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Denithan

Characteristics of a Successful Card Game

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So over the course of the handful of months I've been on this site, I've participated in and observed a lot of theory and thoughts on what card games are good, what makes them good, and what characteristics can make them bad/unappealing. From discussions of distribution models like LCGs VS CCGs VS TCGs, to flat conversation about straight up the worst games we've played, there's been a significant amount of ground covered in what not to do. Combine this with projects that involves card design, and discussions in my university coursework surrounding a similar topic, and I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes a card game A. easy to adopt, B. sell well, and C. satisfying, and these are my thoughts so far. Note, this is mostly from a marketing perspective since that's about the only thing I'm qualified in.

What Makes a Card Game Successful?

1. Simplicity, but with room for Complexity
This is one that the Dragon Ball TCG definitely missed out on, as has UFC and quite a number of other smaller CGs. Simplicity in the card game is important for its uptake, and the development of an initial playerbase. To go by example, Yu-Gi-Oh! had a huge uptake in the early years based on the simplicity of the game, where even younger kids could follow the rules and understand what was happening. Similarly, Pokemon's card game is simple at its core, as is Vanguard's and Magic's. This makes the game easy to teach to people, and in cases where they might not be inspired by the IP to play (ala. Dragon Ball), having too many complex systems in play from the offset makes the game unwelcoming. Now of course, some games will have playerbases specifically because they have a level of complexity that kind of makes it like a private club, but these historically don't nearly have the level of success financially.

This said, you need to ensure that the game can still have some greater level of complexity. This can just be in the expansion of basic mechanics like Yu-Gi-Oh's GX and 5Ds eras, Vanguard's LB4 Era, Pokemon EX/Legends/ex/Shining/GX, etc., but there needs to be an extra layer for long-term players to sink their teeth into. To refer to FanZ, this would be Traits. It's an extra layer of complexity, but really it's just a contextualization of mechanics already present (Gohan could already use Namekian, Cell counted as all, Majins were always Majins). It adds an extra layer working off of the base mechanic.

A warning exists here, however, with maintaining the balance of simplicity to complexity. If a game goes too far into the complex region, you'll start to see huge drops in playerbase as the more casual audience gets alienated. This is actually shown with the playerbase with Yu-Gi-Oh. While the introduction of Links was fairly controversial, I would argue that the true driving force behind huge drops is just how long turns are taking and how many actions and procs there are in a turn. When someone is setting up a Chain Link 8 with no interactions from the opponent, or just endlessly dropping cards from their hand to bring out Links, to bring out fusions, to bring out Synchros, etc., the game is just having too many actions for the casual player to follow. After that, you lose your casual player-base and a huge portion of your market value.

2. Financial Viability for adoption, prominence in Secondary Market Value
This one will seem as contrary in presentation as you'll get in these factors, but I feel this shows the importance of rarity design.

The reality is that in the adoption phase of a card game, people will not want to risk significant money in an investment that they may not enjoy. This is actually one of the issues we outlined in a recent discussion about why LCGs aren't more popular, as there is significant upfront investment cost with the potential for no benefit.

As an ex-Yu-Gi-Oh player, an ex-Magic player and an ex-Vanguard player, I've noticed a lot of people have moved over to card games like the Pokemon TCG, the Final Fantasy TCG and even the Dragon Ball TCG (this was actually how I was introduced to Panini's version of the game). The main reason I get given for this is because the prior TCGs were too expensive, and these people only have a little bit of money they CAN set aside each month for a hobby. While there's an argument there for "why don't they just play casually?", the reality is that these games have all at different points tried to force their casual playerbase to purchase/pull high-rarity cards to complete their budget decks. This also acts as a huge barrier to the casual market, and while it creates very good secondary markets, those secondary markets ultimately dwindle as a result of poorer playerbase.

