I have a hard time talking about Magic: the Gathering. It is a fantastic game, and I can say that without reservation. It is one of the best thought out, best designed games out there. I have said on numerous occasions that if you want to understand how to create game mechanics, especially RPG mechanics, M:tG is like a masters class in exception based design. It’s fun to play, fast, colorful and fun. I bought into it when it first came out, when it was so novel that we tried to play with the decks we’d bought, and the Craw Wurm was terrifying. I’ve gotten rid of other CCGs over the years, but my Magic cards hang around .
I don’t play it these days. Every now and again I am struck by a strong desire to bust it out, but it always withers on the vine as I stop and try to catch up on the state of the art. I’m uncomfortable with the pay-to-play model, and it gets you coming and going. If you follow the rules and limit yourself to current sets, you need to pay to stay current as they come out. If you go with one of the broader rulesets, then you can use more cards, but so can the guy who has spent thousands of dollars on his rares and cheesy combos.
This used to bug me a lot, especially when I was younger and much more broke. I’m less broke these days, and I’m less troubled by the idea of being able to use money to make up for a lack of time, but I still can’t quite buy into the model. So I end up very torn on the topic. I love the game, but I’m uncomfortable with the product.
Historically, M:tG was the only game that really presented me with this problem. 4e had some elements of it, but once you realize that you really don’t need anything but a DDI subscription, it becomes entirely manageable.
I should not have been surprised when the problem raised its head again in the shape of WFRP 3e. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3e is a monstrously large box, full of components with the kind of production values that only a company like FFG can bring to the table.
It’s a fun game, full of good ideas, lightly using a well loved setting. I enjoyed it a lot as a game, but I’m not yet sure how I feel about it as a product.
The most striking thing about the game is that you need almost nothing except what’s in the box. You’ll want a pencil and maybe some scratch paper for character creation, but you won’t need them once the game starts. Everything in the game, and I mean EVERYTHING is represented by the components. Abilities, wounds and statuses are all cards. Duration, exertion and range are tracked with tokens. There are little cardboard standups for characters representing position. Even the equivalent of skill challenges/skill ladders use tracks you build out of cardboard puzzle pieces. Almost everything else is offloaded to the dice. This is brilliant to behold in action.
But it’s also a double-edged sword. Since everything can be done with the components, the components also represent the limit of what you can do. Adding new classes or abilities requires adding new components – even supporting more than 3 characters requires more components than come in the box – at least so long as you play by the rules.
There is absolutely a lock-in element to the game, but there are some benefits to this as well. When new rules or items or whatever get added to the game by an adventure or the like, as long as you include the cards, those get folded into the core rules with a quick shuffle. Compared to needing to reference multiple books, that’s pretty sweet.
It’s also a pretty decent check against piracy. If the components are necessary to play, it doesn’t really matter if illicit PDFs get out on the Internet. Making cards and tokens at home is enough of a pain in the ass to make enthusiasts likely to just decide to suck up the price.
I dig that, and as a business decision I understand where it came from, but it comes with a cost. There are a lot of decisions made in the design of the game that make it very hard to actually reference things. Most notably, if there is information on a card, it is not mirrored anywhere in the text. That’s a great protection against piracy, but it also means that there are no lists of talents or class abilities to consult – you need to flip through the cards.
Cards are incredibly useful for certain things, but this is not one of their strengths. It’s awkward and clunky, and it’s very clearly a decision to trade off ease of use for expandability (generously) and protection against piracy (cynically). That’s not a dealbreaker, but it colors perception of the game when you get to fuzzier decisions.
As an example, most everything I needed to reference for play as a GM could easily fit on a single page, maybe two. I’d hope for a summary page, but when I don’t get one, I normally wave it off as one of those terrible decision that people make in the name of page count, like excluding an index. Which is to say, I’d be unhappy, but I’ve got callouses over that spot. But when faced with a game where the business decisions are so apparent, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was left out to help pimp the eventual GM’s screen.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Having had time to think, I’m quite sure that the lack of a summary really is in the same bucket as a lack of index, but it took a lot of thought and time to reach that conclusion. At the table, as we were sorting through things and I was getting frustrated, it was very easy to reach the uncharitable interpretation. That’s no good.
So thus I am back where I started. I really dig the game, but I’m uncertain whether I like the product. I’ll be chewing on it for a bit, but I hope to delve a bit more into both sides of that tomorrow, now that I’ve laid bare my biases.
1 – So do my Shadowfist ones, but that’s neither here nor there.
2 – I’m pretty easy-going about it with MMOs, for example. But they’re also a different sort of game.
3 – Yes, this could probably be several posts on its own.
4 – And that that subscription is pretty much entirely mandatory. Yes, that’s another type of “pay to play”, but it’s better for two reasons. First, there’s no real problem with getting on and off the train – if I stop playing D&D and then come back to it, I have the same resources as anyone else. Second, it’s not priced too badly, especially compared to buying a $30-$40 book every month (and in fact, the online subscription model means I don’t need to worry that I missed a book during my time away).
5 – And this is definitely an “almost”, and one I tripped over once or twice.
6 – It is entirely possible to play the game in a more traditional fashion, but it does require copying a lot of information from cards. I am genuinely uncertain how well the game would hold up under such a change. On one hand, it would lose the elegance of all-components, but on the other hand it might actually improve the experience. The all-component approach works better in some areas than others, so it might be interesting to be selective in its application.
7 – That is, until someone copies the information from the cards and comes up with the aforementioned rules for playing without components. I expect this to happen quickly, so I hope there’s not too much weight put on this particular pillar.