One day, Ethan Fleischer, a Great Designer Search 2 finalist, tweets a tweet regarding Vs. System, the superhero (mostly) Marvel and DC Comics collectible card game released in 2004 by Upper Deck Entertainment. Vs. System is no longer supported by Upper Deck, but, for a while, it was reasonably popular and even had its own Pro Circuit with $1 million given out in cash prizes every year (the equivalent of Magic: The Gathering's Pro Tour). But, today, I'm going to talk about the Vs. System's game design itself, or, rather, what was wrong with it.
I was trying to tweet Ethan the myriad of reasons why Vs. System was flawed, but then I realized I was going to need more than a few 140-character tweets to do so. That's when I went on this tangent of a blog post, but it's a good tangent. So you'll know what not to do when you design a card game. Or, perhaps, we'll be able to spot these same mistakes in some other card games out there.
A quick aside: I love Vs. System, and I played it for years (I even quit Magic for a period of time just to devote myself completely to the game. Gasp! The blasphemy!), but that doesn't mean that Vs. System didn't have its faults. I love the comic book "mythologies," and I love card games, so putting those two together was just heaven. The game system to support it, sadly, wasn't perfect (However, I believe it's a lot better than a lot of card games out there, but that's almost a baseless statement since I haven't played most other card games out there. I know, I know, as a game designer, it's important, so... "I'll get to it.").
Oh, and I'm not bashing Upper Deck Entertainment. It's cool, guys. Don't come after me. I don't have very many nice things, anyway.
So, let's see where it fell short. When I talk about various parts of Vs. System, I'm going to compare it with Magic: The Gathering, so I'm assuming you're already familiar with Magic (If not, then... go learn and play it. And then become addicted to it. And then come back and finish this. Well, actually, if you get that far, I don't really care if you finish this post or not. We'd have another #mtg player in our midsts! ...Where was I? Oh, right.) I'm not going to fully explain how Vs. System works, though, since that'd be too many extra words mucking up the point I'm trying to get across. There are five main problems I can see with the Vs. System, and they are as follows:
Problem #1: Lack of "Colored Mana"
In Magic: The Gathering, cards have a converted mana cost. A card with a converted mana cost of two could cost you in a variety of different ways, such as 1R, RR, RG, and 2. The important part is that in addition to have the correct amount of mana, you also need the correct type of mana. And there's five basic types: white, blue, black, red, and green.
In Vs. System, though, the resources you have (lands) always produce "colorless" resource points (mana). This was O.K., since every character and equipment card you play (creatures and equipment in Magic) only require you to pay a "converted mana cost." Pay 3 or 5 instead of 2G or 3UU. Imagine if this existed in Magic:
Notice the mana cost. That's crazy! With this, all non-green decks (especially blue) now have something a lot more inappropriately powerful to include in their decks at turn four. Well, besides counting planeswalkers.
So, that's what the cost in the left-right hand corner of this Vs. System card is supposed to be; a generic cost:
So, for every single deck you include Hal Jordan in, once you got to five resources, you can play this card with no restrictions, even if the rest of your deck wasn't Green Lantern-aligned (The teams in Vs. System are like the colors in Magic). Mind you, those numbers (ATK and DEF) in the lower left and right-hand corners (like the power and toughness on Magic cards) are average for a character that costs 5, but Hal Jordan also has, like, four extra abilities on top of that (Not that this was a powerful card. There were other, more powerful, cards during the days I played Vs. System, and I'm sure there's even more powerful cards released during the time I didn't play).
This isn't a good part of Vs. System as the generic costs shrink the card pool of "good cards" down. There's less variety to choose from. So, taking that into consideration, why wouldn't you just play every card that was ahead of the curve in the game? Well, when there were more-powerful characters, there were unorthodox drawbacks used to limit who can play the card. Here's three examples of such measures:
(Oh, yeah, Vs. System went through a facelift in its card template like Magic did in Eighth Edition. This one's the old one version.)
Sabretooth, Feral Rage is a card that's better than average in terms of stats. At 4-cost, you'd normally get a 7 ATK and 7 DEF in terms of stats. He's an 11 ATK / 7 DEF, so he could even take out 5-drops (That's huge in a game based practically all around combat.) So, apparently, the solution was to force you to discard a Brotherhood card (He's a Brotherhood-affiliated card). That's like adding a line to a good red Magic card: instead of putting, for instance, an extra red mana symbol in its mana cost, and it says: "As an additional cost to cast CARDNAME, discard a red card." Putting these sort of restrictions is fine on a card-by-card basis, but not as one of multiple "hacks" used to get around the fundamental flaw of the costing system for cards.
