Don’t look now, but your favourite video games are being infiltrated by the humble playing card.
Card games may be over 1000 years old, but as a way for people to get together and play (and talk shit) across a table, they should have been replaced in recent decades by video games, because video games theoretically do the same thing, only better.
And for a while there, that’s a process that actually took place! From the age of the Atari through to the SNES and the PS2, card games felt…old-fashioned. Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh were for kids, grown-up men only played poker for cash and to escape their wives, and old folks would play Bridge to pass the time in a retirement village because what else would they do. Why the hell would four friends in the prime of their lives play Cassino when they could play Mario Kart instead?
Yet more recently, attitudes have changed. In an age where video games have moved from the living room to the internet, losing that key social component they once enjoyed, card games — as this Offworld post explains wonderfully — have also found the space to become cool again.
I’m testament to this. Where I used to get together with friends to play FIFA or Street Fighter over beers, these days we’re drinking to Lord of the Rings and Netrunner instead. And yeah, the disappearance of quality couch games has played a part in this, but so too has a mass rediscovery of what makes card games so great.
Savvy companies like Fantasy Flight have tapped into an explosion in nerd fandom to remind us that card games are a medium, not an outdated cliche based on diamonds and hearts, and that by using cool sci-fi and fantasy art (not to mention leaning on properties like Star Wars) atop card gaming’s existing strengths like physical immediacy and quick play, a whole new generation of players can discover that, hey, card games can be just as much fun as video games, if not more so.
Now in 2015, Magic & Pokemon tournaments have professional adult players as their main attraction, and games like Netrunner are fast on their way to becoming a cultural phenomenon.
Indeed, things have swung back around so far that cards have gone on the front foot and, instead of being supplanted their digital counterparts, found themselves at the heart of many of the biggest video games on earth.
Sometimes they’re substantial diversions, like Gwent in The Witcher 3 (or, if you want to look back and find a true pioneer, KOTOR’s Pazaak). Sometimes they’re manipulative paid content designed to draw even more money out of customers who have already paid full price for a game (FIFA & Madden’s Ultimate Team modes). Sometimes they’re cornerstones of a game’s design, front and centre in every tactical decision you make (like Titanfall and Star Wars Battlefront’s gear/perk system).
And that’s before you even deal with games like Blizzard’s hit Hearthstone, which don’t even bother pretending and just straight-up simulate an actual card game.
This isn’t a problem. It’s not a sign of a weakness in video games, nor do I think it’s a sign of superiority in the merits of card games. I think it’s actually a long-overdue realisation that both forms of game have merits, and the more they’re able to work together, the better!
Card games handle stuff like random encounters and clear, simple rules very well, but can also be abstract and short on visual appeal. Video games can explode off the screen with advanced visuals and allow for intricate controls, but can sometimes feel a bit too streamlined, as the code does most of the calculations required for progress behind the scenes and away from the player’s eyes. There’s also something about the act of playing a card that feels more fun than just clicking a button.
Combine them, though, and you get — as many video game designers are finding in recent years — a winning team. The upcoming Battlefront, for example, is as close as we’ve ever come to feeling like we’re in the middle of a Star Wars movie through its use of cutting-edge graphics tech and a booming soundtrack. But when it comes to equipping weapons and providing info on them, what does it do? It ditches subtlety and uses giant white cards, because when it comes to distributing and displaying critical information (and requiring the player to actually “play” one of those items) that’s a damn good way to do it.
Battlefront is not an outlier amongst the ranks of 2015’s biggest games using cards. Halo 5 uses them in its multiplayer modes to deal out stuff like items and skins (see above). Even Rise of the Tomb Raider has them, a series of “Expedition Cards” available to players that add short-term bonuses to their abilities (below).
So keep it coming, games designers. Whether it’s coming from a personal love of card games or just a realisation that it’s a cool design flourish, it doesn’t matter. Card games are cool and video games are cool. The more the two can work together, the better.