Saturday, June 8, 2013

Cards, Beautiful Cards: Online Card Game Roundup

JOY!  Digital card games are everywhere.

And I want to play all of them.

A disclaimer: I'm going to be looking at online card games. All of these games involve micro-transactions as a revenue model.  It comes with the territory.  You have been warned!

Currently playing:

Duel of Champions (Free to play)

A very polished and feature-rich online card game. The gameplay is very much tactics based, with cards going in the back lines, front lines, and attacking along rows. It also has one huge plus for me – a graveyard! Cards can be brought back from the graveyard, a nod to magic and one of my favorite resource systems.  And it's based on the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise.  (HoMM3 junkies, represent!)


One of the limitations are that there is no trading at all – probably a decision made to avoid a plague of phishers and gold-farmers overrunning the game, as seems so common with free to play titles. With no way to trade cards, there's no way to profit off of invading someone's account or farming.  It does detract from the social aspect of such games a bit, though.


Another annoyance for me is that the resource system feels a bit bland, and doesn't balance well with longer games; each turn you gain one "resource", and, eventually, you simply have more "resource" than you can possibly use, and the decision-making process breaks down into "how can I draw more cards?".  I feel some other games handle this in a more interesting fashion, though it certainly works well in shorter matches.

SolForge  (Kickstarter closed beta on PC; free open beta on iPad)

Interesting mechanics concept where cards you play more often during a single match will level up to be more powerful later in the match.  It requires different strategies as playing certain cards early can have big consequences later, positive or negative.


Despite the interesting mechanics, SolForge feels a bit further behind the other offerings mentioned here both from a feature-implementation standpoint  -- there is not even a deck builder yet -- and from a presentation standpoint, at least for the PC client.  It makes me realize how important presentation is for these kinds of games.  But more on that at the bottom of this post... In any case, I think it will be fun once there is actual multiplayer and deck customization in the game.  The card leveling is a very interesting mechanic.

Scrolls ($20.95 entry fee to beta)

From Mojang, creators of Minecraft.  Quite polished, with animations entirely separate from the card art. Something about the gameplay, with five rows and idols to be destroyed, reminds me of plants versus zombies -- though some of these plants can move around the board!


The resource system is also deviously clever, giving you the option each turn of sacrificing a card from your hand either for a resource point (that will then replenish each turn) or for two new cards from your deck.  This means that you are always making important decisions, instead of falling into a glut or drought of resources.  It also makes it very straightforward to mix resources in the deck, as you can each turn decide if you want to build one resource or the other with your sacrifices.


The card abilities and costs feel very well-balanced as well.  I think this one has a lot of potential and is worth the entry fee.

Card Hunter (Closed beta underway; release summer 2013)

Hilarious D&D theming.  The flavor is almost overwhelming.


Mechanics are also fairly unique, with equipment granting a character a certain array of cards which are added to their "deck."  I'm not sure if it really counts as an online card game in the same sense as the others, as it's an especially strange utilization -- the equipment represents cards which represent equipment... representational loop!


The focus seems more on single-player, but it's very fun, polished, and fast-paced, so it's worth checking out when it comes into open beta!  Worth noting that there is a PVP option, but I still feel the single player is a stronger element.


Also worth noting that the game appears to be browser based, so it's open to a wide variety of platforms/devices.

Eagerly anticipating:

Hearthstone (Public beta sometime in summer 2013)

From Blizzard. Say what you will about them, they sure know how to polish a game.  Watch this:

http://wow.joystiq.com/2013/05/09/live-hearthstone-stream/ (Epic game starts around 42:00 mark)

So, why such a glut of name-brand, microtransaction-supplemented online card games?

To me, it seems like a switch is flipped when you base your game on "cards": virtual tokens that represent some imaginary concept of thing or action.  You might ask the question, though: why base a game on "cards", which are essentially physical, when the game is already in the intangible space and could represent what is on those "cards" with actual functional objects?  Why not simply represent the actions using the game engine?

Well, for one, because it's damn expensive!  Programming realistic representational physics, graphics, animations, etc. is a huge development investment.  Cards seem to be the perfect balance of evocative representation, and manageable implementation within a digital space.  Cutting 3D graphics and physics out of the equation means you're basically just putting together logic that's going to move card images around and add up damage/etc.

That's not the only reason, though.  I would argue that we conceptually understand a discrete, representative token better than the actual virtual reconstruction of what that token represents. We can be convinced that we are looking at a card; they are, after all, two-dimensional.  And we can also be convinced that we're buying a "card" more easily than we can be convinced that we are buying a fancy looking dragon thing that lives in your computer -- the reason that micro-transactions are more successful for this kind of game.  They retain the symbolic power of the tokens used in physical card and board games, without little of the electronic overhead that makes it so difficult to reconstruct realistic looking humanoid in digital form.

Finally, and probably the most important reason these games are so successful, is simply because we are all hoarders who base our identity off of our possessions (at least, I know I am).  It's driven home for me when I play game that has very interesting mechanics, SolForge for example, and find that there are two things missing:

A. My cards aren't shiny enough and don't look cool when they do things, and

B. I'm not excited about playing with the cards because I didn't acquire them myself, and thus have no emotional attachment to them.

What these games tap into when they are working at full steam is both the primal desire to collect shiny objects, and the slightly higher level desire for sense of identity through cards the player "possesses" -- because, yes, it was they who pressed the button that said "get cards" and earned that rare Ghost Dragon.  When you look at Hearthstone, with its incredibly shiny cards, sound effects, and even the lore tie-ins with World of Warcraft, it's hard to deny that what these games are really all about is giving us little shiny toys to play with, toys that we value emotionally because they've been made (artificially) scarce and yet we still managed to get our grubby little claws on some of them.

In summary, I like shiny objects, I like collecting shiny objects, and I like it when my shiny objects hit someone else's shiny objects.  It makes me feel better about myself, and you should too!

Onward, to shiny objects!


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