Collectible card games are some of the most divisive types of games out there. There are those that love them dearly, and amass huge collections consisting of thousands of cards. On the other hand, there are those who refuse to touch them with a ten foot pole. While there are many reasons for this divide, one of the biggest is the collectible nature of these games. Some love this aspect, and cherish every pack they open. Others see it as nothing but a moneymaking scheme intent on bleeding their wallets dry.

It is this raging debate that I plan to dive into today. In this article, I want to take a look at both sides of this argument – does the collectible nature of these games enhance the game itself, or is it simply a gimmick to make the companies more money? I will also take a look at some possible alternative systems to the traditional collectible card game model.

Gotta Catch’Em All

Collectible card games as we know them today have been around for a little over 20 years, and in that time the basic structure has remained relatively stable. Companies regularly release new card sets every few months, each of which consist of anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred new cards. These cards are generally purchased in randomized packs, although they can also be purchased in larger collections such as boxes and cases, or in non-randomized decks.

For a select few games this model has proven to be extremely successful. For the top CCGs, such as Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering the collectible model has resulted in millions of active players worldwide and billions of dollars in revenue over the decades. Despite this success, however, there have been a number of games that have tried to modify or improve this model. While some of these games have achieved some level of success, none of them have reached the heights of the most popular traditional trading card games. Why is this, and what makes the collectible model so strong?

Completing the Trifecta

Mark Rosewater, head designer of Magic: The Gathering, has on several occasions written about what he calls “the golden trifecta” that form the foundation of Magic’s success. This trifecta consists of the three original concepts created by Richard Garfield when he originally designed Magic – the color pie, the mana system, and the concept of the trading card game. According to Rosewater, being a collectible game adds a number of strengths to the game that have allowed it to survive and thrive over the years.

I believe that the main benefits of this model really come down to three things. Firstly, it adds a social component to the game, which helps build the community. Secondly, it adds variety to gameplay. Finally, it helps add value to the cards.

One of the strengths of trading card games is that they strongly encourage players to interact with the community. Because each player only has access to a subset of cards, they are almost required to interact with and trade with other members of the community to get the cards they want.

Over time, the social aspects of these games has expanded far beyond simply trading with others. People all over the world meet online and in person to play and discuss these games. As with any fandom the TCG community isn’t perfect, but few games have such a large and active community of fans. The collectable nature of these games is a huge reason for the success and growth of these fan communities.

Another major benefit of the collectible model of these games is that they help to add variety to the gameplay, especially at the casual level. Due to the randomized nature of these games, everybody’s collections of cards are going to be different. While some of the more competitive players will search out specific cards to build their decks exactly how they want, most players will simply play with what they have. This leads to a great variety of different decks and strategies.

This variety is one of the biggest draws of trading card games. Because every player is different, every game against a different opponent is going to be a unique experience. It also allows players to adjust their decks over time as their collections grow, and help keeps the game from feeling old or stale.

Finally, being collectible adds a certain amount of value to the game itself. Because the game is based around collecting and trading, the cards have intrinsic value outside of the game. Not only can packs be used for drafting, but cards that you don’t want can be traded or sold on the secondary market. There are even people who collect the cards without necessarily being interested in the game at all – they may simply like the artwork. This makes the cards not only game components but legitimate collector’s items.

Too good to be true?

The collectible aspect of these games may have several benefits, but it is not without it’s costs as well. These games get a lot of criticism for their collectible nature – some lament the high cost ceiling of these games, while others consider the randomized nature of the packs to be a form of gambling. Because of this, there have been several attempts to modify the collectible card game formula to remove these aspects, while retaining the core gameplay of a traditional CCG.

Two of the biggest modifications to the traditional formula are the Rolling Thunder release model attempted by the Five Rings Publishing group, and the LCG (living card game) format used by Fantasy Flight Games. In this section, I want to take a look at both of these models and see whether they were able to successfully improve upon the traditional CCG model.

Rolling Thunder

First, I want to take a look at the Rolling Thunder release model. Five Rings Publishing group was a short lived gaming company that spun off of Alderac, a game company perhaps best known for publishing the Legend of the Five Rings Trading Card Game (L5R). After the success of L5R, Five Rings Publishing group decided to take a risk with their next CCG endeavor, and created the plan for “Rolling Thunder”.

The idea behind Rolling Thunder was to create a collectible card game with flat rarity (no card was rarer than any other). The designers believed that this would satisfy both those who were interested in playing the game and the collectors. Those who wanted to play the game would have easier and cheaper access to the cards, while those who wanted to collect an entire set would much more easily be able to do so.

