What is Charmed Chains? (My New Card Game)

For the past year I’ve been drafting ideas for a constructed card game (a game where you build a deck out of a bunch of cards, then play an opponent). I’ve been hinting at this game a little in recent posts. My working title for the game is: Charmed Chains.

I think the best way of illustrating what the game is about is by showing you the game mat:

Every card in the game is either a Familiar (Creature/Monster), or a Charm (effect card, like a spell). Familiars and Charms are played to the board, and can have effects specific to where they are placed. Familiars can move during the battle phase, and many charm effects extend across the row or column they’re placed in.

This means Charmed Chains is a game about position and placement of your cards. As the attacker: You want to place your familiars in places where they can destroy or attack past your opponent, and the defender wants to move their familiars to block or evade your attacks. You also want to move your familiars into position to take advantage of buffs your charms will provide, and evade the debuffs of your opponent.

In addition to your cards, there is a renewable resource called: Stardust. Each player starts with 1 Stardust, and can gain 1 more during the sell phase of each turn, wherein they can exchange a card in hand for a draw from the deck, and gain 1 Stardust for the turn. We’ve found in playtesting that on some turns, players want to hang onto their stardust rather than selling, and the sell phase helps players cycle their hands for cards they want more consistently, even if they can’t spend the stardust they gain.

Stardust is spent to summon extra familiars during your turn, spent as a cost for certain powerful effects, and is required in order to cast charms from hand during your opponent’s turn, otherwise you’ll need to set them on the field, making them vulnerable to removal.

Stardust gets cut down to 3 during the start of your turn, so it doesn’t ramp to infinity like some other card games. Instead it’s a small limitation on otherwise free cards, to help the game ramp up a little over time, but stay at a steady pace.


Battles are a big focus in this game. The attacker gets to move 2 familiars, then the defender gets to move 1. This means the attacker gets initiative, but the defender always has some final say over whether attacks will cause a battle, or hit directly. Attacks travel up or down through the column the familiar is placed in. Some familiars can move further than others.

Familiars can be in Attack stance, or Block stance (turned to the side), determining both whether they can move and which stat they’ll use in battle. Move actions can be used to change the battle stance of familiars, and some can move while blocking.

Additionally, the game features shields, which can help keep familiars alive across multiple turns. Shields are removed when a creature is attacked, regardless of the battle’s outcome, and there’s a keyword, Obliterate, for removing all shields, then destroying a familiar.


The second half of my Charmed Chains is a reference to the effect chaining system. Every effect in the game will be bullet-pointed by a chain icon, indicating the way that effect interacts with the effect chaining system.

There are 4 types of chaining for effects: Chain Starter (top left), Chain Linker (bottom left), Chain Breaker (top right), and Chain Ender (bottom right). Chain Starter and Linker can only be used on your turn. Breaker can be used on anyone’s turn. Only Chain Linker and Breaker can join existing effect chains. Chain Starter can only start effect chains. Chain Ender will be accompanied by another icon to indicate how it interacts with existing effect chains, and it indicates that the chain cannot be continued afterwards.

I intend to make a fair number of cards that can interact with the chain system, but we’ll see how far that really goes. I’ll be studying other games with complex stack mechanics to get an idea what goes on in them.

It has Pockets!

Pockets are a silly name I came up for how equips work in my game. Any card on the field could potentially be “pocketed” by any other card by placing it underneath the other one (only when an effect says to do this). Cards in pocket are treated as charms, and can be targeted by charm removal. Cards can have a pocket recovery cost to go back to your hand or deck, if you pay it when the pocket is “emptied”. And of course cards can have an Equip effect for when they’re pocketed.

This means that equips don’t consume space around the edges of the board; equips aren’t so fragile that they disappear completely when the owner is removed from the board; and equips can be directly countered without recurring when they are problematic.

The Art

I really love full-art cards! I love cards that break the card borders. I love flavor text. And I love lots of text with clearly legible rules. Therefore, when I was designing my card layouts, I prioritized readability and clarity in how the card is read first, then did everything possible to maximize the amount of art visible on the card. My original card layout looked a lot like a Magic The Gathering card, but my new layout is much more compact.

I also love information-dense rules text, and in order to accomplish that, I’ve been aggressively trying to create keywords and icons to represent information wherever possible, but holding myself to the limitation that I will never have a keyword like, “Menace” or “Convoke” from Magic The Gathering. I do not want keywords that are not understandable from a simple guess.

