Collectible card game design has come a long way since the days of Magic’s blue denial decks.You can almost see the edicts that must have come down from the high halls of design theory: don’t prevent players from doing something they have already legally done. Don’t interrupt their play. Minimize the role of luck in draw order. Who wants to be told that the card they just played has to go back to their hand? Not to mention the sequencing nightmares that could happen with multiple chained effects. This happened, which caused that, which caused that, but that was then canceled. What actually happened, and what didn’t?
Getting rid of interrupts also eliminated the need to have online games give an opponent time to counter a cardplay before it actually went into effect. Things that were annoying to some people in person became simply untenable online, and anathema to good pacing. And thus we got Hearthstone, the ultimate CCG reduced to its most sugary elements, the Coca-Cola syrup without the seltzer water. Hey, I like sugar, too.
The way to do this, obviously, was to concentrate on creatures, or “minions” as I guess the CCG taxonomists have now labeled them. Direct damage took a hit because there isn’t much that’s fun about “take two damage” unless you can somehow block it. Hearthstone did some neat things with the idea of the player’s “personal weapons,” but it was very clear what the implication of no interrupts was: a menagerie of monsters that got played to the board and then fought each other, like the game that Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker played against each other in the rec room of the USS Enterprise.
None of this is new, and I sure wasn’t the first one to notice. You’d have to go back Card Science magazine, or maybe to the Journal of Collectible Card Gaming, to get the details. But the records are all there for the scholars to examine. Which is why we got Mythgard.
Mythgard isn’t out to change any precepts of accepted game design. If it seems “Hearthstone-like,” then that’s just because of the current legislative climate which makes it illegal to have people interrupt you while you’re doing something important, or to de-emphasize the role of magical flora and fauna in the world of mesmers and alchemism. Everyone is doing this because everyone knows what is good for him. Or her. Everyone is a singular noun. So don’t go blaming people for following the law. No one makes boardgames with player elimination anymore, either. Because they’re chickenshits. But still.
Mythgard is definitely not chickenshit. It is the very opposite. Because what Mythgard has done is to double down on this minion fixation in CCGs and turn it into the CCG equivalent of a tactical combat game. With the complexity to match.
Which starts with terrain. I want to make it very clear here that I don’t have a degree in CCG history, and don’t really know who thought of the idea of having terrain as a thing you placed on the board that you could then put creatures (sorry! minions) on. I vaguely recall a game called Wyvern where you placed cards that needed to be scouted, which was pretty cool if you ask me. But the terrain in Mythgard is brilliant. I don’t care if some guy in Darmstadt in the Early Reformation came up with the idea first: here, it is played to perfection. The board is divided into lanes, and those lanes can accept enchantments which alter the characteristics of minions occupying them. The fact that there are “lanes” means that you must be able to move between them. And that there are ways to move faster. And that relative orientation of minions in lanes affects their ability to interact.
Mythgard takes this tactical space and develops it into the basis for the whole game. There are a dizzying number of abilities that modify a minion’s basic attack/defense numbers, and it’s the interplay of these abilities that makes each game of Mythgard what it is: a tactical wargame in CCG form. There are all the usual abilities/restrictions: Alpha Strike disrupts the simultaneous nature of combat, Fragile exacerbates damage, Defender prohibits attacks, Focus increases damage against your lane. It goes on.
The fact that all minions are restricted to lanes means that you can use adjacency to enhance (or lessen) effects. All the different units types are there, with the synergistic abilities you might expect. You could have a wolf, which gets benefits from being next to other wolves. But your little faerie grandchild, which is not a wolf or even very concerning, might be transformed into a fearsome canine by means of a card, which represents a spell that inflicts magic. At which point it gets wolf points for adjacency. It’s all in there. For sure.
You can imagine that with so many card interactions, you would have to spend a lot of time evaluating them. Which is exactly what happens: each board position is subject to manipulations by scores of combinations of cards, which can take your carefully planned attack and chop it all to pieces. Until a different card combo manages to make your overlooked throwaway creature suddenly formidable, and then unbeatable. It’s this micro-manipulation of the individual units that makes Mythgard unique.
What Mythgard is, then, is the Squad Leader of CCGs. Since no one knows what that is, you can call it the X-COM of CCGs. But in X-COM, you nurture your units in a way you don’t in Mythgard. So the Squad Leader comparison really is the better one, because the importance of your units is emergent and dynamic: you’re fighting over terrain, you have a bunch of units with different capabilities, and much as you might be attached to your 9-2 leader, it’s actually your lowly 4-4-7 squad that battle-hardened, and then generated a hero, and now they and your fanatic 8-1 are taking advantage of a break in the enemy line and have flanked his main force. They find a great position behind a stone wall and are now in position to mow down any counterattack with their MMG. After the game, you put that counter away just a little more gently.
There is, of course, a lot more to put away than that. There are all the “Concealed” markers. “Desperation Morale” all over the place. How about “Firelane” markers? You’re gonna have a ton of those. Maybe some “Rubble?” Definitely a lot of “Smoke.”
Huh excuse me? Oh, I was talking about Squad Leader. You know, all those markers that keep track of what is happening on the board? There are a lot of them. Mythgard has them in abundance. There are so many unit abilities and conditions, and all of them are integral to the game. Just like Squad Leader. You can’t just say, “It’s too confusing to play with Desperation Morale, so let’s just leave those out and when units break, they are just Broken.” That would change the whole concept of keeping Broken units under fire to reduce their chance of Rally. Likewise, saying, “Man, Smoke is such a pain, let’s just play without it” would immediately shift the balance of any scenario where an attacker had to cross a street under fire. Same with Firelanes, without which the entire military concept of machine gun placement would have to be re-written. This stuff exists for a reason.
