The RPG Scrollbars: In The Cards

These days, you’re just not a proper RPG unless you’ve got a fancy card-game spin-off either in or out of world. Gwent. Hearthstone. Arcomage. Triple Triad. Legends of Norrath. Pokemon CCG. Now The Elder Scrolls is throwing its adventurer’s cap into the ring with The Elder Scrolls: Legends, as announced aeons ago, but only just going into closed beta. Quite a gold-rush, especially given that historically, these games haven’t done particularly well in digital form, even when backed by a big name or license.

“Haven’t done well” is a relative term of course, compared primarily to the phenomenon that many of them have been in the real world. Steamspy for instance credits the free-to-play Magic: Duels (as in Magic: The Gathering) with a million or so owners, dropping to half that for games with an up-front cost, like the Duel of the Planeswalker series. They’ve also hit other platforms and may have sold better elsewhere, but still, they’ve never been a phenomenon on PC like they’ve been in card form. On an indie level, Mojang’s Scrolls got a lot of attention at release, but was overall a failure. It launched properly in December 2014, got little traction, and development stopped in June 2015.

Other games have done better, especially on the Gameboy, but even then often less than you’d think. Despite the number of Pokemon games for instance, there was only one digital conversion of the CCG – one I liked a lot, actually, aside from its unfortunate decision to split the gyms too cleanly by their chosen element. It sold a couple of million copies at least, but never became a series like Yu-Gi-Oh. There was a Japan only sequel though, and an online version that’s comfortably ticking along if you continue to want to be the very best, like no-one ever was etc. etc.

Even at their best, these games tended to play to their niche. Hearthstone, though? Twenty million players in its first year. An immediate e-sport sensation. Millions of dollars per month on PC, never mind the land of one-tap-fortunes that is mobile. It’s not necessarily the best of its kind, but goodness, it’s the most successful. And I love it. It’s the only game I have on my iPad right now, and it’s rare that I don’t fire up before going to bed, or in quiet moments while waiting for something, with time to kill.

Now, don’t mistake that for my being any actual good at it. I’m really not. And I’m fine with that. But looking at the recent rise of the CCG, I’ve been wondering why some of them have such a stickiness factor to them and so many others don’t. I’m reminded of all the MMOs that wanted to take World of Warcraft’s crown over the years, usually by offering some big features or promising to cater more to the hardcore base or otherwise trying their best to impress. What most of them missed is that whatever World of Warcraft’s triumphs or sins, it was a welcoming experience.

The graphics, the chunky feel, the flow, the opening conversations – it all worked together to create a game that wanted you to feel comfortable in its presence. Now, that’s comfortable by 2004 standards, obviously. It’s aged a lot. But simply beginning with not simply starter quests but starter adventures was pretty much unheard of at the time, even if it wouldn’t be until The Burning Crusade that Blizzard really set out to wrap them up nicely.

Hearthstone perfects this. Never mind the actual game. Just compare its look and feel to its peers: the hideous sterile whiteness of Magic, the confusing looking interface of Hex, the crinkled brown dullness of The Elder Scrolls. All of them are working so hard to look important, with the exception of Magic: Duels, which devotes most of its pictures to showing how you can buy cards instead of the fun you’ll have with them.

None have Hearthstone’s special sauce. It’s warm. It’s welcoming. It’s cheerful. It brushes aside however many people play it in favour of a far more important fact: that you can play it. And it wants you do. It so desperately wants you personally to be its friend. And from the booming welcome of the Innkeeper when you fire it up to the little jokes embedded everywhere from the matchmaking system to the card collections, I’m happy to do just that. I would love to go to this tavern after a busy day. I would love to sit in a corner, play Hearthstone, and talk about my daily adventures.

Is it a perfect game? Christ no. I have many complaints about it, and there are many more that are entirely valid. But more than with most games, they’re less important than the fact that playing it is like sinking into a warm bath – friendly, no-pressure, no ‘git gud’ bullshit or constant calls to put money into the slot. I’ve done that a few times of my own volition, most recently for the Whispers of the Old Gods expansion, but never due to feeling forced. And believe me, I am very cheap. I never buy IAP anything, never mind fake bits of cardboard that go “Roar!”

