Mechanics of a Collectable Card Game

by kaminazo

For the last few months, I have been absolutely engrossed in a new iOS app game called Star Trek Rivals. Pending the release of the new movie here in Japan, this my way of satisfying my need for Star Trek while I patiently wait the release of Into Darkness.

Edit: Saw the new movie and it’s amazing. I can’t wait for new game content to be released!

Star Trek Rivals is a very basic play-by-play iOS app. Players take turns like chess, sending each other game moves which they can respond to at their own leisure. This seems to be a very popular style of app game because of the turn by turn freedom it allows the user. Mobile gamers don’t necessarily have hours to devote to play in a single sitting.

EDIT: I originally branded this as a Game Center app, but for some reason the creators cannot sync STRivals through GameCenter to allow leaderboards and friend matches. Instead basic versions of these features are available in-game. As of now they have no plans of integrating the app with Game Center.

I was lucky enough to start playing this game and become involved with the STRivals community in its infancy. This gave me some inside knowledge and clout as the game progressed through updates and the designers reached out to the community for suggestions.

Cards in STRivals are arbitrarily branded (according to lead designer Thomas Kastner) with an object or character from the J.J.Abrams reboot of the original Star Trek series starting with the movie in 2009. Each card is given a rank and four numbers attached each of the cardinal directions of its face. Based on the strength of the numbers, the rank is higher. There are four ranks: tin, bronze, silver, and gold. Each card then has an upgraded, or Elite, counterpart with stronger numbers and two bars below its rank.

The game is very similar to a mini game from Final Fantasy VIII called Triple Triad, a fact that was tossed around during the first week on the community pages. Whether that’s merely a coincidence, or if the game design was appropriated, has not been revealed. As for this game, each player is given five cards at random from their “card deck.” The card deck is less of a deck and more of a collection. The player who initiated the game goes first by placing a card on a grid of nine spots. This is where the first game mechanic comes into play: a “random” five-card hand. According to one designer, it is actually an algorithm that chooses cards based on your opponent’s “strength” to try and match your cards to one another. That way neither player has a clear advantage. Though, the effectiveness of this algorithm is the subject of much debate, as the pool does seem completely random and unfair at times.

EDIT: It has been confirmed that no such algorithm exists, and all random hands are just that—completely random. (Kastner)

Players take turns placing cards around one another on the 3×3 grid. If the numbers that touch one another are higher value, then they change from red to blue. Your score is tallied according to the number of blue cards on the board, plus the number of cards in your hand. The player lucky enough to go first is also the person to play last. This brings in the second game mechanic: evening the board. Since there are only nine spaces on the board, yet each player has a hand of five cards, the person who goes second does not get to play their last card. So to make it “fair” the remaining card is always awarded one point. So even if the board is completely red when the last card is played, the score will still be 1-9.

The reason STRivals is so addicting is because the game is so simple. It takes very little time to play a game, but a very long time to master and complete your card collection. There are many strategies you can use to outwit your opponent, but even the best strategies are limited by your knowledge of all the 172 cards and how well you can place your randomly chosen hand in only five plays against your opponent’s. Of course the game has paid “cheats” a player can buy that allow them a better chance of winning. There are also various techniques players have used to maximize their winning potential.

As you win matches and level up, you earn rewards in the form of credits (red) and Latinum (yellow). Each match yields a maximum of 300 credits and a minimum of 150. (You get more by playing with Facebook friends or people added with a friend code.) Each level increase earns you 2 Latinum at the lower levels all the way up to 12 at higher levels. Possibly higher than 12, though I have not achieved levels that high yet. Credits can be spent on new cards (blue) in the form of packs. A Cadet pack gives you 5 cards at a cost of 1,000 credits with a chance for one “powerful” card. An Ensign pack yields 10 cards at a cost of 2,500 credits with a chance for two “powerful” cards. The algorithm used to generate random cards in these packs is still under question for the percentage of gold and silver cards vs. cost. Community estimates put it somewhere around a 1.5% chance to get S/G cards for ensign packs and 1% for cadet packs.

