Thoughts on designing a Digital Card Game  

Posted by Unai in

Coding and designing the digital, enhanced version of Mathemagic has made me think about the process of designing card games overall. Mathemagic is a card game desgined by my classmate and friend Takashi for our Board Game assignment for Game Design Theory I. As an assignment for Game Design Theory II, Takashi, Shawn and me decided to port the game into digital. Mathmagic has cards with medieval-fantasy style characters capturing cards for their owners when played, by using arithmetic operations that depend on the positions of the cards.

When writing about designing card games, I cannot ignore the two other card games that I have designed. The first one is Universo Star Wars TCG, a non-official game I designed for playing on an Internet forum. It is heavily based on Magic: The Gathering, with some different mechanics which have characters, ships and troops from the Star Wars movies and expanded universe fighting each other. The second one is Terror, the game I myself designed in the same assignment that Takashi designed Mathemagic on. It has two or four players taking the roles of the insurgency and the armed forces in a conflict, trying to influence different segments of the population.

The following thoughts about designing a digital card game are, therefore, based on my experience with those three games.

Cards in "Terror"


* Plan in advance. Really. This is the most important advice I can give. Planning in advance is, obviously, useful needed in any programming project. But card games do really need a whole lot of planning. Don't start programming a digital card game without previously having clear what the rules are going to be, what cards there are going to be, what they are going to be able to do, how the board is going to look like, how the interface is going to look like. If you do not, coding the game is going to be a nightmare.

* Card possibilities. My biggest mistake when coding Mathemagic was to do it without taking into account the cards' particular rules. It was one of my first projects in Unity and I was learning while programing, so I just coded the base rules first, and each card after. The consequence was one of my dirtiest codes ever: I had to add each single specific card mechanic in the middle of code written without thinking on them, and the resulting code is not pretty at all. Fortunately, it didn't impede the game to work nicely, but if I have to change any code further, it's not going to be nice. So, take into account what cards are going to be able to do! Think in Magic: The Gathering's Golden Rule, which actually applies to any card game of the sort: if what a card says contradicts what the rules say, the card wins.

* Stop the artists! They will want you to code all kind of stuff and functions in the game that you just wouldn't be able to program in time. When my teammates wanted me to, say, change variables upon which all the math in the game depended, or have too complicated card mechanics, or suddenly changing the shape and size of cards, or any other sudden change for which there would be more time... One just has to know when to stop it. In order to do so, it's important to be able to explain the reasons why it wouldn't be possible in a way that a layman would understand it. Also, if reasoning won't work, just ask them for the impossible. Tell them to animate the cards, see how they react. However, artists also have brilliant minds, don't hesitate to ask them for ideas or opinions if needed, they might surprise you with approaches you wouldn't think of!

Super fun cards in Mathemagic


* Visibility. Card games are very slow when one or more of the players doesn't know how to play and has to look up the rules every now and then. That should pass quickly as they learn. But if the visibility of the cards isn't good enough, this will just not stop. So, first, cards have to be easily identifiable. This way, players won't have to read everything in the card if they have seen it in action before. In Mathemagic, Takashi's great drawings make it easy that once you learn what the Paladin, the Archer or the Dragon does, you'll remember it just looking at the card. And second, the elements of the cards have to be easily readable. For example, each card in Mathemagic has 9 different numbers, it has to be easy to read them!

* Colors. You have to be really careful with the colors. This is something I didn't really quite grasp before coming to the Game Design program. I mean, I knew that not any color fits with every other one, but I wouldn't worry too much about them. But they are very important and I learned more about them with Mathemagic. Certain elements of the cards would change color depending on which player is the owner. With the game being for 8 players, that means that the 8 colors have to be easily distinguishable, but also that they limit what other colors are going to be used in the rest of the card!

Stop the coders! We coders usually don't know too much about art, or at least not as much as the art guys do. So programmers will often make suggestions that won't make sense from an artists's point of view or there wouldn't be time enought to finish it in time. So, make sure that you are able to estimate how long would something take you, and be prepared to explain to coders why their proposal wouldn't make sense. Programmers also sometimes have the strangest ideas and you wouldn't be prepared... Just make sure that they talk to you and that you know of every art-related decision that they make while coding the game.

A typical "Universo Star Wars TCG" game


* Short-time fun, long-time fun. As with any other game, card games have to be designed so that they are fun while learning and fun as an expert. Card games have a variety of cards that help make each game unique, with players forced to use different tactics... But they also have several setbacks. For example, new players can find themselves with too complicated cards, so even the most advanced cards should have an easy way of using them. Cards that require very specific situations or cards to be in play are usually a bane and are usually better to avoid, especially in games with not a lot of cards available for the players. On the other hand, try to design cards so that players can discover new strategies further on. Have certain cards acquire more usefulness as players get more used to the advanced detailes on the rules. If you are to include card expansions from time to time, design some cards to have a greater effect once further cards or rules are released, and also design some of the new cards to counter some of the previous ones, the most powerful or used ones.

* Agency vs Randomness. This is one of the main things I learned with Terror. I wanted the players to feel that sometimes the conflict would overcome their desires and that their factions wouldn't let them much choice to act, so every time they would draw two cards, use one and discard them. The randomness effect was, thus, effective, but our professor, Adam, pointed out that the players were lacking the agency to make long-term plans. The way I solved that was: the first turn, players draw an additional card, and then they use one, discard one, and keep one. The resulting balance between randomness, agency and long-term planning was very nice.

Break the rules! This is my way of designing new cards. Step 1: Create the obvious cards. The simple ones, the ones that obey the rules and are evident, simple, easy. Step 2: Create cards that break the rules. Go through each of the rules and think of fun ways to break them. Step 3: Create cards that counter the previous cards. Step 4: Create cards to counter the counter cards. Iterate.

* Unexpected combos. The possible cards combinations are exponentially high and almost unlimited combos will eventually be possible the bigger your game is. Many of them will be controlled, planned on designed and with rules addressing them. But, take my words, many others will appear most unexpectedly. Be prepared for them! In Unvierso Star Wars TCG, players come to me every single week with new questions. It gets daunting. Write down everything you can in the instructions, while keeping them simple, of course. But don't despair and just help your players as much as you can.

This entry was posted on martes, abril 08, 2014 at 20:14 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

4 comentarios

A very good thought about the game designing!

17 de junio de 2014, 9:50

Digital games are very interesting!!

23 de febrero de 2015, 7:48

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