Flash of Steel header image 2

Three Moves Ahead Episode 7 – Collectible Card Games

April 7th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 21 Comments · Design, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


The full panel is on hand this week and Troy is way out of his element as they talk about Collectible Card Games as strategy games, starting with Battleforge and moving through Star Chamber, Culdcept Saga and Magic. Should Bruce by a PSP? Who uses the phrase “synergy of modalities of gameplay”? Why does Julian sound like he’s talking through a cardboard tube? And what game does Tom absolutely not want any of you to buy this week?

Listen here as these and more questions are answered. (RSS feed.)

Troy’s Battleforge review
Star Chamber
Pox Nora


21 Comments so far ↓

  • LintMan

    I’m with Bruce on the CCG appeal – I just don’t get it. I guess I can feel the appeal of the deckbuilding aspect, which provides for high-level strategic planning, but the “controlled randomness” comments seem silly to me, particularly when elsewhere in the podcast die rolls are disparaged for their randomness. Aren’t die rolls the ultimate in “controlled randomness”? Whether it’s a d6 or a d20 or a d100, you always know what the possible outcomes are (and can plan for them, as mentioned in the podcast).

    I guess my real problem with CCG videogames, though, is the business model – After buying a game, I just don’t want to have to keep pouring money into it to get the cool units, etc.

  • Thomas Kiley

    Fantastic podcast as always, very thought provoking.

    For me, the appeal of a CCG is two part (basically what Troy said). One: collection. I would love to see a digital CCG which captures the essence of collection without micro transactions.

    I also love the interaction between building your deck and playing. I like how you build a deck with maybe a game plan, but then you must play with the hand you are drawn. It is a nice balance between planning and playing by ear.

    In some ways, I would like to see a game that is more focused around collecting the card. You would have to go on long quests to track down rare cards. etc

    I’m surprised that Armageddon Empires didn’t come up in the discussion, that had quite a neat deck system with you constantly wondering whether you should save up for a card you may or may not get etc.


    I think the point about controlled randomness is that you picked everything in your deck. If you roll a 1 on a die, that can break you. You didn’t choose what numbers to put on the die and it was out of your control. With your deck, you should be prepared for whatever you draw.

  • Lizard Dude

    Get out the way, yo.

    Get out the way, yo.

  • nullspace

    I too was surprised that Armageddon Empires was left out. It’s completely a strategy game, and just about every item on your list of “things that are good about CCGs” applies to Armageddon Empires: making your own OOB, the controlled randomness of drawing your hand, and its quick speed.

    I think the card mechanic fit the post apocalyptic setting really well, too. There are very limited resources, no factories that can make infinite tanks, just the tanks you have in your deck. And you have to work with what happens to be available in your hand and rather than an optimal build order.

    I like Bruce’s take on RPGs. I used to love them, but now I can’t play them. I just want to customize my party and take them through a few hard battles. Then design a new party that’s better or just different and see how well they do. Why should I have to go through an hour of grind and plot just to add my next skill point?

  • Black Dawn

    Great podcast guys, loved your memories of Star Chamber, which I still play. Just so you know, it is still around, although Sony (who now own it) have stated that they are not developing it any further, so we’re stuck with the 2 blocks (6 card sets) we had when they bought the thing.

    As a game designer, I can tell you the most powerful thing about cards: You can (in theory) implement ANY type of game as a card game. All programming creates what is known as a “state machine” in which if you are in state A (eg character is idle) and an input occurs (eg jump button is pressed) the state changes to B (character jumping). All of this could be reflected in card rules (eg turning a character card sideways puts it in the “jump” state). This allows card games to be not just games but “meta-games” in which you are simulating the experience of other game types with simple cards. Designing a good card game is very challenging, but when it succeeds the rewards are huge.

  • LintMan

    @Thomas Kiley: So it’s the randomness of what you draw that’s appealing? Would all this be roughly equivalent to, say, picking your entire army in advance for an RTS, and then starting the game with a random subset of it? (And then, presumably, only being able to field units randomly selected from the remainder of your set?)

    @nullspace: Does Armageddon Empires have the whole microtransaction thing going on? Do you have to buy cards for it?

  • Thomas Kiley

    I think this would basically be the same yes, in fact it would be exactly the same. In fact, many RTS games implement a similar feature in part; you choose an army which has some special units (choosing your deck) but then when you play the game some resource may not be present (dealing your hand).

    I admit this isn’t the same, but I don’t think the idea you suggest is so ridiculous. It allows you to form plans before hand but then, for whatever narrative reason, you must adapt your strategy to what you’ve got. I suppose this is kind of similar to the kind of adaptation to strategies that is at the core of all RTS’s, except more so.

