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.