So You Want To: Make A Collectible Card Game
So you want to make a Collectible Card Game, eh? Well, good luck. CCGs has always got the reputation as being a "nerdy" or "kiddy" games in public mind. Breaking past this stereotype is going to be difficult, and designing a game that deserves to will be harder still. First, be sure to check out Write A Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. Then, read our "Collectible Card Game" article for a rundown of the genre-specific tropes that will help you, hurt you, and guide you on your way. The "magic word" in designing CCG is Play. Don't just play your favorite CCG—in fact, put it aside for at least a month. Instead, go to the bookstore or local gaming shop or comic book store and try new Tabletop Games. Play Dungeons & Dragons, or watch people doing Warhammer 40,000. Watch Wil Wheaton's show Tabletop on Geek & Sundry. Compare Chess to Risk, Monopoly with Settlers of Catan, Munchkin with Apples To Apples. If you're going to create a new game, you need to know what pre-existing games are already doing, so that you can avoid the things you don't like and steal the things you do. And you'll have fun—and isn't that the point of gaming?
- Crack Is Cheaper. Tropes Are Tools, including this one. First off, the more cards the consumers buy, the more you can afford to create follow-up product, thus resulting in more income; exploit this node, and you're all set. Second, the day players start shelling out ridiculous amounts of cash for individual power cards—the day players like your game so much that they are willing to blow extra money on it—is the day your game has actually succeeded. CCGs have Revenue Enhancing Devices built into them. This may sound dirty, but actually works.
- Bribing Your Way to Victory, Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: These are built in default into the existing Collectible Card Game / Trading Card Game model. Because packs usually contain a random assortment of cards, players who spend more money on the game are more likely to have more powerful cards. Having said that, Fantasy Flight Games (A Cardgame Of Ice and Fire) have pioneered a new distribution method they call a "Living Card Game," where cards are sold in pre-sorted packs with contents listed on the back of the box. There are no randomly-assorted packs for sale. According to FFG, this helps you avoid wasting money, and emphasizes skill in playing and deck-building over luck.
- Expansion Pack: This is the main trope that keeps your consumers playing. For one, it provides novelty and variation. They prevent the game from being monotony, keeping your fanbase intact. Second, human beings like new stuffs—this is a scientifically-proven part of human nature. A game that constantly release new things usually has a powerful and addicting quality.
- Complacent Gaming Syndrome: Expansion packs, and to a lesser extent banlists and rotating formats (if you choose to have them), will also help prevent your game from becoming static. Witness the phenomenon of the "solved game" - games in which the correct choices, the ones that always result in a win or at least a forced draw, have already been identified. While CCGs are typically a bit too complex to truly "solve," there will always be Game Breakers that essentially serve the same purpose: choosing not to play them is suicidal because make it that much easier to win. The first answer is the Obvious Rule Patch, where you simply ban that card from (supervised) play... but once one is gone, another takes its place as strategies shift and decks are redesigned, and if you keep banning those then eventually the game simply isn't as fun anymore because there are only three cards still legal for play. So the better answer is, Don't just remove the old ones. Add new ones. And then do the cycle all over again, yeah, but frankly that's your lot in life, now that you've decided to build a CCG: monitoring as many matches as you can and taking statistics on which cards have a higher-than-normal win rate. Have fun.
- Awesome but Impractical. It is important to have deployment limitations, slowing the game down and preventing players from putting really powerful things in play right at the start. Only one card game didn't do so: First Edition Star Trek: The Collectable Card Game. It was a disaster. Under normal circumstances you could only play one Ship or Character per turn, meaning that some Red Shirt was worth the same as the Enterprise herself; and the Event card "Red Alert," which let you play any number of cards per turn, became a Game Breaker of ludicrous proportion. The second edition of the game put a resource system into play, which was a lot more sensible.
- The cost itself can be variable. Magic and Pokémon only let you play one new Mana a turn, which delays powerful attacks for a few turns. However, this built an additional Weaksauce Weakness into the game: if you simply didn't have Mana to deploy, or your opponent was able to destroy it, you were screwed. Legend of the Five Rings let you play as many "Holding" cards, which provide "Gold" for purchasing other cards, as you wanted, but each Holding itself costs gold, and furthermore your handnote is only four cards large. Decipher's The Lord of the Rings card game used an innovative "twilight pool" mechanic: playing good-guy cards added points to the pool, and playing bad-guy cards removed them.note In other words, you could only do good stuff for yourself at the cost of enabling the opponent to do good stuff for themselves. And ST:2E gave you a permanent limit of seven points each turn, which you could spend on playing cards from hand (each card had its point cost clearly marked) and/or drawing cards into hand (1 point per card).
