In the 1990s following the release of Magic: The Gathering a plethora of different collectible card games (CCGs) hit the marketplace hoping to cash in on the new craze. The scene quickly become crowded with some publishers joining the ‘bandwagon’ without giving much thought to the quality of their products.
Some games were simply terrible, while others floundered because the publisher did not provide the level of support needed to find the right audience. More folded when faced with the patent challenges presented by Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of M:TG).
With hindsight, it is possible to see that the more successful CCGs were the ones which built tournament scenes and loyal player communities. It simply wasn’t enough to just sell the game – you needed to sponsor competitive play and give reasons for your customers to keep coming back for more.
It’s also now clear to see that the market did not have pockets deep enough to support the sheer number of different games in circulation. In fact, many prospective players balked at the monetary investment required to remain competitive in many CCGs.
For this reason we’re now starting to see the re-emergence of games from that era re-published and re-packaged in more modest, non-collectible formats. Fantasy Flight Games in particular has led the way, first by rebooting their own Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones card games, and subsequently by re-issuing the classic game Netrunner (originally published by Wizards of the Coast, their third original game after M:TG).
This gives hope to fans of other CCGs which – since the 90s heyday – have sadly fallen out of print. Below is my own shortlist of games that I’d like to see published and played once again.
In 1997 Precedence Publishing produced a CCG based on the Babylon 5 and Crusade television show. OThe cards were of minimalist production design with artwork using stills taken from the TV shows themselves. The game could be played with 2 or more players, with the multi-player variant designed to encourage bartering, negotiation and deal-making between players.
To play, each player needed to select one of the sentient races of the B5 universe – to begin with Human, Minbari, Narn or Centauri, although later sets introduced Psi Corps, the League of Non-Aligned World and the Drakh. Babylon 5 itself, along with the Vorlons and Shadows remained non-player factions, although it was possible to benefit from aligning with those factions.
The goal of the game was to be the first player to achieve a certain level of influence points, and often it was not possible to advance your Agendas without the assistance of other players. The game was for the most part well-balanced, with plenty of different strategies to choose from. Like many CCGs there was a trade-off between building an efficient influence engine with few defences, and building a ‘toolbox’ designed to counter a wider range of opposing strategies.
Some of the rules of the game were a little fiddly – for example, the game allowed you gain or lose different types of ‘marks’, but many cards were printed with these marks on them so it was difficult to track when they had been used or not. Nothing however which could not be fixed with a reprint.
Although I’d like to see the game in circulation again I appreciate that basing a game on a 20-year old TV licence that people may not remember or have never seen is a tough sell.
One of last new games by Wizards of the Coast, Hecatomb was a high-concept card game where the ‘cards’ were actually made from transparent plastic. Possibly inspired by the small press card game Gloom, the principles of Hecatomb were based around stacking multiple five-sided cards together so that their powers and abilities all showed through the surface of the top-most card of the stack.
The theme was loosely modern gothic horror, with each player summoning various unsavoury entities to collect enough souls to end the world. As in Magic: The Gathering creature activation was representing by ‘tapping’ sideways, and every attack on an opponent to steal souls could potentially be blocked by an opposing creature to trigger a round of creature combat.
Hecatomb was a highly innovative game and it would have fared far better if WotC had not handicapped its chances by releasing every wave of product months later than actually advertised. After three successive times of booking pre-release events and getting no product, most retailers and players simply ran out of patience. Many also found the dark themes of the game much more niche and less suited to a younger audience. With so little goodwill left there WotC simply decided to cut their losses and discontinue the product.
A real gaming tragedy – I am sure that an eco-friendly, non-collectible version would do well in today’s market.
Heresy: Kingdom Come
Heresy: Kingdom Come was the only attempt by publisher Last Unicorn Games to enter the CCG space. Heresy was also probably the most beautiful CCG ever printed, with gorgeous artwork from the likes of Brom and Bradstreet printed onto full-colour long format (tarot) sized cards.
The world of H:KC was a near-future dystopia where cyberpunk themes collided head-on with a religious armageddon. Wars in heaven and hell had exiled angels and demons to walk the earth side by side with hackers, mega-corporations and cyber-enhanced war machines. Each player would build a deck from a variety of different philosophical factions with the aim of opening a new gate back into heaven. Players could take control of locations both in the real world and in cyberspace and could jack characters in and out of these two worlds. And there was also an angelic council of sorts where the angelic minions of every player could vote.
Needless to say, H:KC was a highly complex game and not for the faint-hearted. It was also a difficult game to master given the number of different mechanics and strategic possibilities. While I’d love to see more people play the game, I appreciate that it was – and will remain – an acquired taste.
