Hi everyone - just by way of introduction, I'm a gamer from the UK who's been sporadically involved with the BGG community with different accounts over the years. I've recently been working on a game that I'm hoping to take to Kickstarter later this year, and thought it might be fun to capture some of the things I've learnt about general game design principles. This was also posted to my blog here, but I thought this might be of interest here as well. I've used a couple of examples from my own project to illustrate specific points, but feel free to ignore them if that seems too self-promotiony, there's plenty of other examples here as well.
Conditional value; or why your cards can't be great all the time
The vast majority of modern card-based games – be they TCGs (like Magic: The Gathering), LCGs (like Android: Netrunner), deckbuilders (like Dominion) or even purely digital games (like Hearthstone) – are, at their core, games of resource management. But most of the resources in these games have a relatively fixed value; losing a life point is always going to put you x% closer to defeat, and gaining an extra turn is always going to give you access to the same number of extra action opportunities.
However, these games simply wouldn’t work if the cards themselves had a fixed value. Think about it: if every card had a fixed value, then either every card would be of equal value, or some cards would be more valuable than others. If the former were true, then players would never be presented with meaningful choices. And if the latter were true, all choices would essentially make themselves; if your game is all Lightning Bolts and Shocks, why ever play the Shocks?
This creates what I would argue is the fundamental challenge of designing a game in this genre: How do you make it so that players have to constantly re-assess the value of each card?
Ideally, this process of re-evaluation should impact both the game (‘Should I cast this spell or that spell?’) and also, where applicable, the metagame (‘Which of these cards should I draft/put in my deck?’).
This is a concept that I refer to as ‘conditional value’, though I’m sure it’s been referenced elsewhere by different names. And my contention is that, in a certain sense, it is the core concept underpinning the design of almost every card game out there today. And if you’re designing a card game, it’s a concept that should be at the forefront of your mind at every stage of design and development. There are two questions in particular that I think you should be thinking about:
1. How do the rules of my game help make the cards have conditional value?
2. How does the design of the individual cards help make their value conditional?
When you start looking at games through this lens, you see examples of conditional value everywhere. So, for the rest of this post, I want to focus on how various games have answered these two questions. And to do that, I’m going to look at three key areas where games introduce this conditionality – that is, things that can cause the value of a card to fluctuate, and things that designers can use to hang this conditional value on.
First source of conditionality: what else am I doing in the game?
In some ways, this is the most important form of conditional value – and almost every card game goes out of its way to ensure this is baked into its design. Fundamentally, this is about how, when a player is looking at a card and deciding whether to play it or whether to add it into their deck, they find their choice informed by the cards they’ve already played or put in their deck.
The easiest way to do this is simply to make sure that your game supports multiple different strategies. In Hearthstone, for example, a card like Leper Gnome is fantastic if you’re trying to end the game as quickly as possible, but useless otherwise. By contrast, a card like Ragnaros the Firelord is great if you’re fighting your opponent for card advantage, but isn’t going to do much for you if the rest of your cards are trying to end the game before you get to 8 mana. This aggressive/controlling dynamic is present, to some degree, in a lot of games – but many go out of their way in their rules system to enable alternative strategies. For example, ‘milling’ (removing cards from your opponent’s deck) is a well-supported strategy in Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn through cards like Purge.
This is something you also see a lot with specific card mechanics. Looking at Magic: The Gathering for example, we see that a lot of card mechanics explicitly encourage you to play with certain other cards. For example, affinity for artifacts (on cards like Frogmite) wants you fill your deck with cheap artifacts, whereas slivers (like Muscle Sliver) give bonuses to your other slivers, meaning that the value of each one goes up the more of them you have in play. But this type of synergy doesn’t always have to be so explicit. Double strike, for example, is a very simple mechanic that lets your creature hit twice every time it attacks. Having one card with double strike in your deck doesn’t obviously make you want to put more of them in your deck – except it does want you to play spells that can increase the power of your creatures (like Giant Growth), as the impact of those spells essentially doubles if you cast them on a double strike creature. And if you’re playing a card like Giant Growth in your deck, that in turn makes you want to put more double strike creatures in your deck. You see these types of ‘value cycles’ fairly commonly in card games.
And while we’re talking about Magic, it’s worth mentioning one really huge innovation that game brought to this space – a faction system (or more specifically in Magic, the colour pie). In Magic, the way this works is that there are 5 colours of mana, and most cards require you to spend a specific colour of mana to use them. Mana is only generated by certain cards (mostly lands) and most of those can only generate a limited number of colours. There is a constant tension when playing and when building your deck between how many different cards you want access to, and how reliably you want to be able to use them. In effect, this means that the value of your cards is always going to be dependent on how many other cards of the same colour you are playing.
