Why David Sirlin’s Codex may be the world’s greatest tabletop game

pic2870176_lgFor those who don’t know, David Sirlin has been working on Codex for about 10 years. I got the privilege seeing the game in person back in 2011 at Practice, but it has come a long, long way since then. Last week I got the Starter Set in the mail as a Kickstarter reward, and since I read the rules and played my first few games, I’ve been really excited about it.

On its face, Codex appears to be basically another entry in the two-player competitive “CCG” genre, along with games like Magic: The Gathering, Hearthstone, or Prismata. Neither Codex nor Prismata are technically “collectible” in the way that MtG is, but the basic concept of drawing hands of cards (in most games; not Prismata), playing soldiers who fight each other, and dealing damage to each other’s base is sort of the “basis” for all of these games.

This will not be a formal “review”; I won’t be talking about the components or balance or giving a “rating”; instead, I’ll just be talking about the game design and why I think it is fundamentally far superior to any other game of its kind, and possibly, to any other tabletop game out there.

 

Rundown

You can read the rules for the game online here, but I’ll give a quick rundown for people who just want the basic gist.

It’s primarily a two-player game (there are 2v2 and FFA modes available as well). The objective is to reduce the health of your opponent’s base to zero (it starts at 20). For those who have played deckbuilder games such as Dominion or Sirlin’s own Puzzle Strike (in my view, the best deck-builder and one of the best games of all time), you’ll recognize the deck-building card drawing/re-shuffling mechanism here. You start with 10 cards, draw some each turn, and when the deck runs out you re-shuffle, all the while adding new cards to the discard pile which eventually shuffle back around and are drawn.

You play cards to the table, as in MtG or Hearthstone, and they have attack and defense values. They often have special rules on the cards which do a variety of things, from things like “haste” which allows the unity to attack the turn it’s played, to “stealth” which allows the unit to bypass the enemy’s defenses.

Speaking of defenses, there is a row of five slots called the Patrol Zone that you can play your cards to which designates the card as a “defender”. Read more about that here.

You build workers by discarding cards and placing them face down under your worker card, thereby “thin-decking” your deck.

You also have a “Codex”, a binder of all of the cards that you can use for this game. I’ll talk about this a bit more later, but basically think of it as like the bank of cards you can purchase from in Dominion. You add them to your discard pile (privately, face-down) and they eventually come back to your hand.

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Finally, there’s a “tiers” system – you have T1, T2, and T3 “tech” buildings that you have to build before you can play units of that tech level.

Oh, and you have a Hero – up to 3 Heroes out at once, each of whom has their own abilities.

Beyond that, the game actually plays out a lot like how you would expect in a CCG. There are a lot more details to the rules of course, and I recommend reading the rulebook or watching a video about it (here’s Tom Vasel’s run-down), but I’m going to dive into why I think this game is so great now.

 

Not a CCG

So why is Codex so good? Let’s get the big easy thing out of the way: Codex is not collectible! That actually requires some clarification, though. Codex is more like an “LCG”, like Dominion; you purchase boxed sets of known, non-random items (like the Red and Green factions, for instance).

On moral and competitive levels this is vastly superior to the typical CCG style concept. Morally, it’s better, because you’re not compelling people to spend unknown amounts of money literally having to gamble to get the “full game”. Competitively it’s vastly superior because it means players are playing on a level playing field. Game design issues aside, I think we can all agree that it’s purely a good thing if two players of equal skill have an equal chance to win the game. That’s the case in Codex – all of the factions are balanced against all of the other factions, and you never are playing with an “incomplete” deck.

The LCG model isn’t perfect. There is still a temptation with this model for the designer to continually pump out expansion after expansion, and eventually there could be a similar “insane amount of content” existing for the game which causes all kinds of problems, from becoming oppressively hard to learn, to just being impossible to balance. But with that said, it’s probably the best trade-off in terms of being a good commercial product and being a good game at the same time.

Another thing I despise about CCGs is the “customizability” component – basically, it’s my problems with pre-game asymmetry in games, but gone completely amok. Well, I’m happy to report that in Codex, the level of customizability is really tamped down. As far as I understand it (and correct me if I’m wrong here), you basically select three “characters” (a hero plus their Codex) at the start of each game. Like I said in my asymmetry article, that still isn’t ideal for me, but it is a massive, massive improvement from the kind of crap you have to do in something like Hearthstone.

