Reviews - Updated on March 28, 2022

Just seven years ago, Hearthstone was the premier digital card game. It seemed something fresh and unusual to those who were not familiar with the CCG. And today there are MMOs and deck-building shooters, casual and post-modern card roguelikes like Slay the Spire and Inscryption, Marvel Universe card counterpart XCOM (Midnight Suns) and Annapurna Interactive’s Neon White speedrun shooter. And these are only the most high-profile of the announced projects.

Such a widespread introduction of cards in games has bothered many people. There are even those on the Web who refuse to try games with CCG elements. Some game designers foresaw the explosion of popularity a few years ago, and there is a reason for such a craze for “cardboards”. They give players a huge freedom of action, and developers – additional profit.

Simple and clear

Card games are over 600 years old, collectible games are almost 30 years old. Everyone has ever played cards or at least seen how it is done. Therefore, they understand in advance how all card games work in general. Already from the trailer of some action, it is easy to understand card mechanics: everywhere there are analogues of “provocation”, “poison” or “mana”.

Why card systems have enslaved the industry

Even in the extremely unusual Inscryption, most of the card mechanics are no different from those in Hearthstone.

In articles about card game design, in various words, it is advised to follow the principle of KISS, or Keep It Simple, Stupid! (“Don’t over-complicate it, fool!”). In addition, the skills that the player receives in the cards are applicable in different games, so moving from Hearthstone to Legends of Runeterra or GWENT is very simple.

Also, cards can replace any more complex or expensive mechanics to implement. Lead game designer SteamWorld Quest thinks that games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering are like classic RPGs, except that instead of selecting a skill and clicking on an enemy, you just need to drag a card with the desired inscription to attack. In Cultist Simulator, a whole narrative sandbox is assembled from cards. And in the upcoming Neon White, cards generally replace weapons and abilities from first-person shooters. In this way, maps simplify complex processes and make them clearer for the player.

For developers, this simplicity saves money. In Slay the Spire or Hearthstone, you didn’t have to do complicated animations, because it’s enough to show how one card beats another and the numbers change on that card. Card games are also easier to prototype, test, and update.

Replay value and personalization

Card games live indefinitely due to multi-level combinations of simple effects. When drawing up a deck, you should always take into account the influence of cards on each other. And the developers of Back 4 Blood went even further – several decks interact in the game. Thanks to this, a huge scope for imagination is created, just like in classic RPGs, although the balance suffers, which cannot be verified with such a variety.

Why card systems have enslaved the industry

Like role-playing games, CCGs attract with the opportunity to assemble a unique build. According to Ilya Ginzburg, a CCG specialist, players are beginning to treat card games as a means of self-realization.

Even more creativity is stimulated by restrictions. Classes or a limit on the number of cards in the deck do not allow you to try all the combinations at once. Therefore, players are looking for ways to fit the most effective cards and interactions into one deck. This approach is also required by PvE content, which often requires special decks to complete. At the same time, due to constant updates, it is impossible to assemble an ideal set that will always win, because new abilities or heroes break the balance and force you to adapt. And the ability to make an invincible deck is a sign of bad game design.

The most controversial factor in their replayability is the huge emphasis on randomness. Almost all CCGs are scolded for him, because even the strongest deck can lose if the player draws the wrong card at the decisive moment. But randomness attracts those who are not willing to spend hours making perfect combinations, because they have a chance to beat the pro if he is not lucky with the starting hand. They try to balance such randomness with the actual strength of the cards themselves. Good card games are characterized by a balance in the influence of chance, deck and player skill.

Why card systems have enslaved the industry

In 2018, Ilya Ginzburg, a CCG specialist, ranked card games that were popular at that time according to the influence of luck, skill, and deck on the probability of winning.

Collect them all

Collecting is found in all genres – from online shooters to strategies. Collectible content is needed to keep the user. Card projects are the perfect field for this technique, because there can be hundreds or thousands of cards in them, and some players will not rest until they have collected everything. According to a study, as much as a third of the audience of the desktop Vampire: The Eternal Struggle cite collecting as their main motivator.

But collecting can be selective. The need for specific cards to complement a finished deck, build the perfect deck, or start a new deck can also hold you back. I want to play more, hoping to stumble upon the right card or one that will inspire me to try a new tactic. This is how, for example, perks in Fallout 76 work – it is not known which cards will fall out of the set, so you have to constantly improvise and build a deck to suit your style. And that one is constantly changing, because sometimes you have to sacrifice some perks in order to have enough skill level for others. That is, if in the previous parts of the series it was possible to decide which archetype you want to win back even before the start of the passage, then in F76 decisions have to be made on the go.

Why card systems have enslaved the industry

An example of a build with an emphasis on close combat. Fans have even created a site where they share builds for Fallout 76.

Gathering also has a social aspect – players want to outdo each other, knock out a rare or very powerful card. It also makes you come back to the game, because in most card projects new creatures or abilities appear all the time. For developers, collecting also has a huge plus: new cards can be sold. In Hearthstone, for example, pre-ordering each expansion costs as much as an AAA game, although these are just cards that can be knocked out in the game.

Card games have a very low entry threshold, but at the same time there is a huge scope for imagination, which expands with updates and additions. They also bring in more content that some want to collect and others want to explore and apply in unusual ways. Thanks to this, games with CCG elements can be played for years, and someone is even ready to constantly spend money on them.

Recently, studios have been reinventing card mechanics and turning them from cheap action symbols into narrative tools or side factors that affect gameplay. Meanwhile, classic TCGs continue to come out and attract audiences. So in the next couple of years, we can expect even more card mechanics in novelties of different genres, but with a more original incarnation.

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