Card Engraving

The most fascinating thing about the Yu-gi-oh! cartoons is how card games are used as a substitute for violence.

The thing about the cartoons are that they’re wuxia and Dragonball inspired fighting series, that is, the kind of thing that Americans think of when they hear the word ‘anime,’ only instead of martial arts, there are card games. This can get rather on-the-nose, like when a character raids a monastery for their trading cards, like they were the scrolls that described their kung-fu techniques. This also explains why everybody only ever uses one deck: these kinds of stories progress around characters dealing with each other using tightly themed powers, and the ability to change decks would undercut that.

This brings me to the fluff of my YGO clone. To make the conflicts between the players both easier to take seriously and less on-the-nose, I would turn the cards into an actual magic system, rather than a game that everyone in the universe takes entirely too seriously.

To explain how this system would work, take someone stumbling into the plot, and acquiring a deck of blank, white cards. These cards would only remain blank until the new player learned how to engrave their soul onto the cards, at which point the backs would take on a design unique to that player. The fronts, however, would remain blank until the moment the card is drawn. This would be the moment of the second engraving, where the player imprints a particular piece of their soul on a particular card. There would be an element of chance to what card they would get, but with enough focus, they could get something near to what they wanted.

The short version of all of this is that the players engrave their souls onto pieces of cardboard, and then activate those pieces to manifest creatures and abilities that affect the world around them. Before the engraving, the cardboard is a blank white, and the specific cards available to a player at a given time is partially random, and partially determined by their desires and willpower. As an aside, it is possible for a person to engrave on other surfaces, but the cards are easy to carry, and I think I would have them be specially designed to be engraved on.

I think that’s about it for my YGO clone. It’s been long and exhausting, but as least I’ve gotten it out of my head. It’s also given me other things to think about, and that will give me fodder for more essays.

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Currency Resource

One of the defining features of Yu-gi-oh! is that it lacks a resource system. Technically, that isn’t true. YGO cards frequently require the player to move cards around as a cost, so that anything the player does requires moving cards from the hand to the field, at the very least, with more powerful effects requiring movement from from the field to the graveyard, or from the graveyard to the deck. What is really meant by ‘lacking a resource system’ is that the game lacks currency – game elements that exist only to be resourced payed to activate cards and effects.

This lack of currency has profound effects on gameplay. Most notably, the lack of currency, combined with cards that reward the player for getting them into the graveyard from the hand, allows the player to activate a nearly infinite number of cards in a single turn. This means that the game can be decided with in a single turn, and all too frequently, that turn is the first.

I must point out that this speed is actually deliberate. It allows the show writers to portray a character as exceptionally dangerous by having them defeat side characters very quickly, or have the main character make a come-from-behind win off of a top-deck. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are terrible in a real card game.

One idea I had for a currency was inspired by monster levels in the original game – those stars above the art that theoretically represent the power of the monster. Level also determines how many monsters would need to be sacrificed as tribute to normal summon a creature. An obvious solution is to use the levels as number for whatever currency needs to be payed, but that sacrifice mechanic implies something a bit more unique.

The word used for the sacrifice action in Japanese is ‘release’ – a loanword from English. This isn’t a word used to imply the permanent destruction of something, like sacrifice or tribute, but merely letting something go. And the concept of letting go also implies the concept of holding on to something. So I think, what if the currency is what’s held on to while the monster is out?

Let’s call this currency ‘manifestation,’ on the idea that whatever is on the cards exist in potentia and manifestation is used to realize them. Manifestation is a currency that is committed when a monster is summoned, and is returned to the player when the monster leaves the field. For example, if a player has a manifestation pool of eight, they can summon a level one monster, a level three, and a level four, but not two level fours and a level one. If the level one and level four are destroyed, they can now summon a level five monster in addition to the level three monster they already have, but they cannot summon anything else without another monster being destroyed.

One advantage of such a system is that it gives a natural place to extra deck monsters, namely, that by using a fusion spell or other such method, it’s easily possible to have a monster that’s unusually strong for their level, and to have extra manifestation left over. For example, a level three fusion monster could have the power of a level five normal monster, and leave the player with two extra manifestation left over. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how manifestation would interact with the back row.

