029 – Card Drafting Mechanic – Part 2

In Episode 29 of the Nerdlab podcast, I continue talking about card drafting, my favorite game mechanic. Today, I covered 4 great drafting games and distill their unique and secret game design ingredients from which we can learn why these games are so great.

Games Covered in this Episode:
Sushi Go
7 Wonders
7 Wonders Duel
Elysium

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Sources:
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.

Good Morning. It’s 5am where I am living and I use the quiet morning hours to record the second part of this mini series about card drafting. If you missed the first part of it I would recommend listening to episode 28 first because I talk a lot about the fundamentals of drafting and will probably reference some aspects in today’s episode.

 

Summary Last week:
Last week I talked about card drafting as a mechanic. MOre from a general designer’s perspective. We defined drafting as 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.

What makes drafting fun:

  • There is a lot of strategy involved
  • Your Choices affect other players choices
  • Hidden Information
  • Balance

Strategies in drafting:

  • Opportunity Costs
  • Hate Picking
  • Hook and Cut
  • Wheeling a card

Challenges:

  • Daunting for new players 
  • Learning Curve which adds a lot of fun and replayability to games also comes with the problem that there often is a huge difference in the chance to win between experienced players and new players 
  • Time COnsuming
  • Low player count problem

General Methods of Distribution

  • Passing a pack of cards
  • Take a card from a display
  • Blind draw and choose
  • I split you choose

The Card Drafting Design Framework

In order to analyze the games, I thought about which information I would like to collect in order to be able to compare them later. Therefore I thought about the following framework. 

  • Components drafted: cards / tiles / tokens, etc.

First of all, I am interested in which components are drafted. Even if the episode here is called Card Drafting, of course, other components can also be drafted in games. For example, Dice Drafting is a completely separate mechanic. I’m assuming that most of the games I’m analyzing here use cards as main components, but maybe I stumble across other games that use drafting as a mechanic, where the ideas and implementation allow interesting conclusions also for card-drafting.

  • What do the components represent: monsters, spells, etc.

For a better classification of the game, I want to record what the drafted components represent. Monster, Spells, Powers, Victory Points, or what so ever.

  • Pool: revealed, hidden, partly hidden 

As I explained last week, for me the games where the pool is hidden and the decisions secret are the most exciting but still, there are some really good games where the complete pool is revealed. That’s why I want to distinguish between games where the options for all players are revealed, hidden or partly hidden.

  • Knowledge about opponent choices: known / unknown / guessed

That also affects the next point on the list. The knowledge about the opponents choice. Are these choices partly or fully known or completely unknown. 

  • Pool compilation: Subset, Entire Set
  • Usage of Pool: completely, partly

And then I want to analyze the Pool. How is the pool constructed? Do you always use the entire set of cards or only a subset? And is that constructed pool drafted entirely or only some party of it?

  • Pool size: #
  • No. of Picks:#

And how many cards are in the set and in the pool. How many picks does each player make during the round and the entire game?

  • Restriction of picks: restricted / unrestricted

Is a player free to choose whichever card he or she wants or are the picks restricted in any form? FOr example by using a resource such as gold?

  • Number of Players: #

How many players can play the game and is there an option to draft with two players. 

  • Synergies: 

The next point is a little vague. But for me, a drafting game can only be as good as the synergies are composed within the set. That’s why I want to highlight the synergies of the respective games in this category..

  • Special Feature:
    • And as the last point I take a look at what makes this game unique from a game design perspective. What can we learn and adapt from that game?

But now let’s finally dive into some juicy games and let me tell you what the best drafting games, designs, and concepts are that I came across.  

Sushi Go

Sushi Go is probably the simplest drafting game currently on the market. They call it a pick and pass game but it is one of the first game, people will tell you when you ask what their favorite drafting game is. It is a 15 minute game for 2-5 players in which your goal is to pick the best dishes at a sushi restaurant. The goal is to pick the right combination of cards and block the combinations your opponents are going for.