Other games have since found new and innovative ways to implement a faction system. One I’m particularly fond of is Ascension’s. Unlike Magic, Ascension doesn’t use a faction system to limit which cards you can and can’t play. Rather, it uses its factions to subtly push you towards different strategies, typically meaning that acquiring one card of a given faction in a game makes you more likely to want to acquire other cards of the same faction. Sometimes this is explicit – a lot of Lifebound cards like Runic Lycanthrope give you a reward when you play another card of the same faction – and sometimes this is more subtle – many Mechana cards reward you for acquiring and playing constructs (a card type), and the more constructs you acquire, the more valuable other Mechana cards are going to become to you.
If you’re designing a game and finding that the value of cards aren’t fluctuating enough, a faction system can be a good way to fix this. A good example of this comes from my own game, Underleague (which, if all things go to plan, will be launching on Kickstarter this year). During the game, each player controls 3 creature cards in their ‘stable’, and to begin the game they create a starting stable by looking at the top 3 cards of their creature deck and choosing one of them – and then repeating this twice.
Early playtests, however, showed that this system was problematic. As the game goes on, the value of creatures fluctuates based on the strategy that a player has committed to – but at the start of the game, the player has had virtually no space to explore different strategies and to commit to one. And this meant that the cards that seemed to be the weakest in a vacuum would almost never appear in a player’s starting stable, because a player would always have 2 ‘better’ options to pick from.
I realised that this problem could be mitigated if there were a way to more explicitly make the value of the second and third creatures you selected at this stage of the game dependent on the creatures you had already selected. The best way to do this, it turned out, was through a simple faction system. As I was trying to avoid adding much more complexity to the game, I made each creature a member of one of three factions (‘beasts’, ‘constructs’ and ‘spirits’) and gave the player a small bonus (an extra card they could draw) each turn if all of 3 of their creatures belonged to the same faction. This immediately solved the issue I was having; suddenly, if a player had chosen a beast card as the first creature for their stable, they would often (but not always) be willing to choose a beast as their second creature even if it was ‘objectively’ slightly weaker than the other two options available to them, because they knew that the extra card a turn would make up for it. As the game developed, I was also able to weave in different mechanical themes to the three different factions, further promoting this idea of conditional value; beasts, for example, are more likely than others to reward you when you win fights with them, which in turn means that if your stable contains 3 beast creatures, you become more interested in strategy cards (the other type of card in the game) that increase your odds of winning a fight.
If you’re a working on a game and finding that some of the cards aren’t being played as much as you’d like, the solution isn’t always to buff the weaker cards or nerf the stronger ones. Sometimes, it’s symptomatic of the fact that your game system itself isn’t doing enough to make the cards’ values conditional – and a faction system can often be a way to remedy this.
Second source of conditionality: what are my opponents doing in the game?
The problem with the first source of conditionality, however, is that eventually it becomes stale. Once you’ve built a deck and played it enough times, the interactions between cards all become rote; after a few plays, players for the most part will be able to mentally shortcut a lot of the value-judgement created by the interactions of their own cards. Everything becomes predictable.
But opponents aren’t predictable. In my experience, the act of constantly re-evaluating your cards – and your deckbuilding choices – based on the actions of your opponents is one of the most consistently rewarding elements of this genre of game.
Going back to the earlier point about different strategies; it is not only important that a game can support different strategies, but also that those strategies interact with each other meaningfully. A great illustration of how this creates conditional value can be seen in the classic MTG strategy article, ‘Who’s the Beatdown?’. In short, if two players are both playing aggressively, then the player with the deck that can end the game the quickest will win. The only way the player with the slower deck will win will be if they realise that they need to readjust the value of their cards; cards that can help them prolong the game and survive their opponent’s early onslaught become more valuable, so they need to prioritise them over playing their own more aggressive cards.
You also see this sort of conditionality a lot in any game where players are fighting over shared resources – for example, in games that have a deckbuilding or drafting element. In Ascension, for example, you can get closer to victory by purchasing heroes or defeating monsters, all of which occupy a central row accessible to all players. So if all of your opponents are focusing on defeating monsters, the value of that strategy goes down – as any powerful monsters (like Xeron, Duke of Lies) that get added to the central row will likely be vanquished before your turn comes around.
