CCG Design Lessons & Thoughts

Greetings Methuselahs,

So last week, I mentioned that I was getting increasingly interested in CCG design theory, and I posted a number of articles and podcasts that I had found on the subject.  Well I’ve now had a chance to read or listen to many of them (I’ve spent a lot of time in airports and on planes recently…), and I had some semi-random thoughts about VTES as I listen to them that I’d like to share.  I’m not sure that any of these are broad or developed enough for a full article by themselves, but I did want to briefly discuss each of them.  Get ready for some bumpy transitions!

 

What’s special about VTES?

When listening to all these designers talk about their own games, I was thinking about what factors make VTES unique.  What makes it stand out from all the other games?  The list is pretty lengthy, but if you look at fundamental game concepts rather than minutia, I think the list shrinks dramatically.  My own list includes five core differences that seem to have been designed into the game.  But while I was making my list, I also spent some time thinking about how each of these concepts were doing in the current game, and if they could use an update.  Why did I do this?  It’s certainly not because I hate VTES.  I really don’t hate or even dislike the game, despite what some have suggested on the forums.  Instead, it’s because my mind is always toying with things that I like and trying to see how I can improve them.  This quest for improvement is part of my profession and has always been part of my personal life, so it’s no great surprise to see it seeping over into my hobbies.  I keep trying to write an article about this concept, but I find I have trouble describing it.  Anyway, please take these meandering thoughts as a show of love for the game, rather than an attempt to tear it apart.

#1: Multiplayer.  Likely the first and most obvious difference is that VTES is a multiplayer game, and it’s brilliant predator and prey mechanic prevents the game devolving into a free-for-all.  It also sets up a unique social environment of shifting alliances.  I think this was all very well designed, and don’t really have much to add or comment on.  I would like to find a way to allow all players to play until the game actual ends, but removing ousting from VTES would require a total rebuild from the ground up.  ICLee recently posted an interested idea he had during a conversation between the two of us about this topic (the idea is buried in the post, so just keep looking!).  Check it out if you’re interested!

#2: Multi-faceted minion-minion interaction.  This kind of goes with the above point.  Just as the interaction of players is very complex in VTES, the interaction of minions is equally complex.  In Magic, the basic form of interaction between creatures is simply the choice of who attacks and who blocks.  Damage is done simultaneously in an extremely predictable manner.  The real complexity in creature interactions in Magic comes from specific abilities on different creatures and specific spells held in hand.  But even these pale in comparison to the most basic forms of interaction between minions in VTES.  Every action results in a stealth vs intercept war to determine success or failure, and combat is effectively a mini-game that has a lot of strategic depth and dramatically increases the interactivity of the game.  Voting is the third significant form of minion interaction.  Once a political action is successful, the resulting referendum is a highly interactive process and it involves players who are not directly involved in the action.  I have two very minor comments here – first, its unclear to me if each aspect of these forms of interactivity is pulling their weight in the sense that they are adding as much value to the game as they are adding complexity.  The second is the interaction sparked by referendums feels like it’s been lessened over time – players just don’t have titled vampires in their decks like they used to.  Some of that is likely to be due to the presence of so many good untitled mid-cap vampires that you don’t need to grab titles in order to get quality vampires.  But design is also to blame for some of this – if you were playing an Independent clan, you would really have to go out of your way to find yourself a titled vampire!  Anyway, I’d like to see more situations where several players have a few votes even if they aren’t playing a political deck.  I think it would really improve the political experience in the game.   Again, minor point.

