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The power of card-driven games 1 - Intro and modularity

Javier Martin
United Kingdom
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Over the next months I'm planning to write reviews for my favorite card-driven games, and I thought it would be nice to have an introduction to this little experiment. As soon as I finished my first entry, however, I realized that I had material for a full series of posts, so I decided to open a full-blown weblog to share my thoughts with my fellow gamers. I'm hoping this will spur some form of conversation.


I've been a gamer for a few years, and since I remember I've felt significantly more attracted to card-driven games. The other day I was trying to find the reason why I like them better than other types of games and then it struck me -- there's not a single reason for it, but rather a combination of reasons. For some, all these reasons will be old news and very obvious design points. For me, it was a sudden insight about how games work.

Just one quick note before proceeding. I will be using the term "card-driven games" instead of "card games" because I associate the latter term with classic, abstract card games and I would rather bring to mind contemporary games, in which the cards are just the vehicle for design, as opposed to games like poker or bridge, which are awesome on their own but a different kind of game altogether. In fact, I would really love to speak about "thematic, expandible card-driven games", but I think it's best to keep it simple. So, without further ado, let's dive in!


Card-driven games are modular by definition, and modularity is one of the best bases for complexity, which in turn creates engagement and, perhaps more importantly, involves the player in an active way. I've always said that a well-designed game will make you feel smarter for figuring out strategies and combinations, and card-driven games are perfect to achieve this.

Complexity does not equal difficulty, though –- an elegant system is simple to handle yet the variations within make it much richer than a "static" system. In gaming terms, modularity brings the promise of variety, flavor and meaningful interactions.

I know this is an oversimplification, but let's roll with it: A map is static; it represents a portion of terrain. Miniatures are also static, each represents a character or structure. None of this components can change between games (some games have brilliant workarounds, such as Claustrophobia, in which the Demon is different every game... although cards are used for reference). In a card-driven game, a card can represent a location, or a character, or an enemy, or even something more abstract like a spell, a blessing or weather conditions. Granted, this are only 2D images and sometimes a great deal of imagination will be required, but cards have always been an excellent visual aid. The point still stands: in one match, players can be playing in a secret base on the moon, and in another, deep inside a jungle. It is obviously easier to represent this change of scenario with a card as opposed of with a map. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a very good example of non-static locations. Note, however, that both approaches have advantages: maps will be infinitely more detailed and will allow for more interesting warfare mechanics (positioning, cover, etc.). In this topic, some games use modular maps, like the previously discussed Claustrophobia... I like to consider this kind of map card-based too (even if those thick squares don't make for very conventional cards!). A clearer example would be Dungeoneer, as it uses pretty much only cards to represent encounters, characters and sections of the map.

One of the first card-driven games I ever played was Magic: The Gathering. I still remember the exact card that got me hooked. The card in question was the infamous Plague Spitter, a creature that deals 1 damage to every creature in play at the beginning of your turn, and also when it died. Within the framework of the game, a player was able to summon two of the nasties and then, in the next turn, both would deal damage to themselves and to each other, killing themselves in the process and making 4 points of damage to all the creatures in play, effectively clearing the table from pretty much anything. I found this interaction absolutely fiendish. Other combos I came across were more obvious, such as Warped Devotion and Recoil, but in all cases I felt smart for figuring out the "trick" to combining two or more decent parts to make something infinitely more powerful and interesting. You can see this in countless games old and new: Race for the Galaxy, Dominion, The Lord of the Rings LCG...

There's another interesting feature about modularity: not all pieces have to belong to the same category, and despite their disparity, or rather, precisely because of it, the sensation of living, unfolding reality is that much stronger. As an example, a card can represent a character, and another one a weapon. On their own, the character is weak and the weapon is useless, but when the weapon is attached to the character, the resulting sum is stronger than the individual parts. Not only that: it also makes sense thematically. As we all know, sometimes a work of fiction will ask for too much suspension of disbelief, and all of a sudden the magic is broken. Card systems are extremely flexible, and the cards themselves can contain text that regulate interactions ("This weapon can only be attached to a character"). In a nutshell, cards can represent anything and everything appropriate in the context, and I think that's a very solid base for many types of games.

That's it for today. I hope you enjoyed the reading!
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