Deckbuilding games have a long and successful history. People love customizing their experience and trying to find the best possible deck. If you look at the most popular strategy games today, a huge portion have customization. The best, in my mind, is Imbroglio’s Izu mode.
As most game designers know, the “classic” MTG model has a large weakness in the post-internet era. Players copy other players’ decks, making small improvements. This iterative process from the “hive-mind” rapidly solves a format, to the point that a game like Magic needs incredible amounts of content to stay fresh. Even with hundreds and hundreds of new cards being printed, formats still get noticeably stale in between releases.
Not everyone can afford to vomit content in the same way that Wizards of the Coast does to maintain Magic. Designers wanting to create smaller customize-able games need more economical solutions. One solution, of course, is to simply refuse to create customizable games. Depending on your taste, this is perfectly valid! But for people that enjoy the process of fine-tuning a “deck”, what’s the best way forward?
A major breakthrough was made in 2008 with Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion. It randomized a “bank” of available cards, then had players build a deck from this limited subset. This approach has been tremendously popular, and is on the right track. Unfortunately, it had some basic flaws that prevented it from obsoleting the MTG model in the way Vaccarino had intended:
- Everyone started with the same boring deck. Boring!
- Making customization in-game limited how different final decks could end up. In Dominion, your final deck ended up being maybe 20 cards, with a few cards different from your opponents. This is a far cry from the level of customization available in a game like MTG, where two players can start turn 1 with completely different 60-card decks.
- Part of the fun of a customizable game is discussing “builds” among players. When the bank is randomized each game, it’s hard for a community to build around the game to talk about building things together. Usually at most you could only talk about general power levels, which isn’t as fun as showing off a cool deck you just made.
A great compromise I’ve found has been Imbroglio’s Izu mode. It’s the way forward for customizable games.
Michael Brough’s Imbroglio released to some fanfare last year. In it, players would construct “boards” to take into battle and compete on a global leaderboard. Unfortunately, it suffered the same problem as most customizable games. People iterated on each other’s boards and quickly arrived at working “solutions”, and soon mostly identical boards were populating the top of the leaderboard. The fact that the game released with 8 different characters helped with this somewhat, but within a month or two, every character had a working solution. At this point, there wasn’t much reason to try innovating, and players lost interest.
As a result, it’s sad but perhaps understandable that a comparatively smaller amount of attention was paid to Imbroglio’s follow-up expansion, Ossuary. In it, Brough added “Izu mode”, which has considerably helped with the game’s longevity.
Izu mode works as a sort of hybrid between the Dominion and MTG models. Every 4 days, a new “bank” of available options is generated from a larger pool of tiles for players to construct boards with. They then compete for highscores, which also reset every 4 days. This provides a good compromise of providing customization while still ensuring that the game remains relatively unsolved. It does not take long to find the best board with a given amount of options. However, it takes considerably longer to find the best board for every subset of options, and Izu mode exploits this well.
At the beginning of the period, several viable decks are tried out, and you can see a number of different approaches at the top of the leaderboard. At the end, a specific variant has been found to be the best, and users start adopting this board more and more. Fortunately, this is right around the time when the mode gets reset and players must reoptimize.
Usually, there’s a tension in games between “variety” and “quality”. Do you give a lot of low-quality content to improve variety, or do you add a small amount of quality content, but settle for low variety? Imbroglio finds a healthy mix of letting its “quality-minded” content go far in terms of providing the player with a large variety of game states.
It’s easy to see how a MTG-style game could benefit from taking a similar approach. Rather than trying to race player tendency to solve formats with more and more content, simply randomizing a “bank” of cards for players to construct decks in a given week would allow for a “customizable” game to go farther on a much smaller amount of content.