EDIT: In more recent updates of the game, the percent chance for randomly generated “powerful” cards in packs has been decreased. The percentages have been skewed to less than 1% for both Ensign and Cadet Packs and the exact figures are still unknown. (Results from 1,000 card pool from Cadet and Ensign Packs.)

For Latinum, however, players can buy much more. Both credits and Latinum can be purchased with micro transactions for increasing dollar amounts. Each card in the game has a cost in Latinum. This quickly gave rise to so called “money decks” where people simply buy only the most powerful cards and subsequently “rare smash” their opponents lower numbered cards. Latinum can also be used to buy card packs with an increased chance for powerful cards. But since the percent chance is still unknown, some players are disappointed when they spend 200 Latinum on an Admiral pack (the most expensive one in the game) and are given no gold cards (STRivals Community Facebook member testimony). The final thing Latinum can be used for is to literally cheat during the game. A player can spend 5 Latinum at the beginning of every hand to throw back the five randomly chosen cards from their hand and choose five, themselves. These would likely just be the five most powerful cards available. They can also, at any time during the game, spend 5 Latinum to look at the cards in their opponent’s hand or swap unwanted cards from their hand.

Balancing the ethics of fair gaming and profitability is becoming increasingly difficult because of game elements like micro transactions. Especially in cases where the game is strictly player vs. player. There are a few things Elephant Mouse has done to offset these questionably unethical mechanics to offer the average player a chance of attaining better cards faster, while still making money on their product.

EDIT: There are many additional perks and special events that have been implemented to cater to players in the latest updates.

The first is a “sale of the day” card. Every 24 hours a new random card goes 60% off in the STRivals store. This is a great way for players to use their level rewards to purchase silver and gold cards. The second way is by making card packs available for purchase with credits. Even though the chances are low, I have pulled some very good gold and silver cards from both cadet and ensign packs. The third is promotional codes. Randomly given out for acts of kindness or enthusiastic fandom, the Star Trek Rivals community on Facebook and Twitter has awarded several of these. I was awarded a promotional code worth 50 Latinum for making a fake card of the day series on the Facebook page.

In the update version 1.2, two more perks were added. If you log into the game once every 24 hours, you are given a free card. You can opt out of that card for a chance at a more powerful card the next day until it maxes out. But, if you fail to log in within 24 hours, it resets. Also, now every time you level up, in addition to Latinum, you are given a chance to purchase a random card at 75% off its normal price. This is a massive discount that can fortify even the lowest level players to compete with the money decks. This is great for lower-level players, but bad for veteran players. Now the noobs can power-creep up much faster and achieve amazing collections 20-30 levels sooner. Each level-up discount card is predetermined, so if you were already level 50 when that mechanic was implemented, you just missed out on 50 amazing cards. The worst of which is level 38: Red Matter (the most rare card in the game). I was level 54 when the level-up reward card was implemented. I’m level 82 now and still have yet to get a crack at Red Matter. But many of my 40-something level friends have at least one.

One inevitable trend that has evolved with the increasing popularity of STRivals is a phenomenon called “tin-tossing.” The lowest card ranks are tin and bronze. Your card deck is comprised of all the cards you have collected, which normally includes a higher frequency of tins and bronzes. You can, however, sell any card in your collection for credits or upgrade them to an elite version if you have several copies of the same card. Since the random five card hand is chosen from this collection, the higher frequency of golds and silvers you have, the better the chances that you will draw them. Power players maximize their deck’s rare-smashing capacity by selling, or “tossing,” all their tin and bronze cards, only keeping the rares.

Normally, this would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is a very logical way to win. But the problem is that STRivals is branded as a Collectable card game. Yet, there are no perks for maintaining a collection. No benefits. No reason other than to see a higher number in the collection stats: ?/172. So then the designers are communicating to the players that these cards are worthless to us, especially at higher levels. The tins and bronzes make up over half of the entire card pool: 106 out of the 172 cards. So it is a bit disheartening to be forced to discard them in order to progress. As an avid fan of Collectable card games like Magic: the Gathering, I’m waiting for the designers to even the playing field and actually make the game Collectable by adding incentives.

