Lay your cards on the table: Designing a collectible CCG

This is all Wizard’s fault. Not that they shouldn’t be proud that they created the whole CCG section of this industry, and the fact that they’ve pretty much inspired everyone to design their own CCG. I just want to make sure we’re all reading the same card text. It’s safe to say that 99% of the people who deal with games, players and designers, have played Magic: The Gathering at least once. Hell, I’m always surprised by all the non-gamer types who have played that game. It’s a communal gathering point for all of us as a whole. Want to get a bunch of geeks together, just say “I tap that land for some mana” and watch them all nod in understanding.

The real point of all of this is that we’ve all pretty much come up with our own CCG ideas. It’s either because we’ve all had a great idea that needed to see the light of day, or that we thought we could improve Magic, or imagined that awesome expansion that would grant fame and fortune for us if we could only get it to print. The reason really doesn’t matter, but the creative energy does. I think that energy is a great thing and needs to be nurtured and explored. Despite the fact that there have been hundreds of CCGs created, only few have been a huge success so there is always room for more if you can handle everything that goes with it.

I’ve done this a couple of times now. I worked with a group that tried, unsuccessfully, to take over the Cyberpunk CCG and I’m just getting ready to launch the Alpha tests for Factions, Firestorm Ink’s DCG (Downloadable Card Game, because if you can’t toot your own horn, whose can you toot?). Both of those were long, arduous processes that went on � or are continuing to go on � for many years. So let’s go over a few points on designing your own CCG.

Part I – What the Hell am I going to do?

Starting to design a CCG is actually pretty hard. I don’t think that can be said enough, so I’ll say it again. Designing a CCG is hard. All together now. Designing a CCG is hard.

Got that? Good.

The first real step in designing a CCG is to go out and play as many CCGs as you can get a hold of. Grab the good ones, the bad ones, the successful ones and the obscure ones. It doesn’t matter, if it comes in small packages then you want to make sure you’ve at least picked up a couple of starter decks and the rules and tried it a couple of times. Play them and play them and play them until you think you’ve got a good grasp on what works in the game and what really doesn’t work in the game. The reason you want to do this is that you want to get a good idea of what other people have done, and what this means for you.

This is a good time to go to places like large conventions and pick up boxes of the stuff from Liquidators that get booths there. I picked up a good number of card games there for pretty cheap considering what it would have cost me at my FLGS. Another good idea is to walk up to your FLGS, if you can’t make a big con, and start making deals for starter decks. If it’s a game they don’t sell, they’re more than happy to make any money off of it and they’re usually willing to drop the price considerably. Then you just pick up a couple of starters, a couple of boosters and voila, you’ve got enough to get a good feel for the game.

Once this part is done, you then have to decide how you want your game to play. Do you want the game to have a great multiplayer element (see Vampire:The Eternal Struggle or Allegiance: A War of Factions), do you want the game to be able to be played alone (see Animayhem or even Decipher’s Star Wars because that was a game of double solitaire), do you want the game to be combative where you attack a player (see Magic: The Gathering, or VS.) or where you have to achieve a goal or attack player’s resources (see L5R, Decipher Star Wars, Cyberpunk:CCG, Netrunner). Do you want the rules to be incredibly complicated (there’s V:Tes again) or do you want it to be rather simplistic (The Harry Potter CCG was pretty rules light) or do you want it to be a combination of all of the above? This decision will inform the rules you want to create and how the players will interact with each other.

Finally, you need to start thinking about what kind of skin you want to have on your game. Do you want to have a fantasy bent (Magic, L5R or A Game of Thrones), super heroes duking it out (Vs. or City of Heroes), to horror (Call of Cthulhu or Mythos) or SF (Cyberpunk CCG or even my own Factions). It may not be worth making a final decision now, but it’s worth beginning to thinking about because the cards you design will need to have that flavour and some of the rules you come up with will work better with some themes than others.

Part II – Develop, Develop, Develop!

When I say develop, what I’m talking about is the creation of the rules and the cards that form the backbone of your game. My first suggestion is to try to get as many people as you can to work on the various parts, in particular the making cards bit. The more eyes that are looking at what you’re doing the richer the game your going to have. That’s not to say that everyone needs to work on everything, but there’s nothing worse than doing everything yourself and then turning to show it to someone who then proceeds to break it in five minutes.

The actual steps of development are muddled. The reason is that one steps spawns another step, which informs the previous step, which helps develop the next idea and so on and so forth so I’ll just go over what’s going to happen next in sections. How you choose to do them is up to you, this is a case of finding what works best in your particular case.

1 – The Rules

This is the part where you go over what the specific rules are for the game. What normally happens is that a “turn” which is a unit of measure that starts when a player first gets to do something until that player can no longer do anything and the “play” or the “turn” passes to his or her opponent. Usually you can break down a turn into different “phases” where they get to do specific things. The order in which they do things is up to you. Here are some general phases that most game rules tend to have.

