The Collectable Card Game: they all end the same way

A few weeks back, Brandon told me about a new game he was excited about. This is not an uncommon experience, Brandon’s exuberance for new things is one of his finer (if occasionally good naturedly mocked) qualities. He has diligently tried to get me to enjoy Disc Golf, Monday Night Combat, Dominion and plenty of other things with varying degrees of success (I prefer Ultimate, I prefer MW3, Dominion is one of my all time favorites).

This time the new game was an online card game called SolForge.

Brandon:  Oh yeah, I think this game’s gonna be sweet.  It’s designed by Gary Games, the guys who do Ascension, and Richard Garfield, the originator of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a CCG, free-to-play, and as you play cards, leveled-up versions enter your deck.  It’s a cool idea that couldn’t really be implemented physically, and I’m hoping it marks the start of a new wave of digital board games using cool new ideas that only work in the digital space.

Josh: It does look cool! And while I don’t love Ascension as much as Brandon, I would certainly try another game by the creator. But in the description of the game there was one little thing that made me pretty discouraged: “It’s a CCG”

Magic Powercards

This isn’t Magic for most people…

Brandon:  I want to get indignant for this.  But at the same time I think I know exactly what you mean. 

Josh: I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering in my teen years. I have vague memories of the first time I was in Davis Sq (where I now live) visiting the two cardshops that sold Magic cards and had places to play. At my parent’s house I still have stacks and stacks of cards, and almost collected every card in the Weatherlight set. But there came a point when I realized that as time moves forward, so must your collection, lest you be left behind with inferior cards. Cards that were once powerful were made better in the newer expansions and unless you bought more and more and more cards, you’d never be able to compete. Quitting Magic coincided with my first plays of Dungeons and Dragons and Settlers of Catan. After spending hundreds of dollars on Magic cards, the thoughts of a one time purchase for similar levels of entertainment were delightful. While the core mechanics of M:tG were a lot of fun, I found far far more enjoyment out of building decks out of “proxy” cards; index cards on which was written the stats for the card it replaced. The “power creep” is what renders every CCG unenjoyable for those who do not want to devote more and more money for a game that rapidly finds itself jumping the shark. Combine this with the random nature of buying packs of cards and you get an addiction that while healthier than gambling or cocaine, follows the same pattern.

Brandon: It’s kind of funny we’re talking about this right now.  I went to a game gathering around the street from my place this weekend.  the place was the clubhouse for the New England Sci-Fi Association (NESFA).  Among the many and varied events I experienced, one was the back store-room.  Amongst the duplicate (and sometimes triplicate) copies of every Dominion expansion published, there was a stack of plain white boxes with old Magic cards.  I was told no less than 5 times over the course of the day that I could take them, as well as a couple comments that they would be thrown out, or shunted to a free pile for an upcoming convention.  These things really do pile up.
I should say I actually like M:tG, except for the abrasive community and the deck-building and the cost and the tendency to random bad draws ruining a hand.  Which should imply that I hate M:tG. But I honestly think SolForge will fix these four things specifically.
Josh: See, I loved the deck building, and didn’t even mind the random bad draws part too much, but the cost is what did me in. Both in terms of time and money. I’m not sure how SolForge can fix these problems and still be “collectible” because you can make lots more money if there are more things to collect and this is the trap that every CCG falls into. I’m not saying that the want for expansions to a game you like isn’t a legitimate one or that companies shouldn’t try to get more money out of something worth playing, mind you. If Nintendo had come out with Super Mario 64 II with no new powers, just new levels? I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat. Dominion continues to come out with expansion after expansion, and while power creep is a bit of an issue, everyone’s playing from the same pool of cards and you can simply not buy the newer ones and get away with it just fine. And yes, for some CCGs, even M:tG, you’re not required to buy new cards to continue enjoying the old ones.  But it’s “Collectible,” it’s right there in the title.  More cards come out, new options, and you really do have to buy them to get that full experience, or avoid the game getting stale after multiple plays.  I’m not sure how SolForge can promise to not fall into the usual CCG moneygrab if it offers you random cards via “booster packs.” The gameplay behind the shell does indeed look cool. The concept of level upped cards in a deck is fun, but I can’t see myself spending any money on a game that requires me to keep spending or risk losing out on what makes the game great.
6000 commons and uncommons

