During this year’s Penny Arcade Expo talk on X-Com: Enemy Unknown, lead designer Jake Solomon was talking about various ideas Firaxis batted around for the game’s strategic level. He mentioned a strategic level that would play like a card game. He said this in the sheepish tone of someone admitting he wore bright red clown shoes to a funeral. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a strategic level card game in X-Com. Cards make everything better.

Although I’m not getting a card game layer in X-Com, I did see four innovative card game gimmicks.

After the jump, draw!

1) Clear cards in Gloom

This one isn’t technically new, since it’s from the olden days of 2004. But it’s new to me. As I was browsing a table of boardgames for sale, I saw a card game with what looked like Edward Gorey drawings. Picking it up — it was called Gloom — I saw the name Keith Baker on the box. Baker is one of the developers of a game on Kickstarter called The Doom That Came to Atlantic City. Gloom looked interesting. Not interesting enough to buy, but certainly interesting enough to look up on the internet later. Later that day, someone explained to me how Gloom works. I immediately scuttled back and overpaid for it.

The concept of Gloom is that each player has a family of Gorey-esque characters. The objective is to heap the greatest amount of tragedy on your family, killing off your characters under more dire circumstances than your opponent. This reminds me a bit of Doom that Came to Atlantic City’s twist on Monopoly, where instead of buying up a city, you’re one of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods destroying a city.

The gimmick in Gloom is that the cards are made from clear plastic, designed to be stacked on top of each other. Certain information is still visible, and certain information is covered up. You play a card on top of a character, adding numbers and symbols, which can then be obscured by other numbers and symbols on additional cards, or they can still show through as new cards are played. These accumulated cards represent the events that affect the character, some events superseding others, some co-existing with others. It’s the sort of thing that a computer could do easily, but that a tabletop game could only do with extensive bookkeeping. Or a gimmick like see-through cards, so that you can clearly see Lola Wellington-Smythe, jynxed by gypsies and scarred by scandal before dying old and alone, beats Cousin Moredcai who fell down a well and was later eaten by bears.

2) Your characters’ gear in Card Hunter

Card Hunter is a fantsy-themed, free-to-play, tactical combat game from an Australian studio called Blue Manchu, which consists partly of former Irrational employees. At first glance, it looks pretty straightforward and a little too precious, with stand-up cardboard figures for your characters. You basically move and attack, rolling a virtual die on occasion. So far, so cute.

But as you might guess from the title, it’s really a card game. Each character on the board has its own deck of cards. When a character’s turn comes up, his options are determined by a hand of cards drawn from his deck. That deck is determined by his equipment. Each piece of equipment is basically a set of cards thrown into the deck. For instance, a sword might be three attacks, two parries, and a block. A pair of magic boots might be two dodges, a kick, and a special movement option. A wand might be four attacks. A magic ring might be two magical enchancements.

It reminds me a bit of Guild Wars 2 for how available actions are determined by equipment rather than something inherent to the character. Of course, Guild Wars 2 doesn’t go nearly as far as Card Hunters with the concept, where a character is almost entirely his equipment.

What really won me over to Card Hunters, however, is how it uses this “equipment = cards” conceit to do some clever balancing tricks. For instance, some powerful items might mean powerful cards, but fewer of them. Furthermore, some items will include negative cards that you have to play when you draw them. Consider, for instance, an incredibly heavy weapon. It might add three cards that do a lot of extra damage, and two fumbles that leave you helpless for a turn. Or imagine a soul-drinking weapon. It might add to your deck three special attacks and two feeding cards, where you have to pay some of your hit points to the sword. Blue Manchu’s Card Hunter cleverly turns the loot chase from an RPG into deck building.

3) Soul gems in Ascension: Immortal Heroes

Ascension developer Gary Games was showing Immortal Heroes, the new add-on for Ascension due out later this month. Some cards in this new set refer to soul gems. A soul gem is represented by a deck of cards that consists of heroes from the previous games. When you play a soul gem, you draw one of these earlier cards and immediately use its effect.

At first, I wasn’t sold. I’ve seen these cards. I’ve already played with them. They don’t add anything new. I don’t really see the point of including them in the latest add-on, even if the art is reworked with a cool crystal effect to represent heros encased in a gem.

But as I played a test game, I realized that the new dynamic isn’t really the old heroes. Instead, the new dynamic is that you don’t know what a soul gem is going to do until you use it. Normally, when you draw your five cards in Ascension and wait to take your turn, you know exactly what’s going to happen, and you can calculate exactly what you’re going to do. But soul gems, which don’t reveal themselves until you use them, add a little chaos into your plans. Basically, Immortal Heroes adds a card game inside a card game. Nested dolls of randomness.

4) Mutating cards in Sol Forge

Also at Gary Games’ booth was a playable build of Sol Forge, their upcoming virtual collectible card game (Kickstarter campaign here). Sol Forge’s gimmick is that each card can upgrade twice, becoming a more powerful version of itself. I think Pokemon does something like this, but the disadvantage there is that you’re playing Pokemon.

In Sol Forge, you have to cycle cards in order to upgrade them. You’ll draw five cards, all at level one. You play two of them and discard three of them. The two you play will immediately drop level two versions of themselves in your discard pile. These will eventually find their way into your hand again, at which point playing them will drop powerful level three versions of themselves into your discard pile. So it’s all about deciding which cards you want to level up, and then holding out long enough for their powerful versions to emerge. Here’s a demo using the same build I saw:

Sol Forge is entirely virtual, and unlike Ascension, it’s based on the old school collectible model. I’m not really looking forward to buying starter decks and booster packs in the real world, much less online where they don’t actually exist, so I’ll probably be skipping this one. But I’m intrigued by the idea of each card actually being three different cards, and I like how matches will progress differently based on which cards you and your opponent upgrade. Oh, who am I kidding? The guy who scuttled back to buy Gloom thinks he’s above a virtual CCG? I’ll probably be playing Sol Forge the day it comes out.