 

A Good Information Horizon

It’s really perfect that Prismata came out before this, because Prismata, to me, represents a good step in the right direction for the genre, while falling short in one crucial aspect: it has no hidden information. As I talked about in Uncapped Look-Ahead and the Information Horizon, this means that the game is basically a raw calculation contest – who can look ahead more steps than the other guy. Further, entire trees of gameplay have already been mapped out for the game. In a sense, while it’s a great effort at improving on the MtG model, it’s too solvable.

Lunarch Studios’ answer to this is to put harsh timers on the game, forcing players to act really quickly. While this might have the appearance of working, the reality is that no matter how short the timer is, you still just need to out look-ahead the other guy in the time allotted.

Like I talked about in the article, for this reason, you don’t want games that have perfect information.

On the other hand, you also don’t want a situation like you have in Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, where highly random crap comes out at you, sometimes affecting you immediately, every single turn. (The children’s card game War, wherein players simply draw cards from a deck and compare who played the higher card, is useful to me as a demonstration of why this kind of stuff is a problem.) For a card game, Codex is insanely non-random!

Codex has, it seems to me, pretty much fallen within the “Goldilocks zone” of information horizons – not too much, and not too little. You know what the other player’s starting cards are, so what they could have in their hand is actually pretty predictable, especially early game. You know what tech level they are (tech buildings also cost 1 turn to finish building), so you know what they’re likely to have put in their deck from their Codex. Even after teching cards, it takes a turn or two for it to come through and come back around to their hand, and then, when they finally do play it, it has the classic “summoning sickness” (one of the few things I like about MtG).

How Codex cards are added to the player deck during the game.

How Codex cards are added to the player deck during the game.

Beyond the tech buildings, there are a number of other cues that players give each other in this game of what it is they might be teching – from how many workers they’re building, what they’re bringing out to the table, what they’re Patrolling with and in which spots, and even what they’re doing with their Hero.

So the only things that are hidden are “what the player has teched” (put into their discard pile from their Codex) and “what they drawn this turn” (which is like usually 3-5 cards out of a 10-15 card deck). It’s a pretty small amount of hidden information, but it might be just enough to stop the game from feeling like a big look-ahead contest.

 

Structure!

A friend of mine said that Codex feels like Sirlin took a few lessons from Eurogames and applied them to the MtG style game. While those games can feel kind of like, “draw cards, play them, and whoever’s cards deal more damage wins” (kind of like a slightly more complicated War), Codex has structure.

The first thing I noticed was how the tech tiers system automatically makes this far better than Magic and Hearthstone. In those games, you can draw some late game card to your hand on Turn 1. You’re literally drawing cards all game out of huge deck of all of your cards, so you could be getting anything. But since Codex has the “tiers” system, it creates some order to how these cards are going to be entering into the game. This not only means you have more cards that you actually can do something with each turn, but it also makes choosing what cards to tech a lot easier. Looking at the Codex binder can be intimidating until you realize that most of this stuff literally isn’t available to you for the first bunch of turns.

I can’t stress enough how important that first thing is, though. The thing that SUCKS so much about card games is how you’ll often have a hand of like 5-7 cards, and like 3-4 of those are things you definitely shouldn’t or literally can not play. This really contributes to a feeling of just “riding the randomness” in those games. Being able to play basically everything you ever draw is so, so good in comparison.

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Another “structural” thing is the Patrol Zone. This feels a lot like something out of a worker selection Eurogame or something. There are five slots that you can place a non-exhausted unit or hero into at the end of your turn. Units in those slots firstly all get the “taunt” buff (they have to be killed before anything else can be targeted). This alone means that you have to choose whether your units are attackers or defenders, which gives the actual “game play space” way more dimension than exists with other games.

On top of that though, each of the Patrol Zone’s slots gives you a different bonus. Some of them make your unit stronger in different ways. One allows you to draw a card when the unit is killed, one allows you to gain 1 gold when the unit is killed, and one forces the other player to pay 1 gold in order to target it with anything. These all are great uses of the play space to both function as a sort of worker placement thing while also meaning something in terms of the damage-volleying interactions.

Finally, I *love* how card drawing is done in this game. Here’s the rules: at the end of your turn, you discard the cards in your hand. Then, you draw that same number of cards again, plus two, at a maximum of 5. These rules have a lot of really great ramifications on the system. For one thing, it means that there is a meaningful card economy – spending a bunch of cards on one turn has ramifications that you can’t recover from for awhile. (So far, I haven’t seen any ridiculous “draw 3 cards” spells; I imagine if those exist they would be high tech spells that are really costly to use and not randomly drawn in this game.)

But the even cooler thing about it is that it changes the “tempo” of your deck-building cycling speed. If you’re drawing 5 cards a turn, that means you’re digging through your deck quickly, which is crucial for getting that Tier 3 tech card you put in your deck to loop back around to your hand.

