028 – Card Drafting Mechanic Part 1

In Episode 28 of the Nerdlab podcast, I talk about my favorite game mechanic: Card Drafting. YOu’ll learn why I think this is the best mechanic of all time, how to overcome its design challenges and what kind of tactics you players can use during the draft.

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Music by Mathew Pablo

Transcript

Hello fellow adventurers and welcome to the Nerdlab – Where we transform our gaming passion into incredible game designs and learn how to nerd like a boss. 

My name is Marvin and I am an ambitious game designer on my quest to develop a co-operative fantasy card game.

For this podcast, my vision is to take you with me on this exciting journey. Together we will explore the secrets of different game mechanics and reach the next level as a game designer.

This week I am going to talk about my no.1 game mechanic of all times. I had a ton of fun doing the research for this topic. The mechanic I am talking about of course is card drafting. I played hundreds or even thousands of drafts in Magic the gathering. In Magic, drafting is a way to distribute a limited amount of cards before the actual game. To do so everyone opens a pack of 15 cards, picks one card for his or her deck and then passes the rest to the next player. This is repeated until there are no cards left and then the same procedure is done with a second and a third pack.

I think most other forms of card drafting go back to how it is done in magic the gathering in one form or another. And we will talk about those other games as well. Today I will go really deep into this topic. You will learn what drafting is, why it is the best mechanic of all times and what it can offer you as a mechanic for your game. But I will also talk about some of the design challenges that come with card-drafting and some possible solutions. And once we have a clear picture of that we will go through a bunch of different drafting games and try to identify how they used the mechanic in their game design.

What is Drafting:

As far as I know, the history of card drafting goes back to 1996. It was inspired by the high school football drafting concept that happens in the US and was first incorporated into Magic the Gathering by Richard Garfield. 

A card drafting game typically involves picking cards from a shared pool or shared area in order to build a deck or a hand of cards to gain some form of advantage.

In the end it is a resource distribution mechanic that splits a pool of distinct resources as evenly as possible between a group of players by each player taking an item in turn. That means the selection to choose from gets smaller and smaller with every pick until all the cards are distributed among players.The most desirable items will typically be chosen first because players always pick the best card. But complexity or let’s say strategy is added when choosing a card changes the value of the remaining cards. 

For me, this is an important aspect of drafting. That there is a lot of strategy behind choosing your cards. I mean you could also distribute cards by drawing cards from a face-down deck. But this is not something I would consider as drafting. It doesn’t involve any strategy. Drafting really is about evaluating each card you pick with regard to the cards you already picked and the cards you didn’t pick. Meaning the value of each card can be different from player to player and heavily influence their decision-making process. In order for this to be true, the cards themselves need to be synergistic in some form.

Technically, the genre of deckbuilding is also a form of drafting if you consider drafting as choosing a card from a pool multiple people are collecting from. For me though, drafting really means selecting cards from a limited hidden pool and then pass the rest to the next player. 

Drafting is a popular mechanic and it is used in many games, but to be honest I don’t understand why there are not more games. I think there are still a lot of ways to use card drafting that have not been implemented yet. 

On a high-level drafting can be used in three different forms in a game. Most often drafting often is used as a supplemental mechanic before the actual game to distribute cards for the actual game. But there are also games like sushi go in which drafting is the game. At the end of the draft, you only count victory points of some sort. And draft could also be part of the game and happen in between rounds as it is for example done in blood rage.

What makes drafting fun:

Agency

If you compare drafting to other maybe simpler distribution methods like drawing from a deck of cards it is just way more fun. It gives the players much more agency in what they want to do. Players can influence their pool of available cards and choose a strategy. 

Strategy

It is an entirely new skill. It is not something you teach in the rules because the rule is just: Pick a card and pass the rest to the next player. It is something you learn outside the game. It’s more like a metagame. It really comes to live through the interaction of the cards because every pick you make influences your upcoming decisions. You might evaluate a certain card completely different during your first pick and your 7th pick. Just because the card works so good with the cards you already have. 

The result is a lot of fun by crafting mechanical interactions on the fly. You often have to adopt your strategy on the fly because you do not get the cards you were actually looking for. Or you got even better cards. This is a lot of fun, especially for the problem solver kind of persons.

