Creating a card game is a lot easier now than it was in the past, with the ability to print flash cards online in a range of sizes and formats for limited runs, and far more intuitive and easy to use graphic design tools.
This allows for someone with a creative idea for a game to realise a prototype for a much lower cost than ever before, and because of this, there has been an explosion of independent games with a whole host of different game mechanics, styles of play and design elements.
However, quite a few of these games, even the most successful ones, face a few common game design problems that are often caused by one single golden rule codified by TCG pioneer Magic: The Gathering; a card’s text can override the rules of the game at any time.
Here are some of the most common design issues seen in card games and how to avoid them.
A Problem Of Balance
Trading card games often have a considerable number of cards in each set, some of which are going to be more powerful than each other, whether intentionally or as an unintentional result of different mechanics interacting.
Taken to its logical extreme, it creates an issue where there is only one possible deck to play that will handily defeat every single other deck regardless of the creativity or skill of the player.
This is known as the “tier zero” issue, named after common TCG parlance for cards so powerful they can improve any deck that uses them automatically, with Magic: The Gathering’s most famous card Black Lotus being one of the biggest examples of this.
Most games have some form of this, with some handling it better than others. Yu-Gi-Oh, one of the top three TCGs in the world, has struggled for over 20 years, since there are no game mechanics that can stop overpowered cards from being used, aside from a banned list which only gets bigger.
Other games have found ways around this dilemma, with mixed results; Magic: The Gathering and the Pokemon Trading Card Game have resource cards in the form of Mana and Energy respectively.
These cards are required to play certain cards and create a balanced approach where powerful cards can only be used if enough resource cards are equipped, tapped or otherwise exhausted.
As well as this, many games, including these two have attributes or elements which create a restriction on which cards can be played in a given deck, either through necessary resources, cards that support these cards or explicit rules, such as those used in Cardfight Vanguard.
Rare Should Not Be Better
A problem that is seen less in modern card game design but was a huge problem at one point is tying powerful cards to rarity.
There was a belief at one point that overly powerful cards would be less of a problem if they were rare, as the chances of getting them were so low and it could be seen as a reward for exceptionally lucky people.
This turned out not to be the case and in some games managed to price players out, as they could not afford to play the game because of certain exceptionally expensive cards.
This is less of an issue now, as in most cases (egregious examples such as Magic: The Gathering’s $400 five-card box set and special bonus box cards aside), most successful cards are more widely available, as what makes them powerful is how they interact with other cards.
The “Card As Resource” Dilemma
Related to the problem of balance, one common design issue seen in card games is the use of resource cards. Namely, should they never be used, as Yu-Gi-Oh pioneered, should they be separate cards like the Land cards in Magic the Gathering, or should they be an aspect of other cards?
One solution that was popularised by the defunct card game Duel Masters was the idea that any card could be used as an energy resource to pay for certain cards, meaning that no matter what situation, a card always had some form of use.
This stopped a problem often seen in Magic: The Gathering where players could lose because they ended up drawing too many or too few land cards at the wrong time, and has been used in varying forms in other games such as Dragon Ball Super, Cardfight Vanguard and Bakugan.
Depending on how the game is designed, there are benefits and disadvantages to each approach, when done right can create entertaining gameplay and avoid situations where luck of the draw stops one player from enjoying the game.
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