Card Games: The Digital Resurgence and The Future

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With the release of Magic Duels: Origins, out at the time of writ­ing on iOS, and “soon” on XBOX One, PS4, and Steam, I feel like things are final­ly com­ing full cir­cle. Online card games have been gain­ing momen­tum for the past few years, but with Magic: the Gathering appar­ent­ly join­ing in on a true free‐to‐play model, things are reach­ing what feels like a kind of com­plete­ness. While I haven’t yet been able to try Magic Duels: Origins, so have no hands‐on expe­ri­ence with how it works, for some rea­son it’s look­ing like this might be my cue to dip my toes into Magic again after an absence of more than a decade.

But that is only soon. For now, I want to take a brief heli­copter view of the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal and online card games. Where did we come from to get to a world where mil­lions of play­ers are using dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies to play card games? I’ll leave Solitaire, Hearts, Poker, and FreeCell to the side for the moment, although the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal ren­di­tions of such (folk) card games needs to be writ­ten at some point as well.1

Focussing on non‐folk games, then, the main­stream his­to­ry of dig­i­tal card games start­ed with Magic: the Gathering,2 appro­pri­ate­ly enough. In 1996, Microprose pub­lished a dig­i­tal ver­sion of the game, includ­ing all the cards from the then cur­rent Fourth Edition set, as well as a selec­tion of cards from the orig­i­nal Alpha–Beta–Unlimited sets. Two expan­sions added cards from the phys­i­cal game’s first new sets, such as Arabian Nights, Antiquities, and Legends. Apart from incor­po­rat­ing the game’s basic duel rules, it fea­tured a map‐based ‘frame­work game’, where a planeswalk­er wan­dered through the lands of Shandalar, bat­tling ene­mies and gath­er­ing new cards in the process. It was an extreme­ly charm­ing game — with an inter­est­ing early music‐inspired sound­track — that allowed teen me to play with rare cards that by the time I had start­ed play­ing the phys­i­cal game had already become pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive.3 Interestingly, the com­put­er ver­sion of Magic: the Gathering also allowed for online play through a sys­tem called Manalink. I’ve never tried it, and I’m not sure if was any good, but the idea and ambi­tion to set up dig­i­tal card play was already present only a few years after the orig­i­nal release of the phys­i­cal game.

Gem Bazaar

Gem Bazaar, from the 1996 Magic: the Gathering game

What truly set the game apart from its phys­i­cal coun­ter­part, how­ev­er, was the intro­duc­tion of a small num­ber of cards that made use of a ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor. You can see an overview of these cards on this blog on the Wizards of the Coast web­site. Few of them were truly pow­er­ful in the con­text of the entire card set in the game, but they made for inter­est­ing vari­a­tion and unpre­dictabil­i­ty. While card games already pos­sess an inher­ent ran­dom­ness through shuf­fling, and early Magic sets had intro­duced cards that demand­ed flip­ping coins or even cards, these digital‐only cards added some­thing extra in the form of ran­dom effects that allowed for a wide range of dif­fer­ent out­comes and tar­gets in a way that would some­times be unwieldy to repli­cate out­side of a com­put­er.4 Recently, Hearthstone start­ed apply­ing this prin­ci­ple on a broad­er scale, being a card game designed for a dig­i­tal realm only, but we’ll return to that later.

After the 1996 Magic: the Gathering PC game, there appears to have been lit­tle in the way of online card play avail­able — again, besides online incar­na­tions of the most well‐known games such as Poker and Blackjack. This changed for me around twelve years ago when I dis­cov­ered GCCG (Generic Collectible Card Game) in col­lege. This pro­gram serves as an online plat­form that pro­vides vir­tu­al tables for card games, as well as a data­base for play­ers’ vir­tu­al card col­lec­tions. The pro­gram sup­ports a vari­ety of games, includ­ing pop­u­lar ones such as Magic and Pokémon, and also includ­ing games like the Star Wars CCG (19952001) and Middle Earth CCG (19951998).5 Few of the indi­vid­ual games’ rules are actu­al­ly enforced by the pro­gram: play­ers have to take care of that them­selves and there­fore already be famil­iar with the rules of the phys­i­cal games prop­er. However, GCCG does sim­u­late the basic manip­u­la­tions need­ed for play: mak­ing a deck, draw­ing cards, putting them in and out of play, etc.

What makes GCCG attrac­tive, next to its online play func­tion, is the col­lec­tion sys­tem. Playing games always rewards both play­ers with vir­tu­al money, which can be used to buy card packs and the like. There is also a mar­ket­place sys­tem where play­ers could sell indi­vid­ual cards from their col­lec­tion, again for vir­tu­al money. However, there is no con­nec­tion between these vir­tu­al col­lec­tions and any real‐life col­lec­tions play­ers might already have. Finally, the pro­gram allows for a sealed deck mode, in which play­ers con­struct a deck from small amount of card packs, rather than their usual col­lec­tion.6

As an aside, card games have fea­tured as mini‐games with­in other games for quite a while as well. Most often, these are well‐known games like Poker or vari­ants of those. But some games devise new games to liven up their over­ar­ch­ing game world. The Knights of the Old Republic series intro­duced Pazaak, which is sim­i­lar to black­jack, but with a wide range of cards that can manip­u­late your cur­rent score. Other exam­ples include Caravan in Fallout: New Vegas, and the recent Gwent in The Witcher 3.

