Before I talk about the finer details of playtesting / tuning System Crash, I thought it might be a good idea to get people who haven’t played them up to speed on the basics of CCGs, and how System Crash card duels work specifically. What I’m outlining might not apply to all CCGs, but it covers the usual suspects, Magic The Gathering, Pokemon, The Game of Thrones LCG etc.
Broadly speaking, in CCGs the gameplay is broken up into two main aspects : The pre-duel planning of deck-building and the tactical gameplay during the actual duel itself.
The one is tied to the other; just as your choices in character building affect your tactics in combat in an RPG, so do your deck-building choices in a CCG inform your tactics during the battle. A deck designed around a slow build up to a killer combo may play much more defensively than one designed around rushing your enemy early with cheap creatures, hoping to finish them before they can build up.
We’ll start by looking at the card duel. I’ll describe the physical card game, the computer games are similar with certain elements abstracted.
At the start of the game, both players shuffle their decks so that the cards are randomized, placing them face down in front of them. Each player then draws a number of cards from their deck, being careful to hide them from their opponent. These cards are their starting hand. Your hand contains all those cards you have drawn but not yet played into the active area.
To play a card, you must have the resources to pay its cost. Doing so allows you to move that card from your hand into play. In the usual case, some cards in your deck will represent resources. Playing these cards from your hand is generally free, they can then be tapped to grant you resources for playing other cards.
In the case of playing instantaneous cards, they resolve their effect at once and then are moved to the discard pile, where they cannot be used again (except by certain cards that bend the rules). Some cards are more permanent though, they enter play and stay there, providing ongoing benefits to their controller. What these cards represent is dependent on the game’s theme, but creature cards, equipment and resources are common types.
Players take it in turns to play, alternating. On each player’s turn they draw one or more new cards from their deck into their hand, then choose which cards to play from their hand, based on their strategy and available resources. Once they have played all the cards from their hand that they wish to, the cards in play that can act have a chance to. Usually, this involves attacking the opponent or contesting some objective. The controlling player may or may not get to make choices in which of their creatures attack, and the opposing player may or may not get choices in how to defend. Once combat is resolved, you check to see if one player has won (whatever the victory condition happens to be), and if not, move onto the other player’s turn.
Simple enough, but where it gets really interesting is in the other part of the game, deck-building.
The most important part of the game. While luck and your opponent’s moves will affect how you play during a duel, the deck building phase will determine what your deck can do, how good it is at certain tactics and whether it has good counters to what an opponent can throw at it. For a well-balanced game, there should never be a single perfect deck, just as in an RPG you should never expect one class to be good in all areas and have no weaknesses.
What most people new to the genre don’t realize is that deck-building is fundamentally about probabilities. For simplicities sake, say your deck size is 50. If you include 1 copy of a card in your deck, what are the odds of getting that card in a draw? 1 in 50, obviously. But say you have 5 copies in your deck, now your chances are much better, 1 in 10. With only one copy of that card in your deck, you may not even draw that card once in an entire game. By having 5 copies, you can reasonably expect to draw that card at least once.
The thing to remember is that putting a card in your deck uses up a ‘slot’ that could be filled by another card. Throwing in everything and the kitchen sink is the best way to ensure that you DON’T get the cards you actually need, when you need them. Newbies tend to make the mistake of trying to build decks that include all the cards that look ‘cool’.
Generally, you’ll want to decide on a specific strategy for your deck before you start deck building, adding only the cards that support that strategy. Well, that’s not quite true, you can include a few cards designed to help you out if the opponent throws you a curve ball, but in general you should build around a core strategy. Work out what card combos synergise well, then try to build a deck such that the odds favour getting the combos you want in a timely fashion.
And don’t forget to consider the cost of the card. Some cards represent resources you can spend to pay for other cards. Obviously, a hand full of expensive cards is useless to you unless you have enough resources to play them. So perhaps your deck needs a higher ratio of resource cards, if you want to pack it with expensive goodies? Just like other cards, try to figure out the probability of drawing a resource card, and whether that seems like a good rate of resource progression. If it’s not, adjust the distribution of resource cards in your deck. This may mean culling other cards you’d have liked to include, but difficult choices are at the heart of deck-building. No deck is perfect, generally you want to focus on being good at just one or two things.