I will talk more about strategy in drafting in a minute. First I want to mention a few other reasons why I think drafting is by far the best mechanic ever made. 

Affect other player choices

When you sit around a table with 4 to 8 people and everyone opens a booster pack or gets some other form of limited hidden cardpool this immediately leads to nice tension in the room. Because everyone is excited and hopes to open better cards than the others. A few picks later, people start to speculate what the others are picking and try to mess with their plans. On an emotional and social level there is a lot going on during a draft. The aspect that makes a draft interesting from a social perspective is the ability of one player’s choice to affect what another player can choose. This has proven to be pretty interesting and compelling to players. 

Hidden information

A lot of fun also comes from the fact that there are hidden information. Everyone guesses what kind of strategies the other players have and what cards they picked. And once the drafting is done there is that surprise effect when people are revealing what was completely hidden information before. 

Balance

From the viewpoint of a game designer another reason why drafting is a great mechanic is because a draft is to some degree self correcting. What I mean by that is that it is easier to balance your cardpool. 

If the card pool is generated randomly there could be more green cards in the pool due to random distribution than black cards. This will typically cause a situation in which more players on the board are playing green. People will adopt their strategy during a draft to the available cards in the pool.

Since everyone on the table gets exactly the same amount of first, second and third picks, everyone has the same chances. The different power level of the cards is also distributed more equally than in other distribution methods. In Magic for example the drafting format is supposed to be way less luck dependent than the sealed format in which every player gets 6 closed booster packs and has to build a deck from that. 

Strategy in drafting

Drafting as a mechanic creates a great deal of strategic complexity though hidden information and mind games. 

Opportunity Costs:

What is not so obvious in the beginning is that a draft adds a form of resource to a game. This resource is the number of picks everyone has. The costs of picking a card includes the opportunity cost of all the other cards you didn‘t pick. These kind of decisions can be tough but it really often is about what you decided not to pick. Opportunity costs is another form of thinking. Something typically only the more experienced players start to use to incorporate into their strategy. It is one reason why drafting is so deep and complex. 

Hate Picking

You do not only have to think about your own hand but also about what you passed to your next player. Your thought process could be like that: So the second best card in this pool is card x. And it is a decent amount better than the next card from a power level perspective. That means your neighbor will most likely pick that card. Now you can use this information as a data point. If you see another card that has a great synergy with the first card you could pick that card just to deny your opponent from getting it. This is called hate picking. Which adds a whole new layer of strategy and decision making to the game. 

Let’s say you pick a very strong card for strategy A and pass a very strong card for strategy B. This means one of the neighbors you are passing to has a high chance of going into strategy B. If you decide to pick the card for strategy A it comes with the opportunity cost that you probably can no longer play strategy B and hope for a good deck because chances are high that already another player plays that strategy. If you now see in your next pick a very strong card of Strategy B. What do you do? Do you change your strategy knowing that you might fight with your neighbor about the same cards or do you stick with strategy A and keep feeding him the good cards? 

Hook and cut

you could also pass a very strong card in a certain strategy to your neighbor in one of the first picks to lure him into that strategy. But then you go into that strategy yourself and do not pass any more cards of that kind. This is called hook and cut. 

Many drafting games let you pass into different directions each round. So you could 

Wheeling a card

If you have the feeling a certain strategy or type of card is underpicked you could try to not pick a card of that strategy even if you play that strategy and hope it goes all the way around the table so you can pick it up later. This is called wheeling a card. 

What are the typical design challenges of drafting games:

Daunting for new Players

For new players, the draft aspect can be very daunting. Because most of the decisions you make during a draft have a very high impact on the rest of the game. The cards you chose determine the success of the other game parts. If one player knows the cards better than the others he or she has a huge advantage in a draft.

not easy to learn to begin with. And not very forgiving for new players. Because you really need to know a lot of meta-information. You need to understand all the different cards, their influence in the game and especially the interactions between those cards.

Then you have to Way all these options against each other and make a decision. And you have to do this whenever a hand gets passed to you. It can be intimidating if a new player plays with a bunch of veterans. Drafting really rewards you to know each card, but it also really punishes you if you don’t know them. 

Possible Solutions

One way to help the players is to make the cards very simple.

