The Analog Gamer: Shuffling Electrons
Card games. Not something you’d think has a natural connection to the electronic gaming generation. Traditionally the act of playing cards is a social one but technology has improved and allows millions of gamers to play Uno via Xbox Live! or gamble your life away playing poker online. The digital age removed the physical requirements of needing friends and opponents in the same space but it introduced card players to a world of challengers.
One area of the card game industry that’s exploded in the last 15 years is the collectible card game (CCG) market. Comprised of brightly colored cards usually with gorgeous illustrations or photos and a semi-random distribution mechanism like old Baseball card packs, players build entire decks of cards to battle with other like-minded players in casual play and at tournaments for cash prizes. While the concept of a CCG dates as far back as the turn of the 20th century, the modern CCG really came to prominence with the advent of Magic: The Gathering.
Magic: The Gathering originally was designed as a short, quick card game for gamers at traditional tabletop conventions to play in between matches or tournaments. Richard Garfield and his team at Wizards of the Coast developed the core system concepts that are used in most commercial CCG’s today and marketed Magic to the gamer crowd with great success. Soon, Magic pushed traditional gaming off to the side. The game designed as a fun activity between other games became the game that filled convention halls and comic stores and really signaled the kick off of the CCG craze.
It wasn’t long after the arrival of Magic that similar games began to pop up in very distinct circles of players. Young gamers had Pokemon to play. With core mechanics similar to Magic and the collectibility aspect and distribution method firmly entrenched in hobby, drug and even some grocery stores in the US it fed off the popularity of the cartoon series and Nintendo games.
While Pokemon had an obvious digital connection, Magic was also translated into a number of video games. Microprose software delivered the first licensed Magic the Gathering PC game to market in late 1997. The title was a faithful reproduction of the card game including exclusive digital cards not released in print and featured a LAN based multiplayer mode. This was technically also the last Microprose game that designer Sid Meier is said to be involved in prior to leaving to form Firaxis Games in 1997. The Magic game sold well enough that an expansion of the game was released with newer cards and some new AI opponents also a completely digital set of cards, dubbed the Astral set, were only available through the computer game.
Other games using the Magic property followed, some of them skewing far from the core gameplay of the card series including a Real-time strategy game, an action game and even an Xbox title that was more like battle chess than Magic. These games often featured iconic characters and items from the card game but failed to recapture the audience that the traditional Magic fans created.
During 2002 Wizards of the Coast got into the digital realm with their own version called Magic the Gathering Online. Gameplay is similar to the original Microprose game in that it concentrated on replicating the core card game elements and emulated turn and collectability models for players. Though it features a number of in and out of print source material dating back to the game’s Invasion series of expansions.
The new game also introduced the concept of digital to real card exchange. Players would purchase digital cards much the same way they bought the paper versions, including booster packs and themed decks for play in the online arena. Purchasing a full collection of digital magic cards even entitles players to send away and for a small fee they received paper versions of the cards for their real-world games, making the prospect of digital collection a bit more attractive for players of the real world version.
Magic the Gathering Online is currently on version 2.5 and features a large playing community though version 3.0 is expected in the coming months. The game is technically free to play but users have to either purchase a physical starter deck for the recent edition to get a code or spend $9.99 in the online store to buy cards. Prices for the digital cards match the retail cost of the physical cards at roughly $4 per booster pack and $13 per sealed deck.
Other digital card games have come and gone in the last few years. Konami published an electronic version of the Marvel Super Heroes cardgame for a number of platforms. Sony Online Entertainment is currently hosting a digital conversion of the Stargate Online Trading Card Game as well as Legends of Norrath, the Everquest centered online card game which grants players of the MMO’s a chance to gain exclusive items by playing cards.
Those looking to go the other route will likely find a few interesting video game to card game translations. In fact, one of the largest video game properties in the world – World of Warcraft – has its own collectible card game produced by Upperdeck.
WoW has been out a very short time and has three expansions already. Players build decks around a central character and then combat other players for loot and quest tokens. Warcraft the card game also features something new to the CCG realm, a special deck of cards built around a classic Raid Dungeon from the video game. These “raid” sets feature the core boss of the raid and special cards that are earned by completing the deck. Also players who buy cards can earn points toward interesting (but mostly useless) in-game items like pets for the MMO.
Card games and video games have a tight relationship. Whether it is taking the mechanics of a popular game and translating them to an electronic, mobile and globally multiplayer format or taking the beloved settings of games like Warcraft and converting them to a new offline game its easy to find a game to your likings. I’ve left out a number of prominent CCG’s that have video game ties, but I’d love to hear from all of you about your favorites, including those I’ve mentioned above.
Until next week, this analog gamer is shuffling off.