Customizable Card Games are a fusion of RPGs and Collectible Card Games. You get a box with all the cards in the game, but instead of just building a deck however you desire, you and a group of friends play the game with the most basic cards. After every game (or mid game, in some cases), you get a number of rewards that you can incorporate into your deck, and your character gets access to new skill cards that can improve his abilities.
There are two very interesting mechanics that I’d like to talk a little about. Those are ‘Metagaming’ and ‘Co-op against the Game’.
You may have come across the term ‘metagaming’ before. Plenty of RPG buffs use it to talk about playing RPGs as games instead of stories. If you’re trying to build the toughest character and beat the system, it’s commonly called metagaming. Despite that the word catches a lot of flack, metagaming is not bad–in fact, it’s inherent in our human and gamer natures.
What is a Metagame?
A metagame is a ‘game within a game’ or a ‘game above a game.’ It is a layer of strategy and plotting that occurs outside of the game. In Collectible Card Games, this is the deckbuilding aspect. In wargames, its collecting and building miniatures, then assembling them into armies. When the actual play of the game begins, it is the metagame that determines what players have prepared to thwart their opponent’s strategies.
The other aspect of metagaming is achievement-based gaming. Are players playing the game in order to enjoy the game itself? Or are they playing with the end goal of levelling their characters, collecting the whole armor set, or becoming regional champion?
Metagames are a special category of games that require a community to be built around them. Magic: The Gathering is not much fun if you’re the only one in your school or club that plays it. When you can go down to the local game store and everyone has built a deck for the Friday Night Magic Tournament, however, it’s an amazing experience. If there is no community, there can be no metagame.
However, even two people can form enough community for a metagame to take root. I’ve played Magic with cliques in High School of three and four people, each dedicated to using only a single element or theme. The metagame there can be even more fun than the heavy competition of Friday Night Magic.
In a metagame like that surrounding Magic, the players are trying to solve others’ strategies and tactics. In a cooperative game, like the one I’m currently designing, the players are trying to solve the game itself, which continually changes tactics and increases difficulty. The game box comes with enough cards and tools for four people to play, and it is expected, much like with RPGs, that those four people will play the game on a recurring basis and form their own metagame. Thus, the metagame ‘comes in the box’.
Designing the Metagame
Designing a metagame is fundamentally simple. All the designer needs to do is to provide the player with choices that can be made outside the game. What skill tree will I level up? What gear will I equip before the battle? What’s the best way to solve the upcoming challenge of the next game? The metagame is a puzzle to be solved. As a designer, it is ultimately important to facilitate this by providing the player with a vast array of valid yet disparate strategy choices, each of which has its own merit and is both excellent and terrible and everything in between, depending on the circumstances of the game.
Additionally, players should be provided something to look forward to as a reward for their hard work and planning. What kind of level 20 character am I going to be eventually? Wouldn’t it be cool to be the regional (or world) champion? Can I unlock more achievements than my friends? Can I beat my friends in a one-on-one duel? When designing a metagame, I try to think about the kind of players that will be involved in the game by drawing on my own experiences with competitive metagames (CCGs) and cooperative metagames (RPGs).
Hooking Players with the Metagame
A metagame needs to not only interesting, but rewarding as well. Players want to see their hard work pay off. They want to be able to work their way to the top of the heap by being the best gamer they can be. And they want their character, deck, team, or the like to be a reflection of their personality–a personalized statement of identity.
As a designer, it is important to let the players play the game in the style they want to. If the player is forced to play a certain style because that style is ‘at the top of the meta’ or ‘the best option in this format’, most will become disgusted with the metagame and thus abandon it. In a well-designed game, the player will be able to make choices that reflect his preferred play style and allow him to reach the top of the meta by his own skill and planning. Of course, this is a tall order, and game balancing is far from easy, but that is the lofty ideal that game designers must aspire to when creating a metagame that will endure the test of time (and of the players smart enough to solve it).
A great way to excite players and draw them into a metagame is to show them the cool stuff early on. Give them the gun they can drool over but not wield for another 5 levels. Show them the level 1 version of their skill beside the level 10 version, and emphasize the kind of combat power and control over character development that will eventually be available at higher levels. Then pace the players so that when they reach these milestones, they’ve had time to get excited about the possibilities of the game.
Are Metagames Good?
When designing a game around its metagame, you’re ultimately putting the fun of the game into the hands of the community. A game may be interesting in its own right, but if it heavily involves metagame, then the game will be judged on that aspect of its playability. Ultimately, a metagame is as good as the people who are playing it, as it is primarily a social exercise.
Properly guided, metagames are more fun than almost any other kind of game, as they allow the player a level of immersion and involvement that cannot be restricted to the mere playing of the games they encompass. The metagame stays with the player, and can become a hobby in its own right–a status that a mere casual game can rarely achieve.