The Deal with Card Game Spin-Offs

Another Essen Season brings another dribble of card game adaptations of successful board games. Days of Wonder has announced Shadows over Camelot: The Card Game, a much shortened reworking of their 2005 cooperative hit (down from a play time around an hour and a half to one of about 20 minutes); while White Goblin Games will be releasing Rattus Cartus, a sideways step from their two-year-old plague-survival strategy number, now percolated into an influence-gathering, prove-yourself-the-superior-prince-or-princess, card-based affair. Winsome Games’ 2012 Essen set even includes an 1830 card game, though it is described as a two-hour ‘economic slugfest,’ which at least sounds somewhat in keeping with the slow-playing ruthlessness of the series with which it associates itself.

This kind of card game has, of course, been around for some time. I had 1990’s Cluedo Card Game as a child (though I struggle to remember how much it deviated from the board game), while a quick rifle through the Board Game Geek database brings up the Monopoly Card Game from 2000 and a Game of Life Card Game from 2002. I’m sure a more dedicated archaeologist than I am could unearth earlier examples of the board-game-to-card-game conversion.

Of a similar sort of age is the Catan Card Game from 1996 (re-released, re-jigged in 2010 as The Rivals for Catan, and reviewed here). In one sense, this has to be regarded as the source of the trend for modern strategy games to be reconceived in card game form. However, 2004’s San Juan, the card game child of Puerto Rico, almost certainly accelerated the trend, given the positive reaction it has received as a game in its own right (Puerto Rico was a Spiel des Jahre nominee in 2002, while San Juan featured on the list of recommended games, the step below nomination, in 2004; San Juan also spent many years in the Board Game Geek Top 100).

The Rivals for Catan

The Rivals for Catan

The predictability of such releases – the 1830 card game perhaps excepted – may feel reason enough to be weary and wary.  But there’s also more developed, rational room for suspicion of such games. The owner of a board game receiving the card game redux treatment can be forgiven for wondering why he or she needed to buy a costly board game when an ostensibly related experience is now available more affordably (and more portably); a possible buyer, meanwhile, may wonder whether the cheaper spin-off received the same level of care its parent game did.

Additional reason to be suspicious is the thinness of the connection some such games bear to their apparent parent, or the lack of need for them. Alhambra: The Card Game did something no-one was really asking for, scantly recalibrating what was already a lightish, and already heavily card-based game (though, in one of those tricky board game family tree affairs, Alhambra itself drew a great deal from an earlier card game by its designer Dirk Henn, Stimmt So!). Cardcassonne, meanwhile, has so little to do with Carcassonne that it’s hard to imagine it providing the experience anyone who purchased it had hoped: its set claiming mechanism has no obvious link to the main Carcassonne game, and were it not for its name, few would probably make the connection. In short, it might be called a Carcassonne game, but it really isn’t.

But there can be no denying that familiarity does breed curiosity. If, for instance, Lautapelit.fi announced a card game version of Eclipse tomorrow, in two days it would, almost certainly, be top of the hotness list on Board Game Geek. And that’s fine, really. I’d probably be one of the ones driving it there, and I’m no Eclipse devotee. The how-will-they-do-it? aspect of finding out about the conversion would be enough to engage me to at least poke my nose in its direction.

And curiosity means the phenomenon will continue to exist, insomuch as a certain proportion of snoopers will turn into shoppers. Broadly, that’s fine too. But we, as players, can bring demands regarding what we would like these attention-grabbers to do – if something is going to claim my attention, I’d rather, in the end, that it deserves it.

I think there are two main factors typically sought in card game versions of established games; a game which will play well with two, and a game providing a lighter, shorter distillation of the experience its parent game provides. Could these standard expectations become standard demands? I don’t really see why not.

Certainly, the Catan Card Game and San Juan are alike in the significant respect that they each derive from a board game intended for three or more players, but can, in their new card game forms, be played with two (the Catan Card Game is only for two, San Juan for between two and four players).

