Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Trading Card Games Part 2: Design and Development

Hopefully by now you have Watched my video featuring a basic overview of card games, and have also read My article concerning the proper Mindset when creating a Trading Card Game. Now that we have gotten ourselves in the proper focus for creating a card game, we can go over the finer details.

Now, I don't know the formula to make a perfect card game; if I did, I'd be on a yacht in the Caribbean right now, but I have played Trading Card Games for half my life, and I have noticed certain things about popular games, as well as things that tend to bog down games that do poorly.

Some rules that are in every successful card game are:

1) "At the start of your turn, draw a card", a standard for every popular game, where you draw the top card of your deck. So ingrained is this symbolic start of the turn that seasoned gamers do it unconsciously, whether the rules call for doing it or not. Messing with this step is likely to cause confusion, so it tends to be best to accept "At the start of your turn, draw a card" as something that will happen. (Magic, Yugioh, Pokemon, too many others to count; violators are Monsuno, Magi-Nation, and Chaotic)

2) There are certain cards that can only be played once per turn, usually resource cards such as lands and energy, or one monster per turn in games without such resources. Those things that can only be played once per turn are there in order to keep the game from rushing by too quickly and allow a slow buildup of power. (Resources: Magic, Pokemon, WOWTCG, Monsters: Yugioh, Cardfight!! Vanguard (When playing Vanguards))

3) The fewer extra doodads you need, the better. I'm talking about things like coins, dice, damage counters, dark-boxes, life counters, you name it. An ideal game can be played with just the decks(Kaijudo, Cardfight!! Vanguard), it's okay to need a coin and a calculator or another way to record life points(Magic, Yugioh,), additional damage counters and other such items which can be easily obtained but take up space are okay but pushing it(Pokemon, Magi-Nation, WOWTCG), and requiring large and expensive devices that can only be obtained through special purchase such as a card dispenser, video game, or smart phone is just too much(Redakai, Eye of Judgment).

The sorts of rules I have listed below, aside from rules that are in opposition to what I have mentioned above, tend to hinder a game's performance.

1) A restricted number of actions per turn(Harry Potter, Monsuno, Humaliens). Aside from a few things they can only do once a turn, such as play their once-per-turn card or perform their once-per-turn attacks, players should have the freedom to do as many things each turn as their resources allow, not some arbitrary number. Drawing cards and Once-Per-Turn actions are pretty much all the restraint you will hopefully need.

2) A static army that cannot be replenished(Monsuno, Redakai, Chaotic). Drawing a card is like the cavalry arriving, so having a set number of characters causes a slippery slope once one of them goes down and eliminates swarm strategies(play lots of little monsters and overwhelm with numbers). It takes a lot of the excitement and malleability out of the game. An Avatar is the only exception, since this is supposed to be you (Magi-Nation, Bleach, WOWTCG).

3) A lack of Deck Control outside of Mad-Draw or Mad-Discard. More on that, later(Redakai, Monsuno, tons of other games).

Now, not to say that these are absolutes for your games, they are just the sorts of things that tend to have a positive or negative effect on their performance and fun-factor. Otherwise, go wild! I'd like to see what sorts of creative solutions that designers come up with for the next big thing in card games. Just remember to have the proper mindset when putting your rules into words(Check out the tutorials for Ophidian 2350 for some particularly tasteless writing).

While developing your game, some of the more important things to keep in mind is your presentation and use of identifiers as well as how your various aesthetic choices affect the game.
Playing Cards use identifiers, as well!

Identifiers: Identifiers are the things that help tell a card apart: card types, the card's name, elements, clans, Archetypes, keywords, powers, even the way the card is placed on the table. These identifiers can also be rendered with words, numbers, or icons. One can figure out the logistics of identifiers even from a deck of ordinary playing cards which rely on the identifiers of "Element" and "Power". The 10 of Spades, for example, is a card with the "Spade" element, which is represented by an Icon, and a "Power" of 10.

The Card's Name is a basic identifier, as it can distinguish what a card does and someone can simply hear the name to know what it is before a description is required. Iconic and important cards should have the simplest names to learn. There is also a trend of sub-names or "versions" of cards with the same name. These are often used in licensed card games or cards with an ongoing storyline to represent the growth or changes a character experiences during the run of the series.

