The ability to plan ahead is at the very heart of what makes games fascinating. Thomas Grip of Frictional Games calls it the "core reason" for why gameplay feels good in the first place. That’s not too surprising once you consider the alternative. A game lacking the possibility to make plans is doomed to drown in random chaos. Instead of pondering over interesting decisions, you have to face powerlessness and apathy. Why play at all when what you’re doing has no meaningful impact anyways?
However, and as usual, the other extreme is just as problematic. An entirely predictable system doesn’t generate interesting decisions either, once the perfect plan has been found. At that point the game breaks down to merely following and efficiently executing the pre-calculated "correct path".
It’s a balancing act. Ideally players will be making plans constantly, but are then regularly disturbed while executing them — in unpredictable, and yet carefully balanced ways. This back-and-forth of predictability and perceived arbitrariness is what can lead to a system that’s interesting in the long term.
Now, there are many games that explicitly draw a line between the two phases: planning and execution. Decisions are often made in both, but the nature of those decisions is actually very different. The following article will discuss the effects of this particular form of splitting up a game.
As examples, consider the character selection in an RPG or constructing your deck in a collectible card game. In these phases you’re exclusively thinking about how you will be playing the game in the future. You’re making a "game plan" without taking into account any information from a particular game state — cause there isn’t one yet. In a sense, you're playing a "game before the game".
This separate "meta planning" narrows down the decision-making space for the actual gameplay following it. In the worst case, this effect is so particularly strong that the gameplay is basically pre-determined. If you’re playing a “Face Hunter” deck in Hearthstone — a deck built entirely around aggression — you basically don’t have a choice besides following exactly this one-dimensional strategy. Depending on the deck of your opponent, it may work or it may not. Beyond a few micro-optimizations, you can’t really do much to influence that. On the other hand, you kind of have to tailor your deck in rather extreme ways so that it can stand the test of the "meta" to begin with.
With Crimson Company, we followed a very different design philosophy. In the standard board game version, all decisions are made in the context of a concrete match. Players don’t build their own decks and go into the game on an equal footing. Starting from the first round of a match, plans are made and have to be adapted continuously to work against the opponent and the cards available to both players.
For the tournament rules we're introducing with the "Ragnarok" expansion and the accompanying Collector's Box (which are also the default way to play our mobile version), we went with an innovative "joint deck-building" system: Both players bring 15 cards each to create a shared 30-card deck. This means decisions mostly come down to what cards you like to play most. While you do have the advantage of knowing half the cards in the deck, your opponent also does.
This means while you can plan around the 15 cards you brought and take into account the possibility of them showing up later in the game, it’s definitely not possible to go with fully pre-determined strategies. Ultimately the strength of cards and combinations still heavily depend on the situation and the context of the match you're finding yourself in.
This also means our approach to "combos" is quite different from the typical CCG way of things. We didn’t want players to stall the match and hope that they would at some point have assembled all the pieces of their combo and then switch into an unstoppable "win mode".
Instead, Crimson Company takes a more holistic stance. Players are not hoping for "fitting pieces", but have to adapt on the fly every round to the changing game state, and try to combine a couple cards here and there to edge out small advantages over their opponent. The core gameplay system is tightly knit around complex and unique effects far beyond the usual and mathematical "deal X damage" or "buff a card by X".
This also means, instead of going for a small number of "pre-baked" combos, all cards can be combined with each other in unique ways. Playing well takes creativity and ingenuity, as it’s simply impossible to just follow a prepared list of "good combos". The value of each card fluctuates a lot depending on the given game state and players have to re-evaluate cards — and thus combinations the card could potentially be a part of — constantly.
The "right" approach?
At least for competitive strategy games — and, for now, not considering the potential to monetize the whole thing — a focus on gameplay meaning within the context of a match seems to be a natural fit. Minimizing the strategic impact of “external” decisions, a maximum of fairness within any given match can be guaranteed. The players’ skill clearly is the primary factor when it comes to determining results, and distortions such as good or bad "match-ups" or someone randomly bringing a "counter deck" can be avoided.
Recently, the "auto battler" genre surrounding Auto Chess and the likes has also been pushing for this philosophy. Here players have to make the best of what’s offered to them every round and have to adapt their strategies and behaviors regularly, sometimes even change them completely in the middle of a match. If you go into the game with a pre-made "perfect build" in mind, you’re not just reducing your flexibility and thus potential to do well, but you’re also playing a less interesting variant of the game with way fewer decisions.
Now, the advantages of pre-game decisions are naturally to be found in the "meta game" possibilities they open up. Game elements can be "unlocked" over time and independently from a particular match or session. These unlocks can be used as extrinsic motivators to keep players in the game and keep them coming back to the game. Their effects on the gameplay may be unfair, incoherent and arbitrary if you allow them to dominate the game's strategy space, but their psychological impact cannot be denied.
An Unstable Compound
After all, a focus on in-game decisions is closely tied to the implicit progress of players, intrinsic motivation and competence — thereby satisfying entirely different needs than an extrinsically motivating meta game. Combining both sides can be a risky endeavor. In traditional CCGs though, the meta game has a direct and noticeable impact on the result of any given match. This means potentially interesting in-game decisions are undermined by those match-external factors.
On the other hand, the purely cosmetic rewards distributed by the Auto Chess "Battle Pass" work precisely because they are disconnected from the core gameplay. Similarly, with Crimson Company's mobile app, we're using deck-building more as a choice of preference and style of play rather than strategy. You're unlocking cards over time so that you're not confronted with the full complexity of the game from the very start, but we neither want you to "figure out the meta", nor will we sell you random booster packs. We want you to focus on actual gameplay, grow as a player and discover the game's depth layer by layer over hundreds or thousands of matches.