The game consists of 3 rounds in which each player gets a hand of cards. In a turn, everyone picks a card and then they are revealed simultaneously. Then the remaining cards from your hand are passed to the player to your left. The round ends once all the cards from the hands are distributed among the players. At the end of each of the three rounds players add up their points.  The interesting aspect about sushi go is that each card is scored differently depending on the other cards you have drafted. That is also where the synergy of the game comes from. So what you are really trying to do is to pick the right card combos. For example, a Nigiri goes well with wasabi. To make the information of possible card combos available to all players little notes are printed on the cards.

Nigiri are worth points equal to the number on the card.

Wasabi triples the value of one nigiri. Therefore you must play a wasabi card first and on a later turn play a nigiri card on top of it. Wasabi by themselves is worth nothing. That means you create some kind of risk by picking it because you a) don’t know if you will see another nigiri and b) your opponents know that you need a nigiri and have from now on an incentive to hate pick that card from you.

Tempura is similar. It is worth 5 points for each pair. But again is completely worthless if you end up with one. 
Sashimi is worth 10 points for each set of 3 and otherwise again worth nothing. 
Dumplings grow in their value the more you can get. The first one is worth one point, the second is worth 3 points, the 3 is worth 6 points and so on. 
Maki rolls are a bit different. The players with the most maki rolls earns 6 points. That means you are really incentivized to only go in this strategy if you can have the most. If more than one player tries to get the most maki that can be devastating because you need many cards to get the 6 points. In the best case, you only want one more Maki than the player with the next most. In order to achieve this, you must remember how many maki are in the pool.

Pudding cards are not scored until the end of the last round. The player with the most pudding gets 6 points and the player with the least loses 6 points. 

Once a round ends you add up your points and then discard all the face-up cards. The exception is that pudding remains on the table. Then each player gets a new hand and the game is repeated.

Now there is a nice special card in this game that messes with the drafting aspect of the game. The cards I am talking about are chopsticks. They are drafted like normal cards and put on the table like normal cards, but they do not give any points at all. On any future turn, you may use the chopsticks to call out “sushi go” before the cards are revealed. THen you are allowed to take a second card from the hand and put the chopsticks back into the hand. There is one important rule if you want to use a similar effect for your drafting game. And that rule is that you can only use one chopstick per turn. That rule helps to prevent a player from picking too many cards from one hand.

  • Components drafted: cards
  • What do components represent: Sushi dishes like nigiri and wasabi
  • Pool: hidden   
  • Opponent choices: simultaneously revealed after pick. Player board always visible
  • Pool size: 108
  • Pool Compilation: 10 cards for 2 players, 9 cards for 3 players, 8 for 4 players, 7 for 5 players.
  • Usage of Pool: completely
  • No. of Picks (per turn): 1
  • Restriction of picks: unrestricted
  • Number of rounds drafted: 3 round. 
  • Number of Players: 2-5
  • Synergies: same cards, very specific card combos
  • Special Feature (what we can learn from sushi go)
    • Not many different cards needed to create a lot of different strategies. It is the most accessible drafting game. It uses only a dozen different cards or so and still allows a lot of tactical depth.
    • Easy to lean due to instructions on the cards
    • Messing around with the drafting rules (chopsticks allowing you to save a pick for later)
    • Hate Picking becomes more relevant when opponents draft choices are known by everyone and visible during the entire game

7 Wonders: 

7 wonders is a competitive game for 2 to 7 players that can be played in 30 minutes. It is a fast-paced, simple drafting game about building a civilization. It consists of 3 rounds of drafting followed by a final scoring phase to determine which player has collected the most victory points! 

Players take turns choosing cards to increase the strength of their armies, build civilian structures and scientific structures, and construct their wonders in order to collect more victory points than the other players!

Each player gets a board representing one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. Each board is different and grants different bonuses. The game is divided into 3 ages which are the 3 drafting rounds. Each round uses a unique and distinct deck of cards to draft from. The cards have huge roman numbers on the back to identify to which pile they belong.

That means the pool of cards from which you draft is always the same. However, these cards are randomly distributed into hands, which are then passed around. So, players are aware of the total pool of resources but are limited in what they can choose during each stage. Each player is dealt 7 cards before the turn starts and then the actions during a turn are taken simultaneously. Each player must choose a card, take an action with it and then pass the remaining hand to the next player.

