So You Want To/Make a Collectible Card Game

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How-To Guide

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So you want to make a Collectible Card Game, eh? Well, you're an idiot--good luck. In the public mind, there's only two kinds of CCGs: super-nerdy kinds that people play because they know they're doomed to never, ever have sex in their lives (Magic: The Gathering), and the stupid ones for kids (everything else). Breaking past this is going to be difficult in the extreme.

First, be sure to check out Write a Story for basic advice that holds across all genres. Then, get look over a rundown of the genre-specific tropes that will help you, hurt you, and guide you on your way.

Second, even more important: play. Don't just play your favorite CCG. In fact, put it aside for at least a month. Instead, go to the bookstore or whatever and try new Tabletop Games. Play Dungeons & Dragons, or watch people doing Warhammer 40,000. 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 besides, you'll have fun--and isn't that the point of gaming?

Necessary Tropes[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Crack is Cheaper. Believe it or not, you want this trope. There are two reasons. First off, the more cards the consumers buy, the more you can afford to create follow-up product, thus resulting in more money. Second, the day players start shelling out ridiculous amounts of cash for individual power cards is the day your game has actually succeeded. Capitalism is integrated into the CCG model. If you're not willing to accept that, don't make one.
    • Bribing Your Way to Victory, Screw the Rules, I Have Money: these are built into the existing Collectible Card Game / Trading Card Game model. Having said that, Fantasy Flight Games (A Cardgame Of Ice and Fire) have pioneered a new distribution method they call a "Living Card Game." In the standard Magic model, you buy a pack of 15 or 60 cards and have absolutely no idea what you'll get. In the LCG model, the pack lists what's in it on the back, so you can avoid wasting money, and skill (both in playing and deckbuilding) is emphasized over luck. Yes, Magic dips into this by providing you with pre-built decks, but 1) those are meant to be for beginners, and 2) the LCG model (as such) consists solely of "beginner" decks. There is no randomly-sorted product to be had, and nothing (besides money) (besides money) stopping a player from easily acquiring the cards they need.
  • Expansion Pack: again, this creates more money for you. But it also keeps your consumers playing. 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. CCGs are typically a bit too complex to solve easily, but there will always be Game Breakers that essentially serve the same purpose: playing them is suicidal because they simply provide a higher-than-normal win-rate. Unless you replace those Game Breakers with new ones, your game will stagnate and lose customers.
  • 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: the original version of the Star Trek card game. It was a disaster. Under normal circumstances you could only play one Ship or Character per turn, meaning Ensign Guisti 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 cost system into play, which was a lot smarter.
    • 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 hand[1] 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.[2]
  • 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 (IE "The Cheese Stands Alone"). In LotR above, you could win by reaching the Crack of Mount Doom or by preventing anyone else's Fellowship from getting there, leaving yours the last one standing. And let's not even talk about the conditions in Legend of the Five Rings.
    • Faction Calculus. The Star Wars CCG doesn't allow Mirror Matches; every match must take place between a Darkside player and a Lightside player. It's just about the only exception. Every other card game has at least two factions and allows players to match them up at their own discretion. This also builds into your profit margins, because every time player opens a pack of CCG cards, at least 50% of the cards in it are useless to his current deck. (If you go with an LCG model, though, forget it.) You want more than one side.
    • 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.

Choices, Choices[edit | hide]

  • Trading Card Lame. Most CCGs are adaptations of existing franchises, for reasons that will be discussed in the next section down. 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 the rest of the franchise, though not 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 the Pokemon card game, because it was pretty crappy. The point is that Video Game Movies Suck, and CCGs built on other franchises tend to have the same problem. The alternative is to create your own intellectual property... but again, we'll talk about that further down.
  • Number of Players. Star Wars, Star Trek and Pokemon can only be played with two players. Period. The rules simply don't accomodate anything else. While this is a bit of a cop-out, the truth is that designing a CCG to support multiplayer (by which we mean, "Three or more players") can get crazy--certain cards become useless, whilst others become insanely powerful; politics and the Kingmaker Scenario get involved, blablablah. So 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.
  • Necessary Materials. Every CCG needs a flat surface to be played upon, but others require more. For instance, Magic gives each player 20 Hit Points, and while you can track it in your head it's easiest to do so with pen and paper. But what about games that require more than just the cards?--games that require dice, or a bunch of little counters, or (gasp!) pen and paper? The more materials are necessary, besides your deck of cards, the worse off you are, because the harder it is to play on the sidewalk during your lunch break.
  • 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.
  • Variable Player Goals. As mentioned, you need them. 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 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 L 5 R 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 table space to play, and Loads and Loads of 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!)

