Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and freeing angels.

I was honoured to recently speak with two of the most influential creators in the history of trading card games.

Richard Garfield is the pre-eminent trading card designer – and the reason for this entire blog. His credits include Magic: the Gathering, Jyhad, Netrunner, BattleTech, Star Wars and 2018’s Keyforge, as well as RoboRally, The Great Dalmuti, King of Tokyo, Bunny Kingdom and many, many more. He has consulted with Microsoft and Electronic Arts and under the banner of Three Donkeys, a game design and development consultancy, worked on the design and development of online and console games. And yes, that’s a picture of Richard as a kid!

Skaff Elias is a name that many Magic fans would know but may be less recognisable to fans of V:TES. A game designer who joined Wizards of the Coast in 1993, Elias’ trading card game credits include playtesting on the original Magic: the Gathering and leading design and/or development of Magic sets including Arabian Nights, Antiquities, Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Fourth Edition, Ice Age, Homelands, Alliances, Fifth Edition and Sixth Edition. Rather famously, he was one of the key testers of four-card limits to Magic: the Gathering. Elias was also one of eight individuals called out in Jyhad‘s original rulebook for their design contributions to the game.

Elias has held a variety of roles outside Magic and Jyhad design. He’s the creator of the Magic Pro Tour, the former Magic Brand Manager and Senior Vice President of Magic R&D (1993-2003), led the design of the Chainmail miniatures game (2003-2011) and co-designed a number of trading card games with Garfield including Star Wars, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, C-23, Harry Potter as well as the non-collectable card game Twitch. Elias is currently the co-owner of Three Donkeys and Adjunct Professor of Game Design at the University of Washington.

Bindusara: Were there particular design challenges that arose from Jyhad’s source material that made it initially difficult to codify into a game? My assumption here is that Vampire: the Masquerade was so expansive – multiple clans, disciplines, factions, etc. – that it may have been more difficult to initially find the essence of a workable collectable card game.

Garfield: The breadth was useful because it gave all sorts of ways to design cards. A varied world with lots and lots of stuff going on is often easier to work with. I guess it could be kind of daunting to have so much world to reflect in a card game, but I was either too new to be daunted or it has been long enough I forget. In any case – I chose some major axis of play I wanted to see, including combat, stealth, and politics – and built systems around those characteristics.

In time I would learn to appreciate one of the best parts of working on the World of Darkness, which was a generous and understanding licencor. A card game will have different needs than a role playing game, and they did not micro manage my decisions as to what was good for the card game, and I did my best to honor the flavor of their world. Working with them, and soon after with R Talsorian for Netrunner, I was spoiled. They were as good as any licensing partners I have ever had.

B: Jyhad’s predator-prey mechanism – and its finely balanced multiplayer dynamic, more broadly – are frequently lauded as the game’s signature characteristic. Do you have any reflections on how this dynamic evolved during the early playtests, and was there a ‘Eureka!’ moment or epiphany when that aspect of the design asserted itself? Does it surprise you that other games have not repurposed that mechanism?

Elias: My recollection is that Richard had used this mechanism in some multi-player Magic games before Jyhad.  Certainly it was eventually used in some limited Magic formats, and it does surprise me that it hasn’t been used more widely. 90% of course is Richard’s brilliance, but I’m going to claim some 10% for inspiration because nobody whined more about politics in games than me. I’m sure I was pretty annoying, so he perhaps just wanted to shut me up.  Along with our friend Robert Gutscherra, we have written about limiting the directionality of player interaction in our book Characteristics of Games. It’s not necessarily good or bad to limit the freedom of interaction, but it does change the character of the game quite a bit.  For instance full freedom can often bring a swift end to politics, or a swiftly developing stalemate.  Games like King of Tokyo, also by Richard, explore this concept even further. It’s something we’ve paid a lot of attention to over the years, where not everyone does.

Garfield: I had thought about politics in game quite a bit by that point, and applied this or similar mechanics to other games in order to make the games less about negotiation and more about the play of the game. I went into the design of Jyhad armed with this approach, and since I wanted a multiplayer game it was natural to use this technique from the start. I have seen this or similar mechanics in games from time to time, but I think the main reason you don’t see it more is that the designers who are interested in reducing politics in games by in large have removed all direct interaction, making a vast number of games that are indirectly interactive; or what I like to term – passive aggressive. I enjoy many of these passive aggressive games, but do sometimes miss the direct interaction that is in a game like Jyhad, or poker.

