Tuesday, October 7, 2014

“War” Inspired Battlefield Card Game

I don’t know why the card game “War” has been on my mind lately. I played it a few times as a kid more to pass the time than anything else; but as an adult game designer I realize, much as game design luminary Greg Costikyan posited, it’s not much of a game considering the completely random elements and lack of player choice (to which variants only add small, limited degrees of strategy). It’s an odd enigma among games – if you want to even call it a “game” – yet it incorporates some game-like elements: drawing and playing cards, comparing card values, and collecting “tricks” used for scoring.

The 5 of Clubs helps reinforce the meager 4 of Diamonds.
This inexplicable fascination feeds off my general predilection for developing new game designs and for adapting them to themes I find interesting (usually rooted in historical periods). The attraction to a basic childhood pastime ties into my urge to create games accessible to both a young audience and newcomers to the adventure gaming hobby.

In examining what few rules the “game” of “War” has, several elements stand out that I like in gameplay: pitting cards against each other with the higher value winning; the escalation mechanic when two cards tie (in which additional cards are drawn, with the top ones revealed to break the tie, winner take all); and a clear scoring mechanic of the player with the most cards at game’s end wining. But I also notice several deficiencies related to the obvious lack of any player choice to affect the game’s outcome: players have no hand from which to choose particular cards; they have only one position to deploy them and one opponent to face on the field; and even when additional cards are drawn to break ties, the result still boils down to comparing two completely random card values. A little bit of casual internet research shows a frightening number of “War” variants exist, some offering more player choice and strategy than others.

Since I have a passing interest in wargames (as well as other adventure games) I sought to infuse the basic concepts of “War” with some elements of battlefield strategy, enabling some meaningful player choice along the way and creating an entirely new game with a military theme playable with a standard deck of cards.

Battle Lines

I’m calling my “War” inspired game Battle Lines since that perhaps best characterizes the game’s core mechanic. Like “War,” players begin by evenly dividing one deck of cards (with the jokers removed). Each turn they draw or “draw up” to a hand of four cards. From these they deploy three to their battle line, one on the left flank, one in center, and one on the right flank; each of these stands opposite a card the opponent deploys in similar fashion. This leaves one card in each player’s hand as a sort of “reserve.”

Players reveal all their cards on the battlefield, comparing cards matched up in the same locations: one’s left flank to the other’s right flank, the center cards against each other, and 0ne’s right flank to the other’s left flank. The highest card captures the lower card in each contest (with face cards valued at 11, 12, and 13 respectively, and aces worth 14). Before anyone takes cards on the flanks, the player with the lower card may play his reserve card and add its value to his card in the battle line; but this flanking reserve card must either have the same suit as one of the cards played to that location. For instance, Player A plays the four of diamonds on his left flank opposing the seven of clubs Player B deployed to his right flank; Player A needs to have a card with diamonds or clubs to reinforce and increase his total, presumably higher than the opponent’s card (like in the photo at the top of this post). Cards deployed and captured at each position go into the winner’s discard pile. Should any confrontations result in a tie, each card on the line returns to the respective player’s hand; reserve cards used to achieve tied values go into the discard pile of the player who deployed them. The next turn players draw enough cards from their deck to make a four-card hand (three cards if they didn’t deploy reserves, four if they did).

The game ends when one player’s deck runs out, resulting in one last deployment with the player possessing fewer cards deploying them last (possibly having battlefield positions without cards, which the opponent wins by default). Each player counts their discard pile; the one with more cards wins the battle.

There’s a little more room for strategy than in “War” itself. Players have to evaluate their four-card hand to determine what they want to play to the flanks, where the reserve card might help them. After players reveal cards on the battle line they have to determine if they want to play a flank card based on their own cards or those their opponent plays to his flanks. And both players must evaluate and try to second-guess their opponent’s general deployment strategy (if any) within the limited seven, eight, or nine turns enabled by the small deck sizes; does the opponent tend to place strong cards in the center, or does he have any rationale to playing certain cards to the flanks?

The only rule I’m waffling on is what to do with tied cards in a battlefield location. Right now I think it best for them to return to their respective players’ hands, giving opponents a glimpse of what might come into play next turn. I’ve considered keeping them on the battlefield but forcing players to deploy them to different, non-opposed positions.

I’ve modified a few ways certain mechanics in “War” work to better mold the game. Battle Lines still retains elements like splitting the deck evenly between two players, drawing cards from the top of that randomized deck, and resolving combat by comparing the values of two cards. The differences alter or evolve from parts of “War,” particularly using a discard pile to determine the winner instead of feeding captured and used cards back into the active draw deck, deploying several cards at once against matched opponent cards, and using the extra “reserve” card to sway individual battlefield contests in one player’s favor.

So that’s my “War” inspired card game you can run with a standard deck of playing cards. Give it a try, offer some feedback (see the “Comments” boilerplate below...) and I’ll see if it deserves some revision and publication in some form or another, just for fun.

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