The Card Type: Also fairly straightforward, "Is this a monster? Is this a spell? Is this a resource?" but should also be easy to identify so that players know what they are holding when they glance at the card.

Charizard has Fire Element icons.
"Element": This is a trickier one. A card's "Element" represents its affiliation with other cards, like the Suits in regular playing cards, and are often determined with icons. There are two things that are usually done with Elements: Either a restrictive system is put into place, where cards of a certain element can only be combined with and use the resources of other cards of that element(Like the colors in magic or the types in Pokemon), or a constructive system where one can play any cards they want, but receive a better strategy if they combine cards of the same element together(Such as with Yugioh). Either way is totally viable, with the Restrictive system usually being better for games that use resource cards.

Spellstutter is in the "Faerie" and "Wizard" clans.
"Clan": Clan is sort of a twist on elements, an extra layer that can be shuffled around over them. While Element refers to a card's primary affiliation, a "Clan" is a different and more secondary category as far as restrictions are concerned. For example, a Fire Dragon would be of the Fire Element, and a Water Dragon would be of the Water Element, but both belong to the Dragon "Clan". A card might be of a certain element, but instead affects cards of a Clan, regardless of element. Strategies can be developed around these "Clans" that cross over elements and stir the pot to get players to explore further possibilities than playing a game with just one Element.

Naruto has LOTS of Keywords in red.
Keywords: Keywords are basic, usually one-word descriptions which refer to even simpler traits of the card. Keywords can be used to quickly detail a special ability ("Flying" in Magic. Creatures that can Fly cannot be stopped by creatures that can't) or have no in-game ability but are instead used to set up triggers with cards that reference those keywords (The various keywords listed on Naruto cards).

A card from the "Fortune Lady" Archetype.
 Archetypes: An "Archetype" is a unified group of cards that work together to form a strategy. The identifiers that I mentioned above are the building-blocks of archetypes. Cards can reference other cards of the same archetype by name (Yugioh's archetypes use the actual card name), Clan (Magic had a block that was all about different creature types, such as "Fairie" and "Merfolk"), Element (Pokemon's types) and even Keywords(Naruto). If you build some strategies around some of these identifiers, you can have a more cohesive game from the start. Keep in mind what each of these identifiers mean and if their archetypes emphasize them properly. A fire deck probably shouldn't cause floods and a Wizard group might not want much hand-to-hand combat.
"Light" lets you search the deck.

Deck Control: One of the big reasons that Identifiers exist and something I pound on with every TCG I go over. Deck control is the ability for a player to get what they want out of the deck, often by playing cards that allow them to search their decks for another card or affect what they will draw next. Deck control gives players the feeling that they are in control of the game, not merely the victims of the whimsy of the top card. Then again, being able to grab anything you want from your deck is obscenely powerful(even with a life-point loss, you get the better deal), so using Identifiers and timing to restrict the deck control is how you temper this ability. Archetypes run on Deck Control and players love having expanded options and a feeling that they are controlling the flow of the game.

Aesthetics: Aesthetics refers to the use of imagery, colors, layout and feel. This is how you place your identifiers and text on the card in a way that is comfortable to read as well as give a general feel of your game.

Art is important for Bushiroad games.

Artwork: A good piece of card art can also act as an identifier, allowing players to understand what they have drawn before they even process the name. Your most iconic cards should have the clearest and most recognizable artwork. Another question is what sort of art should you use, particularly if you are a licensed game. Should you use screenshots from the work, borrow official art, or have new artwork created? Screenshots and official artwork are certainly cheaper and take less time, but a vibrant art world also draws people to the game.

Also, don't forget that whole "decency" thing I was talking about in the previous article.

Yugioh has a simple layout.
Layout: The layout is where everything is placed, what text is used, how much space the text boxes and artwork take up, and how you use border colors. Do you use a somewhat dry, but easily understood traditional layout, experiment a little or, if you have truly spectacular artwork, make the artwork fill the card and put the identifiers over it. Is color used to determine Card Type(Yugioh) or Element(Magic, Pokemon, Chaotic uses BOTH)? A good general rule-of-thumb is to put the most important identifiers: Name, Element, Requirements to Use, and basic power levels, on the corners and the top and left edges of a card, as this allows someone to keep an eye on what they are holding in their hand at all times without having to page through it every time they do anything.