- Card maximums. Originally Magic didn't have a limit on how many of Card [X] you could have in a deck. So people would go in with decks consisting solely of like 20 Swamps and then a Zerg Rush of Plague Rats, which could get out of hand really quickly. Nowadays, Magic decks can only have 4 or less copies of a single card (sorting by name) unless that card is a basic land, and almost every other CCG out there has some limitation on multiples in this way. (Some games do it by marking the individual cards themselves if they can't be multiplied; under such circumstances you can have infinite [This] or infinite [That], but those cards tend to be really, really weak anyhow, and you wouldn't play such a deck except for the lulz.) This means you can't load your deck down with whatever card it revolves around. It also slows the game down: if you can only have four copies of your central card, you have only a 1-in-15 chance of drawing it.
- Collectibility / Customizability / Competitive Balance / Variable Player Goals. One of the big appeals of this genre is that you can design a deck to pursue a particular victory strategy. What that means is that there needs to be more than one way to win. Most Magic duels revolve around getting the opponent from 20 Hit Points to 0, true, but each of the five colors has different philosophies and tries to get there in different ways; and there's always milling or the various Golden Snitch cards like Barren Glory or Coalition Victory. In LotR above, you could win by tossing the Ring into the fire or by knocking out every other player's Fellowship. And let's not even talk about L5R and its four different ways of winning.
- Faction Calculus. One of the fun things about a CCG is building out a strategy which (you hope) will win you the game, and then testing it against someone else's. But people also bond with their favorite factions, philosophies and characters. Having factions also builds into your profit margins, because (unless you've gone with the LCG model) every time player opens a new pack, at least 50% of the cards in it are useless to his current deck. You want more than one side.
- Choices Vs. Options. First, we acknowledge that we are ripping off MaRo, so read the article in his words if you'd prefer. But there is a difference between "Options"—"You can have both A and B"—and Choices—"You can only have A or B, pick one." You want Choices instead of Options. Not only should this shape the design of individual cards, but the entire deck-building aspect of card games is about Choices: there are so many cards available that you simply cannot create a deck that makes all of them available. Faction Calculus adds to this by further striating the availble strategies, which is another reason why it's good. But the point is this: you want Choices because those provide limitations. And the entire heart of gaming is about finding ways to overcome limitations. That's why we have MinMaxers; that's why we have Munchkins; that's why we have “Stop Having Fun” Guys. Say what you want about their attitudes, but they want to overcome the game, because that's what gaming is. So don't give them Options. Give them Choices. Make it that much harder—and that much more fun.
- Deck design. Look, it's the truth: this is your deck. There are many like it, but this one is yours. If you're reading this article, you've probably designed a few decks in your time, regardless of which CCG you play. You have a favorite; I am certain of it. I also would also bet you can remember the salient details of most, maybe all, of the decks you've designed (not just collected out of spare bits and pieces, designed) over the years. And why? Because players bond with their deck designs. They get emotionally invested in their work—and rightly so. So giving them the tools to put their own mark on the metagame can only result in further investment on their part. Of both time and money.
- Most CCGs are adaptations of existing franchises, for reasons that will be discussed in the next section. The only exceptions are Magic, Legend of the Five Rings, Yu-Gi-Oh! (which itself is, by Word of God, a Magic ripoff) and... Well, that's about it, at least where popular franchises are concerned. (I mean, have you heard of Magi-Nation?) Decipher Inc came up with three very good adaptations—LotR, Star Trek: The Next Generation (eventually expanding to all the rest of the franchise save the 2009 pre-boot) and the Star Wars Customizable Card Game—but not a single one of them is in print today. And nobody needs to talk about Pokemon cards. The point is that CCGs are not exempt from The Problem with Licensed Games. The rebuttal is that creating your own Intellectual Property is just as challenging or more so... but again, we'll talk about that further down.
