The craziness of the digital collectible card game genre

The Victory screen from Lords of Runeterra

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on a bit of a journey trying different digital collectible card games. This started with my interest in the Pokemon: Trading Card Game (you can read my blog last week about it here) and that got me into playing some Hearthstone, Legends of Runeterra, and a few others. While there are tons of these kinds of games on Mobile and PC, the genre seems almost non-existent on consoles. Was it only because of the monetary investments often required for these games or is the genre just not popular enough?

Your Action overlayed on the Legends of Runeterra board

What is and isn’t a digital collectible card game?

So before going any further, the biggest hurdle I faced when looking at the genre was what exactly constituted a Collectible Card Game (CCG)? Depending on where you looked, the answer could vary greatly.

When I began digging, I was focusing my attention on games like Pokemon: Trading Card Game and Hearthstone. These are games where you collect cards, create decks around them, and then use those cards against your opponent in the hopes of getting the better of them. There is no real secondary gameplay hook. The focus is on the cards and improving your deck by opening packs, crafting them, and/or getting new ones through rewards (like winning battles).

What I discovered, just about anything that has cards as a gameplay hook is considered a “card” game. So while you wouldn’t question that Hearthstone is a CCG, there were many other card games that may surprise you.

The Card Game Category storefront of the Steam Storefront

It also doesn’t help that on mobile and pc, the term ‘collectible card game’ or even ‘digital collectible card game’ isn’t used. When I started searching through the Google Play Store, they categorize these games as either “Card”, “Collectible”, or both. Meanwhile, iOS puts them all into the “Card” category.

When games fit multiple genres

It’s a bit better on Steam, in the fact that they have many more categories. There, they categorize these kinds of games as “Card”, “Card Battler”, “Deckbuilding”, or “Trading Card Game”. It helps that Steam allows for so much more ‘tagging’ of games. This way, you can be a bit more specific with your search. I began by searching for their card game Artifact, which leads me down a path of many more CCGs available through the platform.

Oddly enough, the Epic Game Store does use the term “Card Game” and has 11 games there, including Magic The Gathering Arena, Fights in Tight Spaces, and Solitairica.

Gameplay inside a van from the game Fights in Tight Spaces

This is where I really started to grasp the fact that any game that includes some sort of card-playing element to it was considered a ‘card game’. I am really enjoying Fights in Tight Spaces but the card elements don’t play the same way as in Hearthstone or Pokemon: TCG. Instead, it’s a roguelike with strategy elements where you play cards to issue commands for your character.

No real love on Consoles

While there are plenty of games that fall into the different CCG categories on mobile and pc, it was very hard to find these games on consoles.

On Xbox, they have a “Card & Board” category in the store but it’s pretty light with content. There are around 50 games in this category with a good chunk of them being digital boardgames like Uno, Monopoly, and Scrabble.

As for Sony, their search functionality is awful. When using the PS Store on PS5, there is nothing in the Genre sorting section for “Card Games”. The genre does exist as I found the game Yu-Gi-Oh! Legacy of the Duelist, a PS4 game that is listed as a “Card Game”. But after that, I couldn’t find anything else other than Gwent, a game that is no longer playable there.

The beginning of a boss battle in Slay The Spire

On Steam, the game Slay The Spire is listed with the “Card Battler” and “Card Game” tags, and it’s also a game that’s available on all consoles. Oddly though, only on Xbox does it fit in the “Card & Board” category. On PlayStation, they list it as a “Turn-Based Strategy” game. Meanwhile, on the Nintendo Switch, it falls under the “Strategy/RPG/Adventure” Genres.

It’s no better on Nintendo

Yes, the PlayStation Store is bad when categorizing these kinds of games, it’s no better on the Nintendo Switch. I already pointed out that Slay the Spire is considered a Strategy game. Meanwhile another CCG, the previously mentioned Yu-Go-Oh! is labeled as a “Board Game”.

