Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Congress of Gamers digression: Notes from a conversation with John Moller

I met John Moller of Car Trunk Entertainment in the game design contest room at Congress of Gamers the other day.  We started getting a little philosophical about game design - what we like in a game, what leaves us flat.  I like his perspective, and one observation he made stuck with me enough that I thought I'd expound on it here a little.

It's probably "card-driven" when the
printer resorts to 4-point font to fit the
special instructions on the card.
John described an interesting distinction he makes among card games into two general categories - card-driven games and player-driven games.  (I might not quite have his terminology right.)  The distinguishing concept is the nature of the cards in the game.  In a "card-driven game," most of the behavior of the game is governed by the text on the card - i.e. every card has its own rules or unique icons printed on it to describe its function and effects.  In a "player-driven game," the cards are relatively abstract, having only rank, suit, and/or perhaps a few other general categories, and the rules generalize across the deck.  In the extremes, a collectible card game would be "card-driven" and cribbage would be "player-driven."

One or two words on the "special" cards -
still in the spirit of a "player-driven" game
Of course, these are two general categories and not a strict taxonomy of card games.  Still, to refine definitions like these, I have a tendency to want to find exceptions, or ambiguities at the boundary between categories.  For example, Uno (designer Merle Robbins, artists Kinetic and Jeff Kinney, publisher Mattel) has mostly rank-suit cards, but there are a few special cards that change the play of the game - "Reverse," "Skip," "Draw two."   But really, I think Uno keeps to the spirit of what John describes as a "player-driven game," in which the card that you play depends on the tactical situation at the time and not so much whether you got a special card that drives a special effect under the circumstances.

I think Fluxx (designers Andrew and Kristin Looney, publisher Looney Labs) and its variations, by contrast, fall into the "card-driven" category.  Although some cards are simply objects ("Keepers") and objectives ("Goals"), many are unique rules and special effects.  I don't necessarily mean the simple cases of "Draw Two" or "Hand Limit Three."  The particularly unique cases of cards that interact with other cards - you can do this unless your opponent has that Keeper, etc - make Fluxx more of a card-driven game.  The point is that you can add or delete or modify the specific rules or effects on the individual cards in a card-driven game, and all you've done is change the game in some lateral way; instead of Martian Fluxx, it's Pirate Fluxx.

I think John's point about "card-driven" games is that they play themselves to a certain degree.  The course of the game is governed by the shuffle and who gets which card when, more than by the tactics that the different players choose to take.  I might not be explaining John's thesis very well, and perhaps it deserves a little more thought for me to appreciate and articulate it.  I was hoping - but failed - to find a write-up on the concept in his Car Trunk Entertainment blog, so perhaps I can persuade him to spend a few words on it some time soon.


  1. I think you've really got the heart of the matter.

    And I will consider the topic for a blog post very soon. Thanks for the idea.

  2. I ran across another designer's similar disdain for games that are too dependent on the mechanics driven by the individual cards. In a recent "State of Games" podcast, Monkey238 expressed her dislike of games that have, as she put it, "cards with words." Her opinion seems to be a variation on John M.'s point regarding card-driven games. I just thought it was an interesting twist on the same topic.