- The Player. In most CCGs, the player is a non-entity who only kind of interacts with in-game entities. The Planeswalkers of Magic: the Gathering, for example, can be attacked but cannot defend themselves; in Pokemon you don't even fight your opponent directly, but instead his mons. Likewise, the Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Wheel of Time and Wing Commander card games don't feature any entity corresponding to the player at all; victory is determined by other means, often Scoring Points. Just about the only exception is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, where you choose a character class and that class is then represented as an in-game entity. He or she can not only be attacked, but—if equipped with Weapon cards—can attack as well. The logistics of incorporating The Player into the game as an in-game entity are confusing, but it's a design space that hasn't much been explored.
- Number of Players. Star Wars, Star Trek and Pokemon can only be played with two players. Period. The rules simply don't accomodate for anything else. While this is the sound of the devs taking the easy way out, the truth is that designing a CCG to support multiplayer (by which we mean, "Three or more players") can get crazy—the cards that say "Target opponent does [X]" become weaker, while the "All opponents do [X]" become insanely powerful; politics and the Kingmaker Scenario get involved, where you start deciding whether to use the beneficial cards on yourself or on your maybe-allies; and so on and so fifth. See all this chaos? One of the things you should decide on, as early as possible, is what the maximum number of players per match is, because this will inform your design decisions. Choosing to go 2P only will make the game more boring, but also easier to design.
- Necessary Materials. Every CCG needs a flat surface to be played upon, but some require more, and such requirements are generally perceived to be Scrappy Mechanics because they reduce the portability of the game. One of the nice things about a CCG, after all, is that you can just stick your deck in your pocket and be able to play just about anywhere... which isn't going to be true if you additionally need dice, or a bunch of little counters, or pen and paper, none of which may near to hand. The easier your game is to play (up to certain maximums), the better off you are; and the easier it is to have the stuff you need to play it, likewise.
- Something cool SW:CCG and L5R have done is build the dice into their cards. Almost every card has a "Destiny" value (Star Wars) or "Focus" value (L5R), and during any circumstances where skill, chance and circumstance should help decide the outcome of an event (Sword Fights, aiming torpedoes at the Death Star, contests of wills), each player drew the top card of their deck and added the value to whatever totals they were already counting. Star Wars took this an extra step and made a card's Destiny value roughly inverse to its Power Levels. Underdogs Never Lose in that galaxy far, far away, because The Force is with them; by enforcing this trope, Decipher not only added flavor but helped newer players (with weaker cards) compete against people who had sunk more money into their decks.
- Alternatively, consider marketing a smartphone app along with your cards. There are very simple iPhone apps that allow you to keep track of your life totals in Magic, for instance. This only obsoletes one of the several things a Magic player needs (+1/+1 or -1/-1 ccounters; creature tokens; etc), but it's a start.
- Target Demographic. The Pokemon CCG is so simple it's almost "solved"... but that appeals to its under-10 audience. The Star Wars CCG had Loads and Loads of Rules and was Nintendo Hard, to the point that even experienced Magic players could get fumbled up. You want your game to have depth, which is difficult to achieve and even more difficult to describe, but it has to do with how its mechanics interact—or, rather, whether they do at all. A game with "depth" is typically described as "Easy to learn, hard to master," and that's the sweet spot you want, but what counts as "easy to learn hard to master" will change depending on the intelligence level of your players. Adjust accordingly.
- This is also important from a psychological angle. Simply put, every person who plays the game is going to invest a certain amount of time and money into your product, and they want to feel like that investment wasn't wasted. It's called the Sunk Cost Fallacy and it's definitely something you can exploit to retain players, but only if the game is fun enough to hook them in the first place. (And let's not talk about Quality by Popular Vote; it's another thing you want to exploit, but popularity and Hype Backlash go hand in hand because someone will always dislike your game, even if it is genuinely, legitimately good.) So it needs to be not just fun, but relatively easy to pick up... and with enough depth that the player feels like s/he is learning and improving. The more time, effort and money you can get your players to invest in your product, the happier they are and the more loyal they are. Exploit this.
- Variable Player Goals. As mentioned, you need them, if for no other reason than that it allows Comeback Mechanics. But that means you need to decide what they are. And, unfortunately, the sky's the limit, since CCGs can take place in any milieu and focus on any scope, from one-on-one fistfights to games of thrones to saving the galaxy from evil.
- One critical thing to think about is whether it ought to be possible to have non-violent win conditions. Almost every CCG involves defeating your opponent in direct combat; but some, like L5R and some of the Golden Snitches in Magic, allow you to simply turtle up, defend, and win by meeting some sort of passive goal.