Here's another technique: forcing you to reveal another X-Men card from your hand. Each kind of drawback limits the player in a different way, but a lot of it, I suspect, is trying to get around the cost in the upper-left hand corner. It'd be pretty tragic if you had a dedicated X-Men deck and you had no other X-Men cards in your hand at the time you want to recruit Wolverine. Here's one more:
That little bold-faced word at the beginning of the text in the text-box says "Loyalty". And that's a keyworded drawback for: You can't recruit The Joker (cast it, play it) unless you control another character sharing a team affiliation with The Joker (in this, Arkham Inmates). So, once again, a dedicated Arkham Inmates deck would be out of luck to play this guy if you controlled no other Arkham Inmates.
You get the point. By the way, here's a couple of the benefits of using characters from the same team besides getting around these text-box limitations: Preventing breakthrough (trample) and team attacks (like "gang blocking" in Magic, except, in this game, you "gang attack"). It's not very impressive. It would be better if there were some streamlined kind of restriction, like "Fantastic Four mana" as in the colors of Magic. Oh, yeah, that's another problem:
Problem #2: Too Many "Colors"
This problem wouldn't have been visible right from when Marvel Origins and DC Origins were first released (Set 1 and 2, respectively). There are different team affiliations in Vs. System, which function like Magic's colors of mana. However, the problem was, there are too many team affiliations! You might have speculated what teams were coming up, but I don't think anybody anticipated just how many were going to be released with the future sets. Here's how the teams expanded (I'm only counting major teams. There were some cards in a set, like the first set, that were affiliated to a special team, like Negative Zone, that only had a couple characters of that team.):
Marvel Origins: X-Men, Brotherhood, Fantastic Four, Doom, Sentinels
DC Origins: Gotham Knights, Arkham Inmates, League of Assassins, Teen Titans
Web of Spider-Man: Spider-Friends, Sinister Syndicate
Superman, Man of Steel: Team Superman, Revenge Squad, New Gods, Darkseid's Elite
Marvel Knights: Marvel Knights, Crime Lords, Underworld, X-Statix
Green Lantern Corps.: Green Lantern, Emerald Enemies, Anti-Matter, Manhunters
And then the number just goes up from there. You can read a list of all the teams and the sets they were released in here. Green Lantern Corps. is where I stopped playing the game. It may or may not have correlated with the fact that there were too many teams, but I remember thinking, at the time, "This is getting ridiculous. Not only are there too many teams, but some of these teams are just silly." Some characters weren't created as a part of a team, so sometimes, Upper Deck would take liberties or find some kind of common factor among a bunch of characters then group them all in a team. Ugh. Vorthos would be very sad.
And a problem with having this many teams is supporting those teams as more sets are released. If someone had an Arkham Inmates deck and looked forward to new sets that would give cards specifically to their Arkham Inmates deck, they'd be disappointed if there weren't actually any cards in a new set. So, Upper Deck sprinkled in cards from old teams in sets where there's a bunch of cards for the new teams introduced. But, as more teams are made, more chunks of cards need to be devoted to old teams to keep those players happy. Otherwise, you could just ignore it... Or find some other solution. But, it's a problem that forces an answer. It helps, though, that Vs. System is divided into Marvel and DC, cutting the teams needing new cards in half.
A couple of solutions I saw happen were making dual-affiliated characters and re-using teams from the past. I like that latter solution, but there's only so many combinations you can do before you run out. It's like you're doomed, and you're scrambling to extend your lifespan by doing this, but you'll eventually die, anyway. ...Man. Here's an example of the former solution:
This guy is part of the Injustice Gang and The Rogues. ... Vorthos hates the teams but loves the nod toward Magic's Boomerang.
