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Card Games: What’s the Big Deal?

Yu-Gi-Oh Main pic

No expansive open world, no flashy cutscenes and an incredibly formulaic graphical and gameplay structure. On the surface, it’s hard to fathom why card-based games could be a more attractive alternative than the likes of Dark Souls, Mass Effect or Battlefield. But, despite stark similarities between titles within the genre, card games hold their popularity with mind-boggling effectiveness; I mean, they’re just cards, right?

Given this misconception, card games remain a misunderstood breed of video games. What they lack in visual diversity they make up for in sheer depth of tactical mind games.

The major strength of turn-based card games is the ability to scratch that strategic itch. Crafting an effective deck is undoubtedly the most important part of any card game and juggling monsters, class types and spell cards, as well as any secondary abilities that complement each other, is at the crux of a player’s tactics. It’s common to feel extremely frustrated and then, moments later, extremely satisfied with you or your opponent’s next draw.  That one card, drawn from a custom made deck in excess of 40 other cards, could result in a monumental shift in the momentum of a duel.

When I first heard of Gwent and the amount of positivity emanating from it, I was certain it was a standalone game. You can imagine my shock when discovering that it was merely a highly engrossing mini-game from last year’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The aim of Gwent is to out-score your opponent using three classes of cards – Close Combat, Long Range and Siege. However, the special ability of a card, as well as Weather Cards and Leader Cards, act as stat modifiers to a player’s deck.

Jason Siama, Lead Programmer at CD Projekt RED, who worked closely with Gwent’s integration into The Witcher 3’s, says the addictive nature behind card games is a never-ending balancing act. Siama suggests that it boils down to challenge versus reward.

Gwent replaced The Witcher's previous mini-game, Dice Poker, with critical acclaim.
Gwent replaced The Witcher’s previous mini-game, Dice Poker, with critical acclaim.

“There’s definitely an intense feeling of satisfaction that comes from acquiring another rare card to an ever-growing collection. At the end of the day, card games tend to be a personal experience between two players in which there is a clear winner and loser.

“Even the AI for Gwent was redesigned to be built upon the principle of emotions, which ultimately led to a more interesting and difficult opponent. AI decisions would be highly influenced on previous duels and combined with its current mood to create a much more compelling experience.”

While there are many online-focused deck-building titles, Gwent is unique in that it’s a game within a single player-only game. Sure, there could have been some multiplayer integration for serious Gwent players but would it have worked? Siama re-iterates that the current formula was the best one.  The development team swept any thoughts of online Gwent multiplayer aside, believing that a solo experience would lead to greater variations in card strength, without the worry around re-balancing the game for newcomers.

“I find [multiplayer] often leads to card games growing too complex and difficult to keep up with for the average player. This is definitely something I would like to see improved in the future.”

Of course, deck-builders have their bad side, too. The quest for the perfect deck never truly ends, especially taking into account that some cards are so crammed full of hit points, attack power and passive abilities that it makes them stupidly overpowered. Coming across powerful cards such as these, which often decides the duel, makes acquiring that particular monster or spell card all the more infuriating. It’s a big problem because card games that incorporate a story arc of some kind makes winning these duels a pre-requisite; it’s as if some games say: ‘You cannot beat this game without this one card.’

“It can leave a bitter taste in your mouth to be constantly losing to a card you can’t quite seem to get your hands on,” Siama adds. “Luckily for us, Gwent is played versus an AI that a skilled player can typically defeat without having the best cards in hand. One of the negatives we managed to avoid was the randomness that often overtakes skill in cards games.”

Moving from a relatively new concept of Gwent to a seasoned franchise within the genre, Yu-Gi-Oh was the origin of my personal interest in card-based video games. Even though its Abridged Series completely destroyed the narrative with hilarious precision (as if the fate of the world being decided by card games ever seemed legit), the game itself is still addictive with layers upon layers of strategy.

Legacy of the Duelist screenshot

Players have five spaces traditionally reserved for Monsters (although the more modern format introduces new card slots) and six spots reserved for Spell and Trap cards. Whilst trying to customise a balanced, compact deck with a few Fusion Monsters to boot, one eye remains fixated on your Life Points – a health bar, of sorts.

Yu-Gi-Oh is a game of bluffs and double-bluffs because rarely will you ever know what cards your opponent has placed face down until you go on the offensive. What’s so tricky about the game is that, initially, players are only allowed to summon monsters that are level four or less. Attacking from the outset could mean trouble as you could activate the annoying flip effect of a face-down Man Eater Bug – causing the attacking card to be destroyed as a result of battle – or it could turn out be a monster with tons of Defence points – like Big Shield Gardna or Charcoal Inpachi.

But just when you thought the duel was lost, you strike gold. Luck plays a big part in the game, and the outcome can be decided by the draw of a single card. It’s a combination of this luck, and some serious mind games, that makes Yu-Gi-Oh such a classic title in the deck-building genre.

