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[Gamesbriefers] Why are card battle games so popular?

By on November 26, 2012
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A reader writes:

“Right now I’m at pains to figure out what makes card battle games (Rage of Bahamut…) so successful and how they seem to disregard so many of our game development rules”. Can you help GAMESbrief’s readers understand what makes them tick, against all expectations?”



Harry Holmwood CEO of MarvelousAQL Europe

Personally I would be cautious about thinking that card battle games are going to become a major mainstream product in the west.  Of course, Rage of Bahamut has been very successful in terms of revenues, both in Japan and in the west, but it concerns me that huge numbers of developers think that making their own trading card game ( TCG) is now their route to fame and fortune.

Although the west does have a handful of popular ‘real world’ card battle games, it’s not such a mainstream concept as it is in Japan, and I don’t expect that the market will sustain the hundreds, or possibly thousands, of similar games which are now in development in the west.  From a western gamer’s perspective, Rage of Bahamut is a pretty clunky experience – unresponsive and strange UI, limited interaction… but a very cleverly designed retention, monetization and virality/user promotion system.

My advice is people should think less about card battlers, and more about what it is people like about card battlers – collection, upgrading, the strategy of building a deck, the multiplayer challenge, the rarity of certain items, the frisson of excitement when you about to get a new item and you don’t know whether you’re going to get something rare and exciting, or something bog standard and commonplace.  CSR racing is, at its heart, a card battle game – it just replaces the cards with cars, and opened itself up to an audience who’ll never play Magic The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh.  Whether it’s cars, football stickers, train numbers, stamps or lead soldiers – people like collecting and nurturing stuff, and using that collection to socialise or play with like-minded fans.

Melissa Clark-Reynolds Founder of MiniMonos

There are a lot of them already that have bombed, or haven’t done at all well.

Does anyone have any analysis of the ones that work vs not?  My staff have played WoW, Pokemon, Yugioh and CP’s Ninjitsu  over the past few years.  I know they would love to do a TCD but we don’t think the market is there.

I have found it interesting looking at the gameplay vs collectability of these.  It seems to me that only a very small percentage of people who are uber fans actually play the games, and most of the them are purchased as collectables.

I am also interested to see how the “online trading card games” pan out.  Fight my Monster being the most recent in the UK.  Sometimes the simpler the dynamic, the better the engagement.

Dylan Collins 
Executive chairman of Fight my Monster

Well, I suspect significant difference between demographics for Bahamut and Fight My Monster (8-12) that skews things somewhat 🙂

FMM succeeds because of the TCG mechanic but probably for a bunch of other reasons which are specific to that age bracket (visuals, merch etc.).

I agree with general assessment of lots of incoming failures: just look at Spinmaster’s Redakai. Big budget + physical + TV + game + holographic cards. But not much traction.

Mark Sorrell Development director at Hide & Seek

I’d agree with the idea that it’s the mechanics, not the metaphor that’s the point/reason for success. Card-battling games are inherently a game-as-service, inherently fit a fremium monetisation strategy, are inherently social, inherently feature asynchronous multiplayer and inherently support gatcha/gambling mechanics.

I’d suggest that we’ll see a decent number of games that break the metaphor and retain the mechanics and make a giant pile of money. I’d also agree that we’ll see a lot of really quite bad straight-up card battlers that won’t.

This is Pokemon we’re talking about here. Pokemon did alright.

Stuart Dredge Journalist at The Guardian

I’d quite like to see Rovio have a go at bringing together physical cards sold in the real world and some kind of game.

There are good reasons why I’m a hack and not head of new business development at Rovio, obviously, but if anyone has a good shot at bringing together physical card collecting and digital gaming, it’s them.

They’d need a helluva lot more birds, mind, which may be the best reason for never doing this.

Will Luton Mobile games consultant

I’m currently writing a piece for Gamastura about what Magic: the Gathering can teach us and have designed, played and consulted on several paper and digital CCGs.

There’s a lot of psychology going on behind modern gacha-fusion games which make them addicting:

  • They’re zero sum competitive (at least the very popular ones are): So Bartle killer types are served and they tend to be type-A driven people who play lots and spend lots.
  • Packed with variable reinforcement both in gacha (aka boosters) and in card turn and / or battle mechanic that keep players on the edge of an “epic pull”.
  • Have collection elements which tugs on the parts of the brain that seeks deficiency of a resource and nags for completeness.
  • Often have lots of clever social elements in, like limited friend lists, which creates commitment between players.

The point that Harry makes, which I’ve always claimed is key to card battlers, is that the least important thing is the cards. They don’t have to mimic the paper game to work – as long as all of the compulsion elements are there, then we’re all good.

Lots of people will get this totally wrong. They will also fundamentally misunderstand what makes a CCG fun for players – they’re possibly one of the most difficult games to build, but if they hit the rewards are massive.