There are three actions you can take with a card. You can play that card to build the structure, or you could build a stage of your wonder by putting it face down below your wonder board or you can discard the card to earn money. If you want to use a card to build a structure you must pay its resource cost. Some cards do not cost any resources. That means you can play them for free. If it costs money you have to pay that amount. If a card costs resources you must either be able to produce that many resources or buy them from your neighbors. You gather resources from your wonder and from specific resource cards which you also have to draft. To purchase a resource from your neighbor you have to pay money to your neighbor. Resources are not consumed. That means you do not have to pick them over and over again but you need to build them at the beginning of the game. Starting from age two some structures can be built for free if you already have a specific structure from the previous age. This is where synergy kicks in. To highlight these synergies, they are written on the cards. Typically the buildings that can be built for free in the future are specifically mentioned on a card. In general, there are a lot of icons on the cards to simplify game rules.

In most cases when a card is chosen, it is revealed and then visible to all players, so players have a good idea of what other players are drafting and which strategy they are going for. So you play with a revealed board. The result is that like in sushi go, hate picking becomes a far more important strategy during the draft.

7 Wonders is very very good in achieving a balance between drafting an optimum strategy for yourself and hate picking to weaken the optimum strategies of other players.

In my eyes there are two reasons why 7 wonders achieves this balance so nicely: 

  • First: In 7 wonders the aspect that you have neighbors in a draft is also incorporated into the game. The other players represent the countries next to yours and you can only fight and trade with your neighbor countries. Not the other players.
  • That means you really feel the weight of your drafting decisions, in both ways. On one side you have hate picking. On the other side you want your opponent to pick specific cards because you as a neighbor would later benefit from those cards. For example resources, you would later be able to get access to.
  • The second reason why 7 wonders is nicely balanced is because there is a mechanic which allows you to spend or discard a card for a basic effect. For example to upgrade a wonder or earn money. And you do that instead of playing the card. What that means is that the game rewards you just a tiny little bit for hate drafting. It is just enough of an encouragement to hate draft because you can still use the cards that do not fit into your strategy. I really love that small mechanic and it is impressive how this mechanic affects hate picking which is on the first view something completely unrelated.

One of the most interesting mechanics in 7 Wonders is that the draft is iterative. Players first draft from a set of weak cards, then once all these have been drafted, a new set of stronger cards used in the second age, before the most powerful cards are used in age 3. There are even complex synergies between the three pools. For example, weaker cards in the first pool make acquiring more powerful cards in the later pools easier. This mitigates some of the problems drafts have with varying card powers and reduces the element of luck. By having different pools from which players draft, you as a designer can better control the experience your players will have during a draft.

At the end of every age, military conflicts must be resolved. The military strength is represented by a crossed sword icons on your cards. You then earn victory points for each neighbor that has fewer military points and lose victory points for neighbors that have more military. 

At the end of the game when victory points are calculated the scientific buildings grant bonus points similar to sushi go. For example, you gain 7 points for each group of 3 unique research symbols in your structures. And you gain points for each symbol you have multiples of. It feels a little bit like building poker hands because you are going for multiple cards of the same type and or a specific number of different types.

  • One aspect that came up on reddit when I asked for the favorite drafting games of people was that 7 wonders incredibly well handles downtime. Because no matter how many people play the game you always have something to do during the drafting. And that is not something that is true for 7 wonders only. That is a huge benefit of drafting which I forgot to mention in last week’s episode. There is not much downtime during drafting. Yes sometimes you have to wait for slower players, but typically you still have something to think of. For example your long term strategy or remembering what was in the pack you just passed.
  • Components drafted: cards
  • What do components represent: structures giving you resources, and victory points, science structures, military power 
  • Pool: hidden   
  • Opponent choices: revealed and remain visible on the board
  • Pool size: 7 cards per player per round
  • Pool Compilation: 3 fix sets for 3 Ages of drafting to build the hands from
  • Usage of Pool: pick until only 2 are left then the last card is discarded 
  • No. of Picks (per turn): 1
  • Restriction of picks: unrestricted but cards can only be built if the required resources are available
  • Number of rounds drafted: fixed rounds (3 for 3 different ages). 
  • Number of Players: 2-5
  • Synergies: some cards allow you to build certain buildings for free. –> going up in value, some cards give you more points if you have specific cards together (such as a street in poker) or if you have many of the same cards
  • Special Feature (what we can learn from this game)
    • If you add a mechanic to discard cards that allows you to get at least some value from cards that do not fit into your drafting strategy. Hate drafting becomes more of a thing. 
    • Having a special relationship with your neighbor not only during the draft but also during the other game phases can create interesting decisions during the draft. 
    • Highlighting Card combinations on the cards itself can reduce the complexity for newer players. 

