The Hit and the Haymaker

A Designer Journal on Two Styles of Card Design

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It’s obvious to even a casual card gamer that not all cards are created equal. Some cards have small effects, only marginally contributing to your plans. Other cards can swing the entire game when used correctly, singlehandedly turning the tide in your favor.

Today, Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game developer Tyler Parrott writes about the differences between high-impact and low-impact cards, and the reasons behind designing both!

Tyler Parrott on Two Styles of Card Design

You may have been in this situation before: you’re playing a game and every card your opponent plays disrupts your board or victory condition. You look at your hand and think, “None of these cards are close to that good!” Not all cards are created equal, and there’s a reason that low-impact cards such as Contingency Plan (Core Set, 205) exist in the same world as high-impact cards like Banzai! (Core Set, 204). A small amount of that variance is simply due to the tweaks in playtesting, but understanding the impact of each card and targeting cards for specific levels are important elements of set design.

In this article, I’ll explore the twin concepts of “hits” and “haymakers,” referring to cards and game experiences made up of either small, incremental advantages (hits) or large, sudden swings in tempo (haymakers). Any card game is going to have a certain amount of each, but some games tend to favor one type more than the other. Understanding what defines these playstyles and why they’re beloved enables a game designer to create cards for those playstyles—and for players to contextualize and appreciate the diverse sets of cards that make up their favorite game!

Earning Your Advantage

A card is a hit when the impact it has on the game, by itself, is small. You’re not going to KO anyone in the ring with a single hit, but the proper sequencing or combination of hits can wear out even the toughest of foes. That’s why games that lean towards this style of play tend to feel more strategic: no single card will define the game, so acquiring an accumulation of small advantages is required to win. This management of resources and long-term strategizing leads to a rewarding game in which victory is earned and player skill can be highlighted.

A player who can derive the most value from the hits that they play is going to find the greatest success with such a game: they will trade hits until their advantage is insurmountable. Because a game that leans toward this kind of play requires more possible card interactions, such games tend to have high-volume card draw mechanics, which is why many modern games allow players to draw more than one card per turn.

Exciting Memories

While a hit-style card (or game) is fun because it is a strategic puzzle, haymaker-style games are fun because they’re memorable and exciting. As one might expect, a haymaker is a card whose effect dramatically changes the game state: an expensive bomb character such as Ikoma Ujiaki (For Honor and Glory, 26) or efficient character removal like Assassination (Core Set, 203). These large swings in board position create a dynamic experience, in which each turn and each game is different. Players will remember the story of these games even after they’re finished.

Haymaker-style games are not inherently any less strategic than hit-style ones—in games such as Magic: The Gathering’s Modern Constructed, where nearly every card is a haymaker, many of the same strategic decisions must be made: “Do I use my efficient removal on the two creatures currently threatening to win the game, or wait until another comes into play so I can get additional value?” is contrasted by “Do I stick with the creatures I currently have and force my opponent to use their removal, or do I play additional threats to try to end the game faster, in case they don’t have that removal yet?”

This type of game also allows players to pull out an unlikely victory, and being able to win from behind feels rewarding. Haymaker game states—in which large swings of fortune can happen quickly—allow for such a victory, and they add tension to the game because even the player who’s winning can’t feel like their leading position is safe. This tension keeps the game interesting; the next card played could always be the next big game-changer.

The Perfect Storm

I’ve described these playstyles as if they were different kinds of game, but the truth is that almost every game has both hits and haymakers. Often, they are balanced against each other by virtue of cost: lower-cost cards tend to be hits, while more expensive characters and events are the board-altering haymakers. This limits the number of haymakers that each player can play on a turn (or in a game), so that hits and haymakers can be combined to maximum effect.

Having both kinds of cards in a game is valuable beyond providing balance and variety: it also allows players to learn the value of a card when they pick up a new game. Players often start by seeing a card’s effect and understanding its role in the deck. For example, Contingency Plan lets you manipulate your dial bids, and Eager Scout (Core Set, 25) provides a cheap, expendable body for the Crab Clan’s efficient sacrifice effects. However, as they progress, players learn to replace cards whose value depends on other cards with cards that are stronger on their own: converting hits into haymakers. Then, when new cards allow a player to effectively use a particular combination of hits, they rediscover the cards they had originally written off as bad.

Finding Balance

A game is at its best with a good mix of hits and haymakers, and it falls on the developer to maintain that balance. Any game developer is human, which means they have biases—and that includes potentially favoring one style of game over the other. Generally, I have a preference for the more memorable, exciting, haymaker-style games, which is what drew me to Star Wars: The Card Game and cooperative LCGs® like The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game. However, Legend of the Five Rings is more of a hit-style game, due to its higher-volume card draw and the back-and-forth nature of conflicts. It can be difficult to make fun haymakers that don’t simply outclass the hits, but they’re an important part of the game experience.

This is where, as a developer, it’s important to know what makes for an interesting hit and what makes for a fun haymaker. Hits are most interesting when they’re slightly context-dependent—a card that has value on its own, but is better when set up properly. It rewards you for setting up synergies between cards, and it provides an out for your opponent to maneuver the game and reduce the effect of your cards. This leads to cards like Steward of Law (Core Set, 139), a card barely worth its cost on its own, but whose effect can be dramatic if set up properly.

Of course, this puts pressure on the haymakers to ensure they’re not simply better than their competition. Usually this can be done by increasing the cost and increasing the effect: Mirumoto's Fury (Core Set, 159) is a hit, whereas A Fate Worse Than Death (Fate Has No Secrets, 98) is a haymaker. Alternatively, a hit could be a smaller and more consistent version of the effect, such as Reprieve (Core Set, 132), while a similar haymaker might have a more dramatic, less consistent effect, such as For Greater Glory (Core Set, 168). A player has to work harder to play their haymaker, while taking the risk that the card could do nothing. This inconsistency makes for cards that are memorable when they work, but because they don’t always work, neither player can predict the course of the game—leading to a fun, tension-filled, experience!

Because customizable card games let you play the game the way you want to play it, the opportunity exists to build a deck that plays closer to one style than the other. I hope this has illuminated this aspect of card game design—both for players and aspiring designers.

Until next time, maximize your hits, enjoy your haymakers, and happy shuffling!

Tyler Parrott (who is secretly a parrot) is a designer for Legend of the Five Rings: The Card Game, and also contributes to Star Wars™: Destiny. After playtesting LCGs for many years, he took an FFG internship, transitioned to a freelance designer, and finally landed a full-time design position. For fun, he enjoys medieval/renaissance music, singing, and sandwiches—so long as they don’t have pickles on them.

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