Pitfalls[edit | hide]

As mentioned, most CCGs are adaptations of existing franchises. The reason for this is very, very simple: it is quite difficult for a CCG to tell a story. If you decide to print the content on the cards themselves as flavor text, well, there's no guarantee any given player will see every card in the set, since some of them are rare and he needs to buy--what?--an average of sixty 15-card booster packs to have a chance of getting every rare in the set? If each booster is $3, you've just asked him to spend $180 on a story. Plus, there's not much space on a little piece of cardboard. Alternatively, put the story in a Novelization... but then don't expect too many people to read it.

This is where adaptations come in handy. If I give you a card for Eric del Scheir (OC, don't steal), you see a kid who looks like Justin Bieber in the card art, and you know a little bit about his personality (the squealing peasant girls in the background are another indication), but you don't necessarily know anything about his relationship to Lenoia del Scheir, or Corlan, or Grevon, or the peasant girls, or why a Teen Idol is in a game with mages and soldiers and priests, or why he has a claim for the throne. If I give you a card that says "Luke Skywalker" on it, though, you have knowledge about him that predates the arrival of the card, and you know what it means if you manage to get Obi-Wan in play alongside him, or what might happen if he has to fight against your opponent's Boba Fett card. Adaptations bring their story with them, and relieve the players (and creator) the burden of creating one.

Having said that, this design space is obviously ripe for mining. If you can come up with a way to incorporate story into gameplay--to construct a narrative using the cards themselves--you might seriously, seriously be on to something. One obvious solution is to set up combos somehow: Card X can only be played if conditions A, B and C were already fulfilled. To avoid cheating, perhaps Card X needs to be played at the beginning of the turn, which gives the opponent a chance to stop it. The point is, each card becomes a modular piece in a story and can be assembled at will. Another thing that Warhammer 40K and =[[[L 5 R]]=] both did was allow the results of tournaments or normal gameplay to determine the metaplot: one player running Imperial Guard would square off against another playing Chaos Marines, and the results would be sent back to Games Workshop, who tallied the results of thousands of games worldwide and eventually declared who had actually managed to keep Cadia at the end of the Thirteenth Black Crusade. And at one point a Shadowlands player came within a hair of taking the world L5R championship, which would have had very interesting implications for the game's future as the contents of upcoming expansions were of course going to be based on what happened right there at that table. This is not quite the same as building a story out of each individual match, but it's something to think on.

Another nice advantage about starting your own Intellectual Property is the ability to avoid CCG Importance Dissonance. Not only do you not have to create filler cards out of Extra Of The Week #13, you aren't bound to that model by the franchise's existing story. Most stories have these things called Main Characters who appear in almost every instalment of the series; these cards will be (are required by fans to be) the most powerful cards in the game. If you make the other faction(s) able to compete, those fans will complain that the game is Ruined FOREVER... even though the same thing results if you let the "good guys" be overpowered.

As previously mentioned, you'll want to balance the game very carefully. You want it to be easy enough to be accessible, but with enough depth to really suck people in. One of the simplest ways to do this is to make some of the rules only matter in certain situations. For instance, one of the rules of Magic is that if you ever have to draw a card from your deck, but can't (IE you're out of deck), you lose. Because it takes more than 50 turns to get to this point in the normal course of things, most beginning players can safely ignore this rule. Eventually, however, it'll crop up... and probably be so surprising ("Wait, I can lose to that? Let me get the instruction manual.") that they'll never forget it. And then try to design a strategy that allows them to "deck" their opponent in this way. Have as many rules as you want... but make as many of them optional as possible, so that the game can be played very easily using a bare minimum of rules.

An key to this situation is that many Magic cards actually break the game's rules. And Rule Zero of Magic is, "If a card ever says it can break the rules, the card is right." In other words, the cards carry their rules with them. To aid this, cards meant for beginners will often have reminder text on them, explaining how they break the rules and what that means. An additional key is the concept of rarity. If fancier, more powerful, more rule-breaking cards are all rare (or at least uncommon), then new players are less likely to see them and be confused by them.