Finally, having a max of 5 cards is fantastic. I can’t stand getting a glut of 7-10 cards in my hand in other card games – it’s just too much. 5 cards you can always use – that sounds great. I’ve never seen a game that did card drawing as well as Codex.

 

Concerns

I haven’t played a ton of matches yet, and I’ve played with just the Starter set. While I have read a lot of the other cards in the game online, I haven’t played with most of them yet, so maybe the experience changes dramatically for the worse with all of the expansion content (although I doubt it).

Probably the biggest concern I have is that this is still based on the MtG model of bringing out units that have hitpoints and it’s all ultimately about actor removal and reducing hit points. Another way to phrase it is that Codex, like Magic, seems to not have a clear core mechanism. It comes down to scooting resources around on a big spreadsheet and dealing attacks, like Magic.

With that said, in the same way that League of Legends added just enough structure to what is essentially D&D Boxing to make it into a deep and highly playable thing, Codex might have just enough structural improvements to be basically the best thing on a table top.* Currently, that’s my prediction.

As I mentioned, it would concern me if the game expanded too much, although actually Sirlin has a pretty good track record with this. Yomi and Puzzle Strike have 20 characters each, which seems like a reasonable number of characters to have. I guess I would worry though if this game takes off (which it should) that there would be a temptation to bloat it too much.

*I think it’s reasonable to ask: hey Keith, how come if you’re all about these clockwork systems, your two favorite games don’t really qualify as clockwork games? I would say that these games both take something that fundamentally “works” and then nudge it in the direction of the ideal I set out in my books and articles. If anything, the lesson from these games with regards to the Clockwork model is similar to what I’ve been talking about recently on my podcast: start with what people already understand, and nudge it in the good direction. The Clockwork map serves as a compass for what that direction is.

Tiny concern; not so much for me, but for others. I’m not sure the theme will resonate with people. I personally don’t like the theme, but I also could give two shits about what the theme is if the gameplay is good. Living in today’s gaming landscape and complaining about a game with good gameplay because of its theme is like dying of thirst in a desert and dumping out a full canteen of water you find because you don’t like its shape.

My last concern is that it’s a physical game, which hampers the developers’ ability to patch the game for balance and other improvements. I love what Riot does with League, dramatically changing whole systems for the better every year, but that kind of stuff is just not possible with a card game. Sirlin actually has come under fire many times in the past for issuing 2nd and 3rd editions for his past games, and I hope (hope hope) that he continues to ignore those complaints. If he had listened to those, we’d never have gotten Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition, which is vastly, vastly better than the previous editions. I hope that we get to see Codex 3rd edition, too!

 

Conclusion

In short: Codex, far more than Magic or Hearthstone, feels designed. It feels structured and organized in a way that makes sense. It does not feel like “just put a bunch of cards with numbers on them in a deck and players will figure out how to make it fun”. It feels like the designer already did that work for us. We just have to try to do our best, and the game will be not-degenerate and interesting.

For me, I am so excited to have a game that I can get excited about. That doesn’t happen often for me and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I may post a follow-up to this article at some point once I’ve played the game more, but even if in a year my opinion completely reverses somehow, I won’t regret having dove into this game headfirst.

Actually, even you knew nothing about what Codex was, I would still say people should support it and investigate it thoroughly. That’s because this is a game made by one of the world’s most designer-y game designers, David Sirlin. Not only that, but he worked on it for ten years. As someone who feels crazy for having worked on a game for six years, I understand what kind of an investment this is. People don’t do that kind of stuff unless they seriously care about their game and whether it’s good.

This game is so fundamentally better than Magic or Hearthstone that it would seriously depress me if it doesn’t do at least half as well as they have when all is said and done. If you’re interested in game design at all, or if you like games like these, you really really ought to check out Codex as soon as you can.

For a bit more on this game, check out Sirlin’s articles on the design of Codex here.

The Greater Value of Competitive Games

109698-221223-SC21jpg-620xCompetitive games should be valued by all of us, even those of us who don’t play games competitively.  This is because whether you’re playing a game competitively or not, a competitive game is, put simply, a better, stronger game. More importantly, a competitive game is also more one that’s more fun to play.

For the purposes of this article, I’d like to define “competitive games” a little bit more specifically than it is colloquially defined, although my definition is still consistent with the definition you’d expect.

 

A competitive game is a contest of decision-making that is both deep enough and balanced enough to withstand serious play for at least 10 years.