A joint project between Wizards of the Coast, Five Rings Publishing and Pinnacle Entertainment, Doomtown was a card game set in the same ‘weird west’ world as Pinnacle’s Deadlands RPG. The game oozed the theme, with every card serving as a regular poker playing card as well as a special CCG card. And this was not whimsy but an intergral part of the game – many effects required you to ‘pull’ a value from your deck. And in combat between characters you would draw a ‘hand’ of cards to make the best poker hand possible – the different in poker ranks would be the number of wounds that you would deal to or receive from your opponent.
Every player would set up their own ‘street’ of deed cards representing different locations with influence over the town. Each player would then play a number of ‘dude’ character cards who would have the ability to control these locations. If dudes from different factions entered the same deed then a shootout would commence (using the poker mechanic described above). The winner would be the first player to control enough influence to control the town.
Deck construction for Doomtown presented a number of unique challenges. Not only was it mandatory to use 52 cards in your deck (not including jokers) but you had to think very carefully about respective playing card suit and value of every card. You could have multiple 10 of spades cards for example, but that could lead to you playing a ‘cheating’ hand in combat (which could lead to you being punished by your opponents with special cards reserved for the purpose). Spell cards required high pulls to trigger but were typically low-value cards themselves.
The game was originally released in mini-expansions calls ‘episodes’ which advanced the story of the world of the game. Many characters were released again in ‘Experienced’ or ‘Experienced 2’ versions to show evolution over the narrative.
The commercials behind the game were highly complex and ultimately led to the game’s downfall. The mechanics belonged to FRP, who were bought by WoTC, but the world belonged to Pinnacle. When the license between WotC and Pinnacle expired the former chose not to continue the game. AEG picked up the license instead, but made a series of poor decisions – reprinting too many existing cards, failing to properly playtest new cards – which lost a good proportion of the game’s audience. The final set Do Unto Others was issued as a fixed set by mail order only, and was widely considered a ‘farewell gesture’ by the publisher and fans alike.
This entry is actually a little disingenuous as I’m already aware that the game is being rebooted by AEG as Doomtown Reloaded and should be released at GenCon in the USA in August. It’s too early to tell how much the game will differ from the original and whether any old cards will be cross-compatible, but I am certainly looking forwards to see what happens.
Vampire: The Eternal Struggle
Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (V:TES) was originally reprinted under the title of Jyhad, and was Richard Garfield’s second successful CCG (after Magix and Netrunner) released by Wizards of the Coast in 1994. Based on the gothic-horror Vampire: The Masquerade RPG by White Wolf Publishing, the game had a multi-player–only format which encouraged bluffing, deal-making and back-stabbing to an extent that has rarely ever been seen elsewhere in the hobby. Although the term ‘Jyhad’ had a special context meaning the ages-old war between ancient vampires, the name was changed after the first print run as it was deemed ‘culturally sensitive’.
Each player would build a deck of two parts – a ‘crypt’ of vampire character cards and a ‘library’ of supplementary game cards. Every player would begin with the same starting amount of 30 ‘pool’ and would use that resource to influence out their characters and purchase allies, weapons and locations. Players could only attack the ‘prey’ player to their left, and could only defend against the ‘predator’ player to the right. Originally conceived to give victory to the last player standing, tournament play evolved to award 1 point per player kill, and 1 point for survival – such that in five-player games one did not necessarily have to survive to the end to win the game.
V:TES was carried by WoTC through four different card sets before they discontinued it. It was however a hugely popular game, and the fanbase played it obsessively for years after, to the extent that White Wolf eventually picked up a licence to print the game themselves again in 2000. White Wolf continued to provide support for the game up until their merger with CCP Games in 2006. CCP allowed the game to continue for a few years more but eventually cancelled it in 2010. Although there have been several industry efforts to secure the licence from Wizards of the Coast so far these have come to no avail.
While I have spoken about the game in the past tense, in fact even though it is out of print again it is still alive and kicking, with major community events drawing hundreds of players from all around the world. The official fan organisation the Vampire Elder Kindred Network continues to maintain tournament ratings, and has started publishing its own ‘official’ card sets for organised play.
I must admit a little bias in regards to V:TES and I have long been a fan and community representative. In fact I am also a member of the VEKN Design Team and responsible for a number of official new card designs. V:TES has been a big party of my life – not only has it been a lot of fun to play but it has allowed me to travel the world and meet all kinds of interesting and unusual people.
Of all the games in my list this is the one I’d like to see find a new life and a new home the most. I can only hope one day someone can convince Wizards of the Coast to let it go so that it can have that chance.