Often times, this sort of fighting over resources is tightly linked to a faction system. The drafting system in Magic is a great example of this. During a booster draft, players open packs of cards, choose one, and then pass the rest of the pack on to the player to their left or right. As mentioned in the previous section, picking a card of a certain colour heavily incentivises you to pick more cards of that colour, as it will enable you to build a much more stable manabase. But because you know that this is also true of every other player at the draft table, you also have to re-evaluate cards based on what you suspect those other players are doing. If you know can work out that the player to your left has decided to play White, for example, then White cards become much more valuable to you, as you know that if you try to draft them you’ll end up competing with that player for good white cards. Conversely, if you figure out that nobody else at the table really wants any green cards, then you should value them more highly, because if you take enough of them to keep open the option of playing that colour, you’ll eventually be rewarded with all the great green cards that nobody else wanted to take.
This sort of conditionality can also impact individual card designs. In Hearthstone, for example, there are some cards that very specifically interact with cards your opponent might play. For example, Acidic Swamp Ooze is a great card to put in your deck if half of your opponents are going to be playing weapons, but significantly less good if the decks that play weapons aren’t particularly popular at a given moment in time.
That’s a very specific example, but it is an extension of the more general concept of ‘threats’ and ‘answers’ that line up against each other. In most Magic formats, for example, there will be a number of different ‘removal’ spells available (i.e. spells that can get rid of an opponent’s creature from the board) which players can choose to put in their decks. But these will often have some sort of explicit conditionality to them. For example, Go for the Throat can’t destroy artifact creatures, whereas Doom Blade can’t destroy black creatures. Which one you should play at any given time is dependent on what sort of creatures you expect your opponents to be playing; and if you have both in your hand and need to kill a nonblack, nonartifact creature, the decision about which one to use should be informed by what creatures you expect your opponent to play later in the game. On the other hand, if every player is running a full set of Doom Blades in their deck, then black creatures suddenly become much better, which in turn will make Doom Blades worse and Go for the Throats better. In games like Magic, it is these sorts of fluctuations in card value that drive changes to the game’s metagame.
Third source of conditionality: what stage of the game is it?
Other designers have written about the importance of games having an arc to them – the idea that the beginning of the game should feel meaningfully different from the middle of the game and from the end of the game. In card based games, this typically means that players have to adjust their valuations of cards as the game goes on, and that they should understand that a card that is very valuable early in the game may not be as valuable later on, and vice versa.
Magic does this brilliantly through its mana system. Because most of a player’s mana is generated by lands, and because a player can only play one land per turn (most of the time), the total amount of mana that a player has access to each turn will vary as the game progresses. This means that there are many cards that a player won’t even be able to cast – hence, literally worthless to them – until a certain point in the game. So if on turn 2 you play a card like Anticipate, which lets you pick one of the top 3 cards of your deck to add to your hand, and you see a 7 mana card and a pair of 3 mana cards, you’re going to have to make a judgement about which is more valuable to you: the powerful card that you won’t be able to use for a long time, or the weaker cards that you’ll be able to use next turn? To do that, you’ll also have to also think about the first two sources of conditionality: do I already have things to do next turn in my hand? And will my opponent even let me survive to turn 7?
The effectiveness of this sort of mana system in creating conditional value can be seen in how widely imitated it has been – in games like Hearthstone, Mage Wars, and Eternal, for example. However, there are many other ways to force your players to re-evaluate their cards as the game progresses, and I want to briefly touch on two of them.
The first is to have ‘engine’-style cards that will generate more value for you the longer the game goes on after you’ve played them. A great example of this comes from Ascension. In that game, there are many cards (Void Initiate, for example), which allow you to permanently remove other cards from your deck. As in most deck-building games, you will cycle through your deck several times during a game of Ascension, so acquiring a Void Initiate early can be a huge boon, as you’ll go through your deck several times after doing so, taking advantage of the fact that you got rid of your weakest cards. However, if it’s obvious that the game has just a few rounds left to go, then that Void Initiate isn’t going to do very much for you, as you probably would never have even drawn the card that you used it to get rid of.
The second is to have different elements of your cards be relevant at different points in the game. To illustrate this, I’ll use an example from Underleague. Creatures in the game have two different power values that are used to determine the outcomes of fights, but they have a third value that contributes to a player’s victory points total (which doesn’t mean anything until one player gets to 20 of them, at which point they win the game). This means that at the beginning of the game, when you expect to put your creatures through many fights before the game is over, a creature’s power is much more important than its value. However, when the game is drawing to a close, the creature’s value becomes much more important, and players are incentivised to take opportunities to replace their powerful creatures with valuable ones – since power doesn’t mean very much if you’re not going to get into many more fights before the game ends.
Obviously, there are many different ways to understand the design of card games, but when you start looking for it, you see more and more examples of ways that game designers try to exploit this concept of conditional value. And as a game designer, one of the great joys of working on a card game is finding new ways to force your players to reassess the value of your cards. If you’re working on a game like that, hopefully this has given you some useful things to think about the next time you do a pass on your card-files.