Cardplay: Why deck-based games are making a comeback

Cardplay: Why deck-based games are making a comeback
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PATRICK STAFFORD knows there's something almost sensual about a card game.

Maybe it's the James Bond effect – Casino Royale certainly renewed public interest in poker after seeing a well-clad, ripped man lay down his chips. Perhaps it's the social aspect. Sitting with a friend playing Mario Kart is one thing, but the tension of looking your opponent in the eye and knowing they could be leering you down the wrong path is exhilarating.

Card games have been enjoying a good run, lately. Magic: The Gathering had its best year in 2013 (and it's one of the main reasons Hasbro's game division is profitable). Blizzard's Hearthstone has become so popular iOS versions of the game were released.

Cards Against Humanity has created plenty of hilarity on social media, and even in mainstream games, cards are showing – Respawn's Titanfall even allows you to carry "burn cards" for special powers.

There's a reason games like Magic: The Gathering and Android: Netrunner, (originally conceived by the same man) attract new players. A card game doesn’t start when you sit across from your opponent. It started several hours or days previously, when you started picking out cards and crafting a strategy for how they could work together. 

You aren't just relying on the luck of the cards – you're proving your deck, and by extension, yourself, has what it takes. 

“There is a sense of ownership in having your own deck,” says Lukas Litzsinger, lead designer at Fantasy Flight Games. FFG is responsible for several popular card games including Android: Netrunner, which is growing in popularity, and Game of Thrones.
“Molding it, crafting that deck…it’s empowering, and there is a connection there that sets it apart from other games.”

More than a feeling >>
Videogames tend to be lumped into one category by outsiders – the common assumption is they're either Tetris or Call of Duty. Either way, a waste of time.

Card games have the luxury of about 900 years of history and diversity – and different games are associated with the types of people who play them. Imagine Snap – a game played by two children on a long plane flight, perhaps. Or blackjack, which conjures that image of a tuxedo-wearing James Bond, sitting in a smoky casino.

These two games have something in common, and in fact, with all card games – social interaction. Rarely are card games played alone (Solitaire being the most common and rare example of a solitary card game), and are as much about the person opposite you as the cards themselves. It's a social experiment.

“The personal experience you have while playing a card game is different than a board game,” says Litzsinger. You're with people, looking them in the eye. It's more akin to a board game situation, but with higher stakes. 

“With a card game you’re already in the game before you sit down at the table. You’re seeing how your deck functions, which is exciting, because you’ve spent more time and effort into reaching that point.”

Litzsinger is, of course, speaking of the types of games that require specific deck-building. Games like Magic: The Gathering, the biggest collectible card game in the world, or Android: Netrunner, originally created by Garfield and rebooted in 2012). Whether it's Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh, they all share this concept of personalization.  

There's a creativity to deck building that speaks of a specific type of intelligence. It's a desire for strategy – the same desire you see in players of a game like Civilization. They think of a way to win – in this case, specific cards in a deck – and then build tactics to help them achieve it, i.e. other cards to support the plan.

This plays out in the game itself. Richard Garfield himself says this is the key power of the deck-building game – the cards are simply tools, and the game doesn't come alive until they're manipulated. 

“We’re contributing half the game by what we choose to play. We’re essentially creating the game itself, and in some sense, are game designers.”

Subconsciously, the player is proving to themselves they have the intelligence to carry out a specific strategy. The other half of this equation is crucial, however – the element of luck.

Good deck building is about eliminating as much chance as possible. You always want cards in your hand which can help you do whatever you want. But chance is necessary to balance the strategy. The anticipation of drawing the right card is a drug, keeping the player coming back every turn. 

When things go wrong. that's when a deck really shines, and the player shows their true skill to adapt. It's what psychologists call divergent thinking – a thought process used to come up with ideas using many possible solutions.

That plays into the design of the cards themselves, says Litzsinger. Good card games never tell the player what to do. 

“You want to open the player to an environment … in which you give them the tools they need to craft their own experience,” he says. “You want a card that tells you how it works, not how you should play it.”

Shawn Main, Magic: The Gathering research and development lead designer, says the core of that game is a “set of building blocks to explore”. Essentially, the player is asking themselves, what is the best possible way I can approach this game?

“Do you want to play a deck with green and white heroes, full of combat tricks? How about red and black minotaurs plus kill spells? Maybe you love the card Master of Waves and want to build a deck focused on making that card shine.”

“And, once you’ve decided what you want to play, there are myriad decks you can play against, each one with a unique dynamic between them. The possibilities run really deep.”
Eric Dodds, the lead designer of Hearthstone, said as much during a talk at the Game Developer's Conference in March this year. 

“It’s important for us to embrace player stories, especially as a game trying to keep scope down, we want to focus on the player story and not focus much on the narrative story at all."

Going beyond the basic >>
It's easy to think of card games as relatively simple. But simple doesn't mean boring. A game like Pokemon, which has a one-at-a-time approach to combat, can be just as thrilling as a game of Magic, which has thousands of rules – and more added every year. 

The appeal of card games is found in their variety. Each game, especially fantasy-based, are attempting to tell a story through their mechanics. The best marry the two seamlessly. 
Netrunner, hailed by aficionados as perhaps one of the greatest card games ever made, received a reboot in 2012 from Fantasy Flight Games. It’s an asymmetrical game. One player chooses a corporation from four factions, and attempts to score “agendas”. The opposite player is a hacker, or “runner”, using a completely different deck to disrupt those agendas.

Here’s the rub – every card the corp plays is face-down. The runner only sees those cards when the corp player chooses to reveal them – sometimes at the runner's peril. It’s complicated and rich, which Litzsinger says gives even advanced players pause.
“The original design has this brilliant asymmetry as well, and sets it apart, because there is a lot of head to head competitive games, and maybe your opponent is playing the exact same side. I think that definitely works in Netrunner's favour.”

The lack of information evokes the image of a hacker cracking into a server, not knowing its contents. It's frustrating, but therein lies the challenge. 

Or take Game of Thrones, which uses a story system to reflect the chaos and unpredictability of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms. Each turn, the players draw a card from their “plot deck”, which has an effect for that round only. 

Doomtown, which was discontinued in 2000 but set for a reboot this year, combines elements of strategy with poker. The old west-themed game periodically makes players draw poker hands. As a result, deck construction isn’t just focused on power, but the ability to draw higher hands.

All of these different themes empower and inform the player, providing them a context to make decks which take the opponent by surprise. There’s an element of luck, yes, but as Main describes, a good deck will rely less on chance and more on skill. These themes are simply environments to allow that to happen. 

“Players want to make meaningful decisions, they want to feel clever, and they want dramatic, surprising moments.Card games are fun because they have pre-decision randomness – I draw a card, which for Magic can be anything I selected to be in my deck, and now I’m faced with a choice of how to play my game. 

“The randomness doesn’t fight against skilful play of the game, instead it creates it because each game I’m going to have a slightly different set of cards in my hand and I’ll need to figure out which order to play them in this particular game.”

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