Theory: Story Time

When I was a kid, I saw these two Star Wars cards:

8-13-14 - Obi-Wan Kenobi8-13-14 - Bionic HandTake a look at the numbers in the upper-right corners. They’re used to generate random numbers in-game. Higher is usually better. Mostly they scale from 1-6.

Now, Bionic Hand is pretty useless. IF your opponent is playing the Disarmed card, and IF the situation came up in which that card can be played, and IF your opponent had the card in hand and played it, THEN you can play your Bionic Hand.

But it’s tempting to put it in your deck anyway, because Bionic Hand is a 7.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, on the other hand (no pun intended), is pretty great. Explaining all the ways that he’s great requires some knowledge of the game’s mechanics, so suffice it to say that he’s as awesome as it seems like Obi-Wan Kenobi should be. Obi-Wan is so great that it’s tempting to play multiple copies of him.

But he’s a 1.

These two cards taught me the first game design lesson I ever learned: very powerful things should have some drawback associated with them. Obi-Wan is great once he’s on the table, but he’s terrible if you flip him while generating a random number. Having that weakness prevents Obi-Wan from completely overshadowing cards like Bionic Hand.

Yet, there are more lessons to be found here. Weak things can be interesting if they’re narrowly powerful. Random values can be generated in many ways. The promise of a rare lucky moment is attractive.

I know I’ve been talking about the Star Wars CCG a lot recently. Part of that is because it’s fun to walk down memory lane, but part of it is because the game did a lot right. When looked at critically, it has a lot to teach.

Theory: What Can Game Designers Consider?

I’m on a bit of a Star Wars CCG kick right now, owing to the recent reset of the game. Not only is that stripping away a lot of accumulated cruft (thereby making the game a great deal more accessible), it’s also presenting an interesting design question: what are valid considerations for a game designer?

To see the problem, put yourself in the shoes of one of the people guiding SWCCG’s reset. Your job is to go through hundreds, perhaps even thousands of cards, and choose no more than 150 that will continue to see regular play. How do you do it?

Some approaches are intuitively obvious. You could look at each individual card, and ask “is this card good for the game, in light of the lessons learned since it was originally designed?” The message boards have many discussions in that vein. Alternatively you could take a broader view, asking “are the strategies that this card enables fun and interesting?” Players called for one card to be included in the new base set expressly because it was the centerpiece of deck that was both fun and fun to play against.

The issue gets tricky, though, when one considers factors outside the game proper. One member of the “reset strike force” argued against including cards that helped a deck which is expensive to build. He felt that the reset would fail to attract new players if they found out that the strongest tournament deck cost hundreds of dollars to piece together on the secondary market. The deck, and the cards that went into it, were essentially sacrificed to marketing considerations. Is that valid from a design perspective?

Similarly, there was a Dark Side deck that everyone agreed was fun, balanced, and generally good for the game. However, it was based on a card of an unusual type–an “Objective”–and none of the Light Side Objectives were going to make the cut. The Dark Side Objective was therefore left out, and its associated deck with it, on the thinking that the perceived unfairness of the DS getting something the LS wasn’t would bother players. Mark Rosewater would agree that people would dislike the incomplete pair, but the problem is external to the play of any specific match. Should a game designer care?

Underlying these issues is the general question of how we should define a game designer’s ambit. If a good designer cares about the game in play, and only that, then marketing-driven decisions are at best right for the wrong reasons and at worst actually harmful to the game. On the other hand, if the designer is crafting something larger–an overall experience that includes both play and the activities surrounding play–then it’s appropriate to think about how players will feel when they see an unbalanced card list.

In practice game designers clearly care about the experience. Most games are intended for a broad audience, after all, and the overall experience is part of how one attracts players. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to puzzle over the question in the abstract. Are game designers inherently marketers, or is that just a function pushed upon them? Is the marketing part of the game, or ultimately external to it? How far afield do we want game designers to go?

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.