So far the community seems split between the tin-tossers and the collectors: the TT’s becoming synonymous with the money deck players and the collectors being left behind with the noobs. The divide is still very much extant now that the community has expanded and people have had time to level up naturally. A split community has evolved for the tin-tossers and the collectors, the money-players and the noobs. And the only time the two meet up are during friend-code Fridays (when players publish their game ID’s) or in Radom Rival modes. Otherwise, there’s not much point for the two groups to play one another, unless they are feeling rather sadistic or masochistic, or farming for credits.

The STRivals community moderators have consistently asked for feedback and suggestions on the game mechanics, which is amazing practice for junior designers like myself. So far, the designers have implemented several community suggested improvements to the game that have become a reality in one of the many previous updates. The best example being the addition of a Warp-Speed Game mode in the Random Rivals menu. In this game mode, the time-out clock on active games has been reduced to only 1 hour. There was adequate and long-lasting community outcry to reduce the game timeout clock for random games. Originally, the game clock was set at 7 days. This resulted in many of a player’s collected cards being stranded in games with an inactive or delinquent player. So they reduced it to 36 hours. Yet, cards were still stranded in games. (The player is unable to start any new matches if their card deck is reduced to below 5, and unable to reuse the same cards in multiple games.) A Facebook Community member suggested the new game mode with reduced rewards called Warp-Speed that would let players keep many active games going and keep their collection fresh. Later, they also removed the upgrade ban on cards that were stuck in games. (You still can’t sell a card that is in an active game.)

Another feature added by popular suggestion was an in-game chat function. Because of some annoying game mechanics, this chat function seemed necessary to many players. The first of these annoyances was the Rematch button. Since the game is turn-based, the player who played first also plays last (a huge advantage over the other player) and thus sees the victory screen first. They then get to decide whether to rematch, regardless of whether they won or lost. The player who rematches first is also the player who plays first on the next game. This means that a power-player can latch onto a noob and rare-smash them repeatedly, always playing first and last and rematching. Rinse, Repeat. There is no function to deny a match request, so the weaker player is forced to try and ignore the active game (which is really difficult because of the yellow rematch button and lack of knowing if an active game is a new match request), let it time out, or suffer through games with a sadistic opponent and always lose. Most instances of this cycle were less antagonistic. Some high-level players are merely seeking to maximize their credit and experience-farming techniques and have a constant flow of active games. The weak players were getting swept up in this practice. Now with the in-game chat function, a player can just request them to not rematch.

I have been on both sides of this coin. Sometimes requesting the player to stop rematching, other times being told to quit rematching them. Now it’s nice to know. It’s also a great way to chat about the game, the movies, the tv show, and trade friend codes with like players you come across in random matches. Originally the game functioned largely on a US-time zone community, as well. So it was difficult to find active players during my peak gaming hours in Japan. It was also frustrating for the US players because I was asleep when they were active. Now when I find a player with my same hours of operation, I can send them a message and add them.

By far my favorite improvement, however, is the Game Mission. Now players can complete goals in order to earn a free Admiral Pack. My hope is that the list of goals will be altered, or that further missions will be added in the future. But this is the closest thing to collection perks (my request to the designers) I’ve seen thus far. By recruiting 5 friends, seeing them level-up 20 times, attaining a flawless 9-1 victory, upgrading a standard card to elite, and so on, a player can have a chance at the most powerful card pack in the game. I have since opened my free pack, which contained two gold cards and two silver cards. Unfortunately, I had to re-complete all the goals since I had already done them before that game element was added. None of the added game perks have been “grandfathered” in for old players thus far. But it was a nice boost to my card deck.

Perhaps now that the second Star Trek movie has been released in all regions (I just saw it in Japan) Elephant Mouse can add more cards to the collection. I requested that they wait until it had been released here so as not to spoil it for the non-US Residents.

