When we began work on the Emergents TCG, we set out to create a mobile-ready tradable card game.
Mobile devices, whether they are phones or tablets, are how we interact with the world and are always available. Today’s players want a game they can play on the move and on their phones, not only one they can play on a computer, and are starved for options offering strategic depth. If a game plays on mobile, it will work on a computer or gaming console. If you first design for a computer, you will do things that won’t work on a phone. Mobile gaming imposes harsh restrictions on design that need to be considered from day one.
Two issues loom especially large.
The most obvious restriction is on screen space. Mobile phones have incredible screen resolution, but the physical size of objects still needs to be maintained.
The even more key restriction is that interaction points become that much more expensive, and must be minimized.
One must also use a mobile phone interface. The good news is that not only have we seen mobile interfaces work for TCGs, they work so well that it has become standard in card games on PCs to use the mouse to mimic dragging one’s finger across a mobile screen.
Screen Real Estate
Screen space is at an extreme premium, as is visibility of cards and the text on those cards. You need to show the hands, decks, discard piles, resources available, health, and all the cards that are in play for both players. The player then needs to be able to read any cards they can see, and be walked through what is happening in the game in an intuitive and easy to absorb way.
At best, there is barely enough space on screen to present the core elements of a traditional tradable card game. Some games use massive simplifications for multiple reasons, but one key reason is a pure lack of screen space. The UI only supports five to eight characters, so that’s your limit. Other cards in play are highly generic so they can be represented by small circles. Each card, whether in play or in hand, is kept as simple as possible.
We too do our best to make every pixel count, so our interface can handle more complex game situations and cards within the graphical bounds of mobile. That includes making every bit of complexity count. Cards that have more than a single line of text need to be doing something important with that extra text.
However, we feel strongly that a hard limit on the number or variety of cards in play needs to be avoided. If players each regularly have so many in play that they don’t fit on the screen at once, and players are often forced to use scroll bars to see what’s happening, that will be a design mistake on our part.
Every interaction point must pull its own weight. Games with lots of interaction points grind to a halt every time another player needs to be pinged to see if they wish to intervene. When this expands to several times a turn, or even more than that, it becomes a major drag on the flow of the game.
If there is the potential for an interaction point, you need to stand by in order to respond. We placed a high priority on making them count.
If you choose the path of letting characters directly attack each other, this makes both combat and the general playing of the game non-interactive, so you get the benefits of not having any interaction points on your rival’s turn. But you get that at the expense of the richness of game play and choice. Direct-attacking combat simplifies board states and forces lines of play, making games echo each other over time and creating a lack of interesting strategic choice, which we were determined to avoid.
If you choose the path of allowing frequent full interaction, the game won’t play fluidly on mobile, and will be tricky even on a PC.
As much as possible, a core goal of Emergents’ design was to find a better solution and solve both problems at once. We wanted to get a more strategic and interactive game experience, while reaping most of the benefits of improved game flow from streamlined interaction points.
How do you have rich combat and lots of interaction and uncertainty, without giving players interaction points on each others’ turns?
Our solution was twofold.
We allow all action cards to be played face down, some of which are traps that can trigger on the rival’s turn under the right conditions. Players cannot dynamically choose how to interfere with the turn as it progresses. Instead they must plan ahead and decide what wrenches they want to be ready to throw in the wheels, and under what conditions to throw those wrenches. In order to keep the cards simple, players will only have a handful of simple heuristics they can choose from when deciding if and when to spring their traps. In many cases, it will be better to wait to play a trap, to avoid the trap going to waste. Rather than treat ‘the trap does not always do what you want it to do’ as a bug to be fixed, we treat this as a feature to be embraced. Players will have to work with the restrictions given, and we can make traps more powerful to balance them being harder to properly land.
The other more radical solution squares the circle of allowing rich combat without interaction points. We transform the order in which things happen during a player’s turn.
The New Turn Order
Traditionally, attacks happen in the middle of a player’s turn. This forces games to choose between giving the defending player choices, creating at least one and more likely multiple interaction points, and not giving the defending player choices, which all but forces direct-attacking combat.
We realized that only counts as an extra interaction point if control after combat needed to return to the player who was attacking. The step where the defending player is blocking is mostly about the player who is blocking. Could we move that step to the defending player’s turn?
It turns out we could, and we did. The transition from attacking to blocking is the only necessary transition from the attacker having control of the game, to the defender having control of the game. So we took all the other transitions out. The last thing you do on your turn is decide which of your characters are attacking. Once you do that, it becomes the other player’s turn, and the first thing they must do (after drawing their card for the turn) is decide what to do about any characters that are attacking them.
This does mean that the attacker cannot take actions after learning how the defending player was blocking, or after they play action cards or abilities. The attacker has cast the dice, and now must wait their turn. If they want to foil their rival’s plans, they must do so in advance, either with face up actions or with traps.
Our worry was that this would make players too afraid to attack. Most players of collectible card games are notoriously terrified of attacking. They typically do not know what they are worried might happen. They only know that attacking feels dangerous, they could be punished and left feeling stupid. They do not feel the pressure to make a maximally effective attack. All of this leads to not attacking, which leads to more complicated boards, which leads to more not attacking since complicated boards by default favor defense more than simpler boards. If players know that they cannot do anything once they start the attack, and they know the rival knows that they cannot do anything, then perhaps players will be even more terrified. We’ve made a lot of modifications to the card file to ensure that attacking gets the push it needs.
Our current belief is that players usually do not have any meaningful way to defend their attackers if something happens, and traps still create uncertainty on the part of the player on defense, so this should be fine. But this is a psychological effect as much as it is a strategically applicable in-game effect, so we plan to keep a close eye out for trouble. If trouble comes, we’ll keep making attacking better.
Keeping it Simple
Conserving screen real estate and streamlining interaction are principles that extend throughout the game design. The best part about this is that both principles, most of the time, encourage us to do the same things that we should be doing anyway: keeping it simple.
While it is not the primary motivation for requiring cards dedicated to resource production and making the mechanics involved more complex, the need to avoid finding room for such cards and information on the screen is an important secondary consideration.
Cards should be kept simple for many reasons, only one of which is the literal font size players will have to use to read them when looking at a phone screen.
Keeping all actions in play face down at all times creates some real restrictions on what cards we can create and what effects we can allow, which we will doubtless rebel against over time, but it also allows players to invest in board development without forcing players to mentally process lots of different abilities and effects at the same time. Too much of that gets out of hand quickly.
Mobile forced us to seek solutions that allow mobile users to fund their accounts and use the deckbuilder to purchase and sell cards, and to innovate to find a new custody solution that is both secure on a phone and invisible to end users who are looking for it to be invisible to them.
This list could continue. One of the biggest mistakes game designers make is to cram way too much stuff and complexity into their games, rather than letting complexity come from the interaction of simple components. By putting the restrictions of mobile gaming on us from the start, we greatly reduced such temptations, and we bred creativity that led to a much more unique game than we would have created otherwise.