Missile Cards may be my first commercially released card game, but I’ve created dozens of card game prototypes and am working on numerous card-based projects I plan to release in the future. From working on these projects, I’ve noted some common elements that tend to make or break a digital card game’s design.
Turning arcade inspiration into a turn-based strategy game
The clearest thing I remember about playing Missile Command as a kid is that death is inevitable. As the oncoming barrage of warheads screaming towards your cities grows to a crescendo, it’s all but impossible to stave off annihilation long term. The game’s fast-paced arcade action and brutal difficulty led to match after match of sweaty-palmed cursing and sporadic hand cramps. I loved it.
In Missile Cards, I wanted to capture that intensity, but channel it into a completely different kind of experience: a turn-based strategy game. That seems a bit counterintuitive, but oddly, worked out quite well. Here’s how I did it:
- Subverting expectations: Rather than juggling resources, powering up your defenses, and blasting away hazards hurtling towards your bases in real time, I tapped the brakes and built a system where almost every action you take has a reaction. Whether you’re placing a defense card into an available slot for charging or triggering an ability, each move pushes the game forward. Cards advance on the conveyor belt, potentially adding new hazards to the playing field, as existing hazards continue to drop closer to your bases. The pressure-cooker intensity comes from having to plan out your moves carefully, make tough choices, and figure out the best way to use the resources available to deal with oncoming hazards. Timing is everything.
- 80s nostalgia for the win: Other areas of Missile Cards’ design pay homage to aspects of retro gaming. The pixel art style is a lot more detailed than the super simplistic Atari sprites from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their design and color scheme draw a lot of influence from that era. The game’s interface, menus, and UI are also all designed to look like you’re playing one of those old plastic gaming handheld devices. Even the decision to include the name of the game itself on the actual gameplay screen is a subtle reference to the classic days of gaming.
Crafting controlled randomness in card game design
People who play a lot of card games tend to understand that randomness is a core element. You’re shuffling the deck. You’re drawing cards. You don’t know what you’re going to get, and part of the excitement and replay value of card games comes from this unpredictability.
The problem is that sometimes RNG-based systems (random number generators) can slip into off-kilter grooves where the randomness is too lopsided, which can have a huge negative impact on the player experience.
Either they’re getting too much good stuff and the game is too easy, or they’re getting utterly steamrolled. It’s frustrating to lose a match entirely on the whim of a random dice roll, which is why it’s important to make sure the RNG systems you use don’t make your game unsolvable.
This was an issue I discovered early on with Missile Cards, thanks to feedback from beta testers. While I spent a lot of time fine-tuning the balance between hazards, defenses, ability cards, and the range of numbers across each unlockable “deck,” I still found that having a 100% random system was too harsh for players. Matches would begin, and players would get crushed by a deluge of comets right away, or they’d find themselves unable to play any cards for a few turns. Fixing this required a multi-pronged approach.
- Designing hidden training wheels: First, I opted to give players a free move on the very first turn of a game. This allows them to play any defense card that starts on the conveyor belt regardless of cost. It gives players a sporting chance to some kind of defense on the board and charged up before they get slammed with hazards. I also added code that ensures that there will always be at least one defense weapon card in the initial three card draw. This made a big difference, but it didn’t solve the problem entirely. Building onto this, I created a subsystem that acts like training wheels when cards are dealt. It uses variables to track how many hazard cards are currently on the conveyor belt when new cards are dealt. If there are more than two, it instantly shuffles the deck and picks a new card value before dealing. I’ve set it to cycle through this process a few times to ensure that most of the time the hazards don’t stack up too much. It’s not a perfect system, but it greatly reduced the number of times hazards would stack up.
- Avoiding pure randomness: Random number generators play a role in other key Missile Cards system, too, like in choosing which lane comets and other hazards drop into on the battle grid. The card dealing system itself is where RNGs are used most, and where they have the biggest impact on gameplay. The bottom line: randomness is a great tool for card games (and other genres alike), but it’s useful to playtest your games a lot and get feedback on how players respond to random elements. Designing an intentionally difficult game (as I did with Missile Cards) is one thing, but having an experience where players win or lose entirely at random is going to rub many players the wrong way. You can mitigate this by adding systems that act as “training wheels”; they shape the scope of random elements to keep the experience fun without making it predictable.
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Nathan Meunier is an indie developer, freelance writer, author, and creator of Missile Cards. His work has appeared in more than 40 publications including Nintendo Power, PC Gamer, GameSpot, EGM, and many others. He is also the co-founder of indie studio Touchfight Games.