Unfortunately, their efforts were disastrously unsuccessful. If you are interested you can read the entire post-mortem writeup here, but I believe that this quote does a good job of summarizing their findings.

I couldn’t figure out why a rational purchaser would prefer a system where completing a “set” was harder than it had to be simply to drive an increase in sales through a gimmick like “rarity.” But unlike a lot of other people, I had a chance to actually put my logical assumption to work in the marketplace.
Let me tell you about Scorpion Clan Coup, which had flat rarity. It was just hated. I don’t mean “there was a mild dislike among those who had become accustomed to buying cards with rarity” – I mean customers vehemently rejected the concept in droves. We had the largest drop in active customer participation in every metric available to us by the time the full effects of SCC, and the follow on merchandising program, Rolling Thunder, had manifested themselves. Like a drumbeat we heard the same refrain over and over: Bring back the rarity.
So here’s what turns out to be the truth: There is a segment of the population that happens to overlap quite spectacularly with the segment that enjoys hobby games, that derives an intense personal feeling of satisfaction from the pursuit of the difficult to acquire. They need it. They thrive on it. When denied this feature, they seek out other products that deliver that feature.
And something else I learned: To people who don’t have that interest and need, the interest and need seems completely irrational and those who cater to it seem unethical.

Nobody plays a game in a vacuum – you need to find other players who also enjoy the game so that you can compete and collaborate. By removing rarity, the designers were alienating a huge portion of their audience who enjoyed that aspect of the game. This left a much smaller community behind, and the game was unable to sustain itself. It quickly collapsed and died.

Living Card Games

Another way that game designers have tried to change the traditional CCG model is through Living Card Games (LCGs).  LCGs went a step further than the Rolling Thunder model – instead of removing rarity, LCGs completely remove the collectible nature of these games. Instead of buying the games through small randomized packs, players purchase the entire set of cards all at once.

Unlike the Rolling Thunder model, LCGs have actually been reasonably successful -there are a number of living card games with active communities and even tournament scenes. This success is not without it’s tradeoffs, however. I probably have enough material on the differences between the CCG model and the LCG model for it’s own article somewhere down the line, but for now I will simply go through some of the bigger, more obvious differences.

The LCG model avoids the problems of Rolling Thunder by bypassing the idea of collectability entirely. This meant that players who are interested in the collecting aspect of the game are completely excluded from LCGs, but it also makes it easier for a player who is only interested in playing the game to actually have all of the cards. This means that they are serving a much smaller market, but they are potentially making it easier for that market to get what they want.

LCGs have a number of benefits for players who are not interested in collecting. Firstly, it has a much lower price ceiling than traditional TCGs – it is generally much cheaper and easier to collect all of the cards that you need. There also tend to be fewer cards in general, which can make it less intimidating to learn and get into. Finally, because these games are generally targeted towards core-gamers and not the mass market, they are allowed to have much more freedom in their design and complexity.

This isn’t to say that LCGs don’t have any downsides. Because every player has access to basically the same pool of cards, it is much easier for players to copy eachother’s decks, which can lead to less variety. It also makes these games less flexible, as it makes popular formats such as card drafting impossible. Finally, these games cater to a much smaller target audience than traditional CCGs and are generally for more hardcore gamers.

Whether this model is better than the traditional distribution model is difficult to say. There are certainly supporters on both sides, and while no LCG has reached the same level of popularity as some of the bigger CCGs out there, that could partially be attributed to the fact that they are so much newer. I think both models have their place – some people will always be turned off by the collectible nature of these games, whereas others see it as a major selling point.

Until Next Week

That is all I have for this week! I have a lot more to say on this topic, so if you enjoyed this article let me know so I can write more on this subject in the future. If you didn’t enjoy the article, let me know what I can do better in the comments below. If you want to read more, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. And join me next week, where I will be talking about puzzle design in games!

Posted by:Caleb Compton

I am the Head Designer of Rempton Games, and primary writer for the Rempton games blog. I am currently a graduate student in computer science at Kansas State University, and work on game designs every spare moment that I can.

3 replies on “Putting the ‘C’ in ‘CCG’: Does Being Collectable Help or Hurt these Games?

  1. As a fellow ECG (expandable card game) creator I think that, the dopamine hit from cracking packs is a major contributor to games like Magic.

    When I started playing LCG’s I enjoyed the gameplay but they play more like a board game than a CCG. I could never scratch my Magic itch.

    We created a game using deck construction cost called 60/90 because the hope is it would enable greater variability in Deck builds while ideally maintaining comperable power levels.

    Liked by 1 person

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