Two player San Juan

Two player San Juan (Photo by Roberto Duca)

Similarly, where Shadows over Camelot is for three to seven players, Shadows over Camelot: The Card Game is supposedly suitable for solitare play, as well as admitting play by two or more (up to a maximum of seven, as with the original game). Rattus can be played by between two and four players, but seems to be favoured with higher numbers (43 out of 48 respondents to the Board Game Geek player count poll rated the game as best with four); Rattus Cartus, though it actually extends the range of players, allowing for between two and five, gives hope that it will offer a better two player experience, at least upon inspection of the rules.

Often, this greater suitability for play with two comes from removing the spatial aspect of the game which a board tends to host. The area control elements of Rattus, if they may be called that, are, by nature, only constituted by binary tit-for-tat when playing with two. The card game derivation, by abolishing the board, allows for more nuanced, if less directly competitive, playing approaches: the question of which building I use, and how I use it, is broader than the question of how to maximize my population and minimize my opponent’s. I expect my choices might, often, be informed more by my hand of cards than by my opponent’s current situation, but if the game is any good, my opponent’s condition will not be an irrelevance to my playing choices. How much, however, Rattus Cartus will feel like Rattus, I’m not sure. Puerto Rico and Shadows over Camelot are less spatial to begin with, so the card game conversion of each had less of a battle in preserving the flavour of the parent game.

With respect to providing a shorter playing time and a lighter experience, San Juan remains a good example, the Catan Card Game does not. Between two experienced players, a game of San Juan need take no more than half an hour (more players will increase the length a certain amount). The Catan Card Game, by contrast takes about ninety minutes to play: comparable to The Settlers of Catan itself. My personal experience is only with the Rivals for Catan relaunch, but the game length remains as long (and there’s not, for me, sufficient development in any given game to justify the length).

In terms of lightness, the randomness implicit in the shuffling of a deck of cards does not so much give the possibility of lightness, as mandate it. Any card game which features shuffling – either before the game, during it, or both – is fighting its own fundamental nature if it tries to work against, rather than with, the experience of riding the whims of the deck. Even if a card game is an adaptation of a more serious board game, I think the greater onus has to be on being true to the current medium – otherwise the resulting play experience will, almost certainly, be a confusing one.

San Juan lets its deck of cards be a fickle creature, The Rivals for Catan does not (and neither, I understand, does the original Catan Card Game). The latter is the poorer and the tougher to comprehend for this.

There are a number of possible ways to succeed in a game of San Juan, but in any given instance certain of these will not be available to a particular player, insomuch as he or she will not see the cards needed to make that approach work. Good play is, therefore, recognizing the possibilities which are available, and adapting to them. Sometimes, of course, the final component in a well-thought out plan will never arrive (in particular, the game has a number of buildings which give bonus points for possessing other kinds of building – missing out on the right bonus building can often be the difference between winning and losing), but the quickness of the game suits the level of luck involved.

 The approach taken by The Rivals for Catan is rather different. In it, a player can pay resources to search a draw deck (there are three or more in each game), and select a card of his or her choice from it. This does, of course, limit the potential poor luck with cards has to blight a player’s game, but, at the same time, it takes away the flavour of riding one’s luck with ought to characterize a card game. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the draw deck in question should be left unshuffled after the player has selected a card from it: the memory aspect makes the game exceedingly draining. It feels something like playing a card game which doesn’t want to be a card game.

It could be argued that preconceptions are, by nature, unfair. That demanding that card game spin-offs always fit certain requirements (be it only two of them), is too prescriptive. But the issue is that the card game spin-off, by its nature, intends to play into preconceptions. Cardcassonne wants me to approach it generously because of the esteemed family to which it is linked. San Juan, for all it does well in itself, wants to take a certain gravity-by-association from its link with Puerto Rico.  Therefore, when I’m told I should have preconceptions before playing a game, that should associate it with certain experiences by virtue of its parentage, I think there’s nothing wrong in asking a given card-game spin-off to provide the two most desired qualities in the spin-off form: two-player potential, and card game breeziness.

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2 thoughts on “The Deal with Card Game Spin-Offs

  1. Pingback: Card Game Spinoffs

  2. Pingback: News Bits: 9/17/2012 | iSlaytheDragon

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