Cards Aren't Cards

25 May 2016 23

There are many screeds against skeumorphism, the practice of making the digital imitate the physical. Sometimes it provides valuable cues, but there is one particular form which requires attention from both developers and players at this juncture in digital gaming: cards. 

The most obvious way in which developers err with cards is the sacrifice of important user interface virtues to replicate physical cardboard rectangles. The Game gave us one recent example, not only replicating the off-putting iconography of the physical version, but displaying cards fanned out as though held in your hand. This is bad enough on the iPad, but on a phone screen, the tiny area available to tap to select any card but the rightmost was completely infuriating. Had they simply represented the cards differently, they could have made far more functional use of the screen real estate, and had a perfect waiting-in-queues game. The visible bit of a card in hand (on the left of the image above) is 70 pixels wide. The hexes I've mocked up on the right are 150.

So there's an obvious problem of feeling slavishly or unreflectively devoted to displaying cards which look and behave like cards in the real world. Like everything on a screen, digital cards are metaphors, and forgetting this can leave users with unnecessarily difficult tasks. But there's good reason for users to have very positive associations with cards which developers reasonably want to evoke. Cards afford doing a bunch of things: 

  • randomization via shuffling
  • stacking into piles, sometimes between games
  • concealment via identical backs
  • location (as in Summoner Wars)
  • orientation (like tapping in Magic: the Gathering)
  • a dexterity challenge via flipping or tossing
  • bundling of various properties, including game-relevant text

Each of these is violated by many physical card games, but they're all options you have when using cards to design a game. The last is of particular interest to Pocket Tactics readers, because it allows for game pieces to be functionally differentiated without substantial rules overhead, which means the game can be substantially more complicated strategically without making it more difficult to start playing or requiring genius to design.

In the physical world, game pieces can approach the utility of cards in this regard. In a game like Go, all of the pieces are identical save for their color, but other games build more information into the pieces. Chess has varied pieces, but usually requires that players simply memorize their special rules unless you're using a "chess teacher" set. The Duke is a recent game in which each piece has its abilities printed on it. Many games have character sheets associated with pieces, going back all the way to Dungeons and Dragons and continuing through more recent fare like Heroscape and Mice and Mystics, sometimes even using different cards with the same pieces to represent units with different abilities (though, to bring the overloading of relationships full circle, these are sometimes used for different versions of the same character, as in Dice Masters). Wargame chits and block games of the Columbia mold, like Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex, have differentiating information printed on them, and blocks may use orientation to register unit strength and employ concealment via identical backs. Games with clicking bases (HeroClix, Mage Knight) not only have specific unit information on the piece, they also afford updating of that information even more flexibly than block wargames, which cards generally do not (outside of legacy-style games and the unusual write-on surface of cards from the Battleground series). 


The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation doesn't repeat Stratego, but it rhymes.

At the design level, this means digital games have options which physical cards don't. The familiar metaphors of cards and dice may help communicate the behavior of the game to players, but they're effectively a mere user interface device, like a computer desktop with folders and files. Even the most direct port of physical objects to games improves on them in some ways--you can quite comfortably manage an Ascension deck 900 cards high, for example, and you never need sleeves (or pants). But Ascension is actually one of the more interesting examples, precisely because one of its later expansions does include a feature cards usually lack: the ability to change. This was one of the innovations which set Stone Blade's SolForge apart when it was announced. Nowadays, there are other games beginning to probe at largely keeping the functions of cards familiar, but tweaking them slightly--for example, Duelyst uses cards which represent units, just as in Magic, but since there's no reason for them to continue to appear as rectangles once played, they instead show up as figures in a tactical battle. This makes their positioning rather more flexible than would be convenient with cards. The latent metaphysician in me wonders whether they're really the same game component before and after placement, just as I wonder whether a person is really the same before and after death, if you believe in souls. But the pragmatist in me is pretty confident Duelyst's cards don't have souls, and their identity conditions can be whatever Eric Lang says they are.

While it's true that designers have more freedom to mix and invent properties for their game components on digital, this does create a communication issue. As players, our expectations shape how games are presented to us. This was made particularly clear to me a while back by UHR Warlords, which displayed a row of cards along the bottom of the screen. You couldn't shuffle them, or do any deck-building or anything--really, they were just buttons. But, because the players who would be interested in their game associated cards with interesting tactical choices, it made sense for them to present their options that way. But we'll be offered more innovative designs and interfaces which suit them if we can do a better job of learning to listen for the features we actually care about--the fundamental nature of the play experience--rather than focusing on the metaphors with which they're displayed. That sounds like little enough to ask, but there simply isn't a common lingo for dynamics in games, and little enough agreement about what the salient features are that it wouldn't even be likely that everyone would choose the same concepts to deploy in describing games even if they were well-understood. 


Varied physical game pieces afford an overlapping multitude of gameplay-relevant interactions.

I'll give an example: I really like hidden unit identities, like you see in Titan or Sekigahara. I find it particularly pleasing to mentally map out the possibilities when I have some information about them, and I like games which offer a balance between epistemic actions (actions you take in order to learn) and actions which provide a more direct in-game benefit. But I'm not big on serious memory requirements, which often go along with those things. A digital game could obviate this concern by allowing more shuffling of units that would be practical on a tabletop--say, for example, by having each game turn represent a day in a siege of a castle. It would be perfectly sensible to imagine that the defenders of various approaches might be reassigned each night based on the defenders' expectations about the next day. So I'm looking for hidden unit deployment with units which remain hidden until encountered--that's the structure which interests me, and it doesn't matter if it's done using cards, blocks, or chits.

So helping to develop and familiarize readers with such concepts is part of how I think of my job. Writing about games isn't just conveying press releases or filtering out the latest Clash of Candy [no, that's my job -ed.], it's trying to immerse myself in thinking about games enough that I notice things I wouldn't consider while playing purely to enjoy the game. I would like to give readers new concepts with which to uncover and cultivate their preferences, especially with the rise of VR and what I expect to be a number of blunders caused by overly dedicated replication of the physical world*. But that's sort of hard, and pretty much whenever I encounter something hard in this job, I always apply the same solution: ask you. Pocket Tactics has consistently amazing readers, and our forums now work on mobile devices (which was understandably a priority in the redesign), so let me know if there's anything you think is useful for describing or categorizing games which might not be obvious. The more we're all willing to adopt new ideas, the more successful designers with innovative designs will be at finding audiences for new and wonderful creations.

* This concern was brought to my attention by my fellow pocket tactician Tof Eklund, and struck me as one of those insights which are so clearly right that it shames me not to have considered it before.

Tags: Feature



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