Problem #3: Threshold Costs
This is for the other two card types in the game. Characters and Equipment are recruited (cast, played) using resource points (mana) from your resources (land). Plot Twists (instants) and Locations (...pseudo-lands), however, use threshold costs. This means that they are free as long as you have a certain number of resources. If you have three cards in your hand that have a threshold cost of 3, then you hit three resources or more (turn three or later, in most cases), then you're going to be able to play all three of them at-will for free. This means that these cards, like Characters and Equipment, don't require a devotion to a particular affiliation. Except, it's even worse since they don't cost anything. Then things like the card below happen:
This was the marquee attack pump card in the first set. Yeah, that's right. Every single team in the game has access to giving an attacker +5 ATK (+5/+0). This is very weird. Isn't there at least a single team that is controlling, more defensive that wouldn't have access to something like this? Is there no Team Color Pie (Oh, wait a minute. On an almost unrelated note, yeah, there is)?! I remember Doom being more about control. But, not only is the Dr. Doom team like that, it also has access to the savage beats. Grawrar, now the separation between "good" cards and "bad" cards shrinks ever more.
Problem #4: Rising Increase in Stats Vs. Cost
This is a big one. Creatures and the combat phase are a big part of Magic. Vs. System is no different with its characters, except it's even more important for this game. As such, characters are a big part of the game. There's different stats at each "cost-level." You pay 3 for a character, the average stats are 4 ATK and 4 DEF. In Magic, there's also the expected average stats for a creature at a given cost. For a white creature, you pay 3 mana, you can expect probably a 2/2 with an ability or an effect, and it varies little from there. And when you pay four mana, its stats might not even increase by +1/+1. Here's a good example from Magic 2011:
You can see that there's even only +1/+0 in difference between Wild Griffin and Assault Griffin. Granted, getting only +0/+1 wouldn't have been much of a bonus. There's Makindi Griffin to show proof of that (Go, go, griffin examples). And then Cloud Crusader shows what happens when you put more white in the cost: you get a bit more of a bonus. In general, there's a linear correlation between cost and power (For 1 more than Cloud Crusader, you get Baneslayer Angel, and that's just ridiculous, but I digress).
In Vs. System, though, the characters show a non-linear correlation between cost and power. I'm going to count distributions in stats between ATK and DEF together. For example, a 1/1 (1 ATK and 1 DEF) is 2 points, and a 1/2 or a 2/1 is 3 points. Here's how it goes:
Cost 1: 2-3 points
Cost 2: 4-5 points (Average Increase in Power: 2-3 points)
Cost 3: 8 points (Average Increase in Power: 3-4 points)
Cost 4: 14 points (Average Increase in Power: 6 points)
Cost 5: 18 points (Average Increase in Power: 4 points)
Cost 6: 24 points (Average Increase in Power: 6 points)
Cost 7: 30 points (Average Increase in Power: 6 points)
Cost 8: 38 points (Average Increase in Power: 8 points)
Vs. System ames are usually decided by around turn 7, at least, when I was playing. Perhaps sooner with more powerful cards out now (Similar to how Vintage is in Magic. Actually, "Vs. System's Vintage" is called Golden Age). Now, let's say you missed your 7-drop character. What can you do? Well, if you're lucky, you'll still maximize the 7 resource points you'll get in the turn by playing two characters. Let's say you get a 6-drop and a 1-drop character. You add them up, and you're only getting 27 points worth. And that's the best you can do. A 5-drop and a 2-drop or a 3-drop and a 4-drop will yield 22 points. Now, that's a huge difference, especially in a combat-oriented game.
You might be wondering, though, about how it's not like people are hitting their drops every turn because... wouldn't they run out of cards? Well, no, because Vs. System had you draw two cards every turn. And because you can play any card as a resource (you play resources by putting a card from your hand face down), and because Plot Twists and Locations can still be useful in the resource row by being flipped face up from that row (in locations' case, it only works while as a resource), unless you have a specialized strategy (like the New Brotherhood deck focusing around a card called The New Brotherhood, incidentally, that specifically said it only worked while you had four or less resources out), you'd be crazy NOT to play a resource card face down every turn, assuming you're playing a reasonable deck.
So, what we have so far is the pressure to always hit your curve every turn. Turn 2, play a 2-drop. Turn 3, a 3-drop, and so on. If you draw a 4-drop on turn 6, you're going to hope that you DON'T have to play that card and instead be able to play your 7-drop. So, what do you do with such cards? Well, you could play it face down as a resource, but that wouldn't be optimal, since you'd want a plot twist or resource down there. Maybe you have some kind of effect that calls for a discard from your hand or a reveal, like the Sabretooth and Wolverine cards I showed earlier. Yeah, that's it. Whew, not a COMPLETE waste if you draw a character with less cost than the turn it is.