If you are going to have Variable Player Goals, you absolutely must have that ever-elusive quality "depth" in the sense that each goal needs to give you the capacity to interfere with a player who is trying to win the game some other way. As an example, the four characters described above (Eric, Grevon, Lenoia, Corlan) are the main characters in a CCG this editor (slvstr Chung) was trying to create in which they compete to see which of them will succeed their father on the throne. Each character had their own power base--Grevon from the military, Corlan from wizards, Lenoia from the priesthood, and Eric from the smallfolk--and could leverage their influence to steal characters another sibling (IE player) had already deployed. In addition to trying to win a Popularity Victory (have supporters with Influence totaling X) or a Last-Man-Standing Victory (shame the opponents into withdrawing), there was also Loophole Abuse: getting popular doesn't make you king, plunking your arse on the throne does, and politics is simply a means to that end. If you can simply sneak into the throne room... This would be the "passive," defensive win condition, but it obviously leaves such a player vulnerable: they're busy assembling their Stealth-Based Mission and can have important supporters poached by the opposition. As such, the business of plotting an infiltration needs to give that player certain bonuses, which either help protect their most-important followers or weaken the enemy's support, making it easier for you or someone else to knock them out of the race. And that made life difficult for me, the designer. But no matter which goal The Player is pursuing, I knew s/he must have some ways of competing towards the other ones, if only to defend themselves.

(The real reason slvstrChung abandoned this idea was that he couldn't figure out how to prevent it from turning into a trading card game--packing up your deck, shaking your opponent's hand, and only ten minutes later realizing you've walked away with five cards that used to belong to him, and that he has three of yours. Even worse, he managed to convert that ultra-rare of yours, and can possibly foul-play his way into keeping it. Yeah, this is gonna work out well.)

Consider flavor. Flavor is important because it makes the game easier to understand. For instance, if I tell you that a spell called "Lightning Bolt" does three damage to whatever it hits, that makes perfect sense. Likewise, if I tell you that a monster with "Flying" can't be intercepted by creatures without it, you nod and go with it because of course a lion can't stop an eagle. Look for resonance. Use it to communicate concepts and make cards to understand. Be unabashedly Troperiffic.

Finally, be aware that Wizards of the Coast has issued a patent on the idea of turning a card ninety degrees to show that it has somehow been temporarily expended. A Cardgame of Thrones has gotten around this somehow, possibly because Fantasy Flight Games pays a royalty to Wizards; L 5 R uses "bowing" because Wizards used to publish that game. If you try to put a "tapping" mechanic in your game, Wizards can sue you, and they are a bit more likely to win than you are.

Potential Subversions[edit | hide]

We've talked about the "Living Card Game" idea, which takes the "random" out of Randomly Drops; the only other major subversion I can think of at this point is that your game doesn't have to be a "paper" game played in person. The Internet is a magical thing. A game that's programmed as an iPhone app might be really wonderful. Alternately, if you equip every card with a QR code, your players can maintain a paper- and digital card library simultaneously, though obviously this verges on Copy Protection and will irritate some players in that way. This could also build into the aforementioned "storytelling via sequence of card plays" by having global results affect, for example, what cards you can even play. "Players of [X] faction have won #### duels in the last two weeks, and as such cards with [Y] symbol on them are now legal for play." I dunno. But the Internet and smartphones are at your beck and call; consider how you might integrate them into your experience.

Most card games are not very funny. Why the heck not? SW:CCG in particular was written and designed with a clear eye towards humor, which players loved; though the real kicker is the card "Barber Pole" from ST:CCG, which said, literally, nothing but "Plays on table." As in, This is a permanent, put it on the table and leave it there. What does it do? No. Nobody used it, but the mere fact that it existed was a lot of fun.

Writers' Lounge[edit | hide]

Suggested Themes and Aesops[edit | hide]

Potential Motifs[edit | hide]

Suggested Plots[edit | hide]

Departments[edit | hide]

Set Designer / Location Scout[edit | hide]

Props Department[edit | hide]

Costume Designer[edit | hide]

Casting Director[edit | hide]

Stunt Department[edit | hide]

Extra Credit[edit | hide]

The Greats[edit | hide]

Well, really, Magic: The Gathering. The only game that ever got close in terms of gameplay was the Star Wars Customizable Card Game. Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! have their adherents, but they may not provide the gameplay inspiration you need.

The Epic Fails[edit | hide]

See anything at Trading Card Lame. If you can find them. There was a period in The Nineties where game studios were throwing cards at any franchise and seeing what stuck.

Directed Reading[edit | hide]

Mark Rosewater. He writes one of the most comprehensive design columns on the Internet; and, since he's one of the lead designers of Magic, much of his advice is tailored to this genre. You don't really need much else. In particular, his "Ten Things Every Game Needs" article is so on-point that we could have just copy-pasted it here. But that would be plagiarism. And That's Terrible.

And, as mentioned, play games. As many of them as possible. The more overview you have, the better, and the easier it is to steal from everybody instead of plagiarize from just one game. And remember, stealing from everybody is called "research."

  1. Yeah, yeah, Provinces; we're trying not to be too technical here
  2. This worked in a multiplayer setting because each player had a personal Fellowship they were trying to win with; if it wasn't your turn, you played as Sauron.