What is a game?
I evolved with GOT CG, that is, my understanding of games did, even though I've been trying to create a game since I was about 12 years old.
"What is the most important thing in a game?" is a question that every game designer must ask himself, the question that I didn't know for many years.
How many of you would say "the fun"? Most. But that's like putting the effect before the cause, because the next question is "what makes a game fun?"
Each game design has advantages and disadvantages, but the game designer must find the optimum balance of all the important features of a game.
Physical coordination or logic?
There are two main psychological profiles of players: physical coordination and logic.
Board and card games can only use logic and a theme, and have therefore a limited pool of potential players.
However, computer games and sports, can and do make use of physical coordination, which is far more spread among players, since it's simpler, requires less mental effort and acts as a relief for the mental effort that is exerted by the players in their life.
The absolutely most important feature of a game is the interaction among the players. Simply put, there is no game without human interaction (you need at least one person to interact with the game). People are social beings and they like to communicate and participate to common actions. That's what people perceive as being fun.
There are many delicate details which can make or break a game, but the rules of a game must result as a consequence of this crucial feature.
A game designer must first decide how the players will interact. The more dynamic this interaction is, the more fun the players will have.
For instance, if the players were to merely recreate a story, there would be basically no interaction. That would be boring because virtually nothing would make things new and surprising.
The second most important feature of a game is the variety of its mechanics.
There are 3 types of possible card (and board) game systems: combat, cost / resource management, and story telling.
The mechanics of a game mainly depend of what type of game it is. Of course, games in general combine several types in different proportions, but one of them is predominant.
A game's mechanics determine the quality of the interaction among the players. They don't have to be many, but those which are must allow the players to interact strongly.
Game mechanics have to be varied in order to avoid the repetition of actions, which in turn would lead to boredom.
For example, while cost / resource management is a mechanics, it's only one mechanics, so having multiple cost / resource management (that is, without other mechanics) would make actions repetitive and quickly lead to boring games.
The players want to feel attached to the game, to its components.
A player may feel especially attached to a card either because of its design (= graphics and lore) or because its game value fits his / her playing style.
A player may also feel especially attached to a character because he / she wants to be like the character.
So, whatever else you do, try to create ways for the players to get attached to (parts of) the game: components, graphics, characters, lore, story.
Player evolution and costs
While playing a game, a player needs to feel that he / she is evolving, that he / she isn't stuck on the same level of experience as he / she was when the game started.
Integrating evolution in board and card games leads to very complex designs. But a game can't be too complex because the players would then have to do too many calculations which would turn the fun into exhaustion. However, eliminating from complexity leads to games which are too simple.
In general, games try to substitute evolution with a system of costs management, where various types of costs have to be paid for various actions. This works but it may limit a game to accounting and may also lead to too many calculations.
In the case of an evolution system, when a player's skills evolve during a game it means that they are interdependent, which in turn means that if the player can't achieve a certain basic skill, he / she may become unable to evolve and loses the game.
This linearity also means that the players may end up playing the same flow again and again.
Player adaptation versus evolution
Player adaptation means that the player is forced to react to random events (which happen in some games), like card drawing, and to the gameplay of the rival(s).
Adaptation to the gameplay of the rival(s) is occurring in all games, competitive or cooperative, so it's not something that a game designer can game (much).
However, adaptation to random events is very important because it provides a great tool to design an ever changing game, that is, is helps design a game which can be played many times wholeheartedly.
While evolution, where the player evolves from a limited set of abilities toward the full set of abilities that the game can offer, can lead to either a linear gameplay or to one which is too complex to be fun, adaptation can provide the player with variety without appearing linear.
On the downside, adaptation limits a player's ability to create a game-long strategy because the random events continuously conflict with and change the strategy.
GOT CG, for example, uses card drawing, scenarios and abilities to force the players to adapt to ever changing situations and various modes of play.
Competition and teams
Another important feature is the interaction either in the form of competition or team play (when people like to cooperate in order to achieve a goal).
Simplicity of rules
Another important feature is the simplicity of rules. Read this carefully, it's not the simplicity of the interaction, but that of the rules which determine the interaction.
In fact, simple rules should determine a complex interaction, that is, prepare the stage for potentially complex interaction. The rules should be as generic as possible and allow the players to interact even outside the boundaries of the game.
Even if sometimes the game rules may seem a bit artificial, if the important features are part of the game, the players will have a lot of fun.