#3: Collapsing Economy.  Magic is a game about building resources up until you can cast your big spells.  VTES flips this dynamic on it’s head: you have all your resources at the beginning of the game, and these are spent over time, meaning that each players’ pool is slowly collapsing, leading to an inevitable endgame where people just can’t hold on any more.  This has a lot of appeal to me as it makes the game more about resource management than just casting the biggest spell in your hand each turn.  But does the game really work this way anymore (or ever)?  I confess to being one of those problem players who likes to play with bloat, and I like it when I can manage to get over 30 pool with a bunch of vampires out.  It’s an awesome feeling, but is that situation really in keeping with the idea of a collapsing economy?  I’d say no.  If VTES is really a game about starting at 100% and going down from there, it simply has way too many methods to regain resources (blood and/or pool).  Blood gain appears to have been designed to be relatively difficult (hunt for 1, Restoration for 2/3), but there are open-ended cards that allow for ridiculous amounts of blood gain (Voter Captivation being one of the worst offenders).  If you have any doubts about how bad it is for the game if you can rapidly refill on blood, look no further than Fifth Tradition: Hospitality, which received an errata to help balance the game.  The problem isn’t just limited to blood gain – there are cards like Consanguineous Boon and Political Stranglehold that are open ended pool gain cards with no limit.  So assuming that we want to create a collapsing economy, what’s the solution?  Well, first, I’d significantly limit or remove cards that have open ended ability to gain counters (blood or pool).  Second, I’d consider additional ways to force people burn counters in order to help the economy collapse faster.  Maybe each vampire burns 1 blood during the uptap phase (and hunts gain 2 blood?).  I’d also consider loosening restrictions on the number of resources you can spend in a turn (perhaps increase the number of transfers, or you can transfer as much as you want but only to or from a single vampire?).

#4: Card Draw.  A fundamental aspect to CCGs is card draw or card advantage.  After all these years, VTES remains unique in completely getting rid of this concept.  I think it’s an amazing idea and I’m frankly shocked that no other game (that I’m aware of) has picked it up.  It does require some awkwardness about when you can and cannot play cards, but I think these rules are relatively intuitive (although exceptions exist – you can play cards that remove intercept in situations you can’t gain stealth).  It also introduces a new and really cool skill to the game: knowing when to discard or play a card just ot get it out of your hand.  Most CCGs don’t punish you for holding onto your super specific card until the time is right to use it, but VTES does.  And this brings me to my problem with the system – if card flow is such a fundamental part of the game, why aren’t the cards designed to flow better?  Cards like The Deadliest Sin aren’t played not because they aren’t useful, but because they are so hard to get them out of your hand.  And here is where a little lesson from Magic might be useful.  Magic features a mechanic called Cycling, which allows you to pay mana to discard the card (sometimes with a minor effect) in order to draw a new card.  Why couldn’t this be put into VTES?  Imagine if The Deadliest Sin included the clause “Alternatively, this vampire may pay 1 blood to burn this card.”  Suddenly it might possibly get included in people’s decks.  Another example of this could be to print a very specific card that has some effect with a superior discipline, but the inferior effect is simply “Pay 1 blood to burn this card.”  I think that very specific cards should either be designed with some secondary effect (Swallowed by the Night and Deny are great examples of providing flexibility to cards), or should simply be given a burn-from-hand clause.  Something to think about at least.

#5: The player does very little.  By which I mean that the entity that the player represents does very little.  In Magic, the player represents a planeswalker (I think…) who is actually summoning all your monsters and is directly casting all your spells.  When you take damage, it is you personally who are being attacked by your opponent’s monsters or spells.  But none of that is true in VTES.  We play as a Methuselah who rules everything from behind the scenes – it would be unseemly for us to get our hands dirty, so our will is carried out by younger vampires who might not even know that they are being manipulated.  We aren’t being directly attacked when we are being bleed, but rather our network of agents and influence is being eroded until we are left alone and powerless at the moment of getting ousted.  Thematically, the Methuselah does almost nothing in the game.  Except for Master Cards.  Now part of me questions whether these cards even need to exist – are the Methuselahs really walking down the street to purchase an Asylum for use as a hunting ground?  Are we really taking a young vampire into the city so that they can get some fresh blood?  I’d say the answer to both of these questions is no, and if that’s the case, couldn’t Master cards be largely replaced by actions?

 

Where’s the Masquerade?

Well, this is more of a thematic concern than a design one, but this game is based on a universe almost entirely dedicated to preserving the Masquerade.  There is a reason that the RPG is called Vampire: the Masquerade, and why it is the first and most important rule of the Camarilla.  Hell, even the other sects at least tacitly accept and follow it!  It is a central driver of story in the RPG, yet the concept is almost entirely absent from the card game.  It makes a small appearance in cards like First Tradition: Masquerade, Fame, Screw the Masquerade, and Antedelluvian Awakening which require you to burn pool in order to cover up masquerade breaches.   A central theme of the game is boiled down into a tiny handful of cards.  Most games of VTES happen with no thought to the Masquerade.  As somebody who entered the CCG through the role playing game, this is baffling to me.  So how do you make it more central to the game?  I’m honestly not sure, but I think it would be neat if certain cards and actions caused players to accumulate Masquerade Violation tokens.  Maybe whoever has the most at the end of the game gets -1VP, and whoever has the least gets +1VP.