But the Yu-Gi-Oh video games have frequently failed at providing a stimulating spectacle for its players. The franchise’s latest title, Legacy of the Duelist, is a collection of the last five generations of the well-known deck-builder – all the way back to Yugi Moto and his hijinks at Duelist Kingdom. Each story arc in Legacy of the Duelist is told by a robot through a series of static screens with no spoken dialogue. This is far from a riveting way to tell progress a story, with subtle character movements in each passing text-heavy sentence.

Though victory is possible in as quickly as five or six turns, Legacy of the Duelist is delivered as an extremely safe entry in the franchise where no boundaries have been pushed, both graphically and technically, and where nothing feels new.

Yu-Gi-Oh The Duelists of the Roses
Duelists of the Roses, released on the PS2, recreated the field as a chessboard.

Matches may have been drawn out, but Yu-Gi-Oh: Duelists of the Roses, was particularly unique due to the field being recreated as a game of chess. A deck’s guardian/King determined what further cards you would acquire, where the board was segmented into various field types (e.g.: grass, water, wasteland, etc.) that affected different classes of monsters. It provided a good balance and played on the ‘old system’ of 4000 Life Points, as opposed to the 8000 LPs the video games have since adopted. This iteration often became quite hectic; running around the field as a lonely Summoned Skull for 15 turns just to summon one monster card.

Yu-Gi-Oh is one of those tough cases where it’s hard to make the game look any more attractive than it already is. The games have always been headlined by a simple overhead view of the field with players chipping away at each other’s life points for a period of time. Incorporating more short, cinematic cutscenes during battles as well as spell and trap card activations would not make the game more stimulating; only more attractive. Not only that, it’d help this well-known franchise take a step forward in changing the regular formula expected from deck-builders.

Hand of Fate is one such card game that’s taken its own formula to create a completely unique experience for both PC and console gamers. It throws together a variety of deck-building, dungeon crawling, role-playing and third-person combat elements to seamlessly produce a game that’s as stressful as it is enjoyable.

“When it came to think about our next title, we wanted to ensure that players could understand which elements of the game were random, and have some control over those outcomes”, said Morgan Jaffit, Creative Director at Defiant Development.

Hand of Fate combat screenshot
At times, Hand of Fate has nothing to do with cards at all.

A player’s deck consists of Encounter cards – small situations with positive or negative outcomes, as well as ongoing quests – and Equipment cards – the weaponry you choose for battle. In Hand of Fate’s Story Mode, there are 13 boss battles, including The Dealer himself, and the only way to increase the spread of cards available for your deck is to complete encounters or defeat each major opponent. Before you can take on a boss, players traverse through several floors of a dungeon using a small figurine representing your hero. Each floor is made from a combination of cards from your deck as well as those from The Dealer. The hero’s survival is dependent on reaching the final battle in as few moves and with as much health as possible, due to a supply of food that drains after each move. When played successfully, certain cards reward gold that can be used at shops for all-important health, food or weapons.

The risk/reward aspect at play in Hand of Fate is palpable. Running out of food will cause your hero to bleed health points, so uncovering every card on a floor isn’t always the best option. Also, the strategy associated with deck-building requires lots of thought because you must have cards that are certain to grant you a brief respite as well as ones that will unlock newer cards further down the line. What’s more, with each Boss you slay, The Dealer stacks your deck with mandatory and brutal Encounter cards reflective of the next dungeon.

One thing Hand of Fate does very well is enticing the player into certain situations, as the possibility of success is never too far away. Players are presented with a brief mini-game where selecting one of four cards will decide your fate. Each card is branded with Huge Success, Success, Failure, or Huge Failure and the repercussions are immediate. Complacency is your enemy because, while one scenario may offer three Success and one Failure results, increased usage of a particular scenario will alter its odds. Morgan Jaffit declares that the amount of diversity on offer really shook up the traditional formula and eliminated many negative aspects associated with card games.

“There’s a lot of overhead involved in making sure cards behave properly like cards. If you just have stats increasing in a normal game that’s fine – in a card game, you have to remove one card, replace it with another, and move those cards around.”

Hand of Fate mini-game
There are no words – sometimes you just get lucky.

“We’re very committed in Hand of Fate to ensuring that the rules of a tabletop card game are always physically covered in the game world, along with the rules of a video game,” he adds.

Despite its success, Morgan Jaffit is surprised that a similar game – one using so many different systems – hadn’t been done before; drifting so far from the familiar has undoubtedly been the game’s major drawcard.

“When we were developing it, we didn’t really think we were doing anything new – all the parts we used had existed before us,” he said.

“Once it all came together, though, we realised we’d actually created something greater than the sum of its parts. I hope more people follow the path we’ve laid out.”

Card games have been around a long time in video games and have arguably spent a significant amount of that time looking familiar and playing similarly. A cut-and-paste approach with previous iterations is no longer acceptable and, perhaps, is one of the biggest disappointments associated with card games. When you have to compete with RPGs, action titles and shooters, how can you win players’ attention with static screens and subtle sound effects? You can’t.

But these deck-builders and collectible card titles are slowly changing and evolving with the times. It’s great see a genre that has been dormant for so long asking players the right questions and delivering an encouraging brand of video games.

Power Up Gaming would like to acknowledge CD Projekt RED and Defiant Development for taking part in this feature.

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