Another way is to give players a hint. Something like a board that tells you you can only play 2 quest cards or 3 resource cards or one equipment card per hero. That can give you at least some direction. Also, a color code can help to identify cards that work well together. You could even mention on a card another card that goes well with it. If you have cards that become better in multiples that is also a nice way to give players a hint.

You could also add complexity over time if you draft several rounds. In the first rounds, only the very basic cards are in the pool and later on the more complex cards are added.

Time Consuming

It’s time-consuming. Due to all the tactical decisions and considerations, the time required is quickly escalating. It simply takes more time than simply dealing a hand of cards. I don’t really have a good solution to that problem. I mean you could at some form of timer but that would increase the pressure for newer players even more. Magis uses timers in their drafting tournaments. But this is on a professional level in which everyone is on an equal level and has experience with cards and the format. And even those professionals sometimes struggle to make a decision under time pressure.

On a casual level typically a simple rule is enough to increase the pressure on the slowest drafter on the table. The rule is you’re only allowed to look at the one pack you’ve got. As soon as you have taken a card from it, you place the remaining cards next to you on the table and wait. Only when all players have finished picking you may take the next pack. So everybody has to wait if one player is much slower than the others. This increases the social pressure and then regulates itself quickly depending on the group. 

Low Player count problem

For me, a draft is heavily dependent on hidden information. When very few players are involved, the amount of unknown information also decreases. With 2 players, for example, all information except the first picks is known, because if you remember the cards in the pack you can always see which card is missing once you get it back. Also the pool size is typically dependent on the player count as you open a certain amount of packs per player. That means a draft loses a lot of its depth with fewer players. Just because the card pool is smaller and the information is no longer as hidden as before. In magic the optimal player count is 8 and it doesn’t really make sense to draft with less than 4 players. There are a lot of very very interesting ideas in how to overcome this problem and create 2 player drafting games. I will give examples based on real games later. Most solutions require a massive change in the drafting method to work. But there is one exception. 

Bunny Kingdom has a simple trick to modifies the game for two players. When playing with two players, each player gets a second pack face down. Every turn when you draft you also draw an extra card from the second pack and add it to the first pack. This is the best hack I’ve seen for making a traditional draft work with two players.

General Methods of Distribution Methods and  Drafting / Variations of Drafting Games

I would like to give you some examples of how cards or other items can be distributed. They could be considered as drafting as well. 

The idea I’ve talked about the most so far is:

Passing a pack of cards

Take a card from a pack of cards, and pass the rest to the next player (e.g. Magic, Sushi Go, 7 Wonders)

Take a card from a display

This is how most deck building games work. All the resources are placed on the table on some form of market place where they can be seen by all the players. Payers than take cards from that display in a certain order. Information is no longer hidden. Often you somehow have to pay to take certain cards or to take cards from a certain spot. Even some form of auctions can be added to the distribution method.

Blind draw and choose

Another way of using hidden information is to draw more than one card from a hidden pile of cards and then choose only one of them to keep. The remaining cards could be given to the opponent directly or could go back to the pool or could be removed from the game completely. 

I split, you choose

Another mechanic that I really like is I split you choose. A Players gets a number of cards. Let’s say 5 and has to split them into two piles. Then the other player chooses one pile for himself and the other pile goes to the creator. Then the process is repeated and the other player creates the split pool 

Closing

And that’s it for today’s episode. I hope I was able to share my passion for the drafting method and you now consider making the next drafting game or at least using the mechanic as a distribution mechanism before your real game starts. Because I would love to see more games using this great mechanic. 

Before you go I wanted to invite you again to our Nerdlab Mastermind Session. The first session was a great starting point. We spoke for one and a half hours. It was great to see how much we all have in common and I am convinced we can be a great resource for each other.

We have scheduled the next session for September 17th at 9pm (MEST). For this session everyone is preparing two things:

1. An overview of his current project so the others get a better understanding of it. 

2. Everyone committed to set a goal for himself for the rest of the year. We can then use these goals to keep each other accountable.

The current idea is to have these voice sessions every other week. In between, we will use this discord server to discuss topics asynchronously.

We are still open to add a few more people to the Mastermind Group. So if you want to join now is your chance. We would love to share our passion with you. The link can be found in the show notes.

Until then keep drafting and nerd like a boss!!!


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