…this is what Magic looks like

Brandon:  I see what you mean.  And that’s a big part of what makes Dominion and the dozens of games now like it so successful; everyone gets to play from the same pool of cards.  Still, you do spend money on Dominion in order to enjoy it.  And I know what you’re thinking, Dominion plays fair and balanced without the expansions, it just offers more choice.  But tell me, doesn’t playing with the base set devolve into purchasing the 3 good cards each draw, ignoring the other crummy ones?  Your favorite cards are from expansions, not because they’re more powerful, but because they offer more choice, more flexibility.
Conversely, you can “get away with” not constantly upgrading your personal CCG deck some games.  Old Magic decks still contain the same fun of the game.  I’m admittedly not arguing for tournament play, and not just because my argument doesn’t hold up there.  But with friends, Magic is still fun with old decks, or janky promotional 40-card packs they give away at conventions and game store events.
So, in the midst of all this CCG talk, there’s really one thing I want to know:  can I convince you to try this game out with me?  We can try it, evaluate, decide if it merits more investment.  Just like any CCG, or indeed, any game that allows us to play for free.
Josh: I still do, and still would play with the base set Dominion, but I see your point about old MtG with friends. It holds some appeal, certainly. As for SolForge, I’ll certainly try it. Any Game Good. Just don’t expect me to put any money into it.

One of the Best Games I’ve Ever Played: Second Place

Note: It’s been a couple years since this happened. Not all the details are fresh in my mind. But I’ve told this story enough that it seems prudent to tell it here. Maybe for the last time.

Really, everyone reading this blog should know about PAX and PAX East (though I’ve included links for you just in case). When the East Coast version of one of the greatest new gamers’ conventions came to Boston I was very excited. Held in the Hynes Convention Center (before it was clear the venue was too small to house the whole thing and moved to the BCEC), there was far too much going on for one person to internalize. On day one I went in without a plan, missed a few cool panels, and wondered what I would do with the rest of my time.

On day two, I knew.


Mayfair games was having a tournament for what is probably their most popular title, Settlers of Catan.* This wasn’t the PAX-standard 1 day fun-fest, with the winner receiving a medal and a previous blog post. This was a National Qualifier. The winner got an expenses paid trip to Origins and a ticket to compete in the National Semifinals tournament; the winner of nationals gets a trip to Essen Germany to compete in Worlds against the bar-none best players in the home of the game’s creation.

I love Catan. It’s the game that introduced me to the wider world of strategic board gaming. Before it was Monopoly, Sorry, Scattergories, Pictionary, and other family-friendly party games. Now it’s Carcassonne, Caylus, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, and countless other rich, complex and beautiful creations. And I wanted to be a part of this grand exhibition.

The format was as follows: 4 preliminary games of 4 people, attendance permitting. Wins and total score are tracked. The top 16 overall winners, determined by win count, then point count, go to the semifinals. Four tables of 4 players play, with the winner of each going to the final table.

Let the Games Begin

I play well, but lose the first game. I’m stressed about it, because I don’t know how tough the competition will be. I consider my 7 as possibly beneficial, but wins are what matters here. A switch clicks in my head. For the next three games I have a laser-like focus. I’m particularly proud of game 3, where I do a quick trade to get a ninth point built, then drop largest army for a two point bump, giving me the win and an additional point for the tie-breaker. When the prelims are done I’m at 3 wins and about 38 points. Despite the lack of sleep and crappy food I’m eating at the convention center, I feel amazing when I find I’m going to make it to the semis. The feeling is only slightly dampened by the realization that a bunch of people don’t want to play Catan the whole convention and bow out, leaving the lower folk to sneak in. It does become a point of contention in the semifinals.

I arrive at the convention to be placed in the enormous queue before the hall opens. The tournament is scheduled to start before the queue finishes, which worries me. The tournament heads have my number, and I’m able to tell them I’ll be there, quote, “even if I have to chew my way through.” They think it’s funny.


The player sitting across from me is Katie. I remember because it’s the name of my girlfriend, and because, as it turns out, she wasn’t able to make it to qualifiers but manages to step in to the semis since not enough of the qualifiers show up. I’m kind of pissed. I’m even more pissed when I realize quickly how sharp a player she is.

