Challenging the Supremacy of CCGs

Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) is an old game.

Sort of.

It was just released by Fantasy Flight Games at GenCon last year. In it's current iteration it follows Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" (LCG) model used by it's other popular games Netrunner, Star Wars: Destiny, and a Game of Thrones LCG. You see, L5R used to be a Collectible Card Game (CCG) in the same vein as Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon. After it's release in 1995 the game soared in popularity into the late 90's and only died quite recently in 2015 - to be reborn from it's CCG ashes in the format of an LCG in 2017. The difference in the two business models is simple but profound.

In a CCG one is expected to buy booster packs of randomly distributed cards, usually with a single "rare" guaranteed inside. The result is players having to buy tons of booster packs to get the exact cards they want or buying cards individually at a considerable mark up if a card is considered tournament viable. Since I was a young boy burning lawn mowing money buying small pieces of cardboard and D&D books, getting cards from booster packs is just the way things were done. I didn't find it weird (and no one else seemed to at the time) that booster packs were essentially gambling. Plunk down your 4 dollars for a shot at the jackpot rare!

In the LCG format there are no artificial rarities created by the games publisher. Instead of buying randomly distributed booster packs, players purchase a "core" box of cards. The core set includes the rules, tokens, and roughly 240 cards. The cards included are enough to make "starter" (slightly smaller than tournament legal) decks for each of the seven clans in the game. If you are familiar with Magic or Pokemon, clans are roughly analogous to mana color or element type. There are also a number of "neutral" cards which can be played in any clan's deck.

That one 30 dollar box gives you everything you need to get a taste for the game's different clans and decide whether or not you want to play more. For those enamored with the game after playing with their starters and want to play more competitive decks, you must purchase 2 additional core sets. Why? Because each core set includes 1 copy of each clan card, and 2 copies of every neutral card. In L5R a deck can have up to 3 copies of a single card. Having 3 core sets allows you to build 2 full size tournament legal decks with up to 3 copies of your clan cards and it gives you 6 of every neutral card (enough for 2 decks to share the same neutrals). This same 3 core model is followed by all of Fantasy Flight's LCG products.

You may be saying to yourself "Hang on a second, that's almost 100 bucks to buy into this game with a full deck!" You're right. A full deck in Magic can be bought pre-constructed for around 15 dollars. You and your buddy could be playing technically tournament legal decks for a buy in of 30 dollars. Very quickly you'll realize that a lot of the cards in that pre-constructed deck are junk however. Your friend will buy a few booster packs and upgrade their deck and you will have to follow suit. In this way a new addiction to the cardboard crack of Magic is born.

With the LCG model luck is removed from the equation and extra cards aren't to be found. New cards are added to the base set of the game at regular intervals, but each new pack contains every card in that set. There is no fishing through boosters for that one card that makes your deck click together. One purchase gets you a full play set of every new card. Economically the two styles of card game take reverse approaches.

CCG's have a low up front investment cost with a high lifetime cost. LCG's have a high up front investment cost with a lower lifetime cost. Even over the life span of the average player if these two propositions even out with time the LCG offers one gameplay benefit over the CCG that tips the scale towards LCG games. By virtue of the fact that LCGs give the players who buy in every card available in the design space, a player never has to commit to a particular style of play.

In Magic, if I get bored of my current deck I have to rummage through the rest of my cards and see what I can put together. Unless you have a huge collection already worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars, invariably that deck will have some weak points that need to be shored up and then it's back to the game store for more cards.

In the LCG model if my buddy swaps in some cards that start devestating me, I have access to the exact same cards and every other card in the game to come up with a new strategy. There is no going back to the store (except to play or buy new expansions every few months). You can build the exact same deck as the one that is winning the big tournaments, without shelling out 300 dollars for a play set of mythic rares. You've already got all the pieces of that championship deck sitting right there on the shelf.

What I love about this is how it keeps deck building and player skill at the forefront of the game. The focus in a Living Card Game is heavy on the Game. The focus in a Collectible Card Game is heavy on the Collectible. Over the long term I'm not sure which strategy is better from a business perspective. As a consumer, the LCG model is far friendlier and keeps the cost of playing competitively far lower. It remains to be seen if any of Fantasy Flight's LCGs can make a dent in the lumbering behemoths of Magic and Pokemon, still by far the most popular card games of this type in the world. It is refreshing to see a new take on the card game genre and I know which one I'll be putting most of my dollars behind in the future.