26 April 2021

Narrative Coherence in Thematic Card Games

Partly prompted by working on my own card game, and partly by the recent influx of digital card battlers, I've been thinking about the semantics of customizable and thematic card games: how we narrate them to ourselves, what they represent and how they represent it, what themes they're inclined toward and under what conditions they achieve thematic felicity.

Your Slay the Spires and Monster Trains can generate some interesting optimization puzzles, and it's not that they don't have flavor, but even a Griftlands which tries to model diplomacy misses out on a lot of the literary suppleness I think the genre allows for. Many of these games consist of a discrete series of attrition contests, reducing your opponent's resolve while trying not to overexert yourself, your overall position judged more on preparedness for the next encounter than on your relative advantage in the one at hand.

To be fair, I wouldn't expect a deck-drafting roguelite to hang its challenge on the same structure as, say, a constructed format PvP. It's not just the fault of that particular subgenre, then. A number of perfectly physical two-player duels, like Flesh and Blood, suffer from the same sense of—to me—banal, pugilistic literalness.

As one might for any story, first we might ask: what's the nature of the conflict? And who's showing up? We might be commanders of armies or we might be an army of one. Intrigues might be divided into separate arenas, as in the political and military clashes of Legend of the Five Rings. We might be cynical opportunists playing interest groups off each other or we might be committed ideologues.

In any case, the card games I cherish tend to be tapestries woven by their players. For all its faults, Magic: The Gathering excels at the epic mode, telescoping out to cosmic cataclysms and in to individual alleyways: it's all one; it all matters. This isn't just because it plays so fast and loose with its fictional constraints; it's also because in its world the stuff everything is made of has a moral quality. I think they flubbed the art direction when they started printing lands with corkscrew spires and shit. The source of all this hullabaloo, plagues, holocausts, sandcastles rising and being washed away, is supposed to be the immanent moral potential of natural features in primordial repose. Anyway. I'm getting off track.

While there can certainly be a satisfying dramatic arc to those progression-focused PvE affairs, especially when they lean into the Faustian (ahem, Imbroglio, ahem), there's something especially interesting to me about the almost sitcom-like narrative space many CCGs operate in: all-in one-off battles embedded within, and having no direct impact on, a slowly evolving yet ultimately abiding war.

The participants in these battles typically represent some faction. Factions, suits, colors, classes, whatever you want to call them—they're extremely important. Not going to paraphrase the whole psychographics spiel here, but basically your factions represent equivalently sized slices of the design pie, and thus your gameplay's expressive archetypes. I would further argue that a card in such a game is to be judged first on its fidelity to whichever faction claims it.

Part of my whole point here is that there's a sort of implicit hierarchy to which players appeal for narrative satisfaction. So the first criterion is how happily the card in question expresses the values of its suit. And since a primary affordance of the genre is its module-diffused complexity and Calvinball-esque abundance of exceptions, one of those modules is especially welcome when it covers an aspect of its faction's stratagem not already spoken for. Think about it. Even if they end up broken, the loveliest cards are almost always those faction-defining proverbs: Lightning Bolt. Cherished Keepsake. Yog.0. Self-Modifying Code.

Of secondary importance is the card's internal consistency, how ingeniously it conveys its niche through its illustration, powers, taxonomy, and, I suppose, flavor text—though for whatever reason I've never encountered flavor text I'd be grieved to lose. Maybe the most spine-tingling example of this sort of compression I can think of is Netrunner's Paparazzi.

"You are tagged. Prevent all meat damage." Divine. And I might even argue not just neutral because it's not exclusive to the Shaper, Anarch or Criminal playbook but because it's actually lifted from NBN's! (though that does seem like kind of a Criminal thing to do).

Finally there's how each tactical module interacts with the others: the operational logics. Causality. This is without a doubt the hardest vector to anticipate and the one players are most willing to overlook, or at least cross their eyes and look at in soft focus. Probably best to take the macro view here most of the time. Even without outright degeneracy creeping in, it's obviously impossible to go around making sure that every possible sequence of plays is 100 percent plausible.

That being said, it's good fun to survey your portfolio in Dominion or Race for the Galaxy ex post facto and explain how one thing led to another. Dominion's a good example actually of a card game whose semantics are somewhat reversed: I struggle to relate a card's power text to its theme until it's clinking against the others in the pool.

If there are abiding principles which secure coherence in the face of emergence, they're mysterious. In some sense I think it's games' job to be Charlie Brown kicking the football, if the football is coherence, and Lucy is uh, analysis(?), and Charlie Brown is fiction... Or I just said he's games? Or the game is kicking the ball... Right...