In short, for any other CCG to draw me away, it has to not only replace my game of choice, but my local pub. It also has to offer cards that are at least as interesting as Hearthstone’s, and good luck with that too. Forget the raw lore stuff from World of Warcraft, like the hero characters. Hearthstone regularly makes me smile with its art and silly gags and incidental animations in a way that few other games can, reinforcing that it’s just a game to be played for fun, rather than actually a legendary battle between good or evil.

Hearthstone succeeded online not because everyone is a Blizzard loving sheep or because it’s the greatest game ever, but because Blizzard sweated the raw feel of a Pyroblast slamming home as much as the individual rules, and made sure that cards were interesting whether or not you had any prior connection to them or not. Have the others? No, not really. Just looking at The Elder Scrolls: Legends makes me yawn. So, so, bland. Call me when they add the Daedric Princes, maybe, since their delightful dickery is about the only memorable part of that world’s lore anyway.

While my inexperience with the genre probably contributes to Hearthstone’s style working better for me than other games, its tricks have been the key to most other successful attempts too. Gwent (which I finally got around to playing after reviewing The Witcher 3) is a solid game, sure, but a big chunk of its practical appeal is the way that it’s baked into the gameworld. Playing it isn’t simply firing up a minigame, like the dice poker of the previous game, but feeling part of a wider hobby with a social element. The same goes for one of the best digital CCGs – Card Hunter – which attempted to simulate the feel of sitting around a table playing D&D with friends, complete with a ton of narration and jokes and a DM whose attention is constantly split between the game, players, and pining after the pizza girl. I don’t much like the feel of the game itself, but that wrapping kept me with it far longer than if it had been a straight-RPG using the same mechanics on an Actually Epic Quest.

Going back further, the pattern continues. Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad took about the simplest card game this side of Snap and made it something that could be a big feature when added to Final Fantasy XIV some sixteen years later. The enthusiasm and importance of this silly thing in-game made it more than it was, even without getting into the gameplay side of it unlocking gear. I was never taken with Might and Magic’s Arcomage in this regard, but enough people were that it got its own standalone spin-off way back in 2000.

All that said, having the world obsessed with a game and talking about it all the bloody time doesn’t automatically make it fun. Consider this the ‘Fuck Blitzball’ corollary, if you will. Likewise, New Vegas did a poor job of establishing Caravan as a game worth anyone’s time within the quest, Knights of the Old Republic’s attempt to sell Pazaak as something that anyone would actually play for fun was at best adorable, and let’s not even get started on The Witcher’s original take on the CCG style.

Of all the games to merge with RPGs though, CCGs are arguably the best fit. They’ve got the cast and systems to base cards and rules on, and a world that allows any player to take it as seriously as they like. There isn’t the sense that you’re buying into something that’s going to cost the Earth, as with something like Magic: The Gathering, or even Hearthstone. Hunting new cards is the perfect background quest, since players who don’t care can completely ignore it, while those who do get something directly useful with each and every new acquisition. It opens up great potential for setting up key characters as duelists, reinforcing the satisfaction of beating them at what they’ve almost certainly just claimed they’re the best at. It’s a handy distraction for when the main combat loop gets a little wearisome. And it’s the kind of strategic, tactical experience that goes well with an RPG mindset, certainly compared to giving the cast of The Witcher 3 a love of pachinko because it’s easy to code.

I personally wouldn’t settle down to play Gwent in the same way as Hearthstone, any more than I’d ever challenge anyone to a game of Triple Triad in real life, but it’s a fun thing to do while hanging out for a bit in its homeworld. I do however hope that the next variants of these in-game CCG type games finally have characters reacting to their opponent literally pulling themselves out of the deck. I call all the bullshit on that, unless the game is known to be so comprehensive that everybody in the world has a card and somewhere there’s a kid in a playground trading for Generic Peasant 5,021. Still, as breaks from reality go, I can tolerate it. Assassin’s Creed suddenly trying to insert a millennia old CCG into its secret history, probably not. Though I really wouldn’t be surprised if the next game gives it a shot, now that scouring maps for generic pickups has not so much worn out its welcome as started to face exile to Siberia.

But Gwent 2077 when Cyberpunk 2077 comes out? A history of Britannia in CCG form when Shroud of the Avatar comes out? Why not? At least as part of a larger product, we know the goal was to be fun rather than simply to sell cards, and what better tutorial than a 30 hour RPG that helps build an emotional connection to the contents of the card as well as the rules? If it turns out people like it enough to want to spend real money as freely as virtual gold, then hurrah all round. As long as that spending is within reason, obviously, and not used to make a bloody Secret Paladin deck. (Grr.)

