Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Analyzing Tactical Assault's Combat Cards

It's not surprising that, of the few actual people that look at this blog, most of them appear to be doing so in order to learn more about Tactical Assault's Combat Cards. There is even, I have noticed, a site linking to the articles I have written about games of Combat Cards. I have only written two or three articles directly about Combat Cards, and have otherwise cited the game in my series on attempting to develop an Adeptus Titanicus-style of game. This article, however, is about my attempt to figure out how Combat Cards works, and only tangentially about adapting it to Adeptus Titanicus.

Firstly, why would I want to adapt Combat Cards from a generic card-driven war game involving multiple units to a less generic card-driven war game involving single units? My motivation for doing so essentially boils down to how the cards work. I like how the cards can be used in five different ways, to: drive action, exploit situations, and determining scatter, combat results, and deployment.

That said, I am not really sold on the specific implementation of the Combat Cards basic set. While I like the notion of players trading off scarce actions/situations/etc, and the way that the game incentivizes players to take diverse armies in order to leverage all of the actions and situations available in the deck, I dislike how the game has dead zones. By 'dead zones', I mean areas of the board, or periods of time, when nothing happens in the game because the player lacks the right cards to do anything at that point in the game.

Essentially, play can be limited to discarding cards in the hope that the right situations will turn up to execute that game-changing Aerial Ground Attack, or Available Artillery High Explosive, at least let you use Opportunity Fire during your opponent's turn, or even useful cards for your own next turn. Letting units on the board sit and do nothing is something of a null result in a card-driven game, where the cards fail to drive any action on the board, or change the game-state.

That null result is a hazard of making actions a scarce commodity in any game, that there may not be any actions available for players to spend. And it does not always happen. I suspect that, as in Chess, players eventually learn find ways around the null result of shuffling through hands of cards without anything changing on the board. But I suspect that it is also a result of the specific distribution of actions/situations/etc across the 72 card decks.

So I have gone ahead and counted up the distribution of elements over the basic deck of Combat Cards, and what I have found does not seem to have regular patterns like one would find in a deck of Poker or Uno cards. Anyone who wants to know these numbers can buy their own pack and count their own, unless Dan Hobot and Tactical Assault both chime in that they are fine with the mechanics of their game being discussed openly. Game mechanics cannot be copy-righted, although their representation can be, which is why Games Workshop, makers of Warhammer Fantasy Battle amongst other games, does not produce rulebooks written to a technical standard; to do so would be nigh impossible to protect in court without the addition of 'flavour-text'. Combat Cards specifically lacks such copy-right-able text, but given the paranoia of game designers about the mechanics of their games, I am inclined to respect privacy even without the coercion of a non-disclosure agreement.

Not that I am worried about anyone taking one of my designs and using it to make themselves a million dollars, because they could have come up with it independently, and being able to make money off of a game mechanic is selling a product for its features, not its benefits. That said, I feel perfectly entitled to buy other people's products and borrow the bits I like and understand, while leaving the other bits. One might call it inspiration. But in the case of Combat Cards, I do not fully understand the design, given that the design is shapeless in its content, if not in its structure.

What that means is that while I like the notion of the cards driving the action on the board, and the board giving situational value to elements on the cards, I do not like how that actually works out in the game. It should work well, and before I judge that the structure of the game does not work, for a certain rarefied value of 'work', I want to see if it is just the content of the card deck.

If the problem is with the content, then I want to know whether it is a problem with the specific content, or simply with its distribution over 72 cards. If the problem is with the specific content, then the content can be changed when I adapt the structure to Adeptus Titanicus. If the problem is with the distribution over 72 cards, then I can change the distribution. Specifically, I want to learn whether the content and structure (or distribution) needs to be constant (and is wrong somehow), or whether it can be adapted to be variable. Where the content or structure of the cards is variable, then the door opens to allowing players to build their own decks.

Ideally I see Adeptus Titanicus as driven by cards, allowing players to get something more out of a dueling game than pure board-states and randomization through dice might achieve. I also want players to be able to build pre-established strategies, to customize not only their Titans and the terrain in which they fight, but the way in which they are able to fight, and to be able to make games fair.

Practically, I see Combat Cards as providing an example of cards successfully driving a game, and being a model that I can use for insight into card-driven war gaming. There are plenty of other games out there using cards to drive action, like the venerable Battle Masters, and the more recent Malifaux. However, these games' cards only use two elements to drive action, and use less of the concurrent scaling that Combat Cards uses. By 'scaling' I mean that Combat Cards only rarely uses constant values, and constantly uses relative values. The constants are the number of cards themselves, the number on the cards themselves (corresponding to the number of cards...), and the content.   

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