Make Peace Not War

There are mechanics that I've been playing with for a while now, and others that I am just starting to explore, that I wanted to talk about. But first, I wanted to write about theme. My goal is to create a game that is not inherently about war or combat. I have stated my problem as follows: I want to create a game that is about societal and political conflicts. Players must not be trying to kill each other, but to prove that their ideals are better, or that they are smarter in promoting them. The creatures they play are not used to fight other creatures, instead they are used to influence the world around them.

One of the first things I've done was to remove health from creatures, replacing it with actions. Each creature you play has a "lifespan", a limited number of actions it can make before dying. I have rarely seen this actions system in card games (Paper Tales has something like that), likely because it is a bit hard to keep track of in a physical game. But digital makes that much simpler, and I find it to be an elegant way to have the board state evolve without having to kill creatures. They simply die of their natural death, after having done their job — though they do get killed sometimes, but that is exceptional. It also creates a new challenge for players: do I use this creature now and let it die, or do I keep it for a potential better use later in the game?

Moving away from the fighting theme also means that my creatures cannot interact like they do in other games. I tried a lot of different mechanics there, but ultimately, my game is still one of competition. So my creatures do still compete, though not with their muscles but with their brains, their influence: something I've called their "prestige". I have simplified the underlying mathematics, as there's only one value you care about on each card (the prestige). To compensate for that, I have to make interactions a bit more complex. For example, in my latest iterations (still in prototyping), there are five projects for which you can compete with your opponent. The maths of solving one project are simple: who has the greatest total prestige? The complexity comes from choosing which projects you are going to pursue for yourself, and which ones you should prevent your opponent from activating.

Creating a card game that is not about fighting or war is a very interesting challenge. It forced me to look for mechanics that are inherently different than the ones we play with in almost every CCG. And I'm sure I've only scratched the surface, so I really encourage my fellow card game developers to look into this as well! There is a lot of innovation to find there!

How to win a game

The most common way to win a game in a digital CCG is to lower the life of your opponent to zero, before they do it to yours. This is fundamentally a "kill", and the vast majority of games do that — the one exception from the list in our little history being Gwent. Early in my design process, I decided that I wanted to do something else. And thus I thought about victory conditions a lot, and tried a few mechanics.

In most competitive board games, the victory is acquired by having more points than your opponents at the end of the game. That end is triggered by various elements, sometimes it's a set number of turns, sometimes it's specific conditions being reached, etc. My main problem with this system was that it had been done over and over and over. I wanted to see if I could go for something more innovative.

The first really different mechanic that I tried was to kind of revert the regular life system. Instead of players lowering their opponent's life, the game would do so itself. And thus the game became about surviving longer than the other player. The few variations of this concept had the same underlying structure: there were 3 sources, providing a resource, called "Spirit", that was needed for players to survive. The sources were creating new Spirits regularly, but at a slow rate. Slower than the players where losing theirs, of course. So players had to get on those sources to gather the Spirits, and prevent their opponent to do the same, so that they would be the last one alive.

I tested this mechanic a lot. But ultimately, I ended up throwing it away, for two main reasons. First, it didn't fit my theme. Yes, you weren't killing your opponent directly, but it was still about fighting, about the other dying in the end. Second, some of my players were feeling really bad when they lost. They were telling me that they thought they had lost to the game, not to their opponent. That is because their loss came from an automatic game action, them losing Spirits at the end of their turn, and not from an action from their opponent. No matter what I tried, I couldn't get that frustration to go away.

I still think this is a fine mechanic, and that with a different theme, players would react less negatively to losing. Maybe someday I'll come back to it and make an actual game out of it?