While I’m certain that I want the manifestation available to a player to grow throughout the game, I’m not sure when I want the manifestation to return to the player. On the first hand, allowing the manifest to return to the player immediately can allow players to smooth out their curves by finding a way to get rid of monsters they don’t need on the field, or even just letting them send them to the discard pile as a standard action, on the other, there would be no way to control the number of spells activated in a turn. I could add another currency to handle activation, but at this point, I start to think that I need playtesting to decide anything.

Links and Pendulums

Links and Pendulums are the two forms of summoning I have no interest in adapting. Both developed in response to the profusion of summoning methods before them, and both introduced new zones to the playing field. Even though their relationships to the previous methods are completely different, it’s those exact same relationships that make them so uninteresting.

I’ll start with Links first. Link monsters are the monsters that have no defense stat. Instead, where the defense stat would be listed, there is the link rating, a number defining how many non-Link monsters need to be used as material to summon the thing, and also how many of those the Link monster can substitute for during a Link summon.

Link monsters combine the laddering of Synchros with the generic materials of Xyz. Actually, Link materials are even more generic than Xyz materials, because while the latter need to have levels equal to the rank of the summoned monster, the former do not need to have any particular attributes at all. However, where Synchros rely on a particular class of monsters for summoning, and Xyz have their detaching overlay units mechanic, Link monsters have the Link arrows.

The Link arrows are a series of arrows surrounding the border of the monsters card art, and the ones that are lit up determine where other Link monsters can be summoned. You see, Link monsters must first be summoned to the Extra Deck Monster (EDM) zone, a special slot on the field between the two players fields. The EDM zone was added to the game at the same time as Link monsters. This seems to have been done to make Pendulums unplayable.

Pendulums – monsters that could also be spells – also had special slots on the field associate with them. When placed in these pendulum zones, Pendulum monsters were spells, using the effects of their upper text boxes, and more importantly, allowed the player to Pendulum summon – summoning multiple monsters at the same time.

This bulk summoning was, on at least one level, designed to aid in the use of the other summoning types that existed at the time, as the associate series was a bit of a nostalgia trip. There’s also the fact that Pendulums, when destroyed or used as material for a Fusion or Synchro, went into the extra deck face-up, where they could be brought back by Pendulum summoning.

The end result of the mechanic was a profusion of decks that could attempt to win on the first turn, and even if they failed, they had a good chance of recovering. This resulted in games that ended very quickly. To even try to slow the game down, they made it so that the only way to Pendulum summon was to get a Link monster out first, and summon the monsters into the slot the Link pointed to.

The end result is that Links feel like a combination of two previous mechanics, and their unique mechanics feel like they exist to nerf a third. This, to not put a too fine point on it, is inelegant. As for the Pendulums, while I can see potential in cards that can be either spells or monsters, I’m not comfortable with that kind of bulk summoning.

Card Game Grab-bag

YGO Combat Mechanics – Attacking in Yu-gi-oh mostly consists of comparing two numbers, with the which numbers being compared depending of whether the defending monster is in attack position or defense position. If the defending monster is in attack position, the attack values of both monsters are compared. If the attacker’s power is higher, the defender is destroyed and the excess is dealt as damage to its player. If the attacks are the same, both monsters are destroyed. I don’t exactly remember what happens if you attack into a stronger monster, I just know that there’s very little reason to do it.

If the defender is in defense position, the attacking monsters attack values is compared against its opponent’s defense. If the attack is higher, the defender is destroyed, but no damage happens. If the defense is higher, nothing is destroyed, but the attacking player takes damage equal to the difference. If the numbers are equal, nothing happens.

A problem with this system is that defense values are almost meaningless. Barring card effects, a high attack is just as good as a high defense at protecting the monster, while a high defense isn’t useful for anything else. The only reason combat involving a defense position monster even happens is that they can be put on the field face-down. No wonder they eventually introduce a kind of monster with no defense value.

