This is the first in a series of articles where I evalute various aspects of Collectible Card Games. I have dabbled in many CCGs. In some cases, I buy nothing but starters or pre-constructed decks (including Magic). In others, I have bought boosters, typically one box of boosters per expansion (i.e., I do not have even one of every rare). In each article, I will look at a handful of CCGs to illuminate examples of both good and bad experiences. I will have a strong tendency to refer to CCGs that I have played the most. I will also limit my discussion to 2-player games.
Most CCGs involve building up “armies” and attacking your opponent. In my experience, attacking is never mandatory, and doing so can leave you vulnerable to a counter-attack. Aggressive players tend to attack more often and have faster games, whereas passive players are content to sit back and build up further. The design balance is tricky; if the game inherently rewards the attacker, then an early disadvantage in deployment will be hard to overcome, but if the defender has the edge, then the game can end up in a virtual stalemate. I see the latter case too often. Last week, a friend and I were playing Spycraft CCG, and the two face-up missions at the head of the queue were so punishing to the attacker that we had to spend the whole game taking actions to peek at the face-down missions, making an already lengthy game longer.
In other types of 2-player games, there is usually a countdown mechanism. Wargames typically employ “turns” and “objectives”; in one of the players doesn’t achieve so-and-so by the end of the game, the other player wins. Knizia’s excellent 2-player CCG-like card games (e.g., Battle Line, Scarab Lords, and Blue Moon) all have forced card draws, with a depleted deck triggering game end. Perhaps the most elegant solutions are found in abstract games. I particularly admire Kris Burm’s Zertz and Dvonn, where respectively the actual game board and pieces themselves dwindle down one discrete step at a time, marching the game towards an inevitable conclusion. I think what distinguishes CCGs from these other games is that there is hidden information, and you often have no solid idea about what your opponent holds; initiating combat requires guts and, at times, a brief absence of rationality.
7th Sea: 7th Sea is somewhat unique in that players build up first and can only attack when their ships are in the same sea. After the first engagement - especially if it involves a boarding - one player usually has a significant advantage and can end the game quickly. Since this first engagement is so critical, you want to maximize your odds going into it. If you think that your future situation will improve relative to your opponent’s, you try to avoid engagement and build up further. If you think that your situation will likely get worse, you try to strike as soon as possible, even if your odds of winning are less than 50% now. If both players are convinced that their odds will improve, then both will try to avoid combat, and the game can come to a standstill. Literally, there is nothing stopping both players from sitting one sea apart, continually reshuffling their decks. In practice, one player will eventually attack just to get the game over with.
I do not know of an easy fix to 7th Sea. The Duel concept introduced in later sets, which allows players to initiate 1-on-1 swordfights, helped somewhat, as it forces you to use your uber-characters before they get targeted.
A Game of Thrones CCG: The goal in AGoT is to accumulate 15 power. The most common ways for power to enter the game are by players winning unopposed challenges, and by having characters with the renown trait win challenges. Both require players to initiate challenges. The design addresses this by first giving you ways of getting around defenders (e.g., the stealth trait; effects that remove characters from challenges; plots that don’t allow players to defend in certain challenges), and then gives further incentive by providing powerful event cards triggered by winning challenges. The latest block rotation reduces this latter effect somewhat, but also helps to discourage defenders by introducing the deadly trait (if there are more deadly attackers than deadly defenders in a challenge, then the defending player must kill an attacking character); this will lead to more unopposed challenges.
The countdown mechanism comes in the Domination phase, which usually grants 1 power to 1 player per turn. Stark decks are notoriously defensive (e.g., the new Attachment which gives a character +10 strength (!) on defense); if two Stark characters face off, Domination ensures that the game will end eventually. In most cases, the game is so brutal that players will get temporary advantages and make quick runs, gaining lots of power from the aforementioned methods.
Magic: the Gathering: While Magic does force end-of-game when one player runs out of cards in his draw pile, given the low card draw, it would usually take too long to get too that point. Fortunately, games are typically over well before then. As with A Game of Thrones, Magic gives the players ways to get around defenders (e.g., the flying and landwalk traits); there is also the trample trait that lets damage get through even if the attacker is blocked. Also, because hand sizes are usually small in the middle of a Magic game, and very few cards can impact a combat in progress, players can rely on visible information to know whether an attack makes sense.
Just like A Game of Thrones can be brutal with two Stark decks, so should you be careful when pitting two White decks against each other; the latest set (Saviors of Kamigawa) has two theme decks - the green white Truth Seekers and the blue/white Soratami’s Wisdom - that are all but guaranteed to be epic slugfests.
Warlord – In most CCGs, using a character for offense means that it cannot be used for defense, which can lead to tentativeness. In Warlord, there is no real concept of defending, so there is no reason not to take a shot at your opponent whenever possible. This makes Warlord a very fast game of attrition.
Netrunner – The Corporation loses when his drawpile runs out, but not the Runner! So, the Corporation has incentive to win the game before decking out, and Agendas eventually make it to the table to be fought over. If the Corporation acts too slowly, the Runner can take free shots at his hand and draw pile in hopes of randomly drawing an Agenda. There may be a drawback in that the speed of a match is largely dictated by how many Agenda points built into the Corporation deck - if there is a large proportion of Ice, it seems the Corporation can first heavily protect his hand and drawpile, then try to score agendas - but I don’t have enough experience to know whether this happens in practice; like many, I solely play with the two-player starter decks, which have enough agendas in them to move the game along at a nice pace.