and much less rewarding. Without random packs, the format doesn't really work at all.

This can be solved in a way if a player is willing to invest the time to create a "draft cube" for the LCG, in which some number of cards are collected to make a sealed or drafting environment, but it requires a very large card pool to essentially be devoted to this format (because building and then disassembling a draft cube is a lot of work). Still, this is not an optimal solution by far.

Fixing the Criticisms
How can Fantasy Flight (and other companies) fix these problems?

Improved Game Store and Convention Support
Fantasy Flight and other makers of customizable non-random card games should do everything they can to help local game stores build communities for their LCGs.

The first step in that process would be to roll out an organized series of game nights, akin to "Friday Night Magic," where players can meet up at a certain time at local stores to meet other players and play games. As an additional incentive to draw players into the store, the game manufacturers should provide kits that include giveaways that will encourage players to show up.

For example, if Fantasy Flight wanted to build up Android: Netrunner, they could provide local game stores with a new foiled or holographic promo card each month to give away at their game nights, starting (perhaps) with the identity cards from the core set. Each player that shows up and participates in a match on "LCG Thursdays" (or whatever it is) gets one of these nifty promo cards.

A second step would be to organize league play or tournaments at the local level. Again, the company could offer prize support to the local store to encourage players to participate, and the players would reward the store with patronage and the company with increased purchases. Tournament or league prizes could include things like entry into larger tournaments run by FFG, rare promotional cards (again, not new in terms of gameplay, but rare in terms of design, such as foil identity cards), or credit at the local store.

A third step would be to offer unique play opportunities at the store level. Provide stores with "tournament packs" that enable limited-style play and encourage the stores to run tournaments and events using these packs. You could essentially give stores a pre-made "draft cube" and have them use it in store-run events, providing players a unique play style that draws them into the stores.

Fantasy Flight is taking small steps in this direction, but they could go much further without a significant increase in cost. You only need a single liasion or two to make this really start moving forward.

"Catch-Up" Sets
To make the complication of "catching up" significantly easier on players, Fantasy Flight should offer "catch-up" sets that box up the 360 cards found in a given cycle in a single bare-bones box. They could continue to release the individual packs on a monthly basis, but when they go out of print after several months, release a single "catch-up" pack that encompasses the whole cycle.

This greatly reduces the problem of "catching up" for collectors and players. It makes it much easier for new players who discover the core set a few years into the game to catch up to a complete card set in a relatively short period of time, should they choose to do so.

Established Constructed Deck Formats
One of the big challenges when it comes to "catching up" is that the LCGs each only really have one "format" for constructed gameplay. Essentially, you can use three of any card ever printed (with the exception of any banned or restricted cards).

The problem with this is that it forces new competitive players to buy lots and lots of older cards. This pushes new players away from participating and slowly chokes off the growth of LCGs over time. New players can't just go online, download new deck lists, and quickly build them from cards that are easily available. They have to have hundreds of dollars invested in old packs to do this.

The solution is to champion a rotating format. Major tournaments should only allow cards from the core set and the last small handful of expansions. In Fantasy Flight's case, they should just allow cards from the core set, cards from the last large expansion, and cards from the current pack cycle and the previous one.

What does this achieve? It lowers the barrier of entry for new players. It makes it much easier for people who enjoy trying out the best tournament decks, which also pulls them into more involvement with the game. It creates a tournament environment that doesn't stagnate because the card pool shuffles so much.

This doesn't prevent the presence of "classic" tournaments where all cards are allowed. In fact, game manufacturers and organizers should run both types at large conventions such as Gencon. It just reduces the size of the card pool for the primary focus of play.

Customizable card games, whether "living" or collectible, thrive on customization, and customization only thrives in the presence of a healthy and growing community. There are many aspects of how LCGs are manufactured and promoted that not only ignore this aspect of things, but in some ways choke off the ability of such a community to grow.

Game manufacturers should never stop looking at a game through the eyes of a brand new player. What is going to draw a player into, say, Game of Thrones? There are literally several dozen expansions sitting on the shelves, the decks a player might read about online are unbuildable without buying a ton of these expansions, the presence of a local community is very far from a sure thing, and there are few ways for that player to get their feet wet in the game without a close pal willing to dive into the game as well.

Manufacturers can prevent all of these problems with a few simple steps, creating an accessible play environment that will draw in new players and create a thriving environment with lots of happy players (and customers).

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Thu Jan 10, 2013 2:26 am
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