The central event of many trading card games is combat. Players deploy things to the table. In The Emergents Trading Card Game, we call those things characters. Then those characters attack. These attacks are typically the heart of the game.
This presents games with a problem.
If attacking is to be interactive and feature meaningful choices, both players must make decisions, which forces control of the game to shift back and forth between players during the turn.
If the attacker retains full control during combat, which usually involves characters directly attacking enemy characters, combat becomes straightforward. There is almost always a straightforward ‘right’ answer, and boards are continuously simplified by attackers choosing their matchups and taking out defenders before they can become the attackers and choose their own best matchups.
This was the first problem we tackled in design, before we knew anything else about the game.
Three Pronged Attack
Broadly speaking, there are three common ways for these attacks to play out within a game.
Magic and Eternal feature complex interactive systems of combat. In the middle of the turn, the active player can launch their attack with any number of creatures. By default they attack the enemy, but sometimes other targets can be attacked as well. The defender then chooses which of their creatures block which attackers. Blocked attackers deal damage to defenders and take damage in return. Unblocked attackers deal their damage to their intended target.
Damage under such systems typically heals at the end of each turn. If you can line up good interactions, you can kill the enemy and be back in fine shape for the next turn, so defenders have some natural advantages. Despite this, blocking typically is a high risk activity where much can go wrong, and players seek to avoid doing so when possible. If you are a casual player, when in doubt, attack! And if you didn’t attack, and are still in doubt, block.
This first method results in lots of interesting and complex game play, but it requires a lot of interaction points between players. Many times during combat, control of the action shifts to the defending player and then back to the attacker, in the middle of the attacker’s turn. Each of these is time consuming, especially when played on a mobile device. Even more than the time lost is the attention required. When it is not your turn to act, a player must be ready to respond or risk slowing the game down, even if they know their action will probably be to click the button marked “OK.” Even in cases where they know their action will be the button marked “OK” it is important not to make this response automatic, as the resulting timing would give key information to the rival.
We knew that we wanted to retain the core interaction of the defending player choosing how to defend themselves, rather than letting attackers go after their choice of defending characters, but needed a solution to the resulting proliferation of interaction points.
The second method is that of direct attacks, like those in Hearthstone or Shadowverse. Each character makes its own attack, with the active player usually attacking and playing cards in whatever order they choose. When a character attacks, it chooses what character it wants to attack, or attacks the other player, who we call the rival, directly. Then those characters deal damage to each other. Alternatively, you can attack the other player directly.
In order to not make attacking a smaller character a fully free action, damage is typically permanent under such systems. They also typically grant some defenders the ability to force the attacker to hit them first, often called taunt. Other than that, the attacker fully dictates combat.
We knew that this low level of interaction was unacceptable. The dynamics lack the strategic complexity we needed, and the design space is too constrained and has been thoroughly explored.
The final method is what is called lane combat. Games like SolForge and Plants vs. Zombies Heroes use variations of this. The idea is that when a character is played, it goes into one of about five lanes, arranged from left to right on your screen. When combat happens, whatever a player has in each lane fights what the other player has in that lane. If there is nothing to fight, the character damages the rival. Damage is typically persistent, to avoid players ‘picking off’ rival characters for free by playing a (often more expensive) defender that will cleanly kill and then getting a full heal. By default, characters cannot be moved once played, with different games making movement a more or less important mechanic. Lanes can also give unique modifiers to the characters within them.
Lane combat solves the interaction point problem. I quite enjoyed SolForge and was sad to see it go, and am excited it is now coming back in physical form. But lane combat is an even bigger straightjacket than direct attacks. Often players’ tactical choices are not meaningful. When they are meaningful, it is unusual for those choices to be unclear. Reintroducing more interaction points is one way to attempt to get out of this problem, but that undoes the work the solution was doing in the first place.
Why Not Both?
Game designer Mark Rosewater often points out that restrictions breed creativity. I imposed both restrictions at the same time at full strength, to see what would happen.
No interaction points on the rival’s turn. Full interactive combat with blocking.
What that leads to was clear enough. The transition from attacking to blocking becomes the turn break. The attacker needs to decide who to attack with. The defender needs to decide how to block. If the game only passes control between turns, those two actions can’t be on the same turn.
That’s weird. Which meant it would cost some of our weirdness points. But would it work? What was bad about it, other than it being weird?
The only downside we could find, other than it being weird / unintuitive, was that it cut off attacking players from using tricks to respond to blocking or to tricks played by the defending player. Which potentially made attacking bad.
It also seemed likely to discourage casual players from attacking due to how daunting it is to be out of control. Not only does the attacking player have nothing up their sleeve, the defending player knows this, and the attack knows they know it. Blocking would be a much better idea than it would be if the defender could play actions and use abilities during combat.
It would be quite bad if many games turned into staring contests, where neither player dared attack, and the phone screen got more and more cluttered. It doesn’t matter whether the players should be attacking. What matters is whether they actually do attack.
One could attempt to solve this by making the cards better at attacking than blocking. Slap ‘must attack’ and/or ‘can’t block’ on lots of cards. Have abilities that only work on offense. Give out lots of evasion to make blocking directly harder. Create cards that punish players who don’t attack. Avoid abilities that make blocking easier, and be stingy with health.
All of those are live options. No doubt we will turn those dials up if we want to induce more action. Better would be to at least moderate the fundamental problem, and start out from a healthy place before starting up with the knobs.
We tried some radical solutions. The initial design healed damage from characters only when they attacked. That was certainly a huge incentive to attack, as there would never be a great ‘clean block,’ but it was deeply weird and counterintuitive when players tried it. We tried letting attackers come back from combat unused, so attackers could still block. That went quite badly.
The only way to solve the problem was to solve it directly. If the defending player could play cards during combat, which we definitely wanted, then that ability had to go both ways. Attackers needed to have potential tricks up their sleeves, without the ability to make choices. They needed to do things on their turn that remained secret. To queue up their tricks.
To set traps.
Which is a whole other story.