Thursday, 13 August 2015

Game Design: Cards

Recently I listened to a fascinating podcast on Ludology about cards, which was mainly about how cards had been used in various games. It got me thinking about how cards work, and what I've come up with is essentially that cards 'chunk' the game by wrapping various rules and values together, bundling them into decision sets. It's something we don't really get at all in the classic Dove-Hawk game that I like to roll out to play with various related concepts. I suppose you could say that the strategies of Dove and Hawk could be expanded to include a different type of value beyond the usual -1 or +2, say like if you play Dove then you not only give your opponent $2, but collect one food chit.

It shouldn't be surprising then that games involving cards often involve lots of rules, sometimes on a 1:1 basis where each card can have its own special rule that makes it unique in the game. Even games like Malifaux have this aspect to cards as aspects of the classic 52-card Poker deck are leveraged to trigger model, unit, or army special rules. After all, those cards are differentiated by suite as well as value.

Cards also bring an element of what my math-guru refers to as 'pseudo-randomness,' which came up in a conversation around the card expansion to Settlers of Catan. Usually Settlers of Catan uses 2D6 to determine which area(s) produce resources on a player's turn, or whether the Thief is moved and the play steals a card. The cards replaced the dice, but they did so in an interesting way, by adding a Year End card to the deck between the 31 and 32-36 cards, so that the distribution of cards matched the distribution of dice, but the variation in the cards was only one standard deviation - no shallow end of the bell curve where a player would roll 12 more than 1/36 rolls in a row, and frequently cards like the 12 and 2 would be draw less. They're random, but not too random...

In addition the cards contain spoilers rules for the player in the lead, which acted to counter-act the engine-builder effect in Settlers of Catan that gave a big production advantage to the player in the lead. So the cards both controlled the randomness involved in the distribution of resources in the game, and advantage of being in the lead. I think that it made the game closer, and therefore more interesting and exciting to play, particularly near the end where it's usually only the result of the other players colluding against the leading player that either prolongs the game, or even unseats them. Obviously the original design has checks and balances that can make every game a tight game, but it requires players to be will to use those checks and balances, whereas the cards implement checks and balances directly.

Of course, there's also the resource-aspect to card in that you can remove them from the deck in a more convenient way than dice, which is why I rather admire the design of Warhammer 40,000, 7th edition Tactical Objective cards, because although you can get by with dice and a table, the actual cards make using those rules considerably easier, and for me a lot more fun. The cards allow more manipulations, for example, where you can play with your opponent blind or partially blind to them as in Poker, or turn them sideways (never *tap* unless playing Magic: The Gathering) to indicate a change of state.

None of these properties are unique to cards, except that cards manage to bundle them all together in a relatively convenient and tactile format. They're probably worth thinking about even if one, as a game designer, has no intention of using cards as part of a finished product. Main, I think, because of the way they tie the rules together. Think of ways to tie rules and values together, and you've probably got the skeleton of a game.

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