Pokemon is a really, really good example of the necessary balance. A structure deck in Pokemon costs comparatively little to the other big card games, and individual packs are purchasable with couch change. THIS said, rarity hoarders are still able to get their fill with full-art high rarity cards. This is actually a similar model to what we're seeing with the Dragon Ball Super card game, though it seems they might be departing from this much to their future detriment.
In short, you need to have a cost-effective game to build an initial audience with your low-risk investments, but also have higher rarity pulls that offer some kind of real world value. This real world value will generate a strong secondary market, which will in turn reward rarity hoarders and also create a cost-effective means for your casual/budget audience to finish off their "for fun" decks.

3. Interaction and Pacing
Don't. Make. Solitaire.

This is something that Yu-Gi-Oh! has hugely failed in historically, as has Magic the Gathering. When a deck gets too powerful, and has too many plays without the opponent being able to interact, the drive to play the game starts to fade. It might be fine for the people winning, but "coin-flip metas" are a spat-out term. We saw a similar discussion about this respect around PanZ and ScoreZ and GT awhile back, but this extends so much further than those three games. There needs to be room for constant interaction and back and forth between players. The reason why Quickplay Spells, Hand Traps, Quick Effects and Trap Cards were so game-shaping in Yu-Gi-Oh is because higher interaction between players creates a more engaging game. Vanguard's moves with G-Guardians and skills that activate during the opponent's turn, as well as just guarding from your hand in general, are all considered good mechanics for this reason. Sure, there's a game balancing aspect of this, but ultimately, it's just fun to interact with the opponent. Competitive card games are inherently a social event, if we wanted to just play solitaire or against AIs, we would do.

The second point here is pacing. Your game needs to be well-paced, playable within a certain time frame to make it convenient, and not take too long to get set-up.Two elements here is one, engaging the player, and two, time constraints. To touch on the first point, you don't want players to come in, and wait 5-10 minutes before they're even interested in the match to actually start making moves. Likewise, you don't want them to come in, get completely overwhelmed by their opponent's turn 1, and be left unable to do anything. Frustration and boredom set in very quickly, and while its a valid feeling that these "normies should get out", the reality is, they will. And they will not buy your product. So this kind of design cuts off your nose to spite your face. Ideally, you'd want a turn or two to set up, and then start instigating play. In Magic, this is in the form of placing fields, in Pokemon, it's attaching energy, in Vanguard, it's riding up to Grade 3, and in Pan/FanZ, I'd argue it's probably your first turn or so of grabbing drills/setups to your board and setting up your plays. This ensures that turn 1, you can see your own moves, your opponent has time to start up, which lets you see theirs, and then you contest your respective decks against each-other after you've both gotten rolling. This also touches upon interaction between players.

On the second point: A large number of card games are simply unplayable because they take too much time for a hobby. If you're working a standard 10-hour shift day, and you need to eat, socialize, maybe watch a movie, unwind, and prepare for the next day, you're not going to be as inclined to dive headfirst into a 60 minute+ per game card game as you would one where you could get through an entire round in the same time. This is essentially Bo3 VS Bo1, but in terms of how long the game takes and pacing.

4. Theming
In both artwork and playstyles.

How your card looks is your selling point. Simple as that. From your card's design, to the artwork, to the naming, to the playing. This isn't, however, to say that you need good artwork. You don't. You just need to have a style and theme that people can identify as yours.
To be honest, this section isn't one I can dive into too heavily as I'm not qualified in design, nor have I ever studied design. The closest I've come is studying distribution and what is visually appealing. But one big point here is consistency in art style and design, so that the game is clearly your product. For YGO, this is in the card borders, in Magic, their watermark is actually the tidbits of lore you get on every card, and in Vanguard, it's the small quotes from each unit. You also get consistency/themes in archtypes and colors.

For me, a good example of how this can help sales is in Vanguard's Shadow Paladins. I legitimately only got into Vanguard originally because I liked Blaster Dark's aesthetic, and the game was cheap. I liked the dark colors, the purple-red hues, and the theme of G2s/1s that superior call to pay for the costs of their G3s retires was really engaging to me. This is also part of what has driven me away from Vanguard since the introduction Claret Sword and Luard, as the deck departed from a lot of its original themes and instead became a more prominent counterpart to Royal Paladin. Not to say the original theme is gone entirely, but that it's definitely now playing second fiddle.