All this will inform the decisions you make during the duel itself. If you know your deck is built around playing a certain 2-card combo, and one of the cards is drawn, you may choose to not play it immediately, waiting until you get the second card and can pull off that one-two punch. Or, perhaps you know that your deck has a specific weakness, certain types of creatures. You have included a card or two specifically to handle those types of creatures when they come into play, but you know you need to save it for those specific creatures instead of simply playing it against some lesser annoyance.
With these considerations in mind, the rules of CCGs are fairly simply, at least to the seasoned fan of strategy and roleplaying games. But there are many interesting strategies you can devise; this, combined with fresh challenges presented each game by the deck randomizing element, are why these games are so popular.
Let me go through the specifics of System Crash quickly. First, let’s set the scene…
In a dystopian future where technology, far from ushering in a golden age, has fundamentally altered what it means to be human and allowed greedy megacorporations to practically enslave humanity under the yoke of consumerism and mass media, your character is a ‘runner’, an agent operating outside ‘the system’, one of those fighting to survive and thrive in the cracks between the shining towers of chrome and steel.
You take on the illicit, high-risk jobs that the powers-that-be need deniability on. Whether it’s hacking a secure data server, extracting a defecting researcher from a corporate enclave or sabotaging a rival corp’s manufacturing plant, you’ll take it on if the money’s right.
Card duels represent ‘runs’, high-risk contracts from shadowy clientele. You are the run’s ‘controller’, the leader, the brains, the man or woman working behind the scenes, organizing and directing the run. To achieve your run’s goal you need to accumulate ‘Objective Points’, an abstract measure of how much progress you’ve made toward that goal. Accumulate 30 OP and success is yours. Conversely, the opposing controller, generally the head of a corporate security force, is attempting to repel your intrusion. When the opponent’s Objective Points reach the required amount, you have failed the run, your Agents scattering to the streets to avoid capture and your commline terminated to avoid a trace leading back to your physical location.
How the run is achieved is up to you. Recruit your agents, purchase equipment and software, execute your tactics!
Now, unlike some other card games, System Crash has a set of fixed slots on the board for bringing cards into play. As shown below, each player has 4 Agent slots and 3 Tactic slots. Once those are filled, you cannot bring more permanent cards into play until they clear.
(The top half of the board is the AI’s play area, bottom half is the player’s play area + his hand )
Luckily (or unluckily), combat is fast and lethal, Agents cycling quickly. And Tactic cards have a short, limited duration, after which they are discarded. You may only have 3 in play at once, but you will certainly have the opportunity to change Tactics as older cards decay and are removed from play.
Along with Agent and Tactic cards, there are 3 more card types in the game. I’ll list all the types and what they represent below.
Agent cards run the gamut, from other runners to mechs and corporate security forces, to civilians caught in the crossfire. All Agent cards have an Attack strength and a number of Health points, shown at the bottom left and right respectively, with more advanced cards adding in special abilities that can trigger in various ways.
If both players have Agents in play in directly opposing slots, they challenge each other in their controller’s combat phase, inflicting damage equal to their Attack Strength to the opposing Agent’s Health. If an Agent is unopposed during combat, their controller is awarded OP (Objective Points) equal to that agent’s Attack Strength. This is the primary manner in which a controller scores OP, but not the only one.
The picture below shows 2 sets of Agents in opposition while one Agent is unblocked and able to score OP for its controller.
Tactics cards represent the combat maneuvers and software programs a controller can employ. Tactic cards cannot be attacked directly by enemy Agents, but they have a limited duration that ticks down each turn. Tactic cards might do anything from boosting the effectiveness of your Agents to directly scoring you OP while in play.
Each agent has Modifier slots where they can be loaded up with equipment, augmentations and special effects. An Agent only has slots for 3 positive and 3 negative modifiers however, as displayed next to their portrait in the play area.
An instantaneous effect that you play onto the battlefield. Event cards have a wide variety of effects. An event card played at the right moment can radically alter the battlefield.
Resource cards in System Crash represent Credits, the cash you use to hire Agents and purchase equipment for your run.
Beyond these details, System Crash plays much as discussed above. Decks are 60 cards in size, and you draw 2 cards a turn. Generally, you’ll want about a third of your deck to be Credits, so that you have enough resources to play your cards.
In the coming weeks, I’ll go through individual cards and what they do, as well as discussing the design decisions behind the game.