Assorted thoughts: 

:: It's not just for nerddom's sake that so many thematic card games deal in the dark arts. Magic is essentially a black box by which one can hand-wave various collapsings of time, space, etc. Magic can be elemental energy as in Magic, a crystal ball as in Arkham Horror, or even cyberspace as in Netrunner. It's not necessarily lawless, but it is a shortcut.

:: The early game can be curious when players start with nothing on the board. Aside from balance considerations, I think Corp having the first turn in Netrunner lets me bracket the securing of that initial capital outside of the time frame in which the upcoming battle takes place. I'd have to do some grueling mental gymnastics to rationalize it in something like Arkham though. Bootstrapping is, I think, something worth thinking a little harder about than they probably thought about it in the '90s.

:: What do basic units of currency represent? In Netrunner, Corp and Runner both spend "credits," but I see these as being relative approximations of what a multinational corporation and a lone hacker would consider expensive respectively. Arkham Horror's "resources" are even vaguer, standing in for cash, supplies, schematics, favor, and various other fungibles.

:: I enjoy having some grounding—though it needn't be 1:1—for the basic prepositions as well, i.e. the data structures in which the objects we call cards reside. If one of the great themes of card games is mitigating variance, and the primary source of variance is the shuffling of the deck, and the deck is an ordered stack, and that stack is your role's whole repertoire of possible tools, resources and tricks, then why is its order obscure? What is meant by moving one of those possibilities from an ordered but hidden stack into an unordered but visible pool (i.e. your hand)? Deck, hand, discard, tableau, market, hoard, lane, etc. Again, I'm not asking for literal indices, but just some thought as to how your role interfaces with these typical structures.

:: An example of some overly literal prepositions are the location cards in Arkham Horror. I understand the desire to chunk your haunted house clue hunt into individual chambers, but the many, many absurdities that result (not to mention the baroque topologies) make me wonder if maybe they should have tried to do some kind of nonlinear montage thing instead. Doomtown has an easier time of it, with deeds neighboring each other left-to-right, an omni-adjacent town square, and a designated "out-of-town" location—plus the "boot" ability, which exhausts a "dude" to send them to any location in one move. It also helps that "you" are not in any one location at a time, just the dudes in your employ.

:: So we have kinds of places where cards can be. What about kinds of cards? Next to identifying the factions, this is the other principle division in the creation of a thematic card game. It could be just two, as in Race for the Galaxy's "worlds" and "developments." It could mirror the number of factions, as in Magic's five basic types (plus lands). The only classification that generally gives me pause is my personal bĂȘte noire, "event." What is an "event"? A deliberate scheme? A happy coincidence? I'm gonna need something a little more telic.

:: Being a crossbreed of card games and RPGs, the CCG is poised to reflect the breadth of conflict types proper RPGs can account for. The RPG Torchbearer, for example, presents these possible tests of mettle:

  • Banish / Abjure
  • Capture
  • Convince
  • Convince Crowd
  • Drive Off
  • Kill
  • Pursue / Flee
  • Trick / Riddle

Clearly there's more to life than trading blows. But even if your conflict ambit is limited to bigger-number-wins volleys, you could present it like Reiner Knizia's Blue Moon does: ceremonial displays of strength (or weakness) intended to convince some audience (in Blue Moon's case, elemental dragons) of the contestant's legitimacy. Or you could do something like Doomtown: chess-y shuffling and stepping, stare-downs and lockouts followed by the exclamation point of a raucous shootout. Spoils, egress, brinkmanship, screening, feints, honor, morale... Attrition isn't everything.

:: One of my favorite things about playing Runner in Netrunner is flipping through my deck like a rolodex. Taking odd jobs, calling in favors, laying low in friends of friends' apartments. Reinforced by the stroke of genius whereby your HP is the number of cards in your hand, a Runner's cards really feel like their options, and it's when you've exhausted your options, or when they've been exhausted for you, that you're truly dead in the water.

:: One last consideration when theming a card game is what they call tempo. The clashes played out between the interested parties are playable (as opposed to pre-scripted) because their resolution is indeterminate, the matter not yet settled. What this means is that even if the odds seem stacked toward one side, like, say, toward the multinational corporation, the other side still has access to some something that can tip the scales, or at least that can eke out what that side would consider a victory. They may be more nimble, they may be able to harness popular support, they may, as mentioned earlier, use magic or hacking or some other heuristic to survive and thrive. But it's always a race, a race to some level of security; a critical period when legitimacy is still up for grabs.

Cards aren't just good for hand management and combo discovery. They can weave a beautifully montaged, deeply interactive comic book tapestry. And player creativity need not end at solutions to optimization puzzles but can extend into active interpretation and narration of the card play itself. As for how those hermeneutics are decided, at the end of the day, as with all stories, it comes down to one word: motivation.