Monday, April 12, 2021

Don't Make Me Think

Part of being a good game designer involves knowing when to do things your players don't like. Sometimes this is because your responsibility is to give players enough challenges that they have fun while suffering at the same time; sometimes this is because you genuinely know better than your players in how to give them a fun time. There are many cases where you can't give players what they say they want because it will make the game worse for them in practice: In this article, I argue that although people say they want more control and decision points in Magic, Magic's lack of them compared to other trading card games is what has made the game both highly accessible and long-lasting.

Game design, at its core, is about forcing your players to make entertaining decisions. It then stands to reason that you should maximize the number of times the players make these decisions per game to make it better. It is true that a game without enough decisions to make is boring, but a game with too many decisions has a different problem – it becomes exhausting for everyone except the fraction of players willing to put in significant mental effort to play it as intended.

A well-designed game should have natural peaks and valleys of mental effort. For many games, that valley is during the other players' turns, where you don't really have any ability to affect what they're doing. You can either think ahead to what you're going to do on your turn or just relax and recuperate from any heavy mental processing you had done previously. As a simple example, the game Cockroach Poker is played among a group of at least three people, but only two actively participate at a time (one bluffs and the other guesses). The other players' actions are relevant enough that you're incentivized to pay attention, but you don't need to engage the higher levels of your brain until someone passes a card to you.

Magic doesn't have cleanly delineated turns, as even ignoring instants and instant-speed effects, the ability of the defending player to assign blockers means that you'll always have some level of autonomy on every turn of a (2-player) Magic game. This has been a huge boon for the game, but it comes with the added risk of being "always on" for so long it becomes a mental burden to play. If you have 10 decisions to make on each turn, and each one has a chance of sinking your chances of victory, you'll subconsciously steer away from Magic unless you're in a very intellectual mood. There have to be chances to take simple or obvious actions to let your brain rest a bit. What follows is the two most important opportunities to take these rests.

Example 1: Resource Management

Many battle card games/"dude smasher" games, particularly ones designed to be Magic killers, make the mistake of making their systems require additional choices and have less downtime than Magic. On its face, this is good. Who hasn't played a video game and complained about interminable cutscenes, or sat out angrily after they got eliminated in a game of Mafia on the first night? But these changes unintentionally raise the bar of mental effort required to play the game and make it less likely that the game will appeal to a broad audience.

The most common error, and one that's obvious because it affects every turn of every game, has to do with the game's resource system. The mana system in Magic produces a lot of non-games, but it's also fairly simple. If you have a hand with two Plains and two Islands, your decision about what to play is going to be mostly rote unless you have a lot of cards with WW and UU hiding in your library. Once you've figured out a sequence, you can merrily play your lands without thinking about it on subsequent turns. You can break up decisions in game into decisions that have a consistent answer, decisions that have an optimal choice but essentially don't contribute to victory, and decisions that change depending on the game state; "which land do I play?" is almost always the first or second.

Competing games have zeroed in on how the mana system produces mana screw, but many of the proposed solutions involve making a complex choice every single turn. Duel Masters (and The Spoils) allows you to play any card from your hand as a resource; the Final Fantasy trading card game has both traditional "once-per-turn" mana sources and the ability to discard cards for one-shot mana boosts; Future Card Buddyfight makes you rummage every single turn, transforming the discarded card into a "mana source" of sorts. 

With all of these games, an act that would normally combine time off from making a strategic decision with the satisfaction of access to increased abilities turns into busywork. At worst, these once-a-turn decisions make you lose the game; at best, you don't feel any sense of accomplishment because you chose something to get rid of, not something to play or activate. And since you're making these unsatisfying choices every single turn, you can quickly get tired of playing the game. 

It's unsurprising that Magic's biggest battle card game competition, Hearthstone, has an even simpler method of resource management than Magic does: You simply get one additional mana at the start of your turn. While having a predictable curve has its own issues and benefits some strategies more than others, this allows you to concentrate on the more important and exciting decisions available elsewhere in the game.

Example 2: Card Draw and Perfect Information

Many standalone board games that involve drawing cards, rolling dice, or other random components that inform how the game is played have you drawing/rolling/etc. at the end of your turn. This ensures that you have plenty of time to think about your next move before it comes back around for you to go, speeding the game up. This is an excellent decision for games with static turns where none of the other players can do anything; Dominion and Sentinels of the Multiverse both employ it very effectively.

However, in battle card games, drawing at the end of your turn means that you now have perfect information about what you can do on your next turn while still having to deal with whatever your opponent is doing on their turn. This is a problem because having perfect information means that you are now strategically obligated to sort out what you're going to do with it as soon as possible, almost at a subconscious level. If you knew exactly what your options were for your upcoming turn and had to deal with whatever your opponent was casting or attacking you with, you would quickly become tired of getting pulled multiple ways all the time.

By not letting you see your card until the start of your turn and therefore depriving you of knowing 100% what you're going to do, Magic gives you the ability to live in the moment, only having to worry about what's happening right now.  It also has the bonus effect of making your start-of-turn more exciting, allowing you to pray for a miracle in a tough spot instead of knowing that you're out of options on your next turn.


Including places to take mental breaks in a battle card game might make the game slightly weaker in a strategic sense, but it also opens it up to a broader audience. But that asks the question: Is it important that a game have a broad audience? There are many genres, like 18XX games or miniatures wargames, that are so punishingly intricate that they mostly foster a tight-knit community of gamers who may only play that one genre. And just because these games may have a lower financial ceiling doesn't mean they aren't valid from a game design sense.

There is, however, one consideration that overrules all these others: The fact that battle card games are extremely reliant on both organized play and a critical mass of players.

If I buy a standalone board game, it's easy for me to play it a lot by bringing it to game nights or playing it with my parents. Only one person in my group really needs to make a time and money investment for everyone to have a good time. However, with a battle card game, each player needs to have a deck to play and a relatively even skill level, which means each person in the group playing this game needs to be equally invested for everyone to have fun. The higher the floor to entry for this kind of game, the less likely it is that enough people in the group will stick with it for the long term for the mental burden to be worth it.

Lowering the barrier to entry in a trading card game isn't a concession – it's a necessity. The only way for you to maintain your game for any amount of time is to make sure that the number of active players outpaces the churn from people quitting for whatever reason, and making sure that your game is something that everyone can access and feel comfortable playing is the only way to consistently do so.

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