1000 Blank White Cards

A game where you make up the cards, and therefore make up the rules, as you go along, “The blank card game,” is heavily dependent on the people playing. With a few good seed players, this can pull enormous creativity out of otherwise reticent people, but by itself does not inspire the gaming spirit. This can be great fun for groups with lots of in-jokes.

Created by Nathan McQuillen Phoenix, 1995.

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Morels

My wife dominated Valentine’s day this year. On top of buying me a pizza peel, she tracked down a new two-player card game. She surprised me with Morels, a light strategy game about gathering mushrooms in the woods. Ten rounds later, I think this game has our couples-game stamp of approval. Great work honey!

The first thing I noticed about Morels is that the game is saturated with theme. The rules, though verbose, were easy to pick up. All the game elements interact in simple, sensible ways. You pass mushrooms on your walk through the woods, picking choice fungi. Gather pans to cook mushrooms, baskets to carry more, and foraging sticks to reach deeper into the woods. It all works, and the game feels much like a woodland stroll.

On a mechanical, playable level there’s also a lot to love. Players only take action per turn and there are only two players, so that game moves at a nice clip for its relaxed feel. Analysis paralysis stays low as well – on their first turn a player usually has two or three possible moves. Later the possibility space can include more than ten moves, but two or three usually stand out. Since the game only ends when the draw deck is empty, play time is consistently 20-30 minutes. The only awkwardness is that you’ll often hold a hand of 12 or more cards in the latter half of the game, which can be hard to manage.

Player interaction consists of getting to resources first. Every move affects your opponent’s options in a predictable way, so choices are complex on every turn. Still, it’s not an aggressive game. It’s rare to find a game my wife likes this much. I suspect it will last a while in our house.

2014-02-15 15.00.00

Dominion: Intense

Writing about Yu-Gi-Oh got me thinking about Dominion, and how it’s about the only board game that my wife actually enjoys.

As a thought experiment, I considered how Dominion would change if you took all the randomness out of the game. It wouldn’t be hard to do. Here are my rule changes:

  1. When setting up the game, each player may stack their deck.
  2. When you discard multiple cards at once, you may put them on top of your discard pile in any order.
  3. When you have to draw and your draw pile has run out, you flip your discard pile over and turn it into your draw pile without shuffling it.

There you go, deterministic Dominion. I haven’t tried this yet. I’m going to, but I wanted to write down my hypothesis first. I predict that making Dominion deterministic will significantly increase the intensity of the game, which in turn will make it more fun for a few of my competitive gamer friends, but at the cost of alienating more casual players (e.g. my wife).

At GDC I attended a great talk by Luke Muscat from Halfbrick, where he discussed a prototype he created that made people at the office into mean backstabbing jerks. His hypothesis was that three mechanical characteristics of his prototype led to this behavior, together creating a game with an extremely high level of “intensity.”

  • No Randomness – It was a pure strategy game, based on skill alone.
  • Duration – It was a long game (weeks) with a high time investment.
  • Chaining – This one’s harder to describe. There was a mechanic that let connected groups of players get very powerful, but only if every player in the chain participated. This led to the formation of teams, but also lots of backstabbing since there could only be one winner.

This Dominion variant is based on the first of his points, and on some of Greg Costikyan’s work on the role of randomness in games. Taking randomness out of a game places the blame for failure squarely on the player. If the ideal family game gives you that “win because of skill, lose because of luck” feeling, deterministic games are missing the second half of that equation.

It’s possible that Muscat’s second point will come into play as well, but I’m not sure yet. I think for less skilled players, the game may go longer as they struggle to stack up the right cards and create winning combinations, and it’s hard to be saved by a lucky shuffle. On the other hand, very skilled players may be able to close the game faster, reducing the stakes of a given game and therefore its overall intensity.

This all reminds me of playing Egyptian Rat (also known as…) in high school, with friends who were trying to count not only the cards in their own deck, but in their opponent’s deck as well. Our version of that game evolved a series of rules designed to preserve its deterministic nature because the high intensity was a major feature – the “slap” mechanic being the primary point of intensity, suggesting that games requiring constant attention or concentration also have a high level of intensity. We were able to pull casual players into Rat though because games were often short, again lowering the stakes.

I’m sure the designer considered a non-deterministic game when creating Dominion – I wonder how quickly it was thrown out. I’ll give this a shot, and if anyone else tries it I’d love to hear about your experience.

Yu-Gi-No

It came down to this realization: When I won it felt like I was lucky, but when I lost it felt like I had played poorly.

Let me back up. Not long ago we were blessed with some visiting family, and my little brother (age 14) is going through a serious TCG (Trading Card Game) phase. He’s been playing Magic: The Gathering for more than a year, and recently picked up Yu-Gi-Oh again at the behest of his church friends. Naturally, knowing I was the #1 gaming geek in the family, he brought along his cards so we could play.

I’m not exactly a stranger to TCGs. I had a few years where I was completely taken with Decipher’s complex Star Wars CCG. I won’t claim I was ever any good, though – SW:CCG being what it was, I never had anyone to play with. I just liked the cards. I’d also played MTG a few times with my brother before, but Yu-Gi-Oh was completely new to me.

Now, playing a TCG with somebody else’s deck is already a half-baked experience. Much of the game consists of building your deck, finding the killer combinations and tweaking the odds that they’ll show up. Going into a match, you’re supposed to pretty much know what’s in your deck – and hopefully your opponent does not. So when playing Magic with my brother’s deck I felt like I was running an engine, but not necessarily making decisions. Honestly, this is fine – it’s like playing “War” or “Rock Paper Scissors.” You win some, you lose some, it’s mostly luck. At least, that’s the feeling that makes it tolerable.

But Yu-Gi-Oh with another player’s deck is a different experience. Oh boy is it a different experience. And now I hate Yu-Gi-Oh.

See, MTG has a lot of cards and a lot of rules, but most strategies are built on the same core engine: You need land and creatures. Lots of land and creatures, or good land and creatures,and there are a lot of ways to get land and creatures, but it all comes back to – say it with me – land and creatures. While playing with an unfamiliar deck wasn’t great, I could at least understand my moment-to-moment options and put up a fight.

In Yu-Gi-Oh, on the other hand, I never identified a true core mechanic. My brother would play tons of monsters, and every time it would be through a different method: summon, special summon, tune, fuse, morph, XYZ, crystal, repair, whatever. The cards all had such specific uses and requirements, often referring to totally different systems. Even worse, he had “extra decks” of 20-odd monsters just sitting face-up, that he could summon at any time if he met the special requirements on the card. That’s like having twenty extra cards in your hand. That’s twenty sets of special requirements and effects that he’d memorized, that were totally crucial to playing that deck. I’m going in totally blind – that deck is utterly unplayable for me. The particular scenario requires such intimate foreknowledge of the cards that it’s virtually unteachable. I couldn’t just “run the engine” in Yu-Gi-Oh; I was lucky when the engine didn’t fall apart entirely.

I understand that this is exactly the appeal of Yu-Gi-Oh to some. My brother openly admitted that he loved the fact that his decks were unique – that even if he gave his cards away to his friends they wouldn’t be able to run them, because they didn’t understand the way they interact.

There’s a special magic to that, a game that lets you carve out your own secret unique niche but still play against other people. Lots of games have this appeal to a degree; it’s the power of mechanical customization, and it can foster deep investment. But the tradeoff seems to be a steeper learning curve, and a seriousness that not everybody finds appealing; when your deck loses in Yu-Gi-Oh you kind of take it personally.

Which wasn’t my issue, of course – I just felt incompetent. Oh well, I guess I’ll go back to Dominion.