That’s it with 7 wonders. But the next game has one or two things in common. Because the next game on the list is 7 wonders duel. The two-player variant of 7 wonders.

7 Wonders Duel

7 Wonders Duel is the 2 player version of 7 Wonders. It has a lot of similarities but also some differences. 

4 Wonders placed randomly on the board. The first player chooses one wonder, then the second player chooses two wonders and the remaining one is given to the first player. Then you do the same procedure again with player two starting to pick the first wonder. Now each player has 4 wonders. 

Then you’re building the cardboard depending on the age you are playing. There are again 3 different ages as in the regular 7 wonders game. But believe me, this is completely different from how other drafting games approach the drafting pool. First of all, you randomly remove 3 cards from each age pile. Then you randomly add some guild cards to the age 3 pile. Then you distribute the cards on the board following a specific pattern shown on the back of the rulebook. The cards are stacked on top of each other in a very specific way. It reminded me a bit of mahjong when I first saw it. It is a bit difficult to explain without a picture but imagine a kind of pyramid with different rows. The top row consists of two cards, the second row consists of 3 cards that cover the first row by 50%. The third row has 4 cards overlapping the second row and so on. The row at the bottom has 6 cards and is not covered by any other cards. In addition to that strange cardboard layout some of the cards are face up and others are face down. That means you have some knowledge about the pool but only an incomplete one. The patterns for the other ages look a bit different but apply the same principle of cards covering each other. 

Instead of picking simultaneously, players alternate turns by choosing 1 card from the layout. The rule is that you can only pick cards that are completely uncovered. That means in the beginning you are only allowed to pick from the bottom row of the pyramid. 

When you take a card you must use it in one of three possible ways. The first option is to construct a building by paying its cost and placing it in front of you. This is very similar to 7 wonders. Buildings grant you resources which you can spend on that turn. They are again available next turn. Instead of buying resources from your oppenents you can buy resources from the bank by paying gold. However, the resources gain more expensive the more your opponent has of that resource.

There are a few differences in how military and science work though. Military is shown on a progress bar and each military symbol you drafted pushes the military pawn into the direction of your opponent. If you cross a certain line your opponent loses money and at some point loses the game completely. So this is one of the different winning options in the game. For science, you still have to collect the same science symbols. But once you found a pair you immediately can pick one of five progress tokens and keep it. It provides you with unique benefits. If you ever have ownership of 6 different science symbols on your cards you immediately win the game.

Instead of using cards to construct buildings you can also discard them to gain money from the bank or use them to build a wonder. 

Once you used a card you have to reveal cards of the layout that have been hidden before if no other card is laying on top of them. After all 20 cards in the play area have been used the round ends. At the end of age 3 if no player won by military or science, the victory points are calculated and the one with the most points wins.

  • Components drafted: cards
  • What do components represent: structures giving you resources, and victory points, science structures, military power 
  • Pool: visible (but some cards are hidden and will only be revealed over time) 
  • Opponent choices: revealed and remain visible on the board
  • Pool size: 20 cards per round
  • Pool Compilation: 3 rounds from a standard set of cards (3 cards randomly removed per age)
  • Usage of Pool: pick until all cards from the display are distributed 
  • No. of Picks (per turn): 1
  • Restriction of picks: only cards that are uncovered can be picked. Resource costs are required to use cards to their full potential. 
  • Number of rounds drafted: fixed rounds (3 for 3 different ages). 
  • Number of Players: 2
  • Synergies: similar to 7 wonders
  • Special Feature (what we can learn from this game)
    • The way 7 wonders duell handles the two-player problem of drafting is great. It works so well and is very elegant. Cards are laid out in a pattern where some cards overlap others. On a turn, a player can take any card that’s completely uncovered, but doing so potentially uncovers other cards for the opponent. This mechanic creates a lot of interesting trade-off decisions.

