Theory Behind the Game Part 4

Part 2 and Part 3 of this series addressed some limitations and mechanics problems with other customizable card games in the market, and how Dog Fight: Starship Edition addresses those issues. In this installment we will look at realism and some of its implications.

You're probably familiar with the phrase "jump the shark". The official meaning of this phrase tends to be something like a climax of a TV show, where the quality/popularity/profitability of the show begins an unrecoverable decline. There is another, less academic meaning of this phrase which I've also heard people use. This second meaning is something more like an unfortunate instance in a show which is just too ridiculous to accept. The ability to suspend one's disbelief has reached its limit, and it becomes almost impossible to "get into" the story any longer.

There is a similar situation with customizable card games. In this game type, new cards are released periodically. As expected, to keep interest in the game the newer cards tend to raise the bar. Effects and abilities offered by new cards often surpass those provided by previous cards. At the early stages of CCGs this is actually a good idea. The more simple cards should be released early so players can acclimate to the game. Those who enjoy playing it will naturally learn the more powerful cards as they are released. But if a game is not designed with definitive limits on the uber-powerful cards the game can get out of control. With cards that are too powerful it becomes very easy to leave players feeling ripped off, or feeling that the game has been broken by poor planning on the part of the publisher. Ever wonder why so many cards end up getting banned from tournament play?

There are other implications from this phenomenon. Some call this "planned obsolescence", where later cards essentially make earlier cards obsolete. It ends up being quite lucrative for the publisher, but a money pit for the players. In this situation, to stay competitive the newer cards become a necessity. It makes sense for a CCG to provide players with a basic deck as an introduction to the game, and they can later supplement their deck with more powerful cards - but only up to a point. Once that point is reached the quality of the game begins to suffer as more ridiculously powerful cards are created and released. However, if the ridiculously powerful cards were among the earlier releases, the upper limit of the game's capability can be established in a way that makes other powerful cards more palatable. The fun factor benefits far more from a player's mental investment, instead of the publisher's bottom line benefiting more from the player's financial sacrifice to replace obsolete cards.

"Nuclear Detonation" is a prime example of how Dog Fight: Starship Edition was designed to include the upper limit to game capability from its early stages. This is the only ATTACK card in the basic Dog Fight game which permits an attack regardless of your ship's Attack strength. The damage inflicted by this card depends entirely on the number of energy counters spent by the attacker. It also has a built in secondary effect which inflicts damage to other objects. This is a very powerful card, and is available only in the Relentless Extension Set. And it establishes the upper limit of what ATTACK cards can do in Dog Fight. Theoretically, this card has limitless potential as there is no pre-established limit as to how much damage you can inflict with it. And it does all this by itself: no other card is required for this powerful effect to work. Yet this card has a built in cost proportional to is effect. And in this basic universe there will be no other cards more powerful (maybe later we can address the multi-verse idea currently in the works).

To avoid planned obsolescence, any ATTACK card created for Dog Fight: Starship Edition will be compared to the effect of "Nuclear Detonation". If there are any cards which reach anywhere near the destructive potential of this card it will have to first satisfy the prime rule of card creation for this game: realism.

I admit, it's pretty cool to be able to retrieve a character card after it was destroyed. Or how about increasing a character's Attack power based on a factor of how many cards have been equipped to it (regardless of what those equipped cards actually do)? Yeah, it can be exciting (for a little while) to bestow a magical power on a character even if it makes no sense for that to happen. One problem I have with this mechanics-based approach to card design is that some totally outrageous ideas are produced which turn out to be utterly unrealistic. Even in a fantastic fictional setting, these uber cards or effects which manufacture an amazingly powerful situation all tend to lead to problems. As mentioned before, there is the feeling of being ripped off. There is also the issue of an increasingly complex list of extra rules. There is typically a "card rulings" list for most CCGs where certain cards present problems in certain specific situations. That is inevitable. With realistic effects this type of situation can be mitigated to a large extent. Outlandish cards tend to create more unnecessary complexities. And if the publisher keeps changing their mind about how such situations are to be resolved, well you can see how that might damage the enjoyment of the game.

In Dog Fight: Starship Edition there is no special card combination that lets you win the game simply by possessing them. More powerful cards do not automatically make your deck better unless you know how to use them. What makes "Nuclear Detonation" a viable card for Dog Fight is that it is perfectly realistic. Nuclear weapons exist in the real world, and they have been highly developed and are very sophisticated today. There is no reason to believe a future of combat in space would exclude nuclear weapons unless they could be replaced with something more powerful (which leads back to the multi-verse idea). But it also has built in balance; if you don't plan well, "Nuclear Detonation" won't be much use to you.

One of the many goals of this combat game is to focus on the realistic possibilities of the theme while staying within its own established parameters. Without definitive limits new card ideas tend to be devoted toward increasingly absurd cards. Being limited to these self-imposed confines early on forces the muse behind the game to be more creative with card ideas. Playing around with mechanics is sometimes utilized (such as the card "Draw 3", which has no direct impact on the player's ship or to anything on the board). But these card ideas are kept to a minimum. In Dog Fight, card ideas are focused on what could actually happen in a (theoretically) real situation, rather than mere component manipulation.

When a game endeavors for a more elegant design it also tends to require more sophisticated thinking from the designers and the players. The game tactics of maneuvering and fourth dimensional thinking tend to be a bit difficult for most young children. To make the game more accessible to that younger audience would likely require a dilution of the entire construct. I have met a few younger kids, perhaps pre-teens, who could handle the game and played it intelligently. But they were the exceptions. Dog Fight: Starship Edition is organized logically enough that simplifying it further would likely ruin the experience for older players. For this reason Dog Fight is not billed as a kids' game.

To improve your deck beyond the basic starter set you'll have to add in extra cards. But your deck will eventually reach the point where the more powerful cards available simply won't help much. This is another aspect of the game which seems to require a bit more maturity from the player than some other CCGs. As with other games of this type, changing your deck build and being able to play those changes well is what makes for an interesting game, not (necessarily) getting all the latest cards. The emphasis in Dog Fight: Starship Edition is on the meta game, where imagination and experience are what make the difference, not your budget.

Keeping the game fresh is necessary if it is to retain your interest. Development continues. And we all have to make a living somehow, so please tell others about Dog Fight: Starship Edition.

In part 5 we'll address analysis paralysis and downtime in CCGs and how Dog Fight attempts to avoid these problems.