Perhaps the simplest way to deal with this is to do away with defense position entirely, with the attacker’s attack always being compared to the defender’s defense, with the runover being inflicted as damage. However, setting monsters in face-down defense position allows for a particular scenario I like: throwing down a series of cheap, disposable walls while you desperately hope to top-deck something that can take out your opponents ace. I suppose one way to get that gameplay back is to allow setting face-down, in some kind of inactive mode. The face-down monster can serve as a wall, and the player doesn’t take damage when it’s destroyed, but at the same time, it can’t attack, and it can use it’s effects.

Hidden Information – Face-down monsters brings me to one of the most conceptually brilliant parts of the game. YGO’s method of allowing players to respond to their opponent’s actions, equivalent to MtG’s instants, is the trap card. Trap cards are a type of card that must first be placed on the field before they can be activated. Usually, traps have conditions that allow them to be activated in response to the opponent’s actions, usually in a way that directly responds to whatever the opponent did.

There’s an elegance to making a player declare that they might be able to do something. It’s not clear what they could do, or what needs to happen for them to do it. This leads to tension as the opposing player attempts to play around the trap, slowly experiment to bait out the trap in a relatively harmless way.

Unfortunately for the physical card game, it’s a bit difficult to make sure a player is actually playing trap cards, and not monster cards. While monster cards can also be set, doing so takes up the player’s once-per-turn normal summon. This can cause issues when a deck rewards having no cards in hand, for example. This could be considered the real reason that the game should be digital only, with the computer only allowing cards that can be legitimately set to be so. After all, cards transforming and being created and destroyed are just gimmicks.

Traits – Before I continue, I want to take a moment to define the concept of traits. Traits are attributes of a game piece that exist solely to be referred to by other rules, like creature subtypes in Magic or keywords in eighth edition 40k. I bring this up because almost everything on a YGO card has been cannibalized for traits.

This is most obvious with defense, with lower values (specifically, 1500 or less) usually being better because that makes the monster easier to search. Another example is levels in the Zexal era: it didn’t much matter what the level of a monster was, it had absolutely nothing to do with the individual cards power, and a main deck monster was mostly just Xyz material, anyway.

You should keep this in mind, just in case I start talking about traits at some point.

Field Spells – Field spells have their own slot on the field, and because of this, feel like something bigger than a normal spell. There’s also the fact that there used to be a rule stating that there could only be one field spell on the field at a time. That change for much the same reason the legend rule in MtG did: it’s annoying to fight over who gets to use a particular card.

Field spells seem like a natural place for build-around-me spells, but the designers tend to use them to make old archetypes playable again. Early field spells, however, tended to affect both the player and the opponent, although in a way that encouraged symmetry-breaking during deckbuilding (ie, all Dinosaur-type monsters get 300 attack). But the really interesting thing is that field spells are an adaption of a mechanic that wasn’t a card at all.

In the Duelist Kingdom arc, before the series started to emulate the actual card game, there was a terrain mechanic. You see, the DK arc took place on an island with various kinds of terrain on it, and about the island, there were tables or arenas (depending on which version of the story you’re following) that had game boards based on the surrounding terrain. A monster placed an a particular type of terrain could get a boost to their stats, depending on if their type matched the terrain.

As for adapting the field spells, I’m not sure I should. I can see the use for marquee backrow cards, but I’m not sure that’s something every deck should have, or if I should give it a special slot and name. At any rate, I’m sure that I would have to figure out how everything would work with any kind of resource system I used, so I would have to figure out what that looks like first.

Xyz Summoning

Xyz (pronounced ek-ZEEZ) summoning is the third kind of Extra Deck summoning introduced in Yu-gi-oh!, and the one I’m having the most trouble thinking about. There are several aspects that consume my thought with regard to creating a digital YGO clone, and importing something like Xyz into it. First, there is the matter of the extra deck mechanics themselves and the differences they would have when transferring from physical and digital. Second, there is the matter of how the history of the original game, specifically, the constraints that the designers were working with, how the game and the cartoons are poorly aligned with each other, and the problems that causes. Finally, I will say something about why I want to see a YGO clone, and why Xyz plays into it.

To perform an Xyz summon, the player first needs at least two monsters with equal levels on the field. Xyz summoning physically consists of placing the monster cards on top of each other, and then placing the Xyz monster card from the extra deck on top of the first monster cards. The first monster cards are now ‘overlay units’ attached to the Xyz monster, and most Xyz monsters can use these units to fuel various effects, by detaching them and sending them to the graveyard. As Xyz monsters have ranks instead of levels, they cannot normally be used as material for an Xyz summon.