My focus on icons has backfired sometimes, especially for chain icons, and the symbols for whether a charm can be “cast” or “set” (played, or placed face-down). Some of these I’m accepting as a part of the learning curve, and others I’m working to make more legible, or removing entirely.

Keywords in my game are closer to effect templating, for common types of effects. I’m also using (Parentheses) to indicate effect requirements and triggers. And I’m using [Square Brackets] to indicate effect costs. These help make it more clear how to use effects without the ambiguity that is common in Yu-gi-oh.

Other Silly/Unique Features

Since most cards are free to cast, we’ve had to worry about hands emptying out really fast, but we can’t just let you draw a billion cards during your turn, or you’ll play through your whole deck. This means there needs to be good natural card draw, and good card draw during the opponent’s turn.

My first attempt at improving card draw was to let you draw a card every time your opponent destroys one of your cards, which also helps offset the card advantage involved. This made games fast and electric and crazy, but was WAY too powerful, so we’ve cut it back to only destroying Familiars, but may extend it to face-up permanent charms as well. This means if you’re winning, you probably don’t have a lot of cards in hand, and if you’re losing, your hand is probably full, which means you have more of a chance to come back, or at least cards to cycle during the sell phase.

After we cut it back, card draw was a little weak, so I improved natural draw by just having it so you draw 2 cards every turn.

You get 1 “starter summon”, and beyond that, you need to spend Stardust to pay for extenders, or pay Stardust to sacrifice familiars for bigger ones. Starter summoning will also be the only way you get more colors onto the board, so you can’t get more than one color out per-turn, if that.

I’m cooking up a unique color system, loosely inspired by the Digimon system. Permanent cards will be “Emitters” sending out colors for other cards that have “Receptors” for the colors on the field (obviously these won’t be the game terms). This means mixing colors will be a hit to your deck’s consistency, and I’ll tax you a little to bring more colors on board so that multi-color decks are encouraged, but rainbow decks are rare exceptions.

Since Stardust is cut to 3 during the start of the turn, this means selling past 3 Stardust can be helpful for making plays during your opponent’s turn, and there’s a lot of room for crazy ramp or temporary stardust plays, depending on drawing and playing the right cards.


My aim for Charmed Chains is to create a variety of viable decks; to really emphasize tactical battles and clever use of charms. I want to emphasize mindgames through face-down cards, both telegraphing future plays and baiting you to remove them. I want there to be a lot of interaction during your opponent’s turn and to find ways to emphasize positioning. I want the game to be simple to pick up and play, but rewarding for people with good reading comprehension and knowledge of the rules. I think the game has a lot of open design space that I’m intent on exploring.

In my roadmap for the game, I’ve separated development into 3 phases: Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.

Alpha Phase was the phase where I printed out the mat and the cards and tested if the game works literally at all. Alpha phase has concluded, but you can check out the print & play rules here. Please be aware that there are some typos in here, and mixed up terminology, as well as a mix of outdated icons and current ones.

Beta Phase will be about trying out different means of separating the game into different decks/colors/tribes. So far, I have thought of 6 potential “colors”, and 17-19 types for familiars. “Colors” will not be called colors in the final version of the game.

Gamma phase will be a revised draft of the game in preparation for the final version. At this point I will be seeking art for the game.

Card Game Design as Systems Architecture

Designing a card game has honestly called on more of my programmer skills than thinking about video games. Card games are surprisingly a lot like enterprise web applications. Cards go through lifecycles and have callback functions and methods similar to an object going through its lifecycle in any enterprise application.

Lifecycle Hooks & Callback Functions

Objects in an enterprise software application, such as components in Angular or React, go through a lifecycle as they are instantiated, go through state changes, and are eventually destroyed. Each of these has a “lifecycle hook”, which is a function that is called when that particular lifecycle event happens.

In card game terms, these are similar to effects that trigger when a card enters the battlefield, leaves the battlefield, is tapped, or attacks or blocks. Trigger conditions are lifecycle hooks for cards.

A callback function is one that triggers when another object goes through some type of change. It’s subscribing to another object’s state, then doing something when that object does something.

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Tiers are for Queers

And the queers always pick a top tier.

Tier lists have been controversial since the dawn of fighting games, and have slowly seeped into every other competitive game featuring pre-game or mid-game loadout choices.

From a casual perspective, it can be easy to be skeptical of tier lists, especially in modern times. Casual players typically don’t play the game consistently enough to be able to execute the counters that can shut a low tier character down.