  • nullspace

    No microtransactions in Armageddon Empires; all the cards are in the base game and available from the start. Just the GOOD parts of CCGs.

  • James Allen

    The more references I see about Armageddon Empires, the more I think I missed the boat on that one.
    No wonder I am a third-tier game reviewer :)

  • LintMan

    @Thomas Kiley: I wasn’t trying to imply my RTS idea was ridiculous, I was just trying to abstract out the “card collecting” concept from the “luck of the draw” concept.

    @nullspace: Thanks, I might check it out myself sometime.

    @James Allen: I vaguely remembered Tycho from Penny Arcade plugging Armageddon Empires some time ago, and through the magic of google: http://www.penny-arcade.com/2008/2/4/

  • Jeremy

    I really enjoyed this podcast.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Star Chamber is my all-time favorite CCG, and that right now Culdcept Saga is the game I most play on my 360!

    As for the appeal of CCG’s, for me it’s a couple of things: the creative expression that deck-building allows (especially with a good game system under the hood), and the ability of hundreds of cards and all sorts of interlocking mechanics capturing the flavor of a property. You can really get immersed in a game world in a CCG, if the game world is interesting.

  • Kevin

    I was wondering what RPG they where talking about toward the end of the episode, does anyone have a name and a link for it.

  • Troy

    Not sure which game you mean, Kevin. Tom slams Godfather 2 at the very end, before that two CCGs – Magic and Warcry.

  • Kevin

    okay I quickly listened to the end of the podcast and the game in question was “King of Dragon Pass” http://www.mobygames.com/game/king-of-dragon-pass. Looks like you can still buy the game at http://a-sharp.com/buy/ where they will burn you a copy for $19.95.

  • Troy

    Oh, King of Dragon Pass. Right.

    Great, great game. You play a clan chieftain of a Viking-ish group. It’s a difficult game, but it tells real stories and walks the perfect line between strategy and RPG.

    Highly, highly recommended.

  • doctoryes

    As a dedicated player of StarChamber I’d like to thank you guys for the great review. The game does still exist and the main problem that you point out – getting destroyed in two seconds by vets – has been solved internally by the SC community. We now only play pre-constructed starter decks against newbs. When Sony decided their only interest in SC was to take the code and dumb it down for mass consumption, the SC players banded together in a grassroots effort to recruit new players and to make their experience of the highly daunting learning curve as painless as possible. We even have an ongoing event that allows new players to win prizes that are donated (yes, cards with value) by vets. I doubt there is any other game in existence where such a program could happen. This coupled with the facts that commons are free and that vets actually take the time to help new players learn and to answer their questions make SC unique. Another great feature that sets SC apart from PoxNora, for example, is play formats. In PoxNora it is impossible to set up a match in which you will not be confronted by a unbeatable, extremely expensive deck. In SC you can play commons only matches (only free cards) or numerous other unofficial play formats that are supported by the players. These formats help to take money out of the equation by creating level playing fields between players of differing investment. Again, none of this could be possible without a small, dedicated, mature, and decent community. I defy you, as game reviewers, to find a better value than the hundreds of free cards, 10 races, 40+ maps, dozens and dozens of viable deck paradigms, play formats including head to head up to 4 player matches, and a polite and helpful community that new players buy into for a registration of TEN BUCKS. SC is alive and absolutely untouchable in value and quality. Come check out the game again some time :)


    mac download at:

  • Troy

    Doctor Yes:

    Glad you enjoyed Bruce and Tom’s trip down memory lane. I’ve never played Star Chamber, but it sounds like the sort of thing I would lose myself in for months.

    Hope you keep listening.

  • doctoryes

    More like months, most likely :)
    One thing I didn’t mention above, an SC match takes about 30 min on average. This, along with the depth of strategy is a big factor in defining our demographic – intelligent, educated professionals, many with families, most without unlimited gaming-time. I can usually squeeze in a match on most days, and I always look forward to my little strategy fix. I’m not saying that SC is for everyone or for all gaming tastes, but it’s a very nearly perfect example of what it is and it’s a shame (on Sony) that it doesn’t have a much wider player base. We seem to be having a nice little stream of prospective players in the last few days though, very likely because of your review. So again, thanks for that! Hope you can find time to stop by and check it out some time yourself.

  • Justin Fletcher

    So I’m catching up on my TMAs, and, being a CCG freak, this was my favorite one yet.

    I actually thought the same thing as LintMan: the comparison of CCGs’ “controlled randomness” to a die roll actually made them sound like the same thing. Julian (in the podcast) and Thomas (in the comments) already clarified somewhat by saying that you control what cards are in your hand, but I’d like to take the metaphor further.