I have my eye on one called SolForge.

Oscar Clark Evangelist at Applifier

I should own up that I bought my first pack of MTG at Gencon UK in Camber Sands as I recall I was 3rd in the queue when they opened the first box (but my nostalgia might be playing tricks with me). So like Will I’m a bit of a geek on the subject.

For me the mechanisms the best Card Games leverage are:

Cute/Gorgeous Art: although this is subjective of course
Collectability/Rarity: which will has explained and that follows Gatcha principles)
Self-contained rules: the core are simple, but with layered complexity described on the card
Highly repeatable core mechanism: and a much faster rate of play than the equivilent rpg of the time
Ambiguous strategy: which allows players to adapt to their playing style and to fuel factions
Clear Winning Conditions: where your card selection is to blame not you (hence buy more cards)

All of which fit the principles behind the Design Rules pretty well. Bringing this into the online world as a service is (as others have said) very natural not least because it allows further automation of the rules and an even faster turn-around time. Additionally, it adds obvious progression for your favourite cards; building personalisation and engagement.

The fact that these games are being successful is actually really interesting, they demonstrate what happens when you stimulate the ‘collecting’ and ‘exploring’ reward behaviours as well as the  desire to ‘create’ and how that can be applied to freemium.  Its also intersting to see how the TCG model has been adopted in Freemium MMOs such as Free Realms and StarWars:Clone Wars Adventures.

However, I’m not a fan of Rage of Bahamut personally. I think the Tutorial is clumsy and the play mechanic doesn’t grab me. However, I can see how you could get sucked in.  Instead I prefer HellFire – which I’ve been playing for several weeks now (although not spending) or the very excellent Urban Rivals and Cabals both of which manage to have genuine strategy and a way to show you what characters you could recruit that makes spending seem worthwhile.

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  • KoreanWonders

    Hello, sorry for my late reply. There is indeed a lot of depth in terms of content in RoB. There are a lot of cards, items, creatures can evolve several times, be enhanced, etc.
    Obviously many people have fun with this game and I am not saying there is anything wrong with that.
    However, what I mean is that in RoB there is nothing comparable to Magic in terms of gameplay, and it can be summarized as a comparison of total power between my cards and my opponent’s cards (either in PvP or PvE). The game determines who wins and that’s it, the battle is over. Also, a key difference is that your power in Bahamut relies a lot on how many allies you have, whereas in Magic or Shadow Era, there is simply no ally system.

    Shadow Era and Magic recreate the experience of playing a real-life card game (deck building, card shuffling, drawing a hand of card, turn-based gameplay where you draw a card, put resources into play to cast spells or various sorts, etc.) whereas the gameplay of Rage of Bahamut is akin to MMORPG simulation games like most of Storm8 games or a game like Kingdoms at War, with the addition of cards to collect.

    The gameplay video linked below actually shows pretty well all there is to see in RoB (except for the social aspects), and it’s interesting to see that this player in particular is not a fan of card games in general but likes this one precisely because it is so simple.

  • I wonder how deeply you have got into Rage of Bahamut. Is it possible that this deeper strategy that you talk about only emerges later? Few games can be extremely successful based on behavioural psychology alone.

  • KoreanWonders

    Hello, I liked this article but as a former Magic player and current player of Shadow Era, I find that comparing them with the current wave of cheap TCGs doesn’t do them justice.I would like to point out that games like Rage of Bahamut (RoB) have almost nothing in common with Magic: The Gathering or a game like Shadow Era.
    As Harry Holmwood is right when he’s saying that “CSR racing is, at its heart, a card battle game – it just replaces the cards with cars”, it only applies to RoB and similar games but not to games like MTG.
    The game mechanics in Magic or Shadow Era are way different in design from RoB and its many clones.
    To put it bluntly, there is almost no strategy in RoB & co. You tap the screen to complete missions, level up and “evolve” your cards, etc. but as you play there’s basically no thinking involved 90% of the time. In that way, these games are just versions of Mafia War (iMobster on smartphone) incorporating a lot of cards to collect.
    And of course, the more cash you spend, the better you fare in the game.

    If you are dumb but you have a lot of cash, you’ll do well in these games.

    Although this is also one of the critics made to Magic, in Magic you have to think hard most of the time, first when building your deck, but also when playing, and money only gets you so far.
    When building a deck of 60 cards in Magic, you have to think of synergies, possible combinations of cards of various types (lands (providing mana), creatures, spells, artifacts, etc.). Then, when you play, you have to think even more.

    If you are dumb, no matter how much money you have, you will fail at Magic or even at Pokémon, which is way more elaborate (talking about Pokémon by Wizards of the Coast) than RoB.

    So, in case it was not clear yet, the games discussed in this article are worlds apart from Magic. The only thing they have in common is the use of cards. All the rest is different.