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35 Comments

  1. c-Row says:

    On an indie level, Mojang’s Scrolls got a lot of attention at release […]

    Not least thanks to Bethesda’s lawsuit one might argue – there is no such thing as bad publicity.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Also, didn’t it get the most attention when it went into beta? When they released it it had reached that point where I feel they’d already given up on it.

      Which is a shame, because I actually like Scrolls quite a bit.

  2. spacedyemeerkat says:

    The second screenshot, what game is that from? Looks familiar but I can’t remember.

  3. Neurotic says:

    I like the ‘warm bath’ analogy you made for Hearthstone, and by extension, WoW. This is exactly why I like HS and continue to give Blizzard a WoW sub every few months. It’s probably also why certain types of gamers have turned against WoW over the years, equating in their minds the ‘friendly’ Blizzard aesthetic with some kind of childishness or over-simplification. Personally, I like less poe-face and more funny-face in my games.

  4. malkav11 says:

    Personally I don’t find Hearthstone friendly or welcoming in the least, and it’s essentially down to its business model. It’s a game where you seriously need a significant level of card access (or conceivably enormous raw skill, but I clearly don’t have that) in order to win with any consistency, but it ties almost all of the gold generation that would get you card access to winning. It’s a horrid catch 22 that’s frustrating, dispiriting, and has only one way out: investing large sums of real money. Which clearly plenty of people are happy to do, and more power to them, I suppose. But for me, Hearthstone is appealing as a casual, dip in and dip out sort of experience and not really something I like enough to want to spend that kind of money on, especially when I have another card game I do like that well and that caters more to what I’m looking for from these games – singleplayer (that game being Hex). Also, a huge part of the appeal Hearthstone does have for me is my prior connection to the subject matter (i.e. Warcraft). On a pure design level I find Hex a lot more exciting.

    • Fnord73 says:

      This. Played it a lot from the vanilla part, when it was pretty fair. Got turned off by the payed for stacks just having so many more options available. Its like playing a footballsimulator where you have to pay to get any team better than Warvick FC.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The Adventures are hard to skip over if you want to build your own decks, but the general cards come pretty quickly. Most weeks’ Tavern Brawls also make it a piece of cake to rack up enough gold for a ton of Arena play if you want to sideline that stuff entirely. Some of them demand you build a deck, but far more of them just let you pick whatever classes are in your quest-log and pretty quickly clean house.

      • Stargazer86 says:

        I agree, partially. You CAN get all the cards simply through paying for them with in-game currency. Though the caveat, of course, is that everyone else who used cash is going to get them before you. They’re going to have the neat combo decks, the sweet new cards, and the OP stuff Blizzard didn’t catch way before you do. And it can be very, very discouraging when you’re barely managing to grab another pack every couple of days while constantly doing battle against people who obviously just paid for 100 packs to grab all the cards at once. Sure, you can craft the best cards you want with dust, but to get dust you need to burn cards, and to get cards you need packs. So it all comes right back to in-game gold and just how slowly it trickles in.

        And if they come out with a new adventure? It’ll take you about a week and a half to two weeks to just scrape up enough gold to buy a single wing. And during that time you’re not buying ANY new packs of cards.

        Yet, I agree that it’s my favorite online CCG. Don’t get me wrong, I think Magic is much better, and I love Card Hunter, but Hearthstone is just so nice and smooth and comfortable to sink into, it really is like a warm bath. I’ve tried plenty of other CCG’s as they’ve come along and the thing that’s always struck me is just how less appealing they look. Their mechanics might be too fiddly, the game itself may look too cold and clinical, or it might be too complicated. They’ve just never pulled me back like Hearthstone does.