    Imagine that you have a die and a hand of six cards that each has a number on it. The difference between them is not just that you can choose what number can be on each of the cards (e.g. 4 8 15 16 23 42) while you’re stuck with 1-6 on the die. It’s that you can affect the probability of certain numbers coming up by including more instances (e.g. 1 1 2 3 6 6). Part of the strategy in CCGs comes from “controlling the die roll.”

    Which speaks to one of Tom’s problems with the Culdcept games (pronounced “cul-de-cept” by the in-game voiceovers in Culdcept Saga). He rightfully acknowledges that the die roll adds another huge, sometimes overpowering, element of chance on a game already dealing with the controlled randomness of drawing cards. Which is why, in my opinion, most winning strategies in Culdcept rely on controlling the die roll with the Holy Word cards. These cards set the next die roll for either you or your opponent, allowing you to change capricious fate into a strategic ally. This is especially powerful due to the Magic-meets-Monopoly conceit of the game, in which territories have tolls that can be leveled up. Imagine being able to force someone to land on Boardwalk after you’ve built a hotel on it, and you’ve got the idea.

    Building a die control deck must be balanced with creatures, items, and spells that allow you to capture and defend territory. Forcing rolls is also somewhat balanced by maps with branching paths that can be used by an opponent as an emergency detour. But die control is still one of the strongest paths to victory.

    Tom’s second issue is also an annoyance of mine: the brief flashes of your opponent’s cards. This unbalances the game by giving an advantage to the player that can recognize these cards and can remember what each one does. The problem is magnified by the fact that you win cards by playing matches and that new cards appear in your winnings infrequently. Therefore, you are guaranteed to see cards in your opponent’s deck that you don’t recognize as you slowly collect a full set of Culdcept cards. However, an opponent who has unlocked more cards than you doesn’t have that problem and is more likely to recognize your cards. So while the brief flash of cards is ostensibly fair because it happens to all players, veterans have the upper hand, because showing a card to a rookie who doesn’t recognize it is the same as not showing him a card at all.

    Tom attributes this to laziness on the part of the developers when they addressed the issue of doing a video CCG with local multiplayer. I’m sure there’s some truth to that, but the flashes are also used as a battle mechanic. When two creatures face off, the defender is again shown a brief glimpse of the attacker’s cards. Based on that glimpse, the defender must decide how he should use any items in his hand to bolster his creature or disable the opponent’s. Sometimes this results in the waste of cards as the defender anticipates a card that the attacker doesn’t use.

    What this *always* results in, though, is the number one problem with Culdcept, one that I’m shocked Tom didn’t mention: Deadly Slow Pacing. Due to this attack/defend cycle and the animations that must be shown to illustrate how cards interact and affect the outcome, battles in the game take up to 20-30 seconds a piece (longer with human players). This combined with the already leisurely pace of the boardgame aspect makes games on larger maps go on forever. I was amused when Julian mentioned Culdcept Saga as one of his favorite CCG games and then later described one of the strengths of CCGs being that they “last 20 minutes, not two hours.” Most Culdcept matches go on for at least 90 minutes, if not more. It’s heartbreaking that such a great game can be undone this way, and it’s infuriating that it was not addressed in any way between the original PS2 release of Culdcept and the 360’s sequel, Culdcept Saga.

    Collecting is definitely part of the appeal of CCGs; most videogame versions have a counter showing how many cards you lack in order to keep your motivation high. But it goes beyond the “gotta catch em all” factor. It’s more like getting new weapons in an action-RPG: “Wow, what can I do with THIS?”

    This has gone on too long as it is, so here’s a short shout out to some of my other favorites. I’m not down with booster buying, so I only play video/computer CCGs with all cards included (though genre progenitor, Chron X, came very close to separating me from large wads of cash).

    As Tom mentioned, Yu-Gi-Oh is a great gateway drug into CCGs. The Marvel CCG is great, even for non-comics buffs, with two caveats: some of the cards are broken and the interface for the DS version is horrible (get the PSP version).

    As for hybrids (like Culdcept), Armageddon Empires tops the list and deserves all of the accolades it has received. And then there’s Phantom Dust for the original Xbox, which may be the world’s only action-CCG. Instead of just playing cards, you have to aim and fire them at your opponent at various ranges in 3D, destructible, post-apocalyptic arenas. Despite wonky camera controls and the ease with which you could fall to your death, it’s highly recommended and backward compatible with the 360.

  • Magic: the Gathering on the 360

    […] we devoted an entire podcast to collectible card games and one of the highlights was a fight between Tom and Julian over why Magic sucks, I really should […]

  • Angry Gamer

    I cannot believe I missed Armageddon Empires. Time to pull out the wallet