Unlike the Xbox storefront, the Switch’s “Board Game” category is littered with games. Unfortunately, the eShop is horrible with so many games. It often feels that games will try to get put into as many categories as possible, which just bloats the genres and makes it harder to find games you might want to play. I did manage to find a few deck-vs-deck games that would be similar to Hearthstone but that’s about it.

Gameplay from a boss battle in Monster Train

When word of mouth is so important

Considering the people I follow on social media and the video game podcasts I listen to, it’s rare for me to hear people talk about digital card games. I only heard about Legends of Runeterra last year because of the great review it was getting. It also helps that it’s a Riot game and part of the League of Legends family. Slay the Spire did get a bit of buzz but that was a few years ago. Monster Train is a lot of fun but I only learned about it while doing research for this blog.

Fights in Tight Spaces is currently in Early Access and has been getting some solid buzz. The only other game people are talking about is Loop Hero, which has deckbuilding elements. I didn’t get a chance to try it out yet, but it might be something I’d enjoy even if it doesn’t seem to fit the traditional CCG genre I was researching for.

It’s still crazy to see so many CCG-like games on PC and Mobile that are just not available on Consoles. While the roguelike ones I’ve mentioned previously are there, the traditional card collecting games aren’t.

It’s not like developers haven’t tried. CD Projekt Red released its popular Gwent CCG to consoles a few years ago, only to take it offline less than two years later. Magic: The Gathering, the most popular CCG in the world. used to release its Duels of the Planeswalker series on Xbox, but stopped doing that back in 2015.

The results of a draw opening in Soccer Spirits

Looking for games through Twitch

I jumped on Twitch to see if people are watching CCGs and the results surprised me. For starters, they put all card-based games into the “Card & Board Game” category. That also means they group both video games and real games together. Pokemon: TCG has two separate channels. The more popular one focuses on the real cards (pack openings), while the smaller one is the online version of the game. Then, there are games like Slay the Spire, which they label in Strategy, Simulation, and Indie Game categories. Another CCG, Soccer Spirits, has “Sports Game” and “Strategy” as their tags.

While Hearthstone gets pretty good viewership numbers but other CCGs didn’t fare that well. A quick look and you’ll see that Legends of Runeterra and Gwent: The Witcher Card Game are getting under 2.5K viewers. It really feels that if you’re considering streaming a game on Twitch, the “Card & Board Game” isn’t that competitive but that there isn’t a demand for these styles of games.

If there’s a company that can change this, it’s Nintendo

Again, my renewed interest in the genre came back after I started playing the Pokemon: Trading Card Game on the 3DS Virtual Console. I can’t be alone in thinking that Nintendo could very well bring this series back on the Nintendo Switch and seriously bring the CCG genre to the center stage.

The results of a booster pack opening from the Pokemon: Trading Card Online iPad version

At first, I thought the reason why Nintendo hasn’t brought the series back was because of the microtransactions that often hamper this genre. A lot of the pure CCGs rely heavily on players spending real money to buy packs so they can improve their decks.

It’s not as if Nintendo doesn’t have games that incorporate DLC/microtransaction content in one form or another. There are plenty of their games on Mobile that include the purchasing of content. Not to mention, there are multiple Pokemon games on mobile and Nintendo Switch that incorporate the free-to-play model.

I wish Nintendo would consider bringing the Pokemon: TCG to the Nintendo Switch. While they could simply port the current desktop/tablet version of the game, I would love it more if they took the Game Boy Color version and gave it a 2021 coat of paint. Give it a story mode but also offer a solid multiplayer experience. What if they also created a new series of real cards that unlock content in-game? I know I’d be clamoring to buy booster packs if they could help me in-game.

Early gameplay from Magic: The Gathering Arena

Even with its small scope, there is so much more to discover

During my short time with the genre, I’ve discovered a lot of cool stuff out there. From the standard deck-v-deck games like Pokemon: TCG and Hearthstone to the roguelike-card-strategy games like Fights in Tight Spaces and Monster Train. There are even a few card-based games that aren’t that easy to explain. I really want to dig into the genre more and I suspect this won’t be the last time I’m writing about it.