It's been over a year since I said anything about "Sirlin Card Game #4," the customizable but not-collectable game that I've been kicking around for over a decade now. Over the last year it's solidified quite a bit and gotten a lot of polish, too. If you happen to be going to PAX Prime this year, you can find me at the Game Salute booth to maybe get a chance to play it.
I thought I'd share a bit about a design problem that I kind of accidentally stumbled into an answer for. That's how things happen sometimes. First, the things that have explicitly been goals all along:
1) Make a game that would be interesting to play for 10+ years without any new cards being released.
2) No mana-screw.
3) Inject some "characters" into the game.
I won't say much about points 2 or 3. Regarding "no mana-screw," hopefully it doesn't take much explanation to see why you wouldn't want to randomly be locked out of even *playing* in a supposed strategy game. Point 3 is a matter of preference, and I just think it feels better to have characters and personalities to connect with in a game. This one was hard to figure out, but the current implementation really adds to actual gameplay as well as feel, so it worked out well.
It's #1 that's the real big one. If we can't rely on new cards every 3 months, it means the game actually has to hold up past that point on its own merits. If we can't rely on the metagame constantly changing, it means the game itself will need to have enough depth to support years of play at a very high level. In order to make that possible, the codenamed SCG4 gives you access to a much larger set of effects than you'd normally have during a game of any other customizable card game. More than you can use in any single game session, on purpose. And furthermore, much finer control over when you draw those effects. These two things together mean that you have much more *versatility* in how you play any given game. You can pursue pretty different strategies even without changing decks, and you can change which strategy you are pursuing during the course of a game--in response to how your opponent is changing his strategy.
Customizing Out the Fun
So that's all just great, isn't it. But a while ago, I forget how long, maybe a year or year-and-half ago there was a problem in the back of mind with this. The decks I was building for playtests were fun and all, but I was looking for that fun. I generally included about three different sets of strategies in these decks, and that was very good for gameplay. But what if a player who was playing to win built a much more boring and shallow deck? What if someone made a deck with only 1 strategy, but it was 20% more effective than any of my individual 3 strategies would be? We could debate which is actually a smarter idea, but if there is any chance that the more boring and shallow version is more capable of winning, that's going to really suck for the game.
Before going on, we should take a look at the more general problem that exists in all CCGs: unfair matchups are not only common, but often considered a good idea. If you can develop some deck that has really strong matchups vs several decks, but really weak matches vs only a few, you did a great job as a deckbuilder. You might win the tournament even, but you will have possibly played all unfair matchups, one way or another. For a more concrete example, a friend of mine told me about a Magic tournament he entered where he expected the (red) Goblins deck to be *most* of the field. He built a super hate deck directly against Goblins that included 12 maindeck protection from red cards, just for starters. He gave little thought to beating non-Goblins decks, though probably he had a sideboard to help as much as he could against those.
He told a pro player at the event that his deck was almost 10-0 vs goblins. The pro player said uh no it isn't, so they played several games. Eventually, the pro conceded that he didn't see a way that goblins could win at all, ever, vs that deck because it was just so extreme. My friend got 5th, but only due to an unlucky draw at the end. The bracket had: goblins, goblins, goblins, goblins, u/w control, and him, and he happened to face u/w control. He placed high, and he could have won the entire thing. What's most notable here is that 100% of his matches had bad gameplay. In every case, when he sat down to the table, one player or the other had overwhelming advantage.
Losing Before You Even Sit Down at the Table
Let me use the word "gameplay" to mean the part where you sit down at the table and play cards until someone loses. You could say "gameplay" also includes deckbuilding and metagame choices, but let's not, because then I'd just need some other word for when you sit down and play cards. The part where you sit down and play cards--the "gameplay"--really should be as generally fair as we can make it. I don't see it as a virtue that 8-2 or worse matchups are frequent things. It's clearly a bad property when fighting games have lots of highly unfair matchups, and it's something we work hard to fix there, rather than applaud.
