Lately, I find myself playing a lot of card games. Every now and then I stop and think about the possibilities of new cards for a game that it currently doesn’t contain. I try not to think about it for too long to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible ideas. I think that the vast design space for card games comes from how many mechanics there are related to the cards. Cards could do something when drawn, when played, when discarded, or maybe even do something while it’s in one’s hand. A hand might have a card limit and drawing a card when one’s hand is full may discard or destroy the card. Cards are often drawn from a deck that can be shuffled, added to, looked at, and specifically arranged to just name a few mechanics. This doesn’t even cover any mechanics that may be specific to a game, i.e. the mechanic may or may not make sense in another game. When a card could be designed with any combination of these numerous mechanics, it’s easy to see the possible number of options skyrockets.
While there are a great many card games that I could draw examples from, I’m going to discuss three rogue-like deck-builders that I’m rather fond of.
Slay the Spire
In Slay the Spire, there are currently four different characters to play as and each character has a different pool of cards that they can make use of over the course of a run. The cards that make up these pools are focused around a handful of archetypes that are generally unique to that character. The Ironclad is good at gaining strength, sacrificing health for a benefit, and exhausting (removing for the rest of the battle) cards that are less useful to focus on damage to name a few things. The Silent is better defensively by gaining dexterity, yet also dealing damage through shivs or poison. A lot of the fun of this game is finding the synergy between cards. A potential card design I’ve come up with is a 2-cost Ironclad skill called Inner Strength that gives strength for every card in your hand. I’m not sold on it though because the Ironclad has other cards that give strength with an easier condition to meet, and generally is not very good at getting a large hand of cards. Certain relics, objects that give passive abilities, like Runic Pyramid: you no longer discard cards at the end of your turn, could make it better, but even though strength is a core mechanic for the ironclad, this card doesn’t really fit.
Nowhere Prophet has similarities to Slay the Spire but sets itself apart with its unique theme of playing as a prophet leading a caravan of people, in a doomed world, to salvation. The mechanic that really makes things different is that these people are cards in your deck that are played onto a field to fight in battles. If a person falls in battle, they are wounded and if a wounded person were to fall in battle again, they are killed and permanently removed from your deck for the rest of the game. There is another related mechanic where if a wounded person deals the killing blow that causes you to win the battle, that person becomes blessed, which not only heals their wound, but also gives them plus one attack for future battles. I’ve wondered about having a card that has 1 extra health for every blessed person in your deck. My initial reaction is that it could be too strong, as it rewards the player too much for already doing well. A win more or win harder card like this could be tricky to balance.
One Step From Eden
One Step From Eden is a game I’ve often heard described as Slay the Spire meets Mega Man Battle Network. For those of you who also have never played any of the Mega Man games and have never heard of this one, the important point is that combat happens in real time on a grid that is split into a player side and an enemy side. Since cards are played in a real time fight, it’s tough to simultaneously plan out how to strategically use your attacks while also dodging attacks from the enemies. Because there are a lot of cards and they can be difficult to parse without a visual I will show you a picture of a card that is like the one I’ve come up with: Ion Cannon.
My idea is a card that fires an orbital beam at all four corners of the enemy grid and cracks tiles called “Cornered”. This card has a flavor that doesn’t feel out of place for the game, given its sense of humor that really shows through the flavor text cards can have, but its use cases are narrow. How often would a player choose to put this card in their deck?
Card games seem to have so much design space because different mechanics can be combined on one card with a super large number of combinations. Each new mechanic added, multiplicatively increases the number of possible combinations. So, once the game has over 10, possibly 20, different mechanics to work with, the number of possible cards that could be made are so numerous it stops being worth it to try and count. The issue is that only some cards are worth designing. The ideas I’ve come up with for the three games don’t really fit despite using mechanics that are already in the game. So perhaps card games have limitless potential design space, but the actual useful design space is finite and likely harder to find.