A cou­ple of years ago, I stum­bled across a game made by Finnish stu­dio Kyy Games called Cabals. The game, which is themed around occult secret soci­eties, com­bines a col­lectible card game approach with board‐based posi­tion­al play and zone con­trol rules. These are all great con­cepts and the game was quite inter­est­ing to play, but to get any cards beyond the basic ones and a cou­ple of packs seemed pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive to me at the time. I had stopped play­ing Magic for a rea­son, after all. That said, a lot things about Cabals are ground­break­ing, in hind­sight. First of all, it was an orig­i­nal dig­i­tal card game, not based on a phys­i­cal coun­ter­part. In addi­tion, it pio­neered a freemi­um model for online card games, some­thing which by now we almost take for grant­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly when think­ing of our next game:

There’s no doubt that it was Blizzard’s Hearthstone that brought dig­i­tal card games to a whole new audi­ence when it was launched in 2014. While Hearthstone main­ly uses a creature‐and‐spell‐based rule sys­tem, sim­i­lar to but sim­pler than that of Magic, it also uses slight ele­ments of posi­tion­al play — cards that are next to each other some­times influ­ence each other — and adds a dol­lop of cards with ran­dom effects, like the ones intro­duced in the 1996 Magic game, although in Hearthstone there are many more, and they are much more cen­tral to the (meta-)game as a whole.

If at first there seems any­thing awk­ward about play­ing card games on a com­put­er (or a phone or tablet), it does help one reflect on the nature of card games them­selves. For the past thou­sand years or so — a rough approx­i­ma­tion of the known his­to­ry of card games — rec­tan­gles or other reg­u­lar shapes of card or bark or paper were sim­ply the best way of cre­at­ing a set of inter­change­able objects which could be marked to give them a par­tic­u­lar game value. A cen­tral fea­ture of a card game is, of course, that the indi­vid­ual cards need to be indis­tin­guish­able on their back, so as to intro­duce ran­dom­ness through igno­rance of what is com­ing up in your own deck, that of your oppo­nent, and of which cards your oppo­nent is hold­ing. But these func­tions are not lim­it­ed to phys­i­cal cards. In a vir­tu­al world, we can rep­re­sent all these inter­act­ing game objects just as well.

Finn and Jake playing Card Wars

Finn and Jake play­ing Card Wars

It is prob­a­bly for familiarity’s sake that these objects still have the shape of cards in games like Hearthstone. Especially once played, such ‘cards’ could just as well give up their card form and trans­form into full‐scale dig­i­tal mod­els of what they rep­re­sent (an orc war­rior, a gnomish fly­ing machine) rather than sim­ply an illus­tra­tion with a bor­der. In typ­i­cal style, the show Adventure Time imag­ined some­thing quite like that in the episode Card Wars [https://​www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​P​r​W​V​4​H​e​m​fio], where Finn and Jake play a card game whose cards also pro­duce 3D holo­graph­ic effects on their game table. Of course, this fic­tion­al card game has since spawned actu­al spin‐off games, both a ver­sion using phys­i­cal cards, and a vir­tu­al ver­sion.

Though these lat­ter thoughts sug­gest that card games are actu­al­ly a par­tic­u­lar instance of ‘modal obscur­able inter­ac­tive object games’,7 I sup­pose we might as well stick with the orig­i­nal term and sim­ply accept that cards don’t have to be phys­i­cal any­more, and some­times not even cards. Maybe future gen­er­a­tions will have to look into the his­to­ry ‘books’ or ask their grand­ma why par­tic­u­lar games are called card games. The answer will prob­a­bly make them go “Wow, games his­to­ry is weird.”

In the near­er future, my first ques­tion is prob­a­bly going to be: will I final­ly, like a prodi­gal son, return to Magic: the Gathering, or will it be still be Hearthstone for me? A lot of it depends on how Magic Duels is going to turn out. Wizards of the Coast would be wise to take a few leaves out of Blizzard’s book in this case. On the phys­i­cal side, I’ve got some new Android: Netrunner sets to work through, and I have a strong itch to hunt down my col­lec­tion of the Middle‐Earth CCG and get re‐acquainted with it. Whatever the form, card games are here to stay.

  1. Anyone who feels the call is wel­come to pitch me at! []
  2. Which debuted in phys­i­cal form in late 1992, designed by Richard Garfield and pub­lished by Wizards of the Coast. []
  3. That said, there was one boy with­in my cir­cle of Magic friends who through smart and inde­fati­ga­ble up‐trading man­aged to acquire a Black Lotus at one point. Collecting and trad­ing your way to one of those rare cards could be con­sid­ered some­thing of a para‐game of Magic. []
  4. This was repeat­ed with ten new cards in the 2001 Sega Dreamcast Magic: the Gathering game, which was only released in Japan. []
  5. I intend to write more on the lat­ter, quite fas­ci­nat­ing game in a future arti­cle. []
  6. This is, of course, sim­i­lar to Arena mode in Hearthstone. []
  7. Sorry about that. I wel­come less unwieldy sug­ges­tions. []

Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.