Game design

Quantitative versus qualitative design

last updated 2023-09-06

For most of my life, I hated card games because I hate randomness, and assumed that card games = randomness. I preferred card games with less randomness than most like Dominion, but was still frustrated by it (and invented a house rule to reduce the randomness in Dominion).

No, a little bit of randomness is not okay

But when I played Hellcard, I noticed something else that defines the genre - something much more interesting and which could theoretically be divorced from randomness.

Abilities in card games are more qualitative than quantitative. I'll start the comparison by looking at some non-card games.

A weapon in a shooter usually does a certain amount of damage. A powerup or matching damage types to enemy weaknesses might increase your damage by a certain fraction, like 50%, but everything can deal damage to everything. The same is true of units in RTS games: they often have artificial "counter" relationships, like spearmen dealing bonus damage to cavalry, but a lot of cavalry can overcome a few spearmen.

Halo is a shooter with a few counterexamples: the Plasma Pistol's charge shot deals infinite damage to shields (but low damage to health), and headshots with certain weapons deal infinite damage to health (but no bonus damage to shields). These aspects are designed qualitatively.

The real world is overwhelmingly quantitative. Water "counters" fire, but a small amount of water can't put out a big fire. Any object can be moved or any wall can be broken through, no matter how heavy or how strong, with enough force.

Abilities in Hellcard are designed more qualitatively. For example, there are many cards that inflict "freeze" status on an enemy (which stops its next attempt to move or attack), and these cards can freeze *any* enemy, even the final boss, just as easily as they can freeze a low-level enemy. There are other abilities like "stun" and "move an enemy out of range so they have to spend a turn getting back in range before they can attack", which work similarly.

In turn-based RPGs, status effect abilities like stun often exist, but powerful enemies are often immune to them.

Damage and blocking in Hellcard are quantitative - you and enemies have certain amounts of health, dealing a certain amount of damage subtracts that amount of health, and having a certain amount of block absorbs that much incoming damage. But there are cards that say "break a monster's block", and that can break *any* amount of block.

Card games usually have qualitative abilities. Magic: The Gathering and games inspired by it have effects like "destroy any creature" and "prevent a certain creature from attacking", which don't care how big the creature is.

While not consciously understanding the concept, for most of my life I've disliked qualitative designs for two reasons:

But Hellcard taught me not just to understand qualitative design but also to appreciate it. It leads to more of an emphasis on synergy and combos instead of brute force, and I think that helps make the game deeper. With smart deckbuilding in Hellcard, you can get individual cards to hit for dozens of damage (10 damage is normally a huge amount). You can stack a hundred block on a teammate... and then convert that block to damage. These things feel awesome and clever, and make it possible to turn seemingly massive opposition into roadkill with the right strategy. There are even ways to construct combos where you can keep drawing and playing cards *infinitely* in one turn! Though that last one feels lame rather than clever because it trivializes everything else about the game.


On the other hand, it creates unique challenges if you want to balance a game for multiple scales. If you want to make a game where damage numbers in the end-game are 100x what they were in the early-game, mechanics like qualitative stun probably won't work, because early-game abilities with those effects won't get obsoleted over time while damage-dealing abilities will.

This isn't a *big* problem in Hellcard because the stats don't scale up that much over the course of a run (more like 8x), and longer runs probably aren't a good idea for expanding the game anyway - they're already over an hour.

Also, when qualitative effects in Hellcard get upgraded, they usually don't upgrade the *amount* of the qualitative effect, they upgrade something else about it. For example, Rune of Ice deals 3 damage and freezes all monsters in a medium radius, but adds a bad card to your draw pile. It upgrades into a version that doesn't add the bad card to your draw pile. There's nothing in the game that freezes more than a medium radius without some serious limitation (like requiring a 3-step process to play, or only being playable twice per battle).

So, what I'm wondering is are there deterministic games where elements are designed qualitatively? I want to try some. I might design one.

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