|There don't seem to be any dedicated threads on CCGs here, so I guess I'm going to claim Geek Crown of Barbelith, at least momentarily:|
I love collectible card games.
Disclaimer, off the bat: I hate collecting collectible card games. I think the entire "speculation/rarity/completionist" structure is nasty, a cynical and manipulative attempt to suck money out of people's pockets.
Any "mature" collectible card or miniatures game is going to have people building decks/armies using the entire breadth of the series with no regard for rarity (they buy/trade for what they need), so at that point the rarity aspect is moot.
Disclaimer II: I'm not in the tournament circuit. I live in a small(ish) town in Quebec and I have not the money, nor time, nor inclination to travel to Montreal and do tournaments with people that obsess over deck structure and the percentage odds of drawing a Hymn to Tourach in their first seven-card draw. Some of them are fantastic guys, don't get me wrong, but I have other priorities in life that exclude dedicating entire days to card tournaments.
With those two things in mind, I repeat: I love collectible card games.
While the "rarity" system sucks in terms of cynical money-grabs and artificial ways to manipulate the nerdy completionist, it has produced a level of game design that is stratospherically beyond anything else in terms of card-only games or "light" themed wargaming. What were your choices for card games before Magic: The Gathering exploded? You had regular cards, Mille Bornes, Uno... then I start to falter. The brilliance of Magic (and, arguably, of the structured system of less powerful "common" cards and more powerful "rarer" cards) was that this was a deep game, as strategic as most light wargames on the market, but you could fit it into a box the size of -- well, of a deck of cards -- and carry it in your pocket. A game took less than 15 minutes, usually, and was good goofy fun.
At the risk of stating the obvious, but for the benefit of the totally unitiated, the mechanics of a basic CCG are as follows: each player has a deck. You usually start with a hand full of cards and draw more every turn.
Cards are (usually) divided into three broad categories, creatures, non-creatures, and resources. You play resources to the table (in Magic, it's various kinds of land, that produce resources of different "colours") from your hand, and use those resources to "pay" for creatures and non-creatures you play from your hand. The more resources you have on the table, the more powerful the cards you can play. Creatures are there to attack your opponent (or your opponent's creatures); other cards either modify your creatures, your opponent's creatures, or have some sort of general effect.
There's actually a reasonable Magic-type Flash game (minus the layer of complexity that the resource cards and the use of them provide) here.
Of course, the cards all affect each other, too. In Magic, a black monster you bring to the table might also have the effect of making it easier to play red monsters to the table. A spell card might do damage to all green creatures on the board, or just your opponent's flying creatures, or to your opponent directly. A blue spell might make it such that red creatures cannot attack.
And the creatures themselves have attributes -- they fly, they trample, they phase, they each have their own attack and defense values. What looks like a simple card game on a broad fantasy theme is really a very complex system.
You've got broad strategy: how you build your deck. Do you opt for few resources and lots of "cheap" cards and effects to overwhelm? More resources and heavy hitters to crush? Tricky decks, which rely on affecting your opponent's hand and deck to succeed? A single-colour deck, which makes it easy to have the resources you need, or a dual-colour deck, which gives you more cards to choose from but may make it impossible to play what you need when you need it?
You've got tactics: which creatures attack when, when you play a certain card to affect the outcome of a fight, which creatures to help, which to hinder.
You've got resource management: which resources to allocate to which cards, when to hold some resources in reserve for last-minute changes of plan, etc.
So back in the early '90s, this "Magic" game popped up out of nowhere and created a niche -- the strategy card game, something that scratched a "real" gaming brain-itch but did it in less than 15 minutes and could be played anywhere.
And the perverse reason this game worked so well was because of this horrible "collectible" element -- the creators of the game had to create scores of differnt cards, hundreds of them, to generate "rarity." And they had to ensure that the game was balanced, so one colour didn't just cream all the others routinely. And then they had to keep releasing new sets of cards (and phasing out old ones) to keep the game fresh, before the munchkins could boil the game down to three or four "perfect" decks.
Which is why I got out of Magic and sold all my cards around '96 -- I couldn't afford to keep up. Had I kept those cards I would be a richer man today, but what the hell.
And after Magic, came the tide. Netrunner, Doomlands, Mythos (the first Cthulhu CCG -- I'll get back to this), Lord of the Five Rings, Rifts, Star Wars, and I could just keep typing. Loads of new games, some just copycats, some with some brilliant new mechanics that improved on Magic.