B: In a 2001 interview with Robert Goudie, Richard mentioned that he wanted a game in which players filled their hand during the turn rather than drawing a single card, allowing the use of more specialised cards. Other trading card games have largely eschewed this path. Do you think that this is a function of Magic‘s popularity setting down ‘first principles’ that other games have been reluctant to move away from, or do you see the more limited approach to card draw as opening up more fruitful design spaces?

Elias: There have actually been quite a few games (not just TCG’s)  with this mechanic over the years. There is some bias in that so few TCG’s are successful that they may not come first to people’s minds. It’s probably easier to design and play a fixed-draw-per-turn game. It’s also definitely easier to start with what you know works, so branching out from Magic or Pokemon seems like a good bet.  We currently have a game called Keyforge which uses the hand-refill mechanic, and it uses it for a specific purpose. There is no deckbuilding in that game, but the game does have randomized decks–so it is a natural place for the refill mechanic to live.

Garfield: I do believe this is an artifact of designing what people know. This is not necessarily bad, even if it means you won’t get the variety out of games you sometimes wish was there. Whenever someone makes a game in a particular genre, the designer has to ask themselves what they can add that is new. They definitely want some stuff that is new – but every extra thing increases the burden on the players and makes it so that it will take longer for players to get to the same expertise they would otherwise have in a more familiar game. Taking longer to get better is sometimes good – because that journey can be fun – but equally, if the game is good often it is best when you are good at it – and people will have more fun jumping into a framework where they have enough familiarity to advance them up the ladder a few rungs. 

When you play or design a game with a different draw rule you find that it really really slows players learning down, and that can slow your development of the game. Players in Keyforge had a lot of trouble evaluating how valuable cards were. I think if they were drawing 1 card a turn they would have had a much easier time.

B: Jyhad sometimes comes across as a set of Russian nesting dolls of multiple tactical arenas and mini-games: some decks are built around the stealth-intercept axis, others specialise in the political arena, whilst still more are devoted to combat. Compared to many games of the same era, Jyhad appears to have a comparatively complex structure that, combined with the constant filling of the player’s hand, leads to tremendous emergent tactical decisions throughout a game. What’s your take on how much complexity can reasonably be baked into the core rules of the game versus should emerge through components (i.e. cards)?  

Elias: I’m not sure how much complexity can be packed in to a game, but it is obvious that the IP can bear a lot of weight here. Jyhad players tended to know the World of Darkness, so some concepts were intuitive to them making them easier to parse strategically.  This really isn’t different than Pokemon in that way. That game has many more complexities than you would think possible for children, but fans of the IP and the show knew about half of what they needed to know before they sat down. You might think water being weak to electricity or the stages of evolution or the effects of burrow are a complexity, but to a fan they’re close to automatic. Working on a rich licensed IP has many drawbacks in design, but it also has some strengths.

Garfield: We were also helped by the fact we were working with a game for many players. A two player game with the sort of diversity we have here can feel like players engaging in different games. This sometimes happens in a game like Magic, where one player follows their strategy and the other player follows a different strategy and there isn’t much interaction. In a game like Jyhad if I am the only one whose deck is made for, say, stealth/intercept, in general, the weight of many other players in the game will keep it interactive and interesting.

B: Designing and developing a game is an incredibly multilayered process. I consider Michelangelo’s saying that he saw the angel in the marble and carved until it was set free. How many game designs commence with that clear vision – that angel in the marble – versus having the vision emerge through an iterative process? As a corollary to that; do games ever feel finished, or simply published?

Elias: Richard will have to speak to the design side, but I can tell you from the development side that nothing ever feels finished. It’s not really clear it even feels published, more like ‘now publishing’. TCG’s are so rich that the expansion cycle is critical to them. That is to say you aren’t really launching a game unless you are launching expansions. And this is even more true in a subtle dimension, which is organized play. Designing/Launching a TCG isn’t like launching a missile, it’s more like launching a supertanker. It’s inconceivable that you would launch it and forget it–it needs to be steered constantly with leagues, tournaments, etc.  People often forget how important organized play was to Magic, and I don’t just mean the Pro-Tour which came years after launch.  The local tournaments and more importantly the tournament rules and formats helped the game enormously in the early days.  Just like the ship, there are many ways to run aground with a TCG, so it needs constant rules changes to keep it going, and format changes to appeal to the broadest audience. Very little of that can be discerned at launch, since you never know exactly who your customers will end up being.

