Collectible Card Games

In our first ever Meeplepedia entry on Deck-building games we traced their ancestry to the genre known as Collectible card games (or CCGs) without much explanation on what a CCG is. Now it’s time to catch up with that. The first collectible card game may or may not be older than many realize: both Wikipedia and list The Base Ball Card Game by the Allegheny Card Co. from 1904 as possibly the first collectible card game. But neither source makes any reference to the rules of the game, and so it’s unclear if the game would actually fit the modern definition of collectible card games – it may be that the cards were collectible items and no game was actually played with them, or it may have been an early precursor of Top Trumps (you know, that kind of game where you and the other kid yell out a number from the card, the higher number wins the other kids card). The fact that there was a limited pool of 104 cards in The Base Ball Card Game would also put it outside of the modern collectible card game definition. Only one prototype of the game has ever been found, and the current owner didn’t put the rules online, so to the best of my knowledge, only one person in the world knows how to play this. If you have any detailed information on this, please leave a comment because I’m very curious.

But when talking about collectible card games, generally it’s undisputed that the genre was created by mathematics professor Richard Channing Garfield when he invented Magic: The Gathering which was subsequently published by Wizards of the Coast in 1993. This quickly turned out to be one of the big master strokes in modern gaming: all 2.5 million cards initially produced where sold out by the end of that years Gen Con convention, a supply that was intended to last all the way through the Christmas business. Magic: The Gathering set up the core concepts of collectible card games, some very basic concepts that prey on human psychology and made CCGs incredibly popular with game publishers everywhere.

Where you expect any other game to be complete – meaning it includes all the components that exist for the game – CCGs are marked by being incomplete in that sense. When you buy the basic game, usually called a starter deck, you buy all the components require to play the game by one or more players, depending on the game. But what you get in the starter deck is only a fraction of the cards printed. To get more – and more powerful – cards you need to buy booster packs. Booster packs usually contain a small number of cards but have a chance to contain very rare and powerful cards which can drastically improve a deck they are included in. Of course, what you mostly get in booster packs is cards that don’t improve anything. The biggest criticism often voiced against collectible card games is that you can improve your chances of victory by putting enough money into your deck and find these rare cards to use. Magic: The Gathering is still going strong today with approximately 12 million players in over 70 countries – according to Wizards of the Coast themselves, but even if the real number is only half of that, it’s still an impressive numbers. Tournament play actually allows the world’s top players to make a living on their prize moneys, an achievement that no other modern game can boast with.Wizards of the Coast publishes multiple new sets of cards every year – their own online database list close to 12.000 different cards.

But Magic: The Gathering was not the end-all of collectible card games. Many publishers wanted a slice of the profits Wizards of the Coast was raking in and many players were unhappy with Magic‘s mechanics, and so collectible card games have been sprouting like desert flowers after the rain ever since 1993 – and in many cases have died just as quickly.

The first remarkable CCG after Magic: The Gathering was from Magic’s creator himself and went by the name of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (originally title Jyhad but renamed quickly to distance it from Islamic Jihad). Vampire: The Eternal Struggle was optimised to play in 3-5 people, opposed to Magic which is mostly played in two, although other formats exist. Garfield intended to fix some things he himself perceived as flaws in his own design of Magic, primarily the resource system. In Magic, cards are paid for using Mana which is gained from land cards. Land cards can only be played one per round, forcing a slow start to every game. Vampire makes players pay for cards from their health pools, enabling them to play powerful cards from the start at the risk of being more easily dispatched. Vampire play is usually described as a matter of fluid diplomacy and shifting alliances, in line with the setting of the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game that Eternal Struggle also used. Vampire: The Eternal Struggle has been discontinued in 2010.

Another CCG that is almost as old and still very much alive is Alderac Enterainment’s Legend of the Five Rings. Legend of the Five Rings differs from all other popular CCGs by allowing multiple routes to victory instead of just player elimination and is beloved by its fans for its ongoing, fan-influenced story: the ongoing storyline as published by Alderac includes the result from tournaments to determine which faction is victorious in the storyline.

Two more individual titles deserve mention: Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game is based on the fictional game Duel Monsters from the manga and animation series Yu-Gi-Oh! and is holder of the Guiness World Record for best-selling trading card game since 2009 with an unbelievable 25 billion cards sold worldwide. Just think about that number for a second, please. The World of Warcraft Trading Card Game has become popular with the successful online game but has since acquired its own faithful fanbase. In the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game players have an avatar in the game which they augment with equipment and ally cards to either battle against another player or play cooperatively with two to four friends against one player playing a raid deck in imitation of the online game’s raid instances for 10 to 40 players. The WoW TCG roughly follows the expansions of the online game and undoubtedly derives some of it’s popularity from the fact that some cards award items of a cosmetic nature in the computer game.

All collectible card games are easily expandable and regularly and profitably expanded. It is very common for cards to have special effects that may be activated by the player or is triggered by another action in the game. Given the number of cards involved, these games reach a very high complexity and players spend a lot of time finding  powerful combinations of cards to build their deck around – in fact, building a powerful deck is a necessary prerequisite to play successfully and deck-building is a more popular pastime for many people than actual playing; hence the invention of deck-building games. A downside of this complexity is that even the publisher can lose sight of the big picture sometimes and print cards that turn out to be unfairly powerful and have to be banned from tournament play (like the infamous Black Lotus in Magic: The Gathering) or cards that interact in a way that makes them unintendedly powerful, for example allowing endless turns; these combinations may remain legal even in tournament play if they are sufficiently hard to get into play.

Most, if not all, collectible card games share basic characteristics of play. They are not simply played from the hand, instead cards are placed on the battlefield where most of them remain there to be used or have an ongoing effect until they are destroyed. To indicate that a card has already been used on a turn, they are commonly turned sideways (“tapped” or “exhausted”) and remain so until the start of the owners next turn. Tournament play is much more common in CCGs than in any other modern game and most games offer at least two tournament modes: one where players bring their premade deck of cards to play with and a so called Draft mode where players assemble their decks from booster packs passed around the table just before playing to emphasise player’s deck building skills and downplay the effect of a deep purse to buy valuable cards with.

And that, I hope, is what you always wanted to know about collectible card games. I’m going back to my moving box full of borrowed WoW TCG  cards now and try to assemble a playable deck. Is there anything you want explained in the Meeplepedia? Something you always wanted to know about games? Leave a comment and we’ll try to answer your questions.


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