- Geo Effects. Magic and Pokemon do not feature any sort of terrain; duels just take place in some vacuum somewhere. In comparison, the Star Trek and Star Wars card games both involved geography—you had to travel back and forth between different locations to accomplish varous goals. These games, not coincidentally, required much more physical space to play, and additional rules to govern movement. Having said that, Tropes Are Not Bad: additional rules means additional Loophole Abuse, and let's face it: Loophole Abuse is one of the foundations of strategy. (Tactical Rock-Paper-Scissors consists of nothing but!)
- Card Draw Rate: Magic only lets you draw one card per turn. This can make it a very slow game, and increases the importance of deck-building and deck optimization. Games where you can draw more cards are faster, and potentially more fun, because everyone has more options, but also means that a skilled player can run away with the game more swiftly since s/he is more rapidly handed the tools they need to do so. Finally, this has an impact on the power of cards that themselves say, "Draw more cards." In Magic, the color that has the most card-drawing spells, Blue, is considered overpowered because of it; in Star Wars, where converting extra Force points into card draws is a normal part of gameplay (and there are some cards that let you convert them back!), such abilities are less remarkable.
- Discard Piles: SW:CCG had two discard piles. The "Lost" pile was where dead characters and the like went; but the "Used" Pile was where spent Force cards and some spells went. The Used Pile can be added back to the bottom of your draw deck at any time... meaning that some spells would come back again later. This was used as a form of Necessary Drawback: some powerful spells automatically went to the Lost Pile after use. A few were modal: they had an effect that resulted in being Used and another that resulted in being Lost. The point is that a card does not have to be one-use-only, and that there is plenty of design space to explore here.
- Luck Manipulation Mechanic: remember that stuff up above about drawing Destiny? A card used as a Destiny draw is put into the Used Pile. This means you can "stack your deck" by cycling through it fast enough that a desirable Destiny draw gets back to the top before the next time you need it.
- Character Development: SW:CCG, ST:CCG (2E), L5R and even Magic have all done this: release multiple versions of a character (a Planeswalker in Magic's case) which have different skills and are suited for different purposes. Typically the way this is done is to have a rule that you may only have one card of that character's name in play at a time, but then give each version sort of subtitle (James T. Kirk, Highly-Decorated Captain vs James T. Kirk, Living Legend, at complete random). In most games you may replace an in-play version with a different one, possibly at reduced deployment costs, but what happens to the first version (Lost Forever? Back to hand?) depends from game to game. (Note also in this case that the "one in play at a time" rule is indicated by the dot before the name—ST:CCG allows multiples of Red Shirt-level cards.) Pokemon also built this into play by allowing you to evolve your mons, but that's a different mechanic.
- Some card games require you to have a certain specific card before you can play: L5R requires you to have a "Stronghold" card, for instance, representing your chosen Clan. If you're going to do this, then for the love of god, make the required card Common. Hell, make them more-than-common the way Lands are in M:tG, or print them on the back of the deck box (L5R). This does not preclude you from printing actual-card versions of the card, or from printing more-powerful rare versions; it's simply to say that if one specific card is going to be necessary, then you had better make it easy for players to get their hands on. The opposite—having only rare versions of the required card—is called Fake Difficulty. It will reduce your revenue to zero, and you will deserve it.
- Card Frames: The "card frame" is, if you will, the game's Viewer-Friendly Interface: it organizes the data on the card so that players can easily scan that card and figure out what it does. For example, Magic always has mana icons in the top right, the card type right under the picture, and a panel describing the card's use occupying the whole bottom half of the card. The point we are trying to make here is not, "You should have a card frame design," though obviously you should; the point we are trying to make is, Consider having different card frames under different circumstances. In Magic, the differences are usually in color and texture (green cards look like they're made of lizard skin, while red cards are made of sandstone), but you could potentially have completely different card layouts for different circumstances; SW:CCG had Location cards that operated in both Portrait orientation (planets) and Landscape orientation (spots on that planet; Tatooine would be a portrait, Mos Eisley a landscape), and neither of them looked anything like their Character cards. This raises the difficulty barrier at entry—The Player has to learn to recognize multiple frames—but speeds gameplay for experts, who can tell even more quickly what a card does.