Resource Phase:This is the phase were players get more and/or new resources. This is where they tend to draw cards, refresh their cards on the table, gain resources or start their turn fresh. Some games will break this up into smaller sections, but this is really a place where you give players the ability to do more things.

Action Phase: This is the phase where players get to do actions. The most common types of actions players get to do are playing cards from their hand, or to use the cards they have in play. This is where most of the game takes place, which is why the general description is the most vague. This phase has the highest variety so can be generalized the least.

End Phase: This is where most of the “clean up” activities go. Things like card removal, hand size control and any automatic in game effect you want to happen usually goes here. This is where you give a clear indication that the player’s turn is over so his or her opponent can start their series of phases.

When designing the DCG we felt that we wanted to put control of the game in the players hands, so we allowed players to decide how their action phases would play out. They could play cards from their hand and attack, or attack and then play cards from their hand. Ultimately that choice was left to the player, but we feel that by giving the player this power we create interesting scenarios for abilities to interact and it allows for strategy to play a larger role in what decisions are being made.

2 – The Cards

Cards are tricky. You need to have enough variety of card types to cover what you want to have done in the game, but not so much that a card type becomes meaningless. Ultimately there are two types of cards, Permanent and Ephemeral. Permanent cards are cards that play from a location (the hand, the deck, the discard pile) and stay in the field of play. They can be used repeatedly and change the “playing landscape” (the strategies used during a game). Ephemeral cards are cards that are played from a location (the hand, the deck, the discard pile) and have an immediate effect but the effect only lasts for a specific time period the most common being that particular phase in which it was played.

Permanent cards are frequently given the following flavour:

Characters, Creatures, Locations, Items, Artifacts, Land, Enchantments, Terrain � pick your favourite CCG and you’ll see a pile of different card “types” that are all permanents. This is one of the reasons why it is important to have at least come up with the idea behind the “skin” of your game. It will inform what you call your permanents and how they will interact with your rules and each other.

Ephemeral cards are frequently given the following flavour:

Instants, Fast Effects, Immediate Actions, Sorceriess, Spells, Events � again, if you pick your favourite CCG you’ll find a wide range of different card “types” that are played and then removed from play. Again, what you call these types of cards will vary depending on your game’s “skin.”

For a good base set you’re looking at anywhere between 230 and 300 cards to give people enough variety of cards. Expansions can be smaller and run anywhere between the 30 to 130 range. It all depends on how you want to do expansions, but we can get into that next time. As for rarity, don’t worry too much about that, it’s more important to be getting all the cards out than to think about the rarity. Once you’ve got a good feel for the cards through testing you can start seeing which ones you might need to put that “rare” tag on.

Part III – Passing the Test.

Now, here comes the biggest part out of everything. Test, test, test. You will never be able to alpha or beta test the game enough before you release it. However, you want to test your game as long as you reasonably can before you release it. This is the trickiest part of the whole process, you want to plan for enough testing time so that a lot of the bugs are gone but you don’t want to test so much it takes years before your product hits the shelves.

The first thing you need to realize is that no matter how much you test you will not find all the flaws. That’s what happens when you go from tens to thousands playing your game. You have such a greater players load on your game, that it will show the strains because you have so many more people looking at it.

I know we recently made a change with an ability that we thought wasn’t going to be strong (it was a “restore” ability), until someone pointed out that you could get people to chain that ability with others to break the game’s economy (you “restore” character that produce cash and just keep going as long as you can). That’s when we realized that we needed to modify when and where that ability could be used.

The ideal is to find people who enjoy taking things apart and be ready to make any changes to any card to fix the errors that have been found in testing. Trust me, there will be errors in testing. I think the best example of this could be found in Decipher’s WARS where they ended up banning Talkan, the rare they gave you in a starter deck. Someone found a way to abuse the card text and it was bad enough that they had to ban the card from being used at all. A card they gave away in the starter deck. That’s a pretty big kick in the teeth, and something that you hope to avoid through testing.

Finding testers is also a bit of a challenge. You need to get people who are interested in volunteering their time, with little to no reward, just so they can get their name on as testers. Of course, if you have piles of cash lying about the place then you don’t have to worry as much. Good places to find testers are legion though they don’t always bring in a good catch. You’ve got all the regular game forums ( and other places are good for an individual or two, or your local gaming forum) and even your Friendly Local Gaming Store could net you a couple of people. You can put out announcements out on the polyglot (from polymancer studios) or any other gaming interested magazine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been around enough CCG people that they’ve been willing to donate some of their time to me, but these are some places you can go to get other people to look at your game.

Ultimately all this is just one small part of the dealing with a CCG. Which is interesting when you get down to it. Creation is not even half the battle. Next time we’ll go into things like promotion, printing and distribution of your game.

To be continued…

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