To understand why Xyz works the way it does, you need to understand why Synchro works the way it does, and to understand why Synchro works the way it does, you need to understand fusion. Fusion summoning is the original extra deck summoning method, in fact, the extra deck was originally known as the fusion deck. To fusion summon, the player needs a fusion spell and the monsters to be used as fusion materials in their hand or on their field. The summoning itself consists of activating the spell and sending the materials to the grave, and then placing the fusion monster on the field.

There are several issues with fusion summoning as originally implemented. The first has to do with the concept of card advantage: the fact that the player with more cards has an advantage. Fusion summoning needed the player to spend three cards to get one out of the extra deck, for a net loss of two cards. The other is that the early fusion monsters required specific cards as materials, rather than using any monster that fulfilled specific criteria (i.e., a fusion monster require two monsters of different elemental attributes), and that there was originally only one fusion spell in the game, Polymerization. I rather suspect that the reason the extra deck exist at all is that the designers realized that assembling four specific cards in your hand was simply too much.

As the game went on, the designers realized that the extra deck was something unique to the game, and that the thought of monsters combining into bigger monsters was a cool idea. Through the GX era, they looked at various ways of solving the problems with the mechanic, like having fusion only requiring monsters. That particular mechanic is considered to be a precursor to Synchro summoning.

Synchro summoning depends on a class of monsters known as Tuners. Each Synchro monster has material requirement in the form of “One tuner and one or more non-tuner monster,” or something similar. To perform a Synchro summon, the player send materials to the graveyard whose levels exactly add up to the desired Synchro monster’s level, and placing the Synchro monster on the field.

Conceptually, Synchro summoning is still a form of fusion. Most Synchro monsters have visual cues linking them with main deck monsters, both tuner and otherwise. An interested thing about Sychros, however, is that because a Synchro monster can be used as Synchro material, Synchros can be used like steps on a ladder, with a succession of Synchro monsters repeatedly being combined with tuners to form successively higher-level Synchros. These means that they are intrinsically suited to having evolved forms that have transformation sequences that look good on TV.

As for the tuners, there’s no definitive quality to any of them, except their ability to be used in a Synchro. There is, however, a tendency for them to have low stats, abilities that help the player get monsters to the field, and be low-level, to help them make exact levels easier.

As for why Synchros call for exact levels, that’s probably has something to do with Normal summoning. Let me explain: a Normal summon is a type of summon that can be performed once per turn, and what needs to be done to do this depends on the level of the monster. A monster with level four or less can just be plopped on the field, while a monster with level of five or six needs a monster on the field to sent to the graveyard as tribute, while a monster of level seven or higher need two tributes. This means that, barring card effects, a level four and a level one have equal costs to summon, even though level fours tend to have much higher stats and much stronger abilities. Synchros needing exact levels, then, provides an incentive to use lower level monsters.

This need for exact levels explains why Xyz need matching levels, and why they have ranks instead of levels. The level matching is there to differentiate the mechanic from its predecessor, and the ranks are there to ensure that Xyz monsters can’t be used to summon Synchros.

To understand why the designers wanted Xyz to be incompatible with Synchros, you need to know that when Xyz summoning was introduced to the game, the fourth anime series, Yu-gi-oh Zexal, was beginning and the third series, 5Ds, was ending. That third series began at the same time that Synchros were introduced, and was the Synchro series. Every main character used a Synchro monster as their signature card, most minor characters used a Synchro monster as an ace, and most of the villains used anti-Synchro monsters, either in the sense of monsters that countered Synchros, or the literal opposite of Synchro monsters.

In the same way 5Ds was the Synchro series, Zexal was clearly intended to be the Xyz series. Every character uses Xyz monsters, pretty much every episode has a moment just to emphasize how cool the latest Xyz monster is, and the entire plot centers around collect 99 special Xyz monsters. The thing is, that the Xyz mechanic seems to have been created for the anime, and not the game.

