One thing that Fantasy Flight Games are good at is coming up with game mechanics. Their Living Card Games (LCGs) are some of the most well conceived games I’ve ever played. They go to exquisite detail in order to make sure their game designs are air tight and offer no room for confusion, especially when playing at an elite level.
For those who don’t know what an LCG is and how it differs from a TCG like Magic: The Gathering, the main difference is that LCGs have fixed distribution. This is in contrast to the random distribution of boosters you find in a typical Trading Card Game (TCG). You buy core sets and expansion packs that have fixed sets of cards. This puts everyone on a level playing field and makes the pay to win factor a little less severe. But this system is far from perfect. So here are a few ways the format could be improved.
1. Factions need to be more balanced.
Practically every single LCG in existence uses factions to fragment the card pool and it is done so to stifle power creep. You have to pick a side and use their cards. Some games give you a small budget to select a small number of out of faction cards. The Game of Thrones LCG has a faction for each of the houses from the source material for example, and Star Wars used factions such as Jedi, Rebel, Sith and Imperial Navy.
This is all well and good if each faction has an equal stake in the game and are just as viable an option for success as any other faction. Sadly this is rarely the case. It seems to be a deliberate choice by FFG to rotate which faction is the most powerful as each new cycle comes out (a cycle being a series of 6 expansions). Quite often you have one all powerful faction, several ok factions and a couple of factions that you would only ever use during muck-around games. This means that in any given expansion a number of the cards you’re buying are utterly useless and rarely become useful down the track. One could make the argument that useless cards exist in any card game but if you worked it out as a percentage of the total card pool you’d probably find that LCGs contain a higher percentage of useless cards.
2. The meta needs more testing.
A card games meta refers to the natural trend of deck strategies that are the most popular and successful at any given moment in the games lifespan and how they evolve. As each new set or expansion is released, the new cards are absorbed into the meta and deck strategies either evolve or are replaced entirely by new strategies. This is a necessary process to keep the game interesting and fresh but it is important that each new set is tested thoroughly against the existing cards in order to identify niggling issues like perpetual loops or game breaking combos. This is a daunting process, especially as the game gets older and the card pool grows. However, for LCGs this task gets easier as the card pool isn’t overly large. You have a core set of about a hundred cards but then each expansion contains only 20 new cards (you get three copies of each one typically so you’re buying 60 cards, but only getting 20 new cards added to the overall card pool).
The Star Wars LCG was even easier because it used a pod mechanic where cards were included in decks in sets of 6. So you weighed one set of 6 cards against another when deciding to build a deck. Each pod often included common cards used in many other pods which diminished the number of possible new card interactions again. Yet despite this, Star Wars went from broken meta to broken meta for most of its lifespan. When it wasn’t Sleuth Scouts winning a game by turn two, it was a broken Yoda/Nudj combo, or a Broken Imperial Navy combo. This left players flabbergasted as to how such obviously broken combos slipped the playtester’s notice. Equally frustrating was the fact that when one faction was already too powerful, out came another card in the next set to make matters worse!
If you’re thinking that this issue was probably just related to Star Wars, I hate to inform you it’s not. The House of Lannister was entirely dominant for the vast majority of Game of Thrones 2.0’s early meta as the hits just kept coming. First Jaime Lannister and Tyrion, then The Mountain, then another card, then another card. It made tournaments fairly boring because it just boiled down to “which variation of the Lannister deck am I going to face this round?” Similar concerns have been voiced in the Warhammer LCG and there are worries that the trend will continue in the new Legend of the Five Rings LCG. It seems that FFG aren’t learning their lessons on this issue which is disappointing to say the least.
3. LCGs don’t need all powerful cards.
Sources from inside the industry tell me that it is a deliberate design strategy in card games to make what are called “kicker” cards; cards that are deliberately very powerful. These are the cards that often end up costing a fortune in card games with random distribution. They are the kind of cards you often build entire deck strategies around. The idea is, you buy a booster and pull this card and literally dance on the spot with excitement because you’ve either got an all powerful card in your arsenal or you’ve now got a way to make a decent amount of money. In a game with fixed distribution, where you are guaranteed to get the same cards as everyone else, there are no rares or commons. So you don’t need that insanely powerful kicker card to entice a person to buy your pack. You just need useful cards. Cards that complement current strategies or introduce something new.
It’s one thing to have a card in your hand that will outright win you a battle, it’s quite another to have a card that will outright win you a game. Cards that, once played, crush your opponent’s hopes of ever recovering. Cards that wipe a board, or choke resources or find some other way to drastically alter the game state. Games are fun when they are close and back-and-forward. They are not fun when they are not a contest at all. Too many kicker cards can have this effect. The Warhammer LCG was rife with them. The Game of Thrones LCG has so many of them that you have to devote half of your deck space to deal with those possibilities. These cards become auto includes and the cards that offer protection from them become auto includes as well. No one can try a fun deck strategy without agreeing with your opponent that these cards be auto excluded.
4. The ever-growing cost of sets become a barrier to entry.
Card games are a sink hole for your finances no matter which game you’re into. So this is not a unique problem to LCGs by any stretch of the imagination. But if you can get into an LCG early, the cost of maintaining your collection is relatively small. A small outlay each month with slightly bigger outlays every six months are more manageable compared to the endless outlay of booster after booster. But if you’re not so lucky to get on the bandwagon from the beginning the cost of entry can be quite steep. This is because you’re entering into a gaming community where most of the players own literally all of the cards. In random distribution card games you can kind of get around this issue by purchasing singles and essentially buying your deck strategy but there is no singles market for an LCG. If you want to play on an even playing field, you usually have to buy all of the expansions. This is a daunting prospect for a lot of new players. This results in a player base whose population growth peaks at launch and slowly diminishes over time. This is simply a flaw in the LCG model and there’s not a lot they can do about it.
5. The card pool grows too slowly.
In a random distribution card game, as each set comes out, hundreds of new cards are dumped into the card pool. Sets need to be large to maximise booster sales. But in an LCG new cards come to you in dribs and drabs like a slow IV drip. Each faction might only receive one or two new cards at a time in a lot of cases. This compounds the previous issues of faction balance and broken metas because the game takes a long time to fix its mistakes. If there ends up being some kind of delay to the release schedule of expansions (as was the case with the Star Wars LCG when Disney took over licensing of Star Wars merchandise) then the card pool and the meta can become quite stagnant. To add more cards means that expansions become expensive which would exacerbate the cost of entry problem.
Does all this mean that LCGs are a waste of time? Not necessarily. I still have a lot of fond memories from my time playing them. But in the entire time LCGs have been around they have undergone little to no evolution and FFG have done very little to refine and improve their processes. Unfortunately they seem to be too set in their ways. Do you agree with my sentiments or am I way off the mark? Comment below and let us know what you think!