Theory: When Card Advantage Wasn’t

Years ago the second-place collectible card game was Decipher’s Star Wars game. When Decipher lost the Star Wars license an arrangement was put into place allowing players to carry on making cards, which is fascinating from a legal perspective–I’d give a great deal to have been a fly on the wall during those negotiations. However, the game remains interesting from a design standpoint as well. It turns the conventional wisdom regarding card games on its head, and in the process demonstrates that even fundamental ideas about a type of game can be subverted successfully.

In 99% of card-based games, having more cards in hand is almost strictly better than having fewer. Cards give one options in the game, so more cards in hand means more options. Moreover, additional cards ultimately lead not just to more choices, but to better ones; a player with few cards has to improvise with what he or she has, while a player with many cards can select the perfect tool for the job.

The idea that more cards in hand is better is so thoroughly ingrained that Magic: the Gathering players developed a name for it: “card advantage.” Magic players routinely talk about getting card advantage, or ways to achieve card advantage. Card advantage is so commonly discussed that it was featured in a new-player series on the official Magic website. Whole theories of Magic exist to explain why decks that don’t achieve card advantage can possibly win. Even cards that don’t actually add to a player’s hand are understood in terms of the “virtual” card advantage they provide.

Getting more cards is so important in card games that Magic designers built a card that forces a player to voluntarily take on extreme card disadvantage as a wacky puzzle. They created One with Nothing–a card which forces a player to discard his or her own hand–just to intrigue those players who feel that “no card is too bad to find a use for.”

Star Wars turned all of this on its head. Drawing cards in Star Wars is easy, and there’s no maximum hand size. You can draw cards almost to your heart’s content. There’s just one problem: if you draw lots of cards, you’ll lose.

The designers who worked on Star Wars–I regret that I don’t know who they were–achieved this very elegantly. The cards in one’s deck are one’s “life bar;” when they run out, the game is over. Drawing cards, of course, reduces the number of cards in the deck. Hence, drawing cards is powerful, but also dangerous.

(Magic has somewhat the same setup, in that running one’s deck out puts one in danger of losing. However, because it’s unusual for the opponent to be able to attack one’s deck directly it’s much easier to manage one’s card drawing against the size of the deck. Furthermore, most decks don’t have anything like the card-drawing power of a Star Wars deck. Magic therefore lacks this tension in all but very unusual situations.)

Star Wars’ designers took this tension one step further. At the start of each turn, player takes a set number of cards from the top of his or her deck to form a separate pool. Costs of playing cards are paid from that pool. However, one can only draw cards from that pool. Players therefore have to weigh not only how much card drawing is safe, but also how far they can afford to go before they’re limiting what their plays for the turn too severely.

The result of all this is a number of interesting decisions. Is it better to play Darth Vader and lose out on drawing cards for the turn, or to rely on a lowly stormtrooper and refill one’s hand? When one is losing and needs to find a specific card to turn things around, is it better to draw lots of cards–and thereby lower one’s “life bar” a great deal–or to gamble by taking just a few? How does the opponent’s strategy influence that choice?

I imagine that most of the Star Wars CCG’s fans played because of the theme–I know that’s why I did, many years ago. However, under the theme (and the extreme complexity of the rules) there was a very strong design concept. If you get a chance, give the game a try. It’s a much different experience from other card games, and well worth your time.

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