Vs. System had printings of tutors to smooth out this huge swinginess nature of games, games being decided by whether or not you drew an appropriate-costed card by a certain turn. Some teams didn't even have a tutor, so they had more variance. On top of that, some teams even had a cheap character that could tutor for a plot twist (a character tutor, if needed). This must have contributed to why the deck, dubbed "Common Enemy" (named after the team-up card, which crossed affiliations of all cards in your deck of Fantastic Four and Doom, and even cantripped), which had two character tutors, and a 1-drop plot-twist tutor, did so well.
So, to balance out all the difference in smoothing betweens teams that had tutors and teams that didn't, Vs. System started seeing all sorts of character tutors, a popular one being 1-drop character tutors. Here's a few of those:
In summary, make power versus cost linear, so strategies such as white weenie and goblins can be supported. Or, at least, not be punished in a game where you recruited a 4-drop and a 2-drop on turn 6 against your opponent's 6-drop.
Problem #5: Initiative
One of the major differences between Magic and Vs. System is that players share the same turns in this game rather than take their own turns as in Magic. However, what players took turns being in control of was something called "initiative." This just means that, in each phase/step of a turn, the player with initiative did their stuff first. So, in the "main phase," the player with initiative gets their resource points and spends them recruiting characters and equipment, then once that player was done, the other player gets to do the same. This is the same with combat, where the initiative-controlling player attacks the other first, then (if that player wasn't already pulverized) the second player does their combat. At the end of each turn, the iniative is passed.
The part that matters is due to how Vs. System's combat system works. As opposed to Magic, where creatures attack players and the opponent chooses how to block, if at all; you attack the opponent's characters with your characters. The result is that the player with the first initiatiave in combat will most likely incapacitate the opponent's characters to where, when it's the opponent's turn to attack, they wouldn't make much of a difference, in any. It's disabling your opponent's ability to respond. Now, this is fine and dandy since you each take turns having initiative. The problem is when you're building your deck.
When you win the die roll before a match, you choose whether to go on odd or even initiatives (first or second, respectivey). You're going to want to choose the initiative that most benefits your deck. But, when you don't get the initiative you want, your character choices at those certain turns (since it's important to curve out) might not have been optimal. Granted, some characters are good both on offense and defense, such as the Sabretooth card mentioned earlier, but there are characters that are better or worse when you're on defense.
So, now, not only do you have to deal with trying to reduce the variance in your draws in hitting your curve, you have to worry about what you're going to do when you don't get the initiative you want. That's a lot of swing.
A Now For Something Not-So-Completely Different: IP
There's one last problem that isn't related to the game's design: using existing intellectual property. Part of why Magic is so successful is that it doesn't have to rely on other IP. Magic's creative team can come up with whatever they need to fit the needs of the game. And it works the other way around, too. Wizards of the Coast can use both the creative and the design to work together and build off each other to make for the best that Magic can be. With Magic, like other games that come up with their own flavor, you can start a new set by designing to a cool world, like those card games that do use existing IP, or you can shape the world to a cool design.
With Vs. System, by relying upon superhero comics, they were doomed from the beginning. Well, different design choices could have extended the game's lifespan more, but eventually, the game will and is supposed to die.
However, I'm an optimistic guy. I think that, perhaps, if there's some kind of "using existing IP engineering," you can ensure that the content you're relying upon is stable enough and growing at a rate that isn't slower than the rate that you're consuming content for your designed sets. What you don't gotta do is just take an IP and use it until you just run out of steam. Kinda like how (I suspect) some card games are made solely to take advantage of the popularity of the IP and rake in the money only to be abandoned later on. This is similar to how many video games of movies are created: It's just extra merchandise (Ugh. Evil.). ...Well, that's just a guess.
Sooo, this might be the time where I go turn my criticism into constructive criticism. Well, if Vs. System wasn't already "dead," it'd be useful. But, still. I should be suggesting different ways of addressing the problems I mentioned as well as talking about what Vs. System did right, for goodness' sake. In addition to talking about what went wrong, you talk about what went right, then you learn from that stuff and improve and do better the next time (In this case, being better at TCG/CCG design). Like how many developers in the game industry, after each game is finished -- called a post-mortem.
So, here we go -- Oh, look at my word count. Is it that much already? I... should go see what's up with the #GDS2 Twitter feed. ...Bye.
P.S. All images used either as-is or for alteration in this blog post are copyright either Wizards of the Coast, Upper Deck Entertainment, Marvel Comics, and/or DC Comics.