This is actually a really pressing issue for Vanguard of late, where it was formally one of their greatest strengths; The themes of clans are overlapping more and more as the game goes forward. Every clan is getting a re-stander, formally a NG and Kagero trademark, every is getting Glory skills, which were an AqF trademark, and so on (this was always somewhat an issue with Narukami/Kagero, Aqua Force/Nova Grappler, etc. but it has been aggravated).
But more on-topic, the ultimate point is that if someone identifies with a card's theme, they will most likely move towards a deck centre'd around that theme. And if that theme clearly identifies the game as yours, all the better, as you become a more distinguished and prominent part of the market.

5. Community Engagement

Uuuuuurgh, I preach this way too much, and I'm aware I do, but trust me when I say I had it preached to me so much more at University.
Oh, fun side note, I actually graduated this Friday gone. Now I need to find a job.

Look, community engagement is vital. It helps keep conversation around the game live, it lets people know about your merchandise, it helps you build PR and a repeat-consumer base, develops customer loyalty, it is genuinely invaluable. If you want a successful, satisfying card game that will sell well, listen to your fans. Even occasionally contact them and ask them if you can use a few of their ideas if they seem good enough.
Fan archetypes are a really normal thing in any card game, and if they're genuinely interesting and have enough conversation around them, don't put up your nose to asking them if you can use the concept. Most would just be pumped that you took their ideas, and you can reimburse them by giving them free copies of all the cards based on their idea.

But companies/sellers should engage in forums, keep up with complaints and praise, present a wide-variety of avenues to contact them directly, and should be consistent in getting back to their audience. A Facebook group alone is not enough, a Twitter page alone is not enough, and a YouTube account alone is not enough. Even these three specific things combined are not enough if they can't talk to you openly and in an convenient manner. And for god's sake, if you have an official page, then make sure you post every update on there. Large periods of silence mean huge lulls in playerbase and chatter surrounding your product/service.


There are a few more points to what makes a card game satisfying/successful, but I feel like these are the most obvious points. If anyone has any thoughts, examples of companies that have done it well, or anything else, feel free to engage.

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On the subject of #4: Put some thought into the theme.  Not just "What would look cool", how about a story?  And not just a "This happened which destabilized this other thing, now you are fighting to whatever" ACTUAL STORY.  Top down set design, characters with a purpose, background and interactions.  Sensical character race combinations, not just "I think Zombies, battle droids, anime sprites and giant warrior spirits are cool, let's put them all into a game, as if they interact on a daily basis".

I mean, MTG always ends up as the example of how to do something right, but in this aspect it's proper.  It's not like you're stealing their mechanics, you are just acknowledging that having a world your players can really sink their teeth into is a valid selling point.

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#4 ftr, but honestly, yeah, that's a pretty good point as well. And not just Magic has engaged with this, we used to see it a lot with the Duel Terminal archetypes in Yu-Gi-Oh. Hell, Dai-Grepher has an entire extended story line with D.D. Warrior Lady which is told through a series of spell/trap cards, as does Zera have 3 stories following the three paths his life can take (all of which end in him being a villain).

Heck, while the stories are terrible in terms of writing quality and overall plot, Bushiroad used to release actual short stories to go along with units like Blaster Dark "Abyss". Also, Ride Chains. This kind of theming being popular is 90% of the reason the early Vanguard fandom went nuts over ride chains.

 

But honestly, that's kind of why I wrote this. I think all of the big games have, at some point or another, found a really good balance in all of these factors that helped them kick off, build a fanbase, and have the crowds they once did. Then almost all of them have kind of abandoned it through power-creep, or just getting lazy. MtG and Pokemon are both lucky in that they do rotations and can just rotate out the mistakes (which, in itself, is actually a detriment to some audiences but they're both doing fine financially [I think, can't find sources]), but the others have to live with the mistakes permanently.