 

A few notes on this definition. The “10 years” number is totally arbitrary, and only given as a broad, general example to represent “a long time”. Preferably, a good competitive game lasts longer – the longer, the better. I simply mean that to be a competitive game at all, you have to hold up to serious play – play that is actively seeking truly optimal moves – for more than a few years.

Also, don’t think that because I’m using the phrase “contest of decision-making” that this contest can’t include other elements such as execution or randomness. I personally feel that better games use less of these elements, but that’s beyond the point of this article.  It’s simply meant to imply that these are, broadly, “strategy games”, and certainly games of skill.  So, a completely luck-based competitive activity, such as the card game War, would not qualify.

Finally, as with most of my writing, this article is really directed towards coming up with solutions for games that have not yet been designed.  It is not primarily meant to be a lens through which to observe currently existing games, although to some degree it can be used that way, and I will use it that way to illustrate my points.

 

Non-Competitive Games

Most “videogames” or “boardgames” that most of us could name would not fall into the category I just described, which is probably obvious. Here are some of the reasons for this:

  • Excessive randomness:  We all draw a line in the sand somewhere at how random is “too random” for us to be interested in playing a given game.  Similarly, there is a line somewhere where a game is too random to be played competitively.  At some point, a system is sufficiently random where the impact of skill is too negligible for people to want to invest seriously in it, at least without some external motivator like “betting on real money” or huge cultural attachment.
  • Too Solvable/Shallow:  Some abstract games, and most videogames tend to fall into this category.  Essentially, if people can figure out what the optimal strategy is pretty quickly, that’s a problem, because the decision-space shrinks up and players have nothing left to explore and no room to “get better” than other players, which is the basic core of competitive play.
  • No Support:  Boardgames tend to suffer this problem, since they can’t be easily “patched”.  Indeed, there’s a tremendous cost to issuing new “editions” of boardgames, and most games never get popular enough to warrant this cost.  Most boardgames that get new editions do so because it’s been 20 years since the last edition, or there’s a new publisher, or they wanted to upgrade the art.  Very few boardgames actually issue new versions because they want to improve balance or gameplay – David Sirlin being one notable exception, and he gets a tremendous amount of grief for doing so. The boardgame world is not quite ready for this idea of editions for pure game-balance reasons yet, it seems.
    For videogames, it’s cheaper to support your game years down the line, but still, many developers either don’t value doing it, or possibly can’t afford to do it, and it never gets done.

 

David Sirlin's "Puzzle Strike" got this upgrade pack which improved game balance.  I haven't heard of many other boardgame people doing similar things yet, unfortunately.

David Sirlin’s “Puzzle Strike” got this upgrade pack which improved game balance. I haven’t heard of many other boardgame people doing similar things yet, unfortunately.  Classically, both Puzzle Strike and the card game Dominion are “competitive games”, but PS is designed to be played competitively and that that’s what makes it better than Dominion

 

  •  Technical Stupidness: Weirdly enough, lots of modern videogames that would otherwise be competitive aren’t getting balance patches.  Maybe someone else can fill me in on what the excuse for this is – there might be an excuse that exists, but there is certainly no justification.

In short, a large reason why so few games are really competitive games is because there’s a lack of will to make sure games can be competitive in the first place.  I’ll now explain why it’s basically it’s everyone’s interest if more games (contests of decision-making) are competitive games.

 

 

“Competitive Game” versus “Pro Gamer”

If you’re a person who plays games, chances are you are not a person who plays games competitively. That is to say, you probably don’t devote hours per day to “practicing” your favorite game, you probably don’t enter into tournaments, and you almost certainly don’t make your living playing games.

Since you are probably not such a person, and you probably do not plan to ever become such a person, you may well believe that whether a game could be classified as shouldn’t be of great importance to you. If I only play Game X about two hours a week, then I won’t ever get to the point with it where I realize that it’s kind of broken and degenerate play emerges.

The thinking is, I’m only really seeing 5% of what this game is really about – only 5% of its strategy space – so who cares if the guy who sees 50% or 80% realizes it’s broken?  The answer is that your brain cares.  The tip of an iceberg still has a direct relationship to the iceberg and all of its qualities.  A game that has a small usable decision-space will feel that way to a player, even if he or she is only barely scratching the surface of the strategic possibilities.

I’ll illustrate with a fictional example, comparing two theoretical spaceship deathmatch games: Game A and Game B.  In both games, you’re in a small space arena with another player, and in the center of the screen there’s a black hole which draws both players towards it.  The objective of both games is to knock the other player into the black hole, and both games have 4 buttons:  turn left, turn right, accelerate, and turbo (a fast accelerate).  The screen loops around at the edges, like Atari 2600’s Combat.