Elysium 

The next game is a great example of using a resource during a draft. Elysium is a game of set collecting and combinations in which players recruit cards representing heroes, items, powers, and gods. These cards have many different powers and the goal is to create powerful combinations to earn as much gold and victory points as possible. Each card belongs to one of eight families and has a level between 1 and 3.

The game consists of 8 different family decks (distinguished by a unique color) of which you randomly pick 5 to form your drafting pile. They are shuffled together in a single face-down deck

Now you deal face up a number of cards equal to the number of players times 3 and then add one more. For a 4 player game that would be 13 cards. For a 3 player game that would be 10. 

Each player starts the game with 4 gold, a number of victory points equal to the turn order position and 4 differently colored pillars. These colored pillars are your resource.

In addition to that 4 quest cards are added to the board. 

The family cards that are drafted give you powers and victory points. But they only give you victory points once you transferred them into legends. But if you do that they lose their powers. The challenge is to decide which cards to acquire and how long to exploit their abilities before you transform them into legends. 

Each round consists of several phases. First, you check if there are cards in the drafting area that haven’t been picked in the last round and replace them with new cards from the pile. This is of course not relevant for the first round.

Then Each player takes a turn. You can either take one of the 4 quest cards or a family card from the drafting area. To take a card you need to have the colored pillars that match the symbols on the family cards.  

After acquiring a quest tile or a family card choose and remove from your board one colored pillar. It doesn’t need to be a color that you just required to pick a card. It can be any. But you thereby reduce the number of cards you can pick in the next round because you might no longer have the required resources. Now when it’s your turn again you have fewer pillars and thereby fewer colors to match up the symbols on the cards you want to draft. SO you really have to think ahead. Something you have to take into your decision making is the colors your opponents still have remaining because that might inform which items you chose to pick knowing what they are able to afford or not.

Once all of the players have used all of their colors the round is over. That means every player picks 4 cards. One of it must be a quest tile. And the other 3 are family cards. 

If it comes to the case that you cannot afford anything with your remaining colors you have to draw a face-down card from the family deck and add it to your table as a citizen. If you didn’t pick up a quest card but cannot afford to buy one of the remaining because the colors do not fit you get one of the remaining quests and turn it around. It is considered an uncomplete quest.

The power of the cards trigger in different phases and have different effects. Such as gain 2 victory points immediately when picked up. Or an always active power or a card can only be used once per round. One interesting card type is cards that only can be used as long as you have another card of the same kind. The cards can have different effects but both need to be from the same card type.

Transform cards into legends: 

The quest card determines how many cards can be transformed into a legend. It costs (from 1 to 3 gold) depending on the cards level to transform it. When you transform a card it can either start their own legend or join another card. There are two kinds of legends. Family one and level ones. That means for family legends are only cards from the same color allowed. But they all need to have different levels.

When you complete legends by having all levels of a family you get bonus points. Giving you an incentive to complete them early because the first player completes a specific family gains 5 points the second player gains 2 victory points and the 3 players gain nothing. 

At the end of the phase, each player regains their colored pillars.

Turn order changes based on the quest you picked. The player with the highest value on a quest card becomes the first player of the next round and so on. That means you do not only draft your powers and victory points but also your spot in the turn order. That’s a nice concept

After 5 rounds the final scoring happens. 

One family adds another game element to the game. The oracle. THis is a place on the board in which 4 cards are revealed that will be available to draft in the next round. THis gives you an idea of the future and can influence your picks for this round. And there is also another family that can be added to the game that adds a new form of earning victory points to the game. I like the idea of adding complexity to the game by choosing specific families. THis gives you the chance to start with the basic families and core mechanics and allows experienced players to add more variety and complexity later.

