I’ve found that I like to torture players a bit in my design work. There’s something very compelling about putting them in difficult positions where they have to struggle to make the best of a bad situation. It can sometimes push people away, but if handled properly it can create intense gameplay that players become very invested in. However, there are some buttons that just shouldn't be pushed, and I’ll cover some of them in this article. I’m writing this from the perspective of a card designer, but I’m sure that this information can be applied to other genres as well.
There are some things that players simply do not want to do, and losing is chief among them. While you can make certain cards more compelling by giving them drawbacks in exchange for increased effectiveness, you have to be careful not to push things too far. Automatic losing is a particularly dangerous area that, in most instances, should be avoided. For example:
Heartlink Demon (5 mana)
When Heartlink Demon dies, you lose the game.
Heartlink Demon is a pretty aggressively-costed creature, offering eight power and health for just five mana, but it comes with the drawback of making you lose the game when it dies. The problem here is that most creatures die at some point – some sooner than others. If your opponent has a “destroy target creature” effect, all they have to do is destroy your Heartlink Demon and they instantly win the game.
So, what is the result of this? Well, people likely won't want to use this Heartlink Demon card. The drawback is just too severe to justify its use. So, the designer who is dead-set on making this card work might make it stronger:
Heartlink Demon (6 mana)
Whenever Heartlink Demon attacks, destroy target creature.
When Heartlink Demon dies, you lose the game.
Now it’s got eleven power and health and destroys creatures when it attacks. That’s pretty good, and there’s even some aesthetic cohesion with both of its abilities relating to instant death. If this card exists alongside cards that can protect your creatures, Heartlink Demon might be a good choice. The problem? It might be too good of a choice now, making it very binary: either you play this card and win the game, or your opponent kills the demon and wins the game. This 0-to-60 style of gameplay is undesirable because it can cut match length down and make the game dependent on randomness, as the winner is decided by who draws the Heartlink Demon or a card that can kill the Heartlink Demon first.
Even if you did make a balanced “you lose” card, simply putting that text on the card can turn players away from it. Players don’t like to lose, so “you lose the game” is pretty much player kryptonite.
Choose and Perish
In card games, there’s something that’s sometimes called a “punisher” mechanic. A punisher mechanic is one that presents your opponent with two bad choices. For example:
Pick Your Poison (3 mana)
Target opponent loses 6 life unless they discard two cards.
At first, this seems somewhat aggressively costed – six life or two cards for three mana is pretty good. However, there are two problems here that lead to punisher mechanics being unenjoyable for both players. For your opponent, they’re given the undesirable task of choosing how to hurt themselves. It’s one thing for your opponent to harm you (they’re your opponent after all), but it’s a whole other level of “screw this” to be forced to hurt yourself.
For you, this mechanic feels bad because you’re not in control of its effect. As a result, your opponent is just going to pick whichever option hurts them the least. With my Pick Your Poison example, if the opponent has a lot of life they’ll choose the life loss, and if they’re low on life they’ll choose the discard. The idea here is to put your opponent in a position where both options are equally bad, but that’s simply impossible – one option will always hurt less. Punisher mechanics are meant to be lose-lose for your opponent, but they’re really lose-lose for everyone.
Fool Me Once…
We may often assume as designers that players see things the way we do. We assume that certain strategies or interactions are obvious to everyone because they’re obvious to us. This can be especially prevalent in card design, because the rules of the card are written out right there on the card! If you can read you can play, right? Well, it turns out that even a simple task like reading the card’s text can cause confusion if designers do a poor job of communicating. Here’s a final example:
King Midas (5 mana)
1 Mana: Put a gold counter on another creature.
3 Mana: Destroy target creature with a statue counter on them.
At first glance, this seems like a simple card. You put gold counters on creatures, and then you destroy creatures with gold counters on them. It’s King Midas – it’s kind of his thing. Except that’s not how this card works at all – King Midas can put gold counters on creatures, but he can only destroy creatures with statue counters on them. Players may skip over that one word because their alternate interpretation seems more natural and logical. This is a scenario where the designer has failed to properly communicate the function of the card, thus inevitably resulting in many games where players make mistakes because the card doesn’t work the way they thought it did.
I know that this can be a topic where a designer puts their foot down and says “Look – they just need to read. It’s not my fault if they can’t even do that!” However, this is very much the designer’s fault. The card contains poor design decisions (interacting with multiple counter types, interacting with a counter that the card can’t create) and uses wording that is very easy to misinterpret. You haven’t successfully communicated with someone simply because you’ve delivered your message – successful communication only occurs when the audience understands your message. If people don’t understand your message, it’s your responsibility to change it.
What Rules Are Meant For
As always, there are situations where the things I just told you not to do can be done. For example, it is absolutely possible to create cards that utilize a “you lose the game” drawback. The text alone is the kind of thing that makes you recline a bit in your chair and say “…Woah,” so for every person who immediately dismisses it there may be another who accepts the challenge of trying to make the card work, turning it from "I don't want to lose" to "I want to avoid losing." However, it’s still the kind of mechanic that should be used very infrequently and very, very carefully.
Farewell for Now
I could go on and on about this topic…so I will! My next article will tackle this same topic from the perspective of art, writing, and flavor. But for now, I hope that this article has been of use. Remember – games are ultimately meant to be fun. While you shouldn’t don the uniform of the Fun Police and start making declarations about which forms of fun are acceptable, you should also recognize that certain mechanics and designs just aren’t enjoyable and that players are more likely to quit than to put up with stuff that they don't like. As our favorite President of Nintendo of America says: If it’s not fun, why bother?