Lots of people have played Catan. Lots of people think the game is great, but fairly simple after 10 or 20 games. Lots of people think there’s a great deal of luck involved with the dice.

Lots of people don’t know the game.

There’s a great many variables to keep track of. In addition to resource and probability, there’s also the viability of specialized port strategies, total resource potential which lends to specific strategies, and most importantly, player behavior. The core balancing mechanic of Settlers of Catan is primarily of a social nature. The Robber Baron, and the tendency for trade, are driven by players, who are at times driven by personal feelings. The robber usually hits the player in the lead, and trades are usually more harsh for the breakaway leader, but that’s not always the case. Rude players get attention, vengeful players start vendettas, meek players get overlooked, and smart players know how to play this meta-game. So when, two turns in, Katie is nay-saying her own position and declaring she’s out, while maintaining a strong presence, I do not allow her to sway the masses. It’s obvious she knows the game, and despite not actually qualifying, she’s the one I keep my eye on.

My setup is strong, and personality is jovial, and my trades are good. I’m able to sneak the longest road in, while downplaying its use as a couple victory points that don’t actually earn me anything. A couple swift builds and port trades later, and I’m able to claim the win, faster than anyone else that round.

During the down-time, I’m trying to keep focused. I want to see the final board, I want to see what the total pips are for each resource, their proximity to associated ports, the overall potential of expansion vs. opposite port vs. city & dev card strategies. I’m praying for a victory on the last semifinal table by the guy from Nova Scotia, because he can’t take the prize as a non-US resident, and that doubles my chance for a trip to Origins. He doesn’t pull it off. The winner there is a… well, it’s odd. He’s non-descript. Tall-ish, white, blond hair, I think his name was John but I can’t be certain.

The final table is, in clockwise order; Me, Anna, John, and some girl who had just learned to play that weekend.

All Finals competitors got this t-shirt.  It’s faded, but the memory lives on.

The Final Table

The opening placement takes longer than I’ve ever seen. Everyone is amped and deep in thought. I’m nervous because Anna has opted for an aggressive strategy; she’s going for the same port I’m hoping to build on my earliest convenience, blocking my road and initial build and giving her that much more board space to work with. Our game won’t be decided on the 10th point; it will be decided on the 3rd. It’s a race for the two resources we need. We both know it. So while it isn’t a surprise, it was an unfortunate circumstance, that when I proceeded to roll a seven the first four (possibly 5) turns I had, I hit the same person. It made me feel like a jerk, but that one spot was more critical than anything else, and everyone knew it. I was vocal about lamenting that I had become the villain of the game (in hopes of garnering, if not sympathy, then some sort of understanding that would keep me from being villainized).

It was 9 points for me, 9 for John (mostly through victory points, but it was kind of obvious), while Anna and the other gal were far behind. And that’s when it happened. Anna targeted me. All barons went to me, all trades went to the other guy. She king-made the game. It was a bitter moment for me, one that I can’t see how I avoid. She stamps her setup right next to mine. She passes it off as strategy, but there’s no point other than to fuck me over. After 2 years, it turns out that while writing this I’m still a little bitter. And then I realize, all over again, that I played an amazing run of games, and I can be proud of what I accomplished; second place, one point from . And I have to admit, it was fun.

For his part, John was an amazing player. The nondescript description I gave earlier was meant as a compliment. In juxtaposition to my vocal, heart-on-my-sleeve style, John was quiet, stoic, observant, and a very strong opponent. I’m glad that if I didn’t win he did. Oh yeah, and the other gal got proposed to by her boyfriend right after the game, so yeah, she’s fine.

Finals players also received copies of the game. The winner got the game used for finals.


Mayfair holds this tournament every PAX East now. I went in 2011 and got to the semifinals. Anna was there, and snuck in at position 17 after someone dropped. She was at my table, placed right next to me again, and succeeded in boxing me out. I was vocal in my irritation, and while we griped over it, someone else took a development card victory from nowhere.

I didn’t compete in 2012. Too busy demoing board games for attendees.  But I’m looking forward to 2013.


* I’m not linking it. It’s f*ckin’ Catan. It’s the blog background at time of posting. If you don’t know it, turn to the gamer next to you and ask to borrow theirs, because they damn well have a copy.