 

Picture something a bit like Spacewar!, but without any shooting.

Picture something a bit like Spacewar!, but without any shooting.

 

In Game A, when players press the accelerate button, they reach their ship’s top speed instantly and stay at it until they let go.  Also, the Turbo button makes you go exactly twice the speed of accelerating, for one second.  If you hit the opponent while turbo charging, it gives them the exact same amount of inertia in the direction you were moving every time.

In Game B, acceleration ramps up slowly, and Turbo has a slight exponential effect.  So, if you use it while going slowly, it might bring you to 110% of your current speed, but if you use it while moving quickly, it might bring you to 200% of your current speed.

Game B has more dynamism to it, more synergistic rule relationships, and therefore more potential depth / possibility space Game A.  Both games are functional, though, and if you’re only going to play it for 20 minutes, it might not seem to matter that game B has more possibility space.  But it matters despite this, because even if you’re only using 5% of the possibility space of Game A, your brain can feel that larger possibility space there, and that’s exciting.

What this means is that even if you only play a given game for two hours a week, those two hours will be better in a system that can stand up to long-term competitive play, precisely because the possibility space is larger, even if you don’t access that larger possibility space, because you can feel that that larger possibility space is there, and that in and of itself is exciting.  You notice that sometimes you get going really goddamn fast, and you find yourself imagining, and you notice that your velocity is passed to the opponent on contact, and your mind starts to imagine the possibilities.  This is how deep games entice us to want to play more.

Essentially, what I’m saying is, competitive games are more fun, whether you’re playing them competitively or not.

 

 

Moving Forward

More companies need to start getting serious about competitive play.  Right now, if you want to play a competitive game, you’ve got a very small pool of options.  I will not be listing all of the options here, but some of the most significant ones.

Blizzard’s RTSes like Starcraft 2 and Warcraft 3 are both very serious competitive games.  Indeed, I probably had more fun reading the patch notes and watching the balancing process happen in both of these games than I did actually playing them.

DotA and other DotA-inspired games (League of Legends being the most notable – and by the way, I hereby formally do not recognize “MOBA” as a genre, but rather one single game design idea; it’s sad to me that when the videogame industry comes up with one new game idea they consider it a “genre”, but I digress) are also examples of competitive games, for sure, although they also seem to have a horrible habit of setting themselves up for failure with a commitment to “constantly add new content to the system”, which means that balance will be impossible.

I have to mention Outwitters on iOS, which is not only my favorite digital game that has been made, but also is making some serious effort to be competitively viable.  I’ve heard rumblings about the game getting too defensive and kind of breaking down at the highest levels of play, but they’ve also been making efforts to combat that, and I really appreciate this!

Outwitters!  Get it for your iOS device.  Or get an iOS device so that you can play it

Outwitters! Get it for your iOS device. Or get an iOS device so that you can play it

Fighting games and certain FPSes (Team Fortress 2 comes to mind) also have had very rigorous balancing processes, and they are solid examples of competitive games.  I feel bad for a lot of fighting games, such as Super Smash Brothers 64, who had literally zero opportunities for patching, but otherwise could have been excellent competitive games.

In the boardgame world, you have Magic: The Gathering, which again is doomed because of its horrible commitment to perpetual content additions. You have a number of other games that could certainly be made competitive, if the developers cared to / were capable of creating balance patches/editions, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to happen.

This is of course not counting famous folk abstracts and card games like Bridge, Go, or Chess, which are all serious competitive games which have existed for hundreds (or thousands in the case of Go) of years. Sports, too. But again, I’m not counting these, because I’m specifically talking about the world of game design, and how we can and should move forward.

 

Let’s Make Competitive Games

I want to make Auro a competitive game. It don’t expect that it will be competition-ready by the time it’s released, but I hope that after a few months of balancing and tweaking post-release, it will be. And even if it isn’t, the point is, I’ll be trying.

That “trying” is really important, I think. When I see that a developer is constantly issuing new balance patches, it makes me immediately excited for a game, and when I see the opposite – a game that’s simply left to wither on the vine – I feel the opposite. I don’t want to get into a game that isn’t actively being taken care of.

Another thing I should mention: just because a game is deep and competitive does not mean that it has to be hard to play or hard to learn. The other half of the battle in game design is making an accessible game. I think Outwitters, and I hope Auro both achieve this. But there is nothing to “being a deep competitive game” that inherently means you’ll be less accessible. You can, and should strive to, achieve both.

A competitive game is a deeper game, and a deeper game is a better game. By shooting to make competitive games, we can make better games, so let’s do that.