And so it does in Mythgard. If you have lanes, you need to have something that breaks the lanes. That’s the “Agile” ability. A “Defender” forces opposing units to attack it, even if adjacent lanes are occupied. “Swift” units can move two lanes, or move one lane and then attack. There are so many abilities and conditions that you have to carefully mouse over every minion (and other things at the side of the screen) to really understand what is happening, or could happen, which is the point.
Mythgard uses some symbols and icons to try and make this more manageable at a glance, but very quickly gives up. “I can’t fit all that stuff in here, so I’m not gonna,” it says with a resigned shrug and sort of aggrieved mien, as though it knew you were going to ask it to do stuff it really didn’t want to do, and doesn’t see why it should. This is a game that expects you to assimilate all the cards and abilities through repeated experience, not through some sort of revolution in interface graphic design. Neither does Squad Leader. If you want to see what’s under the “Wound” counter, pick it up if you have to. I mean, don’t you remember wounding that 8-0 leader three turns ago? That’s him. See that kind of barely visible greenish twinkle around that Forlorn Spirit? That’s the Yana Virus you played last turn. Don’t you remember? C’mon, if you mouse over the card it even says “Blight 1.” Can’t you try and pay closer attention?
Pay attention. If your third-grade teacher could only have told you: unless you learn better study habits, you aren’t going to have the discipline to mouse over every unit in a digital collectible card game forty-five years from now that you couldn’t conceive of in your wildest science fiction dreams about what entertainment will be like when you’re an adult. It sure would have been a better argument than, “it’s good for you,” or “because I said so.” But five minutes into a game against the bot that Rhino Games has put in front of me because the servers are, well, barren, I can’t be bothered. The bot is playing a bunch of cards I have never seen. Despite the fact that the game has been extremely generous to me with free packs and whatnot for the past ten hours of play. “Come on,” it pleads. “Take some more cards.” “Make a new deck, with different colors. It will be great!”
And sure, it will be, for a little while. Mythgard really wants you to explore and enjoy the different game possibilities, so it offers you coins (which can buy card packs) for doing just about anything. Play three games, get some coins. Kill twenty minions, get some coins. If you play enough cards of a certain color, you get coins. But then the easiest thing to level up is to play a certain number of cards of a different color. So off you go to make a purple deck, because if you do, and you play with it for like fifteen minutes, you’ll get some coins. It’s like Rhino Games is the Federal Reserve of CCGs.
It works, to a point. I was playing with some blue cards, full of ice and Viking theme, and then decided to move over to a weird Japanese ninja-slash-yakuza-slash-idunno purple color, and found these common units that gave you abilities when they dealt damage to the opposing player. So I took them and added them to the Vikings. Mythgard makes it very easy to make multi-color decks, because the cards themselves can be spent for permanent color-specific mana. Furthermore, spending a card in this way just puts it back in your draw deck. Like I said, I don’t have a degree in CCG and never passed the certifying exam. So I don’t know if someone else did it first, or better, or what. But I sure can appreciate this latest iteration, if that’s what it turns out to be.
The interaction of a bunch of different units with wildly varying abilities and ways to combine them, played on a simple map with terrain that can arrive as by the hand of God, is its own cross-genre genre. An uber-genre. The genre of making things fight other things with really fiddly levels of interactive detail. Sometimes the terrain is fixed. Sometimes the movement space is more expansive. Sometimes the units are taken from history, and sometimes from the history of our fantasies. It’s an elf, it’s a bugbear, it’s a fallschirmjäger. All in the service of emergent story, and things that happen in unexpected and memorable ways.
This, to me, is what is “special” about Mythgard. I was amused to read the assertion in Tom’s review that Mythgard is “adult.” When I accidentally left the game running on my computer and my wife came and sat in my chair, she answered my statement that I was “trying out this adult online CCG” with, “Yeah, you mean ‘adult’ like ‘porn,’ right?” I understand the pivot away from a juvenile audience pressuring its parents for game money, towards one in more control of its own finances, but the opposite of “cartoony” is not “adult.” The opposite of “cartoony” is “not cartoony.” Mythgard is no more adult than your average R-rated movie. The artwork has no special insights into human experience, other than the usual ones about why wyverns are constantly attacking commercial airliners. It’s sufficiently transgressive to make 25-year-olds feel like they’re giving the finger to “the system” while still paying $9.99 for digital cards on their Chase Sapphire Rewards Visa. I get it. I was counter-cultural, once, myself: I dyed my hair, wore black, listened to The Smiths, and voted for Pat Buchanan. Nothing says “not for kids” like a pair of big buttcheeks and a copy of The Susan Sontag Reader. Or a picture of Susan Sontag in tight pants. You could have made her the model for the Grease Monkey, I guess.
Don’t mistake me, here: Mythgard would be a much worse game if it tried to express a philosophy, or make any real sense of its chaotic universe. Setting is great when it lets you fill in the details. I think the best game is one where a coherent system of mechanics doesn’t undermine whatever lore there is, and lets you justify the things you do via game mechanics through your own set of overarching logic. I have to admit I haven’t cared to do this. Maybe that’s my own personal failing. But I’m used to having the crutch of a historical situation to provide me with context. The mechanics themselves are interesting enough in themselves to keep my attention, at least until I get tired of the map limitation in which my units can only be on my side, in one of the lanes. At which point, I start thinking: what if I could move my units around even more? And take advantage of terrain that was already there? But this would simply be a reverse-engineering of the boardgames I had already enjoyed, only with wyverns and enchanted deserts. Which is ultimately what will likely make me put Mythgard down in the near future. Because I know there is a way to get giant snakes to fight minotaurs and wizened magicians without locking them into single spaces that they can move out of only with difficulty.
Time to pull out Titan.