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I was going to write something yesterday, but I had a hard time expressing myself, so I'll take another shot at it.

Simplicity is great and all, but it doesn't keep players. Complexity keeps players, but it doesn't attract new ones.

This is partially my own anecdotal evidence, people getting bored of Pokemon, claiming it's interactions were too obvious, basically killed my playgroup back during late Gen 3 / early Gen 4 when I was in my late teens. Gradually everyone left, me leaving early Gen 5, peetering in and out during Gen 4. I find it hard to play any game without any form of instant speed cards or effects now, because I feel just sitting there waiting for the opponent to play through their turn just isn't appealing, nor is waiting for chance, Duel Masters' Shield Triggers.

This is also not anecdotal evidence, it comes from Wizards themselves. Wizards dumbed down Magic by making any hate hard to play or simply not printing answers, because little Jimmy cry baby has a sook that his 10/10 for 7 with Trample, Flying, Haste, Vigilance, ect, gets cancelled by a 2-3 cost spell or that the opponent has the option to stop all Jimmy's Grave bullshit with Grave Removal. What happened? Shit formats, people left Magic till it calmed down and Wizards made answers. Money talked, bullshit walked, but now Magic has no real way to ease in new players and not scare them off with counter spells or control.

Related, back before Wizards became a cesspool of losers and lunatics, in the early 2000s when they had Pokemon and Duel Masters, Wizards wanted you to 'graduate' to Magic from Pokemon and Duel Masters when you reach about 15. People didn't like it, and that's a large understatement, but I understand the reasoning, especially with Duel Masters. Use Duel Masters as the kids format with simpler cards and interactions, use Magic as the big boys forum, with complex cards and interactions. This was about 8th to 9th Editions and the Onslaught, Mirrodin, Kamigawa and Ravnica Blocks. Wizards keeps fucking over Duel Masters for reasons I don't understand, but it's a much better concept than ruining Magic or stupid shit like Portal.

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11 minutes ago, Artificial Human said:

Related, back before Wizards became a cesspool of losers and lunatics, in the early 2000s when they had Pokemon and Duel Masters, Wizards wanted you to 'graduate' to Magic from Pokemon and Duel Masters when you reach about 15. People didn't like it, and that's a large understatement, but I understand the reasoning, especially with Duel Masters. Use Duel Masters as the kids format with simpler cards and interactions, use Magic as the big boys forum, with complex cards and interactions. This was about 8th to 9th Editions and the Onslaught, Mirrodin, Kamigawa and Ravnica Blocks. Wizards keeps fucking over Duel Masters for reasons I don't understand, but it's a much better concept than ruining Magic or stupid shit like Portal.

This was not something I knew, and holy shit does that explain way, way, way too much. Thanks for sharing o-O

I actually think Pokemon's attitude with instant effects is part of what gives it it's flavor with the modern format. The speed with which newer decks can set up means that it fits into the pacing niche, and the confidence that comes from knowing that you can pull off your desired play without interruption gives a very different kind of experience to most other games. That said, it's not necessarily better, or worse, but different. I personally feel it means that it's lacking in the interaction between players region, and makes it overall a less social game, but they've done a hell of a job with generating a unique atmosphere and balance to itself. The fact that they have continued to have a very diverse meta despite the lack of instant reactions really speaks for itself in this regard.

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#4 Bothers me a lot in DBZ and is partially why I think Colour Fixing should be hard in Magic type games. I find games where it is both incredibly open and the developers promote colour fixing or worst yet, blurring ala Vanguard and DBZ, to both defeat the point of individuality and create unpleasant environments where decks only do everything. I get promoting deck building and expression, I think there is a time and place for it, but it needs to be handled with a healthy dose of protectionism towards game integrity and colour identity.

Generic cards like Freestyle and Artifacts also need to be handled with upmost care. Both DBZ and FOW know how out of hand those can get.

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