 

Random Card Idea:

As I was thinking about a collapsing economy and the fact that we want counters to be removed from the game, my mind drifted back to how to effectively defend your pool in the game.  Bleed bounce is so good because it doesn’t prevent counters from being removed from the table.  It’s also a potent way to turn defense into offense, and it should (as I’ve argued before) be an ability open to all or at least more clans.  But given how few people liked the suggestion of a disciplineless bleed bounce card (disciplineless wakes are ok even though they thematically go with Fortitude and Thaumaturgy, but disciplineless bleed bounce is bad because Richard Garfield gave that ability to Auspex and Dominate… yeah… ok), I thought about a different idea that would still result in the removal of counters from the table, but which might provide a potent way for your minions to defend your pool:

Blood Bound [Reaction]
May be used by a tapped vampire.
Burn X blood to reduce a bleed by X.  The controller of the bleeding minion gains the edge at the end of the action.  Only one Blood Bound can be played each action.

Ok, the name isn’t my favorite thing about it, but it would allow you to pay for a bleed by paying blood rather than pool.  The card itself doesn’t cost blood to prevent shenanigans with Ankara Citadel or other cost-reducing cards, and the bleed is still considered successful (the edge is still awarded).  If this seems too powerful, it’s easy to tweak it to lessen it’s power.  You could remove it’s ability to be played by a tapped vampire, or you could put a limit on X (half capacity?).  But remember that the real limit to this card is the amount of blood your vampires actually have, meaning that combat or blood denial strategies would be powerful counters to this card.  It actually reminds me a little of another attempt at creating a unique bleed defense card which was designed by the PCK team in their fan set Guardians of the Faith:

Borrowed Time [Reaction]
Requires a Sabbat Vampire.
Put this card into play with X counters, where X is not greater than this vampire’s capacity, and reduce a bleed against you by X.  During your untap phase burn 1 counter from this card and 1 pool.  Burn this card if it has no counters.

This card might prove problematic because there are no limits to the number of them you can have in play at a time, but it’s another example of a clever attempt to provide defense to currently defenseless clans.

 

CCG Distribution Model:

It was amazing to me just how many people were saying that the CCG market is dead.  They all acknowledge that new CCGs get released each year, but they suggest that the vast majority of these will die within a year of their release.  These designers who were previously heavily involved with CCGs have all moved on to LCGs, deck builders, or other boardgames.  This leaves VTES in a precarious position since it appears that the majority of our community wants to keep the CCG distribution model as a core element of the game.  This becomes even more awkward when we consider that potential new players appear to be largely against the CCG model.  How can I say that?  Well, forum posts by former players or those interested in VTES overwhelmingly suggest that the CCG model is a significant factor in their decision to leave the game or not to pick it up.  When I demo VTES at local gaming conventions, I desperately try to avoid the term “CCG” when describing the game because of the negative reaction it evokes.  For some, no amount of explanation (nearly all staple cards are common, VTES can be quite cheap to acquire, etc) is sufficient to overcome their initial negative reaction.  I don’t really have a solution to this apparent divide, but I hate to see players walk away when they find out I’m offering them a CCG.

 


Ok, I think that’s the end of my random thoughts.  Did anything strike your fancy?  Are any of these ideas worth following up on?  Have any random CCG design thoughts of your own to share?  Post any and all comments below – I’d love to hear from you.  Next time I’ll step back from design and return to the realm of cards that we already have.