Magic stayed top dog, though, dominating the market and crushing all competitors.
The bad side to that is that Magic is kind of the Microsoft of card games -- ubiquitous and a bit vanilla.
The good side is that there are better CCGs out there that Magic drove off the shelves that you can now pick up ridiculously cheap.
My current obsession is Call of Cthulhu, a CCG put out by Fantasy Flight in '04/'05 and discontinued last year. I picked up a box of starters and boosters (games are usually sold in "starter" boxes, which are more cards but with fewer rares overall, plus the rules and whatever else you need to play, and "boosters," which are fewer cards with more rares per capita but no other stuff) on the cheap and set to. And it is a great danged game. Fun, atmospheric, interesting. Rather than clobbering the other player directly, you control "factions" within the mythos -- any of four cults of Great Old One worshippers, or the Academy (scholars), Syndicate (mob), or Agency (police/government), and fight over "stories" in the middle of the table. If you win a certain number of struggles over a story, it becomes yours, and if you win three stories, you win the game.
Again -- lots and lots of subtlety. Story struggles break down into phases, in which creatures can be driven mad or killed outright; there is lots of attention paid to resource allocation, which is done with "regular" cards that you turn on their heads to make them resources (instead of having dedicated resource cards like most other systems have).
Since CCGs have huge and dedicated fan communities, I've also outsourced a lot of the thinking about what to do with all these cards -- through BoardGameGeek and the Call of Cthulhu boards, I have a couple of guys helping me turn this pile of assorted cards into a "stable" game of three or four decks that I can sit down and play with a friend when I feel like it.
But there are loads of CCGs that are ridiculously cheap, and out of production and therefore "complete," so you don't have to worry about updates and cards being "phased out." I've just ordered a two booster boxes of the commercially-tanked game Hecatomb, in which you and your opponent are evil bastards trying to end the universe and fighting over who has the right to pull the final plug. It failed because it was complex, ill-supported promotionally, and ridiculously over-the-top dark, which sounds like it'll be right up my alley. Two boxes of cards for $16 U.S., which should be enough to build a few decks and have a good time. While browsing the store I saw they had a box of starters for Rifts, another old RPG favourite, for $6, so what the heck. Even with punishing shipping charges to Canada, it's about $50 for hundreds and hundreds of hours of game time.
On the miniatures end, a friend and I picked up a starter and booster each last wekeend for a game called Dreamblade, and spend the afternoon bashing around with it. TONS of fun -- you control weird monsters that fight in the "dreamscape," in sort of a combination of a light wargame and chess, with lots of dice-rolling and -- as is the hallmark of these things -- interlinking effects. Dreamblade is my first CMG, and my interest was spurred in it being described as "a good board game with miniatures, not a CCG with miniatures" -- and it is. It's fun, interesting, and doesn't need tons of varied figurines to work as a game. But the itch, the collectible itch, it's itching. May need to be scratched with a booster or two...
So yeah. That's CCGs in a nutshell. They take lot of flak, because kids play 'em, because they attract obsessive fanboys, because they feature pictures of Drizzt D'u'rden and his Crystal Dragon, because they gouge money from the pockets of the weak-minded, because they're, well, not video games.
But I'd suggest that the obnoxious quality of these games (rarity/collectibility) pushed the designers into making them more interesting, deeper, and more varied than any card games that came before them. Granted, they're supported by a base of rabid sweaty fanboys, but given that Barbelith has a huge comics-reading community, I don't think we can call the kettle very black there.
There are a few really cool-looking ones out there I'd love to try -- Shadowfist springs to mind -- but I just don't have the time/budget to pick up anything that isn't discontinued and that continues to grow.
And given the vast number of discontinued and extraordinarily cheap games out there, I'd encourage people to give them a try. You can play most games "out of the box" with a starter deck (if you wanted to give any game a try, find somebody to play with and buy a starter each, and don't commit to buying more ever -- then see how long you can hold out). Personally, I'm enjoying buying the discontinued games en masse because then I can rip all them packages open and explore and chortle merrily.
There's at least as much strategy and planning as in your standard PS2 RPG, and these games actually involve sitting down with another live hu-man and having conversations. Which is, on balance, usually a good thing, yes?