      • malkav11 says:

        You must have a different definition of pretty quickly than I do. Ignoring the completely unpredictable nature of how long it will actually take to complete “win” quests, we are talking a maximum of one pack per day from daily questing, IF you’re lucky enough to get the right quests. Most quests don’t reward more than 40-60 gold, and you only get one per day, meaning you’re actually probably only going to average a pack every two days, sometimes three. Apparently you can get one pack from Brawl a week, and you get another 10 gold for every three Play/Brawl wins. So if you play the ever-living shit out of Hearthstone and win 30 times a day, you’re looking at something like 10-12 packs a week. I grant that that would be quite a few, but that also means an enormous investment of time. Without it, we’re talking more like 4-5. And that’s before we consider that Hearthstone packs only contain 5 cards. Since there are 9 classes and something like half of each set is class specific cards, chances are only two or three of those cards are going to be relevant to any given deck. And that’s assuming no duplicates. Sure, you can disenchant and eventually craft the cards you specifically want but at that point you’re burning entire packs to craft a card or two, so that’s not precisely fast.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          You play against the AI and you get the key cards for your class. You can then very easily focus on a couple of others and build up a decent selection, yes. That’s exactly what I did. If you want all the cards then prepare to spend a lot of time playing, or to pay up like any other free CCG. But I had little trouble getting a solid deck together that allowed me to have fun, without any problem. The Adventures added a few good ones to the classes I play as, but most of them I bought using dust.

          It’s perfectly doable. And with the move to Standard, it’s become more so. It’s obviously much quicker to spend money, and if you care about rampaging through the levels then you’re going to want to do that, but I’ve had a perfectly good couple of years just enjoying the game as a pleasant diversion and not giving a fiddler’s pluck.

    • Kolyarut says:

      I wish the daily quests were tied to “play X number of games as Y” rather than “win X number of games as Y” – it would remove the Catch 22 element of the equation at least (getting new cards would still be a slog, but at least you’re not battling against impossible odds to get them in the first place).

      • malkav11 says:

        Yeah, that would work wonders for my enjoyment of the game. The packs would still be silly small and spread across too many unmixable categories, the adventures would still be ridiculously overpriced, and the locking of Brawl away from new players would remain inexplicable…but I could play the game and lose without feeling like I’d wasted my time, and I could grind packs/adventure wings on my terms, a few games at a time, without assigning my progress to the whims of random chance. I seriously don’t understand why they don’t do it that way.

        I feel like the example of Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s other F2P game, is instructive. It also uses the daily quest for gold system and the quests are broadly similar, but there are a few key differences that make it vastly more friendly and fair. The first being – there’s only one quest that requires you to actually win games (IIRC, at least). The second being that all of the quests count matches played versus the AI. You’re rewarded more for playing against other players, as it should be, but there’s still a path to progress even if the matchmaking keeps screwing you (I mean, you still get more out of losing against players than winning against the AI, so you’re probably better off doing that, but it’s an option.) And of course, thirdly, you do not need the currency to enjoy the game. It’s nice having a wide roster of characters and always being able to play your particular favorites, sure it is. But in HOTS, you always have access to a rotating cast of ten characters, and they’re all at least moderately viable. Hearthstone, you really need a significant pool of cards – much more than you get out of the gate – to be able to play anyone but other raw newbies, much less have the sort of experimenting fun that really makes a CCG for me. Brawl seems like it sometimes addresses that (when it uses premade decks instead of constructed), but not consistently, and you have to grind a character up to level 20 just to have access, which is a bizarrely arbitrary requirement. Arena could also provide this to some degree but given that it costs to enter and as far as I can tell isn’t guaranteed to return that investment, I feel like that’s got its own barriers. (Among other issues I have with it.)

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          Getting a character to Level 20 isn’t much of a grind. I’m on completely the opposite side with HOTS. I find the stingy rewards it gives far more frustrating than the consistent flow I get with Hearthstone.

          • malkav11 says:

            I haven’t gotten a character to 20, so I don’t know how many games it takes in real terms (more than I want to play in the standard mode with an uncompetitive deck, certainly), but I can’t see any reason for the requirement in the first place.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            You get halfway there just unlocking the Basic cards for a character and it doesn’t take long. The reason is because Tavern Brawl bends the rules quite a bit, so it’s probably best to know them in the first place. (Though I think it’s crazy you have to unlock the basics for ALL the characters and that should happen automatically after a while.)

          • malkav11 says:

            Yes, and unlocking all the basics took quite a few games and was more than sufficient to establish how to play (even if I hadn’t already had plenty of CCG experience, although obviously Hearthstone can’t assume I had had). I could maybe see requiring you to have one level 10 character to do Brawl. After all, you don’t have all your core cards for the constructed Brawls until then. 20 seems like overkill.

