A look at CCGs: design as play

Way back when I started this blog, I made the claim that it wasn’t just about roleplaying, but about gaming of all sorts.  I have talked about other gaming topics in the past, but I find roleplaying extremely provacative, so I talk about it quite a bit.  Anyway, I’m going to spend the next couple of posts talking about something different: CCGs.  I bet you’re excited.

One of the most compelling things about Customizable Card Games (CCGs), at least to me, though I assume it’s generally appreciated, is the deck design phase.  There’s a significant portion of play which centers around selecting which parts of the rules you’re going to employ.  (Note that this understanding of deck design is based upon the fact that each card contains certain rules.  If a given card is not in play, then its rules do not impact the game.)

One of the reasons that this is so interesting is that it makes a game out of game design.  In selecting the rules you are doing something similar to what a game designer does when designing a game.  You are constructing the specific interface that you will play under.  While your choices are constrained to the cards available in the game, they are much wider than most other forms of gaming.

This design-level game is an important and compelling part of CCG play, and it has a lot of implications for design in other arenas too.  Which is what I’m hoping to talk about over the next couple of days.  For now, I just want to point out that, in some senses, this part of CCG play is a sort of poor man’s design.  It’s also a form of competative design.  Similar to a game like Mao or Nomic in which part of the game is selecting the rules best suited to gaining you victory in future play.  This game-within-a-game effect generates some very interesting social effects.

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6 Responses to “A look at CCGs: design as play”

  1. Well, the comparison of a game designer and a magic player building a deck does not quite fit.

    Game design is an artistic endeavour. Deck building is strategy. The two just happen to manipulate the same stuff: Rules.

    If you want to compare deck building with RPGs, the closest analogy would be crunchy Chargen. First I look at all those classes and skills and spells. Then during the play I only have to remember the ones I chose.

  2. Thomas Robertson says:


    This one really got my attention. Because under the definition of ‘artistic endeavor’ that I generally operate under, game design is artistic in precisely the same way that math is. That is, it has the potential for elegant solutions. But that doesn’t seem to be what you’re saying because deck-building or crunchy chargen also allow for elegant solutions.

    So, could you expand a bit on how game design is artistic?


  3. First, let’s have a look on what makes a “good” deck. There is basically an easy criterium: A deck is good, if I win.

    There may be exceptions like Migrain Jar decks (50% first round kills do not make for interesting play), but as a rule of thumb a deck is fine, if I win.

    I can choose, of course, to build special decks like, say, a Faerie deck. But then I will build it so, that my cute little faeries will kick some ass.

    Now, what makes a good game? Well, which is better D&D or Polaris? Chess or Settlers of Catan? Poker or Magic: The Gathering? Capes or Ars Magica? There is no rule. It’s all in the eye of the player. (I even heard, there are people who play Gurps.)

    It’s also not the same as mathmatics, either. In mathmatics you need a problem to begin with. (Professors sometimes forget this, when they hold an introduction course.)

    To make a new game, you need an artistic inspiration. Else I have no idea, why there are so vastly different games out there.

    And even more than they differ in the beginning, they differ in the end. Since when I do mathmatics, I know when I’m finished. That is, when I have a solution for my problem – even if I don’t like it. But I cannot deduce, if I finished my game. (In fact this question comes up in message boards quite frequently.)

    Having considered all this, at least to me, game design seems to have more similarities with painting or poetry.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:


    Interesting take, but I think saying that a good Magic deck is one that wins is like saying that a good game is one that is fun to play. You’re looking at too high a level.

    Especially in Type 2 competative play, there is no perfect deck. No first-turn kills. Any deck must be designed to defeat your opponent’s deck. Thus a good deck is one that is able to beat as many opponents as possible. This isn’t as straight-forward as simply building a ‘perfect deck’. It’s about building the perfect deck given the play environment.

    I think the same is true of game design. Given some set of constraints (I want these types of stories, with this sort of work done by the players, it should be played in this amount of time) you design the best game you can design.

    This is an engineering concern. Or so it appears to me. In engineering you can always improve your design: higher effeciency, greater stress tolerances, whatever. I mean, I don’t experience aesthetic pleasure when I look at a well-designed game, though I may appreciate its elegant mechanics.

    I feel aesthetic pleasure in play, which suggests that play can be artistic. But I’m not seeing how design is.

    Your point about not knowing when a design is ‘done’ is an interesting one. But I would suggest that the same is true of any engineering project: it can always be improved.


  5. Well, comparing a Type 2 tournament and game design you really nailed the difference down.

    For the tournament I get the constraints and have to work with it.

    Game designers have to make the constraints on their own. You need this moment thinking: “I will make a game out of that.”

  6. Thomas Robertson says:


    Sure, Type 2 tournament design is constrained. But it’s constrained in ways similar to a game design contest (like IGC, or the RevEng stuff). But to say that game design contests are somehow different than game design in general (at least fundamentally) seems a bit odd.

    I suggest that Type 2 is like a game design contest because it’s entirely possible to play Magic with different constraints. I know that I’ve built tons of decks ‘just for fun’ that weren’t designed to be the best deck for winning, but rather to be the best deck for winning using some technique. So, I had blue/black control decks that were designed to win by being incredibly aggravating to my opponent. I’ve built decks with the purpose of playing odd and impractical cards.

    The ‘best deck is the one that wins’ idea only holds when the goal of all players is to win. While it’s true in competative play, I’ve played magic with other goals in mind.

    Also remember that players of Magic can make up their own constraints. While Type 1, Type 1.5, and Type 2 rules provide constraints for you, nothing prevents any group from saying ‘We’ll be playing with cards from these three sets’.


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