Concerning layout, something you do want to copy is the card size of competing brands, as a host of products have already been made to support cards in those sizes such as sleeves and boxes. If someone can pull out their old sleeves to use with your game, that is one less barrier to entry.

Magi-Nation uses Pop Culture.
Feel: Your layout and look should also cater towards the mood you are trying to establish and add vibrance to the game's universe. A Gothic Horror game might make heavy use of black and other gothic symbolism. This also accounts for "Flavor Text", some little bonus text on the card, printed in italics, that serves no further purpose than to give the game a little more attitude. Does you flavor text tell more about the game's universe, or does it reference pop-culture? Is it serious or funny? It can be as complex as a tale about why a card has an ability, or a one-liner that one would use when the card is played.

Also, one of the most important things during this development process, is to find the fundamental difference between your game and other games that already exist. Like I say in my video, the important thing is to see what others have done successfully and figure out something different. Who knows what the next big Card Game could be and what its connection is? Aside from the Big Three card games(Magic, fine on it's own; Pokemon, tie-in game; Yugioh, Merch-Driven), some other things that have been tried with less success are: An Internet connected game(Chaotic), a Video-game powered game(Eye Of Judgment), Smart Phone-powered games(Nuko, Power Rangers), use of clear plastic cards(Redakai), use of folding or opening cards(Quickstrike), punch-out miniatures cards(Pirates), oddly-shaped cards(Hecatomb), Cards that merge into a bigger card (Magic, Pokemon, Yugioh), etc.

Not to say that those are not applicable to your designs, just don't count on them to be the magic bullet that gives your game the edge, as your game will be inevitably compared to others. Msot importantly, have fun and figure out a game that works for you.

Again, we visit Redakai and see how they are doing: well, after developing it as a toy with gimmicks, it's time to cover up said gimmick's shortcomings with design! The game has several elements, but those elements serve little purpose and do almost nothing for the game. One is locked-in with a static army, as well. Due to the see-through card mechanic, the cards have to be stored in a dark box so one cannot see what is coming next; the characters are placed into a tray so that the various stats and gaps align properly, the hand is placed into an opaque card-holder so your opponent cannot see your hand, and the power tracker is attached to it. All of this bulky stuff destroys Redakai's portability. Well, a portable case was made but, uh-oh, nobody checked to see how many cards it actually held! Oh-no, it doesn't hold enough cards! Why did nobody notice this?!

Getting more serious for a moment; the instant that I discovered that the Redakai "X-Reader Case" (The dark box REQUIRED to play the game) was six cards short of being able to hold the bare minimum number of cards needed to play a full game, I was horrified. I realized then that Spin Master had not thought their game through. Either somebody had okayed the design, knowing that it could not hold enough cards, or nobody bothered to ask. Either possibility is equally terrifying.

Pay attention to what you are making and don't end up like Spinmaster. If someone requires more to play your game than a pencil and paper and whatever they can dump out of their wallet, either think things over or make sure that they actually work. You have to consider everything, which is where our next article will come into play.

Happy designing!


  1. I'd be interested in your opinion on the use of standard six sided dice as a core feature. I've been working on a concept, but it requires a fair number of dice, say around 10 - 20 for each player, dice are fairly cheap and portable however.

    1. However, you are leaving an awful lot of your game to chance. The coin-flips in Pokemon tend to be bad enough that people use that as reason enough to not play a card (Unless the coin-flip offers no hindrance, such as getting a positive result no matter the flip, or an effect which doesn't alter damage).

      Players enjoy a feeling of control, so try to take as little of that feeling away as possible. There was actually a Zatch-Bell archetype (Kanchome) designed to let you control your coin flip results, thus taking the chance out of it.

      If you really want to use dice in your game, give players the ability to consistently alter the results with card abilities; otherwise it's as bad as having no deck control.

    2. For example, perhaps a card with the ability: "Once per turn, you may re-roll all of your dice that came up as "1" on the dice roll."

      Gobs and gobs of dice are usually the realm of miniatures games, not TCGs.

    3. What about when you play a card you roll a dice to see how strong the effect is, thus eliminating all the extra dice

    4. Chance like that needs to be a rarity. Like Snipe Hunter in Yugioh, only a few cards should rely on dice or coins; making it a consistent theme of your game is asking for a bit of trouble unless, like I said before, there are cards that center around tweaking the results.