Here’s the thought process that runs through the mind of many of a budding game designer:
- Some of my favorite games are CCGs.
- These CCGs have design or oversight issues that could be improved.
- I should create a CCG!
No, you shouldn’t. In this article I’m going to explain why you have basically zero chance of creating a successful CCG and why you should adopt a different business model from the start if you want to make a commercially viable card game.
What Is A CCG, Exactly?
Let’s get some semantic points out of the way. First, CCG stands for Collectible Card Game. CCG and TCG (Trading Card Game) are synonymous, but TCG was patented by Wizards of the Coast for a time, so the term CCG was created as a synonym. In this article, I will only use the term CCG. When I use this term, I am referring to tabletop CCGs. I use the term DCCGs to refer to digital CCGs like Hearthstone, Gwent, and Artifact.
Here’s the point that many game designers don’t appreciate: A CCG is a type of business model, not a type of game. While most CCGs have common gameplay characteristics popularized by Magic: the Gathering, the sine qua non of a CCG is selling cards with an artificial rarity in randomized lots.1 This model has two consequences:
- It makes purchasing cards a gambling experience. Booster packs are effectively the original lootbox. I would argue that this makes the model exploitative, as it feeds off of gambling tendencies of some consumers. Magic has been called “cardboard crack” partly due to the intense dopamine rush some people get from “cracking packs” (i.e., opening booster packs).
- It creates a secondary market, thereby allowing card prices to increase dramatically based on demand, thereby making cards a potential financial investment. Any CCG player is familiar with the “Power Nine” and certainly wishes they could have picked up a set twenty years ago, since these cards have proven to be such a strong investment.
Incidentally, CCG publishers like Wizards of the Coast shy away from discussing the existence of a secondary market and how it might influence their decisions to reprint cards. This is because the existence of a secondary market implies that cards themselves have monetary value. But if Magic cards are more than just a pieces of paper used to play a game, it follows that purchasing randomized lots are a form of gambling, thereby creating legal hurdles for selling Magic in places with gambling restrictions for minors.
Historically, the CCG business model has proven itself to be a “winner-takes-all” system, much like the US election system. Just as its not possible for more than two major US political parties to exist, and just as these two parties hold virtually all power in the US political system, so it goes with CCGs: Since 1993, three tabletop CCGs have succeeded and posted great profits, and almost every other CCG has died or become irrelevant. The three winners:
- Magic: the Gathering (1993). Indisputably the first and arguably the most popular CCG. It sold over 1 billion cards in its first year.
- Pokemon TCG (1996). The Pokemon franchise, of course, is one of the most popular children’s franchises of all time.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG (1996). The Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise is a gigantic Japanese manga franchise.
Notice that these three games were either:
- First to market.
- Early to market AND had gigantic media franchises behind them.
The list of failed CCGs is enormous. As game reviewer Kohdok points out, many CCGs have initial success and then after two years start to peter out if they haven’t failed completely. Some CCGs that put up a good fight but eventually died were Star Wars CCG (1995-2001), World of Warcraft TCG (2006-2013), and Star Wars: Destiny (2016 – 2020). On the other hand, extremely niche CCGs like Redemption CCG (1995 – present) are still kept alive by a loyal fanbase, but are almost completely unknown outside of said fanbase. Flesh and Blood TCG (2019 – present) may have a chance of long-term sustainability, even if it doesn’t break into the Big Three, but we’ll see.
Why New CCGs Fail
The allure of being the next Magic: the Gathering has encouraged more than a few entries into the CCG genre, yet all of them seem to fail or limp along. Why is this? We already saw with Star Wars CCG, Star Wars: Destiny, and WOW TCG that having a strong “IP” behind your game isn’t sufficient. Both Star Wars games listed never came close to the size of Magic, but they might have stayed relevant longer were it not for poor design and business decisions that hurt sales. WOW TCG seems to have failed for a variety of reasons: poor management, Blizzard shifting its focus to Hearthstone, and balance issues.
But how do you account for the failure of so many dozens, even hundreds, of other CCGs? Surely, even without a strong “IP”, some game would have eventually carved a foothold in the marketplace and posed a potential threat to the Big Three. While its technically possible, its incredibly difficult for three reasons:
- CCGs are lifestyle games, and the gaming community can only support so many lifestyle games. Much of the profitability of CCGs comes from the deep allegiance of the players, many of whom qualify as “whales”. There are only so many whales to go around. In other words, CCGs are very greedy, needy, demanding games, and the card gaming community can tolerate only a small number. This is why you don’t see Magic players equally invested in Yu-Gi-Oh! or vice versa.
