A look at card games

2011-10-24

Playing cards are popular both in the real world and on the computer. In the former case, because the components are cheap and compact (at least when stored), and the games themselves can often be played in confined spaces, such as on the train. In the latter case, because they require only static pictures for art, and little computing power.

I suspect everybody knows at least a few of the several hundred games you can play with a standard 52-card deck. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Magic: The Gathering -- a single game -- has thousands of cards and counting. It is also a considerable money investment. But what lays between these extremes, and how do tabletop card cames inform their computer counterparts?

The Dvorak card game would be more aptly named a meta-game, as all it does is define a set of general rules for CCG-style play. Specific cards and their custom behavior are to be defined on the fly, unless of course the players want to revisit an already finished deck. Many of them already exist on the website, but of course I promptly tried to create one based on my own space opera universe... and failed.

I've been thrown off initially by the lack of any license note, until I remembered that the rules of a game can't be copyrighted, as for patenting, it may not be so easy. (The text on the website is another thing entirely, of course.)

Two games that take the opposite approach are WTactics and Phylo, which define general-purpose decks that can be used with many different rulesets. The former is interesting to me because it takes place in the same universe as the turn-based strategy game Battle for Wesnoth, and the two projects exchange art, while being otherwise completely independent. The power of open source at its best! The latter has the noble goal of educating kids who, as they say, "know more about Pokemon creatures than they do about real creatures".

While on the subject of exotic but general-purpose cards, I can't pass up the opportunity to write about Borogrove, a deck made by a good friend of mine and based on the Alice in Wonderland mythos. Unusually, it is aligned along three dimensions (creature, attribute and rank) as opposed to the usual two, which should geometrically multiply the possibilities for combinations. No rules exist at of this writing, though.

But how easily are card games translated to the computer? A standard playing card can be represented in 6 bits with room to spare. Even if using up a whole byte, you only need 52 of them for a whole deck -- a trivial amount of memory by any standard. Thinking back, I'm surprised they weren't a lot more popular on 8-bit microcomputers. Perhaps it has something to do with the unique feel of holding actual cards in the hand. Or maybe it's the same reason why interactive fiction is a niche: people simply expect more from computer games.

The situation is arguably better since the PC era rolled in, with a wide range of solitaire games vying for the attention of bored desk clerks everywhere. The collectible card game explosion sparked by the aforementioned Magic also spilled into the digital realm, especially once the Internet spread outside of academia and computers became able to display spectacular graphics. Still, LackeyCCG and friends are about as popular as RPG virtual tabletops, which is to say much less so than other kinds of computer games.

Another idea is to have playing cards as a part of something bigger. Fictional tarots play a central role in the Amber saga. The real kind are used for some or all conflict resolution in certain RPGs. "Opportunity cards" are a major game mechanic in Echo Bazaar. (Here's that game again...) Also, many board games have cards as part of the gameplay, from Monopoly all the way to Settlers of Catan.

Of course, too many different elements in a board game can make it unwieldy. Computer games are largely free of this limitation, and since all you need for playing cards is a set of static images plus a few spare bytes of memory, it's a game mechanic to consider when you want a new one to add. Come to think of it, my imagination is already bubbling. Mwahahaa...

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