A look at CCGs: selective mechanics

I mentioned this in passing yesterday, but I figured that it was worth doing a bit of expansion since it is an interesting phenomenon, not to mention one that isn’t seen much outside of CCG designs.

Most CCGs, and I think that a case can be made that all of the best CCGs, have two layers of rules.  The first layer is the core rules.  These are the ones that are always in effect across all instances of play.  Players start with 20 life and seven cards in Magic, you lose if you run out of cards or life, creatures attack and defend.  Those are core rules.  Core rules tend to be relatively simple, on the order of a game like Settlers.  The core rules can all be kept in the players’ heads, and don’t ever need to be referenced in play.

The second layer of rules is the expansion rules.  These are rules that may or may not be in force in any given game.  The expansion layer allows for a shifting and diverse play environment.  Once you have enough rules that can potentially come into play, you reach a point where each rule gives advantages in some situations and disadvantages in others.  This creates an inherently evolving play environment where the game can never be ‘solved’ in a general sense, but can only be ‘solved’ for specific permutations of the rules.

CCGs are able to attain this critical density in the expansion layer by making all the expansion rules that are in play easy to reference.  Each card explains the rules that it puts into effect, which allows for easy and quick reminders and clarifications about the rules.  This ease of access to the expansion rules lowers the search and handling time of play such that players can function with dozens of new rules in play without having to pause play and reference rules.  The rules are so easy to reference that play doesn’t bog down.

Another important aspect of printing the expansion rules on separate cards is that you can, to some degree, balance the game after publication.  This is generally frowned upon in terms of elegant design, but if it turns out that certain expansion layer rules are broken then you can simply rewrite them or remove them from play altogether.  (Note that this removal can be done on a local level in addition to the publishing level, ‘No one gets to play with X’ is something I’ve played with in locally.)

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8 Responses to “A look at CCGs: selective mechanics”

  1. Magic’s “core rules”/”exceptions” design is based directly on Cosmic Encounter’s design. Cosmic’s design is likely based on war games designs, where each piece has a default range of movement and rate of fire, but each individual piece has specific exceptions to each core rule.


  2. One thing to remember is, that many people do not even know Magic’s core rules. I frequently meet kids who do not know about the Stack or the structure of the combat phase. In fact the complete core rules of magic are like 40 A4 pages.

    Furthermore cards contain all their rules only in theory. In reality you need clarifications, how rule X interacts with rule Y.

  3. Thomas Robertson says:


    Good observation there. I am, unfortunately, unfamiliar with Cosmic Encounters, and my background in wargaming is pretty weak, so I’m asking you: Were these games built around the idea of letting the players select (to some degree) which of the expansion/exception rules they wanted to employ?


  4. Thomas Robertson says:


    Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but when I started playing Magic way back in the day, I remember being able to play using just the rules that A) came in that little book in the starter deck and B) were printed on the cards themselves. We didn’t need any clarification beyond that.

    Has Magic changed? Am I misremembering?

    Also, I would suggest that the level of extreme clarification that you’re talking about is only relevant in highly competative play. The average player is just going to play and have fun with things as they are written. So the dynamic of play I’m suggesting exists does seem to exist, even if it does not exist necessarily.


  5. Is it extreme? I do not think so.

    - You controll a Crusade
    - I play a Humility

    Now, what happens to your white creatures?

    Of course by now there is a solution for problems like this in the core rules, which wasn’t necessary in first edition.

  6. Thomas Robertson says:

    Well, I’ve played Magic since the bad ol’ days, but the solution to this particular problem seems simple enough. Getting +1/+1 doesn’t make the creature itself bigger, so the white creatures are effectively 2/2.

    Of course that doesn’t mean that there aren’t interactions that are confusing, so don’t feel like I’m demanding other examples. It would surprise me if you couldn’t find some :)


  7. I think the actual rules for CE involve random distribution of special powers (the expansion layer), although there’s nothing much to stop players choosing their own in some way.

    Wargames almost never involve this kind of choice. Units in play are usually determined by the designer of the game and/or scenario, often based on the historical situation being modelled. Normally players have, at most,control over the initial placing of units, and even this is not universal.

  8. Frank Filz says:

    Yea, Cosmic Encounter was mostly random choice of powers. Players could exert choice by deciding on the set to be included in the game. I think some players would also choose powers.

    In relation to some of the other notes on Magic here wrto interractions between different optional rules – as Cosmic Encounter added expansions, this interraction became a problem, especially as players started to play with 2 or even 3 powers each (and I think I’ve even seen more). In fact, the game became totally exception driven when played this way.

    Some wargames did provide “point buy” options (this preceeded the use of point buy in RPGs). Some even have an economic system of some sort that allows buying new units during play.


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