It seems like the show’s producers wanted something for Zexal that Synchros were for 5Ds. It’s odd, how the cartoon and the game line up with each other, or rather, how they don’t. It’s like the two parts each want to be their own thing, with the game wanting the cartoons be nothing more than advertisements, while the cartoons want the game to be nothing more than merchandise.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that everything started with a stand-alone series, and only later did the card game overwhelm everything else. An effect of that is that the designers are spread out across three separate companies: the animation studio that’s making the current series, Shueisha, which published the original manga, and every comic later produced for the property, and Konami, the video game company that publishes the card game, and the only one that would regularly high game designers.

This strange system of the franchise consisting of several distinct sub-properties spread across three different companies has forced the game into a system of what I have seen called accretion: a game design technique where the designers, rather than perfecting or building on what is already in the game, simply add more subsystems, that have little to do with each other beyond the most basic of mechanics. In Yu-gi-oh‘s case, the subsystems are the summoning mechanics, and the basic mechanics are battle and the card stats. This isn’t a technique that can keep a game going forever, and has left the game in a place where it’s fully possible for a game to end on the first turn. Or at least, where every deck is trying to go into Accesscode Talker.

I suppose the reason I want to see a YGO clone is to see what happens when it has a design team that actually tries to make the most of the game, rather a bunch of people that seem rather bemused that it’s gone on as long as it has. Xyz summoning is one of the things I would be most interested in seeing adapted, especially if they kept to the implicit limits of ‘no laddering’ and ‘a monster with no overlay units has no special abilities.’ Xyz monsters can’t even be normally used for Xyz summoning (having no levels to match with anything), but the cartoon would have always needed the monsters to have impressive and dramatic transformation sequences. As for the second limit, while pretty much every Xyz monster has an ability that detaches as a cost, by the third booster pack, there were monsters with abilities that had nothing to do with overlay units at all.

I think I’ll end things there today. There are still things about Xyz summoning, but that needs to be said in a greater context, with my thoughts on the other summoning types, and the other mechanics of the game. In particular, I need to talk about the differences between an extra deck made out of physical cards, and cards simply popping into existence when specific conditions are met.

P.S. ‘Xyz’ is a ridiculous word. Did whoever named the mechanic only have five seconds?

Notes on a Digital Yu-gi-oh! Clone

Years ago, I heard about an online MtG clone, which had a selling point about allowing certain cards, under certain conditions, to become other cards.  I don’t mean that the rules of the game allowed the player to play certain types of cards, I mean that the program used the fact that the cards weren’t physical objects to let them change permanently, in a match, outside of a match, or even when they aren’t part of a deck.  Ever since, I have thought such a system, that allows the simulation of cards physically transforming, would work very well for a Yu-gi-oh! clone.

The thing you have to realize about YGO is that it came out of a comic book.  A comic book written by someone with much more experience with tabletop RPGs than trading card games.  And the author, in the early days, didn’t really consider whether what he was making the characters do would actually work in a card game (ie, having a monster attack a spell card that its player controlled).

When Konami decided to create a real card game out of the various events in the comic book, not every mechanic made it in.  One mechanic that did make it in, however, was fusion.  While the source material kind of implied that fusion could be done using any monsters, with the game creating whatever comes out of the fusion somehow, this was clearly too vague for a real game.  The solution that the designers came up with was one of the most ingenious mechanics in the game – the extra deck.

Fusion summoning works as follows: the player uses a spell to fusion summon a monster.  The player then discards monsters from their hand or playing field, that are listed on the fusion monster card, and then takes the fusion monster from the extra deck and puts it in play.  I feel that I should note that the extra deck was originally called the fusion deck, because it only held fusion monsters, but the company has been introducing new extra deck monster since 2008, and they’ve pretty much taken up the entire game.

A quirk of this system is that extra deck monsters that manage to get into the graveyard cannot be summoned.  I’m given to understand that this causes memory issues in the physical game, with people sometimes forgetting if a card in the grave was properly summoned or not.  It’s almost as if the cards don’t even properly exist.

This is where I got my idea of a completely digital game heavily inspired by Yu-gi-oh!  A game where players can bring cards into existence as the game goes on.  I have other ideas besides that, but I think that can wait for another day.