Star Trek Rivals is very addictive game from a relatively small game company that has captured the hearts of Star Trek fans. It has also been an interesting experience to witness its evolution from update to update. The amount of game improvements and updates from the original format and mechanics of the game has been staggering. I couldn’t imagine going back to the way the game was in its infancy. There are still many aspects that could use some improvement, however. In future updates I would like to see more cards. Perhaps even another tab above Standard and Elite in the Card Deck. I’d call this new ranked set of cards Prime and include some of the people and ships from the new movie: like Gun Slinger Khan, Emotionally Compromised Spock, Starship Vengeance, the Cold Fusion Device, and the Secret Weapon Missiles.

I’d also like to see a Deny Rematch button on new active games, or for the rematch option to be removed from the victory screen. This way, only the losing player can decide to rematch and each player gets equal opportunity to play first. The downside is that it will remove a happy glitch where two active games are possible with the same friend at the same time if both players hit rematch.

One further mechanic that would keep me playing are collection rewards. Perhaps a Side Mission checklist that rewards players with a unique card upon completion. The side mission goals would be things like: collect 1 copy of each tin, collect 3 copies of each tin, upgrade a complete row of tins to elite, collect one copy of all tins and bronze, etc. For each side mission completed, you unlock a unique card in your collection. But if at any time you sell down below the required amount, you fail that mission and lose the unique card. These unique cards could be extremely powerful, or just aesthetically pleasing. Cards without weaknesses on one side would also be adequate. I imagine unlocking a card once I’ve collected all the standard tins that has 6’s on all sides and a reflective foil or animated image of something like Khan’s secret base on Chronos. Although it would be difficult to offer enough incentive to collect and keep 4-16 low value cards in order to unlock only one powerful card. There would need to be more balance added. Perhaps being able to “turn off” cards you don’t want in your deck once you have completed the set.

I would also like to see the level cap removed. I am quickly approaching it and a player just recently reached level 99 for the first time. I have bought latinum several times on my account, and I’m sure I will not have completed the entire collection of elite golds by that point, so it would be nice to have some incentive to continue past 99. Perhaps to Ambassador Rank? Or at 100 you could defect from the Federation and rise up the ranks of some other faction…? I would like more opportunities to get the standard and elite gold cards. Even a new higher rank of cards in these sets with a purple dilithium medal could extend the life and replay value of this game for veteran players and reduce power-creep if they are only unlock-able past level 99 (and not available in daily deals and card packs at lower levels).

Past that, it seems necessary to regulate regular rival play (non-friend) by their level rank and card collection strength. Once you reach a certain level (40-50), and are able to balance your tin/bronze to silver/gold card ratios to about 50/50, it is unreasonable to challenge a weak player of only level 1-20. The chances of winning at the lower levels are about 1/100, and the chances of tying are only about 1/50 against a player who is 40-50 levels higher. I suggest pairing up random matches by level so that you can never randomly be matched against someone more than 10 levels above or below yours. This way, the most formidable opponent a level 1 player could be paired against would be level 10. And at level 99, the weakest player they could challenge would be 89. This only applies to random rivals, of course, and friend matches would be open to any level.

The final thing I’d like to see is a way to trade cards with my wife. I have three copies of gold Nero, the last card she needs to complete her standard set. I would love to trade her one for a copy of two silvers I need to upgrade. I have been waiting on my last copy of the Jellyfish and the Mayflower to upgrade them to elite. I know this mechanic would be ripe for exploitation, but it would be a nice feature especially if more cards are added in the future. Perhaps it is only a perk that could be earned past level 50, and each player is only allowed one trade per level. Or something like that.

We’ll wait and see what Elephant Mouse comes up with next. I have really enjoyed the daily deals and prizes they have offered for people’s birthdays, like Chris Pine and Gene Roddenberry. I’m glad to see that they are sensitive to and supportive of the Star Trek community at large, and try to accommodate fans of the show and the game with added features and support. I’m now at level 86 in the game and can’t wait to see where the game goes from here. Game hard and prosper.