Impressions: Collectible vs Living in Card Games

This week I wanted to go over the ostensible death of the wide field Collectible Card Game (hereafter referred to as CCGs) and the rise of Living Card Games (LCGs).

Before I begin, I wanted to clarify that this doesn’t necessarily mean that all CCGs are doomed; quite the opposite in fact, as Magic the Gathering has stormed to incredibly successive heights and continues to grow, YuGiOh still continues to the best of my knowledge, and the Pokemon card game has continued and likely enjoyed no small booster shot of success from Pokemon GO’s release.

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Where wallets go to die, crying in happy bliss

No, this is about all the other CCGs, the ones that withered and faded as the above Triumverate took hold and survived the rise and fall of the CCG market Magic helped create. It’s also about the overall market in the wake of the CCG boom and bust, and the niche that may be available there. For the majority of this I’ll be using Magic as the reference CCG, as I am more familiar with it than YuGiOh and Pokemon, but broadly the same strokes can be applied to all three games.

In many cases, especially with the games Fantasy Flight Games has taken under their wing, the formerly CCGs have been converted into more static and reliable LCGs. Games like Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, Android Netrunner, and (iirc) the Game of Thrones card game have all been converted from CCG origins to LCG current states, and all have seen their respective games go from extinct or near-extinction, to explosive growth or at the very least reliable, stable playerbases with regular tournaments and relatively-regular releases. There have also been releases geared from the get-go to be LCG games, including the Warhammer Invasion and Conquest games, and both have seen similar levels of success.

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I almost want to start playing the GOT game just so I have an excuse to buy some of the ridiculously ornate house-specific card holders.

Living card games are definitely a change for the better from the volatility of their collectible ancestors, but at the same time, everyone else is following the leader at the moment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as LCGs have their place and are enjoyable in their own right, as well as carrying numerous advantages over CCGs.

However, taking a step back and looking again, Magic the Gathering has survived, thrived, and all the while relied solely on the CCG model. Part of this is helped by having the established infrastructure that allows them to make randomized packs instead of uniform ones, paying for hundreds of top-shelf artworks for every block, and experiment with new formats and styles while still having room to fail and fall back on the base product line.

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One example of a definitive not-failure experimental line

Both card styles hold their own values and drawbacks. For CCGs, the benefits include:

  • Shifting metas, ensuring that you can hit a critical mass of different cards that allow players to form strategies and overcome existing metas without running into as many unstobbable combinations. This also allows for patching of and cycling out of broken cards and combinations, making playtesting easier in some regards
  • Low initial buy-in, with only a few booster packs needed to form a legal deck, compared to the full gamebox buy-in for many LCGs
  • Reliable cash flow, with regular purchases from players for each new set or block, rather than a slower or inconsistent purchase profile of LCG games and expansions post-release
  • A secondary market, helping drive sales just to acquire a subset of uncommon or rare cards

On the other hand, LCG benefits are essentially the other side of the coin:

  • Stable metas, where players can more easily cope with challenges with a smaller card pool, as there are fewer combinations available to have to overcome. This also means that barring very esoteric combinations, experienced players will likely be familiar with many or most challenges they may be facing up against in a game
  • Lower “complete” cost, as players only need to get a set number of base games and expansions in order to have a full or robust pool of the available cards, rather than trying to catch up to a vast pool of released cards
  • Slower release rate, and likely lower costs for expansion development in the same timeframe as multiple CCG sets
  • A cheaper or nonexistent secondary market due to cheaper cards and known pack contents, making exact card picking much less expensive than potentially for CCGs.
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Another LCG, Doomtown, again based off of a short-lived CCG predecessor

Now, to the meat of what I wanted to get to tonight:

The CCG market is surprisingly open.

I think in large part this is because the CCG history is scattered with hundreds of skeletons of dead collectible card games, as well as collectible games that tried with varying degrees of success to ride the coattails as well. Many wise game developers have likely looked at their fledgling card game, looked at the open field, and decided that LCG or boxed and complete card games would be prudent as those are the games making a profit today.

But, in the process of everyone moving that direction, the CCG field has been left open. It’s early, to be sure, and a few successes could see a swing back into another bubble that bursts and kills off yet another generation of games in the category, but I think it’s worth exploring. I have a few ideas of my own, both LCG and CCG, and I believe the CCG version has the biggest potential to make an absolute boatload of money.

Being the tabletop game industry, that boat is probably a child’s rowboat, but it’s a start.

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“I want to be the next Richard Garfield!”

Before starting my CCG, I would want to take a detailed look at the post-mortem reports for the various games that tried and failed. The BoardGameGeek page for CCGs lists upward of 500 such games, most of them long since passed, and I want to make sure I don’t push my game too quickly, or change and alter it over time in ways that have seen other games wither and falter.

The plan I have will be looking into touching a few other game genres as well, but one key thing will be early game testing. Too many games can fail right out of the gate because of poor balance, and for games aimed at being tournament-ready like most card games tend to be (both LCG and CCG alike), this balance becomes even more crucial as you’ll be faced with players going over every possible combination and exploitation with a fine-toothed comb.

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“All we’ve found is a Jace and a couple Black Lotuses.”

Anyhow, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and let me know what your favorite CCG was during the CCG boom. Stay tuned Monday, for the start of regular three-times-a-week content releases on this blog. Cheers!

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