So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Magic: The Gathering started it all.
Ever heard of Magic: The GatheringPokémon?  These are “rabbit hole” games, otherwise known as collectable card games or CCGs.  These are the greatest cause of grocery store checkout disputes since the invention of bubble gum.  Many of you experienced parents have an idea of what these are.  Some younger parents will soon find out, if you didn’t already play them as a youngster.  Once you enter the rabbit hole, there is a lot of game space to be explored.  It comes at a price though.

What exactly are CCGs?  How do I avoid them?  Can I avoid them?  Do I want to avoid them?  I know we have had these questions as our boy has grown, and we seemed to hit on a solution that kept him happy an let us keep our house.  Let me clear things up a bit.

Magic: The Gathering is the first and most commercially successful of all of the CCGs.  It was first published in 1993 and quickly became a huge hit.  When first published, it was a completely new concept in game design.  Following right on the heels of the bad press surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, it rapidly came under scrutiny due to the title and theme.  Parents wondered exactly what arcane things were really going on during those late night sessions.  Little did they know that the game play isn’t the issue; the business model is the real danger.

Getting started in a CCG is easy.  Nearly all CCGs sell “starter decks” which contain enough cards to begin play.  The cards typically consist of characters, locations and powers or weapons which all work together towards combat prowess.  Typically two players face off with their decks of cards and play through various combinations in order to win the game by defeating the other player.  Starter decks are built equally, so getting started is easy.

The genius behind the business model lies in making the decks more powerful.  After their starter deck, players can buy booster packs of cards that can be exchanged with other cards in their deck.  Customizing  the deck this way makes it more powerful through the cards or through the interaction of the various combinations of cards.  To play competitively, players need to purchase better cards.  There are several levels of cards: common, uncommon, rare and “mythic rare” (number of levels and terms may vary: these are specifically Magic terms).  Cards get more powerful as their rarity increases.  The “gotcha” is that the booster packs are random assortments, so players may need to buy many packs to find specific cards.  Cards are always being retired from official play even while new cards enter stores, creating an endless cycle.  Now we are fully inside the rabbit hole!

Because it appeals to all ages, Magic maintains its success nearly 20 years later, largely through tournaments held from local to national levels.  These tournaments are key to the success of any CCG, since they drive the competitive spirit of the game.  Even in tournaments with prescribed decks provided by the tournament, players want to be aware of the combinations that might be possible. This leads them to buy their own cards.  Magic tournaments are common in any city, and there is even a professional circuit now.

Before you decide to just nix this whole idea for your child, I must say that there are some benefits.  Some of them are common to many games, but one benefit in particular is unique to this style of game.  Simply put, CCGs are an activity as well as a game.  I have seen children sitting and discussing the various merits of various cards (providing social interaction) and trading each other for needed cards (developing negotiation skills) while customizing their individual decks.  Furthermore, customizing and re-customizing decks can occupy a child for a fair amount of time, which is sometimes critical as a parent!

In that case, how does a parent handle this while keeping their child from spending too much?  I can give two approaches that have worked for us as well as others, and I am sure there are other approaches that will keep the expenses down.

Some games just never catch on
The key to both of these methods lies in this: without tournament play, CCGs are doomed to failure.  The gaming landscape is littered with failed CCGs, even those covering popular themes: Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to name a few.  (Note that there are several CCGs for every theme: it’s important to pay attention to the exact title.)  The first approach is therefore to allow your child to pick one CCG, and only support it on a schedule.  Our son picked Chaotic, since he loved the cartoon, and we had specifically ruled out Pokémon.  (None of the kids were playing Magic .)  Chaotic never caught on, and the danger was avoided for a couple years while it died out.  The one booster pack a month we promised to support, at a few dollars each, did not crippled us.  Soon, the cards were no longer available, though he kept looking.  If a child’s game does catch on, don’t let them enter any tournaments until they can support the habit; most tournaments have an age limit anyway. 

Another alternative, which works particularly well for Magic and Pokémon, is to buy outdated cards in large lots on eBay or in a local game store.  The tournament model also means that there are a lot of cards, particularly for Magic, that have either fallen out of favor or are specifically excluded from tournament play.  Failed games can also be found this way as well as at thrift stores.  I have two games found this way:  Star Wars CCG and Star Wars: The Trading Card Game.  (A trading card game is the same concept, but the term is often used to produce another game with the same theme.)  The former has a good reputation, but I have found that customizing decks is something I don’t have time to do, so neither game has ever been played.

Wings of War may do me in!
Of course, I have found my rabbit hole anyway.  (And I am not talking about the elephant-sized hole that is buying games in general!)  Another type of collectable game involves miniatures, and I am slowly starting to buy aircraft for Wings of War (aka Wings of Glory).  The good news is that there are fewer miniatures to collect due to the production costs.  The bad news is that they are more expensive.

Carrot, anyone?

It’s Your Move!

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