Alex in 3rd Strike might be scary to someone who can barely block crossups, but a higher level player can simply parry option-select Alex’s crossup stomp, tapping exactly as it connects, and either getting a parry if it’s same-side, or a block if it’s crossup. Urien might seem mediocre, since he doesn’t have incredible frame data, his specials are slow or unsafe, and have crappy hitboxes on top of being mostly charge moves, but when his moves are mastered, he has ridiculous combo damage and setups into unblockables.

A higher level player can play Chun Li, Ken, or Dudley, and simply tank Alex’s slash elbow, or block the EX slash elbow, and punish it with a super. Chun Li can get roundhouse kicked in the face by Q, and then punish him with super art 2 for more damage than the roundhouse.

These types of weaknesses aren’t as obvious at low level, so it can be hard for lower level players to understand the true shape of the game.

The fact that characters are different from one another means that some will be better against others. They’ll counter each other. If a character counters a lot of other characters, especially if it’s by a wide margin, then that’s a top tier.

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How do you Set the MAXIMUM LIMIT? (For Health & such)

Almost every game has resources of some type or another, whether that’s health, mana, meter, etc. A topic that is rarely discussed with these is: Exactly how much health should you have, and how much damage should stuff do? What should your resource limit be, how much should stuff cost? How fast should it be built up? The decisions made in each of these can significantly affect the tone and feeling of something.

The most critical technique for thinking about this problem is thinking in percentages. The actual values can be arbitrary, but percentages help you keep track of the actual impact. A combo across different games could deal 8000 damage, 120 damage, or just 6 damage, and in each case, that could be worth 90% of someone’s healthbar. Thinking in percentages helps you weigh the relative impact of something, without getting bogged down in the exact numbers.

This type of thinking also suggests thinking about the resource in terms of how many times it can be tapped before it’s extinguished. If each touch deals about 10% of your health bar, a game will have 10 touches before it’s over. If a touch can deal up to 80%, then it’s a 2-touch game. Consider the range of variability between how much impact each touch makes as well.

In Card Games, instead of touches, it’s measured as a “clock”. The clock is how many turns a player has left before they lose the game. In real-time games with fine-grain health and guaranteed hits, this type of thing is measured in DPS (Damage Per Second) and/or TTK (Time to Kill). In these cases, it’s worth considering what tradeoffs a player should be making in order to get a faster clock, or a lower time to kill. It’s also worth considering how fast the average clock for a match should be, or what the average time to kill is across the game, and watching out when those things end up lower or higher than you originally planned.

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How Magic’s Mana System Divides its Design Space

Magic the Gathering invented trading card games, and with it, resource systems for trading card games. Countless games following MTG have mimicked MTG’s 5-color mana system, because of course they did, why wouldn’t they?

In Magic The Gathering, spells and creatures cost “Mana”, a resource that regenerates every turn, and builds up over time as you play “land” cards from your hand. Mana comes in 5 colors, Green, Red Blue, White, and Black. Each of these colors has a mechanical identity associated with it, called a “Color Identity”. Mana is the primary thing that divides the design space in Magic The Gathering, to create different types of decks. Of course, there are other things, like card types, and creature types, which have effects that reference one another to create synergies. And there are more broadly playstyles, like Aggro (try to kill the opponent before they can get their good monsters out or reach their win condition), Control/mid-range (shut down aggro and deny key combo-pieces), and Combo (try to stall out to assemble exodia in your hand, then win the game instantly or near-instantly).

Mono-color decks focus entirely on a single type of mana, and usually only play a single “basic” land color. This gives them incredible consistency, because their mana supply goes up every time they play a land, but limits what they have access to in the broader card pool. A mono-color deck may lack “answers” to certain types of “threats” generated by other decks, such as red and black having a tough time getting rid of enchantment cards.

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Tabletop Game Designers Know What’s Up

This blog has attempted for years to articulate what game design is for video games. It was born out of a frustration in video games discourse that the discourse was so vague and distracted by the narrative, the setting, the immersive illusion created by video games. For the past decade I’ve aimed to discuss the raw mechanics of games and what makes gameplay good, because I’ve gone across the whole range of people talking about video games and no one else has been doing it.

There have always been hints of this raw mechanical talk in competitive video games. I’ve always recommended that people trying to learn game design study competitive games, because the way those communities talk about their games directly addresses the mechanics and doesn’t get lost in the fiction.

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