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Card Game special abilities

Page: DesignArticle.Article200906100327PM - Last Modified : Tue, 13 Jul 10 - 1938 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

This articles will talk more about collectible card games but this knowledge is transferable to other parts of game design.

Of course, most people know Magic the gathering. A card game that contains tons of unique abilities even after the release of thousands of cards. In order to do the same, you need to understand some concepts behind the design on these rules. Especially if you want to design of lot of special abilities without ever running out of possibilities.

Various concepts

Area of effect: This is how much things can be targeted by the special ability of the card. So an ability with a large area of effect can target a lot of cards in play. But it can also be seen another way: What are the cards that can be targeted by a special ability. For example, If a card game as really few cards in play then a special ability has less cards to target. Area of effect is important, a game with a low area of effect will have much less possibilities in the ability design.

Direct VS Indirect: Cards can be played either directly or indirectly. Playing a card directly means placing a card in play where it's effect occurs immediately. This could be the case of a fireball spell. Playing cards indirectly consist in placing a card in play which will then be used later as a tool to fulfill your objective. For example: summon a creature in play that will be used on the next turn to attack your opponent.

One thing to note, 99% of CCG are either Indirect card games or an Hybrid of direct and indirect games. There is really few Direct only CCG. This is because a direct only game would have a smaller area of effect since there would be fewer cards that stay into play. This is no suitable for a CCG where you need a lot of unique abilities that can affect various things in the game. The only direct only CCG I know is "WWF Raw deal".

Zones: A concept that was clearly identified in Duel Masters are the zones. A zone is a location that can contain cards. The reason why zones are created is because cards have different behaviors according to the zone it is in. For example, a creature on the battlefield is much more useful than a creature in the graveyard. A creature in the battlezone is sued to attack while a creature in the mana zone is used for mana. In Magic the gathering, you have the following zones: Battlefield, Graveyard, Library, Hand, Exile, etc. In duel masters you have the Battle zone , Shield zone, Mana zone, hand, Library and graveyard. Of course a game that has more zones will have a greater area of effect.

Status: A card can have a certain number of status. This is generally identified by rotating the cards or flipping it face down. A status changes the ways the cards should be considered by the game. If for example, a creature is tapped, then it cannot attack. So tapping indicates that the creature cannot do as much things than if it was not tapped. In the eve CCG, you could tap your ship to make it do a different action.

Ways to use cards

From hand to play: This is the common way of playing a card. So you play it from your hand and place it in play and resolve it's effect.

Re usability: Some cards abilities only occur once, while some cards can be reused over and over. Most of the time, indirect cards are reusable but it happen sometimes that direct cards could be reusable if for example you can place them back into your hand.

Used by another card: Some games allow cards to use cards. For example, in vampire , there are some action and combat cards which can be used by a vampire card in play. So you cannot play these cards if you do not have the vampire card in play. Which mean you can end up with cards that cannot be used because the you don't have the key card to use these cards.

Multiple use: Sometimes the same cards can be used in different ways. For example in Duel masters, each card can either be played as a spell/creature or it can be played upside down in the mana zone to produce mana. So each cards can be used in 2 different ways, which increase the possibilities when calculating what you can do with your cards.

Multiple Abilities: In magic the gathering, there is some cards which has multiple abilities. Each ability is read seperately and have effects of their own like detailed below. The difference is how these abilities are applied. Sometimes all the abilities are applied, in this cards it could be considered that ability A and B are applied. While sometimes you can choose which ability you want to use. In this case the relation is that you can use ability A or B.

Ability construction

Special abilities are made of various aspects. The more aspects you have, the more possibilities you get. The examples below have been made by analyzing Duel Masters which is pretty similar to magic the gathering.

Trigger: This is an event that triggers the resolution of the ability. It generally starts with a "When ..."Ex:

  • "When this creature attack ..."
  • "When this creature comes into play ..."
  • "When this creature is placed in the graveyard ..."

Conditions: This is a certain condition that must be met in order for the ability to activate. It generally start with a "if ...". Ex:

  • "if you have more than 2 creatures in play ..."
  • "If all the cards in your mana zone are red ..."
  • "If your opponent has a creature with a power of 5000 or above ..."

Effect: When all the conditions above are met the ability takes effect. It generally have the following behaviors:

Gain a passive ability: A passive ability is some special rules that only takes effect in a certain situation. There is nothing that triggers that ability. Most of the time it is used in combat, when the card enters combat, the passive ability is applied. Ex:

  • "... gain slayer (instantly kill your opponent)"
  • "... your power increase by 3000"

Move a card: Most of all the special abilities consist in moving a card from a zone to another. Summoning, casting spell and killing creatures all consist in moving a card from a zone to another. Ex:

  • Draw a card (move from Library to hand)
  • Summon a creature in play (move from hand to battlefield)
  • Kill a creature (move from battlefield to graveyard)

Change the status of a card: Special abilities can also change the status of a card. The more possible status you have the more possibilities you get. Ex:

  • Taping a creature (Change status from tapped to untapped)
  • Morphing a creature (Change status from face down to face up)

You can somewhat calculate the possibilities you can do with your special abilities by multiplying the number of elements from each aspects. For example, if you have 3 aspect which contains respectively W Y and Z possibilities. It means that you can design up to W x Y x Z combination.


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