This article is addressed, largely, to those readers who are exclusively videogame-players, and haven’t entered the world of designer boardgames. There really are two worlds, and each has their own understandings and knowledge and biases, a surprisingly small amount of which are shared among the two.
For instance, in the boardgame world, it’s pretty well-understood that Monopoly is a god-awful game (it’s ranked #8,009 / 8,025 currently on Boardgamegeek, which is basically the board-game Mecca). You’ve probably noticed though, that with videogamers (and non-gamers), actually, the consensus on Monopoly is pretty mixed. I’ve heard a bunch of people say they “love” Monopoly, despite the fact that there really isn’t anything there for an adult to love.
I’ve never heard a board-gamer say they “love” Monopoly. The strongest defenses I’ve heard board-gamers give for Monopoly were things like “naw, it’s not *that* bad” or “it’s better than Candyland” or “the original version of it is actually pretty good” (which is silly, because that’s a different game).
Of course, it doesn’t matter how many people like or dislike something – but I think that people do have to be invited to question things, and if they’ve never met someone who feels a certain way about something, it can be difficult for them to wander down that path. It’s even more difficult when all you’ve heard about “X” is that “X is awesome”, to come to any conclusion other than “X is awesome”.
So back to Scrolls. Firstly, the gameplay itself looks pretty interesting – more interesting than 99% of any new videogames coming out I’ve seen. Looks one part Heroes of Might & Magic, one part… well, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Both of which I like… ish.
Honestly though, gameplay wise, this could be better than either of those. There appears to be some system where you’re trying to attack the other player’s stones, which seems really interesting and could have a lot of emergent complexity. I would absolutely LOVE to get a nice tactical online multiplayer game, with a healthy playerbase. Like a turn-based Starcraft, or something – that’d just be fantastic.
So… why can’t Scrolls be good? Because it’s a collectible card game (or CCG).
CCGs are one of those “game-guillotines” that a game system cannot recover from. This is one of those things that board-gamers know, and video-gamers don’t. I should temper that statement, and say that within boardgamers, there are basically two groups:
1. People who hate CCGs
2. People who play Magic: The Gathering
There is some overlap between the two, but by and large, the only people defending CCGs are Magic players, most of whom have been playing the game since they were really too young to know any better. Magic is easily one of the most popular non-digital games of the past 20 years, so videogamers all at least have had contact with it. They all either have played it, or have a friend who has played it.
So my point is, videogamers have not really come into contact with the larger group of boardgame players who know that Magic, like Monopoly although not nearly to the same extent, is a bad game.
What’s so bad about CCGs?
I won’t even get into the horribly immoral and manipulative practice of selling people cards randomly. Obviously, that’s just spitting in the customer’s face, and anyone doing this has my contempt. Doing this to people in a competitive game environment is simply unforgivable.
I don’t know that Scrolls will work that way, for certain. However, it is “collectible”, and I can’t really imagine a good “way of collecting”. It’s either going to be random-finds (unfair) or be based on grinding enough (horrible), or be based on whoever paid the most to the developer (unforgivable). If there’s some other way, please let me know.
But even if there *is* some other way, we still have a situation where different players are coming to a competitive game with more or less powerful tools. To use a chess analogy, you might be coming at me with 10 pawns, 1 rook, 1 bishop and 4 queens, while I have the default kit. Is this balanced? I honestly have no idea, but almost certainly not. Balance isn’t something anyone can just throw together, and it certainly shouldn’t be left to two competing players.
CCGs are super-asymmetrical games wherein balance is left to the players, in a situation where people have different access to different stuff. I think this is fundamentally un-balanceable, and I think anyone who disagrees with me probably doesn’t know what balance really is or how hard it is to actually achieve.
Finally, a word about elegance. For every game, there is a point where the amount of content is “optimal”. In videogames, we tend to think that this point doesn’t exist; more is always better (until we eventually reach the point where, without really understanding why, we just find ourselves uninterested). In reality, there is an optimal point, and it’s usually a point most videogamers (or Magic players) would find tiny.
Anyway, whatever that optimal point is in a system, it isn’t “more all of the time”, as is pretty much required for a “collectible” card game to stay alive.
I wish Mojang the Best…
I really do wish Mojang the best, and I hope sincerely that they prove me wrong. What really sucks, is that they’re locked-into the CCG thing, I’m pretty sure. Right on the page the FIRST thing they say is:
“Scrolls is Mojang’s next game that aims to take the genre of Collectible Card Games to a whole new level.”
Sad-face. This leaves them very little wiggle-room if they ever realize what a terrible idea this is.
By the way, I am not saying that Scrolls will not be a popular game. It probably will, but this says really nothing at all about its game design quality. It will be popular just because it’s from “the Minecraft guys”, and really for no other reason.
So, good luck, Mojang, but I really think you beheaded this game before it ever had a chance. Maybe they’ll include some non-CCG classic-mode, or something, because the game mechanisms themselves seem pretty cool. Otherwise, we still have to wait for our turn-based Starcraft.