What’s up designers, and welcome back to Rempton Games. Today is the first in a new series on this channel – TCG Design academy. Trading card games are a genre that is near and dear to my heart, but they are also one of the most difficult types of tabletop games to design, right next to legacy games and tabletop RPGs. In this series I will be examining the design of these games, examining the challenges that come with them, and the solutions that different games have come up with. In today’s episode we will take a look at one of the most fundamental pitfalls in TCG design – the Queens problem.
This is a Chess board. You already knew that, because Chess is one of the most popular games in the world, has been around for hundreds of years, and you saw the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. But what if I told you that I could make Chess even better? Introducing – SUPER CHESS! It’s just like normal chess, but instead of each player having the exact same pieces in the same arrangement every time, every player has a different set of pieces, and they can arrange them however they want! You want an entire row of Bishops? Go for it! How about alternating squares of knights and rooks? Knock yourself out! Every game will be unique, because every player will pick their own, personal, unique arrangement of….
Queens. They’ll pick 15 Queens and a King, and maaaybe throw a few knights in there. Why? Because the Queen is clearly the most powerful piece. It can do basically everything any other piece can do, and a single queen can control nearly half the board all by herself. Rooks, Bishops, and especially pawns would be completely obsolete in this new game.
Does giving players the power to choose their own Chess setups make the game better? Absolutely not. Rather than adding more variety to the game, it would actually make it less unique, as players would only really use one or two types of pieces (plus the obligatory King).
BUT WAIT!? I thought this video was supposed to be about trading card games, why am I talking about Chess? Great question! It turns out that this same problem also occurs in trading card games! One of the greatest strengths of trading card games is their variety – every player can build their own unique decks, and the decks are randomly shuffled, which means that no two games are ever quite the same. However, this doesn’t just happen by accident. If you aren’t careful when designing the rules of your game, you can easily run into a problem where everybody just ends up putting all the same good cards into their decks.
The rules of Yu-Gi-Oh were NOT designed with the Queens problem in mind. There is absolutely nothing in the rules of the game stopping players from simply taking all of the best cards and throwing them into the same deck. This was a huge problem in the early days, when pretty much every deck would include the same sets of super-powerful cards – Pot of Greed, Monster Reborn, Raigeki, Change of Heart, Harpie’s Feather Duster, the original Chaos monsters – this created ton of problems for the game, and the rules didn’t have any way of handling it. Yu-Gi-Oh ended up simply banning those cards, and ever since has been constantly playing whack-a-mole, slapping down new cards whenever they become too powerful.
This is also a huge problem for the players. When everybody wants the same cards, the price of those cards shoots up, and it is not unusual for the price of a single card to skyrocket to hundreds of dollars. Then that card inevitably gets banned, and those hundreds of dollars end up being wasted.
Fortunately, the Queens problem is NOT inevitable, and there are many ways to design around it. The most common way is by having some form of built-in restriction on which cards can go in each deck. Magic: The Gathering does this through the mana system – different cards require different types of mana to play, and while you can technically still put cards of all different colors into your deck, the more colors you add the more difficult it becomes to actually cast any of your cards.
Pokemon does something similar with their energy cards – you can play any Pokemon you want, but they require specific types of energy to use their abilities, so you want to limit how many different types of energy your deck requires. Finally, games like Hearthstone and Gwent simply have players choose a deck category, and each deck is only allowed to include cards of that category.
While putting these types of limits on your game may seem like they stifle the player’s creative freedom, it’s exactly the opposite. By limiting players to only using a subset of the available cards, the amount and variety of different types of decks will increase dramatically. The different categories also usually have a sort of “rock-paper-scissors” relationship to each other, where some decks have an advantage against certain other types of decks. This can prevent any individual deck from getting too powerful, as there are built-in checks and balances.
A second way to keep the Queens problem in check is to have some form of cost system to play your cards. Playing a more powerful card may require more time, cards, life points, or some other resource in order to play. This helps reduce the urge to fill your deck only with the most powerful cards, because you might not have enough limited resources to play them.
One solution that absolutely DOES NOT work is rarity. One of the ways early Magic tried to solve the Queens problem was by putting the most overpowered cards at rare. Sure, drawing 3 cards for 1 blue mana is insanely busted, but it’s not AS big a deal if a player only has one copy because it’s so rare…and what are the odds that players are going to buy enough packs to get multiple copies of a single rare card?
Turns out, the odds are 100%. Trying to limit the power of certain cards by making them rare and difficult to get is absolutely not a solution – all it does is drive the price up for those players who will stop at nothing to get a deck full of the most powerful cards. Just ask Seto Kaiba and his 3 Blue eyes white dragons!
Thank you so much for watching this new series – if you liked it, make sure to like this video, and subscribe to the channel so you don’t miss future entries in this series! I’m still working on scheduling new episodes of Triviarena, so hopefully I will be able to put that together for you in the near future. And join me next time for a Pokemon re-design video! Until then, thank you so much for watching, and I’ll see you next time!