  5. Thankmar says:

    Idk, on the lower levels of ranking or casual I do not meet too much of totally overpowered decks despite having only payed sth. in the beta. The Matchmaking works, I think, mayba you should just play some games to get in the right spot there? Plus, you can, as mentioned, play Tavern Brawls or Arena. I do have more trouble with some classes than others. Given the time I played HS, and the fun I had most of the time, I think its pretty fair.

  6. GWOP says:

    “It’s the only game I have on my iPad right now”

    Boo! Play Hoplite!

  7. Cronstintein says:

    Forgive me for being a shill, but I recently found a gem of a CCG called Faeria. It’s currently in EA (meaning it’s still getting weekly card balancing for an expected full free-to-play release in Sept), but it’s a very neat combination of CCG and board game.

    One noteworthy change on the CCG economics is that you can purchase the entire card set for $50. The devs are regularly on the Discord listening and discussing the balancing with the (excellent) community.

    In relation to this article, it does not reach the perfect presentation of Hearthstone. I think it looks good and all, but it doesn’t have that physical feel that the hearthstone cards and arena have, nor visual polish.

    Anyway I’ll drop a link in case anyone is interested.
    link to faeria.com

    • kizu says:

      Faeria is really cool. It is rather strange that there were no mentions of it at RPS at all, it deserves at least something.

  8. RedViv says:

    “WHO AM I? NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!”



    “Your opponent left.”

  9. Zeroebbasta says:

    I love the pokemon card videogame, and still play it occasionally. The japan-only sequel has an unofficial translation, if you’re interested! It has new cards from the “team rocket” expansion, and a really silly plot about an evil organization kidnapping people and stealing their cards. Great fun.

    I personally don’t like the atmosphere of Heartstone at all, everything seems so cheesy. Also, the gameplay is pretty slow. I much prefer card/board game hybrids, like Duelyst or the much underrated Cabals.
    (Cabals’ gameplay is pretty broken, but that’s part of the fun.)

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I really liked it. It was just a shame that it took until the end before people started fielding proper teams, so the rest of it was “Welp, fire gym. Water types, it’s your time to shine!”

    • malkav11 says:

      I still miss Star Chamber. :(

  10. kud13 says:

    Gwent was great, because it basically told you that some cards can only be found as quest rewards, while offering other, less rare, but potentially useful cards as random rewards for beating all possible opponents.

    And it didn’t hurt that wrapping up the collection involved a well-written tournament quest, with an easy way of screwing up the “collect em all” quest permanently, if you made a “not-well-thought-out” in-game decision.

    When a mini-game is well-integrated into the game world, it’s interesting. When it exists as a barrier to progression, it’s annoying.

  11. Kolyarut says:

    I actually really like the sterile whiteness of Magic Duels, but it does have issues. I’m not going to spend a penny buying cards for random packs in an iffily supported digital version when I could buy singles off eBay for the physical version instead. It’s also got a few useability issues surrounding the phases you’re allowed to play cards in – I know those stem from the source material, but the whole “relentlessly moving pausable timer” system is a little unforgiving at times.

    I’d still play more of it if it had Hearthstone’s cross-platform account system, though. Seriously. If I have to play online, you can remember me when I’m downstairs on the freakin’ iPad.

    (Arcomage shout out, wooo!)

    • Kolyarut says:

      Speaking of sterile whiteness, didn’t Assassin’s Creed have one, back around Brotherhood? I’m pretty sure I played that before I actually knew what a CCG was. Seems like that should have been higher profile?

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Yeah, it was called Memories/Recollection depending on which one you’re thinking of. But it was a smaller scale thing and didn’t last long. link to assassinscreed.wikia.com

        • Kolyarut says:

          Recollection was the one I was thinking of (heh, I see what they did there, kind of a clever title considering the Animus memory stuff), I hadn’t realised they did a sequel. Kind of a shame they died a death, could have seen them becoming a minigame in the main AC releases.

  12. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    I wonder when Valve will turn Steam Trading Cards into a CC Game. Buy more games to get cards to play the card game to earn credits so you can buy new cards or games for cards!
    Now I feel dizzy.

  13. April March says:

    If you like Triple Triad, you should give Card City Nights a try.

    Actually, you should give it a try even if you don’t like Triple Triad. It’s a pretty fun and cute game.