Last week I started talking about the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading card game, in order to figure out why it has grown and changed the way it has. Since it’s creation, Yu-Gi-Oh has steadily become more and more convoluted, difficult to learn, and less user-friendly. In this series, I hoped to uncover why this has happened – was it simply bad game management, or is there something deeper in Yu-Gi-Oh’s game design that made this inevitable?
Last week I started by looking at some of the relevant history of the game, and by examining one of the most basic elements of any trading card game – the cards themselves. If you haven’t read that part, I highly recommend checking it out before reading this week’s article (Part 1). This week I will be finishing the series by examining the main mechanics of the game, and finally sharing my conclusions about this game.
The Re-Source of the Problem
First, lets take a look at one of the most important parts of any collectible game – the resource system. In a collectible game there are always going to be some components that are more powerful than others, and the point of a resource system is to prevent players from simply using all of their most powerful cards all at once. Examples include the Mana system in Magic: The Gathering and Duel Masters, or Energy in Pokemon and King of Tokyo.
At first glance, Yu-Gi-Oh doesn’t seem to have any resource system in place, but this isn’t entirely true. Yu-Gi-Oh’s summoning system acts as a kind of resource system, forcing you to use your own monsters as payment to summon more powerful monsters. This system also limits a player to only 1 “normal summon” per turn, which ostensibly limits the amount of monsters that can be played.
This system of limiting summons and using weaker monsters to play stronger ones is not, in itself, an incredibly broken system. The main problem with this system is that it is the only form of resource management that the game has, and it is undermined by the existence of an alternative form of summoning, called “special summoning”.
Because this system only affects monster cards, there is nothing limiting how many spell or trap cards you can play per turn. This means that incredibly powerful spell cards, such as Raigeki with the effect “Destroy all monsters your opponent controls” can be played for free at any time.
The inclusion of special summoning also completely undermines the summoning resource system. Special summoning is basically when a particular card specifies an alternative way to summon a monster, and does not count against a players “1 per turn” summoning limit.
When the game was first released there were very few ways to effectively special summon monsters, so it wasn’t much of an issue. The mere existence of this mechanic, however, provides the possibility for special summoning to grow out of control and requires careful development. Unfortunately Konami was not careful with the special summoning system and kept providing easier and easier ways for players to summon multiple monsters per turn, completely negating the original intention of the “1 summon per turn” rule.
Combating the Issue
Next, let’s take a look at Yu-Gi-Oh’s combat system. First off, monsters have two different kinds of “modes”, attack and defense. A monster in attack mode is played upright, and is allowed to attack other monsters. A monster in defense mode is played sideways, and cannot attack.
When attacking, a player chooses an attack position monster they control to be the attacker, and then chooses a monster an opponent controls to be the target. Then, if the opponent’s monster has lower attack points (if it’s in attack mode) or defense points (if it’s in defense mode), it is destroyed.
This combat system is quite simple, and by itself is not necessarily problematic. Unfortunately, I feel that this system was badly implemented by Yu-Gi-Oh’s game designers. Because the attacker gets to choose the target of the attack, this system greatly favors the attacker, and can make it difficult to keep monsters on the board for more than a turn or two. In addition, losing the ability to attack in defense mode is a big thing to give up for the relatively small benefit of not losing lifepoints. This problem would be remedied if most monsters had higher defense points, and therefore putting them in defense position would help save their lives, but alas this is not the case. Most monsters tend to have higher attack points than defense, so while putting them in that position can marginally protect your life, it usually does nothing to actually help the monster. This fact necessarily puts slower paced defensive decks at a disadvantage, and drives the metagame towards fast paced, aggressive decks.
Why You Gotta Go and Make Things So Complicated
Over the years, the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Game has become more and more complicated, to the point that it is incredibly difficult now for a newer player to come in and learn all of the necessary rules in order to play the game at even a basic level. Whilthe this may seem like it is mainly a game management issue, I believe that the root of this problem actually lies in Yu-Gi-Oh’s early game design.
Early Yu-Gi-Oh sets consisted mainly of relatively simple cards with understandable effects, and most of the monsters were normal monsters (monsters without any effects at all). The problem is, there are only a finite amount of clean, simple effects that can be done without either repeating an effect or simply making a version that is the same except being strictly more or less powerful. The same can be said for normal monsters – there are only so many different combinations of attributes, levels, creature types, and attack/defense values that you can use to make an interesting monster card, and they ran through them pretty fast.
As designers ran out of these clean, simple cards, they were forced to start making cards with more complicated abilities. It was the only way to keep producing new, interesting cards at a reasonable pace that players would still want to buy. These more complicated cards also tended to be more powerful than previous cards, which forced the designers to keep making them stronger and stronger if they wanted players to keep buying. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “power creep”, is a very common and very destructive issue in long-running games.
Power creep is not always a death sentence for a game, and there are many ways to fight it, both during the design and management parts of a game. I plan on writing a new post on the topic soon, but for now I will simply say that Yu-Gi-Oh did not have any of these safeguards in place and was therefore very susceptible to this problem. While the designers did try to fight this issue somewhat with the creation of a restricted list of cards that were too powerful, that system had it’s own set of issues. While one day I may write more in depth about the horrible game management of Yu-Gi-Oh as a bit of a precautionary tale, today I mainly want to focus on design aspects.
Manga La Mancha
Finally, after examining all of these different design and mechanical issues, I want to get down to what I believe is the root of all of the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading Card Game’s issues – the manga. More specifically, the fact that the game was originally designed to promote the manga, and is still functioning primarily as a way to promote the numerous different anime series.
During the process of writing these articles, I have uncovered a number of fundamental flaws in the game design of “Vanilla” Yu-Gi-Oh, and I truly believe that the main reason for these flaws is that this game was not intended to be the phenomenon that it was. This game was purely intended to be merchandise for fans of the manga, and for this reason it was designed to promote that. When putting together the rules of the game, the foremost concern was not what will make the best game, but what will be most exciting for the story.
As the game grew in both popularity and complexity, the managers and designers of Yu-Gi-Oh had an opportunity to choose to put the game first. Doing so would allow them to make the changed that were necessary to ensure that they could continue to produce a quality game, but they instead chose to make the television series the priority. Because of this decision, the television series becomes the primary source of new cards into the game, and they are designed more to make exciting moments on television than they are to make a long-lasting, well balanced game.
Yes, Yu-Gi-Oh was a very badly managed game, and I believe that the developers made a lot of mistakes, but I don’t know if it is really their faults. With all of the flaws inherent in Yu-Gi-Oh’s game design, it would have challenged even the best developers to keep this game balanced. Add in the additional constraints imposed by the Yu-Gi-Oh entertainment empire, and you have a truly impossible task.
That’s all I have to say about Yu-Gi-Oh game design for today! If you liked the article, let me know in the comments down below and maybe suggest another game you would like me to do a deep dive on. If you want to see more content like this, please subscribe on the right side bar to get email alerts whenever I post another new article. Next week I will be talking about the reasons behind the current board game renaissance that we are currently living in. See you then!