After moving away from this "survival" mechanic, I tried a bunch of different things. But it turns out that they all have the same structure. Players both have the same goal of meeting some condition, and they compete to do it before their opponent. Of course, to reach that condition, they have to interact with the other player. At one point, I had players propose Decrees, that if adopted gave them a permanent bonus in the game. Both players had a separate deck of unique Decrees, and to adopt one, you basically had to have more influence, through your creatures, than your opponent. Nowadays I'm moving to something slightly different, where players compete to activate projects. Those projects give varying bonuses every time, like drawing cards, gaining more resources, or gaining victory points. This is inspired from KeyForge's mechanic of forging three keys to win the game.

I strongly believe there are many more victory conditions to explore. Digital CCGs are stuck in the fighting theme and thus do not even consider offering something else to their players. But I am convinced that there are players out there who would welcome a strategic card game that is not about killing and fighting.

The art of mana

The last thing I want to write about is resource systems. As many Magic: The Gathering players, I have felt extremely frustrated by its mana fulls (when you draw too many lands) and mana screws (when you draw too few lands). So over the years of working on my prototypes, I tried many variants of gaining resources to play your cards. The one that I think is still viewed as the "ideal" one by my fellow card game developers is the "WoW TCG" one. This system considers every card in a player's hand as a potential resource: once per turn, a player can discard any card of their hand to use it as a source of mana. It is quite cool as it makes all your cards both action and resource, while still giving players the choice of which to use as which. It looks like a good compromise between Hearthstone's linear system and Magic's full-of-variance system.

However, after a lot of testing in various conditions, I decided to move away from this system in my game. The reason is not obvious, but fairly rational: it adds a lot of unnecessary complexity to the game. Let me explain. One thing that is common in card games is to have the number and difficulty of choices grow turn after turn. The decisions in your first turn are usually quite simple. In Magic, you choose which land to play, then potentially you have a card to play, but it's rare that you have many choices. As turns go, you get more and more mana, and thus have a wider range of possibilities — play one card or several, keep my mana for later, play my spell now or next turn, etc. This, I believe, is a strength of the genre, as it gives players a sense of progression in their games.

With the WoW TCG system, that changes a lot. Suddenly, on turn 1, you have to make a much more complex decision. Choosing which card to discard, when you have very little information about your opponent's deck, about how the game is going to progress, is very taxing. And it is also very difficult to get feedback on your decisions, as the consequences can come, as I said, many turns later. My players reported that it was a paralyzing choice to make, at a time when you expect things to be simple.

Choice paralysis is a very well known psychological effect. Giving more choices is often the wrong thing to do, as the decision becomes exceedingly difficult, leading to a very bad experience. As game designers, we must be cautious about the amount of choices we give our players at each point in our game. It is fine to have a lot of options near the end of a game, but not so much at the beginning. I believe that having, at all point of a game, two or three reasonable options to choose from is a good goal.

So, what would be the ideal resource system? I don't know the answer to that, of course, and I believe it might depend a lot on the rest of your game. For mine, I am currently trying something where increasing your resources is part of the central mechanic of interaction of the game, the "projects". There is a project that gives you a new resource, and there is one that gives you a bigger boost of resources but only for a single turn. Players have to compete for these resources, and they have to balance when to go for them versus when to go for other projects. I like that system so far, but I haven't been able to test it enough to know if it really works.

Resource systems are interesting because I believe many folks, me included, have tried to theorize what the "ultimate" one would be. And I don't think such a thing exists. As with every game mechanic, the ideal one for your game is the one that works best with the rest of the game, with its theme, with its other mechanics, etc.

The end of all things

And that's the end of this series! This article was the longest, and I did my best not to write too much, but there are many more things I could have written on the topic. Now I'm looking at you, my reader. If you have questions, or suggestions, or anything you would like to discuss, I'd be happy to talk about it. You can find me in the comments of this blog, or on social networks: Twitter and Mastodon.

If you are interested in my digital CCG, you can find some information here: The game is closed for now, but I organize testing sessions from time to time. The best way to stay informed for now is to subscribe to the newsletter on the home page of the game.

Thank you for reading!