But what can you DO about this? (Sideboards barely count as a good answer. They do literally nothing for game 1 of a match.) Deckbuilding is fun and captures the imagination, and that's what we're running up against here: deckbuilding is allowing unfair matchups to exist and to be common, even. If we limit deckbuilding, that sounds less fun. And so I didn't even really try to solve this problem, I just kind of gave up on it. And then something happened. Two ideas looked a lot alike, it was a clue.
When All Decks Really Interact...
In pursing that goal #1 of making the game interesting to play for years and years, we have to care a lot about your interaction with the opponent. You really need a lot more interaction than you get in most CCGs. There just has to be more to it if you're hanging your hat on the depth of gameplay of a single deck giving you YEARS of strategy space to play in. So what about cases where what you're trying to do is so different from what your opponent is trying to do that you hardly interact at all? I have joked amongst playtesters that we "force you to have fun" by making it not really possible to do that. You pretty much have to interact. And if we theorized about this or something, we might think oh that really limits what you can make! You can't make some solitaire thing that has no interaction at all. In actually playing it though, it feels the opposite of limited. Because the general game system has a lot more decisions going on than in other CCGs, "I feel so limited," doesn't come to mind, at least not to me. If anything, you have a wealth of choices and oh by the way, you can't go off in the corner and completely ignore what your opponent is doing.
Another way of putting this is that there's an illusion and reality that are at odds here. If we allow you make solitaire decks, it feels like that's more choice. In reality though, it's allowing choices that hurt the quality of the game overall as an interesting strategy game that can last years. It's like wanting freedom in your country, and saying part of that freedom is to murder people indiscriminately. In that case "more freedom" is a somewhat misleading label.
Limiting Deckbuilding to Create MORE Viable Decks
Back to the whole deckbuilding thing: it's exactly the same there. What if players want "more freedom" to build decks that cause the game to overall have a lot worse strategy? Wait...why are we allowing that? Deckbuilding is fun and exciting, but it has that same illusion, unfortunately. When you have more and more cards and more and more freedom to make anything, the illusion is that you get more and more choices. But what is more common is that you get more and morely likely to degenerate into just a very few choices, or one choice. Just imagine a CCG with 550 cards that you can combine however, and how many tournament viable decks there are going to be in that game. Yomi, a fixed deck game, has 550 cards that compose 10 such decks, but you'd be lucky to have even 4 if it were customizable. And there's just no way those 4 would end up having all 4-6, 5-5, and 6-4 matchups against each other. So you'd have the illusion of way more choice, but actually end up with fewer viable choices, and more unfair matchups plaguing the few choices you have.
So I realized that when I was including three different strategies in these decks, I was really on to something. This evolved to be a more and more central part of the game. Interwoven with the "heroes" you control, and part of the back-and-forth strategy where you and your opponent can each shift around what you're doing as you play. What seemed years ago like a bad limit to place on deckbuilding has now become (accidentally?) one of the best features of all. Yeah there are limits, there are chunks of your deck that have to have certain kinds of things. So how has that turned out? Has it made me and other playtesters sad?
The answer is that it's resulted in so many viable decks that we are overwhelmed. It's possible to make over 815 different decks with all the cards that exist today, and every one of those differs by at least 33% from every other one. And here is the most incredible part of that. I don't know which of those 815 is the least powerful, but whichever one it is, I do know that it's at least as able to win (and probably a lot more able to win) than the worst character in the average fighting game. So when I say this huge number of decks, I'm not talking about useless stuff like "all lands" or "all 1/1 creatures with no way to play them." I mean those are all real decks that can do coherent things and win in the hands of a skilled player. Somehow the "limits" on deckbuilding have produced more decks than we even know what to do with--every one of them playable.
The Yomi expansion will be the next game I release, and that's going to be a while, so the game mentioned in this post will be even a while after that. I honestly don't know how I'll pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of art such a game needs, but one way or another you will get to play this game. I'm determined to eventually release it because I think it's incredible and I just don't know anything like it. Probably the higher the sales of the Yomi expansion, the sooner I'll be able to finish "SCG4."