- Most CCGs are simply imitations of other CCGs. Countless CCGs have imitated Magic, for example, while trying to add in some small mechanical changes, usually related to the resource system. This never works for a couple of reasons. First, Magic’s resource system, while frustrating, is part of what makes it an appealing game to many. In other words, its a feature, not a bug. Second, even if you have improved on Magic’s mechanics, its unlikely that you’ve improved on its art, lore, community, or competitive scene.
- CCGs are expensive to make. Illustrating a set of 300 cards can cost 30,000-100,000 USD without any trouble, if you want the quality to compare to Magic. Balancing the game properly also requires a tremendous amount of playtesting, which might require hiring playtesters. Add in costs of blue-core card stock and costs associated with producing randomized card packs, and its not hard to see only established companies with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their war chest will attempt to create a CCG.
What About Hearthstone?
Hearthstone is a digital CCG and the only card game I’m aware of other than the Big Three that has had tremendous commercial success. At first glance, Hearthstone might seem like it should have failed, since it wasn’t early to market and since it doesn’t bring much new to the table in terms of CCG experience. This isn’t entirely true. Here’s four reasons why Hearthstone succeeded:
- Early to the digital market. Although Magic Online already existed, it didn’t have a UI that could attract anyone except veteran MTG players. Magic Online was basically created for tabletop Magic players who wanted to play more Magic. It was not created for non-CCG players who wanted to try Magic. Consequently, Hearthstone took the digital CCG experience to a new level, so much so that it might as well be called first to the digital market.
- Used an already established “IP”. The World of Warcraft universe was already highly mature through the Warcraft franchise.
- Marketed to an existing, massive fanbase. Blizzard had no shortage of gamers it could market Hearthstone to immediately.
- Offered a CCG that appealed to the masses. Hearthstone is basically a dumbed-down version of Magic. When you’re marketing to millions of teenagers and casual gamers, that can draw in many players to the genre that wouldn’t join otherwise.
Two other DCCGs that have caught on with moderate success are Gwent: the Witcher Card Game and Legends of Runeterra. Aside from both having beautiful interfaces, they had the luxury of being marketed to fans of an already existing, massive franchises. DCCGs that have also had moderate success without an existing franchise include Hex: Shards of Fate, Eternal CCG, Shadowverse, and Duelyst.
Perhaps the most famous DCCG failure is Artifact, Valve’s short-lived entry into the genre, due to a combination of bad business model and excessive complexity.
The Common Alternative: The Expandable Card Game
Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that CCGs are a dead end (unless you’re a massive company), I want to remind you that you do not need to use the CCG business model to create an enjoyable card game. Enter the Expandable Card Game. ECGs refer to any type of card game that doesn’t assign a rarity to each card and doesn’t sell its cards in randomized lots. ECG is not a popular term but it still accurately describes games like Dominion or the “Living Card Games” published by Fantasy Flight Games.
Although ECGs have had a lot of success, no ECG has reached the levels of success of the Big Three. I think this is a commentary on how powerful the CCG model is: even though it is exploitative, players love the dopamine rush associated with gambling, and they also love the idea that their cards might have value on the secondary market. On a positive note, ECGs can be adapted more easily for casual audiences and therefore may not require such a large budget upfront. ECGs are certainly a more friendly model for card game designers who want to find a niche among the Big Three and Hearthstone.
Uncharted Territory: The Versioned Card Game
Another alternative to both the CCG and the ECG is the Versioned Card Game (VCG). This is a business model that I’m exploring in Legacy’s Allure, the game I’m developing. The core idea is that the game is released in versions (or editions), with new versions updating existing cards rather than simply adding more cards. This model is best-suited for competitive play, since it makes balancing easier, removes power creep, and minimizes “card glut” — the tendency for CCGs to overwhelm players with new cards. The downside is that versioned cards are guaranteed to have no secondary market value since they’ll be obsolete at the end of each competitive season.
- Take Dominion, for example, which is probably the most popular card game of the past two decades that isn’t a CCG. Dominion could use this model: You buy a starter kit with 10 random stacks of identical cards plus victory and gold cards. If you wanted to expand your available stacks, you’d have to buy booster packs of random stacks. This CCG model would not have changed how the game is played. Likewise, Magic cards could be sold without any rarity system or randomized lots using an ECG model, and this would not have changed how Magic is played.