Garfield: I am occasionally freeing angels but much more often I don’t know where I am heading in design. I usually try many things in a single design and remove mechanics that don’t do what I want and tweak mechanics that bring out play that is only suggested in the earlier prototypes. Unless there is a particular urgency with the design I will more often than not put it on hold for quite a while after working on it for a while because it doesn’t quite work and I need some distance from it before I can fix it.

Games are complex enough that despite all my experience (or perhaps because of it), I find it more useful to spend an hour playing with a crude prototype than I do thinking about the design for 12 hours.

B: Many of the games that you have worked on have had lifespans well into their second decade – and with no sign of slowing down. Whilst there are some hobby games that had already similar longevity when you entered the industry (I’m thinking of Cosmic Encounter, as an example), the shelf-life of your games created an unprecedented shift in the industry. Do you have any reflections on how that alters design and development? Should games be designed for the long haul now – or, is good design good design?

Elias: People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a long rich lifecycle is ‘in the cards’ for every game. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.  Part of the challenge of making and supporting these games is determining which are rich enough with solid enough foundations that they are worth long-term support.  Magic and Jyhad are obviously such games, but some board and card games are not.  I would say at Wizards we overdesigned a lot of games because we weren’t sure which ones were worth supporting and which ones were based on perennial IP’s. So we tended to gear them all up to be supportable and that was probably due to our naivety. Richard is great at designing deep games, and generally it’s the support system that’s going to fail. Often that’s in the publisher’s control, but not always. The best example of this is with transient IP’s.  Also there tends to be a certain load that the industry can handle (physical or online) in terms of games played at a particular time. You have to either hit a niche very hard, or compete for the general player. Either one of those takes some skill and effort, and without that the years you spent designing and developing (which are expensive) turn out to be necessary, but they are far from sufficient.

Garfield: One of my favorite things about games is that they can get better over time. At their best they are nor like movies or books in which you ‘get the best’ the first time through. They are more like music can be, where the 100th play is the best yet. I almost always design with that in mind; and one of the reasons I shelf so many prototypes is because I think they might be amusing for a few plays – but they will be used up.

When I was young I thought many players were missing out because they stuck with the same game or handful of games throughout their lives. I thought that was like reading the same book again and again. After a while I realized the amount of pleasure players got from this immense knowledge of a game was often more than I got from learning a new game. In this marvelous time with so many interesting games floating around I have to remind myself to play games more than once, and to return to my favorites. It is really easy to play a game then move on to the next one … and that doesn’t allow enjoyment of a games best.

It might be worth noting that sometimes, because of the generally aggressive expansion model TCGs have, some players think that the games are disposable. That may be true for some games, and it might be in the publisher’s best interest people believe that, but it often isn’t true. For example, Magic in its original form didn’t need expansions to keep its original playtesters hooked for two years with no signs of stopping. In fact, the players were generally more hooked than when they began. And, when it was released, I thought that it would be in print like that for at least a year, unexpanded, and a complete stand alone expansion would be made (Ice Age), which would offer a similar but different experience.

B: Following on from that, so many of the games that you have worked on have also been worked on by countless others – or, in the case of a game like Netrunner, been reinterpreted into new forms. On a personal level, how does it feel to have the games that you have created continue on under different stewardship? Do you feel more or less connected to a game based on how closely it adheres to your original vision, or are they designed and developed with an eye to passing it onto someone else?

Garfield: I generally feel attached to future forms of the game and don’t begrudge changes made. The new people involved always are coming from a place of love for the original design, and have the games best interest at heart. Sometimes they make decisions I wouldn’t make, but sometimes those are correct – and I haven’t got the time to micromanage. In some ways they are like my adult children – I love them and care about how they do – but I can’t make decisions for them or presume to know as much about their life as they do. So I advise and am happy when they thrive.

Skaff, not far off from his V:TES years. Image from BoardGameGeek
Richard Garfield.


3 thoughts on “Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and freeing angels.

  1. vanorm says:

    Very interesting to hear these thoughts from the very accomplished designers.
    I hope Jyhad/Vampire can gain a second wind.
    I particularly loved Netrunner – too bad it was eventually closed-down.

    Like

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