  • Components drafted: cards
  • What do components represent: categorized in different families, powers, and quests 
  • Pool: revealed 
  • Opponent choices: known
  • Pool size: 8 families of 21 cards of which 5 are played during a draft. (round about 100 cards)
  • Pool compilation: Subset
  • Usage of Pool: partly because only a small subset is available at a time and you do not play through the entire pool
  • No. of Picks (per turn): 4
  • Restriction of picks: restricted by color
  • Number of rounds drafted: 5
  • Number of Players: 4
  • Synergies: Some Elysium cards only have an effect when you combine them with another card of the same type. You need to combine cards of the same family and or the same value.
  • What we can learn:
    • Drafting choices influencing unusual game aspects such as the turn order. 
    • How to restrict picks by color
    • How to add replayability and complexity over time by having a pool that is constructed of a set of groups that can easily be interchanged.

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3 comments

  • Hello Marvin,

    I see from your podcast, you are very enamored with the “Drafting” Mechanic. In general, I wanted to ADD that almost ALL “Deck-Builders” offer a form of “Card Drafting” Mechanics. If you look at “TradeWorlds”, each player has his own set of card piles from which he may Trade (or “Buy”) using the cards from his hand. What could be very interesting is a type of “Fantasy” game (my game is “Sci-Fi”) that could use a similar set-up.

    In general terms, most Deck-Builders have piles with the weaker cards on TOP and the stronger ones at the BOTTOM. In TradeWorlds, this is NOT true. Cards in each pile are “Randomized”, meaning it is harder to predict which piles you should buy cards from (if you want High Scoring cards).

    Another point is that IF it would be possible to INJECT a “Deck Construction” mechanic, meaning that the piles are not pre-set, they are chosen from a super-set of cards in order to play against an opponent. This could also be very interesting (for the “Fantasy” theme). I’m not sure HOW to put this all together, but to me, it seems like it could be a viable and “interesting” game to play.

    Deck-Building + Deck Construction … Would make for an ultimate experience for certain! This means that instead of Card Drafting by passing hands along from one player to another, you DRAFT from your own piles and like Magic: the Gathering, you would keep separate YOUR cards from all the cards used by your opponents. That’s why I LIKE Magic is because each player uses his/her OWN deck and competes against opponents to see who will be victorious (aside for the Card Drafting models of play).

    But picture it: you draft from your own piles and each pile has cards that you “constructed” to battle your opponent(s). I think this could be a step-up in terms of Deck-Building… And given a “Fantasy” theme, maybe something INCREDIBLE to experience!

    Cheers,

    Kristopher
    Aka QuestCCG

  • More on the piles that could be used to make a Card Drafting + Deck-Building + Deck Construction BEHEMOTH may use “colors” to manage the piles. Yes this is done in TradeWorlds: Blue = Starship, Red = Weapons, Green = Crews and Purple = Tactics, for a total of 60 “core” cards.

    Similarly the Super Fantasy Game (SFG) “let’s call it like that for now”, could CATEGORIZE the cards into individual piles according to colors too. Instead of “Starships” you could have “Heroes”, “Weapons” work for both, instead of “Crews” you could have “Shielding” (Magical or Physical, etc.) and “Tactics” could be more relevant to the Fantasy Genre. But each category of cards could have it’s OWN COLOR, thus making it easily understood WHICH “Mini-Deck” that card can be place into…

    Anyhow I just wanted to demonstrate what COULD be done. I for one will not go down that road… Because from experience, it takes too much art, graphic design, etc. Basically for me the COST to make such a GAME would be very high. At this point in time, I cannot afford such an expensive BEAST! (LOL)

    Cheers Marvin,

    Kristopher
    Aka QuestCCG

  • Hi Kristopher and thanks for your reply. I really love the term Card Drafting Behemoth 🙂 Regarding your idea: I also think there could be a really sweet game if you combine deck building, deck construction and drafting in some form. However, for me, this is also a bit too complex at the moment. But I would for sure buy a game like that. Totally up my alley 🙂

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