Until then, may your bleeds never be bounced, and all your votes pass,

Brett

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4 thoughts on “CCG Design Lessons & Thoughts

  1. Here are my thoughts and feelings about it:
    1. Multiplayer – love the concept and a way it’s built although player elimination is a big problem in a game which can last for 2 hours. What is this idea you wrote about it? Didn’t find it in an article.
    2. Multi-faceted minion-minion interaction – great. I just feel that combat could be made much easier.
    3. Collapsing economy – great again. Bloating decks works against it but I didn’t find it very problematic. Maybe some cards could be powered down a little but that’s not a big thing.
    4. Card draw – very well designed. Combo cards is mechanic to make cards flow better. No need for more mechanics.
    5. The player does very little – agree that master phase could be skipped at all.
    6. Masquerade – one of the concepts implemented very strongly in the game is Diablerie and Blood Hunt. It would be interesting to see some more related stuff to make it more like World of Darkness but that’s not that important to me like other things. I strongly prefer good mechanics vs. RPG references.
    7. Random card ideas – don’t like those “cards for everyone” concepts. I feel it make a game less unique. IMO game effects should be strongly correlleted with disciplines and/or clans.
    8. CCG model – I’m surprised that you wrote that vtes community feels that CCG model is vital for the game. First of all, the last expansion that was distributed like this was released 7 years ago. Second, from my discussions with friends results, that, if ever vtes would come back into print, LCG model would be more natural and welcome than ccg. But maybe you were just talking with people that see this differently.

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  2. Thanks for your thoughts! It’s also good to hear that you and your friends support the possibility of an LCG model. I think it’s where the industry is going, and launching a CCG these days just doesn’t seem like a wise idea. Anyway, I’m basing my statement that the current VTES playerbase largely favors the CCG model based on comments made in the forums, and polls like this one conducted by Extrala: http://extrala.blogspot.com/2010/08/poll-results-vtes-as-living-card-game.html as well as this one conducted by VEKN: http://vekn.net/2-uncategorised/323-2nd-survey-about-the-future-of-v-tes (I can’t seem to access the results of this second one, so I’m going off my memory of when I last saw results… now if only I could find that results link again…).

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  3. No card limits. Other games I haven’t played seem to have this, like Inuyasha. Magic didn’t have this originally. V:TES depends heavily on it, with limitations on card play being by card type largely.

    Just rebooting V:TES with, say, 4CL would be a very different game for lots of decks. Animalism builds would have to change massively where, as people always say, Dom + Obf barely feels any different at all.

    In general, V:TES has similarities to games like Magic in that an actor acts against the opponent and can be blocked in terms of what players do but has heavy multipart factionalism. It doesn’t have locations or plot goals or the like. I don’t think much about how unlike other multiplayer CCGs I play it is, but it’s really the predator-prey dynamic and how the actors play cards that make it distinct from just playing multiplayer Magic (or a closer variant of attack left Magic). B5 had plot goals through conflicts, Mythos had stories you were trying to complete. Shadowfist, Blood Wars (in its way), and others have locations for actors to fight over.

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    • I remember reading somewhere that Magic didn’t have card limits at first either. That they were only instituted when the first tournament rules were written. But I can’t actually substantiate that (stupid internet!). Certainly the Alpha rulebook (found here: http://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/original-magic-rulebook-2004-12-25) has no mention of deck construction rules, but I’m not sure what to make of that.

      More to the point, while I agree that VTES as it currently stands should not have card limits (for all the reasons that you mention), I’m not convinced that it’s good design. Certainly competitive Magic players would faint in joy if they were told that their card limits were lifted, but I predict that such a move would seriously damage Magic’s playerbase. That having been said, there seems to be more ultra-powerful combo potential between Magic cards than between VTES cards, so maybe it’s not a problem. Point is, if I were designing my own card game (in some crazy alternative universe where I’m a game designer), I’m not sure if I include the no-card-limit feature after seeing VTES.

      I am very interested in your perspective on other CCGs, particularly other multiplayer CCGs. My impression is that games like Shadowfist, Spellfire, and others have a free-for-all mechanic where you can either gang up on the leader or attack the weakest player for easy points. The newest incarnation of Game of Thrones tries to avoid this by giving players roles that give them allies and enemies, but these role cards change each round, and while you are incentivized to attack the “enemies” listed on your role card, there is nothing stopping you from attacking whoever you want (except that you can’t attack your ally). Do you think those games have the same sort of multiplayer experience as VTES? Thanks again for your comments!

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